The sub-seat, near death and the highway that wasn't
When is a highway not yet a highway? When it's Highway 14.
"It'll be VND500,000 to get to Qui Nhon," my friend told me. "But there aren't any sleepers left. Only a "˜sub-seat'."
We spent the next fifteen minutes in the train station coffee shop trying to suss out what a sub-seat could be.
A stool, it turned out, stuck in the middle of an aisle.
"If people have to get up to go to the bathroom, you have to move," she explained. "People will be all around you, sleeping in the bathrooms and on the floors. There won't be any seats."
The more we talked about train travel in the week before Tet, the more excited I became about joining the human salmon run out of Ho Chi Minh City.
Fourteen hours in an iron tube packed with hopeful humanity sounded too romantic to pass up.
But when I was introduced to the station agent, she quickly rescinded her offer. My friend had suggested I stay out of sight during the initial bargaining process and now I knew why. The very sight of me had queered the deal.
"Look at him," the agent said finally. "He won't be able to stand it. I won't sell him the ticket."
But the romance!
She would hear none of it.
And that was that. I would have to get to Qui Nhon the old fashioned way.
Before moving to Ho Chi Minh City two years ago, I imagined my life here as a serial adventure played out in stretches of primeval jungle and crumbling colonial structures. Instead, it has mostly been a dull comedy of errors set in stifling traffic and air-conditioned offices.
Even the intermissions have come to feel disappointing.
Standard day trip destinations like Mui Ne or Vung Tau have been whittled into dismal tourist traps that cast the local population into an absurd costumed pantomime of the place they have lost.
In this way, Vietnam feels like paradise working hard to become a sad roadside attraction.
For those who like to think of themselves as outside of the problem (who want to see the real Vietnam) travel becomes an absurd quest riddled with contradictions.
It isn't long before we recognize ourselves as long-stay tourists seeking to spoil the unspoiled.
Even when that is understood, however, the imagination persists.
Long after arriving, I continued to picture the nation's western border as an Edenic jungle. I'd never been to Buon Ma Thuot, for example, but what I'd heard of it fuelled images of an ewok village traversed by coffee drinking elephants.
The most fantastical unseen place remained Qui Nhon, a seaside town that had been described to me by those who know as the most idyllic of beach towns"”a gem that had been spared by the resort monster.
So my plan was to get to paradise by cutting through Eden.
After wiping down my desk and stowing my computer into a series of protective plastic bags, I left the office for the final day of the 2012 lunar year.
I packed all night and was up with the roosters. Just before the sun rose, I squatted onto the narrow seat of my Honda Win and headed North.
The city soon faded into a series of low, dusty shops, which eventually gave way to rubber plantations and Korean factories.
The excitement of the road was tempered by the familiar discomfort of hurdling through space like a gargoyle perched on a tiny bicycle: crotch rotting, back aching and mind disintegrating as trucks and tour busses play a nihilistic game of leap frog into oncoming traffic.
After four hours on Highway 13, I began daydreaming of a stool plunked in the middle of a horrendously crowded train aisle as though it were a hammock strung between a pair of palm trees.
After passing Binh Phuoc, I began scanning the highway for a turnoff to Highway 14"”a road I knew only from my almanac. It looked solid enough on the page: a hard black line that lead all the way up to Buon Ma Thuot.
"I just took Highway 14 about a month ago," said Walter Pearson, an Australian veteran who lived not far from the junction.
"It was really dusty mate. I mean really dusty."
Before I could consider Pearson's warning, I found myself on a gorgeous four-lane boulevard lined with molded lamp-posts and a carefully manicured center divider.
Given his age, I thought, Pearson could be forgiven for his caution.
Miles later, the road devolved into nothing but dust.
The red powder clung to everything and made the entire landscape look as though it were rusting.
The people, meanwhile, seemed doomed to the Sisyphean task of turning the dust into the highway I'd read about in my almanac.
Every few miles, in the middle of nowhere, a sad crew would appear squatting around a barrel of bubbling tar set on a pile of burning logs. Once or twice, I saw someone toss a shovelful of the boiling blackness onto a patch of grey gravel, like a child tossing sand back into the sea.
To pass the time and make sure I wasn't lost, I began counting idle steamrollers along the side of the road.
Steamrollers of every make, model and origin marked the path of Highway 14 like a series of bread crumbs.
At times, it seemed as though a guerilla army of public work crews were crouching in the bushes around them, awaiting a signal from the Prime Minister to begin building Highway 14.
When I wasn't counting steamrollers, I was having a slow mental breakdown.
At times, the road exploded into a cratered expanse of loose soil, where buses and trucks would fan out like an advancing line of Cossacks.
With no working horn, I could only shriek like an infant and make obscene hand gestures as they came for me. Just as they were even with my front wheel, I'd close my eyes and watch my life flash before me.
When I heard the punitive shriek of a passing horn, I would open them and commence counting steamrollers.
My mind began to ease into the rhythm of mortal panic and steamrollers.
By sunset, I had had enough.
My adrenal gland had run dry and my cyclical brushes with death had grown harder to recover from.
I pulled into the small town of Gia Nghia checked into the first hotel I could find"”a huge, empty five-story structure on a hill overlooking the little green divet of a town.
I recognized the rolling hills of trees as the only pure green I had seen since leaving Saigon. After washing the red clay from my face, I walked next door for a dinner of grilled meat on a stick.
To aid the digestion, I flirted with the table of pretty policewomen at my elbow, who invited me to stay forever and teach English.
It sounded like a nice life. But I went home to try and sleep.
The knots that Highway 14 had tied in my back and neck wouldn't let me. So I struck out into town looking for a massage.
At the bottom of the hill, I wandered into a house staffed by a tattooed teenager with an ugly wet cough.
He asked me for a hundred thousand, spit on the floor and led me past two dozen empty plywood stalls.
I was the only person in the place.
A sad looking girl arrived minutes later and tried to take off her clothes. I asked her to stop and pointed to my spine.
She sighed, and began pressing the lumps in my neck and back, taking care not to shred my back with her long red fingernails.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
To Qui Nhon.
At that moment, I didn't know.
She stopped rubbing and sat down.
She was the youngest child of a family in Can Tho"”a city often celebrated for its beautiful women, many of whom end up working in dark wooden stalls.
Even she would be going home for Tet. So what about me?
I shrugged and wished her a happy new year. Tomorrow would be another long ride.
|*** Next week's installment will include the tale of brown-eyed Thanh, the vanishing of a highway and the endless threat of bandits. ***
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