The day begins with an early morning departure from our beachside bungalow, and a speedy ride across the island to the port. The ferry back is mercifully smoother and faster than the one in, and we are grateful to avoid another bout of seasickness. Emerging from the boat in Rach Gia a few hours later, we're excited to start our tour of Vietnam.
In a flurry of activity, with passengers alighting, motorbike taxis revving, and persistent offers for hotels and tours and transportation, we carry our bikes from the boat and attach our panniers. Once we've reassembled our steeds, we hop on and cycle into Vietnam for what feels like the first time.
Our destination for the day is the village of Long Xuyên, about seventy five kilometers away. As we pedal away from the port, it quickly becomes obvious that we're no longer on the tranquil island of Phú Quốc. The peace and quiet we've enjoyed for the past week has vanished, replaced by the frenetic buzz of traffic, and a bustling town full of people.
The road is anything but relaxing, as there is constantly something in our path that needs avoiding. Scooters regularly zoom in and out of our "lane", many food stalls extend out into the street, both pedestrians and vehicles often jump into the flow of traffic without so much as a glance to the left or right, and there are giant potholes aplenty.
Eventually, we begin to acclimate to our new surroundings, and find ourselves enjoying the hustle and bustle on our flat ride out of town. We stop for iced coffee at one of the many cafes that line the roadside, and swing back and forth in two of their many hammocks as we wait for our ultra potent espresso to drip slowly through the ground beans. Stirred into sweetened condensed milk, we decide that Vietnamese iced coffee is the best we've tried so far.
A bit further down the road, we stop to watch this lady making Phơi bánh đa, large sesame studded rice crackers. When I ask to take her picture, all of the other women making crackers nearby start laughing uproariously.
When I try to buy a just one or two, I somehow end up with a massive, unwieldy bag full of frisbee-sized snacks. The giant chips taste like cardboard, so we give as most of them away. A group of boys coming home from school excitedly accept most of them; they don't seem to mind the blandness!
Time wears on, as do our pedal strokes, as does the intensity of the noise, heat, and traffic. We're more than ready to be done for the day, eager to find somewhere quiet to spend the evening, but we're still a dozen or more kilometers from our destination when the sun begins to set over the river.
As dusk arrives and we make our way into town at last, I am beginning to feel completely overwhelmed by the traffic, which seems to be getting more and more hectic. Riding safely requires unyieldingly rapt attention, thanks to an endless mass of scooters overtaking and cutting us off with just inches to spare. Keeping to the shoulder is equally difficult, owing to the dangerous trough-like drainage holes on it, spaced at regular intervals. I do not want to let my wheel slip into one of those.
I'm not sure where my mind goes, but one moment I am navigating my way around the busy streets of Long Xuyên at dusk, and the next, Tyler is yelling something loudly, waking me from some sort of lapse in concentration. There, right in front of me, is an old lady on a bicycle. I squeeze my brakes instinctively, swerving at the same time to narrowly miss plowing into her.
I try to apologize, and hold out my hand to ask if she's okay, but she doesn't hear or understand me. She is already yelling, probably cursing at me in the rising and falling tones of her tongue that land as gratingly on my ears as nails on a chalkboard. I apologize some more, but she just huffs and puffs and shakes her head.
Riding away, I feel awful, the lowest of the low. I almost hit an old lady. She could have fallen and been seriously injured because of me.
A swirl of thoughts and emotions races around my mind: I am shocked by the fact that I did not even see the woman until she was right in front of my face, and I am overwhelmingly relieved that I didn't injure her. At the same time, I feel like a little kid in really big trouble, and the memory of her tongue lashing makes me want to cry.
My emotions are a tangled mess, and soon I'm also fuming, angry about the fact that she yelled at me, when she was the one in the wrong lane, going the wrong direction. But, I suppose there is no such thing as the wrong lane here, or even such a thing as a lane at all. In her eyes, I was clearly at fault.
The darkness of night marks our arrival in the city center, and all around me, store signs are lit up and flashing, screaming things like KARAOKE and MASSAGE. In the road, a swarm of scooters and motorbikes cut through the darkness with headlights blazing. Yellow trails zip through the city every which way, carving paths through the obsidian sky. I feel assaulted by the cacophony of non-stop horns and honks blasting around us.
I am now exhausted and frustrated, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sensory input assaulting me. Tyler, immediately sensing my discomfort, calls us to a halt. Next, he leans his bike against the curb and put his hands on my shoulders. Boring his eyes into mine, as he does when he needs to reach me in a tense moment, he tells me I need to focus and be safe, for he knows that when I am shaken and teary, I have a tendency to get hurt.
If I don't stay on top of my thoughts and emotions when I am tired or scared, it is like a self-destruct switch has been flipped. I need to be ultra-careful, or I'm likely to injure myself. It's incredibly difficult to wrangle my mental state into submission, but I manage, and we continue on safely for another ten minutes or so until we find a hotel.
Holding the bicycles by the side of the road, I watch Tyler navigate the traffic in order to cross the street to ask at the hotel about prices. He waits and waits and waits for a safe moment, some break in the cascade of vehicles, but none appears. So, like a real life game of Frogger, he begins hopping from one safe space to the next, until he reaches the other side.
I'm now ill at ease with the traffic, and I'm not much more comfortable with the walkers and cyclists either, who constantly hock giant loogies from the deep dark recesses of their throats and spit them out with gusto, in wet, slimy projectiles. I wait, holding the bikes, hoping I won't get run over or spit upon, hoping that the hotel Tyler is checking out will be suitable for the night.
Once Tyler has crossed the street successfully, my attention is diverted to a sad little Christmas tree with a few shiny ornaments proudly displayed in the hotel's lobby. Something about it tugs at my already strung-out soul, and I find it hard to believe that it's nearly Christmastime already and that this will be the second holiday season we won't spend at home with our families.
The pathetic, wonky, plastic pine tree feels strange and foreign and altogether wrong in this hot, almost tropical place. It should be familiar and comforting, but instead it feels disconcerting and misplaced, like seeing a loved one's face morph and become distorted in the mirrors of a creepy circus fun house.
And that does it. The world of headlights around me blurs like a Dali painting as salty tears well up in my eyes and I am overcome with homesickness. I want to curl up in a ball and cry, but still I wait for Tyler and hold our bicycles upright.
Everything is different here, and nothing feels right. I'm a single, silent, stationary being in a sea of noise and light and movement.
I feel very small and very, very far from home.