Hanoi's traffic is worse than Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh combined. It is manageable only because it moves slowly, a seemingly inevitable consequence of the complete anarchy which composes it. Still, riding safely in this unholy mess requires 360 degrees of razor sharp awareness at all times. The situation in which we now find ourselves is not safe.
Tara is irate, more wrathful than I have ever seen in my life. I might be upset too, but one of us needs to keep our cool. Instead of anger, I'm maintaining a wry bemusement about the insanity of this plan. We're supposed to keep our eyes on a single scooter in a sea of thousands, leading us through the crowded streets of Hanoi, to reach a destination almost ten kilometers away, in less than 30 minutes.
We've only been on the road for a minute and already I'm straining to keep my eyes on the scooter in the distance. Our escort either doesn't care about us, or is new to leading people, as he zooms ahead of us, weaving through spaces in traffic that close up behind him. I'm completely focused on following the pink backpack, when suddenly, a woman on a scooter executes a lazy merge, right into the side of me.
If I had been paying attention to my immediate surroundings, I would have been able to avoid her easily. Instead, I ring my bell madly, leaning into her, feeling myself starting to lose balance. A wave of heat builds in my stomach, and time warps into slow motion. When I can maintain my balance no longer, I bail out, throwing my bike into the pavement roughly.
As it skids to a halt, my pilot-less bicycle smashes into several scooters parked on the shoulder. My GPS flies off it's mount, stopped in mid-air like a bungee jumper thanks to the emergency lanyard wrapped around the handlebars, and one of my front panniers clips the rear wheel of a scooter, ripping free of the rack, bouncing into traffic.
I hit the ground running, face contorted in disbelief, eyes locked on the woman next to me, yelling:
What the FUCK!?
A circle of traffic comes to halt around me, and a mob of of unconcerned faces are now staring at me, motionless. I can see Tara riding away in the distance; the scooter we're supposed to be following has long disappeared from my view. Unscathed save for a bruised knee, I hastily reattach my front pannier, re-mount my GPS, and tear off into traffic, glad to be in one piece, trying to catch up.
I hear a clash and a clatter behind me, but it takes a moment for the noise to register in my brain as the accident it surely is. The blood drains from my face, and I turn my head around to see Tyler twenty meters back, on the ground with a mob of scooters darting around him. Before I can even start to rush towards him, he gets up and starts running around, yelling something, putting things back on his bike. A split second later, he starts heading in my direction. Thank god he's okay.
When he approaches, I ask what happened, no longer caring about the scooter we're supposed to be following. He explains, telling me how a woman merged into him as if he wasn't even there. I am shocked, incredulous, and so livid I could spit nails. But seeing as how we want to get the hell out of this country, there's nothing to be done about it except keep cycling, into the chaos.
I'm stuck, wedged between a stopped bus and an impenetrable wall of scooters. Straining to see ahead and around me, it feels like I'm inside a game of "Where's Waldo?" gone horribly wrong. I do manage to spot Tyler, weaving around the bus, looking left and right, likely trying to find me.
As for our escort, the only identifying mark on that scooter is the passenger's small pink backpack. When I see a small scrap of pink, far far ahead, I watch the driver carve through the maze, pulling away as he escapes into oblivion.
My mouth is agape and my upturned hands jab at the air like an angry Italian's. I'm exasperated by the man's driving, by everybody's driving, by the insanity of this place. You can't be serious. You just left me back here! DON'T YOU KNOW WE'RE FOLLOWING YOU, YOU ASSHOLE? It's absurd. This whole thing is fucking ridiculous, and now I'm separated from Tyler, too.
When the traffic lights change, I pedal my heart out, trying to find my husband, trying to find the scooter with the pink backpack. Eventually I see them, stopped at a street corner, Tyler waving as I rush to catch up. As soon as I get within range of our leader, the man zooms off again, leaving Tyler and I in the dust once more. We take deep breaths and then start pedaling again, chasing and fighting through the crowds.
Meanwhile, I cannot control the barrage of seething furious thoughts that are consuming my mind. I grit my teeth, shouting obscenities at every scooter who cuts me off and every idiot who weaves too close to me and knocks my panniers, scaring the shit out of me and throwing me off balance. I knew this was going to be a disaster, I knew we should have left earlier, why did we listen to that lady?
The only thing keeping me from going totally ballistic is Tyler's cool-as-a-cucumber whistling. His improvised melody lets me know he is near, so I can focus on the road ahead. I admire his calm; the made-up tune is so innocent and amiable, so wholly unlike our surroundings, that he might as well be fishing on a lazy river, or whittling on a porch somewhere.
We've made it out of the residential and markety areas, and are now cruising on one of the main arteries running through Hanoi. The reckless driving of our escort is only getting worse; it's almost as if he is trying to lose us. Our only saving grace is the stop-and-go traffic, which prevents him from getting too far ahead.
We're waiting in a clog of scooters for the light to change when finally we get a chance to talk to the French girl. She looks like she's seen a ghost, and I'm sure her ride can't be going a whole lot better than ours. We sympathize when she tells us how she got here a few days ago, left her hotel room once, hated it, and didn't leave it again. Sounds familiar.
Before we can finish our conversation, her driver revs the scooter's engine, ready to blast off into traffic. Looking behind her as they pull away from us once once more, the girl lets out a whimper and shouts "I don't like this…", her voice trailing off in the distance.
Traffic is coming straight at me, turning left across my lane as I try to follow the pink backpack, who has just run a yellow light. Every cell in my body is vibrating violently with an explosive furor as I follow the man, carefully threading a needle through a throng of oncoming traffic. This is ridiculous. This is dangerous. This is totally and completely fucked, and it shouldn't be happening at all.
Where in the hell is that pink backpack?
In the midst of a choking, polluting, traffic jam, dusk arrives. Great, even better, now we're riding in darkness. Looking out over the vast, gridlocked mob, I spot something moving up ahead: an orange tree, the bright round fruits bobbing around pleasantly, is crossing the road, seemingly of it's own accord. In this crazy, nightmarish ride, the surreal sight doesn't seem out of place in the slightest.