Viet Christmas (Part 1)

Up the dirt road, on the motorbikes, We came around the corner and the first thing I see is the guard station. Uh-oh.

The lowered barrier rail. Checkpoint Charlie? Should we even try to talk to this guy, or just turn around and beat it?

(Note: If you’re reading this on Facebook, you really ought to hop over to my blog . You’re missing italics, bold, and some photos, how can you stand it? )
The facts are these: We’d planned to plan on something special for Christmas Day, my brother and I. We’ve spend most of his 47 of them together, for sure. 

But I could never have predicted that we’d be yuling by riding a motorbikes in the rain through rural roads, past free-roaming oxen, communities of ducks and a variety of field workers for whom Santa was on his own. And across dinky DIY toll bridges. 

But let’s back up a bit.

Christmas Day started out fine, or as fine as a day can after you ride motorbikes on Christmas Eve through a well-traveled industrial corridor like we had just done, jousting with everything on wheels or feet. We wisely chose to de-bike at dusk. I don’t mind matching wits with the native drivers (bikes, motos, buses, cars, semi’s and the all-important “other” category) in the broad daylight, but this industrial corridor had been plenty daunting enough that continuing into the night? No thanks, even though we were late for a train-catching date. So we rolled up at a roadside H O T E L sign and wandered into the sprawling retail joint of some kind into the back seating area, right up onto a couple large tables of locals having dinner. 

And drinking rice wine. 
And giving us the dinner. 
And the rice wine. 

And then the ukulele came out. Uh-oh. This seemed like a recipe for a massive hangover. But you do what you have to do to get by here, am I right?

My rice wine drinkin’ homies, who demanded that we eat and drink with them. Just out of the frame on the right is The Cop (or maybe security guard) most responsible for pouring rice wine into us.

Christmas Eve in Roadside Vietnam:”First we give you more rice wine, and then Mick become Elvis Buddy, OK?” Chris is opening act.

The next morning and I learn from a FaceTime with my family that it’s Christmas Day. Right. Kind of forgot that. Also I’ve got some mild hives. Fuck you, rice wine. OK, then!

I do my morning routine of writing, playing ukulele, having funny weird transactions with the locals, heavily enabled by the miracle of Google Translate. Figure out that the giant store that’s in front of the hotel is kind of a tourist department store — they’ve got booze, shoes, toys, snacks, sunglasses, you name it. I figure this out when a tour bus rolls up and unloads a bunch of Viet businessmen who come in, smoke, drink tea, maaaaaybe buy a trinket or two. I show them live FaceTime of Lucy and Libby Lee and they laugh, smile, say “May Kissmas!” and one of them makes the universal “honking boobies” gesture at my wife. Easy, Charlie. Then load back on the bus. Right before they roll out though, I ask to jump on the bus and play Jingle Bells. They clap along in that strange arrhythmic Vietnamese way I’ve come to know so well. They cheer like I am, actually, Elvis. If they, in fact, actually, knew who Elvis even was. Which I doubt they do. 

Do lots of “Merry Christmas” saying.. the Viets love to say it, too, usually accompanied by a very exuberant peace sign, which is the universal photobomb here. 

Look: Now ever I do it. Peace, everybody!

I told you Santa rides a motorbike in Vietnam. Here he has his own driver, though. “Velly nice.”

So, great Christmas morning so far: Video chat with my girls. Check. With my mom: check. Breakfast, ukulele, Nescafé: check! Suit up and ride motorbikes 50 miles in the rain with a helmet that has no visor. Mmmmmmm….. yay? I am not enthused at this prospect. In fact, I think “afraid” might be a little closer to the truth. Not “terrified,” but let’s say “discomforted.” It has to be done. We’ve got a plan and now we’ve got plane tickets — “skin in the game,” as brother Chris is fond of saying. We HAVE to ride, rain or not or we’ll miss our flight. 

OK, fine. In the motorbike corral (which has a tin roof, making the light rain sound monsoon-like and maybe it IS), I suit up in the complimentary (as in “free,” not as in “slimming”) rain suit that came with the bike and which I’d hoped I’d never need.

Slimming rain gear. Ripped out crotch compliments of My Leg Lifting One Time.

The bike corral, where I really really reeeeeally don’t want to leave for what’s outside: rainy roads. vague to non-existent route. Etc. Great Plan!

Fairly immediately the crotch rips out. Good, good… 

Now– right as the rubber is literally about to meet the road, I just can’t do it. Not with this helmet. Not without a visor. See, I’ve got a helmet (we always wear helmets, gentle reader, always), but it’s got no visor. Not good. Right now, I feel like the best case scenario is we have to keep stopping so I can cry and curse and try to wipe off my glasses one more time and probably catch a cold. The worst case scenario? Well, let’s not talk worst case, I think we can all agree.

So I get an idea: I go to the department store downstairs and find one of my rice wine drinking buddies — the security guard who looks like he’s “in bits” as some of the Euro backpackers describe hangovers. And in that now familiar combination language of speech, pantomime and Google Translate, I summon magic for me, simply by being humble and asking: “Please help me. We ride bikes. It is raining. I am worried about my face. No visor. Buy better helmet?” 

Let me stop right here and say something to the Universe: “Universe? thank you for helping me to see my limitations and helping me to ask for help when I need it. It’s not always in my nature, or genes to do so. Thank you for helping me with this defining character flaw.”

OK, so — security dude swings into action. He tells me to get my motorbike. I do, and he jumps on back, then he thinks better of my skills, and demotes me to the back of my own bike. Away we go, down a road headed who knows where. 

Zooming into the unknown, I remember that Chris was ready and left me with the adviso: “Keep in mind: If we don’t get to Hanoi in the next 4ish hours, we’re out $150.” Right. “Skin in the Game.” 

Now I’m wondering where I’m headed with the security guard who’s driving my bike. Is this going to take 10 minutes? 2 hours? Great plan!
Bumping and bomping down a dirt road in the rain, I’m privately reevaluating. Is it too late for: “Please take me back. I’ll be fine.” It is, and, furthermore, I won’t. I need a new helmet with a visor or it ain’t on. Fortunately, in just a short spit, we wind up at some kind of venue, like so many, that’s equal parts grocery, home goods, notions, bric-a-brac, living room, maybe bedroom, restaurant, and in this case, motorcycle accessories store! Security guard talks, they nod, and look at me with giggles, shiny eyes and — thankfully — head nods, not shakes. A coterie of helmets begins to emerge and …. too small, next… too small, next… way too small, next! It’s like a vaudeville act or something, with each one illiciting greater and greater hilarity. (I will take credit for my part in this, since funny faces are the universal language and I’m nothing if not a ham. Plus surely it’s karma points, possibly shaving off some “tourist tax.” As in all things in this very foreign land: Who can really say?) 
Eventually we settle on a shiny newish Honda helmet with a flip down visor that’s only about one and a half sizes too small. That’ll work. I feel better already. OK, time for me to bite the bullet. I suck it up and ask how much. There’s some chatter thrown around and a number comes back. 480,000 Dong (shut up, it’s what they call their money, the jokes are infinite, don’t you think I know?)
I still haven’t gotten used to the astronomical inflation here, and am resigned to overpaying because I need this. But just for edification (and shame), I do the math. The helmet: $18. 
Thank you, God of Vietnamese kindness and vaudeville ukulele comedy! You are too kind to me.

Outside, it’s Vietnam

Can you believe we haven’t even gotten on the road yet? That’s for Part 2 of Christmas Day in Vietnam, so sprawling is this story because this is, undoubtedly, the Best Day of My Life So Far.
Cẩm Phô Cẩm Phô

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