As an expat, there’s a certain amount of diligence required to get used to a place, but the signs of acclimatization are often small. Some are met with immediate triumph, like a taxi driver understanding your pronunciation of your address in Vietnamese on the first try. Others come to full fruition only later, as in a successful trip to the bathroom a few hours after trying a new local dish (Note: Expats talk about bowel movements as much as old people do…or maybe that’s just my friends.).
I guess you don’t need this diligence. Expats can always avoid trying to get used to a place. Many foreigners in my city don’t know a lick of Vietnamese and eat pizza and burgers for most meals. They are clear — perhaps deliberate — outsiders.
Or, expats can become fully immersed, committing to language lessons, solely eating local street food, and living in a traditional Vietnamese house. These are often long-term expats. They are near-insiders.
Most expats I know (myself included) exist somewhere in between.
We eat pho for lunch and go to the Spanish tapas bar for dinner. We learn basic, functional Vietnamese — though our pronunciation is often lacking. We plan to be here for a year or two or four (Who knows?). We’re insider outsiders, and, appropriately, the vulnerability of this identity can make you feel like you’re walking around inside out, too.
My complexion is fair, and I have long light-ish hair, blue eyes, and freckled arms. I don’t blend in by default.
But when I’m on my bike — complete with helmet, sunglasses, a facemask, and long-sleeves — I’m in disguise. A temporary insider.
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I’m not the first foreigner to marvel at Vietnam’s motorbike culture. Anthony Bourdain himself is a fan, and he waxes poetic:
“One of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam, to be part of this mysterious, thrilling, beautiful choreography. Thousands upon thousands of people — families, friends, lovers — each an individual story glimpsed for a second or two in passing, sliding alongside, pouring like a torrent through the city. A flowing, gorgeous thing.”
Sounds beautiful. The experience itself can be lyrical, yes. It can also be far more prosaic.
It’s important to remain ever-present while driving here because the rules of the road — or lack thereof — make any journey far from predictable.
Cars frequently move into oncoming traffic to pass other cars, or they pass on the right, regardless of traffic. Slowing down is apparently not a viable option. And on a motorbike, you don’t want to play a game of chicken with a car.
Intersections are a free-for-all. Even if you’re on the main road going straight and someone is turning onto that road, right or left, it doesn’t matter. If they get there first they will go. And, most inexplicably to me, motorbike drivers often move to the far right lane to turn left.
I’ve begun to read body language. That’s one benefit of sharing the road with motorbikes — motorbike drivers are fully visible, unlike car drivers, enclosed within their vehicles.
A peek over the left shoulder by someone in front of me often means that the driver is considering turning left, regardless of the status of his/her turn signal. On routes that I take frequently, I know which intersections to be particularly cautious with, slowing down or looking up the road for potential merging traffic as visibility allows.
This sounds like a lot to keep in mind, and it is. But I still manage to daydream.
Back in the States, I got some of my best thinking done in the car.
It’s one of those activities that takes up just enough concentration to free the appropriate percentage of the brain for constructive thought. When I’m doing nothing, lying on the couch or in bed trying to clear my thoughts, there are often too many layers to sift through, voices and trains of thought competing like dorm room neighbors with different musical tastes.
This is common enough, right? It’s why people like to knit or garden or run or, more recently, invest in adult coloring books.
I drove from Da Nang to Hoi An by myself for the first time this morning, and was refreshed by the mental reset.
I know the way, having been a motorbike passenger or driven a buddy here quite a few times. It’s basically two roads, so there isn’t much to remember. I mean, I don’t know the names of these roads, but I know where I’m going.
The sun is intense. I got a tank top tan line from a 7-minute-each-way trip to and from the basketball court last weekend. Does sweaty skin attract the sun even more? An interesting thought to Google at a later point.
I’ve begun to take up the habit of covering up while driving around, as Vietnamese women do. I did forget to wear sunscreen on my hands on this trip though, and am dreaming of gloves. I put my left hand in my lap and experiment with accelerating underhand with my right hand.
(According to my weather app, it’s 100° F right now, but feels like 117. What Michigander dreams of gloves in that weather?)
When I arrived last August, I thought I would never get used to this heat, but I have. I sweat, yes, pretty much all the time, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. At least not as much. I still drink copious amounts of water, and I seek out the shade and good airflow. It’s just part of life now.
Near Marble Mountain, the traffic lightens up.
It’s about 50/50 motorbikes and vehicles, the latter half split between taxis and big trucks.
Once I get near the golf courses on the beach road, I pass a man who is pulling three giant plastic barrels behind his motorbike. A brownish liquid sloshes out the top of one when he hits bumps. I give him a wide berth and can’t help but chuckle into my face mask as I notice his straight face. What the hell is that guy doing? What is that liquid, and where is he taking it? It’s just another day for him.
Not far past that, single-story, countryside homes line the main road. This is the bit where you have to be careful of kids on bicycles and motorbikes merging onto the road directly off the sidewalk.
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I think about how there really isn’t that much roadkill in Vietnam. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is roadkill here, but it’s often rats, not deer or raccoons. What would I do if a deer crossed in front of me on my motorbike? I wonder.
At this part of the road, because traffic is lighter, the drive can drag. You notice your fellow drivers, and your mind wanders (mine is, clearly).
I pass a motorbike driven by a man with a woman on the back. She’s wearing a lightweight jacket to protect her from the sun. It has a pattern with pictures of something and the word “sport” written underneath each image.
Half a mile later, they pass me again. Then I pass them.
Some people entertain themselves in Vietnam by taking road trips. I think that’s cool, but I also wonder about the environmental impact of frequent pointless travels.
I drive by a house where someone is burning their trash. I send out a wish that they don’t have any styrofoam to toss into the flames.
Turning into Hoi An, there are more white people, many on bicycles or on foot. I give them a wide berth if they’re on motorbikes, stereotyping their driving skills as I know others do to me.
I drive through rice paddies and look at the water buffalo gathered there. I consider stopping to take a picture, but think about how touristy that is. It’s the iconic image of Vietnam, trite but beautiful nonetheless. I think about how my perspective varies from the other white people I pass, obviously tourists, sweaty, not wearing hats, holding giant plastic water bottles.
Am I judging them?
There is a Facebook group for expats in Da Nang and Hoi An that has over 7,500 members. Newcomers are often ridiculed or subjected to their posts being hijacked by veteran expats who have too much time on their hands and find themselves funny with their unhelpful inside jokes. I often feel sorry for people who post on that page and are hoping for something useful in response. But I don’t do anything about it because I know how trolls can be.
I get into Hoi An and the traffic picks up a bit.
An older man is driving with a boy on the back of his bike. I’d guess he’s 10 or so. I want to pass them, but he’s in the middle of the lane, and this is a two-lane road. I consider passing on the right, then check my rear view mirror and notice there are no cars behind me, so I pass on the left.
As I come even with him, he shoots snot out of his nose in a move I know as a “farmer’s blow,” to the right, straight onto the road. He doesn’t slow down.
I’m glad I chose to pass on the left.
I find my way to the place where I park my motorbike in Hoi An, the place where a friend parked hers when I rode with her, and that I always use now. $0.50 for the day. I take off my disguise and the guy who collects the money, noting my blue eyes, uses his fingers to assist in his explanation of the fee.
I walk into one of the nearby alleys, feeling the full force of the day’s heat without the wind provided by my motorbike’s speed. I’m still immersed in some lingering thought from the solo drive when it dawns on me that, unlike the daydreaming I’d do while driving in America — when I’d think about what I needed to buy at the grocery store or if I’d paid the cable bill yet — the daydreaming I did on today’s trip wasn’t about the future or what I was planning to do next. It was about things around me, my current state, my malleable insider outsider identity.
As cheesy as it may sound, I realize that this experience of living overseas has changed me.
Maybe you’ve had a moment like this, too, during your travels.
The vulnerability of living “inside out” has taught me how to be fully present in a way no amount of yoga or meditation or alcohol consumption ever has. I can handle both sides of this dichotomy simultaneously. I’ve learned that my roots aren’t tied to a place; rather, that I can and should be grounded in myself, wherever I go.
Later, I sit in a new favorite cafe, Rosie’s, where the young Vietnamese women who run it speak English and play Western music to complement their delicious cold brew coffee.
They tell me I look pretty today, and ask me how I got here. When I tell them, they warn me to be careful on my motorbike.
I assure them that I will.
I’ve grown, inwardly, enough to take things as they come — no matter who got to the intersection first.
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What’s your experience been acclimating to a new place while traveling? Share in the comments!