One of the many books I’ve read since arriving in Vietnam is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I only had a vague idea what it was about, but figured it would be relevant to my new life, getting around on two wheels rather than four. I didn’t expect the amount of philosophical discourse, though that aspect of the book was actually most relevant to my situation at the time of my reading.
Phil says that in Vietnam you see more of people. Due to the climate, most restaurants and cafes are indoor-outdoor spaces year-round, so there always seem to be people out and about. Furthermore, most of us tuck ourselves into cars, shelter on wheels, to get from place to place in Michigan. Your fellow drivers are perceived as headlights, bumper stickers, and shiny paint colors—maybe floating heads and shoulders, if you’re driving slowly enough or care to notice. In Vietnam, you can see the footwear choices of the pair on your right and notice that the woman on your left has probably just gone to the market because she has a plastic bag full of tomatoes, peppers, and chives hanging from her bike handle.
It was only on our longer bike trip to Mỹ Sơn this past weekend that the road-tripping-on-two-wheels element of Robert Pirsig’s manifesto began to have meaning for me. Phil’s bike is functioning OK for his commute to and from school, but it needs to have a part replaced. My bike was recently repaired, thanks to the help of one of our building’s security men, so we deemed it the better choice for the trip. However, my bike is smaller, lighter, and likes to go about 50 km/h max. It’s the perfect bike for me to use in getting around town—I prefer to putz as I’m still getting used to traffic patterns here and the lightness makes it easy for me to move when it’s off—but is perhaps not entirely ideal for long road trips. Plus, Phil, the more experience driver, drove us there and he prefers to drive a bit faster than me. Luckily he’s patient.
We figured Mỹ Sơn would be a good first road trip for us because it’s not too far away from Da Nang—just over 50km—and we’d heard the route was fairly simple, including plenty of signs the closer you get to the landmark.
The first stretch was simple city driving. The only part that threw us for a loop was a series of speed bumps. Many roads in Da Nang have speed bump markings that are fakeouts, more decorative than anything. These speed bumps were no joke, and we hit them hard. My light bike may have gone airborne. As we landed, I slid forward into Phil, pushing him toward the handlebars. On flat road again, I picked myself up and readjusted backward. This is when I began to notice that a part of each of my butt cheeks was hanging off the edge of the seat. I was grateful once more that Phil and I are both petite (by American standards). It makes moving around Asia easier for the two of us.
We were warned about the portion of the trip spent on the highway. We were told that it’s bumpy and that it’s important for motorbikes to stay on the shoulder because quite a few trucks take this route—it’s better to stay completely out of their way to allow them to overtake you easily. We didn’t find it to be all that bad. In fact, the raised road allowed us to see beautiful sweeping landscapes full of rice paddies, water buffalo, and neighborhood pagodas. We drove over a couple of rivers and were level with the roofs of clusters of colorful three-story traditional Vietnamese homes. We didn’t talk much. Phil kept a steady pace. I began to feel, in my hips, the straddling position that I had to maintain as the passenger.
After the highway, it seemed we were really someplace new, deeper into the countryside. The air was thicker; we were making our way into the jungle. Tarps with rows of sesame rice crackers, called bánh tráng, were drying in the sun outside of homes. Road signs with generic city skylines told us we were entering a more densely populated area. As we were about to leave these areas, the same sign would be seen again, but this time with a big red slash through it. City. No City. It was at this point that I noticed how high my knees had to be to stay on the footrests.
When we arrived at Mỹ Sơn, I found it difficult to swing my leg up and over to get off the bike. My feet were tingling from sitting still and from the rumble of the engine. Phil and I did a series of stretches before walking to buy our entry tickets. I thought 1) That’s about how far my friend’s brother ran in Qatar earlier this month and 2) How the hell do people ride motorcycles thousands of miles across the United States? I felt simultaneously naive in overall life experiences and childishly proud that we had gotten ourselves out to this remote place all by ourselves. The tour buses that passed us on their way out made us feel even cooler. There may have been a high five or two.
The research that we had done said if you’re expecting Mỹ Sơn to be a mini Angkor, you’ll be disappointed. As someone who has previously visited Angkor, I found the comparison to be just about right as long as the word “mini” is given its appropriate consideration. We got there around lunch time and sat down for a snack of sliced Japanese sweet potato that we had cooked in our rice cooker a couple of days before. We sat on benches in front of the biggest series of ruins as a couple of workers took their midday nap in hammocks behind us. Our timing meant that most of the tour groups had left or had yet to arrive, and we didn’t have to share the place with too many other tourists. It helped us feel how truly in the middle of nowhere this place is.
It was at Mỹ Sơn that I was first able to imagine what it must have been like as an American fighting in the war, in that mysterious foreign terrain. My skin was damp with sweat. The air is simply different from the coast. I remembered my friend’s dad, who fought in the war, telling me that soldiers died of exposure when it got down to 70 degrees. I couldn’t comprehend that back home, but ambling through these ruins, I understood. That jungle air must be thick enough to drink through a straw in July or August.
The effects of the war on the structures made the phrase “Mỹ Sơn ruins” more accurate—decades-old bomb craters lay next to crumbling piles of rocks built by people who couldn’t fathom bombs, airplanes, or white skin that burns in the sun. Some of the craters were overgrown with grass or filled with water and plant life, lending a surreal, ironic beauty to the landscape. We wandered around for a while, taking some photos and marveling at the things these carved faces had seen—long years of nothing, of peace, punctured by a few brief moments of destructive chaos, attempts at restoration, and now faces from all over the world considering what it meant and now means.
Then we hopped back on our bike and made our way home, where we lied in bed and watched Parks and Recreation, laughing at jokes that we understood with perfect clarity, grounding us firmly back in our time and within our familiar culture. The rest of the day felt more and more like a storybook adventure as our tired muscles relaxed on the sheets we brought from home.
This will be my first Christmas without snow. OK, maybe it didn’t snow every Christmas that I spent in Michigan. It’s at least my first Christmas without a jacket and gloves.
And yes, I went to Florida to visit my grandparents for Christmas once, but that was bookended by snow, like the sunny daydreams that would take me away from my cubicle deep in the dark Founders brewery cellar, temporarily, making the darkness that much more cavernous upon my return to “reality”.
My point is, it’s a new feeling to walk, ride, and pedal through December in a tank top and shorts, exposed to the elements, rather than hibernating in puffy jackets and heated vehicles. Every day is more or less the same as far as the weather is concerned. Some days are sunnier than others, some windier. Sometimes it rains in the afternoon or while I sleep.
In August, it would get up to the high 90s during the day. Those were the days when the inevitability of sweat was a constant consideration in my clothing choices. Black or white work well. Gray does not. Loose fits are preferred to anything form fitting. Normal bras, with any amount of padding, soaked up my sweat like a sponge and caused pools to form in the touch of cleavage they inspired. Underwire was beyond irritating. I switched to wearing bralets or going braless most of the time. Thank goodness I’m small chested. I don’t know how women with big knockers swing it—or, more accurately, keep it in place—in the heat.
Gradually the highs have gone down to the mid- to high 80s. Mostly now, it’s pleasant. My apartment windows are open all day. We only turn on the A/C at night to rid our room of humidity and to block out noises from the street. We still store our sugary food items (chocolate, fruits) in the fridge to keep ants and fruit flies away. And, while I understand that excessive packaging is bad for the environment, it actually makes sense to wrap things in serving size bits here in Vietnam. No matter how tightly we roll our opened sleeves of Ritz crackers, they’ll go stale in a day or two.
I fear that I’ve already turned cold blooded. I put on a jacket and pants when the temperature dips down to 73, the thick skin of twenty-seven years of braving Michigan winters erased in mere months. But even that dip doesn’t happen often, and most of my pants and lightweight jackets remain in my closet, reminding me of warm weather clothing items I could have packed in their stead, sitting useless in my basement as I wash and wear the same tank tops over and over again.
“Winter is coming,” one of the Vietnamese women who works at the front desk of our apartment building, Trang, said to me yesterday.
I highly doubt she watches Game of Thrones, but it was so perfect. When is winter coming exactly?
“It doesn’t look like it today,” I said, referencing the blue skies. She giggled.
“It’s like autumn at home for you,” she suggested.
“This is like summer at home,” I responded.
Trang and the other woman, Chau, laughed heartily at the oddity of my statement. It was noon, maybe 85 degrees, and Trang was wearing a jacket. Her arms are always covered, even when she’s indoors. What would she do in subzero temperatures? Does she try to imagine it? How does one imagine the rawness of exposed skin when the wind whips, feeling it cut through your gloves and skin to the bones in every finger, knuckles throbbing? The quiet solitude of tromping through the woods on freshly fallen snow, the clarity of the stars in the winter sky? Or is it too ridiculous for her to fathom living in such a place?
Christmas music plays from time to time at the cafes here, and my initial reaction is to be disconcerted. My brows actually furrow. Then, I remember that it’s December. And the song is over, replaced by a cover of the Titanic theme song. Some resorts and restaurants have put out Christmas decorations, but they feel out of place to the point of depressing counterfeit—though I smiled at the workers outside the hotel on my street as they rebuilt a fake Christmas tree that had fallen over in the wind because I’m white and I’m supposed to be pleased by it, it's for people like me, so why not show some teeth, make them feel good for their effort.
The seasons don’t pass visibly around me, only through the changing date at the top of my journal pages. The plant life is the same. I don’t have to scrape off my car or add layers of clothing. The days are a bit shorter, but I’m close enough to the Equator that it’s ever so slight. It’s the strangest sense of false stasis, knowing that I’m moving around the sun on the same orb as my family in Michigan, but not seeing reflections of that celestial path on my little speck of the Earth’s crust.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.