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.
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.