It was hot. Exhaust fumes, dust, and sound clogged the air, forming a thick impenetrable film over every inch of Lam’s exposed skin. He urged the moped on, further through the congested, near static anarchy of the highway. Lam had been on the road for barely an hour; time that had seen him struggle to get more than a few kilometres out of Ho Chi Minh’s centre and into the sprawling never-ending mass of the industrialised suburbia that spread out from the city like ink stains on cotton. It hadn’t rained for weeks and the dust and mosquitoes were taking every advantage of the break, forming into swirling clouds that followed the heavy trucks and buses like airborne shadows.
Lam could feel the heat from the moped’s engine already beginning to soak through the thin polyester of his trousers. It didn’t matter. It was still three hundred kilometres to Da Lat and his parents’ home. It would get worse long before it got better. Ngoc had told him to take the bus, but he hated the noise and the crowds. He hated being cooped up for hours on end, packed in with those he didn’t know and didn’t want to know. Going by bike was slower, but Lam had been secretly relishing the freedom the trip would afford him for weeks. He sensed Ngoc had guessed as much that morning, as she prepared his breakfast in the kitchen they shared with the other families on their floor. She didn’t resent him taking the trip, he knew that, but his absence was going to be hard on her. It would have been nice to make the journey as a family, but, with business as it was, impossible. With Lam away, Ngoc would have to make his traditional 3am ride to Binh Dien Market to buy the fish for that day’s market, as well as staff the stall all day on her own. Lam didn’t worry about the business. Ngoc was as good as any at judging the quality of the fish, as well as an adept haggler. She could always be relied upon to pay the least for the most, but, still, it was going to be hard. At least Quang and Han were old enough to look after themselves now. That was something.
The open fronts of the houses lining the highway offered passersby everything from toothbrushes to tobacco. The bright red and yellow Tet lanterns and New Year decorations thrust onto the pavement outside jarred rudely against the dark interiors of families’ front rooms and the grey dust and fume-drenched background of the houses themselves.
It was already 10am and the sun beat off the top of his helmet, nurturing the headache that had been coming for the last few kilometres. Sweat patches formed between his legs and in the wind’s lee on his back. Another set of lights and another wait approached. Robbed of motion, the heat and air seemed to coagulate around him, suffocating him within its rank embrace. The heat of a hundred motorbike engines pressed against his legs, forcing the hair to retreat and the skin on his feet to gasp for relief from between the gaps in his sandals. The trucks and buses, conscious of their place in the road’s food chain, spilled out of their lanes and into that reserved for motorcyclists, forcing the heaving mass of mopeds onto the sandy run-offs and pavements that skirted the highway and causing the pedestrians to seek what shelter they could.
With motion regained, Lam tried to force his way to the relative safety at the left hand of the lane. Distance from the roadside would give him time to react to the riders pulling out and the pedestrians stepping out into the road. Let someone else have a bad day today.
Residential gave way to industrial and Lam began to gain some speed. He’d had thealready aged moped for five years now and it had always provided good service. However, the children were getting older and they, Quang particularly, were beginning to be embarrassed by his Father’s old Honda Dream. It didn’t matter much, he supposed, there was no way they could afford to replace it. However, he was sorry Quang was embarrassed by his old bike. It was just his age, he supposed. Teenagers could be like that. Maybe, when he was older, they could save up and get Quang something a little nicer.
But the Dream was reliable and that was everything. In the evenings, already tired from a long day at the market, Lam would hang around Bui Vien, shuttling the backpackers who drank and shouted there between tourist bars. Always they would argue, their beer-soaked breath washing over him as they accused him of taking advantage of them, of charging too much, of trying to rob them. Weary and tired to his bones, Lam would as often as not agree to their prices, ferrying them to the next bar to watch them spend double on their first beer.
The moped rattled and shook beneath him as another tarmac patch on a patchwork road passed below. To his right, a market spilled out onto the highway, causing the motorbikes to casually skirt the huge marble Buddhas that towered benignly over smaller statues of dogs, stone furniture, and the occasional pedestrian, holding anything they could lay their hands on above them as a shield against the midday sun. Girls, probably only a few years older than Han, passed him on their brightly coloured new scooters. Despite the heat, every inch of their skin had been covered by jeans, gloves, and hoods, their faces concealed behind dust masks and sunglasses. Lam wondered at it all. Ngoc’s skin had been dark when they met, and was darker still now. Lam had always considered her beautiful. His skin was dark too. It was already obvious that Han would go the same way. He hoped this didn’t cause her to be self conscious. He didn’t want to be the cause of that, no matter how little control he had over it.
Soon, the endless stream of brightly coloured buses and trucks ground to a halt, forming an endless queue, which Lam passed by knowing the Da Lat turning must be near.
With the highway behind him, the traffic began to clear to the same degree as the road began to deteriorate, causing the Dream to rattle worryingly under every assault the road launched at it. Lam ached. He’d been riding for three hours and his body was beginning to rebel. The pain in his backside worried and nagged at him like toothache of the bone. With every mile, riding the moped came closer to sitting in acid and, try as he might, his attention would not and could not shift from the pain.
Between the houses and the factories, paddy fields and fish ponds passed Lam by. Spotting some shade, Lam took the opportunity to pull over, rest, and eat the lunch Ngoc had prepared for him. The relief was immediate: muscle and sinew gasped with their release from the Dream’s grip. Introspection vanished and his body seized the chance to move and stretch after hours of its de facto imprisonment. Squatting on his haunches, Lam greedily devoured the ban my Ngoc had tied to the Dream’s white plastic fairing. In front of him, the never changing, never ending procession of trucks, buses, and motorbikes passed by, each leaving Lam a small legacy of the dust and smoke that marked their passage. He didn’t care. It was good to be out of the sun and off the bike. He’d be on his way before long. For now, it was enough to eat the ban my and savour the break.
Lam knew the Da Lat road well. He had come this way many times, making the long commute between his job and home in Ho Chi Minh City and that of his family in Da Lat. He wondered how many times each pot hole had rattled him, how many hours had been spent in the pitiless sun, or how many of the fierce storms that raked this country during the rainy season he’d endured.
Another of the small industrial towns that pock-marked the route approached and, with it, another crossroads to be passed through. However, for reasons he couldn’t even explain to himself, Lam took the turn. He passed by the houses of the townspeople, none radically different from those of the city, and on, into the foothills of the Central Highlands. The land, lush and green, rose in front of him, climbing skywards in near conical mounds through which the narrow road wound its way; rising, falling and contracting upon itself like the death throes of a tarmac snake. Pulling back on the throttle, Lam lowered his body into the moped, making a small refuge from the wind behind the Dream’s fairing. As a young man, Lam had enjoyed the exhilaration of speed. He had relished the adrenalin rush of pushing both himself and his mopeds as far and as fast as he could. However, time and responsibility had lessened the attraction of danger and now, unexpectedly, there was this. Something new. Something different. As he pushed the battered old bike into each corner, dipping his shoulder in and accelerating out even faster, he felt a kind of peace envelop him. Everything was as it should be. Both he and the tired old motorbike knew each other and knew what this twisted road demanded. There was no fear. Neither was there the transient thrill of exhilaration. His mind cleared. His only thought that of the next corner and his only sensation that of the straining bike below him. He pulled the throttle back further.
Simon Speakman Cordall, b. 1972, is a freelance journalist
working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.