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A taxi-driver’s curse and a lesson in humility

From the moment I arrived at Hanoi’s main bus depot late at night after a 27 hour bus ride, I had a bad feeling about what would transpire. The only available transport to my guesthouse near Hoam Kiem Lake was a taxi driven by a sleazy looking driver twirling a toothpick in his mouth. Noticing the absence of xe om (motorcycle taxis), I reluctantly agreed to get inside, knowing that I would probably end up paying an inflated price for my journey. The driver continually took wrong turns, stopped to make personal calls without switching off the meter and even drove on the wrong side of the road. He should have been paying me danger money for surviving the ordeal. When I refused to pay the driver’s fare, it triggered a major argument. He threatened to throw me out of his car and drive off with my backpack, so I opened the door and yelled out that he was trying to rob me. Embarrassed and exhausted, he relented, accepted my price, which was half of what he originally asked for, and ordered me to collect my things and get out.

From this moment, I would be cursed in dealing with motorcyclists. But it also extended to the art of bargaining. The following afternoon, a street vendor sold me a photocopied book for $USD8. After he walked away, I opened the book and pages started falling out. A Guatemalan-born wrestler whom I had befriended at my guesthouse said he had bought the same book for $USD1. Even the guesthouse owner scolded me for being naïve. “If you can come to Vietnam and pay eight dollars for bad quality book, then you are rich…and stupid.” He was right. I withdrew from all bartering exchanges for two weeks, until I got to the provincial city of Quy Nhon (pronounced hwee ngon).

It must have been a slow day, for when I collected my belongings, five motorcyclists in their 50s and 60s surrounded me and started pulling my arms in different directions. Being tugged and pulled in different directions is no fun. Throwing away the language of diplomacy, I yelled at the drivers to stay away and called them piranhas before turning my back to commence the 10km walk into town. I barely made it past the front gate before I selected a random rider who then demanded 50,000 Dong ($USD3). We then got into a heated discussion. It took us nearly five minutes to agree on 30,000 Dong, only because we were both tired of hearing each others’ voices. Less than halfway into the journey, the bike slowed to a crawl before the driver eventually pulled over. “No gas,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and flashing a row of betel but-stained teeth, suggesting that I deserved to be left stranded. In an effort to save face, I dug into my pockets, smiled and handed over 50,000 Dong. But the driver snatched my money and then wheeled his motorbike away. He was not concerned in returning my conciliatory gesture. It had only taken me thirty minutes to develop an arch enemy.

I dropped my backpack in frustration and rummaged through the front compartment, pulling out a photocopied map, trying to make sense where I was. For 15 minutes, I stood rooted to the spot before a middle-aged man sided up to me. He explained that I was standing in front of his noodle shop. Taking pity on me, he noticed how dehydrated I looked and ushered me inside. A few moments later, his wife brought me some tea. “Where you go?” he said in a helpful voice. I showed him the map and circled the spot where I wanted to go. He studied it, scratched his head and then said, “My daughter speaks English. I get her,” before disappearing. Moments later, a young woman wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt with Snoopy and Woodstock from the Charlie Brown Show came over and stood in front of me. “You lost? I help you”, she asked, before I told her in broken Vietnamese the address I was looking for. She looked at my map and conversed with her father in Vietnamese, fingers pointing everywhere. “My daughter take you on motorbike,” the father said. “I take you to foreigner place,” his daughter added, referring to the guesthouse. The scooter sank the moment I sat on it.

“You big man….fat,” she said. I did not know the Vietnamese wording for “I’m not fat, just big-boned.”

The bike made several spluttering noises upon acceleration, attracting the attention of pedestrians. I thought that the two-wheeled curse would strike again.. In a desperate attempt to will the scooter to my destination, I repeated the mantra of The Little Engine That Could – “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”. It must have worked because I reached my destination. My emergency motorcyclist refused to accept money from me, but requested that we practise English together upon our second meeting at her father’s noodle shop, to which I agreed without hesitation before we said our good-byes.

I was so happy not to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, any request would have sounded reasonable. My elation, however, was short-lived. A message posted on the front door read, “Sorry we have moved. See you there. Management.” The woman who had dropped me off was no longer in sight. Once again I was on my own, clueless as to which way to turn. I was convinced that the first xe om possessed a voodoo doll resembling me, and kept driving the needle deeper, inflicting bad luck. I stared across the ocean and focused on a statue in the distance, who turned out to be 13th century military commander General Tran Hung Dao. A national hero in Vietnam, General Tran cuts an imposing figure. His stance of pointing north is a gesture to show invading forces the way out of the country. It is said that his 1284 speech entitled Hịch Tướng Sĩ, or Proclamation to the Officers, inspired his troops to defeat the Mongol Army, through the heroic acts of past warriors. Victory, he said, would guarantee serving officers eternal immortality, whereas failure would curse future generations. Reflecting on my own situation, I thought that the General was telling me to leave if I would not change my ways.

Vietnam: Quy Nhon BeachI took the opportunity to walk by the shore. Fishermen worked feverishly to prepare their boats for catching fish at night using giant nets. Children played football with a plastic bottle on the sand, or hide and seek in discarded jeep and tank shells. Had I not turned around to catch a glimpse of the xe om who yelled out “Hello foreigner!”, I would not have seen a signboard sitting outside the guesthouse I was seeking. After checking in and unpacking, I developed the urge to hire a motorcycle and get out of the city altogether for the day. But I accidentally held the accelerator after starting the motorcycle, sending me flying into a table and set of chairs in front of a passing pedestrian. She stared and erupted into laughter when I got up gingerly. Brushing myself down, I handled the motorcycle to the guesthouse owner. When she asked why I had changed my mind, I said that liked bicycles more, but to her I did not sound convincing enough. which obvious came across as an excuse for chickening out. “You are afraid,” she responded.

Afraid of what, I had no idea, but she probably my inner fears better than me.

For three hours, I rode around town, happy not to crash my bicycle. I stopped by a park where children and their parents and grandparents were flying kites made of plastic and crepe paper. Kids squealed as their kites flew in the air and crashed to the ground. Watching one fall was like viewing a plane shot in slow motion. I managed to catch the image I wanted so much; watching families having, congregating in large numbers while undertaking one of life’s simple pleasures in a small town. At the same time, I wondered whether my presence was unsettling to the locals. It is not every day where a foreigner on a bicycle arrives in a small town armed with a camera, taking a series of photos. When two elderly citizens sitting on a nearby bench started to stare at me for a prolonged period, the time felt right to move on.

As the sun slowly descended, I headed to the esplanade, passing a group of young men revving motorcycles and listening to pop music. When I rode past, a row of cold stares greeted me, as if I was invading their turf. Further down the road, young couples walked hand in hand, and children chased my bike shouting, “Hello, where you go? Where you from?” One boy stuck his middle finger up at me, which shocked me a little. While figuring out why he had done it, a young mother carrying her new-born baby stepped out from the footpath and stood directly in path. I gripped the brakes tightly as the bike shook and tires screeched. Once the bike had stopped, she placed her child in the basket connected to my handlebars, its legs kicking in the air due to the basket’s small size. “You want baby?” she added before backing off, her baby letting out a ferocious cry. I called for her to take her kid back, but she stood and did nothing. I started to panic, thinking that she would run away. Behind her sat a group of women and men, one of whom called out “You buy baby, two dollar? One dollar?”, a sentence which everybody seemed to find amusing. The woman did remove her child from my basket, and my short-lived nightmare was over. When I asked a local worker at the guesthouse about these people, he replied that incidents like this were common. Maybe it was a beggar’s racket, or just a group of homeless people. Either way, the experience left me rattled and I wanted to get out of the area. But it was late and I would have to wait until morning.

I rose half an hour after sunrise and took a walk to watch fishermen haul in their nets. Thankfully my accomplices from the previous night were nowhere to be found along the beach. As I stared across the sea, I imagined the voice of General Tran Hung Dao instructing me to visit the Cham Towers immediately, or that the opportunity to appreciate its beauty would be lost forever. Unwilling to take a chance on riding a motorcycle again, I organized for a local xe om to take me up to the hills. As luck would have it, my xe om for the day was the same one I argued with over the fare. A scowl instantly appeared on his face and I assumed the worst. Maybe this time, he would leave me stranded in the countryside, the ultimate humiliation. But he simply told me to hang on tight. Only when we reached the Cham Towers did he speak to me.

Doi Cham Tower, Quy Nhon

Doi Cham Tower, Quy Nhon

“You go see towers, learn respect. I wait here.” The severity of his voice tone suggested that he still had not forgotten our encounter. When I asked if he would come with me, he declined. “Your lesson,” he said curtly.

Reaching the hill’s summit, I spent time appreciating the structure of what were once old temples. The Cham Towers, unlike other temples with fewer remains, is not overrun with tourists. But I spent less time checking out the structure and more time reflecting on my thoughts. Gongs from a distant pagoda rang out, providing me with the chance to understand how I was responsible for my own bad luck the previous day; the motorcycle breaking down, getting stranded, the close call of having a baby dumped in my bicycle basket. I could have avoided all of this if only I had shown more restraint and commonsense when it mattered. Thirty minutes must have passed before I headed back. The xe om was waiting for me at the bottom of the hill and asked me why I had taken so long. I told him that I needed time to myself.

“What did you learn?” he added.

“If I don’t give respect, I will be lonely,” I said.

“Very good,” he said to me. “You make this mistake, you have nobody. Arguing to save a little money will cost you more than you think. Remember that.” He then urged me to hop on the motorbike, as dark clouds appeared overhead. The last thing I wanted was to be drenched in rain, without the protection of plastic coats.

Looking at the vast stretch of hills on the long road back to Quy Nhon, I concentrated on ways to alter my own behavior The last thing I wanted to do is prolong my curse in dealing with local people and deal with more consequences resulting from my own actions, an act that did not require me to study the work of Principles Of Military Strategies, as General Tran Hung Dao once did for his famous address. All that was needed was for me to stop dwelling on the past and ensure that through my own actions, I would follow the right path and receive good fortune for my remaining days in Vietnam.

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