Chapter 18 – An Infinite Sea of Yellow
Following our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, sometime in the early evening three over-the-hill Vietnamese guys arrived at the Park Hyatt Saigon to pick us up on cyclos. In Vietnam, a cyclo is a three-wheeled, pedal-operated member of the rickshaw family. The cyclist sits elevated slightly above a wheel on the back of the device and works the pedals while the passenger relaxes on a seat suspended between the two parallel wheels of the front and is pushed around town like a baby in a stroller.
As I approached the operator of my oversized two-seated tricycle, he flicked a cigarette into the street and hopped off his seat to greet me. The man had been a lanky, weatherbeaten old-timer in a blue baseball cap and what’d looked like a collared, blue-and-white bowling shirt. Up close, his skin appeared cracked and leathery from what I’m guessing had been years of unprotected exposure to ultraviolet rays while reaping the benefits of a two-pack-a-day habit since the age of twelve. Once we’d shaken hands, we climbed aboard our respective parts of the creaky-ass cart and were on our way.
After merging into the unpredictable ebb and flow of Saigon traffic but before even having made it a whole block from our launching pad, hundreds of beeping motorbikes and a couple honking cars buzzed past us as we burned down the street at the rate of a speeding tortoise. The tires on the cyclo were so flat that the rims had been scraping and grinding the ground while the poor bastard behind me grunted and struggled to push the extra burden of my one-hundred-and-eighty pounds atop his ninety-five. I’d felt pretty bad for the geezer – like I should’ve been the one schlepping him around – but after cracking one of the many beers I’d brought along, the guilty feeling left and I began to enjoy the tour.
As evidenced by excessive decoration around the city, the Tet festivities had been in full swing. Everything from streamers and banners to giant Buddha and Confucius statues stood lit in front of every business. Strands of lights dangled from trees overhanging the streets, shedding a vibrant, palpable hue on the celebration below. The wide Communistic boulevards as well as the tiny winding back alleys had been packed with new year’s revelers on foot and motorbike who’d appeared to be picking up last-minute gifts and meals for the evening’s celebration.
Observing the hustle and bustle as we rolled along at a geriatric pace, I couldn’t help but wonder about the traditions surrounding the Tet holiday. I knew nothing about Tet at the time but found everything going on around me to be quite interesting and wouldn’t have minded a history lesson. My cyclist, on the other hand, must’ve figured I’d felt otherwise. Instead of sharing with me amazing historical tales that’ve never been transcribed and only exist as verbal lore passed down from generation to generation among the locals, my pilot only wanted to talk to me about one thing.
“Look. Look,” he’d extended his right hand in front of my face, pointing as the nub of a cig burned between the tips of his index and middle fingers. “There. There.”
“Where?” I glanced around. “What am I supposed to be seeing right now?”
“There. There. There,” he continued to wave the smoky butt.
“Ohhhhhh,” I said once we’d neared a massage parlor where a bunch of half-naked skanks stood on display in the front window. “Yeah, yeah, I see it.”
“You like verrrrrrrry much,” he’d assured me with a guarantee as confident as that lent by George Zimmer in a Men’s Warehouse commercial. “It a verrrrrrry good boom boom.”
“Really? There? Good boom boom?”
“Oh yes, yes. Verrrrry good.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of this old dude gettin’ jiggy with barely-legal bitches a third his age.
“There very good boom boom …” it took him a minute to translate the rest of his thought into English but, while he was doing so, he’d raised his hand to his face with the three middle fingers down, pinky out, thumb extended towards his chin and eventually concluded, “…very good in mouth.”
I found his preference for oral sex pretty funny, but he thought his own assertion far more amusing than I had and burst into a fit of laughter, exposing a Scut-Farkus-style, yellow-ass set of teeth. The rest of the cyclo tour had carried on in a similar fashion. The dirty old man behind me would reach forward and point out every whorehouse in the greater Ho Chi Minh area while saying “for you,” “you like” or “good boom boom.” It wasn’t just my pusher who’d been doing that either. Kathleen and Tim would later tell me that both their cyclists had been rather cathouse savvy as well.
The last place we’d visited with our cyclo pilots had been a centralized holiday gathering area called Tao Dan Park where a Tet flower festival was being held. After paying and thanking the horny old perverts for all the hot tips they’d imparted, we’d spent about half an hour weaving through the crowd, admiring floral arrangements at the exhibition. We then left the park and began wandering around, searching for a place to eat.
While traversing a dark, rapist-friendly alley that we probably shouldn’t have turned down, we came across a random-ass Mexican restaurant and decided to give it a whirl. As we sat at a table that’d been set up on the sidewalk, people from all directions gathered around and encircled our threesome. For the most part, the group had consisted of old, sickly-looking women waving their hands in our faces, trying to sell us DVDs. I can’t begin to imagine from where they’d gotten these movies, but the collection was brutal. Some of the B films they were selling had been so obscure and looked so shitty that I’d go so far as to deem them unworthy of a space at the bottom of an everything-under-five-dollars catch-all bin at your local Wal-Mart.
I had no idea that Ernest even went to Africa before some 95-year-old Vietnamese lady tried to guilt me into buying her bootleg version of the straight-to-DVD film. Indicating starvation, she’d rubbed her tummy, gestured putting a handful of food in her mouth and, with a full-on a puppy dog look, continued to stick her Jim Varney movies in my face, hoping I’d give. In as polite a manner I could, I’d indicated my disinterest in her collection and hinted that I wanted her to leave me the fuck alone.
The O’Shaughnessy’s and I placed our orders. As we awaited our food, the DVD venders lingered, standing perched over our table, carefully watching the entire time, anticipating a sudden change of heart about their vast selection of Ernest discs. Eventually the food arrived and although I’d been surprisingly pleased with my chimichanga, rice and refried beans, I pretended not to enjoy them as much as I really had in front of the allegedly starving hawkers.
By the end of the meal, we’d all been so full we could barely move. I was so stuffed that if someone were to have slapped my belly with an open palm, barf would’ve shot out my mouth like a fire hose. Kathleen, exhausted from the seven-hour flight that morning out of Tokyo on top of the long day at the Cu Chi Tunnels, hailed a cab back to the Park Hyatt to call it a night. Pretty beat ourselves and scheduled to leave on a bus to Phnom Penh early the next morning, Tim and I remained unwilling to sacrifice our last night of partying during Tet and in the name of alcoholism, vowed to power through the trials and tribulations of our post-meal low.
To help the cause and make room for beer, Tim went inside the Mexican joint to drop a bomb. Unlike our ogre of a college roommate named Ves who’d been known to clench the bottom of the toilet seat and pull upward for leverage while blasting ostrich-egg-sized chud pieces out his stinky Croatian asshole – also a guy whose dumps I could smell from my bed through the paper-thin wall with which the facilities and my room had shared – Tim O’Shaughnessy likes to relax and take his sweet-ass time pinching off dumps.
As I awaited his return from the john, twenty long minutes of fending off relentless DVD peddlers had gone by when a cab containing Kathleen pulled up in front of the restaurant.
“Hey, what’s this?” I asked while doing the Heisman on one of the touts. “You’re back?”
“I made it to the hotel but then had the guy drive right back.” She sat down at the table and lit up a smoke. “I don’t wanna miss our only night out in Vietnam.”
“Sweet. Good call,” I peered into the restaurant, concerned that Tim and Elvis had suffered similar fates. “You know, if your brother didn’t hafta take this hour-long shit, you’da missed us. You’ll hafta thank him for that.”
“Oh yeah, he takes the longest dumps.”
“Yes he does. Here he comes right now,” I nodded in Tim’s direction as he’d returned. “Finally! What the fuck was that all about? You givin’ birth in there? I got fuckin’ people out here stickin’ Ernest movies in my face and you’re in there gettin’ a blumpkin?”
“Fuck off bro. I take my time when I’m shitting and get it all out, not like your gay ass with your hit and run dumps, shitting every fifteen fuckin’ minutes.”
“Well, fuck you dude. Who needs that much time in there?”
“Hey man,” he put his foot down on the issue, “I’ve never rushed a dump in my life and I ain’t about to start now.”
“Alright dude,” I eased up on my stance when I could tell how serious he was about his time-consuming habit, “maybe in due time I guess I can learn to accept your unnecessarily long way of dumping.”
“Damn right you will,” he said while adjusting his belt. “Ya gotta respect the dump, bro.”
After the matter had been settled, Tim turned his attention over to his sister.
“So, you came crawling back, huh?”
“Yeah, I was just tellin’ Lal that it would suck to miss out on Tet here.”
“Yeah, it definitely would,” he said. “But, uh, let’s do this. I’m ready to get the fuck outta this restaurant and go pound some drinks.”
We didn’t have a particular bar in mind, but had kept track of a few we’d seen earlier while driving by on the cyclos and headed in that general direction.
The night before Kathleen had arrived in Saigon, Tim and I had gone out to dinner at a restaurant called Pacharan where we’d met an expat from Vancouver. The guy was kind of an asshole but had been living in HCMC for the past few years and laid on us some invaluable information regarding Vietnamese culture and the celebration of Tet.
At the time, we’d been eating outdoor on a third story balcony above a busy intersection from where more horns had been blaring than the brass section at a Chicago concert.
“Aw dude, it’s so loud,” I’d said to the hoser at the table next to us. “Why are they always constantly honking like that?”
“That’s just how it works around here,” he peeked over the ledge at the motorbike madness below. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but they don’t have stoplights at intersections and – in spite of the few lines they got painted on the pavement here and there – lanes are nonexistent. Everybody’s on a bike, going ten different directions in the middle of the same intersection at the same time. They honk so frequently because it’s a free-for-all. It’s just their way of letting each other know where everybody’s at.”
He paused to light a cigarette.
“You’ll see a lot of bikes out the next few days – like, way more than normal – because everyone and their mother is in Saigon for Tet.”
He took a nice big suck of the fag.
“The thing about many of these people, though, is that they’re piss poor farmers who can’t afford to go out and celebrate with drinks or with sit-down meals at fancy restaurants or anything like that. So, what they all do is come down here, flood the streets of the city and just drive around looking at lights and flowers and shit. They’re very simple people who enjoy very simple pleasures.”
“Where, for the most part, do all these people drive around looking at lights and flowers and shit?”
“Tomorrow night, you walk two blocks that way to Quach Thi Trang Square,” he pointed down the street, “and I swear, it’ll be the most people you’ll ever see in one place at one time. On motorbike, at least it will be.”
“Hmm. I don’t like the sound of that,” I said. “I’ve been having enough trouble as it is crossin’ tiny-ass one lane streets with packs of motorcyclists flyin’ past me.”
“Yeah dude,” Tim added, “you got any advice on crossing the street?”
“You just gotta go for it,” he extinguished the ciggy. “That’s the secret. Watch any of the locals and do as they do. You could even close your eyes or blindfold yourself before walking out there and as long as you keep a steady pace and don’t hesitate, the bikes will avoid you.”
“Alright, I’ll definitely remember that.”
Definitely remember that I did. En route to the bar, after crossing a couple decently crowded side streets with no problem, the O’Shaughnessy’s and I froze dead in our tracks when we reached Quach Thi Trang Square. Earlier in the day, when we’d been in the area on cyclos, there’d been a pretty good amount of people around and I thought I’d seen what the Vancouver guy had meant when he said, “the most people you’ll ever see in one place at one time,” but it was not until that exact moment that I truly, truly had understood what he’d meant. This football-field-sized intersection known as the Tran Hung Dao Roundabout had been swamped by tens of thousands of people – 95% of whom had been moving at a steady pace with their entire families packed on a single motorbike.
I stood in disbelief as a few locals walked right out into this mayhem without batting an eye and vanished as they were overtaken by the constant flow of motorists. We needed to cross the street but couldn’t grasp how it was possible to make it from one side to the other of this mighty yellow river without being swept away by the current and flattened like a pancake.
The Canuck had told us the night before that crossing the street isn’t like playing a game of Frogger, that you don’t have to avoid the traffic because the traffic avoids you. I’d heard his words over and over in my head and, sure, the idea sounded reasonable enough, but it’d been a concept much easier said than done.
Bouncing up and down by the curb like a group of kids all about to piss their pants, we waited for the next group of Vietnamese pedestrians to come along and show us – just one more time before making the big move – how it’s done. Soon enough, a man and a woman with a child on her shoulder had come walking up behind us.
“Oh my god, this is it,” I thought to myself. “Holy shit.”
Without even thinking twice about it, the family of three stepped into the whirlwind of a roundabout and began to disappear. We allowed ourselves to get sucked into the vortex immediately after.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” I mumbled like Rookie of the Year’s enry RoHd
Henry Rowengartner during his first MLB at-bat.
With dozens of bikes rolling past only inches away on each side of me, my legs wobbled like Jell-O as I tried my best to maintain a steady pace. Feeling like I was about to shit my pants, I envied the fact that Tim had gotten to drop his dump right beforehand at the Mexican restaurant.
The concierge at the Park Hyatt had warned us to be careful with cameras and purses near the street because biker gangs have been known sneak up, grab tourist’s shit and then drive off – sometimes even dragging the theft victim along until they don’t have any skin left – but that was a risk I was willing to take. While keeping up that slow but steady pace and doing a good job holding any and all excrements within as hundreds upon hundreds of passing tires barely missed the front and back of my sandaled feet, I pulled out my camera, stuck it up over my head and snapped a few quick photos to remember what it’d looked and felt like to part the yellow sea.
When we finally made it to the other side, my heart had been thundering from beneath my black and white Led Zeppelin T as I began to breathe again. All three of us had been as pumped up as a highly pressurized, full-of-piss and ready-to-be-fired super-soaker hanging out the passenger window of my high school vehicle.
“That’s fucking nuts!” I said while looking back at the long stretch of street we’d just traversed. “It was so crowded, I just…I just don’t even understand how they made room to move around us without smooshing any of our toes or without a single set of handle bars brushing my ass or balls.”
“That. Was. Amazing!” Kathleen laughed.
“Yes it was,” Tim added, checking his watch which must’ve read “beer o’clock.” “Hey, first round’s on me. Let’s go get fuckin’ wasted.”