Asia Narratives Photo Essays

The House of the Rising Sun

Story by Jack Trapp, Personal TripPhoto by Jack Trapp

My first thought was, “Christ it’s HOT!” Indeed, it was, as my phone indicated the temperature to be 33 degrees Celsius, which roughly translates to a thousand degrees fahrenheit. As my dad had repeatedly warned, Vietnam would be wet; when it wasn’t raining, I’d be sweating. However, unexpected heat was far from the only surprise southeast Asia had in store for me. 

For three and a half weeks this summer, my brother Joe and I rode from north to south on rented motorbikes, stopping wherever and whenever we chose. We encountered more than our fair share of idyllic scenery, incredible cuisine and the most unique culture I’d ever experienced. In one short month, my preconceived idea of the country, much of which came from Ken Burns’ documentaries and a Top Gear special, was obliterated. Needless to say, I hadn’t expected many similarities with my hometown of Brunswick, Maine, but I had taken, perhaps subconsciously, many aspects of my American life for granted. I was in for a culture shock.

As it turns out, Vietnamese traffic laws are suggestive, not demonstrative. “Dangerous” doesn’t describe the chaotic madness of streets in Hanoi. My five years of driving experience had built my confidence. However, no matter how much practice I had, I was completely unprepared. Travelers often refer to Vietnamese traffic as a river, but I’ve never seen a river flow in the complete wrong direction. I did see hundreds of massive trucks seemingly intent on ridding their country of innocent tourists on motorbikes, disregarding lanes, signs and even their own mortality. I completely understood why other backpackers had nervously smiled and gripped their rosaries when I told them about my plan. 

Every day was entirely unique because we didn’t have a specific itinerary or plan. We rode until we couldn’t feel our bruised tailbones and found somewhere to sleep. That’s where much of the fun began. After going from hotel to hotel, bargaining to find a bed for under eight dollars, and fuming when quoted a staggering $8.50, we finally decided on whichever establishment boasted air conditioning. We then dragged our sweaty and sore bodies outside for dinner. After a hearty snack of anything from fried rat to water buffalo tongue, we would pass out and restart the whole thing the next morning. 

One day, while on a particularly dangerous road, I swerved to avoid an oncoming truck, and subsequently flew out of my seat onto the road. Fortunately, Joe had a bottle of what the locals call “rice wine”, which we felt more closely resembled gasoline. After using it to “clean” the cuts, we cut the toes off socks to create makeshift dressings. The real agony followed later, because as it turns out, open wounds don’t deal well with dirt, grime or wind.  

Ill-preparedness often bred misadventure. But those individual adventures had a lasting impact on me. Experiencing the wonderful Vietnamese people and culture was where I found the greatest reward. I’ll try to describe them accurately, for the word “resilient” doesn’t do them justice. The people I met were creative, determined, talented and sometimes reckless. For example, somewhere south of Ninh Binh, I passed a smiling young girl, no older than 10, pedaling her bike to school. It would have reminded me of myself or my siblings, had she not had two twin brothers somehow balancing on the back spokes, and what’s more, an infant sibling giggling from the basket up front. What terrified my overly-developed sense of safety left the little girl unperturbed. Later, I watched an elderly man gingerly putter along with a stack of twelve car tires strapped, bungeed, balanced and perhaps glued to his prehistoric Honda Win. In Saigon I met the descendents of villagers sprayed with Agent Orange, who, thanks to their parent’s misfortune, lost their ability to walk or sometimes speak.

I was exceedingly and repeatedly impressed by the Vietnamese, and perhaps it was due to their uncanny talent for balance or ridiculously delicious food; whatever the cause, I look forward to the day I return to the land of the motorbikes.