I am paralyzed with fear. Sitting in the backseat of a taxi with my wife and ten-year-old son, there is not a seat belt to be found. My son’s fingers have turned white as he grabs my pant leg. His eyes are closed, most likely from fright not fatigue. I sit clutching a door handle foolishly thinking it will protect me from a head-on collision. My wife does the only sensible thing: she makes the sign of the cross (odd because she is not Catholic), and prays that we arrive in Da Nang in one piece.
The road from Hoi An to Da Nang’s regional airport is about 35 kilometers, most of it paved asphalt. There are no shoulders, no banked curves, no guard rails, no stop signs, lane markers, medians, or dividers. It is simply a narrow, bumper-to-bumper drag strip.
The most ubiquitous vehicles on the road are the motorbikes. Some, reminiscent of kamikaze pilots, weave in and out of traffic tempting karmic fate. Their hyper-charged engines send them down the road like an erratic typhoon, spewing out mechanized laughter as they pass slower, more restrained vehicles.
Other motorbikes are more cautious. They carry infants, toddlers, parents and grandparents – families straddling a single motorbike going out for an afternoon drive. Teenage lovers, oblivious to the dangers of the road, drive side by side engrossed in their affection for one another. Laughter, a squeeze of the hand, a quick peripheral kiss; love is too important to give way to sensible, heads up driving.
Then there are the farmers. They haul pigs, bamboo trees, and oversized bags of rice, hoes, rakes and other assorted tools of cultivation, large bundles of water greens, and ornamental lamps. Frustrated ducks stuffed in bamboo cages dangle over the fenders of some of the motorbikes, squawking incessantly as roadside ponds pass them by. They are unaware of their final destination: hanging from some restaurant skewer, headless, plump, devoid of feathers, soon to be cooked in the afternoon’s pho.
Young women, dressed in traditional ao dai, their silk tunics blowing in the wind like streamers, advertise a much-anticipated grand opening. They wear specially designed stockings, but not on their legs; it is their arms they protect from the ravages of the tropical sun. Silk scarves cover every part of their faces. Large dark sunglasses conceal even their eyes. Businessmen also travel by motorbike. Briefcases attached to the luggage carrier; they drive with a keen sense of seriousness, dressed casually, but circumspect in their driving.
Competing with the motorbikes is an array of moving objects. There are lumbering tourist buses frantic to arrive at the airport before the next flight departs for Saigon, cross-country trucks emitting black clouds of exhaust temporarily blinding our field of vision. Also, private cars driven by the nouveau riche, young children riding bicycles, pedestrians out for a morning walk, water buffalo meandering along the roadside chewing their cud as they ample toward a nearby pasture. Hawkers carry loads of bananas on bamboo staffs, stray dogs dangle their tongues nervously, and local peasants in their conical hats stand along the road, it seems, just watching the whole spectacle.
For our taxi driver, this confusion appears routine. I suspect he has driven this road hundreds of times. He drives around, through, and sometimes over these various obstacles, often at speeds exceeding 110 kilometers per hour. Stoically, he drives in complete silence – no groans, no swearing, no grimaces, no rolling of the eyes at the ineptitude of other drivers. He gazes to his left and seems entranced with the emerald rice paddies, wiped beads of sweat from his brow with a white kerchief. He bounces his thumbs on the steering wheel in rhythm as if he were humming a Vietnamese pop song in his head. He yawns. He appears deep in thought.
His driving, though, is far from silent. The car’s horn becomes his emotional outlet as he navigates the myriad disturbances on the road. Melodic, short toots suggest, almost politely, "I am passing, please beware." Less circumspect two or three sustained slams on the horn seem to say, "Get the f— out of my way." This message is saved for especially slow drivers. It proves very effective as the recipients of these blasts immediately pull to the side of the road letting us pass. His other passing technique is to drive as close as possible to the rear fender of the vehicle in front of us, see an opening however brief in the oncoming traffic, slam down the accelerator, pass, and veer back to the original lane inches ahead of the vehicle behind us – and inches behind the vehicle in front.
Occasionally, my eyes meet his in the rear view mirror. Although his eyes are looking behind us, he seems to be focusing on what is ahead. Is he thinking about a lucrative business deal in Da Nang, a romance turned sour or maybe one that has just begun, an opportunity to join relatives in the West?
The port of Da Nang approaches as the driver turns onto a well-paved four-lane highway. On entering the airport, the driver stops at a toll booth, collects a ticket from a uniformed official, proceeds another 500 meters where we stop again to validate the ticket from a young man in jeans and a T-shirt. As we approach the departure terminal for Vietnam Air, I notice the driver takes a deep breath and slumps his shoulders. He stops, gets out of the car and lifts our bags from the trunk. I hand him a handsome tip, essentially for our safe arrival more than the protocol of a taxi ride. He routinely thanks me in English, and we exchange good-byes. When he starts pulling away, I notice his eyes again in the rear view mirror. They seem brighter now; more animated, almost glowing. I can sense the crack of a smile on his face. The taxi disappears into the tropical heat of Da Nang and we head to yet another uncertain fate, this time in the air as the monsoon winds begin to swirl in the Eastern sky.