By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
A white bus with green decals cut in front of me — it was this pretty big and sleek-looking tour bus that carried Korean-looking people. I remember looking up and perversely admiring how modern and new and clean the bus looked — thinking about how far Vietnam has come — when I realized that I was really just about to bite it. Hard.
The bus came in hot, swinging its huge mass as if it was on an invisible pendulum, and my insignificant body was right in its trajectory.
I squeezed the brakes with my hands. Later, I would wonder if I had squeezed the brakes hard enough and if the whole crash was deeply my fault.
My general inexperience on a motorbike locked me up and kind of made me paralyzed. If I had better instincts in the moment, I probably would’ve swerved to the left as I braked, to get the hell out of the way of the bus.
Or maybe it was just destined to happen no matter what. I couldn’t slow down in time. I slowed down significantly, but the very tip of my motorbike — the tire — still clipped the bus.
I saw it happening right in front of my face. I anticipated it happening. And right as contact was made, right before the tap from the bus completely flipped my speed and the direction of my momentum in a bone-jarring way, I was almost at peace and resigned to what was about to happen.
Still, I was all like, “F***!” about it, all the same.
The crash was insane. Honestly, I probably wasn’t going faster than 30 miles an hour, but it felt like I was going a million miles an hour. The motorbike slipped and shoved itself down to the pavement, and I was still straddling it and getting sucked down, as it nauseatingly rotated in complete circles, three times. Gravity and centripetal force kept me down, shoving my neck into the blunt point of the handlebar.
I didn’t really have one coherent thought during the crash. My mind was just screaming out a lot of f-bombs and a lot of regret.
My dad hails from Da Nang, in the central region of Vietnam. For this reason — and because it’s just a badass and beautiful place — I feel sentimental about this city. Da Nang is made up of billboards, errant skyscrapers, white sand, fresh seafood, a melodic Vietnamese accent, and it butts against the humbling South China Sea, at the start of the Han River.
Da Nang used to house a major air base under the South Vietnamese government and the United States during the Vietnam War. Today, it is largely a massive hub for tourists — there are plans for expansion, as the needs of international and domestic travelers have outgrown the footprint of that airport.
Da Nang is beachy and it’s slower-paced than the chaotic likes of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) or Hanoi. It was this stupid logic that kind of made me feel okay and sort of safe — as I threw my leg over the set of a motorbike and told myself, “This is totally how you sit on a motorbike. This is totally how you get on one.”
When I was 10 years old, I was riding my bicycle really, really fast down this hill near my house in Brier, a tiny city about 16 miles north of Seattle. I was a kid and prone to bad decisions and a victim of lack of knowledge and wisdom.
For example, I didn’t realize that you accelerate the longer you travel down a hill. I didn’t realize accelerating felt so scary and like you’re out of control. I also didn’t realize that squeezing your hand brakes really hard makes your rubber tires catch against the asphalt as your bike stops too fast for your body. I shot out of the bike and bit it real hard and slammed myself into the ground at the bottom of the hill. The wind got knocked out of me, and I couldn’t move for a while. And it was a semi-busy road, so there was a sedan that had crept up within 20 feet of me, just parked and kind of patiently waited for me to prove that I was not dead.
I remember thinking that I was a freaking child and this woman totally saw me crash my bike, and now she was just waiting me out.
My mom’s influence on me is strong. So I started to feel sheepish about inconveniencing this lady with my almost-dying. I forced myself to get up and drag my janky bike to the side of the road — the front wheel got all bent and I couldn’t ride it anymore. Not that I would have. My arm was also jacked — very sore and weak and in pain. I remember it shaking when I tried to grip my handlebar again. The sedan gently whisked past me without a care in the world. And I walked my busted bike all the way home. It took maybe 40 minutes. Because I had to take a lot of breaks.
And I remember being terrified that my mom and dad would find out that I had crashed my bike, so I pretty much hid my busted arm from them — it was bruised and maybe lightly sprained — and acted like everything was cool. I don’t remember how I explained my bent wheel to my dad. I probably lied to him about it. He replaced it for me at some point.
I thought about my bike crash in childhood, right before my motorbike crash. I actually thought to myself, “Man, that was funny. Man, Stace, that is why you’re kinda scared to ride bikes on interurban trails. It’s all them cars, man.”
And then I got on a motorbike.
If you talk to anyone who’s ever been to Vietnam, and you mention the word “motorbike” or “traffic,” you invariably get the same response. Always.
“God, it’s so crazy and chaotic and dangerous there!”
The human brain — sometimes it doesn’t make the connections that it needs to.
Truth is that I was very being empathetic with my friend Rich. I was traveling in Vietnam with Rich and his wife, Soo. Rich had seen some episode of “Top Gear” that proclaimed Hai Van Pass as one of the best coastal roads in the world — he was drinking that Kool-Aid pretty hard. He was positively gushing about his hopes and dreams and bucket list stuff.
Rich is great. So I thought — if Rich wants to drive a mini death machine on this pass because he saw it on some BBC show — then he will get to drive a mini death machine on this pass because he saw it on some BBC show!
Hai Van Pass, which connects Da Nang to Hue, is really actually sickening beautiful. There is little separation between you, the deep green foliage, and the insane vastness of water. You feel like you are right on the very edge of a mountain the whole time. It mists over in the morning and when it’s cool enough.
Hai Van Pass is also fairly dangerous. It has many twists and turns and is apparently renowned for its difficulty — that’s why it’s a fun drive. Leading up to the drive, Rich, Soo, and I joked about how many people die every year in motorbike accidents on the pass.
“Zero. Probably zero.”
“Zero. Because they probably don’t keep records of fatalities.”
“The actual number is probably a million. I bet a million people die on this thing every year.”
I actually didn’t crash on Hai Van. I crashed in the process of getting there.
From Rich’s point of view, he was just casually driving his motorbike with Soo sitting behind him, confident due to this expertise, talent, and surety that comes from years of experience on a motorcycle and also just general superior athletic ability.
At one point, he looked back and he didn’t see me following him anymore. He pulled his bike over, left Soo with it, and then started running back up the route they came through, on foot.
He found me back at the busy, multi-lane roundabout, with a crowd of about 20 Vietnamese nationals congregated around me like I was some minor YouTube celebrity. To him, I probably appeared kind of weirdly tense, but he brushed it off. We had a short conversation about stuff — I can’t remember exactly what. Because honestly, at that moment, I was probably still in shock.
At some point, I felt like I couldn’t hold it back anymore. I tepidly said something to him like, “I crashed.”
And Rich’s face was all like, WTF! Is she joking?
I said nothing.
And then his expression twisted to like, this serious concern. I remember thinking to myself that I wasn’t sure I’d be as kind — I wasn’t sure I’d take my friend’s apparent injury as gravely. So I was really touched. It came across as severe stoicism though.
I remember waving goodbye to all of the nice Vietnamese people who stopped their bikes in the middle of the roundabout to make sure I wasn’t dead. People generally don’t pick out that I’m Vietnamese just based on my face or how I look. So one skinny dude about my brother’s age just nodded to me, trying to convey in his nod that he hoped I was okay. That’s a lot to convey in a head nod. But he did it.
When Soo learned that I had crashed my bike — Rich told her, that blabbermouth — Soo was like, “What! You crashed!” And then at some point, she laughed at me. I don’t remember the laughing either, probably because of the shock. But Rich faithfully reported this.
Rich, Soo, and I stopped at a restaurant to regroup and to have some hard conversations. It was obvious Rich felt horrible — for daring to have hopes and dreams — and he told me we could just scrap the trip and go back to the hotel.
My brain was working so slowly, but it was trying so hard to figure out if death is going to be more likely or less likely, after the first motorbike crash. Oh God, I’ve started calling it the first motorbike crash.
There was a tear in my pants and my jacket. The tear in the pants was significant. I would later have to throw away that pair in anguish. But I pulled the material off of my knee, and I slowly said, “I think I’m bleeding.” I pulled up the hem of my pants to check. I was definitely bleeding. And Rich’s expression when he saw that — in hindsight — was hilarious. Because it was obvious he felt so terrible. And I felt kind of special and important. That I could inspire someone to feel so terrible.
Adrenaline is an amazing analgesic. Immediately after my crash, I texted my sister, who was in America, and I told her what happened. I wanted to tell her so that there was one member of my family who knew what had happened to me, in case I made another really bad decision and actually died.
I wanted my sister to have a record of what happened to me so that she can trace the trajectory and put the puzzle pieces together, so she could tell our parents why their idiot first-born died in the place where our father was born. It’s really rough when parents don’t have reasons, in these moments. Or so I’ve imagined. I think about this sometimes.
The day after my crash, I woke up feeling like I got hit in the face and ass by a bus. I would end up limping around Hanoi trying to score fresh bandages like a first-aid addict. I would end up developing all of these new theories on wound dressing and wound healing. I would tell myself that my physical pain made the emotion of being back in Vietnam, a beautiful country with a complicated and tragic past, all the more poignant.
I would also casually tell my relatives to shut the hell up about my motorbike crash and not tell my mom and dad about it. Because when they know, they worry. And when they worry, they get really angry and lecture me a lot about my life decisions and stuff.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.