.......... an aged driver, thin sinewy legs and standard ration green pith helmet (and why not be ready for another war, I mused) atop his forehead, straining, arching back, workload over the limit, yet succeeding to push six kegs full of beer.
.......... a face lined with concentration, yet relaxed, his passenger carrying a mirror....no! I cry within, not of the personal beautification variety, but a six foot by four foot mirror. The decapitation machine on wheels! Oh, to be the oncoming driver with personal problems, anxieties, hate, looking for my life exit. Not even the Hollywood stunts departments could have written this little act. They pass. I stand watching them swaying, dodging, weaving, yet flowing. Just moving right along in downtown Hanoi.
.......... yes.... a simple Chinese made pushbike. With a three meter long, solid, unforgiving steel I-beam roped to its cheap metal alloy frame. Why do I remember it being one hundred millimeters wide by two hundred millimeters high by eight mil thick? Staggering, stupefying balancing act which I couldn't bare to see in performance mode. I walk, turn again, our eyes catch each others. I ask in silence how far he's going? I'm not surprised to find that its further than could be humanly possible. More and more it helps me to understand about the immeasurable and hidden Vietnamese strength.
.......... from the front seat in the taxi. An oncoming cyclist not looking where he was going. Why wasn't he? Didn't he understand the difference between life and maiming, a scratch and gouging, Hanoi and Hobart? Not even a care, with certain head-on collision looming. I didn't even tense, no right foot pressing helplessly, despairingly, fervently into the black rubber floor mat below, not a care. I'd given up, into what I thought of as a state of indifference. A faceless jacket of self-protection even though I was not at risk. A state of well considered non-caring. I'd given up thinking `this is it'. And so the taxi driver pressed the horn , and with the fluidity of a stray globule of mercury joining the mother load, the cyclist effortlessly turned the front forks away from us. Just centimeters.....not even an inch....yet it was nothing to him, nor us!
.......... rider carrying four six meter lengths of ninety millimeter PVC pipe, stacked internally with smaller diameters of pipe. He was, as was normal with such underfed couriers, a lean man, half my size in stature, and yet I calculated him to be twice as strong, twice as crazy, as he headed off into the seething masses, beeping, flowing, merging as one giant slippery wave of transport serpent.
.......... in the early morning beeping frenzy which heralded another workday, a young school girl riding along nonchalantly, whilst reading a book. It looked so natural that I didn't even turn to muse, and yet, ten paces on I knew that some subliminal, deep seated cultural difference had distracted me.
.......... of the pushbike variety with its own derivation. Carrying decorative clay pots, gleaming playfully in their newly glazed coats, yet in such numbers and of such proportions (there were at least four pots over a meter long) that I was momentarily stunned to disbelief. It was a new form of disbelief as I felt that all my other disbelief shelves had already become overstacked. This was pure balance and faith in some higher faith. So many pots that he couldn't get near the seat or handlebars and so had concocted a wooded attachment to the steering column which allowed him to direct his kinetic sculpture. I blacked out in some sparse never land of thought once I started to think about hills, muddy tracks from the village to town, bumps and on road obstacles. I rose to a inner standing ovation when I observe him stop and balance the load with just a small piece of wood....allowing a well earned respite from the thicket of humidity through which he'd emerged.
.......... peak hour seemed like every hour in Hanoi...yet this was definitely a heightened time of activity.Three schoolboys triple dinking screaming by seemed to me like some alternate crazed machine as they shouted and laughed, all the time trying to upset the balance of the determined driver. Eventually the front forks shuddered to an awkward stop. An old man looked on without comprehension. This was something that was far from the realms of the old ways.
.......... pillion passenger dressed in succulent silk au dai (pronounced ow zai), the elegant, yet seductive Vietnamese womens national dress. And hat too, face painted as a puritanical mat of doll like beauty. Perfectly styled hair, with a single curl falling from above, completely unfazed by the heat, grime and pollution. So pure. Seemingly so out of place.
.......... loaded to the hilt with cardboard for recycling, yet he struggled to stay upright as my taxi, all but scraped his sides. I didn't even look behind to see....I knew that balance and flow would have engulfed him. I knew better than to show any traffic emotion.
.......... whizzing past me as I waited for the lights to turn green. His exhaust noise had signalled that his intent had never waned, and that running the lights into the bees nest of activity in front, whilst carrying a washing machine in perfect balance as his pillion passenger. I glinted and hoped. A sway here a horn there, a skid, a dodge and weave....a clean getaway!
.......... twenty or more chickens tied to the handlebars and bike frame.
.......... a month later.....twenty or more ducks tied to the bike. The lady rider ploughing a path to market. I was struggling to keep to her pace and I was on a motor bike. Disturbingly one duck fell to the road as the lady rider unknowingly rode onwards. That one solitary duck sitting stunned in the path of thousands of swerving, swaying bikes. Yet I thought it as safe as it will ever be.
.......... in fact, we saw this motorbike. We three, Cecile and I plus our cyclo driver saw him but never expected he'd swerve way off line, from his side of the street and slam straight into us. It all seemed an omen....romantic late night excursions from traditional music recitals to our hotel, arm in arm within the confines of our cyclo seats. The darkened side street with little traffic....no cars to our delight.....and yet just twenty seconds after I'd been explaining to Cecile my strategy if every I knew I was to be hit by a car in such a situation.
Our rider is thrown from his seat, and we ending up at some obtuse angle, with buckled wheels, screaming over revved motorcycle engine and some blood to sew up the scene. We were quickly out giving ourselves a shocked self inspection for our own signs of blood or severed limbs. Momentarily time was disjointed, confusing, a vacuum where sound suddenly disappeared and actions seemed stilted. Ceciles speech seemed far away and I felt helpless to decipher her lip movements. Our driver had some cuts and we asked if he were okey. `Okey, okey, no problem' he sparked as he inspected his mangled wheel and cut leg. Then without warning, the motorcyclist had clambered off the deck, sat on his bike and sped off. Not a word either way. A mob had gathered and in that dimly lit sidestreet. I suddenly found myself wondering how it could have happened, and was it all staged, and were we about to be `scammed'. I paid the fare, took Cecile by the arm, and we exited through the mob.
.......... in heavy traffic, raining only slightly, a Sony 21" monitor screen warming his back. Two rubber tie down straps, retired cars themselves, and fate.....both holding firm.
.......... actually I didn't see him, it was more like some fatal attraction gone wrong. The sequence spanned all of only three seconds...... a revving motorbike sound, one of thousands, then a whopping thud into the side of the taxi in which Cecile and I I were passengers. Now two stories....firstly the fantasy.....our taxi hits the brakes all but a millisecond after our kamikaze and I peer nonchalantly out on to our prey. My eyes at once flicker between the fallen, driver and ensuing crowd. I believe this is time for me to make a statement. To say my piece! Slowly I wind down the window until I have uninterrupted views of the messed up rider. I take in his eyes, our joint focus seems to have captivated the whole crowd, now bubbling with discussion and debate, seems pinned to our every twitch. My eyebrows give him a slow discerning questioning as to what the hell he had in his head to be hurtling from off the footpath and into the side of our previously unmarked fender. Then, in a clearly illuminated statement, I say `welcome to Hanoi mate".
.......... a pillion passenger balancing a precarious, if not absolutely dangerous, 6' x 4' piece of clear glass. It was the same as the mirror yet the visual (eye fuck as someone once said) seemed so pungent and new.
.......... and it was mine. After an initial month, where it seemed an absolute threat to your life to even cross the Hanoi streets, I had succumbed to the fascination of the ebbs and tides of traffic. I also had some wildly poetic theory festering in the back room, about a correlation between the symbolism of Vietnams past and present and its traffic behaviour. So....I hired a motorbike! My self imposed limit of 30kph was not often broken, and when it was, I was always quick to realise the shallow ground on which I was stalking.
.......... and it was mine, that shallow ground. A balmy Hanoi evening and a decision made to eat out at one of those small street side eateries which abound. Three people, all adults, one elderly 125cc Suzuki motorbike and lots of whooping. We knew it was breaking the law, we knew it was dangerous, but Hanoi was starting to seep into our veins without us even noticing.
.......... the day after our threesome. A family of four on the same bike as mine....yes two adults and two children. Some weeks later this record was broken by yet another family....this time with five. Was it unbelievable or was it just everyday Hanoi life?
.......... or at least our friend, Paul the young ambassador, saw the inevitable (involving a bike)....a young trendy lady wearing a black parka with Ceciles design for the Beyond Sound project displayed jubilantly across the back. We had joked about the possibility of the pirates getting their hands on Ceciles artwork, but had never really thought.....but thats another story!