Carrot Graters and Animals on a Bus in Vietnam

By Tyler Nemkov

She is sitting three seats away from me, baseball hat on, full surgical mask covering her mouth and nose, leaving her eyes highlighted by default. They look big and kind, and when the mask and hat comes off, she glows—and not from the thin layer of sweat that covers everything in Southeast Asia.

She is staring out the open window as we wait for the bus to start, a gentle breeze gliding her long black hair across the hot plastic and barely-cushioned seat. I have headphones in, we catch eyes, but then I quickly look away.

I nonchalantly shuffle on the seats closer to her. At least, I move as nonchalantly as a gangly Westerner can on a public bus in Southern Vietnam. I suppose the movement is extremely chalant.

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Before I can offer over a headphone, a cultural bridge that doesn’t involve me actually saying anything, a young man in Vietnamese army fatigues sits between us and lights a cigarette.

I shouldn’t be sharing the inside of my ear with strangers anyway. But I have to do *something* because this bus was supposed to leave at 9:45 and the engine isn’t even on and it’s 10:50. The sun is beating down, glaring off a section of metal exposed from chipped blue paint on the siding. There are two double bench seats separated by a small aisle. As time goes on, plastic chairs fill the aisle one by one and people scrunch closer together.

Every minute a vendor is jumping onto the bus. One offers water and tea, another large loaves of fresh bread. An aged woman whose coke-bottle glasses barely peek out from her conical hat gifts me a smile of genuine warmth while she sells lottery tickets and packs of gum. Another plastic seat turns the aisle into, well, not an aisle. I purchase some unripe mango to be munched on with chili salt.

A man hops on the small space remaining in the front of the bus and gives a live infomercial for a combination vegetable peeler, serrated cutter, channeling knife and grater. Little curls of carrot fall into a bag beneath him and he gets shoved aside by a lady with a metal steamer full of steamed buns on her shoulder.

A stern woman shouts something, the engine kicks on and the bus begins to move. Nary a combo-grater is purchased as the salesman jumps off, heading toward another mandatory audience.

Taking a local bus was not intentionally supposed to be a “cultural experience.” It was just that it cost 1/5th the price of the tourist bus. But while cultural immersion can by no means happen solely during a five hour bus ride, something damn well near it can. Pamphlets speak little of the passing smells, windows wide open because the air conditioning doesn’t exist.

First the fading stench of hot, sour garbage as Saigon gets smaller in the distance. Then smoke from piles of burning detritus and rice husks on the side of the road as we travel south into the Mekong Delta. Then a lovely combination of the powerful, guttural scent of fermented fish sauce accented by just a hint of fresh urine. Please, God, tell me the that isn’t coming from the bus. But please tell me that the yeasty scent of fresh bread is. The girl of yore is tearing into it, but now we’re stretched too far and she’s in her own world.

The bus hits a small bump and the bus attendant in the front tells the driver to slow down. He grabs a crowbar and disappears. From shadows and blunt sounds of metal on metal, I surmise that he is “repairing” something near the wheel. The bus begins to accelerate and he runs and jumps into the open front door right as it’s closing. It’s just like having a pit crew on board. In reality it’s as comforting as a cocktail umbrella in a hurricane.

This is pertinent because clouds are blocking the beating sun and a storm is rolling in. Rain begins to come down and everything gets stuffy and quieter as the windows are all closed. And that’s when I hear the quack of a duck.

Or was it a chicken clucking?

After a truck stop where a few people got off and there was some seat reshuffling, I get visual confirmation of what I was trying to ignore from my ears. In front of me to the right, a duck’s head is poking out of a bag that is lightly tied closed and attached to the iron base of a seat. If the wheels actually fall off and we’re stranded in the rain, I am devising ways to find dry tinder to begin a slow roasting process for the little guy. Hoisen sauce can’t be far.

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If his owner objects, I have options. Because I did indeed hear the noise of a chicken as well. About six chickens. One rubber shopping tote is sandwiched between my feet and those of the owner. It has about three chickens. Another tote lies on his other foot.

I’ve had a lifelong goal of not acquiring the avian flu. My current situation could really complicate that. I pull out a small bottle of hand sanitizer from by bag and look at the back of it. The little letters say something, but “don’t look at me, you’re likely fucked” is all I can read.

Maybe I’m being overdramatic, but I’m definitely counting my personal chickens at this point. It’s tough to keep focus when the rain is now sheeting, the driver is accelerating, and the front windows are fogging up so bad that a passenger that was sandwiched next to the driver is using a few tissues to try and clear the windshield for him.

Tuck and roll appears to be a decent option, but the exit is blocked by eight plastic chairs with ducks and chickens and bread and tissues and cigarettes and people. I think I saw a taro root, too. Or maybe it was a baby.

It seems to me that traveling is a constant play of not being too much of an idiot, but also not too little of one either. Our existence can be full of experiences that allow us to simply extend our existence, allowing for yet more conservative living. Or it can be full of experiences for the sake of experiencing, but at a higher risk that the memory will be the last. For me, it’s about finding the balance.

And it’s useful if there’s a duck or two nearby.