Published: April 11th 2012April 8th 2012
From the air it looks like any other city: straight roads branching out from a cluster, houses compacted into exact squares, the lines etched with a razor from this vantage point. Skyscrapers and houses break up the landscape and rooftops here look like rooftops anywhere. Only, the river is brown. And not brown like a mild layer of dirt, but brown like milk mixed with coffee. It's a filth that marks the land as used, that tells me I am definitely not in Kansas anymore.
The plane bumps as it lands, all the passengers forced to lean to the right. Can planes this big roll over like a capsized boat in water?
Heat hits me as I step from aircraft to landing passageway; sticky and thick in my lungs like I'm wearing a mask. And the smell of food, what normally I would call Chinese but now would need to remember it isn't all the same, saturates the air and I can't decide if I am salvating or if I am sweating from my mouth too. A woman dressed in a sky blue gown from neck to ankles, her hair pulled back in a perfect bun smiles and half bows to all the white flustered passengers as we rush towards passport control. But first we must get our visas and the soldiers behind the protective glass barrier have long ago lost any patience and simply take my passport and point towards the chairs where my fellow foreigners wait.
Luckily I get my papers back and with them through to customs. Stepping outside is another heat wave and I'm pretty sure my skin instantly creates more pores through which my sweat can escape because my jacket becomes drenched all over again. I walk past the barricade keeping taxi drivers at bay and frantically scan the signs for my name as the drivers wave them in the air like welcome banners. One comes so close to my face it takes me a moment to realize it says my name. "You late." Oh dear, not off to a good start.
Driving in the back of an air conditioned car is delightful and shameful all at once. Making eye contact with several of the thousand motorcyclists is difficult and I am the first to break the gaze because I suddenly feel the whiteness of my skin and the weight of American dollars in my wallet.
Horns honk, motors roar. Women and men alike wear hospital masks and I wonder if the air is spiked with an invisible poison. Motorcycles and their drivers are as diverse as jelly beans in a hand full: women in business suits, high heels, flip flops, men with hardly any clothes on, families of four or five, couples, grandfathers, grandmothers, and I swear a six year old alone. I see eggs being transported, furniture, paintings, even three ten gallon water jugs strapped to a bike. Buses are crammed like the passengers are sardines and pedestrians weave in and out of traffic like it's a great ritual dance.
Getting to my hostel is like an oasis in this chaotic desert and I oddly feel the first touch of terror: how can I go back out there alone? what have I put myself into? what was I thinking?
Well I was thinking Vietnam and now I'm here.