Crossing the Street in Hue on Buddha’s Birthday
Kelly Lynn Thomas
After a trip to the grocery store in Hue, Vietnam, where I bought enough tea to last me five years, we have to cross the street against traffic to return to the hotel. The Buddha’s birthday seems to have drawn out all of the old city’s 340,000 people, at least three-quarters of them on motorbikes. The motorbikes fill the three-lane road, twenty-five wide or more, surrounding the few cars and trucks that dare to drive within their sea. They honk back and forth, like birds calling to one another, like dogs barking a warning in the night.
A policeman stands in the center of the intersection, whistle in one hand, nightstick in the other. We look to him for guidance, but when the lights turn, a wave of motorbikes from the opposite direction crashes down, leaving us stranded on the shore of the sidewalk. The policeman stares at us, face blank. He makes no move to help, no move to stop traffic, to motion us forward. Maybe he doesn’t want to help tourists, foreign invaders in his city. Maybe that isn’t his job. Maybe the motorbikes and their insistent horns give him enough trouble.
So we stand on the sidewalk, a wall of traffic separating us from our destination, until one of us decides to go. He takes the first step and keeps walking, motorbikes whizzing around him, honking at him or each other we can never know, there are too many; they all look the same, sound the same. Then he is on the other sidewalk, and we haven’t moved. We laugh, the road looks like an American interstate to us, too wide. If we try to cross, we’ll be hit, a motorbike will run over our feet, crush us, burn our legs on its tailpipe, maybe someone will swipe the bag of tea I’ve just bought right out of my hands and keep floating down the motorbike sea, and I’ll be left standing empty-handed in the middle. Who can know? This is a strange country, and we are strangers in it.
“Go, go!” a man calls from behind us.
We look at each other, three women, competent in every way, self-assured, strong, but lost here, unable to cross the street on our own. We laugh.
“Here, I will help,” he says. He walks into the street, into the motorbike sea.
Crazily, without thought, we follow him. Immediately, he turns around and runs back to the sidewalk, cackling. He abandons us in the flow of traffic. We have no choice but to move forward. One of our tour guides, Tam, has told us never to stop, to keep moving when crossing the street. We follow his advice now and forget about the man who has tricked us into this insanity.
Motorbikes, moving slowly, no more than five or ten miles per hour, swerve around us. We dance around tires and handlebars, giggling. The motorbikes are a riptide, threatening to pull us into the undertow, but we swim against it, struggling for the place we see our friend standing. We pass the policeman. He does not look at us, and we do not look at him. A motorbike creeps forward and nearly collides with us because the driver is trying to avoid stopping and the effort of removing his feet from the foot pegs. We veer away from each other at the last second: a successful game of chicken.
Just as we start to think we could do this forever, cross every street in Vietnam, we reach the sidewalk. Music from the riverbank floats to us and draws us toward it. We step onto the bridge that will take us back to our hotel. On the river, boats decorated with dragons and colorful lights float between flotillas of sinking paper lanterns. Exhilarated, we laugh like fools. The river is beautiful. This country is beautiful. Even the sea of motorbikes running parallel to the river, honking against the music, is beautiful.