My mother taught me never to drive in a thunderstorm if it wasn't absolutely neccessary, never to put a plastic bag over my head, and never to get on the back of a strange man's motorbike. Or on the motorbike of any man who was going to drive me miles and miles through deserted streets in order to show me his really awesome record collection. Or, in this case, his really awesome sand dunes. And though I've known these rules for ages, yesterday I broke them on all three counts.
Oh alright then, the plastic bag in this case is actually a plastic purple raincoat---an impromptu purchase, of course---but it was made of a material so thin and rustly that the very act of putting it over my head caused me to automatically gasp, as if taking my last breath before I suffocated. Go on, imagine it now: imagine sticking your neck and arms through a Super Target bag, and imagine that the skin on your neck and arms is already soaked from the rain, so that the thin and rustly material will immediately STICK to your wet skin, and yet will simultaneously fail miserably at repelling the oncoming rain. Shudder. Repeat.
Mui Ne is famous for its sand dunes, both the red ones and the white ones, and Sean and I had been accosted by two men on motorbikes the day before, asking us if we wanted to visit them. Since these men were approximately the 83rd and 84th men on motorbikes to ask us, and since we did want to visit these sand dunes and were tired of saying no, we said yes instead. We agreed that the men would come and pick us up from our hotel at 2pm the next day. Charmingly, they insisted we shake on it.
I was incredibly nervous about this upcoming motorcycle ride. Of utmost concern was the question of where I was going to put my arms. Surely I wouldn't be expected to wrap them around the waist of a man I didn't know, would I? But on the other hand, wouldn't it look a bit, I don't know, a bit laissez-faire---sort of "yeah, I'm on a motorbike, what of it?"---to just rest them at my sides? This quandary consumed me until four seconds after the motorcycle driver took off, and I found myself gripping two handy metals bars right behind me, most likely meant exactly for that purpose.
Do you know that Yeats poem, "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death?" While I was on that motorbike, I foresaw mine a million times over. Either I was going to die in a fiery collision, I decided, my body lying by the side of the road in the Southern Vietnam countryside until my parents realized that I hadn't e-mailed in a while and started the search for my remains, or the motorcycle driver was going to spirit me away into the jungle, chop me into a million pieces, and bury me in the very sand dunes I'd been hoping to visit.
Once I loosened up a little bit about the impending crashing/dying/abduction scenario, though, it was actually kind of exhilarating. While I've thought on several occasions that parts of Vietnam look a lot like Utah---with the mountains looming in the background, the red rocks, and that bright white glare of light and heat---driving along the deserted beach roads of Mui Ne was a lot like taking the Pacific Coast Highway up the coast of California: there were the corkscrew twists and turns, the sharp, quick glimpses of sand, and the breathtaking drop of the ocean beneath. Once we had to break abrubtly to let a cow cross the road. He wasn't in a herd, this cow, and he didn't seem to be accompanied by, you know, a farmer or anyone. He was just a cow. Crossing the road. By himself.
Driving out to the white sand dunes, dark storm clouds were looming all the way. Sean and I exchanged a few worried glances---well, we exchanged glances as best one can exchange a glance when one is zooming along on the back of a motorcycle---and crossed our fingers in the hope that the rain wouldn't fall. (Don't do that, by the way, if you're ever in a situation where you're hanging on for dear life. It'll totally screw with your grip.) We'd only been at the dunes for five minutes when the heavens opened and torrential rain---the kind one only finds in Asia and Charleston, South Carolina---fell upon us as we fled. Our motorbike drivers laughed when they saw us running towards them across the sand, and after sitting it out for ten minutes, decided that they were going to try and drive us through the storm anyway. Cue the purple raincoat. (Sean's was green.)
And that's when my nerves really started to get a little shaky. I swear I could hear my mother shouting at me from Singapore. "You're doing sixty miles an hour in the rain!" she was saying. "You're on a motorbike! You don't know the man who's driving you! You don't know where you're going! And what in God's name are you wearing? I really don't know about that purple with your skin tone!"
Of course, we didn't die, and we weren't abducted. We made it to the red sand dunes just as the rain was abating, and spent close to an hour there in the company of four little girls who were determined to get us to slide down the dunes with them on makeshift toboggans. It was brilliant fun, but perhaps not best attempted while wearing a shirt manufactured by the good people at Old Navy. Red sand doesn't seem to come out of pale blue material when the material is made by them.
Before we left again, Sean expressed an interest in coming back the next morning to shoot the sunrise. "Oh, I'll be here!" said one of the little girls, a sweet thirteen year old named Kim. "Really?" said Sean. "But won't you have school?" She shrugged. "No school," she said. "Too expensive. We can't afford it. "
We reflected on that for a little while, all three of us, and then I said "But how did you learn English?" "From tourists," she said. "From tourists who come to slide down the red dunes." Later, heartbroken and appalled that she couldn't afford to go to school, I asked how expensive it was. "You pay every month," she said, "and every month costs 150,000 dong." I grappled with the exchange rate in my head. "Oh," I said. "That's nine dollars."