An English Tourist Forsees Her Death

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.

My Kamikaze Adventure

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."


Sep 10, 2006

I'd send her the money so that she could go to school! That beautiful girl deserves to go to school! God, That just tears me up.

Sep 10, 2006

Holly, I love hearing about your travels. Such a good writer! Just one thing - the word 'cow' is female. (Just a tiny little note in case any pass in front of your motorbike again. : )

Sep 10, 2006

If I had 150,000 dongs, I'd never get out of bed.

- M

P.S. BTW - all cows are "she"

Sep 10, 2006

It's a little known fact that in Vietnam, cows come in both sexes.

Your writing just keeps getting better.

Sep 10, 2006

Another fabulous story. Please, please write a book :)

Sep 10, 2006

I'm with Y - I want Kim to go to school too.

And I'm also with Sarah - you most definitely need to write a book.

Horrible Warning
Sep 10, 2006

First junk jumping, now dune sliding? So. Freaking. Jealous.

And the purple Super Target bag? Very cute last minute rain coat to contemplate your own fiery demise in.

Sep 11, 2006

Sounds like Oprah needs to go to Vietnam, once she conquers the uneducated of South Africa.

Seriously, Holly, I would totally send 9 dollars. God, how many times have I spent 9 dollars on snacks? or completely fabulous earrings from Target? If you have any idea on how we could help out with this, let us know.

Also, I am adoring your contemplation of your fiery death. I would have done the same thing, which is why I don't even ride motorcycles in AMERICA.

Sep 11, 2006

We spent nine dollars at Starbucks this morning, on coffee and scones and the Sunday New York Times.

I would send it to that beautiful child in a heartbeat.

jenny lee
Sep 11, 2006

one of many many many beautiful children who don't have 9 dollars to attend school.

Sep 11, 2006

oh my word, we need to start a Send Them To School fund, or something. I agree with Sam, once Oprah's done with her girl's school here, in South Africa, she should definately go to Vietnam.

Sep 11, 2006

when i saw you in your beautiful purple rain coat i had to laugh. it rained the day we went to pompeii last year and i bought a yellow rain coat from the vendor but when we opened it he saw that the hood was split as i was pulling it over me head. he wouldn't let me take it off though. instead he gave me a second rain coat and told me to put it one too. it was pink. i look like a giant easter egg in all the pictures from pompeii that day. :) ahhhh, memories!

Sep 11, 2006

Everyone wants to send $9 to send a beautiful child to school for a month.

I'll send $18 to send an ugly one to school for 2 months. Hey- ugly kids need school too. Probably more than the beautiful ones.

Sep 11, 2006

just wanted to say that i am really enjoying your travel updates. i love seeing the other side of the world through your photos and words.

Sep 11, 2006

I was all set to write a "Young lady, WHERE is your helmet and protective-type clothing?" comment, but you took the humor right out of me with your last paragraph (and Sean's photo). God, aren't we lucky to be born when and where we are? Thanks for reminding me there's a world out there beyond my suburban back yard.

Sep 11, 2006

Wow - she's obviously very smart to pick up English that well and form sentences that well just from tourists sliding down dunes.

The fact that it's $9 to send her to school for a month breaks my heart.

I learned last week from a friend who literally flies to Africa and feeds kids that I can feed a child for a MONTH on only $1. And yet millions of these children will die before they're age 5 because of starvation.

Sep 11, 2006

Count me in for $9 too. Holly, did you get her address or anything? Because I seriously think your commenters could fund the rest of her education. I know there are lots of children, but sometimes you can help ONE and hope that makes a difference...

Liberal Banana
Sep 11, 2006

It's amazing how much good can come when our money is put to good use. I think about this less often than I should and every time I do, I feel terribly guilty that I've just spend a couple hundred dollars just to buy some new clothes - when my closet is already filled to the brim. It's something I want to change about myself. Give more to the needy and live with less.

Sep 11, 2006

I can see it now - the Nothing but Bonfires trust fund for pretty Vietnamese girls to go to school. You and Sean will be attending convocation ceremonies in Vietnam and receive the thanks of many wee girls who now go to school because of your trip. I am totally ready to sign up - just tell me where to send my $9.

Sep 11, 2006

Great entry! I can't believe I'm saying this but--Holly, never come home! I could read your travel adventures forever. Who out there will second my bid for your eternal vagabondism? Or is it vagabondage?

Does anyone currently contribute to a "save the children" fund? I do UNICEF, although I haven't committed to a monthly plan. They have information about specific regions and countries, but I think the donations contribute towards the general fund.

Wacky Mommy
Sep 12, 2006

Go give her 20 bucks, send me an e when you get home and I'll mail you a check. Your posts are fantastic, I love them. Glad you guys are having fun.

Sep 12, 2006

Please, please write a book. And I think it would be great if you started the Nothing But Bonfires fund. I am so in. I have 9 dollars. Somewhere.