Today I got a flat tire in the middle of my ride. I longed for the bicycle tire repair men abundant when I bicycled through Vietnam in the spring of 1992.
A persistent flat tire plagued me. I had already repaired it three times. In frustration I decided to try one of the roadside tire repair shops we frequently passed. The repairman submerged the tube in an old army helmet filled with water to check for air bubbles and found the puncture. He put a piece of rubber on the tube, placed the tube on an anvil, put foil over the tube, clamped it down, squirted kerosene on the foil, and ignited it. It burned for two to three seconds. The man unclamped the tube to reveal a vulcanized seal. We marveled at the clever process.
A huge crowd gathered to watch and to look at us. This was the norm throughout the month when we stopped. The attention we attracted led us to suspect that not many outsiders passed through the area. We stopped for iced tea at a café later and soon drew a crowd of over fifty, mostly little children. At first, they stayed outside the confines of the café. But little by little, they inched inside until, within ten minutes, they surrounded us. We drank up and decided to go. As we pushed our way out, a frowning policeman strode up and insisted that we go to the headquarters. We followed him into the small wooden police shack, where he questioned us in Vietnamese.
When we visited Vietnam in 1992, the United States and Vietnam did not yet have diplomatic relations. Most people we met hadn’t seen Americans there since 1979. We obtained paper visas from Thailand to go to Vietnam on the advice of a traveler we met in Bangkok who had just returned from a month’s visit. He urged us to go as soon as we could while the country was just opening up. He told us there were more bicycles than cars on the roads and that it was the most beautiful country he had ever seen.
We needed travel permits before we left Saigon for our ride through the Mekong Delta. The man who helped us get them said we couldn’t officially travel independently. What we were doing in the delta was technically illegal.
After getting my tire fixed, we looked for a ferry to visit the Coconut Island Temple. Crowds of people filled the docks. Kids grabbed my arm to pull me toward various food stalls and tweak at my braids. My shoulders clenched and heart raced because they used so much aggressive force. But when I looked down at their faces, my eyes met little girls with huge smiles, so I relaxed and smiled too. I extracted myself from them as best as I could and quickly left to join the line boarding the ferry.
About eighty of us crowded onto the ferry on foot along with two buses and two trucks. The ferry ride was a big social event of the day. Hawkers moved among us, selling cigarettes and candies. People talked, socialized, and laughed. They included us in conversations and asked questions. I loved the easy, friendly interactions. Women touched my arm or draped an arm on my shoulder to talk with me. My hair fascinated them, and they often caressed my braids, saying, “Dẹp,” the Vietnamese word for “pretty.” Their kindness touched me. All through our trip in Vietnam, women approached me and told me how pretty my hair was. I said the same to them. This was especially poignant to me because, as an African American child with tight, curly hair, I had always been told that I had “bad hair.” Straight, long hair was the culturally desired norm in the sixties in America as well as in the African American community. When the women in Vietnam told me my natural hair was attractive, they warmed my heart.
When we arrived in Saigon most of the traffic consisted of other bicycles and a few motorbikes. The slow-moving traffic allowed people to talk with us as they cycled by. People waved and greeted us from the side of the street as we passed. In March 1992, foreigners were a novel sight, especially foreigners on bicycles. Several young men biked alongside Derm and chatted with him. A cheerful older man cycled up to me. He asked where we were staying and volunteered to take us there.
Vietanam was a dream to travel through by bicycle. As we left Vietnam, I reflected on how fortunate we were to have visited at that point in time. Vietnam remains to this day one of the highlights of our trip. I felt privileged and grateful to have visited when the country first opened up and people were eager to connect. The women I met in the country embraced me into their sisterhood with their friendly and natural interactions. People mainly used bicycles, and few motor vehicles circulated on the roads. That made for an ideal bicycling experience on our journey. A chance encounter steered us to Vietnam. After our trip, I agreed with the man we met in Thailand who spoke of the natural beauty in Vietnam. We couldn’t have planned the highlights of our year-long, around-the-world bicycle trip. They happened only because we had stayed open and adaptable, and followed our intuition.
What about you? What surprises and delights have you discovered in life because intuition led you to deviate from your plans? Please share your stories in the comments below.
You can read about my life-changing, around-the-world bicycle odyssey in my book.
Bicycle Odyssey An Around-the-World Journey of Inner and Outer Discovery