Our most impactful memories are rarely planned. They often arrive as setbacks and detours, chaotic divergences from the intended plan. They are rarely enjoyable experiences. Only after we’ve endured the shock and fear and discomfort do we look back and say wow, I can’t believe that happened.Our most impactful memories are the ones we laugh about later — and only later.
This is the story of one of those memories.
Prior to the fall of 2014, I never imagined myself riding a motorcycle (moped… whatever) through the Vietnemese countryside, with its eerie mixture of quaint farmland, enveloping greenery and formidable pagodas. I never imagined my friend’s bike breaking down in the dark of night, forcing us to take refuge with an incredibly kind Vietnamese couple who spoke not a word of English. I never imagined having uncontrollable diarrhea over a squatter toilet in the back of a pig pen and resorting to the socks off my feet for toilet paper.
But, as you’ve now gathered, those things did happen. Let’s rewind to the beginning of this eventful, uncomfortable, and unforgettable evening.
Due to a miscommunication between the motorcycle dealer and my friend Sasha, who has a talent for attracting chaos, our two-wheeled journey from Huế to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park began several hours later than would be ideal. As the nighttime darkness arrived we set forth in the drizzling rain to make the four hour journey north. Vietnamese driving is terrifying so I was grateful for the quick onset of the countryside and a break from the Locust-like swarms of traffic, especially considering this was my first time on a motorcycle (moped… whatever) and I could do little more than zigzag erratically.
The rural drive was pleasurable, albeit dark and spooky, and we travelled for an hour without incident through a curious mixture of downtrodden shacks and enormous complexes marked by elaborate archways and shrines, set along stretches of farmland punctuated by bursts of forest overgrowth. At one point we dared to cross a flooded land bridge which was deeper than expected. When the water reached my waist and my wheels left the ground I was convinced trouble was imminent but the wheels touched back down and we continued forward with waterlogged bikes.
Shortly after, however, Sasha’s motorcycle (a real motorcycle) whined to a stop and refused to start again. After trying the ignition a few hundred times and yelling at the bike without success, we timidly sauntered to the first property we could find, a modest farmhouse with the lights off, its inhabitants presumably sleeping.
The groggy man and woman who answered the door were surprised to see us (understatement). They didn’t speak any English. Thankfully, the universal language of finger pointing and exasperated facial expressions proved effective and we were able to transmit our message of “broken motorcycle.”
The man sprung into action and began troubleshooting the bike. The woman, groggy-eyed, spectated briefly before returning to bed. A friend/neighbour arrived on his own moped and enthusiastically joined the troubleshooting. He was a small, spry man with a friendly face and an assertive nature. The two men chattered and prodded about and we sat there, dejected, attempting occasionally to offer an idea but mostly being wet and cold and hungry and tired and mildly terrified.
When over an hour had passed and the men were exhausted, it occurred to Sasha to try calling an acquaintance in Ho Chi Minh City who spoke both English and Vietnamese. Luckily the acquaintance picked up and succeeded in translating some vital information from the neighbour: “The bike can’t be fixed. He says follow him.”
So Sasha hopped on the back of the spry man’s moped while I followed and we took off down the road, our fate TBD.
We drove maybe three minutes down the road before turning onto a precarious dirt passage crossing a rice field which was flooded due to the wet season, giving the appearance of a shallow rectangular lake. On a crossroad at the back of the rice lake the man’s house sat, an unassuming single-story property.
We discovered upon entering that the house doubled as a barn of sorts. The man and his wife, who greeted us with a sleepy mixture of puzzlement and sympathy, lived in the front room and the remainder of the space housed a number of pigs and chickens and possibly their young son, though he may have been displaced on our account.
Like the previous family, it was clearly past their bedtime. They inferred our hunger and offered food which we graciously accepted, instant noodles with fresh eggs. Chicken was briefly on the menu preceding a hilarious pantomime which nearly ended in slaughter. After we’d indicated yes we’d like food, the man fetched a chicken and pointed to it suggestively, a gesture which we correctly perceived as “would you like chicken?”. We greedily shook our heads yes and the man produced a butcher’s knife with shocking agility. We waved our arms in frantic surprise “no, no, it’s ok, it’s ok!” — silly us, thinking he meant some other chicken. He was confused but presumably relieved to dodge butcher duty at such a late hour.
The room had nooks in the back left and right corners and the woman retired to the right corner nook to sleep, sheltered by a curtain which gave privacy to the area. We devoured our noodles and the man gestured to convey some key information: bed in the left nook, bathroom in the pig pen. The latter he communicated by leading us through the pig pen to a horrifying concrete closet containing a bucket of water and a squatter toilet (which is essentially a ceramic hole in the ground, for those who are unfamiliar). I prayed to avoid using it, at least until the morning.
Because Sasha is a resourceful hippy who always travels with a hammock, I was given sole occupancy of the left corner nook. My bed would have been comfortable if it had a mattress or sheets. Still, at this moment, a naked wooden plank was comfortable enough. I crafted a nest and began the task of quieting my mind, which can be difficult even in ordinary circumstances.
And then I felt it — a violent presence within. Volatile, gurgling spasms. My quaking insides crying for release from whatever alien bacteria I’d recently imposed upon them.
The solution was obvious but I couldn’t bring myself to make the dark trip through the pig pen to the “bathroom”. Just the thought of creeping through this stranger’s house was off-putting. Fearful of how this excursion might end, I resolved to stay in bed at ALL costs… unless the cost was involuntary explosive diarrhea where I lay.
Inevitably, one to twenty minutes later — my memory is obscured by the panicked delirium of this moment — I’d surrendered and was creeping through the blackness. Nervous footsteps carried me through the living quarters and around the corner into the pig pen, hoping that my hosts were asleep and oblivious to the stranger pacing through their home.
I arrived at my ominous destination — which, I should add, was lit by a dangling lightbulb, thank god — and did my business, which was far past due. It was ugly business which I’m not proud of, though not as ugly as what came next. Squatting over the toilet with the water bucket in front of me, the protocol seemed fairly obvious. Use hands and water to clean yourself. But, eww. I’m no germaphobe but I’ve had a lifetime of triple ply leading up to this and here I reached my limit. I would not wipe my ass with my bare hands. The most disposable article of clothing on my body would be sacrificed and that was that.
The most disposable article of clothing was my sock and I made meticulous use of it, the same way you’d budget the space on the final square of toilet paper upon discovering you’ve run out. I folded the soiled portion of the sock into itself to avoid making hand contact and splashed some water to clean the toilet. Overall, I was pleased by my ingenuity and greatly relieved to be done with this unpleasant ordeal. I snuck back to bed, tucking the sock behind my bag on the way.
The second wave of diarrhea struck only a few minutes later. Once again, I resisted. With the first blast accounted for, maybe this would be manageable.
Once again, I surrendered and snuck through the darkness, feeling no more comfortable than the first time. At least I now knew how to circumvent the bucket of water. For this occasion I used my other sock, which had ceased to function as viable footwear since its companion’s demise. Like the first, I balled it up and tucked it away.
The third and fourth times I managed another strategic, albeit sloppy use of each sock. By the fifth time my spirit had broken and I indiscriminately smeared what were formerly my socks across my ravaged butthole. By now they’d been condensed into a single heinous clump which I deemed unfit for the house and carried outside to be dealt with in the morning.
Dirty and degraded, I retired to my plank for sleep at last.
The morning’s cheerful energy contrasted the hellishness of the night before. When I awoke the house was bustling with conversation. It appeared that the entire neighbourhood had come, seemingly to fix the bike but with the obvious intention of witnessing the unfortunate duo who had washed up in the night. Away from city centres and tourist destinations, Westerner sightings are still a novelty in Vietnam. The Vietnamese are not discreet about their curiosity and Sasha, who is tall with pale skin and long red hair, is often the subject of pointing and giggles. As such, he absorbed the brunt of the attention and I was able to relax and enjoy some reading time.
It was a rainy morning, as most mornings during the rainy season are, and we lounged in comfortable chairs on the front porch for a few hours while various neighbours came and went. The view of the rice field and surrounding vegetation with the patter of rain drops was serene. Cows sloshed around in the distance and one ventured to our end of the field for a leafy snack, which I enjoyed; leaf eaters make the world look like a big delicious salad. Chickens mucked about and the household toddler proved himself quite devious, finding entertainment in repeatedly pelting Sasha with hunks of bread. Neither of us could retaliate because we’d eaten our own bread, which was tasty.
When the bike was obviously not being fixed, Sasha — ever the resourceful hippy — produced a sketchpad and drew a truck. War remnants are abundant in Vietnam and it’s not uncommon for repurposed military trucks to be used as shuttles. By pointing at the drawing and at the direction we’d come from in repeated succession, he attempted to communicate “please call us a truck.” A cell phone was produced and a call was made and surely enough, one hour later, a truck arrived. After thanking our hosts, we loaded the bikes and ourselves into the truck and departed back to Huế, the poo-crusted sock still in the cupholder of my moped where I’d placed it the night before.
Back in Huế I ditched the sock and we paid an angry visit to the man who sold Sasha the bike. Another bike was produced and we continued our journey the next day.
Iwonder if our saviours ever think of us. I hope we left them with a fun memory and story to tell. In human societies we’re taught to fear the other. Sometimes it takes an encounter with the other to discover how deep our humanity runs. Beneath the complexities of politics and science and all the joys of inhabiting an aqueous rock revolving around a fireball in infinite space, we’re simple creatures with simple needs. We need food. We need shelter. We need each other.
And sometimes we need five trips to the squatter toilet to unleash the demons within.