Waking up in Hanoi this morning left me with some real anxiety. Today was the day we were to pick up our scooters and ride them out of the crazy Hanoi traffic and into Mai Chau. The rental process took what felt like forever and a number of hours later, we were just getting our gloves,helmets, and jackets to brave the streets of Hanoi.
We’d hired the scooter rental guy to guide us out of the crazy Hanoi traffic and we carefully followed him as we weaved in and out of traffic and through intersections that were ignoring the traffic signals entirely. Although I had been basically terrified, the traffic was more intuitive than I had imagined it to be, and the ride was actually exhilarating!
Before we hardly knew it, we were out to the main highway and we bid our attentive guide farewell but not before he checked every bit of our luggage to make sure it was securely fastened to the bikes. Then, he sped away leaving Ben and I to our own devices.
We cruised down the highway and with only one wrong turn, were well on our way out of town. I was completely enjoying myself until I suddenly realized I’d lost track of Ben’s blue backpack. He had been stopping for me numerous times to make sure we stayed together, so I figured he must be just ahead waiting. I pressed on, keeping my eyes out. After another few miles rolled by though, I began to feel suspicious. He wouldn’t go this far ahead without stopping to wait for me…so where was he? I rode a little further, but still no sign. As the edge of town approached, I pulled over thinking maybe he was just behind me, but even as I stopped to ask for directions, there was no sign of him. I waited a bit, and then got back on and kept riding.
As I pushed forward, now very aware of my lonesome state, I realized how badly we had planned. Ben was carrying our camera bag which had most of our cash and our documents. The other bag that was strapped to the back of his bike had the rest of our resources and even our snacks. I pulled out my cell phone to give him a call but the battery was dead. The charger was also with the stuff on his bike.
After 45 minutes of separation, I was starting to panic. I pulled over to ask for directions again, wanting to verify I hadn’t somehow gotten lost (even though our route was dead straight most of the day). I hadn’t, but some very nice men expressed some real concern that I was heading to Mai Chau all alone. I assured them that I had a husband who would be joining me any minute now, and then hopped back on the scooter, praying it was true.
I had no idea whether Ben was ahead of me or whether I had passed him when he pulled over to wait for me and I just hadn’t seen him. I couldn’t decide whether I should go slower or faster. I couldn’t decide if I should stay put, or whether he was already staying put and I should be looking for him. Mostly what I was doing was starting to panic. I rode forward, but slowly, thinking Ben would surely catch up to me if he was behind me, but that I’d be making progress toward him if he was ahead.
Despite the fact that I was panicking, the scenery was beautiful and people were smiling and waving my direction every time I pulled over and got off the bike. My spirits were actually pretty high considering I was lost in Vietnam with no money, no food, no phone, and no husband.
I stopped again as I entered the mountains, thinking there was no way he’d begin this next stage of the journey without me but he was nowhere to be seen after I’d waited a half hour or so. I finally decided to head to the town where our guide told us to get gas and wait for him there.
Once I had a destination I made good time, hoping and hoping to see my husband on the side of the road or even coming back toward me from the other direction. No luck. Finally, I found the first gas station in the prescribed town, so I pulled over and attempted to ask the attendants if they had seen my husband. They didn’t understand me, but one of them called her sister who spoke English to translate. I explained my lost husband and my moneyless state,and the lady on the phone translated back to my gas station friends. Realizing they had no idea how to help me find my foreigner husband either, they pointed to a stool, told me to sit down, and brought me a bottle of water. I tried to argue, reminding them I had no money, but they just smiled and insisted I sit and drink.
As I sat near the gas pump with a line up of Vietnamese friends, my desperation set in. I had gone 60 or so miles since I’d seen Ben last. My phone was dead, and he had the charger. Even if I’d had the charger, I had no service. I had no money for a hotel or even for the gas to get to Mai Chau, so I just sat and waited. A painful hour ticked by as I scoured the road hoping to see Ben go by, but only locals were on the road. The woman offered to let me use her phone, so I called the bike rental location to let them know of my situation. They promised to have Ben call me if he called,but there wasn’t much they could do either. I sat and waited some more.
Driving in the Hanoi traffic was awesome, but as Bree said it was ridiculously easy to lose sight of each other. My rhythm of driving along until we lost sight of one another, pulling over and waiting for her to reappear, and continuing again was working great until we came upon a massive intersection. While my usual wait time for her was 5-10 seconds, the stop at the intersection started dragging. 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and then 5 minutes went by. Nothing. I was getting a little bit panicky as I realized that she must not have seen me pulled over – so I continued on. I did them same then 3 or 4 times until I came pretty much to full panic. I realized that she had no knowledge of any money (in reality she had some stash with the copies of the passports that she also didn’t realize that she had).
With the whole weight of the situation setting in, I started coming up with a plan. The first thing to do was to try and find a cell signal. By this time I was out of the main city, so i flipped around and headed back into the chaos that is Hanoi, keeping my eyes peeled for Bree coming in the opposing direction and not taking comfort in the ambulances that would scream by. By the time I had traced the steps all of the way back to our starting point where our guide left us, however, I still had no signal. So much for that idea. Since I was now able to retrace our steps, i was able to head back toward the outskirts of town and verify that Bree had not planted on the curb.
Unfortunately, she had not planted. By this point I was absolutely terrified for her, as she had no (knowledge of) money for food and could not even make it to our final destination on the amount of fuel we had. What more could I do, though? I had now determined that she was either a) in the hospital or b) 2 hours ahead of me given the time take in waiting and backtracking. With that in mind, the only option that I could do anything about was to try to catch up, so I cranked on the throttle and took off for Mau Chai.
By this point it was late in the afternoon and something like five hours had gone by since I saw Ben last. I was starting to wonder if I’d ever find a place to sleep or how I would ever contact the Embassy or my family. Suddenly, the gas station attendants broke my transfixed gaze on the road pointing something about a guy who had just driven down the road and then turned around and come back. I had no idea what they were talking about and I was skeptical that they could recognize my husband with a helmet and jacket on and no description about what he looked like, but I ran out to the road anyway. I was desperate.
By the time I reached the road, I spotted him. Ben rolled into the parking lot and I had to use my best self restraining not to pull him off his bike and hug him to death. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see anyone in all my life.
Reunited, wee let my new friends fill our tanks with gas and Ben tried to pay for the water and the use of their phone. They handed the money back to him, insistent that my water and their kindness was free of charge. Their kindness and generosity in thee middle of my crisis is something I won’t ever forget.