I Of The Sun: A Journey Into Southeast Asia And The Heart Of Human Consciousness
The following is an excerpt from I of the Sun: A Journey into Southeast Asia and the Heart of Human Consciousness by Richard Arthur.
The Cambodia/Vietnam border. The narrator is traveling with an Australian guy Vince who he met the day before. “Before me lay a huge red archway with five Khmer towers crowned above it with some faded yellow twirls of Cambodian script. Through the arch lay 200 meters of no-man’s land and then another white arch, glimmering in the distance like a mirage, a yellow star and one word in giant red letters – Vietnam.
Vietnam! A country I’d never imagined going to ‘until this day. A country known only to my young mind through the iconography of American pop culture – Adagio For Strings, choppers, gunshot, blood and tears. The beauty and the horror. It was October, the end of the rainy season. What was I doing here?
We crossed the border and changed bus. Instantly the pace was more frenetic. Endless streams of old mopeds buzzing around our bus like bats, brick houses by the road, lines and squiggles all over the letters of its Romanized language. More built up than Cambodia, though no Western brand names visible anywhere, just long terraces of shop houses by the side of the road, and occasional billboards for Asian companies. We barely saw any open countryside the whole way, just endless people, bikes and buildings.
We soon came to Ho Chi Minh City, formally known as Saigon. The city had a raw buzz, a feeling of unfinished business, case unclosed. The scarred beauty of tree-lined boulevards and tin-shack alleys, her arteries clogged with the burgeoning weight of humanity pumping through her soul. People everywhere, the streets electric! The energy grabbed me and squeezed my imagination like a vice. Thousands and thousands of 50cc rusty bikes and rickety old bicycles swarmed the streets, moving as one, each an individual atom in the large amorphous mass. When the lights went green they came at us like a swarm of bees.
Me and Vince found a cheap room in the heaving Pham Ngu Lao area of town where all the action seemed to be. That evening we went out for a few beers, taking in the buzz of the city, charged by the current of people out making money. It seemed like everyone was out to get you. Constant harassment from people following us down the road trying to sell us stuff we didn’t want; street-smart kids trying to charm and hustle money out of tourists, beggars and amputees lying in the gutter, and grinning motorcycle taxi drivers on street corners offering “Boom-boom? Marijuana?” under their breath.
Little women scuttling round in big pointy conical hats. Others selling their wares off motorbike side-cars, or carrying around two baskets of produce balanced on their shoulders with a heaving length of wood. Baguette ladies, noodle soup and sugar cane juice presses. Kids playing in the alleyways, the anxious mother, men unloading blocks of ice with metal hooks, pale white prostitutes driven round on mopeds, men cycling round with loud rattles, families eating by the road, the angry old grandmother, bandits in face masks, old hunchbacks, faces well worn from a thousand woes, the blind, the deaf, the mentally dispossessed, the missing limbs, the loss of kin, the chemical scars, twisted feet, human meat, lesser lives for the greater mass. A whole population living, working, eating and sleeping out on the streets.
And through the concrete madness of honking horns and beep-beep- beeps, the shuttlecock, the raggedy dog, the yellow-scarved soldiers in green, the docking ships of night and the smog of modernity; silently cruised the noble old cyclo drivers in shorts and rag shirts, bobbing on forever over their chariots – these three-wheeled rickshaws with a large passenger seat at the front, like a bicycle attached to a wheelchair – visions of serenity and melancholy calm. They were powered only by the old drivers, many of them homeless war veterans, out of sight, out of mind, destined to pedal ever onwards until the day their knees finally buckled and they died penniless in the gutter.
He catches up with two old friends from home who’ve flown out to join him on his travels into Vietnam, and they spend the next few days exploring the city.
“We carried on through the manic avenues and came to a long, wide road with bikes sifting round each other, fruit and spice stalls spread all over the road, paraplegics crawling through the dirt, no Westerners in sight, heads as far as the eye could see, a canopy of pointy hats. Thousands of people all on the go, movement, noise and heat overwhelming our enreefed little minds. It looked like a social uprising. A fear suddenly slashed through me like a switchblade. Where are they all going? What’s going on? Do they know something we don’t? Is there some kind of revolution going on? Jitters of panic in the echoes of history.
We continued onwards to a muddy little canal, traffic just inches from us till there were no pedestrians left, just relentless motorbikes blowing smoke and grime at us as we trudged along the side of a bypass road, often faster than the gridlocked motorcade. The heat, noise, smoke and exhaustion were starting to get too much to handle. We eventually climbed up and stopped on a pedestrian bridge over the muddy canal lined with slum shacks, exhausted by it all.
The faded colors of dusk and the dancing shadows eased the over-excited twinges of paranoia into a smooth appreciation of it all. It hit us then – the sheer beauty of the place. This was it! Vietnam! Asia! We’d found the picture of the East that we’d been looking for, here in Saigon. It had an insane, desperate clamor in the air, more than any other city I’d been to in Asia.
No tourists, no Western shops or restaurants, just millions of bicycles, dusty roads, old temples, handpainted signs, street markets, pointy hats and crushing poverty. This was the image of Asia I had in my head before I’d come here. That vague notion of the old Orient from the movies. Saigon was Asia as I’d imagined it would be. The heat, the energy, the 24-hour noise, history, violence, excitement, weed, rum and crazy dreams were all conspiring to drift us further from that which we knew. And we loved it. We let ourselves slide away into our imaginations, into a world of unlimited possibilities where fiction and dreams met reality, a world where we could do anything we wanted to. All we had to do was stop thinking about it, stop talking about it and just get out there and do it! The triumph of the will, Man as his own master.
We felt enlivened again. That night the four of us found a little bar with a pool table and a rack of cheap rum. We drank with gusto, liquor flowing through us fast into the gutter, little kids peering over the table moving the balls around playfully, Rolling Stones busting out the speakers. Joe had just fallen in love with a girl back home before he came out, and was missing her badly. Her name vaguely resembled Angie. When it came on, me and Charlie changed the words, ripping into him mercilessly. What are friends for? But still we continued, colored balls rattling round our minds, talk of fake passports and multiple identities, Joe raising toasts, Vince’s booming laugh, Charlie cracking gags, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” tequila, pot, smash!
We bowled out into the midnight tropics in twisted spirits and weaved through the crowded streets looking for some action. I stopped for a street vendor’s steamed dumpling and quickly lost the others, faffing around by myself in a drunken stupor. I sat down staring at the endless motorbikes, wondering what to do next. Then, out of the traffic appear two cyclos tearing down the road at high speed, Joe driving Charlie in one, and Vince steering the other. What the fuck? Joe and Vince have a look of positive insanity in their faces. Charlie looks terrified. No idea what they’re doing but I had no option. I burst out the shadows and jumped into the passenger seat of Vince’s cyclo, everyone cracking up at the seams!
We speed off, laughing neon maniacs of the night, trying not to stack the things as we zigzag across lanes, out of control through the traffic. I don’t know what’s going on, assuming they’ve nicked them. Seemed impossible to keep them in a straight line at this speed with the weight of the passenger attached to the handlebars. Next thing, we turn onto a larger road, and judging by the amount of cars and motorbikes, suddenly realize we’re on a highway. We’re dodging traffic, trying to keep the things in a straight line, hoping not to get mown down by the passing trucks, when the owners drive up alongside us on a moped screaming at us to get off the road. Somehow managing not to get hit, we turn off into a quiet side alley, but we ain’t done yet.
Me and Vince swap places, and I chase the others through the alleyways, amazed onlookers cheering on the crazy foreign bastards, ’till I see Joe’s crashed his cyclo into a parked moped up ahead. Getting closer. I look at the handlebars. “Shit! Where’s the brakes?” I scream. There are none. A sharp clattering screech of crashing metal. I smash into the back of the other cyclo, twisted spokes of bike everywhere, sending everything tumbling over. The moped driver’s standing in disbelief. The furious cyclo owners appear on their bike. Only then do the boys tell me they had just rented them for a short while. We left the situation with the vehicle owners and scattered into the bowels of the city like rats.