I finally had a free day this past Sunday- no teaching classes, observations, or lesson plans. My patience with the city was dwindling and a few of my classmates were feeling the same way.
So we rented motorbikes.
We had a simple plan, to find monkey island, or Cat Ba. It was relatively easy renting motorbikes, a little on the expensive side. I was given a pink Hello Kitty helmet, Jake wore his blue climbing helmet that matched his blue Indonesia motorcycle, Ben and Austin wore combat helmets, and Kaleel was given a speed racer helmet that sat far back on his head. We tried to believe that we blended into the crowd.
The best way to describe the traffic here is to think of a school of fish, moving organically from one lane to the next. There are rules and there are also no rules here. Cars stay in the left lane and motorbikes play tag in the right. The city is congested but full of life. Simply motorbiking without looking would be a mistake.
A man fishing through the grate in the street. The meatless carcasses of dogs strung up. A nation of face masks and smoke walls. The hot steam of Bon Bo Hue and the odd rhythmic song of passing old ladies in conical hats selling their sticky rice. A school of fish moving like red blood cells through the veins that makeup this huge city.
Eventually the city opened up to a futuristic skyscraper apartment complex with names like “Star Sky” replete with Western grocery stores and calculated greenery. The skeletons are still being constructed, dressed in green plastic dripping from afternoon rain. And finally, we were funneled into a corridor to pay a small fee for the ferry ticket over to the island. The sound of the motorbikes in the small corridor was loud, as if we were lining up for a race. We were the only Westerners in the whole place and it was obvious.
It took around another hour, biking into the oncoming storm to find the monkeys. Three empty lanes to ourselves, we spread out and caught up and slowed down. The clouds gathered and darkened as the road seemed to grow wider. It was a solitary ride, one where my thoughts seemed to collude and darken above my head. I had to keep reminding myself where I was, what I was doing, how I had gotten here. I had the distinct feeling that at this moment I was living multiple lives, that I was also somewhere else experiencing something completely different. It was this feeling that produced such spherical emotions that I attempted to pin down, but with each attempt to puncture the corner of the sphere just to splay it in front of the light, it slipped and bled into an indistinguishable pool.
A faded sign signaling the entryway to monkey island procured itself from the ensuing fog. We ordered food in a little restaurant in the forest. First came a stove, then a pot with lemongrass flavored broth, whole crabs, pieces of squid, unknown fish, and fresh herbs lined the pot. We ordered rice noodles and dumped everything in the pot. We also fed some very personable monkeys a few bananas.
A museum sat near the entrance of the park. Weathered by time and yellowed by age, the museum is home to uncanny stuffed animals– pinched-faced ferrets and deer with disturbingly angled legs. There was a wall of white-washed sea creatures in jars stacked on top of each other. Eels. Catfish. Crabs. Big toothed fish and unhealthy looking frogs. Just a flick of movement. An eel tail. Old, crumpled plants with undefinable colors were crudely taped to yellowed pieces of paper. In the back, pictures of old mines used in the Vietnam war seem comfortable among the gnashing ferrets. Guns and rows of spikes pulled up from the mangrove mud and muck grin with cracked teeth behind the glass.
Monkeys lined the muddy straight walkway. Little monkeys clutched their mother’s stomachs as they ran from trash pile to vine. They watched from behind large trees and slapped each other silly. The monkeys paced on piles of rubble: kings of the wasteland with broad smiles. One monkey hobbled off with a coke, stopping occasionally to tilt it back. They jumped after each other with hands like ours and stole Miga’s hat. They have a sense of humor and movement and energy.
We decided to walk past the molding tractor and wade into the mangrove forest. Boats anchored in the mud like teeth in old gums waited for the tide to rise. Alligator feeding boats. We crossed bridges over muddy water and guessed what the fish looked like. We are the sunburned race. We spit at the monkey carnival because we know better. We see the chains and cringe, we see the monkeys on their little bikes and clap. Our faces burn when we smile as our cracked, windburned skin adjusts to things we do not understand.