The Hug Taxi

by Micaella Penning (United States of America)

I didn't expect to find Vietnam


Amidst the whine and whir of Hanoi’s traffic, small motorbikes carry propane tanks, carpet rolls, hundred-pound rice bags, cages stuffed with ducks and chickens – sometimes alive, sometimes dead. Entire families cling to single bikes, toddlers often left to fend for themselves while grabbing the backs of their parent’s shirts. Few children wear helmets; the law requiring their use is enforced only on adults. Many drivers wear facemasks to guard against pollution, giving an austerity to their faces, with only the eyes visible between helmet, mask, and jacket. In the city, the sun dissipated into a sickly blue-gray cast. Breathing the thick fumes added to the feeling of sluggish nausea caused by heat and humidity. But drivers seemed relaxed and nonchalant, as they zipped and zoomed in a viscous mob, honking their horns, weaving around sauntering pedestrians and idling trucks, equally content in the right lane, the left lane, the middle, or the sidewalk. Drivers shouted into cell phones above the roar, and lit up cigarettes at stoplights. I saw one man idly resting his foot on another bike’s muffler as they careened by. Crossing streets on foot felt nightmarish – as if all of two-wheeled Hanoi was barreling down on me. Several times my toes came within inches of bearing rubber tread indentations. My guidebook had said not to waver when crossing the street, and not to run, stop, or show fear. At first, this felt impossible. I sprinted and stopped, wobbled and waved, quivered and bounced as if walking on glowing coals. Later, I became calmer, trying to emulate the placid ambling of Hanoians. And I always tried to wait until others were crossing too, sidling to the group’s edge furthest from oncoming traffic, selfishly imagining them as human shields. But only my nerves were scathed; I never saw anything resembling a run-in, let alone an accident. “Lets take a xe ôm instead of a taxi!” my friend Diana excitedly declared as we left the cool, air-conditioned stillness of our guesthouse in Hanoi’s old quarter. Nervous but ready for newness, I assented. A xe ôm is a motorcycle “taxi,” translated as hug taxi. On our first ride, I did just that, as both Diana and I squished on behind the driver. My fingers probably left marks through his shirt, as my knuckles whitened and I clamped on in fear. I had expected only terror when we rode out into the melee of wheels, rubber, and exhaust fumes that first afternoon in Hanoi. My long legs meant that my knees were the farthest point on either side of the bike; I clenched them tightly in against the driver, fearing they would scrape against car doors, delivery trucks, lamp posts, other motorbikes, and pedestrians. Yet suddenly everything felt smooth, flowing. Our driver gracefully steering around potholes and bumps - the streets seeming to float past, as though we were now a school of fish, acting in concert with the thousands of other motorists. The hum of cheap, internal combustion engines buzzed like a chorus of cicadas. Stopping at red lights, the air sagged with heat and exhaust. Then the light would turn green, and I felt like I was on the starting grid of a Formula One race, as hundreds of engines revved and raced away, the air shimmering in the heat, smelling of fresh rubber and fuel. Movement eased the temperature, and soon my skin felt bearable again as we whizzed across roads, down alleys, and through intersections, always leaning towards the pavement around corners. Dust, dirt, and bugs blew against my face. But I felt like I was flying, the disorder melding into blissful tranquility. Fluidity fleetingly enveloped the city. We reached our destination and climbed off, stumbling back into Hanoi’s interminable expanse of strident struggle.