Halong City Highway
A man hovers over the body of another man’s in a roadside building. Perhaps a victim of the motorcycle madness that is Vietnam’s forte – it’s impossible to tell from the two small feet facing me. Maybe his bike was loaded with bulging blue bags of kitchen utensils, or several white sacks turgid with rice, or an ugly swine, hopelessly pushing his fat between the bars of the bamboo cage as the wind forces tears from his scared piggy eyes. Judging by the single pair of feet, it was not the family of four, the mother, father and two small children, I saw quaking under a tarpaulin as their two-wheeled steed skidded past through the slurry of this Halong City highway.
Ankle-deep in slurry with blackened toes and freckled calves, crouched like a fishing gnome on a stool in a street-side restaurant. An infant cockroach swims backstroke through the Pho Bo in my spoon. With a canine grinning from a spit-roast an alley away, it seems pointless to do anything other than dab the little fella with a tissue and suck up the spicy broth.
Nghi means ‘by the hour’. You see it written on hotels and on roadside signs advertising hotels. Nghi equates to sucking, fucking and various other riffing on the exchanging of bodily fluid. For 60 minutes or more, perhaps.
The coffee is strong. Slow-dripped and liquid dynamite in this cup. A dog stumbles, lazily, knocking my table, and coffee spills onto the white porcelain saucer. It instantly stains, seeping into pores, sticking like glue. The process repeats in my mouth – teeth becoming stained, gums and cheeks coated with caffeine curd, which will ignite with each gurn for hours to come. Vietnamese coffee, this black liquid gold, bare-knuckled and brutal, rushing endlessly.
I pay for the coffee and get ready to cross the road – I look at the two lanes of traffic, streaming like light on long exposure film. I notice a rat by my feet, permanently reclined by death’s rolling pin, and an ominous omen for sure. The face of a fruit seller beams up at me from the pavement, her grin bisecting the twin scales of produce balancing on her knotted shoulders. The coffee kicks in again, and I step into the road, slow, zombie-lie, allowing the mopeds to pass around me, praying that there are no cars for the next thirty seconds. Four wheels don’t dodge so well.