Not only have I danced in five countries (America, Canada, Thailand, Hong Kong and Vietnam) in these shoes, I’ve walked through the most memorable storm in my life in them, literally speaking. On a leisure Sunday, my last day in Vietnam, I went to a spa in the outskirts of District One of Ho Chi Minh City. I had made dinner plans with two friends near my hotel, about 7 kilometers in the city center from the spa which should not have taken more than a half hour car ride at most in normal circumstances. That night, it took me six and a half hours to get back to my hotel in District One.
I left the spa promptly at 6:45 pm and waited in the rain for my Grab car (the “Uber” equivalent in South East Asian countries). The first driver came near my location but cancelled the ride as he couldn’t find me. I got another Grab driver and it took him fifteen minutes to find me after guiding him by text messages and Google Translate to where I was. It was about 7:15 pm when I happily saw my Grab car’s headlights in the rain and got in. The driver was a young Vietnamese man no older than 21 and he was driving a small Hyundai that felt like his first car.
As I texted my friends to tell them that I would probably arrive around 8 pm, heavy traffic and a street flooded with water dawned upon us. It took us about 30 minutes to make one turn taking us into another flooded street as the rain was raging outside. The driver turned around with his phone’s flashlight to check his car and saw a layer of rainwater had seeped in and accumulated inside the car. I tried to raise my feet the best I could but water had gotten inside my shoes already. It reminded me of that most unpleasant feeling as a kid wearing rain-soaked shoes in Hong Kong.
We were stuck in a jam on the road with people waddling through water and pushing their motorbikes around us. Seeing an inch of water had flooded his car, the driver seemed anxious and pulled to curb side where it was elevated above the water. We waited for half an hour… and I used Google Translate on my iPhone to communicate with him. I also called my friend and asked him what I should tell the driver. The storm wasn’t going away for at least several hours and flooding could get worse. I could see higher cars like SUVs and trucks were moving steadily by. Even some smaller cars were braving the flood.
“Convince him to move… the storm isn’t going away,” said my friend on the phone. I told the driver we should move, but he shook his head and showed me the message, “We can’t. No. My car will be attacked.” I got the gist, and stuck in limbo for forty-five minutes or so. I told him I needed to pee and he just pointed outside. So I went outside trying to pee only to be stopped twice by a grumpy Vietnamese guy yelling and shoving me away in the rain. I saw a little store a few steps down crowded with young people on motorbikes taking shelter from the rain.
I approached them and showed them my Google Translate message. “Toilet?” asked a girl who kindly waved me inside. I kept saying thank you in Vietnamese and made it into their bathroom and peed. It was at that moment I realized something so simple that I take for granted everyday like peeing could be both such a difficult task and physical relief.
Back in the young man’s car, I realized that he was talking to his girlfriend and Facebooking about the flood. He had no intention of leaving anytime soon. Traffic was also at a standstill. I called my friend who asked a local at the restaurant to call a large cab for me. To the young driver’s credit, he also tried hailing down larger cabs for me but no one would take me. I waited for my friend’s cab for another hour and between the flood and the traffic I realized it wasn’t going to come. If I decided to stay and wait, the flood wouldn’t go down nor my driver be willing to move for hours. I had to make a move if I wanted to make it back in time for my flight tomorrow morning.
I mapped out my hotel from where I was… it was only 7 kilometers away. I decided to walk until I could find another cab. The driver pointed me in the direction of District One and showed me the message, “I’m really sorry.” I showed him my Google Translate message on my phone, “No worries. I have a car too and I try my best to take care of it. Thank you.” We smiled at each other and I got out opening my little umbrella that I got from my New York City hotel during a rainy few days. I did feel ripped off then having to buy a USD$24 mini umbrella 6 months ago, but boy did I really need it now.
My phone was now at only 19% battery after I texted my friend that I was going to walk and find another cab. I was however prepared to walk 7 kilometers home… or was I? I must do what I hated most all my life… walking in murky water that ranged from a few inches to a few feet. I walked for a few blocks toward District One, passing completely stopped cars and found a big empty and dry cab. I approached the driver and he just waved me off no matter what I said. I kept walking for a couple more blocks and saw an empty cab about the same size of my Grab driver’s car. It was probably flooded inside, but the driver was at least willing to drive and going in the direction I needed to go.
As soon as I approached him, the driver with a dark weathered face about my age waved no to me. I pulled out my iPhone in the rain and showed him the Google Translate message, “Please take me to my hotel in District One. I will pay more…” He shook his head. And I kept mouthing, “Please, please…” I showed him another message, “You’re going in the same direction anyway. Please help me.” He finally shrugged and beckoned me inside since he wasn’t going anywhere soon anyway. With a smile, I opened the door and got into the cab flooded with three inches of water. I said thank you in Vietnamese to him. He nodded and reluctantly started the taximeter.
“Have you ever seen this type of a storm or flood… or be in this situation before?” I asked the driver, who looked like he had been driving for at least a couple of decades, with Google Translate. He shook his head. Even though my comfort situation hadn’t really improved, I now had a chance of getting home. We moved maybe four car spaces in an hour. My friend texted me telling me that the restaurant was closing and he was ordering me some fried rice that he would bring to my hotel. I thanked him, apologized and told him not to wait for me. I texted him, “I’m so sorry but I have never been in this situation before. I’m a bit scared but at least I’m with someone willing to drive and bring me home.”
When the taximeter went up to 100 dong and the car still hadn’t moved, I showed the driver my message, “Do you think I should walk back?” He shook his head and said, “6.7 kilos.” I trusted him and stayed in the cab. It was at that moment that I knew he was my guy. I took off my waterlogged shoes and socks and put my feet on the seat as I watched my shoes floating in dark water below me.
“Sorry, toilet,” said the driver and out he went to take a piss. The rain had subsided slightly. When he got back in the car, it had been at least two hours since I got in and we hadn’t moved much. Right as the taximeter clicked to 180 dong, we started to move slowly one car at a time. When we arrived at a section where the flood water was less than a foot, I got a message from my friend saying that he had left the fried rice he ordered for me at the hotel. I texted him, “I’m sorry I couldn’t meet… I have no control. I’m grateful for your friendship.”
Just as we were moving and the cars were clearing out, we could only see flooded roads ahead ranging from three to four feet of water. For an hour, we drove at 5 miles an hour on dark and flooded streets. We passed people pushing their scooters through water; and larger cars passed us. All I could hear was the slush-slush noise of our car slowly going through water.
And then we heard a non-stop beeping sound. The driver stopped the car on the curb, got out, opened and closed every door. When he drove again, the car kept beeping. I saw the air bags and door alert lights lit up. I thought the water might have messed up the sensors. He stopped the car again, redid the doors and even checked his seatbelt. When we moved again, the car kept beeping again. All I hope was that he would not give up and keep driving.
Just as we entered District One, we made it to non-flooded roads. We picked up speed along the Saigon River and passed by Hotel Majestic that I just visited in the afternoon. Finally, he stopped the car at the alley of my hotel. The meter was at 280 dong. I gave him four hundred dong which was all I had in my wallet. He tried to give me change and I said, “Thank you… you deserve it.” I grabbed my umbrella and got out.
As I opened my umbrella, something broke and it kept closing on me. I let out a sigh of relief, held up whatever I could and walked into my boutique hotel. When I got back to my room and saw the box of fried rice, I called my friend and thanked him only to find out that it was already 1:28 am in the morning. “I’m so sorry I called you so late, but I just made it back… and I want to thank you for everything.” I got off my tethered phone, ate the fried rice and went straight to bed.
To be honest, I would not have made it back… even in six and a half hours… without my Grab driver who picked me up when no one else would… without my friend who guided me when no one else would… and without my ordinary hero cab driver who braved the flood and drove me back to my hotel. Between paying the Grab driver and cab driver for this ordeal, I paid a total of 610 dong which was roughly 26 US dollars, almost the same price of my American umbrella.
Five hours later, my phone alarm woke me up and I stared straight at my waterlogged shoes. They were still wet and they were the only pair of shoes I had brought for my trip. I had walked, danced and done everything in them for a year. I could steal the hotel’s flip-flops and leave my shoes behind in Saigon… should I?
I couldn’t do it. I grabbed the hotel dryer and tried drying the insides of the shoes as much as I could. When I had to leave and they still weren’t dry, I put on two pairs of socks and wore my wet shoes to fly home. Even if my feet felt a little wet, I couldn’t leave my waterlogged shoes behind because they carried the memory of the most memorable storm I’ve ever experienced.
It was most ironic that just the night before in a drunken argument I told my friend that I was not interested in being a local as I was upset that he put me on the back of a motorbike when there were taxis around that he didn’t want to take. “I’m here to be a tourist… not a local. I don’t have to ride on a bike in the rain and slum it if I don’t feel like it.” But of course, Mother Nature and fate had an interesting adventure for me, getting stuck in a storm after a spa session and having me work with local Vietnamese who didn’t speak a word of English to get home.
In my Grab car en route to the airport, I peered out of the window and saw bits and pieces of Saigon life. When I saw a young Vietnamese man in a suit sitting on a plastic stool on the curb smoking a cigarette and sipping on a glass of coffee, I suddenly felt proud of myself of how I had made it through the storm. I used all the resources I had on hand and treated everyone I met with respect and kindness, focusing on our common goal of getting home, out of the flood and to live, or survive. While I can’t control what happens to me, I can certainly control how I treat people and focus on our basic humanity beyond language and culture even in a near survival situation. I’m hopeful that humanity is what bonds us to live and survive together.