We arrived at Hanoi International Airport, the gateway to Vietnam, under the cover of absolute darkness, at approximately 1100 p.m. After securing our luggage, we proceeded through a relatively lax customs process. In the lobby we were greeted by a laconic taxi driver from our hotel, holding a sign with my name scrawled on it. A fair amount of self control was required to suppress the diva-like urges welling up within me. Nothing major, really, just flashes of me demanding imported water from France; dropping my luggage and expecting it to be caught before it touched the ground; and, of course, shouting obscenities from the sunroof of a stretch Hummer. Thankfully, Dan was there to keep my feet firmly planted in reality.

Within minutes we were on our way, our backpacks stowed in the trunk, cruising down a modestly busy highway lined with palm trees on either side. Our Hummer had somehow been transformed into a late 90’s model Toyota Corolla; our imported French water a can of Sprite.  (A ghetto diva, then!)

A bit of time passed before we realized something was amiss with our driver. The first sign of trouble reared its ugly head at the gas station. It seems he believed it perfectly safe to fill up the gas tank…with the engine still on! Unbelievable, I know, but what’s worse is Dan and I actually stayed in the car! Say it with me now: MORONS. In our defense, though, we were really tired. Not a good enough excuse? Fine, we were tired AND drugged. There, that should earn us some sympathy points.

Luckily, we escaped without becoming barbecued tourists. But don’t cheer just yet; a mere twenty minutes later we found ourselves once again staring into the cold, unflinching eyes of death.

Our driver’s handling of the car had become progressively erratic. At first I thought nothing of it, as most cab drivers in Southeast Asia seem to believe they’re racing in the Daytona 500. Blowing your horn at anything within a 600 meter radius of your car? Normal. Weaving in and out of traffic, driving through red lights, and cutting off other cars as if you’re behind the wheel of a Sherman tank and not a 4-cylinder fiberglass box? Pretty common for taxi drivers in Southeast Asia. As I looked into the rear view mirror, a mix of shock, awe and horror tore through me like a bolt of lightning. The driver’s eyes were nearly closed shut! He was falling asleep—and fast! Dan looked as well, confirming my suspicion. The car drifted to the edge of the road. We shouted at him, and although he didn’t understand English, the sound of our voices brought him back to the world of the living, his eyes snapping open like a hungover college student in a Medieval poetry class. He managed to straighten the car just in time to avoid careening into a ditch.  Crisis averted? Think again.

Despite our best efforts to engage him (Sleeping Beauty) in conversation, and despite his own attempts to stay alert—which consisted of tapping his foot and a nervous twitch of the head— he slowly slipped in and out of consciousness, narrowly avoiding collisions with motorcycles, horse-drawn carts (not kidding), and other automobiles. My heart was a jackhammer, threatening to burst from my chest. 

We turned a corner and found ourselves positioned directly in the path of a cement truck.  A green Soviet-era cement truck; the kind made from tons of virtually indestructible steel and metal.  Hmmm…so Soviet-era cement truck versus a plastic Toyota corolla—I think we all know how this was going to end.  Horns blared; headlights flashed. Memories from my heretofore short life fluttered before my eyes. I thought of all the things I’d never get a chance to do: scale Mount Everest; meet the guy who does all the movie trailer voiceovers;  date an Abercrombie and Fitch model.  I never planned on dying in Vietnam. Hell, I never planned on dying at the age of 24; but here I was on the verge of being flattened like a pancake on the dusty streets of Hanoi. And then a miracle happened. Somehow, either by the grace of God or perhaps because I was wearing my lucky orange boxers, Sleeping Beauty managed to swerve just in time to avoid oblivion. The truck rumbled past and we continued our precarious progress towards the hostel. Dan and I both were on the verge of fainting.

What to do, what to do! Should we get out in the-middle-of-nowhere, Vietnam, at midnight no less, and hope some charitable stranger would deliver us to our hotel? Not likely. Or should we take our chances with Sleeping Beauty, and pray he could remain  lucid long enough to get us safely to our destination?  Decisions, decisions!

Luckily the choice was made for us, as moments later we pulled up in front of The Golden Star Hotel, a sight which nearly brought tears to my eyes. Sleeping Beauty popped open the trunk, we collected our bags, resisted the urge to strangle the very life out of him, and darted into the hotel lobby. Needless to say, he didn’t receive a tip.

Stay tuned for more updates on our harrowing journey through Vietnam. I promise fewer stories of near-death experiences and more pictures of beautiful scenery. Until next time…