“Let’s go this way,” Chris said and folded the map.
We were supposed to be in District 1, the part of Ho Chi Minh City known for its luxury boutiques, white-tablecloth restaurants, and world-class people watching.
But the more we walked, the more obvious it became that we had gone the wrong way. Maybe it was all the bloody meat laid out for sale, or the squirming fish in buckets, but I felt pretty certain we weren’t about to stumble upon a Tiffany’s.
That was over an hour ago.
Since then we’d wandered so deep into a labyrinth of alleyways that I’d abandoned hope of ever finding the landmark we’d picked to keep us from losing our bearings like this. Our beacon was a Jetsons-style high-rise with a helicopter pad overlooking the river. We named it Sky Bridge—after a similar place Chris had rented in Chicago during his bachelor days—and agreed that surely we’d be able to see it from anywhere we walked.
That’s before we realized we’d entered a labyrinth. The deeper we went, the narrower the alleyways. And the less we could see beyond our immediate surroundings.
In these relatively quiet tunnels, a tall person could stretch out her arms and nearly touch the walls of two homes. Nearly everyone kept their front doors wide open. So, like I used to do on my walks around Chicago’s neighborhoods, I peeked into all of them.
Most families were conducting some sort of business from their living rooms. Children stared at television sets while grownups sold everything from grilled beef tongue wrapped in betel leaves to bubblegum pink Hello Kitty backpacks.
Tucked in between these home businesses sat tiny Buddhist altars adorned with incense, flowers, and sometimes some fruit. The green oranges and dragonfruit might have been tempting if my gut didn’t feel so squirrely in the heat.
I knew the air would be hot and humid, but I didn’t expect it to be thick. According to a study published in the Saigoneer, some of the particulates we were inhaling were one-thirtieth the width of a human hair. Large enough to make your lungs wheeze.
At the beginning of our unplanned detour, every pair of old ladies in a doorway and every sniff of spicy grilled meat filled me with curiosity and questions. That is, until it became obvious that we had no way to orient ourselves in this snocksnarl of District Not Number One.
But that wasn’t the only problem. Dehydration was a real concern. Between the two of us, we’d drunk only sixteen ounces of water since we left the hotel. Chris refused to buy more because he didn’t trust the vendors not to sell bottles filled with tap water.
My focus became less about what was around me and more about getting out. All I could do was look to the hazy sun and a narrow strip of yellow-brown sky to hint at our direction. I watched a crow soar over the rooftops. “Showoff,” I muttered. He knew where he was going. He could see the whole city laid out just like the map in my hand. The bird cawed and tilted his head at me. I could see him tittering at the two humans bumbling down one dead-end after another like rats in a maze.
We took the next right. Surely this was the way to the river. But soon a little man with a broom smiled and pointed the way out. He probably snickered too. How did these silly tourists with their neutral-toned backpacks and empty water bottles wander way back here, he’d ponder as he swept up rat poop and chicken guts.
The next corridor was fenced and boarded on one side. I stopped to look through a hole and couldn’t believe what I saw. Beyond an empty lot filled with twinkling broken bottles sat a big pink Catholic Church. The same one we’d started from over two hours ago.
Now I wasn’t just a rat stumped in a maze. I was a pissed off, panicked rat. Why didn’t my till-death-do-us-part travel companion not know directions better? Why couldn’t he get us back to the river, where we could at least orient ourselves instead of chasing our tails for hours on end while slowly succumbing to heat stroke? All we needed was one Sky Bridge sighting to save us from a trip to the morgue with ID tags twirling from our big toes.
I trudged on in silence, trying not to think about the more obvious question: Why didn’t I know directions better? I’m supposed to be the “travel writer,” after all. Yet I don’t book our flights, reserve our hotels, or even flag down our taxis. In fact, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Chris. I would have never ventured so far away from home on my own.
On the other hand, Chris wouldn’t be here either if it weren’t for me. He’d be in Greenland eating lumpfish and sipping whisky coffee. He likes the kind of places where people wear furry hats and go weeks without seeing the sun. I’m the one who’s fascinated by all these hot and colorful communities in Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. Chris goes along with these destinations because he’s a natural-born explorer—despite his semireliable sense of direction—and probably because he likes me.
But even he has to admit that it’s the non-European countries that we talk about the most when we’re back home. They’re the places where things can get really eye-opening, and we learn about ourselves and each other.
Like right now, for instance. Here I was learning that when hot, lost, and panicked, I can be a real bitch. And not nearly the intrepid traveler I dream myself to be. Chris was learning this about me too.
Which would explain why he’d put a two-block gap between us. While I described how this cockamamy maze of alleyways made the real one in The Shining a pleasant alternative—admittedly only because of the blizzard—he took longer strides.
“Remember that scene?” I said. “It’s like the same thing, only hotter than hell, and we don’t have any freaking water.” Maybe Jack Nicholson wasn’t trying to ax us to death, I explained, but dehydration and poisoned air were.
Now he was barely within earshot. I heard him say something about being sure the river was near. He could feel it, he said.
I rolled my eyes and stopped to ask for directions. According to my Fitbit, we’d been wandering in circles for eight miles. Now that we’d come upon a real road with traffic, I wasn’t about to take any chances.
“Cau Mong Bridge?” I said and pointed at my damp, wrinkled map from the hotel.
She looked at it and then at me, blankly.
“You know Cau Mong Bridge?” I said.
She squinted and ran her index finger across the paper, but I could tell she had no idea what I was talking about. I followed her out to the sidewalk and she halfheartedly pointed in the direction opposite of Chris, who was now a good four blocks away.
When I finally caught up to him to say, “No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong,” I caught a glimmer of the coffee-colored river.
“There it is!” he said, as if he were pointing out the physical manifestation of the Buddha himself. “Sky Bridge!” He lifted his ball cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead then checked his watch. “If we run, there’s a chance we can catch the last boat back to the hotel.”
I was too relieved to be annoyed that he was right about the directions. I was also too exhausted. Even though every sweat-soaked cell in my body wanted to be on its way back to a soft, cool bed with clean sheets, air-conditioning, and tall glass of ice water, I couldn’t run with him. My feet were blistered. I could barely walk. And every breath felt like I was trying to suck mud through cheesecloth.
“I can’t do it,” I said. When we planned this trip months ago, I never considered what I couldn’t do. I hadn’t taken into account my limitations, both physical and mental. And I certainly never thought my heat-induced misery would make me think of Jack Nicholson’s face stuffed through an ax-holed door (Here’s Johnny!) while I wandered in circles in Saigon.
I looked at Chris, waiting to see his disappointment in having such a lightweight travel partner. Now would be the perfect time for him to mock my traveler/writer aspirations.
“That’s OK,” he said, pinching his wet shirt and popping it in and out to circulate the air around his chest. “Just do the best you can. I’ll tell them to hold the boat.”
I watched as he jogged down the river path like an overworked Norwegian Coldblood Trotter. If he were a racehorse, his name would be North Star. And I would bet on him.