Doug and I have a meme.  It originated from a recording we love, found on a 1940 Smithsonian Folkways compilation, of a young jump-roper named Ora Dell Graham, singing  rhymes as she jumps.  If one of us does something wrong?  Maybe even a little stupid?  Accidental mistake?  I milked that sow.  Pullin’ the skiff.

I made a mistake the other night and milked that sow.

My tutoring job was done for the night and I was headed home on the #1 bus, a new bus to me.  I had an idea of the route but the Hanoi Bus website isn’t updated, so was missing actual validation.  My Vietnamese isn’t good enough to converse about such details with the ticket collector.  I can ask the questions, but I can’t completely understand the answers.  (All part of the adventure, yes?)  I wasn’t worried.  I knew the general vicinity to disembark so that my walk home would be reasonable, keeping in mind that it was after 10pm and it was dark.  Midnight curfew isn’t enforced anymore, but this part of Hanoi is certainly quiet at night.  I watched the penultimate stop come and go, feeling confidant that the next one was it.  The bus took an odd turn, but hey, the streets are a little convoluted and overlapping with ramps and overpasses at that spot.  I convinced myself we were making a loop in the twisty section and would double back and I’d get off at the next stop.  I’d seen other buses do just that.

The curve turned into an extended on-ramp to a long modern bridge that spans the Red River, east of Hanoi.  This is when the song turned on in my head.  I made a mistake.

At this point, still on the bus were one other rider, the ticket collector and the driver.  I tried to text Doug but my data was apparently out (I knew I should’ve topped off my sim card earlier but I relish living on the edge).  I called instead and got a sketchy connection, but did let him know I was taking the scenic route home and would be late…then got disconnected before I could provide any actual details.

I could’ve got off when the last rider disembarked but it was dark and I didn’t see anything on the other side of the street that looked promising. Then the ticket collector got off.  Oh boy. By default, I had decided to ride to the end, subliminally curious to see where I would end up, quietly hoping the bus would turn around and retrace its route back into the city. After riding for what definitely felt longer than it was, studiously noticing the turns as I stared outside in case I had to walk back, we left the mixed residential and commercial areas, then made an abrupt turn into a big, dark parking lot next to a big, dark industrial looking building.  The driver yelled something at me and swished open the door.  I de-bussed and I swear, he zoomed away particularly fast, although it probably was just regular departure speed.

At least it wasn’t raining.

I stood there in the dark thinking about how I love the unpredictable-ness of life, felt bad that I had been a little cavalier when I had called Doug because he was probably worrying and didn’t have any way to actually find me, and then laughing because in one hour’s time I was in a really different place than I thought I’d be.

I heard the motorcycles before I could see them.  Xe oms.  Motorcycle taxis.  Usually old dudes.  I’ve used them before, and it was never dull.  So…yay!  I wouldn’t have to walk home.   With xe om drivers, I knew it was important to get a good breath-whiff so that the ride can be declined if the driver is alcohol-infused.  I started a conversation with one guy, while other curious drivers drove up and joined in the conversation.  I said my address, he mumbled a price, I negotiated, he didn’t say yes, just ok, ok, ok which I’ve learned to mean let’s go and we’ll renegotiate later when we get to where you want to go.  He’s already on his bike, ready to go.  Nope. I’ve learned to be clear upfront about both the location and the money, resulting in a more direct exchange all around.  I’m feeling rushed.  I decide to slow it down.   I try to talk (all in Vietnamese) to the little crowd that’s formed.  They want to know how I ended up there.  How old was I?  Where from?  Why?  What do I do?  The usual questions that I’ve learned the answers to.  My phone doesn’t work but I do pull up an iBook map detail of Trúc Bạch (thanks, Carol, for showing me that iBook is useful).  Oh…ok, ok, ok.  Someone reviews with the driver exactly where that is, then helps me get him to agree on a fair price to get there.  Ah…ok, ok, ok.  It’s a long way back over the river on the big bridge, which at this time of night means no return customer for the driver.

Ok.  Fare is communicated, agreed upon, reassured by eye contact and smiles, all is well.  One more thing, my arm still doesn’t bend enough to put on my helmet and I need help.  I tell them about my accident (mostly in pantomime and a few key words) and then ask the driver to buckle my helmet.  This requires touching…even more than the usual joked-about full-body-hugging hoped for by some xe om drivers.  Xe om, after all, means motorbike hug.

I’m buckled, loaded, my backpack is adjusted, the other drivers wave and say goodbye like we’re all old friends.  Off we go.  It’s exhilarating, actually.  Except for the fact that I have no idea who this guy is and seriously, I’m totally 100% at his mercy.  My arms are holding tight around his wide waist, his pockets wadded up in my fists for something to hold on to.  No one else is around, the streets here are deserted and I am obviously unfamiliar with the area.  But…nah.  This is one reason why I love it here.  I feel safe.

We’re driving on streets that the bus definitely did not take.  He is chattering away in the wind and I’m sorry I can’t understand much of what his deep voice is saying.  We take a little off-road short cut (what?!) and suddenly, we’re on a bridge.  Not the modern 4-lane bridge I came over on.  This is old.  Vintage construct.  It smells wooden.  We slow way down.


I probably squeal with surprise and delight.  He grins.  The center of the bridge is train tracks with the side lanes used for motorbikes and shared with pedestrians.  No cars.   There are late-night workers who actually drop below the span when the trains speed by.  And it’s alive with people and movement.  It’s like a festival.  Couples are sitting on burlap-sack blankets, dangling their legs over the sides, groups of friends are laughing, talking, and eating grilled corn and drinking hot tea from the food carts.

This, I find out later, is the Long Biên Bridge.  It is believed that the bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the man behind Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty during the French occupation, then built by the Vietnamese using local wood, lime and concrete in 1889-1902.  It was bombed many times in 1967 and 1972 during the American War, and always put back together.  It is a symbol of rebellion, strength and resilience.

The driver was obviously happy to have shared this bridge with me.  We got to the end of the span and we came out in a place I recognized.  I named it for him and he smiled, đúng.  Correct.  We reached the apartment in about 15 more minutes; Doug was sitting on the balcony, watching, and came down.  Hands were shook, I got out my dong to pay and tried to say keep the change.  But no way, he wouldn’t.  An agreement is an agreement and tipping is not part of the culture here.  The ride cost 3$.

Since that night, I’ve read a lot about the Long Biên Bridge.  Today Doug and I went during the day to see it again.  It is indeed falling apart.  I hope preservation is in its future.  There really is nothing like it.


There’s Doug, walking westward, way in the distance.


Here’s looking south at the other, modern bridge.  The land (called Middle Island) and water underneath this bridge has become the home of Hanoi’s destitute.  Makeshift homes and shelters are appearing as people get pushed out of the city as the economy burgeons.  There is also a thriving nude beach area for health conscious locals, who bicycle down to swim, relax, meditate and practice yoga.


One of the pig (or boar) farms under the bridge.  See the little one nestled between the 2 center sleepers?


I had hoped to get a shot when the train went by, but maybe it was better to miss that.  Just walking on the bridge was a little unnerving due to the constant vibrations, shaking and big gaps and cracks in the concrete pavers.


Discovering the bridge at night, the way I did, was the perfect introduction.  A little mistake that turned out not too bad after all.


(These videos are visible only if you view the post from the website, not from the emailed version.)

Doug on the Long Biên Bridge

Drone fly-over of Long Biên Bridge

Pullin’ the Skiff by Ora Dell Graham


  1. Marjorie

    Fantastic, Beth! Such a well-told tale – I was right there with you every step of the way (and so glad I actually wasn’t).

    Rebellion, strength and resistance: a symbol for our times.

  2. Jenn and Alice

    What a great adventure you are on! And what courage you have! I agree with that previous comment – a book would be great. Are you still in Vietnam? We are thinking of you.

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