We all have our breaking points, especially when we are living in a different country with different ways of doing things.
For some, it’s dealing with the authorities. For others, it’s contrasting styles of customer service. For many people living in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s traffic.
Rush hour outside my building in Phu My Hung is a nightmare, and I see a Vietnamese guy clip another motorist who has two kids on his bike, heading to the school down the block. The guy has a nicer bike and looks dressed like a banker to me. He is weaving between bikes like some sort of championship pro racer, which irritates me whenever I see guys pulling that in rush hour. At any rate, we find ourselves at the same red light, and I pull up next to him, slap him on the helmet and tell him he is a menace on the road, my diatribe punctuated with a bevy of profanities.
I can tell he is considering whether to escalate our argument into a physical confrontation, but seems to think better of it. He carries on up the main road and I take a right, preferring a quieter drive among the affluent houses off the main drag, to traffic on Nguyen Luong Bang.
So the next day rolls around, and being a creature of habit, I decide to take my usual quiet route, which skirts by some apartment buildings. My buddy from the previous day appears out of nowhere to overtake me on this suburban road and hops off his bike, clearly wanting to continue the chat from yesterday.
Out of the corner of my eye I see his friend, wearing a face mask more akin to robbing a bank than the surgical masks I see in normal driving. Are they gangsters? I thought he worked at Sacombank!
“Why you hit me?” he chirps. “I don’t hit you!” He cuts the engine and advances towards me.
“You again! You caused three accidents! You hit a guy and his kids!”
Punch to the face.
I drop the bike on the ground and step backwards. Old ladies and apartment security have taken notice, hearing the odd shrieks of help. He is wearing motorbike gloves so his punch doesn’t really hurt very much, but I am kinda confused. Does he have a knife? Would it be worth a homicide over being told you’re a crap driver? Well, among other things.
Punch to the face.
His buddy has now punched me! Where’d he come from? Okay, time to run around a bush! They grab at me, but rip my backpack.
My mind races. Do I start throwing punches? I’m not particularly good at hand-to-hand combat. I do the maths; I’m 88 kilograms, but the size advantage drops when you’re outnumbered.
More punches come, but I swing my motorbike helmet and dance around a bush as elderly people in the park scatter and shriek. Security from the building block blow a little whistle. A 40-year-old ESL book editor fighting a couple of bankers in a park full of old ladies doing tai chi. I say bankers because by this point, I figure I’d be stabbed if he was mafia.
Sad to watch, really.
Finally apartment security get between us, and my attacker barks: “I had an emergency! Why you hit me?”
“I didn’t know about any of that,” I reply. “I saw you hit a guy and I lost it.”
His buddy has already jumped on his bike and driven off. I then extend an olive branch, being as we are both clearly busy people and have places to be.
“OK, forget it,” I say. “What’s your name?”
He grunts. “Hmph. Ryan.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say.
“OK,” he mutters.
He gets on his bike and rides off. Apartment security runs after him, but they’re about as useful as a newspaper in a hurricane. Then I pick my bike up off the ground. They signal me to stop, but I am in a hurry, too. The “fight” took less than two minutes.
I make it to work on time, with a ripped shirt pocket and one strap torn off my backpack. No one notices or seems to, anyway. Too busy waiting for the weekend.
Fast forward to Saturday morning. I am out walking with my wife and our two kids, having told her the night before about all that occurred. She always says I take too many risks telling people off in traffic in Saigon, since locals always seem to worry about the ramifications. I say: “Hey, we shook on it. I know his name. We’re good.” This doesn’t seem to satisfy her.
Anyway, there’s a new coffee shop in our block. Who do I see? You guessed it: Ryan. We’re neighbours. Three days in a row I see this guy, and this time we both have our kids with us at a local coffee shop.
“Let me buy you a coffee,” Ryan says.
Turns out, he’s a banker, as surmised. We both agree there were things we could have done better. And he says he shouldn’t have started the fistfight, having suffered accordingly because the security guards had called police and he spent the morning dealing with them. We chat about our kids, who aren’t too far off in age, and about daycares in the area. It’s bizarre.
To cap it all, I think I came out ahead. Not everyone can get into an argument in traffic on Thursday, get punched in the face over it on Friday, and score a free drink from their assailant on Saturday. But if I were you, I’d just skip all that and buy your own coffee.
Word does not advocate succumbing to road rage, whatever the scenario