We were on our way again. This time, they promised me, we were going to a village. Unfortunately, our path to rural serenity took us, not down quiet country lanes past lowing cattle, but along a major Mekong artery, where the trucks and buses roared by endlessly. I discovered an entirely new sound: not the single, heart-stopping blast of a bus bearing down from behind, but the mingled cry of two road monsters, the second intent on overtaking the first. They appropriated the entire road, scattering drying coconut husks and bicycles and leaving pandemonium in their wake.
The gravel shoulder sloping down into the paddy provided a measure of safety, but it was littered with broken down bicycles and stalls selling grapefruits. Neat rectangles of drying rice appeared at intervals, their corners anchored with football-sized rocks or broken chairs to discourage encroaching drivers.
With the added traffic Fung had taken it upon himself to ride beside me, to play David against the oncoming Goliaths. I was grateful for his concern but much more comfortable pedaling single file. Disaster struck almost immediately. A bus in a Hell-bent hurry bore down on us from the front while a truck being chased by demon furies raced towards us from behind. Fung pedaled on, unconcerned. The road clearly wasn't going to be wide enough to accommodate all four of us. At the moment of truth I lost my nerve and plowed through a thicket of red and yellow incense sticks drying on the shoulder. Chau tittered behind me. Fung shook his head knowingly and clicked his tongue. I wished him dead.
I wheeled my bike back onto the road, leapt on board and sprinted to the front, forcing us to ride single file. Neither Fung nor Chau were happy, and made frequent attempts to overtake me and ride at my side. I increased my pace. So did they.
We pedaled past intermittent paddy and an occasional roadside eatery. Fung was inching up on me again. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. He motioned that he had something important to tell me. I reluctantly allowed him to close the gap.
"Are you tired?" he asked, planting himself firmly at my shoulder. I shook my head and tried in vain to shake him loose. He rode in a straight line, just on the edge of the shoulder, and gave me no room to squeeze past the broken-down vehicles and tossing buffalo horns. I asked him to ride behind me. He shrugged and shook his head. "You no know how drive bike," he said.
This time it was a bus. It chose the narrow strip in front of us to pull over and let off a passenger. Fung recognized the conductor's shrill whistle seconds before I did and sprinted for the narrowing gap. He plugged it completely. I swung off the road, rolled heavily down an embankment that was far too steep for my fickle brakes and buried my front wheel in the paddy mud.
Fung pulled over above me and lit a cigarette.
My bike came free of the ooze with a loud slurping sound and I hauled it with difficulty up to the road. I contained my rage and pushed off, ignoring the splatters of mud that flew off the wheel and speckled my clothes and legs. Fung was sneaking up on me again. This time I was ready for him, cutting him off sharply when he tried to pass me on the inside. He slalomed across my back wheel like a water-skier and inched up on me from the other side. I sped up, all thoughts of lovely scenery forgotten, my mind filled instead with fantasies of scattered thumb tacks, poisoned oil slicks and rear-mounted Tommy guns. Perhaps the war wasn't such a bad idea after all.