An accident, a dark alley and the kindness of strangers
A traffic accident has left a lamppost down and a minibus windscreen spread across the road.
I’m on my way from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam with a small group of travellers, and the likelihood of us also having an accident at some point is high.
Taxis, mopeds, bicycles, minibuses and a tide of heads and helmets is momentarily held at bay by brief traffic lights before the green starting signal is a cue for the motorised wave to continue.
Amongst the organised chaos a man casually pushes a cart carrying six palm trees straight across the flow of traffic.
Vietnam is a fascinating country with something to see at every turn. En route through little towns we pass narrow houses impossibly squashed between clusters of ramshackle shops and factories. Pavement traders display all sorts – from shoes to bread, and coffins too.
The more peaceful countryside reveals smoking square brick kilns and oxen ploughing fields, with their young running to catch up. There are sampans lazing on waterways and conically hatted women working in the rice fields, bent over, picking, separating and gathering.
Now nearing Ha Long Bay we see limestone pinnacles like jagged and incomplete teeth appearing on the now dusk-smudged horizon. The main street offers us a café for something to eat, and afterwards I begin to stroll along the pavement.
It’s funny how something major can happen to you, and yet you can’t remember the precise details of why.
One moment I’m standing on the pavement, and the next my ankle is twisting and I’m falling into the road. I hear myself gasp with pain. It’s like being speared with a burning sword, as ligaments tear.
The slap I hear is my body against the ground.
“Oh my god! Oh my god!” I scream.
A crowd instantly gathers around me as I lie in the road. I feel like I’m in a deep pit with faces looking in and down at me from the edge. But they aren’t just looking at me; they all want to help me.
A lady from the café runs around behind me and begins to rub my knee, thinking that’s where the damage is. Meanwhile both my hands reach for my ankle in an effort to protect it from a hundred well-meaning hands.
The owner of the café rushes over with ice, and the subsequent removal of my shoe and sock reveals massive swelling to my ankle. This is bad. Eventually finding the courage to stand up, I put a little pressure on the ball of my foot. Ouch!
The café owner tells me that someone has suggested finding a local medicine woman. In the absence of any current alternative, I hastily agree, and suddenly a man on a moped appears out of nowhere – and before I know it I’m barefoot on the back of it and being driven off into the unknown.
My ‘driver’ weaves a course along dark narrow streets and unlit alleyways, rats scurrying across from time to time.
There’s no one else in sight, and I realise then just what an idiot I’ve been.
I have no idea who this man is, I’m in a town I don’t know, no one knows where I am, it’s dark and late and I can’t run away.
He finally stops in a pitch dark alley and turns off the engine. I am entirely in his hands.
My heart is sinking and racing at the same time.
Then, however, he indicates to me to stay where I am and he walks towards a nearby house and calls to someone through the gate. Another man comes out to unlock it – and a light goes on. My moped man comes back to help me off the moped and up some steps into the house.
The medicine woman is tiny.
Her miniature frame is clad in ageing weathered skin. As she walks slowly towards me I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see someone.
She must be 60 or 70 years old – it ‘s hard to tell. Her black teeth smile at me and I get the impression she’s asking me what had happened – but I can’t understand or reply. Some kind of illogical reflex sees me turn to my new moped friend for some kind of translation – but no one can understand me, and I can’t understand them.
For the first time in my life I feel completely unable to communicate.
Gestures follow, though, and the elderly lady sits me down and goes to fetch a bottle of a brown liquid. She gives my foot an unnervingly hard massage using the solution. I grit my teeth.
I gesture to ask her if a bone is broken, and she points repeatedly to a particular part of my foot.
Eventually she’s finished, and my moped friend helps me back onto his moped and takes me back through all the dark, winding streets to the café. Neither the medicine woman nor the moped man have asked me for anything in return for their kindness, but I offer them both some money for their time and fuel.
Two days later at a clinic in Hanoi, expensive x-rays reveal damage to the very place in my foot that the medicine woman had indicated, and my leg is put in plaster. Not broken, but badly torn.
The kindness of strangers can leave an indelible impression in our hearts
I was overwhelmed with the kindness of strangers that evening – from the people running to help me as I lay in the road, to the people from the café, the medicine woman and of course the moped man.
After the pain and shock had subsided I felt humbled by the experience and ashamed to have even thought I might have been in danger in the moped man’s hands.
That experience has stayed with me ever since.
It happened in 2001 and it still frequently reminds me that there are many more people to trust in this world than we sometimes think. It’s also a good example of how travel changes our minds.
Accepting the kindness of strangers is also one of the most gracious things we can do in a new place, and the bonds of trust that it sparks can last a lifetime. I was also left wondering whether people from my own culture would be so quick to help.
Do you have a similar story of being bowled over by the unexpected kindness of strangers – whether at home or across the world? Share your story here or add a comment below.
(Note: I’m not advocating that you take the kind of risk I took here, especially if you’re female and travelling alone. My wider point is really to demonstrate the kindness of strangers and the impact such unexpected encounters can have on our lives.)