When Typhoon Usagi Came to Saigon

When Typhoon Usagi Came to Saigon

It’s been a strange few days around here. The floods are mostly gone now, but you can still see how high the waters were, and there are plastic coffee cups lodged in bushes. Everything below waist level is wet and covered in a layer of filth — all thanks to Typhoon Usagi, of course. The flooding apparently set records, but I just had a drive around and there seems to be a festive atmosphere: families eating out on the sidewalk and groups of young men drinking heavily — quite the difference a day can make.

Tonight, Typhoon No.9 hit to Ho Chi Minh City. People do not go out in case of emergency — Text message from the Government of Vietnam

Nobody took that text seriously. This is a city that can take a beating when it comes to rain, and the sky was only slightly overcast when my phone buzzed. It didn’t matter that the weather radar showed a red hot bowling ball coming straight at us; it was just one more flood to tack onto the end of yet another long rainy season.

So when classes were cancelled Saturday afternoon — with the storm looming offshore — the general consensus was summed up by a chant of “Let’s get drunk!” The parents didn’t look overly enthused, but they were missing the point: their children would be safe at home while us professionals celebrated one of the nicest days I’ve ever had in Saigon.

What a wonderful afternoon in Binh Thanh that was. We set up around a plastic table in the alley for some pre-typhoon drinks and karaoke — a wholesome experience with the local community. We saw a baby piss on his mother, a giant rooster on its way to some back alley fighting ring, and a fat lady in a pajama suit lose her shit on us until we moved the party back inside. Some thought it was because she hated foreigners, but I think it was because our Irish contingent had taught some kids an annoying IRA chant, which they then screamed for about an hour. Add in some bad guitar playing by those same kids and it’s a wonder she didn’t snap sooner.

I had already given up on that weird scene by the time the woman went berserk. There was one little bastard who kept trying to de-tune my guitar, and then, after we scolded him, he started wiping his ass with leaves and pretending like he was going to throw them at us.

Nope … that was too much for me, so I was already upstairs by the time the woman came out holding her head and screaming gibberish. Maybe it was the tension of waiting for the storm that finally got to her; it was palpable as the night wore on. I felt it seeping into our group as well, and everything soon devolved into a hell broth of shitty behaviour and hurt feelings — which is fine on most nights, but we all had to work the next morning.…

We’d been holding out hope that the typhoon would come in and kick the shit out of the city so badly we wouldn’t have to wake up for work — but Usagi wasn’t holding up its end of the deal. The storm was lingering off the coast, taking its sweet-ass time in making landfall. There was barely even a drizzle outside.

But there was still hope, because as I made my way home the rain picked up with a real vengeance. This felt real, like the storm was back on schedule. I went to sleep with the same mindset I’d had as a kid when I stayed up to watch raging blizzards on miserably cold February nights: Tomorrow’s definitely going to be a snow day.

Add in twenty years and twenty degrees and you’ll have some idea of just how giddy and excited I felt when my alarm went off at six in the morning and I heard rain outside my window. I ripped open the curtains to have a look at the utter destruction outside, hoping for flooding on a biblical scale, but there was nothing. The street was hardly even wet, let alone too flooded for me to drive to work. I had seven hours of teaching staring me down like a loaded gun and my head was throbbing.

So off I went, shrouded in a flimsy rain poncho and cursing Usagi with every vile name I could think of. The storm of the year had been a dud — a colossal embarrassment. I was too upset to even check the weather radar; it had already let me down, and now I held a grudge against it, blaming it entirely for my headache and the half-empty classes of shrieking kids. The hours ticked by like my own personal hell, bolstered by a light rain that seemed to be Usagi telling me, “That’s what you get, you dumb shit.”

As the end closed in, the rain slowly got worse — just in time for my drive home. By the time I had just one hour to go, the storm had finally arrived, and it was one hell of a sight. The rain was coming down so hard it looked like there was more water than air outside. It looked every bit like the emergency scenario the text had warned us about, and so, for the second day in a row, celebrations rang through the Teacher’s Room as the last class of the day was cancelled.

But now came the real test: the drive home.

Steering a motorbike through knee-deep waters isn’t an easy skill to learn. It usually takes some real trial and error — errors that often mean spending time in water so dirty you wish you could somehow disinfect yourself down to your very soul. Going straight is simple enough, but the problem comes when every moron in a car or truck decides that since they’re dry, there’s no need to slow down as they roll through at full speed, launching waves into everyone on either side of them. When one of those waves hits your front wheel, it takes some decent upper-body strength and one hell of a quick reaction time just to stay upright.

Once would be fine, but by the ninth or tenth time on that drive home, I had a strong urge to find a hardware store and pick up one of those glass-shattering hammers — just a little love tap on the window to welcome those stupid fuckers to the joy of driving through raindrops so big they hurt when they smack you in the face.

The Hanoi Highway wasn’t too bad — nothing worse than you’d see at the height of the rainy season — but Thao Dien was a complete disaster. The level of chaos and despair was actually hilarious. I half-expected to start seeing corpses floating past it was so bad. The only reason my bike survived was because I had it revved so high in first gear that the exhaust was forcing the water back out. Jess wasn’t so lucky, though.

She was a sad sight in her polka dot blue rain poncho, pushing her little Yamaha Cuxi through flood waters up to her waist. My Honda Wave sits a bit taller, better for floods, but hers isn’t cut out for this kind of driving. The final straw came when she tried to push her bike up onto the curb and it just fell sideways into the water, leaving her there holding the rubber handle with a look of pure defeat. It took me and a nice delivery driver who had inexplicably lost his keys just to get the bike upright. By then, Jess was in no mood to push it the rest of the way home.

So we abandoned it there, leaving it to blind luck and fate. Jess hopped on mine and we continued through what was already looking like a dystopian version of a late-century Vietnam. Some watched with vacant eyes from the relative safety of a Starbucks awning, but most were out in the thick of it, pushing their motorbikes through rivers where the streets once ran — all of them on The Long March Home.

The storm raged all night. According to some news reports, it delivered the longest and heaviest rains the city had ever seen — which is certainly believable to anyone who had to venture out during the worst of it. Ho Chi Minh City is used to a bit of rain, but that was a storm to remember. Even now, a day later, there are crowds at every motorbike repair shop, and I can’t help but laugh at how angry they all look.

[Update] Jess’s motorbike was still there.