Content warning: sexual harassment
It’s a warm night in Hoi An, the canals glittering with paper lanterns. We walk past a group of men in a house’s courtyard, sitting around a table and playing music loudly, laughing, a small mountain of crushed beer cans under their table. I put my arms up and twirl to their music as we pass. Soon, we are sitting on stools at their grimy table, laughing loudly at sentences we don’t understand, their hands on our shoulders. I crush a beer can and throw it under the table, accept another bit of dried fish from a man with filthy fingernails.
I’ve been in Vietnam for almost a month, and have been travelling with Paola for two weeks, having met her in a town outside Hanoi. In the courtyard, Paola sings karaoke to Despacito, getting all of the Spanish words right. At one point, a woman comes out of the house in a nightdress and glares at us, then slips back inside. “That’s my wife,” the man who seems to be the party’s host explains.
We are the only women here.
When someone decides the party should disperse, it happens suddenly – all the men pour onto the street, climb onto motorcycles and disappear. I say goodbye to the host and his friends – shaking hands with some, hugging others that want more than a handshake.
A man with a leaf-pattern shirt takes me by the shoulders, and I instinctively turn my head. He kisses me, quickly, in the space between my cheek and my mouth. I laugh like I’ve swallowed something sharp, and back away.
These men want to fuck me.
In the rush of people leaving, it’s decided that the men will drive Paola and I back to our hostel, but I’ve had maybe two or three beers on an empty stomach, and I’m not sure if that’s what we agreed on. Either way, I like the idea of not walking. I want to feel the wind from the back of a bike. There are two motorcycles for six people: me, Paula, and four men. I step between Paola and the man in the leaf shirt; I don’t want Paola getting on his bike.
The driver mounts his bike, and the leaf-shirt man sits behind him. I make sure I get on last.
I’d rather fall off the back of the bike and have the skin ripped off my arms than be pressed like a panini between these two men.
With three of us on the bike, there is nothing to hold onto except him.
Is there any platonic way to hold onto someone on a motorbike?
I put my arms hesitantly around his waist, resting the tips of my fingers against his shirt, already knowing that to touch too much, too hard, too long would be asking for something I don’t want.
As the bike takes off, I have no choice but to hold tighter. There is no footrest for me, so I clench my knees around his thighs and he puts a hand under my knee, for which I am grateful. I imagine myself toppling slow-motion off the back of the bike onto the road. Maybe I’d just bounce when I make contact with the pavement, like one of those big exercise balls.
Maybe if I was an exercise ball, empty, purple, filled with air, no-one could do anything to me, no-one would want to hurt me. They’d try and touch me, and I’d just roll away. They’d stare and I’d stare back, eyeless, impassive. They’d get bored and leave when I don’t respond. No-one wants to fuck an exercise ball.
The noise of the party disappears behind us. We are all still laughing, the two men talking in rapid Vietnamese, the beer humming in my head.
“You’re very beautiful,” he tells me, over the growl of the engine. I am looking to the side, trying to keep my right ankle from being burned by the exhaust. “Thank you,” I say, although I am not grateful at all.
“You’re very beautiful,” he tells me again a few minutes later, moving my arm up from his waist. He picks up my wrist and puts it over his shoulder, wrapping my arm around his neck. He leaves his hand on my wrist. “Thank you,” I say again.
He says something in Vietnamese and then he and the motorcycle driver laugh for a long time.
“Where are you staying?” he asks.
He means to imply: “I care about getting you there safely.” But also: “I know where you sleep. I can come find you whenever I want – if not tonight, then tomorrow night, or the night after that.”
“I’m staying at the Coconut Tree hostel, on An Bang Beach,” I tell him. “You’re driving me there, right?”
“How much are you paying for your hostel?” he asks. I tell him. “Too expensive,” he tsks. “You should come back to my house.”
I laugh, not sure if this is a joke. “Maybe not tonight.” A little flicker of fear blooms, like a struck match.
“Come to my house, it’s that way.” he points ahead, in the direction the motorcycle is travelling. “You can stay there.”
“Maybe tomorrow night,” I say. “I’ve already paid for tonight at this hostel.”
The only thing I have left going for me is the fact that these men want to fuck me. If I say “no” – remove the promise of sex – I become something to be either raped or discarded. But if I play along, he’ll keep me safe for tonight, save me for later.
He and the driver are speaking in Vietnamese again. The motorcycle slows down, and takes a right onto a different road, lurching over potholes that make me clench my knees tighter.
He begins rubbing my arm that is wrapped around his neck, slowly, like he is jacking it off. He brings my hand up to his mouth and kisses the palm.
The hand under my knee moves steadily upwards, discovers bare flesh underneath the folds of my skirt. I close my eyes and focus on the feeling of the wind.
A few inches higher, and I push his hand away. It returns.
I push it away, I laugh. It returns, he laughs.
I push it away. It returns.
I push it away. It returns.
I hesitate for a few seconds.
It moves higher.
I hesitate more. It squeezes.
I push it away. I laugh, to show him I mean no offense.
It returns. I don’t push it away.
This is not a perfect victim narrative.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say eagerly.
He groans loudly. “NO! No boyfriend.”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” I say. “I have a boyfriend.”
I’m sorry my body is another man’s property; no trespassing.
“You’re very beautiful. You should come to my house,” he says again. I ignore him. I don’t recognize any of the buildings around us. “Are we close to my hostel?” I ask. “Yes,” he says, kneading my thigh.
“Are we close?” I ask again, a minute later. “Yes,” he says. The buildings are getting smaller, and the intersection ahead looks familiar, it’s the main road near my hostel. “Are we here? An Bang Beach?” I ask. “Yes,” he says, pressing his lips to my wrist. The motorcycle slows at the intersection and I slide off the back. Grinning with relief, I wave good-bye.
Maybe he wasn’t so bad. Maybe that ride was okay. They delivered me to my hostel, after all.
As they drive off, I check my phone, wait for the little blue dot to settle on my location in Google Maps. When it does, I am seven kilometers away from An Bang Beach. I look around and swear loudly, twice. What I thought was a familiar intersection is just another dark anonymous road. I start walking.
Fucking bastards. Lying invertebrates. I’ll kill them.
I’d rather be discarded than raped.
I flag down a passing motorcycle and convince a very reluctant young man to give me a ride to An Bang Beach. Part of me can’t believe that I’m getting on another strange man’s motorcycle right now. Mostly I’ve left my body, I’m floating a few feet above it. When he drops me at the intersection near my hostel, I give him a 200,000VND note, much more than he expects, and he raises his eyes in shock. I don’t care. I can still feel the ghost of a hand on my thigh.
I walk to my hostel, the tide of my adrenaline ebbing. I feel sick, maybe that’s just the beer. I call my boyfriend, telI him what happened, I can talk about it, I will talk about it, I won’t let this become one of the things I can’t talk about, but I sand down the edges of the details, breeze through others, laugh at the end.
You’re talking too fast, I coach myself. Slow down. Calm down. It wasn’t so bad. You’re fine. He barely touched you. You let him touch you. You didn’t say no. You’re overreacting.
My boyfriend “hmm”s sympathetically. He said maybe my parents have a point, maybe it’s better that I don’t travel alone. I hate him for being right.
Where the fuck is Paola?
Her last text said that the men brought her to a hotel across town. She thought I was heading there too, and her phone is dying, but she is fine. I don’t trust “fine.”
She shows up a few long minutes later, as I’m preparing to head out to find her. When we hug each other, with an intimacy that outstrips our short relationship, it feels like she already knows. Not what happened, but something about what it’s like to force a laugh with someone’s hand on your thigh. Something of how it feels to lose control of the borders to your body. To bargain for your safety with unsafe men. For a minute, I don’t have to pretend I am okay, but I don’t have to explain why I am not.