"Oh my God," Jess breathes behind me as I yank the handlebars to the right, the scooter's thin tires hitting the verge by the side of the road, jolting us up and down as I squeeze the brakes and we slow to a stop.
The ambulance screams past, no siren, no lights, just a big car going very fast on a small road, in fact on our side of a small road. I kick the scooter into first gear and steer us back onto the tarmac, turning my head a little to talk to Jess behind me. "That would have been ironic. Run over by an ambulance."
She laughs nervously. What else can you do? This is not the first time on this trip we've been properly run off the road. It's not even the first time today.
We're in the Mekong Delta, languid and loose, where everything moves slowly except the traffic. By the side of the narrow roads here it's all total relaxation, people picking over fresh fruit at little wooden shacks, standing around talking in groups, even lying in hammocks in some places. It's hot here, and humid, it breeds a sort of idyll.
That is, apparently, until you get behind the wheel of a car, and then you just act like everyone else in Vietnam. You veer, you swerve. You honk. You accelerate. You honk some more. There's no point fighting the surge when you're on a scooter like we are, you just have to go with it, to ride the current and veer and swerve and honk with everyone else, to keep flicking your eyes in every direction looking for danger, to have your hands poised over the brakes at all times, and to just go.
And we've gone. In the last few days Jess and I have left the grit and the noise of Saigon and motored south into the delta, where rice paddies stretch out for miles, where canals run alongside the roads and palm trees dangle over them, and where bridge crossings become more and more frequent as the Mekong spreads its fingers across the land.
Sometimes there aren't even bridges over the wide, brown rivers, so we line up with everyone else for the car ferries, we roll our little Honda 110cc on board and stand there and cop stares from all the locals as the boat chugs across to the other side.
We stop every few hours at roadside cafes, little shacks with hammocks laid out, where we lie down and rest sore limbs and drink iced coffee with condensed milk and talk about all the cars that tried to run us over. We eat lunches in whichever town we happen to be in. We trawl through markets or call past cheap restaurants, parking the scooter outside and wandering in, eating banh xeo, crispy turmeric pancakes, or banh cuon, broad rice noodles wrapped around fried pork, or hu tieu, clear soup with noodles and meat.
We spend nights in the best guesthouses we can find in the places we manage to stop. One night in Ben Tre it's a nice three-star hotel with a balcony overlooking a river. Another night in Tri Ton it's a windowless cell with tiled walls and icky sheets.
This whole trip has been swirling and surreal, at once white-knuckle and yet serene, a journey of heat and sweat and sunshine and curious stares. It's been devoid of any real tourist attractions, anything to take photos of, anything to ensure we don't miss.
It's also, to me, is what travel is all about. It's everything.
When I look back on my favourite travel memories, when I think about what I've loved the most over the years and what I yearn for now, it's not the nice hotels or the fancy dinners or the perfectly executed plans. It's not the attractions or the Insta-friendly photo ops. It's the adventures, the unexpected moments, the journeys that had no real purpose, no beginning and end, just a sense of discovery and thrill.
This is what travel is all about, and it's what everyone should be aiming for when they get back to overseas adventure: the great unplanned, the wonder of the unknown. The joy of just exploring. Forget the bucket-list sights with all the tourists. Forget the strict itineraries and the advance bookings. Get back in touch with the freedom of travel, of being somewhere completely different with no place to go next.
My travelling heart aches for the simplest things from that trip around the Mekong. Standing on a car ferry next to our old scooter, surrounded by other motorbikes, gazing out at the brown river sloshing by. Sitting in a market at dawn, slurping hu tieu and discussing our plan for the day. Lying in one of those hammocks by the side of the road, drinking iced coffee and taking shelter from a tropical storm thundering around us.
I miss the language barrier, the good-natured battle to make ourselves understood. I miss the food, so fresh and fragrant and shockingly delicious. I miss the languid pace of the delta. I miss the freedom that a motorbike brings, the idea you could go anywhere today, you could see anything, you could smell it and taste it and feel it on your skin. I even miss the traffic, the danger, the trucks and cars and even the ambulances that try to run you off the road.
We'll all be able to travel overseas again. Sometime. Somewhere. I would tell you to get planning but in fact you should resist the urge. Don't plan. Just prepare for an adventure.
Where are you planning to go once international borders open? What are you going to do? What are your favourite travel memories? What sort of trips were they?