by Lauren Hatch
Its 4am and I'm running for my life.
I'm running faster than I've ever ran before. I've forgotten that I hate running, can't do it - don't do it - none of that matters right now, only closing the distance between me and him: he is escaping me.
A continuous drone of neon lights provides an atmospheric soundtrack to my chase. This is accompanied by the flip-flap of bare feet pounding pavement and the boom-skip-thud of my heart beating my throat. I appear to have lost my shoes. I appear to have lost many things - my mind being the first and most obvious victim.
Only a shopkeeper up a ladder witnesses my chase. 'Why is he up a ladder at this time in the morning?' thinks she who is chasing a young man down the street at 4am, shoeless. He turns a blind eye. He's more concerned with the string of bright paper lanterns he's fixing above his shop front. They trickle out of his hands like candy-coloured pearls spilling from a jewelry box.
I don't labour on this, I can't. I haven't got a moment to spare. You see I'm in pursuit of him, or more accurately the bag that is in his possession: my bag. You see my whole life is in there - my passport, my money, my diary, my phone - my everything. And he's getting away with it. Fast.
Yesterday I boarded a bus in Hue and embarked on an 18 hour journey squished between a chicken coop and an overstuffed backpack, before being ejected right here in the street, apparently arriving at my destination. This seems to be standard in Vietnam right now. It's only been a few years since it flung its doors wide open to tourism and there isn't much choice, you just accept what you're given.
Only five minutes ago I had perched on the edge of my backpack leafing through the pages of my guide and feeling hopelessly lost when, a young stranger approached me asking for a light: 'A light? Do I?' I'm not sure but I rummage inside my handbag on the off chance. And in that second, that ever so obliging moment, my bag was gone. A whoosh, a gasp, a flip flop hits the pavement and the stranger has run into the night with my handbag and my life.
So here I am hot on his heels like a sand fly at dusk, when suddenly mid-chase, something entirely unexpected happens.
He stops. He waits. He turns to look straight at me-the thief meets his prey. Silence fills the air like a raincloud fit to burst and a question mark hangs over which one of us will make the next move, who will be the first to break? Yet I know, at least I think I can sense, that he means me know harm. He is ever so, ever so young and his expression now appears less belligerent youth and more bewildered child. It tells me he didn't expect it to get this far and he has no idea what on earth he'll do next. So, he does the only thing he can do - he flings the bag back to me and then whippet-quick he disappears into the night.
And that is that. Within seconds the silence has broken, the sun has come up and the unknown street is beginning to stir. A throng of motorbike engines purr off into the distance, while more shop owners appear, with more ladders, more lanterns, more pearls...the day begins.
Later that morning I sit above one of the shops in my room watching the pearls and the chaos unravel beneath me. Kim lee brings slices of dragon fruit like some offering from another planet: all pink, prickly and other worldly. 'I got my life back' I rejoice. My host narrows her eyes like an overprotective parent, 'you could have lost your life.'
I nod in agreement, but I barely believe it. Instead, I think, that the boy is just like the city: a little hard around the edges and slightly wary of the tourists invading his world, but there is kindness there - I saw it - a readiness to stop for a complete stranger and let them in. And over the next few weeks I soften too. I let the city in, right under my skin and then I grow to love it.
Nowadays I run for the hell of it - 5k, 10K, a half marathon... But I've never run as fast as I did that morning in Ho Chi Mingh. I doubt I ever will.