I’d been backpacking in SE Asia for three months when I arrived in Hoi An, Vietnam, a beachside town known for its lantern festival and droves of seamstresses. I’d met an Aussie named Louise along the way and we’d booked a cheap dorm in the same hostel. After checking-in and stowing our baggage we decided to grab a bite to eat.
A crumpled paper beneath Louise’s bed advertised the “Sleepy Gecko Beach Front Café.” There was no specific address so we wandered down to the water and held the flier up to random men in boats until one of them waved for us to climb aboard. The Sleepy Gecko was actually on a different island across the water and when we climbed up its rough stone steps there was no one there to greet us. The place looked empty other than an older white guy enjoying a beer at 9 o’clock in the morning.
The second floor balcony was covered in large cushions so you could recline while looking out across the water to Hoi An. Brightly colored sailboats drifted in front of brightly colored buildings and the only thing bluer than the water was the sky.
Louise leaned over the edge, taking it all in.
I was about to agree when a gruff British voice interrupted.
“Now who have we here?”
It was the man from the bar, lumbering up the stairs with a fresh beer in hand. Louise gave him our names.
“Ah,” he said, “an Aussie. You’ve got yourself a woman Prime Minister now, how civilized of you. But my God, she’s got quite a nose on her doesn’t she?”
He took a swig and turned to me.
“And you, you’re from Oz as well?”
He gave me a long look.
“You should never admit to that.”
I was about to defend myself but a barefoot toddler came scrambling up the stairs demanding, “Beer, beer, beer!”
He tipped his mug to her lips, letting her sip his morning beer while he shared his story—His name was Steve, he’d “barely escaped London” with “a cent of his net worth” after divorcing his “crazy ex-wife” then wasted no time finding a beautiful new wife and fathering another round of children.
He was well on his way to explaining why he’d named his bar “Sleepy Gecko” when Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” came on the radio and he totally lost it.
“This is top shit, this is!”
Steve, who was obviously crazy, jumped from his chair, opened a closet, and pulled out a camera tripod. Holding it upside down over his head, he stood on tiptoes and used it to reach the volume knob of a speaker mounted on the ceiling.
“This is the remote!” he cackled.
“I’ve so much to teach you about music,” he told me, “To help make up for your nationality, but first—what are you ladies doing today?”
He was talking to backpackers– we hadn’t any plans past breakfast. He leaned in conspiratorially, sloshing his beer around like a mobster making a deal.
“How’d you like to see The Real Vietnam? Not the one in your little guidebooks and maps?
He took our hesitation as a yes.
“Ian!” he yelled downstairs, “gas up the bikes, we’re going on an adventure!”
We headed downstairs to meet Ian, a waitress who’s face was not hiding the fact that “an adventure” wasn’t what she had in mind when she’d come to work that morning. She wore the same white pants and blue robe as the other waitresses, taking care to protect every inch of her skin from the sun. As she pulled on gloves and a bonnet, Crazy Steve muttered something in rough Vietnamese. She briefly disappeared then returned with a fresh mug of beer.
Crazy Steve glanced at me then pointed at his motorcycle.
“You’re with me, Big Red.”
“Where, exactly, are we going?”
As I climbed aboard he groaned over my “extra American weight.” Ian and Louise followed close behind as we disappeared into the green of the island. A few minutes later we reached the opposite side and were bouncing down a wooden dock to a ferry. A crowd of bewildered Vietnamese stared as we wheeled the bikes onto the boat and filed below deck. A foot of water stood beneath the planks and a man cranked the motor by hand.
“Now,” Crazy Steve asked, “Do you know how to swim?”
“Sure,” I lied.
“Good, because these ferries are notorious for sinking, and when they do, they go down fast. If this happens, get away from the Vietnamese as quickly as possible. They will think you are a life raft.”
We managed to make it to the next island without sinking and when we climbed out from below deck, we were on an even more remote island. Crazy Steve waved his arms, gesturing wildly.
“Where are all the tourists?” he yelled.
Gravel roads gave way to dirt, and the houses were framed with rough wood and thatched roofs. We passed a woman with a small brood of children, all staring in wonder. Crazy Steve gave them a thumbs up and a passionate “Whoop!”
“Was there very much fighting around here?” I asked.
“According to Vietnam’s tourism department, the answer to that question is always no.”
“Yes, but how was it really?”
“My wife’s three older sisters were killed when a mortar shell was thrown through the window of their school, so yes, there was fighting around here.”
We approached a stretch of blue water in the distance. A precarious bamboo bridge the width of a sidewalk stretched across it.
It looked like it was made of thinly spread straw floating above the swiftly rushing river.
“Here we go!” he yelled, gunning the engine as we flew over the thin slats of bamboo. “Pull in your knees!” he added, as the bridge narrowed to barely the width of the bike.
Crazy Steve was so impressed when we survived the crossing that he had to stop and take a photo of it.
“There’s no telling when it will fall down, this may be my only chance for the perfect shot.”
He kicked off his sandals and wandered to the middle of a rice paddy, pulling up his khaki shorts as the water deepened to his knees.
Louise made it just past her ankles and refused to go any further.
Out of nowhere, a flood of children came flying out of the jungle, splashing through the water to join us on the other side. A small girl took my hand and studied it, gently tracing my freckles.
Crazy Steve attempted to translate what they were saying.
“They think all you white girls look the same, they can’t tell you apart.”
We couldn’t help finding this funny, as I had a solid 12 inches and 30 pounds on Louise.
“Do they meet a lot of foreigners?” I asked
“The last to come through were your lot, and they were carrying guns.”
We followed them into their village and Ian translated our need for beer, walking assertively into a woman’s kitchen to retrieve three bottles of the local brew.
“It’s okay because all Vietnamese people are related,” Crazy Steve explained.
We drank our beer and wandered down the dusty street. An old woman sat outside a one-room hut, smiling in our direction.
“Hello there!” Crazy Steve called out, “Here, I’ve brought you an American to shoot.”
Luckily she didn’t speak a word of English. Ian translated as she told her story— she was 87 years old, had lived in this village her entire life, and the little building behind her was all she owned.
“Now, when you two find yourselves a pair of rich husbands, make sure to register for a kitchen like this,” Crazy Steve announced, gesturing past the doorless entry to the brick stove and it’s single pan.
I couldn’t help but wonder at all this woman had seen and endured in her life. Everything around us seemed lush and untouched like a hidden paradise, but a lingering awareness of war was all around, persistent as a fog and much more real than the movies I grew up watching.
It didn’t take long for Crazy Steve to find more people to give us beer before we were back on the road, flying free through the jungle. Suddenly, he stopped, staring down a small rugged path that disappeared into the jungle.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s just… I don’t know where the hell that road goes,” he said thoughtfully, “We can either stay on the road I know, or we can take the road I don’t know where the hell it goes, and see where the hell it goes.”
“Let’s do the second option.”
Ian’s face was sweaty and defeated as she turned to follow, Louise beaming from the back of her bike. We took the ride slowly and after a few minutes the path disintegrated into a wide plane of sand and scrub.
“This looks just like Oz!” Louise called from behind us, “Those can’t be eucalyptus trees, can they?”
“That they are!” Crazy Steve answered, “Gifts from the Aussies to help with all the deforestation and destruction of Operation Trail Dust. After the war, different countries gifted different breeds of tree. The Americans, well, they just brought Agent Orange.”
The Road We Don’t Know Where The Hell It Goes ended up dead-ending at a wooden compound. Two men were sleeping in hammocks outside, swaying in the shade while a naked toddler played in an empty bucket. One of the men sat up when he heard us and yelled something into the building. They both look thrilled at the sight of humans, much less foreigners, out in their desolate patch of land.
A woman appeared from inside and set a rusty, grime-encrusted kettle with smeared glasses onto a cracked and leaning table. It looked as though some wild beast had chewed the edges off.
“Now, there’s nothing wrong with this table that a new one wouldn’t fix,” Crazy Steve said out of the side of his mouth.
Crazy Steve happily pounded it with his fist, disturbing the chipped glasses. Amber liquid was poured from the kettle and small mystery chunks swirled inside of it.
“To parasites,” I toasted, holding my glass out.
I brought it to my mouth, mindful of the crack along the edge, and tilted it back without letting any of the liquid through my lips.
“Cam on,” I thanked the woman.
Crazy Steve jabbered incoherently while we tried to determine what they were doing out here in the middle of nowhere with their large white bags of mystery substances and a pin packed with hundreds of frogs in various stages of copulation.
Crazy Steve drained every last drop of his tea.
“Well, now we know where the hell this road goes. But we need to hurry before the tide rises or we won’t get off the island until morning.”
When we reached the beach it was as deserted as the rest of the island, just sand and waves and jungle with no buildings or boats in sight. We weaved in and out, taking the motorcycle into the waves as Crazy Steve let out a series of whoops. Out of nowhere, we realized there was a line of fishing nets hanging across two poles ahead of us.
“This would be a ducking moment,” Crazy Steve yelled, and I tucked my head down just in time to miss the nets.
“Have you been decapitated?” he yelled back to me.
“Nope, still here.”
We made it back to The Sleepy Gecko just as the sun was setting, and Crazy Steve ordered us another round of beer to celebrate the fact that we had seen The Real Vietnam and were no longer a pair of ignorant foreigners.
Louise crossed the bar to embrace a waitress and hand her a wad of Vietnamese Dong. The waitress looked confused as she accepted the money.
“What was that for?” I asked when she sat back down.
“I wanted to tip her for the ride,” she said “that’s part of their culture.”
We were so enlightened now that we had seen The Real Vietnam
“Louise… that was the wrong waitress.”
Her jaw dropped.
“Oh my God… well… it’s hard to tell them apart, hey?”
So much for being enlightened.
Have you ever accepted a stranger’s offer of adventure? Do you think you live up to the stereotypes of your culture or nationality? When have you strayed off the beaten path?
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