He slows the motorbike, pulling over to the skinny shoulder of the highway that wraps seductively around the lush green mountain. He points. “Photo.” It’s more of a command than a suggestion. I snap of shot of the vista—pretty, with rice paddies and a cloak of fog. But I couldn’t tell you any more about it.
That’s because Mr. Loc isn’t having it. He’s shown us the goddamn vista, his posture seems to say, what more do we want?
Even the most skilled and adept of independent travelers (and I’m certainly far from one of them) falls for an imitator sometimes. It happens: we’re tired, we’re rushed, our guard is down, it seems like a good idea. We wind up paying top dollar for a half-assed adventure.
I’d heard about the Hue Riders one night in Hanoi. Instead of a boring old tour bus, they take you on motorbikes from Hue to Hoi An, an historic trail that stops at waterfalls and pagodas and old American bunkers. “It’s supposed to be brillant,” one of Jacob’s friends told me, hunched on our plastic stools over the billow of BBQ smoke.
Killer. Sign me up.
I asked my hotel in Hue if they’d heard of the Hue Riders and they nodded enthusiastically, leading me over to the dude posted at the cafe next door. He thumbed through his photo album—him with smiling white girls, him with white dudes giving the thumbs up sign. He showed me an entry in his customer comment notebook from a girl who was “from your country!”
I couldn’t tell if it was cause to be suspicious, or if he was just that certain kind of proud that third-world tourism workers sometimes are. He showed me his business card: “FIFTEEN YEARS Experienced, All’s for your satisfaction.” But hey, it said “Hue Riders” under his name.
It was only later, after I’d paid and signed up, that the real suspicion began to mount. I googled Hue Riders. And holy shit, there was an actual, legit website. For the real Hue Riders. Of which Mr. Loc was not one.
Oh well, I told myself. Chalk another up to experience. Sometimes the DIY, hustling tour guides can be just as good as the bona fide ones your LP recommends.
Which is true. But Mr. Loc, I’m discovering, isn’t one of them.
Our first stop was a fishing village off the highway: a dirt road strewn with debris; a couple of kids playing soccer; a clutter of wooden boats, docked and sleeping; nets laid out like the vacated skins of snakes.
“Fishing village,” was the extent of explaination given.
Joe, the upbeat and friendly male half of an American couple who’d also gotten roped into the tour, attempted to ask some questions. “Do they go out in the morning?” We got a sort of unintelligble, one-word answer.
Now at a mountain pass—but was it the first or the second pass?—I attempt to eavesdrop on the tour guide next to us. Something important about these cables, this view, something about Americans? I try to ask Mr. Loc. “Was this something important during the war?”
“Yes, I think so.”We move along. It’s a foggy, white-wrapped day, and all the sights we stop at are equally shrouded in hazy incomprehension. We stop by bunkers used during “the American War” (now a tourist trap—more on that in a later post). We stop off for overpriced coffee at a cheesy resort. We pull over at the roadside operation for a kind of cosmetic oil made from a local leaf. We stand around awkwardly as Mr. Loc tells us the prices of the different sized oils.
“Not much of an oil type myself,” Joe declares good-naturedly. He’s pathologically cheerful, in that particular American way, with his buzz cut and beaming cheeks. “When do we get to the waterfall?”
“No waterfall today,” Mr. Loc declares. “The weather,” he gestures around us, “road too slippery.” He makes a skid-and-crash motion with his hands. We nod solemnly, disappointed.
We stop at Marble Mountains, thrust from the flat earth near China Beach like a glittering rock of crystal. Pagodas and temples abound. Joe maintains his positivity, reading aloud from his Lonely Planet to make up for our lack of tour guide. I’m grateful for his unrelenting optimism.We wander into a cave that feels like a cathedral—a carved Buddha in the stone, incense like breath, sunlight filtering through the ceiling like the fingers of gods. There’s the hush of a holy place there; Joe reads that during the War, it was used as a VC hospital.
In a corner, a bat with a broken wing arches and flops. He squeaks intermittenly, and it sounds like a very small prayer, echoing against the rock.
We descend the mountain and find Mr. Loc waiting for us, leaned against the motorbike. “Okay, we go.”
I realize the thing about Mr. Loc isn’t that he’s rude or unknowledgable or even a shitty tour guide. It’s that he’s supremely Vietnamese. It’s this certain way, this certain attitude, that I’ve begun to understand, the same as in the nail shops at home—matter-of-fact, blunt, nothing sugar-coated or said sweetly. Here’s your tour. There’s a sight. Good? Okay.
“Vietnamese people aren’t very nice,” other travelers have told me. I understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t think it’s a simple matter of not being nice; I think it’s a profound cultural difference. (“You want pedicure? Okay, you pick a color.”) Brusk and brash—jarring as the chorus of honks from the motorbikes.
We arrive in Hoi An wind-blown and dirt-covered. My eyes well from the thousand particles of crap swimming around my contacts; my hair’s matted to my head from too many hours wearing a helmet.
Mr. Loc drops me at my hotel. “Happy?” It’s a business-like question.
I nod. Why not?