I kept seeing him around town. My first morning, groggy-eyed drinking coffee at a corner cafe, I saw him sitting at a neighboring table. He was selling his tour services to another sola Westerner, and it appeared to be working. He was younger than the other motorbike drivers, wearing a sleeveless shirt, something beat-up, kind of tough about him. He’s working it, I’d thought.
He looked over at me and we exchanged brief nods.
I saw him again that afternoon atop Sam Mountain, two skimpily clad female backpackers hopping off the back of his motorbike. Yup, I thought. Woooorkin it.
He asked me about my tattoos, peeled his shirt back and showed me a jagged dragon across his chest. The lines of it were half-blown out.
“You tattoo? You use neddle?” he asked me. I shook my head, “No way, a gun, man!”
He grinned a soggy-toothed grin. “Me, no gun.” I could tell, though I didn’t say it.
And again outside my hotel that night. He talked up his tour services, an English at once clear and garbled, that snagged and stuttered on certain words. I’d already booked a Delta tour with my hotel; I politely refused.
The next day’s tour was my third one in Vietnam with barely-to-no English spoken. We motored the Delta’s brown waters, through a “village” of tattered boats—faded wood, clutters of laungry, children flying kites from somewhere on the decks—and to a Cham ethnic minority village on dryland. It was fascinating, beautiful, but I had no context for it, no way to learn, to understand what I was seeing. I wanted to know more, felt it building up in me, bottling up, nowhere to go—an asphyxiation of unasked questions.
I was over it. Over the seeing-and-not-knowing tours.
Which I guess is how Duc sold himself to me. I sat later drinking coffee on a plastic stool in the shade. He pedaled his motorbike up, said hello. He asked how my tour had gone. I told him not great.
“You go with someone who speak English, it better.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that.”
He must have sized me up pretty well. He told me about a Khmer village about 15km away, very remote and isolated, “no one else take you there.” He kept talking and talking, and I thought, It’d be nice to see something with someone who can explain it. I also thought, If his tour guide skills are anything like his sales skills, it’ll be pretty good. I’d already spent too much that day, but said fuck it.
“Okay, okay,” I smiled. Then added, “You’re a good salesman.”
We drove through the Delta, its murky beauty: corrugated tin shacks perched on bamboo stilts like skinny legs, a Dali painting; ladders to reedy docks, leading precipitously down the muddy banks, into the muddy water (love, love, love that dirty water). My brain was on fire with images; I kept trying to scribble them down. Writing poetry on the back of a motorbike, it turns out, is very hard.
Duc kept pulling over along the way, to show me things, rice and seeds, things laid out on tarps to dry in the sun. He didn’t have to do that. He explained how the rice patties were harvested, how the people worked long hours, “very hard work.” He didn’t have to do that either.
Every now and then a vagrant stutter would lurk through his speech. But he’d work through it—drag his speech and himself through the snare of it—and something about it struck me as sad and somehow tender, like a bird with a broken wing.
I pretended not to notice.
We made a few other stops, finally pulled off and bumped slowly down a dirt road. The landscape changed—more cows, bone white and skinny-ribbed, flowering trees I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The houses were suddenly different too—thatching for walls as well as roofs, so the structures looked furry, like animals.
We crawled out of a cloud of dust as the bike came to a stop.
We begin to walk the town’s road slowly. He explained: a town of about 400, ethnically Khmer. There were a few towns like that along this strip of the Delta, a ribbon of land that had once been part of Cambodia. They stayed pretty isolated, stayed to themselves; residents rarely left. So traditional ways, instead of blurring with those of the Vietnamese, stayed pretty intact. And I could feel it, could feel the immediate difference.
Curious brown faces began to appear. “Hello!” one of them shouted, then hid behind the back of another. “My name is—” then a chorus of giggling. I answered back hello, and they laughed more. We went on like that, as I kept walking.
Every face I passed seemed to smile. I was an outsider, an oddity, but they seemed pleased by me. I passed a baby in a hammock, being rocked by a rope that was tied to it, a mother tugging, tugging. She smiled too.
The crowd of children grew, big grins on small faces. Most were barefoot, their clothes thin and worn. They held their hands to their mouths, the girls chewed their hair, they smiled and smiled.
We passed a woman making these omelet/crepe things I’d had before, filled with sprouts and meat. I was hungry. I motioned for one and sat down.
This is when the real delight began to grow. And the crowd.
I’ve heard other travelers’ tales like these: being surrounded in some small village somewhere, stared at. But I’d never had to happen to me. I kept stopping eating, looking around—an entire circle of faces, just watching, watching, and smiling too.
I laughed—what else could I do? I searched for Duc’s face, hidden behind the crowd; his was smiling too.
A very small, very hunched and wrinkled old woman, tapped my shoulder. She handed me a short tin cup filled with water, and I thought I might cry. They were all so welcoming, so sincere; the children giggled and the adults watched and they all kept smiling. It struck me as about the sweetest thing I’d ever experienced.
Duc and I began to walk slowly back towards the motorbike, the village’s kids trailing behind us—a shadow of children. I turned around and waved. “Good-bye.” And a chorus of “good-byes” erupted and a flurry of waves, and we drove off, away: a precious little place I’d never be again.
And it struck me, there, on the back of that bike, that Ba Chuc must have been a lot like that town before the Khmer Rouge came. Only bigger.
We cruised back into town. I hopped off in front of my hotel, handed Duc $10 instead of the $9 we’d agreed on.
“Oh, you tip me? You happy?”
“Yes. I’m very, very happy.”