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Land of Smoke and Mirrors


Motorbike taxis in Ho Chi Minh City make for an exhilarating ride. Amidst the swarm of three million motorbikes that flow through the city’s streets every day, you are flushed forwards at terrifying speeds. If you want to overtake, you have to break ranks and slip into the oncoming traffic, weaving through the onrush of bikes with daredevil nimbleness. At crossroads – engines revving, horns bleating – the motorbikes become something like trapped and choppy water. Driving is characterized by a certain playfulness and gives you the feeling of being on the controls of a video game, where you hold tight, surge ahead, and brace yourself for impact.

It was the motorbike taxis that gave me a sweet taste of recklessness, and made me crave the freedom-tinged-with-danger that typifies independent travel. Forging one’s own path brings meaning to the experience of travel because of the many small discoveries you stumble upon along the way. After some weeks on the tourist trail, I realised that, although I had travelled halfway across the country, I still hadn’t seen the inside of a local bus, or met any natives other than those who worked in the tourist industry.

I had been numbed by the passiveness of organised tours, and by being corralled with other tourists into a group that attracted attention; I wanted to be an anonymous, down-at-heel traveller. I didn’t want to be taken to restaurants, hotels, or souvenir shops; the satisfaction of travel was in finding my own accommodation and restaurants. As I planned my side-trip to the Mekong Delta, I began to ask myself certain questions. Did I want to be comfortably whisked away in a fast ferry and taken round the canals in a big touring boat? Or did I want to find an old fisherman with missing teeth and a dubious canoe and pay him generously to paddle me through the maze of inland waterways?

I reasoned that package tourism is more likely to be intrusive and artificial, not to mention socially and environmentally invasive. Most of the money generated by this type of tourism goes straight into the pockets of a few businesspeople. Furthermore, the development of tourist enclaves – hotels and restaurants and their supporting infrastructure – is often imposed on communities that do not benefit directly from the industry, gobbling up land and resources that belong to that village or town. I wanted to eat in local eateries and stay in family guesthouses, and I wanted to hire a fishermen or local boy for a guide.

With this in mind, I found myself climbing on a motorbike taxi headed towards the bus station, to wait five hours for the bus to Cantho – a destination I chose because of its floating market. The bus was dusty and stuffy, the aisle cluttered with sacks and boxes of vegetable produce. The twenty-something next to me had feet that stank of sweat and slept on my shoulder for five hours of the eight-hour journey. It was an uncomfortable ride in an overcrowded bus that was choking with cigarette smoke. But this was where I wanted to be. As a Westerner, the natives on the bus regarded me as an eccentric but accessible outsider, dressed like them, in a T-shirt full of holes and sandals that had been stitched together by a street cobbler, and carrying a dirty cloth bag full of belongings. I was shown curiosity and kindness, and offered fruits and nuts, sweets and cigarettes. No one spoke English, and I had no idea where I needed to get off the bus. When a breakdown delayed us and it became dark outside, I was trying to ignore the tentacles of panic: how would I find accommodation in a strange town in the dark?

On the river ferry, which the bus had driven on, a young woman chatted me up. After some small talk, she pointed at the bus: “This bus will go to the bus station, which is on the outskirts of town. If you come with me, I can take you to the cheapest guesthouse in town. It’s owned by my English teacher – nice family, clean house.” “Take me?” I asked. She smiled and pointed to the Honda moped parked next to the bus. “Come!” I got on the back of the moped on a sudden impulse, and she drove me to the guesthouse she had described. So grateful was I for this act of kindness that I invited her to dinner, where I found out more about her. Nga, 29, came from a poor family who lived in a thatched hut in the scruffy settlement that had spilled across the river. She came to town in the evenings to see her uncle, to access the Internet and to go to the karaoke. She had earned a degree in business studies. Well-dressed and confident, she had large, innocent eyes.

Hours passed – we finished dinner, and now we were drinking in a bar. Nga was full of smiles, and, coyly flirtatious, and I began to think she liked me. It was a thought that made me careless; I got drunk, and felt giddy as my mind created imaginary scenarios of how I would be seduced. But when the bar was about to shut, Nga suddenly became brusque and business-like. She asked me if I wanted to take a boat tour with her cousin. I would see the floating market, the backwater canals, an orchard, a paddy field – a six-hour tour, at US$3 per hour. No orchard or paddy field for me, I told her. I had seen a thousand of them in Asia – why would I pay money to see more? I wanted to do only three hours. She said three hours wouldn’t be enough make the whole loop; I needed at least five. She took a form book and wrote something down, then pointed toward the dotted line and asked me to sign. I paid her an advance of US$5.

Recalling that she had said she was on holidays, I asked her again about her job, to which she replied, “This is my job.” So had everything she had done to help was just leading up to this point? Was she a slick, professional operator, who had got a free meal, enjoyed free drinks, and booked me on a tour? Was the five dollar bill she extricated from me her cut? Or was I making too much of what could have been a misunderstanding when she had told me she was on holidays?

The next morning, feeling groggy and hungover, I stepped into the creaking canoe with trepidation. The constant wobble of the canoe and the dizzying reek of the engine’s exhaust compounded my nausea. Everything slid past in a misty blur: the sea gypsies in their houseboats trading vegetables and seafood, the women and girls washing cooking pots and clothes in the side canals, the fishermen preparing their bamboo-framed nets.

Nga’s cousin, an old man and the skipper, wanted me to stop at the orchard and the rice field. When I protested, he claimed I had already agreed to this itinerary. We had been moving at a numbingly slow pace; even pinching myself didn’t stop me from drowsing. I realised we could have done this tour in three hours at a leisurely pace; five hours was being inventive. As I pieced together the events of the previous 24 hours, I began to add up the anomalies. How could my skipper, a withering old man, be Nga’s cousin? Had anything she said been true? Afterwards, I hurried to my guesthouse and asked the owner if he was an English teacher – but he didn’t understand my question, and his wife intervened to inform me that he didn’t speak English at all.

And so the story goes: I had fallen for Nga. The thought that here was a sexy woman falling at my feet had made me foolhardy and trustful. Now I could imagine Nga thinking about how gullible Western men were to a woman’s attention: that knowledge was her strength. I had been planning to spend three days in Cantho, but now, in anger and humiliation, I packed my bags and paid four times the cost of the bus ticket to take an air-conditioned minibus back to Ho Chi Minh City. I had met the natives I wanted to meet – the fishermen with missing teeth and dubious canoe, the young woman with the beaming smile, the family guesthouse – but it had all been a charade that had led me to spend in one day what I had budgeted for three. I had sought genuine interaction, but I had forgotten that the relationship between visitors and natives in a tourist destination is disfigured by economic expediencies. In retrospect, I know I shouldn’t be angry: the joy of independent travel is in these unpredictable encounters. My recklessness and drunkenness – even the trickery of Nga – was what had shaped my little inimitable adventure, which was anything but numbing.


This story is one of a series of 15 stories by Victor Paul Borg published by the Rough Guides monthly: to see other stories in the series, go to http://travel.roughguides.com/spotlight.html – then click on the relevant story. Victor has also written the Rough Guide to Malta & Gozo, and is currently writing a travel book about the Asian backpacking tour. You can see more of his work at www.victorborg.com.

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