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Choose Your Travel Companions Wisely

Rice paddy in Vietnam
Alex and Michelle take a stroll in a rice paddy.

We were somewhere in the Vietnamese countryside when I began to question my choice in traveling companions. For two months, three continents, and six countries I’d traveled with Michelle and Alex, with relatively few spats, but it wasn’t until we were in the most remote region yet that I considered I’d made a mistake, that perhaps along with malaria, my Lariam had warded off common sense.

Up until that point, I had placed all my faith in Michelle and Alex. We had thus far fared fairly well in several developing countries, encountering only mild inconveniences — a venomous creature here, a disease-riddled toilet there — that we’d overcome with our collective traveling skills. No matter what country we found ourselves in, it was my job to translate, which typically required the board-game skills of Charades and Pictionary. Michelle turned my half-assed translations into coherent travel directions. (“Tree, beach, monkey farm? I know exactly where we are!”) Alex, well… we weren’t certain of Alex’s role, although Alex himself seemed more than confident in his worthiness as a travel companion.

This self-assurance manifested itself in the form of practical jokes, noogies, and the occasional pulling of hair, all at my and Michelle’s expense. We only put up with such abuse because it meant we could retaliate by introducing our German companion to the finer nuances of American culture, such as flying wedgies. All of our hijinks had reached a head two weeks earlier during a visit to a Kenyan nightclub. On that particular evening, Alex’s arrogance had stretched my patience rice-paper thin. When he was nice and drunk at one of Mombasa’s seedier bars, I sent over a few of the local friendlies to make conversation. It wasn’t long before the attention — and Kenya cane, the local inebriant — had gone to his head.

“See?” he slurred, his breath rank with the sweet spirit. “They all want me. I’m like a god here.” When I finally broke the news to Alex that his adoring fans were actually the local whores, he refused to believe me. He swayed on his barstool as he tried to look me in the eye. “You’re just jealous.”

It was only when Michelle returned from the dance floor that reality hit him. “Sheesh, Alex. If you pay for all this wildlife, you won’t be able to afford the safari tomorrow.”

Now, half a month later and several hundred kilometers into the backcountry of Vietnam, my nerves twitched with doubt as I watched the giant of a German descend the rickety bus steps to find himself surrounded by villagers half his size. He held his hands out parallel to the ground while the locals milled about him, stretching upwards to touch his arms and admire his grubby Calvin Klein t-shirt. “Dude,” Alex said, his grin nearly splitting his face. “I feel like, you know, Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters. See, they’re leading me to their spaceship!”

In fact, the villagers were steering Alex towards a thatched-roof restaurant, where we were to spend the next leisurely hour absorbing local culture, including an unlimited supply of bottled Coca-Cola and the broadcast of a variety show that seemed the Vietnamese equivalent of Solid Gold. When Alex had tired of rejecting coconut salesmen, we headed back to the dirt road. We must have been the most amusing troubadours ever to set foot in the village, as evidenced by the congregation that kept pace a few yards behind us, murmuring with amusement every time one of us so much as scratched our head. When Alex hitched up his jeans in a feeble attempt to hide the band of his Calvin Klein underwear, their reaction was as if he’d been hit with a coconut cream pie.

Vietnamese villager in hat
A villager tries on Michelle’s hat at our first stop in the Vietnamese countryside.

As happy-go-lucky Michelle took pictures of our new-found friends and let the village children blow spittle into her harmonica, Alex kept a vigilant look at the road for our next ride. “Once we’re moving again, keep your eyes open for a khách,” Alex instructed, completely mangling the language to fit his notions of Vietnamese pronunciation. I’d managed to go the whole day without saying the Vietnamese word for hotel, mainly because every time I did, Alex would misinterpret the pronunciation to be something profane, then grab my ass and wink. He, however, had found it necessary to say, at every possible moment, the one Vietnamese word he’d chosen to remember, no matter that he’d butchered it beyond recognition and into vulgarity.

“I don’t have to look far,” I answered and felt the slap to the back of the head that I’d expected.

An hour later, after hitching rides down an unpaved road on three Honda scooters, we hit upon a spot like no other we’d yet seen in our travels. Silhouetted by the setting sun, a flotilla of thatched homes bobbed on a river just down the hill from where we stood. The peaceful little village looked to be about a half a mile away, down a somewhat steep embankment that prevented the scooters from going any further.

“Dude, we are so there,” said Alex, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun. Michelle and I could only nod in agreement, the picturesque scene having rendered us speechless. Our companion, of course, was never at a loss for words. “It’s like a real-life Smurf village.”

Alex, who spoke English as fluently and eloquently as a California surfer, had grown up in the American quarter of Berlin, where he was raised, Michelle and I assumed, on a steady diet of rock ‘n’ roll, fashion magazines, and video games, most notably those of the Atari label. He decried the Americanization of the planet, but he devoured our culture more ravenously than he did the Big Macs he sought out in each port. He professed an interest in finding the “true” culture of each of our host countries, seeking out the meals that the “real” locals ate. However, it was he who stocked up on Pringles while we were in Cape Town, and he who was laid up for three days with dysentery after sampling the authentic Indian lamb burger at a Madras Wimpy’s. Although he delighted in putting down our stateside upbringings, he was always the first to find the parallel between a foreign oddity and an element of pop culture, American or otherwise — thus the resemblance of a Vietnamese river village to the mushroom homes of three-apple-high, blue cartoon vermin.

Just as we were about to begin our trek down the slope, the skies opened up and began dumping buckets of rain upon us. Luckily, not too far from the road stood a little thatched building that resembled the restaurant we’d visited in the last village. Michelle wisely suggested waiting out the storm on the porch, where we’d have a glorious view of the mountains and Smurf village below.

Vietnamese villagers in a cafe
The town hangs out at the restaurant where my travel companions and I nearly depleted them of their Coke supply.

For half an hour Michelle and I watched the sky’s electrical display while Alex sat in a corner and cleaned the dirt out from under his nails. When I discovered my water bottle was empty, I headed inside for my requisite Coca-Cola. However, the stark emptiness of the single room and the lone sign on the wall — which did not, in fact, advertise a refreshing fizzy drink — stopped my heart cold. Slowly I backed out onto the porch.

“Guys,” I said, aware that I sounded a bit too much like Velma from Scooby-Doo. “I think it’s time we leave. Like, now.”

I felt my head begin to pound as reality landed on me like a ten-pound sack of rice. We had left Saigon without obtaining the proper traveling visas. There was no American embassy for us to call. And we were lounging, uninvited, on the front porch of the local headquarters of the Viet Cong.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Alex said as he stretched out on the floor. “I’ve found my khách for the night.”

I turned to Michelle, who was much more reasonable regarding matters of potential imprisonment and torture. “This isn’t a café,” I told her. “The sign in there doesn’t say Coca-Cola, it says Viet Cong.”

Michelle made a face as if trying to find the square root of pi. “Those were, like, the bad guys, right?” After I nodded, she had just enough time to react before a small door in the floor of the porch flung open. The jack-in-the-box who popped into view was a Vietnamese soldier, his face a wide grin. He chattered a few incomprehensible words, which he directed at me and Michelle. I wasn’t sure if he’d yet spotted the lounging oaf in the corner.

“What’s he saying? What’s he saying?” I was having enough trouble deciphering without Michelle pressuring me, but she was obviously in a rush. She squatted over, hands on knees, as if she were the local and he the foreign invader. “Can I help you with something, sir?” The man nodded, but he had been nodding for most of his soliloquy and continued to repeat his mantra. Finally, he resorted to hand signals. With one hand cupped just in front of his chin and the other cranking fast in front of his face, he repeated his message to the idiot foreigners on his front porch.

I let fly an expletive or two before forming my translation. “They’re going to eat us,” I muttered. “They’re going to torture us to make us nice and tender, then they’re going to eat us.”

This seemed to get Alex’s attention. “Did you say ‘eat’? Good, ‘cause I’m starving.” As Alex rose to his full height and stretched, the Vietnamese jack-in-the-box seemed to cringe. His face brightened when my German accomplice placed his palms together and gave a slight bow before following his new friend down into the hole in the ground, which, for all I knew, was simply another entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels.

“Are you crazy?” I called after him. “If something happens to us, no one knows where the hell we are. And even if they did, there’s no embassy to barter for our freedom.”

Alex stopped on the ladder so that only his head was visible. “Ah, there’s no American embassy. There is, however, a German one. Auf Wiedersehen.” And with that, he disappeared into the black abyss of the Viet Cong basement.

Michelle looked at me for a moment, her face scrunched up as if she’d bitten into a spoiled mango. A moment later she spat out a piece of coconut that had been caught in her teeth since we’d left Saigon. “You know, I’m hungry, too.” Then she too had climbed down the Ladder of Doom.

The rain still beat upon the roof as I stood contemplating my alternatives: follow my friends into our grave, or run like mad to the Smurf village below in search of help. When another gust of wind raised goosebumps on my arms, I realized Alex had my sweatshirt, which he’d been using as a pillow, and I gave a hearty sigh of resignation. “Might as well eat before I die.” With that, I slipped down the ladder to accept my fate.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out the figures of at least six people seated around a long wooden table. The ghost of a hand flashed in the dim light and I could see I was being motioned to take my seat. Alex sat across from me, his pearly whites plainly grinning in delight at the opportunity to eat the most authentic Vietnamese meal he could ever hope for.

After a few moments, I could discern facial features. The man to my right, a highly decorated officer from the looks of his uniform, nodded solemnly. I scanned the candlelit room and was soon able to make out shapes. At first I thought the walls of the room simply had a thick, uneven texture, which made sense since we were underground in an earthen room. A wave of panic rippled through me as I realized that the irregular surface was actually a wall of artillery. I was about to break bread in the midst of a Viet Cong armory.

Before I could relay this information to Alex or Michelle, a woman entered carrying a tray with a candle and a few bowls. She hummed a soft tune to herself and immediately began speaking in rapid English.

Miss Helen in Vietnam
Miss Helen and her companions treated us to a much-needed Vietnamese feast.

“I am Miss Helen, but you,” she said, smiling at the three of us, “can call me Mommy.”

“Hello, Mommy!” Alex chirped. His overly long limbs gave him the appearance of a high school senior seated at the desk of a first-grader. Miss Helen smiled at him, then tilted her head as she pondered how the three oddball travelers were related.

“Are you,” she said leaning in closely to me, “the wife of this man?” Miss Helen pointed at Alex, and I stifled a guffaw.

Then I saw it. It was fleeting, a quick twinkle that could have been a mere reflection of candlelight in Alex’s eye, but I knew better. I knew my fate was about to be sealed by a cocksure German who still thought Milli Vanilli were robbed of their Grammy. Revenge was headed my way, and there was no way I could stop it.

Alex turned to Miss Helen and clapped his arm around Michelle’s shoulders. “This is my wife. She” — he pointed a long, damning finger in my direction — “is single, not married. You can have her for $10.”

Miss Helen clapped in ecstasy. She motioned to the officer who had smiled at me earlier and took my hand in hers. “This is my son. He very wealthy man. Make great husband for you.” She gripped my hand tighter. “I marry an American,” she told us, “now my son, too!” Alex leaned back and watched the whole affair, enjoying my attempts at diplomacy every time Miss Helen pressed the matter further. “He half American, that’s why he so tall.” She motioned for the two of us to stand side by side. Alex grinned and took a picture. “You two perfect height!”

Michelle proved no help, despite my constant kicks under the table. “This is between you two,” she said, cocking a thumb back and forth between me and Alex. “I’m playing it Swiss.”

After two hours of chatting and taking pictures of the bride- and groom-to-be, Miss Helen read the fatigue on our faces. “You stay here tonight?” she said brightly, making a sleeping motion by resting her head on her hands.

“Khách, we’d like a khách,” Alex answered.

Miss Helen looked at him, confusion settling over her time-worn features.

“A hotel, please?” I asked the woman who’d just related her entire life’s story to us in English. “Is there a hotel nearby?”

“Ah, yes. Hotel.” Miss Helen seemed more than a little relieved. After marrying an American officer, I’m sure she was somewhat well versed in our slang. The fact that was the only Vietnamese word Alex had spoken all night would only have added to her confusion.

Miss Helen and her son accompanied us down the road to a poured-cement edifice that would provide our night’s lodging. After scribbling in our diaries and a few obligatory games of cards, we prepared to retire. It was then we realized our room had only two beds.

“Oh great. Now what are we going to do?” said Alex, who had been reluctant to shell out a few extra dong, the equivalent of about two dollars, for an extra room. When Michelle suggested that two people double up, Alex balked. “I’m not sleeping with Jenna,” Alex said.

“That’s stating the obvious,” I replied.

Michelle was digging furiously through her duffel bag and finally found the item she sought. She whizzed a small blue square at Alex. “Will you two please just screw and get it over with?” With an exasperated expression foreign to her face, she stormed out of the room, slamming the door so that it echoed throughout the concrete khách.

Alex stared at the small blue foil package in his hand, at a loss for words for perhaps the first time in his life. We remained frozen — I on the sagging cot, he standing with his pants low enough so that his Calvins were once again showing — for the better part of a minute. The uncomfortable silence that hung in the room was broken by the sound of knocking. With a sigh of relief, I opened the door to find Miss Helen and son with our nighttime tea.

The Vietnamese suitor and Jenna
My suitor and I share tea.

The older woman bowed her head slightly in greeting. “We want that you find comfort this evening.” She looked around the room and Alex, thinking quickly for most certainly the first time in his life, hid the foil packet behind his back. “Where your wife?” Miss Helen questioned Alex with concern.

We made it through tea with little ado. Miss Helen chattered into the wee hours of the night, sharing photos of her son and giving a few as souvenirs. She wrote their address on the back of one. “You come back very, very soon, yes? We will be waiting.”

On the bus back to Saigon the next morning, the three of us were very silent, not just because we’d slept only four or five hours. Michelle sat apart from us, too cranky at that hour to deal with any further headaches. When a seat opened up next to me, Alex slid in, taking up the room of two Vietnamese who shot him what I took to be dirty looks. My balled-up sweatshirt acting as a pillow, I leaned against the window trying to catch a few more coveted minutes of rest.

With the din of the poultry aboard almost obscuring his words, Alex, never looking directly at me, said, “You know, I would have given them 500 dong if they’d actually tried to take you.”

“You offered to sell me for twice that amount,” I reminded him.

He shrugged, then smashed his head on the ceiling as the bus hit a bathtub-sized pothole. “There’s nothing wrong with turning a profit.”

This story came out of my experience as a student on Semester at Sea, Spring 1995. More photos from my voyage below.

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