Mixing low quality alcohol until the wee hours of the morning is usually a guarnteed way to ruin the first half of your next day, but between the heat and activity that comes with any given day on this trip, I have managed to sweat away all the physical handicaps typically associated with binge drinking. Alert and unagitated, I figured that it would be a perfect day to rent a motorbike and check out the sights outlaying Mui Ne. Getting the bike was easy, but finding a place for coffee and food proved to be a challenge.
This was the first time that I had really noticed the off season’s effect. After about an hour of driving up and down the one available road, we were having no luck finding any sort of restaurant to cater to our hunger. While making the rounds, we did, however, find the upbeat young English couple that we had met earlier in our trip.
Will and Claire seemed fully saturated in good vibes and an attractive sense of humor the first time that we met, so I was visibly pleased to have run into them at random again. With differing day plans, we picked a time and a location to meet at later that evening, then sped off on our motor bike in a direction opposite their trajectory.
After a stupid amount of searching, we finally found some food. The only open restaurant that we encountered was an eclectic mix of Southern Indian and Vietnamese seafood. Sharing an awning, both restaurant operators seemed unaffiliated in every other way. I ordered curry and naan while Juli stuck to the Vietnamese cuisine and ordered up some frogs and rice. With our bellies full, we head in the direction of the Red Sand Dunes just outside of town.
At first, we passed the dunes, wondering if they were in fact the tourist destination we had been searching for. By the time that we were on some long abandoned highway well past the dunes that we were seeking, we decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to let Juli get a feel for the scooter. All the experience that she had at home added up to be the same as mine: absolutely none at all. Her apprehension was understandable. Nonetheless, she was more than open to the idea of learning the basics.
I showed her the location of the turn signal and headlights. After about fifteen seconds of explanation, I realized how absurdly easy riding an automatic scooter actually should be and assured her that she would have no problems whatsoever. I grabbed the accelerator and the hand brakes and attempted to show her how to start the thing. As if my clumsiness had be waiting for days for the perfect opportunity to pounce, my right foot and confidence became its prey as I watched the bike begin to fly away from me during the abrupt end of my failed lesson. I still had not grasped the concept of hand based acceleration enough to know how to let go of the handle once the bike jerked out of my hands. This blunder left with me with some minor road rash on one of my small toes.
“Are you okay?” She did a damn good job at not laughing.
“Oh yeah, totally fine. I have absolutely no idea how that happened. No worries though!” I picked up fallen motor bike from the middle of the road and moved it back the side and asked: “You ready to try it?”
She looked concerned. Her inexperienced mentor had failed to show off such a simple thing as getting it started.
“It’s easier when you’re sitting on it.” I assured her.
A little disenchanted but still confident enough in her own abilities, Juli grabbed hold of the bike and darted up and down the dusty road while I walked off the entirely manageable pain that I had inflicted upon myself.
She rode back up a few minutes later baring a specific type of smile that can only ever be accompanied by the feeling of success that one earns by them self. I hopped on back to see how she would handle my organic payload. It was only then that she lost the will to continue driving, as balancing another person not only comes with double the weight, but double the responsibility as well (all depending on the person, of course). I took hold of the wheel once again and we went back to the dunes.
We parked our bike across from the sand in front a shop littered with small children. Before my helmet was off, about five little boys approached us, pushing plastic slides in my face. They were utterly persistent in persuading us to follow them and slide down the hills with them for a nominal fee. I thought this was a pretty pointless way to pass the time in a place that was already holding so much promise of being a diverse and desolate landscape in a country filled with jungles and beaches, but these little dudes have a way with you. I shrugged my shoulders and we both agreed that there couldn’t be much harm in it. I bartered them down to just a couple dollars for an hour or so of “really fun sliding” and we began our hike in the midday heat up the scolding hot dunes.
At first, there were two. Then three… then five, seven or maybe even eight of these little kids accompanying us. Sliding down the these dunes proved to a pretty large waste of time, detracting from the landscape and taking a toll and my well maintained lazy man physique; we were constantly at the bottom of these sand pits and had to climb out again only to repeat the adrenaline numbing process over and over. After only a short while, I was waiting to be able to call it quits on the whole ordeal.
At one point, my wallet apparently fell out of my pocket, which I found a bit odd, but it was returned with a smile by one of the older boys in the group. After a good long while of faking smiles and doing my best to communicate with these dirty little kids, we eventually came to the conclusion that we had had enough and wanted to return back to our transportation so we could go home and wash off the ridiculous amount of sand that was plastered to our skin with sweat and sunscreen.
“Tip! Tip!” they kept repeating. Why not? A couple dollars to us might have been a nice little fortune to them, so I reached for my wallet.
The demand for a tip was one mistake I’m sure they will eventually learn not to repeat. Once my wallet was opened, I noticed a good amount money still in order where I had left it, but my 500,000 note (about twenty five dollars) had gone missing. Juli checked her cash stock and noticed that about three times that was missing. How could we have been so careless? Why didn’t I check my wallet early on and why did we let them carry her bag? The explanation turns out to pretty simple: Vietnam had proved thus far to be a nation filled with relatively honest people. We may have been charged more than locals for a bottle of water or a taxi ride, but never had we seen anyone blatantly attempt to steal from us. Our faces sank and I foresaw a problem.
“No, you tip US. Where is my money, eh? You stole from the both of us and now you’re going to give it back.” I had no desire to play nice simply due to their age.
Predictably, these little bastards denied everything and began to turn their pockets inside out. I saw their little game unfold before me. Once they had all been searched, we realized that they were not inexperienced enough to keep the money in a place where we would find it. After about ten minutes of well rehearsed, outright denial and hopes that I possessed some invisible conscience towards poor children that would lead me to give up and cut my losses, I remained adamant that there would be no escape from us until our money was returned. Suckers? Without a doubt we were, but not your typical ones. Finally the leader of the group agreed to take us back to my money.
I was significantly dehydrated and the two of us were beyond irritable on the long walk back through the desert. Several times, a number of the kids attempted to leave the group only to have me chase after them and physically drag them back to the party. Two of the younger and more clever boys managed to escape our grasp, but by the time we reached the place where my money stowed away, most of the kids remained with us.
They had placed one of the slides in the sand to indicate where they had buried my cash. After digging several holes, they procured my 500,000 note.
“Good start. Now where did you put HER money?” They responded to me with looks of exhaustion and unwillingness to co-operate any further.
“I don’t know! Little guy took it! I don’t know where is it!” the eldest thief responded.
Juli had lost her patience. “Then you are going to take us to him right now.” she said. Of course, it was one of the boys that we managed to lose track of that had the money.
Juli went back to get the scooter as I trekked back across the desert and felt my head begin to thump. The last of our water had been consumed long ago. Though the smallest of the aspiring con-artists had escaped, the ones that remained began to realize that they had bitten off a bit more than they could chew. They checked all the typical hiding spots on the way back, digging more holes and reaching far into spiky bushes, only to show up empty handed by the time we reached the furthest end of this now disgusting waste of space. We found one of the two tiny ones wandering alone. Apparently, the other one had been picked up by “the boss”. I dragged the kids down to the sidewalk to wait for Juli and give them all an unorthodox lecture. I had no intent of conspiring guilt in this manipulated mass of third world orphans, but rather instill some fear in them as I waited for my ride home… and a bottle of water. I was a bit angry at this point to say the least.
“Listen up. Do you know who I am? Do you know where I’m from? I am from America, and I am a member of the mafia.” The old one began to translate, wide eyed, “Do you know where I got these tattoos? Any idea?” the crowd remained silent, “I got these tattoos in prison… from killing people. You guys are too young for me to kill, but let me tell you this. I am coming back tomorrow and one of you is going to either have our money or you are going to take me to your boss, and I am going to kill him instead. You understand these words that I’m saying? I want the name of your boss.”
Obviously, I have never killed anyone, nor did I have any intention of even coming back, much less killing some Vietnamese gangster outside some shanty over eighty euros. My tattoos represented nothing more than attempts to remind me of the free spirited artist that I aspire to be, but they didn’t know the difference. Either way, I felt that my approach would have at least made more of an impression than the lecture the typical tourists must have laid on deaf ears in the past about “ethics” and “humanity”. Shortly after having some fake name written down on tattered parchment, Juli pulled up, angry as all hell, and dismounted our transport. Once I explained the hopeless situation, I saw her own demons get released.
“I’m going to kick your asses, you little assholes!” the typically collected and well behaved girl exclaimed as she stomped toward the shy crowd. I couldn’t have understood her frustration more. After a minute or two, we accepted our losses grudgingly and drove back to our hotel to wash away the stench of dirt and defeat.
It only took a few hours to get over it. I demanded to split the losses with her seeing to how the whole thing happened due to mutual negligence. After a nice meal, we were already laughing it off over drinks with our friends on the beach later that evening.
Will and Claire showed up with all their charisma and an American couple that they had been traveling with on and off for the past few months. We drank and drank until I was wading in the sea with my jeans on. Marc and Molly were from New York, both were well read and seemingly impervious to unhappiness when in good company. We were all drunk within a couple hours, but more than that, we knew exactly where we were. Vietnam… It wasn’t I heard of the partial solar eclipse that we missed that morning, that was really only visible from the geographical location in which we were temporarily residing, that I found myself appreciating the gravity of the moment that could only live in for as long as anyone chose to remember it.
One bottle of vodka, a few Jager shots, and one impossibly low quality joint later, conversation between myself and the other two Americans spiraled out of control in the best possible way. Juli’s lethargy eventually gave us both an excuse enough to leave. It was too bad that we would not see Marc and Molly again, but Will and Claire had unknowingly interwoven their itinerary enough with ours that the inevitability of our future interactions would not be ignored. Weaving down the sidewalk and avoiding the falling coconuts, we finally made it back to the beds that, for another night or two, we could call home.