A Tale of Two Guides

Last week I had a meeting to start laying out my next big adventure, and it brought back memories of years past. The biggest issue I’m going to be facing is transportation. I travel on a tight schedule, and buses just don’t get the job done. In these situations, I’ve hired a driver to help me travel on my own terms. This isn’t terribly expensive, and in many situations it’s actually the cheapest and most efficient way to get around. I’ve done this in China, India, Vietnam, and Cambodia. However, it’s India and Vietnam that stand out in my memory, but for entirely different reasons.

In India, our driver was named Gopal. He was a really nice guy, who didn’t speak much English. Gopal drove my travel companion, Keith, and I around Deli, Agra, and Jaipur. We hit every temple along the way, the Taj Mahal, saw horrible poverty, and did our best to occupy the hours in the car overcoming the language barrier. Mostly it was just Keith and I talking and Gopal nodding and laughing whenever he heard his name mentioned. If we asked him a question mostly wiggle his head back and forth, roll his eyes around, and say, “Mmmmmm, okay.” This was his response, regardless of what was asked.

About half way though the trip, we realized that Gopal wasn’t just a driver. Nope. He was, in fact, and small time liquor “runner.” He was using his job with the travel company to ferry tourists around the country, but also to deliver alcohol into “dry,” Muslim states. He planned his deliveries perfectly. As we moved through small towns, many with little more than a traffic light and a heard of cattle on main street,  people would walk up to the car, hand him a wad of cash, and a paper bag with a bottle of hooch would be passed back. It was quite an operation.

I also strongly suspect that Gopal, enjoyed the marijuana. In Jaipur, while Keith and I were hiking up to the top of a mountain to see a famous “monkey temple,” Gopal was at a café, and when we all met up again, his eyes were bloodshot and he was extraordinarily giggly.  This made for a very entertaining attempt at conversation on the way back to the hotel.


Nonetheless, good’ole Gopal, took care of us and got us back to the airport in one piece, and it was a great trip.

I was expecting a similar experience in Vietnam. Instead, I got Mr. Deng. Actually, I’m not sure what his name was. It was some variation of a name that involved “Deng,” but each time we asked him his name, both Keith and I had trouble understanding what he was saying, so we settled on calling him “Mr. Deng.” In the two days we rode through the Mekong Delta we learned a few things. First, Mr. Deng enjoyed a cold beer. He enjoyed them so much that he often had several. A stopped car  was just an opportunity to drink. Luckily, he wasn’t our driver, just our tour guide. Second, Mr. Deng had been a Vietnamese soldier who was part of the force that got involved in the Cambodian civil war in the 1980s, and he was very keenly aware of the similarities of his (and Vietnam’s) actions to those of the United States’ in the 1960s and 1970s. He enjoyed talking about this and so, so many other things. Constantly, and without signaling a change, he bounced around from topic to topic. On and on he would talk. Keith and I actually began to trade off conversations with him. One of us would listen and sort-of be involved for a while and the other would rest, or sleep, or read War and Peace, in its entirety. You can clearly see my enthusiasm at the two hour mark in the photo above.  The third thing we learned, was that Mr. Deng didn’t take sass, from anybody.

About halfway between Ho Chi Minh and the Delta, we stopped at a tourist center. It had a cultivated park, a restaurant, and small store all geared toward the tourists that moved back and forth along the highway. Keith and I ate lunch and then made our way back to car to meet Mr. Deng at the prearranged time. As we walked outside into the parking lot, numerous westerners were loitering about, waiting on their cars and drivers. We saw Mr. Deng walking towards us. What happened next, has been the topic of conversation many times over between Keith and me. Neither of us are entirely sure of what happened or what was said. We only had Mr. Deng’s explanation and it rung a bit hollow.

As Mr. Deng walked toward us in the hot parking lot, a woman seemed to cross in front of him. She was holding a bottle of water. They briefly and lightly bumped into each other. The woman then turned, and splashed some of the water deliberately on Mr. Deng. Mr. Deng then grabbed the woman’s arm, and jerked it so that she, in effect, threw water in her own face. This caused her to start screaming at him, and he at her. She tossed water into his face, and they both started pushing  and slapping each other. Then Mr. Deng kicked her. I’m not talking about a soccer style kick, either. I’m talking about a full on, grabbed her arm so she couldn’t get away, pulled his knee up to his chest, and blasted it out straight ahead of him donkey kick. It was something out of a kung-fu movie. The woman was blown back, clearly furious,  hurt, and upset, but the other drivers by this point had rushed in and separated them. As they were pulled apart, they were screaming at each other in Vietnamese, but I’m sure about 90% of what they were shouting was profane. By this time and group of British people were shouting at Mr. Deng. One woman in particular was shouting in a thick accent, “Eee con’t do’at! She’s a laydeee,” over and over again.

Mortified by what we just saw, Keith and I both thought that there was a pretty high likelihood that we were about to get into the car with someone who might be unbalanced at best, and at worst, a dangerous sociopath. We HAD to get back into the car because we knew no one else at the rest stop or all of Vietnam for that matter, but our Western sensibilities filled us with dread that people would see that we would be driving off with the infamous laydee donkey kicker of Ho Chi Minh.

We crawled into the back seat, and I sank down in the seat a little bit, slid my dark sunglasses on, and pretended I couldn’t be bothered with all the commoners pointing at the car as we drove away. Secretly, though, part of me was hoping they were writing down the license plate number in case something happened to us with Mr. Deng.

Once we were back on the road, Mr. Deng turned around from the front seat and apologized for what had happened, and began to explain the scene. According to him, he and the woman once worked for the same travel company. They both applied for a job with another company and were the two finalists for the position. Mr. Deng got the job, and that was why he was with us then. She, on the other hand, was furious at not having been selected and she had been bent on destroying his reputation. She had been gossiping about him in professional circles, and the two had previously argued. She intentionally bumped into him so she could throw the water at him.

I guessed that it kind of made sense. Kind of.

Over the next few days, Keith and I elaborated on Mr. Deng’s story. Ours was far more interesting…….

Once upon a time, Mr. Deng and Madam Mekong (that’s what I named her) were young professionals trying to make their way in the cut throat world of Vietnamese tourism. She was a   a bit uptight. He, a brash young ex-soldier, who was kind of sloppy, and had a penchant for saying things that hurt a bit, but were always thoughtful and true. At first they didn’t like each other. They argued with a witty banter, but then on a business trip, they had a bit too much to drink and their true feelings came out. A night of passion resulted and things looked promising. Then, the job opportunity arose. They both secretly applied, telling the other they weren’t going for it, and when it all came out, their relationship crumbled, and the fight we saw was the real low point. In the romantic comedy of this Vietnamese love story, the story was starting it’s third act. There’s strife and the lovers part ways.

I’m a romantic at heart, and I’m choosing to believe that today Mr. Deng and Madam Mekong are together. He would have to have had made a grand gesture of his love for her. He would have to do this after donkey kicking her in the gut. Maybe he somehow got a friend that worked at the People’s Palace to fly one of the old American army helicopters there to her office (these things have to happen in public), he professed he love for her in grand statement (something along the lines of her making him a better man, completing him, or not realizing what he wanted in the world until he met her and she is the only thing he needs now). He probably also gave her a bottle of water to make up for the one she wasted by throwing at him, and telling her she can always toss it at him. They would smile, kiss passionately, and the heavy dark green helicopter would fly them away to happiness.  The End.

At least that’s what I like to imagine. Who knows? Maybe Mr. Deng is still out there boring people to death with his conversation skills and donkey kicking people, and maybe Madam Mekong is still bitter and gossiping about him, keeping a bottle of water handy for when they run into each other again in a parking lot, and I bet she’s been doing a lot of practice donkey kicks to get ready.





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Categories: Asia, Stories


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