Photo: Ser Borakovskyy/Shutterstock

What Happens When "Off the Beaten Track" Isn't Where You Really Want to Be?

Vietnam Student Work
by Matt Sterne Apr 3, 2014

“What have you been doing?” I asked my guide after he arrived an hour late to go for dinner.

“Drinking,” was his short, slurred answer. With a challenging stare he dared me to comment. I merely nodded and suggested we find something to eat.

We were in a small Degar village in the central highlands of Vietnam, on the third day of a four-day motorcycle trip. I had met Anh on the streets of Nha Trang, where I told him I wanted to escape the pretty picture presented to the bucket-guzzling backpackers and see the country for what it truly was. Anh promised to show me the ‘real’ Vietnam.

He was a quiet, brooding man, but a good guide. He knew the roads perfectly, pointed out sights I wouldn’t otherwise see, and answered my questions before I asked them. The only criticism was that every night he got blind drunk. That day he started drinking at 4pm. While I explored the village, Anh had aimed for oblivion with rice wine. I was hungry, tired, and sore from the day’s riding. I wanted to eat and go to bed.

The first place we went was shut. We moved on and heard a ruckus coming from a stilted hut to our right. It was far from the road but the din was strong and promised the type of scene Anh was looking for. We climbed a ladder fashioned from a log and stood at the entrance. Inside were about 40 men. Some sat on benches along the edges of the room, drinking brown rice wine from glass Coca-Cola bottles. Five very large ceramic jugs of rice wine were set in the center of the room, with other men drinking from them through bamboo and plastic straws. The men were of all ages, the youngest teenagers smoking hurriedly, sitting on the floor on the outskirts of conversations. They barely noticed our appearance at the doorway, apart from one villager, who welcomed us.

We found an open space in the corner and sat down on the floor. The man who greeted us brought over two bottles of the murky rice wine.

“Anh, can we eat here?”

“Yes, but later,” he said to me curtly.

“When?” I asked. He ignored the question, talked with the man, and then turned to me. “This is a special Vietnamese wedding. You should feel lucky to experience the culture. People pay thousands of dong for such a unique experience!”

“This is a wedding?” I asked, stunned.

It didn’t look like a celebration. The people’s clothes were third-hand and in tatters, except for one man in a black and gold collared shirt who Anh explained was the groom. The bride was cooking in the kitchen with the other women. This swayed me, and I tried to explain I was happy to be there, just hungry. “You need to go to the army,” he told me disapprovingly. “Would you rather be with your friends at a full moon party? Or here seeing this? Do not get angry. Come, drink more.” All of this was garbled and spat out.

Now I found myself in the kind of unique situation I proclaimed to be so desperately after, and I had second thoughts.

I took a deep breathe and considered his questions. I looked around slowly again and noticed the side glances and muted conversations. I realized we were in fact not welcome at all. It seemed like we were intruding, and Anh, in his intoxicated state, was oblivious.

Anh talked to the man who had welcomed us. He disappeared and returned with a bowl of rice, fruit, and sauce. As he crossed the hut, every head turned and watched the food. A salivating hush descended. Judging by the looks, everyone was just as hungry as I was. As the food was placed in front of us, I looked up to see every face heavy with envy — some of the drunker ones were incensed. One older man shouted something that shattered the silence.

“What did he say?” I whispered to Ahn.

“I don’t know. I don’t speak his language. Eat,” he told me.

Slowly the men returned their focus to the conversations and drinking. Others displayed their outrage by shooting over cruel glances between sips of rice wine. Anh dished up the food and gave it to me. I was so hungry I decided all I could do was eat. After one small bowl my head immediately felt clearer. Anh didn’t touch his.

“Why aren’t you eating, Ahn? Eat,” I told him.

“I’m not hungry. I’ve already eaten.” I just looked at him. I was too exasperated to argue.

As I ate, I started to perceive the villagers differently. They didn’t appear to be as malicious as I initially discerned. They were rightfully skeptical of outsiders, especially on such an auspicious occasion. I realized we deserved to be treated as the intruders we were.

I had a long sip of wine and considered the night. The allure of this motorbike trip was to see the raw, uncensored Vietnam. Now, it seemed, I found myself in the kind of unique situation I proclaimed to be so desperately after, and I immediately had second thoughts.

It occurred to me that the romantic allure of off-the-beaten-path travel was different to the reality. I had been thinking of this trip for years and in my dreams created an illusion so grand it would be impossible to live up to. My imagination only included the glory of adventure and discovery and never any discomfort or harsher reality. Two weeks into my seven-month journey through Asia, and I was already second-guessing myself. Maybe I would be happier at a full moon party.

We drank more of the rice wine, and I felt better, less anxious. Eventually the food was brought out, which Anh told me was dog meat. When our rice wine was finished, Anh decided it was time to leave.

The next day as we rode out of the village, I was left with a hangover and the persistent question of how I should have managed the situation better, and if I really did want to persist with this line of travel. As the rice fields and mountains slipped by and we got further from the village, I cheered up. Further from the questions that the previous night had posed and closer to Nha Trang, where I would be able to return to familiar comforts, similar people, and indulging in those buckets. Relieved to return to the very things I initially wanted to escape.

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