Vietnam: The Big Date
By Lauren Gard
My eyes snap open as water splashes across my face.
"Hey!" I sputter, my tranquil back-float interrupted. I push my feet down into the clear mint sea and tread water.
"Hey!" an awkward, deep voice echoes back. I spin toward the voice, toward the smooth shoreline of Cua Dai Beach on the outskirts of Hoi An in Central Vietnam.
From six feet away I can see that the splasher is in his early 20s, like me, a jester’s smile spreads across his dripping face. Several boys float around him, waiting eagerly for the scene to unfold. I glance at my watch. It is 5PM. Didn’t someone mention yesterday that 5PM is communal bathing time for men here? Wow. No wonder I am only one of two women in a virtual sea of men.
The guy splashes me again.
"Hallllo!" He calls out, whisking another wall of water toward me with his palm before I can even reply. This has got to stop.
I rub my eyes with curled fists and nod hello as I scan the water. I spot Anneliese a few yards away, hanging off the side of a slick black inner tube, chatting with a few grade school boys. Her long dark hair glistens in the late afternoon sun. She meets my gaze and rolls her eyes, laughing. We've just come off a year of teaching English to kids in Japan and swore we'd lay off the ESL on this vacation. I stick my tongue out at her.
"Hi. My name is Lauren," I tell the guy slowly. I form an exaggerated X in front of me with my forearms and peddle back a foot or so to indicate that I've noticed his splashing and would appreciate a ceasefire.
"My name Bihn," he says, gliding forward a bit, his companions giggling at his English. He is slightly stocky with a little pudge of a belly; he has the perfect white teeth that seem ubiquitous here. He stares at me unabashedly, a tangle of black hair pushed to one side of his forehead. I’m glad I put on my one-piece swimsuit this afternoon.
Binh can hardly speak English; and I can only say ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Vietnamese; but after ten minutes of painful yet oddly endearing conversation, I’m pretty sure we have plans for the night. Anneliese is going to kill me.
"Go to his house?" She asks skeptically as we lazily peddle our rented arthritic bikes along the paved road back to Hoi An. The setting August sun lights a canal ablaze as we cruise over a crumbling cement bridge. The frogs and crickets in the rice paddies ease into their nightly croaking chorus.
"Only for an hour or so," I reply. "He wants his family to meet us. I told him that we're leaving Hoi An tonight at ten, so he's got to have us back before then."
I have no idea if Binh understood any of that. He simply smiled and nodded at everything I said.
"Is this safe? I mean, where does he live?"
"A few miles from here. He was so nice, Anneliese. He’s 23, and he was so excited to meet me. I don’t think he’s ever talked to an American girl before.”
She is silent.
“C’mon. How could I turn him down?” I plead. “When else will we ever have the chance to go to an actual Vietnamese home?"
We glide past middle-aged men perched in small plastic chairs along dusty roadside storefronts, smoking cigarettes and sipping tepid 33 brand beer as their wives prepare supper. A white tourist sedan kicks up dust as it passes, honking.
"I mean, I want to go—." Anneliese pauses, her bike wobbling.
"Then let's go."
At 8 PM two motorbikes rumble to a stop in front of a café on Hoang Dieu Street. Anneliese and I have been sipping milky sweet iced coffee on the porch for an hour, our thighs stuck to the plastic chairs. Beads of perspiration dot our foreheads—no matter how little we move here, we sweat. We were beginning to doubt Binh would show up, and were growing anxious. We'd already plunked down forty dollars for a private mini-van to drive us 12 hours south to Nha Trang tonight and the clock is ticking. Two men dismount, smiling nervously. We peel ourselves off our seats and spring down the stairs.
Binh runs his hands down the front of his belted black slacks, smoothing them. Dusty black loafers poke out beneath the too-long hem. His white button-down shirt is crisp. Black hair combed back, shiny with wax. Such effort. I feel a pang at the back of my throat.
"Sorry late," says the one I don't recognize, whose name turns out to be Trung. "Had to get motorbike—neighbor. Family—just one." He is Binh's brother, younger by a few years but dressed like his twin.
"Oh, no problem," I shake my head and smile, feeling guilty that they went to so much trouble for us.
“Hallo,” Binh says, shaking Anneliese’s hand. He is much shyer now than at the beach.
“You—aaah—me,” he tells her, motioning to her and then to his bike. Anneliese is struggling to force her mouth into something resembling a carefree smile.
“Sure, I’ll go with Trung,” I say, my stomach flip-flopping. I've only been on a motorbike a few times, never at night. Never with a 20-year-old stranger.
“It’ll be fine!” I whisper to Anneliese as I climb on behind Trung, resting my hands firmly on his small waist.
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