I found Sue sitting on a bamboo bench basking in the glare of a dangling florescent light bulb. The bench was directly below the communal stilt house we were sharing, but we hadn’t spent much time at home. Sue kept an exhausting itinerary that I had no choice but to follow and, after two days posing as a Vietnamese tourist in Vietnam, I was longing for some sleep.
Earlier, Sue took me on a tour of town, “free of charge,” but everything she showed me I’d seen before. Yet, to see it with Sue was to see it through new eyes… crazy eyes. I could never be quite sure if she had one glass eye or just one that was extra enthusiastic. Even her smile, which remained affixed in her sleep, curled further up the right side of her face.
Sue was living proof that you could get away with anything with a smile, however wonky that smile may be. She didn’t have a camera of her own so insisted that an Austrian tourist, Martin, take photos of her with his. Having no intentions of ever receiving these shots, she simply reveled in flashing her smile in peculiar poses.
From Saigon but working in Hanoi, Sue was making her first trip to Mai Chau. She too was a tourist here (fannypack and all), but likened herself as my guide.
And she liked getting drunk.
Before I met Sue… there was Minh.
Fashionable in a Japanese style with cropped hair and flashy outfits, Minh cradled her boyfriend like an accessory. Silent but smiley, he appeared used to her whimsy. Together, they stayed in Miss Swan’s house down the road but, in order to practice her English, Minh kept nearby to act as my unofficial guide. She sat down across from me at lunch my first day in town, introduced herself, and took over from there. Minh gave me my initial tour of Mai Chau, the one Sue amped up the following day.
The antithesis of other Hanoians, Minh was bubbly, welcoming, patient, and incredibly chatty. She studied international diplomacy at Vietnam National University, though she’d never left Vietnam. She’d hardly been outside of Hanoi (this was her first time to Mai Chau), but you’d never know it the way she’d spout out information. Minh arrived into and completely took over my trip so fast that I never questioned her perplexing appearance.
Together, we enjoyed this quite hamlet just four hours west of Hanoi. Billed as the closest place to view ethnic tribes, the area is home to the White Thai who’ve found their niche in scarf-making and cultural dances – this to attract tourists, mostly locals, who arrive on weekend getaways to delight in a piece of Vietnamese heritage.
Minh, on her own weekend pilgrimage, took me biking through the rice paddies while keeping a running diatribe as she peddled. The area was a sun-drenched oasis in the cement covered landscape of modern Vietnam. With a burgeoning population of over eighty-million, there are few places left in the country which look like the iconic Vietnam of the Western imagination. That is to say, there are few places left with sprawling rice paddies bespeckled by conical hats and billowing buffalos. Encasing this in a fortress of gnarly mountains, Mai Chau was the quintessential Vietnamese watercolor, bestowing the kind of vistas that sell post cards and tote bags.
After our cycle, Minh invited me to Miss Swan’s house. Making herself at home, she prepared tea while prying Miss Swan for information as if introducing her own grandma. A White Thai who moved down from the hills twenty years ago, Miss Swan still spoke only a few words in Vietnamese, a few in English and some unintelligible gargle in between. She kept a logbook of all her visitors like a signed yearbook, showing it off with pride. She hadn’t seen the world, but the world came to her.
That night, Miss Swan, Minh, the silent but smiley boyfriend and I watched the cultural dances under the self-same light I would find Sue the next evening. Day one’s peacefulness gave way to day two’s insanity when Minh waved goodbye and Sue burst out of the local bus.
As my unofficial guide, Minh was a flutterer. Sue took a more hands on approach. Demanding (on my behalf) more food at dinner, ordering local women to give her photographer Martin and I weaving demonstrations, and parading us around town, Sue was the Tasmanian devil of her own Looney Tune world.
Each of the town’s various cultural dances finished with endless rounds of bamboo hopscotch and communal drinking. For these two reasons alone, Sue had plotted a loop around Mai Chau. She was a cultural dance junkie feening for the show-ending jug’s porcupine of bamboo straws. I found out much too late that at the bottom of that jar was a secret. That the grainy substance was not rice residue, as I had assumed, but a colony of dead bees. Rice whiskey with a hint of bumble.
Sue, with that kooky smile, ushered us to the final show (my fourth) with a group of wobbly Vietnamese businessmen. Why? Because the drunkest one of them all was carrying (and spilling) a large jug of rice whiskey. Halfway through the show, he kicked the drummer out and took over while his friend inched towards the soloist on stage as she wept over her lost lover. Sensing that the show was headed down a slippery slope, the dancers skipped to the bamboo hopscotch and communal drinking.
After the show, the dancers offered us special shots, the businessmen force-fed us more and somewhere along the way Sue stumbled home – her unofficial guide duties officially over.
I never call anyone I meet on the road crazy because I can never be quite sure on what scale to judge them by, but I’m pretty sure Sue was crazy. I certainly didn’t meet anyone else like her in Vietnam. Maybe being a tourist in your own country gives you a free pass to be wild – like exploring your heritage by getting hammered at a Navajo Casino. I don’t know… What I do know is that Sue is a government worker back in Hanoi and the Vietnamese government could use a few more sunflowers in a field of weeds.
With Minh and Sue, I stepped into the shoes of a whole different kind of visitor: the domestic tourist. They’re a strange breed of traveler; close enough to have a privileged advantage on the foreigner but not quite at home. They are pilgrims, pilots and party-makers who feel the need to wear the hats of both host and holidaymaker to present a country that they themselves haven’t even seen. They are the secret ticket in for us hapless foreigners as free, willing, often demanding guides. These domestic tourists, crazy-eyed or otherwise, can make you drink bees, introduce you to strangers, teach you how to weave, and show you their country in a way impossible on your own. They’ll turn you into a Vietnamese tourist in Vietnam… if you can handle everything that entails.