Tin Tin in Vietnam
The taxi drivers badgered me the instant I came out of the Hue train station.
There were too many drivers for too few customers. I was surrounded. I was also pretty tired and in no mood for their antics. My ‘death stare’ was useless.
One driver was calm and not at all pushy. He was a bit older than the rest (about my age) and he spoke excellent English. His name was ‘Tin’. I asked him to be my driver and told the others to bugger off.
On the way to my hotel we talked about the taxi business and swapped taxi stories. I took his business card and cell phone number. I figured that would be the end of it.
How little I know.
My hotel was centrally located, priced right and clean enough, but it was noisy and I just could not settle in. After fidgeting for about an hour, I decided to change hotels. Where to, I wasn’t sure, but anywhere except where I was. I was experiencing ‘fussy traveler meltdown’.
I packed my backpack back up, went downstairs and paid my $7.00 bill. I had only been there about an hour. At that point, I must have had wild eyes. The young desk clerk was very concerned. I tried to reassure him that it had nothing to do with him. I handed over Tin’s card and asked him to call Tin back for me.
Tin wasted no time in returning. Thing was, he was off duty, had turned in his cab and had come over on his Honda 100 simply because he was a good guy. He sussed out my concerns, and, at my urging, hauled my backpack, my fat butt and me over to the “Backpacker’s District”.
I just felt that I needed to be closer to muesli, Bob Marley CDs and scruffy Australians.
At my new hotel, Tin waited while I inspected the new room. The hotel was fine and a lot quieter. I parked my pack and came back downstairs to chill. I tried to pay him for rescuing me but he would not accept any money. Here I had found probably the only guy in Hue who had no interest in selling me a tour. Tin asked my plans for the next day. He didn’t want to sell me anything at all. Instead, he just wanted to invite me home to dinner and to meet his family.
I tried to get out of it, but remembering that since I was in the country precisely to meet normal people going about their normal lives, I agreed. I asked if perhaps I could contribute something for the meal.
My suggestion was rebuffed. Twice.
The following afternoon we went out for coffee at a fancy sidewalk cafe. OK, it was not all that fancy and it was literally on the sidewalk. I was the only tourist. Tiny plastic stools, hot tea and that wonderful Vietnamese coffee was all that was available.
Off-track betting was extra.
Tin told me that a few of them had bet on the recent US presidential election and that he had lost 100,000 dong by placing his money on Kerry to win. He was very disappointed in the outcome. The loss of money (to him) was secondary.
Later that evening, I rode on the back of his motorbike to a tree-lined back street about a kilometer away. It was a quiet neighborhood with kids playing ball in the street. His apartment was set in back of his wife’s business, a very modest beauty shop (cut, set and curl: 40,000 dong, or about $2.75).
The dinner table had been set up in the shop; Tin and I were the only ones eating, his wife and children had eaten before we had gotten there. The kids were outside playing ‘jump rope’. His wife brought out the dinner, obviously very special. There was a platter of lightly fried mackerel, a dish of pork with green, leafy vegetables, a bowl of perfect French fries and plenty of steamed rice.
Accompanying this, Tin poured some chilled Vietnamese whiskey of the bathtub variety. His wife only appeared briefly to bring us food. Tin told me that not only was she very shy, but that this was the first time he had ever had brought a foreigner home.
Over dinner, we talked about all sorts of stuff: favorite books, his passion of American history (of which Tin knows more than me), current events (he depends upon the BBC and the Voice of America), the hard times before 1975 (as a child, his mother worked 16 hours a day and they sometimes had nothing to eat).
We also talked about life, love, children and marriage, which are always popular topics no matter where you are in the world. We spoke of how he and his wife had met and how his friends considered her to be too beautiful for him and out of his league. He encouraged me to get married too, if only to have companionship ‘in our old age’.
After the plates were cleared, tea was served. I thanked his wife several times profusely and waved as we rode back to my hotel.
The next morning, I did not visit the usual sights of Hue: The Citadel, the pagodas or the DMZ.
I had already found what I had come to Vietnam for.