Of Love and Backpack – Vietnam, Asia
This story begins, as most of my stories these days do, in an exotic locale where I'm desperately trying to win the affections of a disinterested 19-year-old European woman. It is composed of the usual ingredients: forbidden love, wild beasts, a quest for harmony between nations, a beach, an unsuccessful attempt at appearing knowledgeable, and a failure to heed my own advice. It ends, as almost all of them do, in public and grievous humiliation.
The location is Halong Bay in northern Vietnam. The main players are Laura, the sexy, doe eyed German teenager, and our tragic hero, yours truly. I had met Laura on the 24-hour bus ride from Vientiane, Laos, across the border into Hanoi, Vietnam. She was on her way to explore Vietnam with a Swedish girl she had befriended while volunteering at a school in Thailand. I was doing “the loop” in southeast Asia and was currently accompanied by two friends I had previously made on the slow boat in Laos.
I struck up a conversation with Laura and her friend immediately after first seeing them as we waited beside the bus in the Vientiane station. This was not normal procedure for me, but the beauty of backpacking is that gorgeous women display far less animosity when approached by strangers than they normally would. It is considered socially acceptable, requires far less courage than doing the exact same thing in a bar in downtown Manhattan. It had taken me a few weeks to adapt to this, but as is the norm with all animals with a good survival instinct, I had adapted quite well.
The three of us watched a Laotian man pick up his adorable puppy he had let us play with. He stuck it into a cardboard box he intended to store in the luggage compartment under the bus. I protested as best I could, but the only concession the man offered was poking air holes in the cardboard. I had attempted to save the dog because it was indeed heartbreaking, but if there’s a better first impression to make on a woman than trying to save a puppy, I do not know what it is.
The bus ride was relatively uneventful, save for the shrill blasting of Thai pop music at decidedly random intervals that always coincided with the second I fell asleep. The travelers in the back of the bus all made conversation and told jokes before the Valium they had purchased induced sleep. We arrived at the border at 2:00 A.M. and were informed we would have to wait until 8:00 A.M. to cross. Surely the bus could have departed from Vientiane at 6:00 P.M. instead of 6:00 A.M. Leaving earlier would have allowed us to reach the crossing before it closed, but this is southeast Asia, so it didn’t.
Stuck with nothing to do, we intrepid young travelers resolved the situation as best we could. We drank beers. We did so in the empty, deserted streets of the border town. It was a perfect setting for love to blossom – by no means, an isolated incident. It’s quite easy to fall for a fellow backpacker while traveling. The traveling mindset has a way of romanticizing everything, every gesture, every extra second of eye contact, every inquisitive conversation. It’s a feeling that pervades the beaches and the bars, the buses and the accommodations. Surely most are not looking for love, but everyone would like to be able to, months later, regale their friends back home with tales of an exotic vacation dalliance.
Then you have to examine the other factors. Everyone has accents, is quite open to conversing with strangers, is obviously of an adventurous nature, and more often than not, is wearing a bikini or at least highly revealing clothing. Add exotic locales, exponential speed with which bonding takes place on the road, increased drinking, ease with which one can shake off societal norms and engage in otherwise unfulfilled temptation, no wonder I was falling in love every three or so days. Factor in Laura’s strawberry blond hair, sultry smile, bewitching green eyes, the way she was endearingly overcome with child-like excitement whenever telling a story – I was enamored.
That night, she told me about her estranged grandfather, who happened to have been a Nazi and later a communist party official in East Germany. I told her about my grandmother, who had survived Auschwitz and later suffered under communist rule in Czechoslovakia. It was absolutely perfect. Hollywood screenwriters could not have scripted it better: two vagabonds courting each other in the tropical heat of Vietnam, torn apart by the chains of history. Star crossed lovers! Romeo and Juliet! All that nonsense!
Here was an opportunity to bridge gaps. Even today, my dad wouldn’t buy anything manufactured in Germany. This would be the closest I could ever come to bringing a black man home for Thanksgiving dinner, short of actually bringing a black man home for Thanksgiving dinner. I had to bed her, I reasoned, for the harmony of society, and to help the world overcome its prejudices, to realize that in the end, we are all just horny young adults. This was no longer just about my libido; it was about social progress.
I imagined myself, years from now, regaling the guests at a dinner party with tales of my forbidden love. “Ah yes, the torrid two-week affair I had with the descendant of a Nazi on the beaches of Vietnam,” I would fondly reminisce, right before sipping my glass of red and gazing into the distance, a slight smile spreading across my lips. Like any young traveler who had seen The Beach. I wanted my own Virginie Ledoyen. Months before I even stepped on the plane that would take me to Bangkok, I dreamed of a whirlwind romance on the beaches of southeast Asia with a lovely, heavily accented young European woman. It had taken me a few months, but it seemed imminent.
By the time we got to Halong Bay, I had already shared a toast of snake blood shots with Laura, and had her teach me to waltz underneath the stars as we spent the first night of our tour on a ship anchored besides the tremendous sea rocks that Halong Bay is famous for, with the mist settling over the cliff tops and shooting stars flashing across the sky. The waltz, though lacking in the ass-to-crotch movements favored by modern American dances, is not lacking in its seductive power, and seduced, I assumed, we bother were.
I bid my time. Things were proceeding smoothly. Too smoothly. The two of us had just spent the afternoon kayaking around some of the floating markets. Our final stop that second day of the tour was monkey beach. Southeast Asia has a number of beaches dubbed “monkey beach", where somewhat domesticated monkeys snatch food out of tourists’ hands while overexcited parents and Japanese tourists snap a ridiculous amount of photos. As our boat docked next to the beach, I called out warnings to my eager travel companions. I considered myself incredibly knowledgeable about the deviousness of monkeys.
“Do not trust these monkeys,” I steadfastly stated in my I-have-all-the-knowledge-in-the-world-and-you-should-feel-honored-to-be-traveling-with-me voice. “I have witnessed their actions in Africa and on the beaches in Thailand. They steal your snacks, snatch your bags, and hit you!” This fearless traveler, who has been there and done that, is looking out for you people. It would do you best to appreciate him. Especially, you, young Laura. “I’m telling you, do not be excited, stay far away from these heinous beasts,” I called out as we made our way off the boat.
That nasty bit of business done, our group excitedly sauntered up the beach. A few small monkeys sat idling away on the northern border of the beach, a good 25 meters from the water where the tree line began. Being an idiot, I was the first to approach the monkey contingency, taking a shell in my hand and offering it to a baby monkey under the guise of food. She approached and took it out of my hand before sniffing it and chucking it away. Oh, you stupid monkey, how could you fall for the oldest trick in the book? I do not remember why I thought approaching and then tricking the monkey would serve to impress Laura, but I’ve done dumber things and will most likely continue to do them.
Right at that moment, the matriarch appeared, crashing down from the branches and running to meet our group face to face. When I say appeared, I mean more like swooped down as a demon from hell. In the blink of an eye, the mother stood in front of me, bouncing this way and that like a hyperactive kindergartener confined to a chair for the entire afternoon. A few in the group behind me slowly backed away. I started to too, never taking my eye off her. It was a showdown. It would not end well. Teeth bared, she hissed and made scary monkey noises. Everyone bolted down the beach at once; I took off running behind.
They had a good jump on me, however, and I knew the monkey was faster than me. I had seen the look of blood lust in her eyes. This monkey was focused on me like a heat seeking missile. Deep in my heart, I knew I had only one chance. I sprinted towards the water. I wasn’t sure monkeys are scared of water. I hoped so. Just as I reached the ocean’s rocky edge, I tripped and fell on my face. The monkey was still after me. I crawled on my hands and knees further into the depths, hoping the water would deter it. Shaken up and soaked, I glanced back to see the monkey starting at me from the break. It held my eye contact. Do you know what the monkey did, right then? It fake lunged into the water, complete with bared fangs and a head fake worthy of an NBA player. This was no “circle of life” defensive measure. This was a monkey, hell bent on humiliating me further.
Soon enough, the beach ranger came down and shooed the monkeys off with the help of some large rocks. My friends, including Laura, rejoined me and regrettably discovered that no one had caught the incident on camera. As I examined the cuts and scrapes I had incurred, everyone informed me that it had been the highlight of their Vietnam experience – not the highlight of mine.
Later that afternoon, a monkey bit another traveler; the possibility of rabies was a concern, so I managed to save some face. Still, I could tell Laura was far from impressed. The courtship that had looked so promising did not go as planned after that. Laura and I continued on traveling with our group for another two weeks. But her feelings changed that day of the monkey reckoning. Clearly, she hadn’t read enough literature, otherwise she would have realized she needed to play her part in my sordid future dinner party story.
Perhaps the romance of traveling neglects to influence everyone. Harmony and reconciliation would have to wait, thanks to some monkey. No matter. One week later, I struck up a lovely conversation with a beautiful 23-year-old Austrian woman with nary a monkey in site.