(Photo: Getty Images)
The idling motorcycle wobbled as I climbed aboard, my arms desperately clutching at the waist of the stranger now only centimeters from my face. I eyed Caroline anxiously as her driver started his bike.
“My name is Diamond,” Caroline’s driver yelled at us, attempting to drown out the rumble of the passing Saigon traffic with his slow, practiced English. “OK, we go to Mekong Delta now!” he shouted.
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Blue boats in the rivers of the Mekong Delta (Photo: Getty Images)
The bikes lurched into action as our drivers weaved their way onto the busy street. A kaleidoscope of colors sped past us, echoing against my helmet’s visor until the lights and sights of the city were miles behind.
Caroline and I had met two days earlier on a bus ride back from Cu Chi – a vast network of Viet Cong tunnels that are part of the common Ho Chi Minh City backpacker route. The tunnels turned out to be a huge tourist trap, complete with cartoonish mannequin soldiers and tacky, overpriced souvenirs.
“Do you want to see the real Vietnam?” Caroline asked me, as I vented out loud that the trip had been a waste of a good afternoon.
“Then I have a plan,” she said.
Caroline unfolded a ripped piece of paper with a Vietnamese phone number scrawled across it. “This guy, Diamond, offered to take me on a motorcycle trip into southern Vietnam for only $40! He can take you too. We can go together.”
“Diamond?” I asked incredulously. The name – and the do-it-yourself business card – didn’t exactly scream reliability. Caroline looked at the number and then at me and sighed, “I want to go, but not alone. Come with me?”
Beware of the smelly durian. So pretty … so noxious. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Over the next two days, Caroline and I darted through the Mekong with Diamond and his uncle, perched on the back of their twin motorcycles like two infants in a high-speed BabyBjörn. We visited a local floating village and then a family farm with fields full of Asia’s most noxious fruit, the pungent durian. We snuck into an upscale Western-styled resort, where Diamond knew a security guard, then cooked shrimp on a homemade grill while passing around a bottle of banana seed whiskey – a strong, tart bottle of booze I had never seen before or since.
The writer never would have visited this floating village without his motorcycle guide. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Properly plied with Vietnamese liquor, we ended the day halfway to our destination in a sleepy village somewhere in the Ben Tre province, where the Vietnam War is commonly considered to have officially begun in 1959.
“Do you want to get a beer?” Caroline asked.
“Yeah, of course.”
The streets of Ben Tre were dark and quiet. After crisscrossing half a dozen blocks, we finally found an open restaurant.
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The patio was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with chain-smoking patrons, white bandanas wrapped tightly around their foreheads. A trio of musicians was crammed into one corner, sending a wave of live music over the crowd. Behind the tables, large wreaths leaned against the bare brick wall, adorned with balloons and ribbons.
Ben Tre musicians (Photo:Jos Dielis/Flickr)
Caroline and I quickly sat down at the only two open seats at a table close to the street. Less than a minute later, a little girl tapped us on the shoulder and motioned for us to follow her. We shuffled passed the crowd, returning the diners’ awkward smiles and nods until we reached a large table at the back. At the table’s head sat a plump man with a smile seemingly superglued to his face. He shooed away two of his seated guests and offered us their chairs, slapping us on the back as we sat.
Fruit plate (Photo: Getty Images)
Almost immediately, another girl emerged from the kitchen and placed a pile of fresh fruit and sweets in front of us. The crowded table looked at us like biologists examining specimens of a long-extinct race, waiting for us to eat. We dug in.
Not one of them spoke English, and I was convinced that even if I was fluent in Vietnamese, I’d have trouble communicating. The man to my right poured a plastic water bottle into a shot glass. He flapped his arms to get my attention and then stared at me straight in the eye as he tossed back the shot, careful to leave it half full. He handed the glass to me and smiled wider.
I examined it playfully, bringing the shot to my nose. The booze was as clear as water but reeked of diesel. I swallowed it in one gulp and slammed the glass on the table. The crowd cheered, and each of the men followed suit, individually taking their turn to share a drink with me.
Finally, at the behest of our accidental host, a little boy began translating for us.
“What is this?” I asked the boy. “Looks like a party. A birthday party?” I guessed, eyeing the balloons and homemade streamers.
“Um … kind of.” The boy said, clearly eager but nervous about conversing with a native English speaker. “It’s a … a … death party.”
A scene from a Vietnamese Death Party (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Caroline and I both let out a gasp. “This is for his mother’s death,” he continued, pointing to the man nodding back and forth, signaling that even though he didn’t understand us, he knew what was being said. “She died one year ago today. We remember her.”
I was shocked and saddened, but I couldn’t help but think this was a much better way to remember a loved one, rather than the gloomy memorial and a cold cut combo that was all too common in the States.
Incense burning (Photo: VivianDNGuyen/Flickr)
As we continued on, the man invited us inside to light a stick of incense and place it in front of a large framed picture of his mother. Turning to finally leave, he gave us both a big hug and began to cry.
“He says come back whenever you want,” the boy translated.
The next morning, we climbed aboard our motorbikes and sped passed a twisted corner. To my amazement, the “death party” was still in full swing, the band thumping their instruments like it was its first set.
From across the street, I caught our host’s glazed gaze once again – his face redder and puffier than the night before, but his smile two times wider. He waved both arms at me, jumping up and down. I waved back until he was out of sight; the vacant, open road the only hint he was ever there at all.
Micah Spangler lives in Washington, D.C. He has traveled to more than 20 countries on six continents.