A morning bus takes me from Hà Tiên to Rạch Giá, both the provincial capital and the most popular spot for boats to the islands. The town itself isn’t rich in sights of interest, but sometimes it is the people you meet that make a place memorable.
As I’m not island–bound I dump my bag at a plain hotel and wander off for coffee and a bite to eat. The town is, like most seaside towns, pretty enough—but forgettable. The Nguyễn Trung Trực temple and a small museum are the mainstays, but for most they’re only fodder before the boat.
The former is dedicated to Rạch Giá’s favourite martyr—you guessed it, Nguyễn Trung Trực. He led raids against the French colonialists in the 19th century but the French couldn’t catch him. So, they kidnapped his Mum and threatened to kill her—as one does. He then gave himself up and sure enough the French then executed him.
At a coffee stall near the temple, overlooking the water, I meet two Brits. They’ve been wandering through the Delta for a while and are heading to Phú Quốc the next day. They join me for coffee and we chat.
They’re slow travellers and good company. We swap notes and laughter over some of the destinations they’ve been through. Foreign travellers are few and far between in the lower Delta, and I’m the first they’ve seen in a week. They’re just bumbling around on an open–ended trip. Lost backpackers.
They’re a little younger than me—mid thirties at the time we met—and have nothing but praise for the country. Vietnam is home to the friendliest people in Southeast Asia they say. I’m inclined to agree—as much as Vietnamese can often seem abrupt on a quick take, the hospitality is genuine.
They’re in typical backpacker garb. Fisherman pants, sandals, a beer–branded t–shirt and she’s wearing an ill–fitting cotton tank–top. Plenty of beads. He’s on the way to dreadlocks, but not quite there yet, while her hair is super short, almost a crew cut. They’re both covered in tattoos.
I don’t have any tattoos, and I can count the number of beautiful ones I’ve seen on one hand. Not that that matters of course, they’re for the owner, not the onlooker. These two have so many, and so random, I feel like I’m reading them and talking to them. More than once she catches me trying to read a short story on the side of her waist. Each time I sheepishly look away rather than ask what it says.
One, on her forearm though, keeps catching my eye. I can’t not look at it. I know what it looks like, but think surely not, why would anyone tattoo that on their arm? I can’t think of how to ask, so I say nothing.
We end up spending the whole day together. Wandering around, sitting in cafes, bánh xèo here, spring rolls there. As the day rolls on into the afternoon, we switch from coffee to beer. As with anywhere in Vietnam there are no shortage of places to drink, and drink cheaply.
As the sun sets, we get comfortable outside a hole in the wall by the water. There are fishing boats tied up behind us and the cool from the water takes the bite out of the last of the day’s heat. The beers flow. We eat. Seafood of some description. It is good and affordable. We laugh and continue swapping stories.
We know we’re heading in opposite directions tomorrow and won’t see each other again. We’re single serving friends for one another—and the dosage feels like the perfect medicine.
Street artists pull up with an enormous speaker and perform. First there is moonwalking to Michael Jackson, then a magician stuffs tissue paper up his nose and out of his mouth to Gangnam Style. The performances are kind of awful but hard to take our eyes off.
Finally, after I don’t remember how many beers, I muster the courage to ask her about her tattoo. I’m sure I know what it is, but I have to hear her say it, and tell me why she has it on her arm.
So I ask, if you don’t mind me asking, what is the tattoo on your forearm?
He bursts out laughing, and asks if I have been waiting all day to ask. I nod ashamedly. Everyone asks, he says. They’re both cackling as she pivots her forearm towards me so I can see it in all of its glory.
Her skin, at least that not covered in tattoos, is soft and pale. The tattoo, even in the dim light is as clear as clear can be.
“It’s his penis,” she says, laughing, “True to life scale.”
Tomorrow: Deep into the Delta.