We were wondering how much weight the tire swing would hold when a skinny boy rappelled down the worn rope from the bridge overhead. He’d barely touched the water before he started slinging questions at us.
Where were we from? America. Where were we staying? Nhat Quang Bungalows. How long had we been in Vietnam? A few weeks. What were our names? Sarah and Tom.
And with those four responses, we had booked ourselves a juvenile tour guide through the striated sands of Fairy Stream. We’d been in Mui Ne only a few hours and had entered the mouth of the ankle-deep stream for a post-prandial walk simply because it was steps from our bungalow. We hadn’t planned on anything as official as a guided tour, but what the hell? Three’s a party.
His name was Nam, age 11.
Nam seemed to know only enough English to conduct these impromptu tours, though what he knew, he professed was self-taught. After he learned that Sarah spoke Vietnamese, he was content to chatter away in his native language and let her translate.
Our first stop was up a steep sand hill, where Nam told us we could take “a very beautiful picture.” At the top, I pointed the camera down from where we had walked and snapped a picture. Nam politely tapped me on the arm. I turned to see him pointing at the clearly superior scene in the opposite direction. I lifted the camera to take a shot.
Along the stream, Nam pointed out the more interesting geological structures: calcified white sand stalactites and natural alcoves where blasts of burnt reds, oranges, and yellows collided to form Technicolor sand walls. At one point, he stopped in front of a patch of brownish plants, bent over, and ran his hand over the beak-shaped leaves. They closed and bowed at the touch of his skin. He smiled when mimicked him.
Nearing the end of the trail, we saw another young boy with a white foreigner in tow. Nam had told us he was on his way home, but we had never really doubted that our encounter was more the result of entrepreneurial spirit than providence. We exchanged polite smiles with the foreigner and discussed how much we would slip Nam.
Nam concluded his tour with a cratered sand wall ornamented with some of the hard white spikes. Sarah pointed up in the distance and asked if we could go further. Nam told her it got deep further up. So no further? Sarah asked. Nam paused; as customers, we were no pushovers. A bit apologetically, like an artist showing an incomplete work, he told us there was a waterfall up ahead, but that it was small because it was the dry season.
We followed Nam up a hill, past a rice paddy and a tiny woodshed restaurant, where tomorrow’s avian lunch seemed to have the run of the show in the proprietor’s absence. The trail ended in a craggy nook where three small waterfalls poured into a pool. It was no Niagara Falls, but it was pretty nonetheless.
Again, Sarah pointed up ahead, this time asking Nam if Mui Ne’s sand dunes were ahead. She had told me about the kids who rent homemade sleds to tourists to slide down the dunes. Nam said they were a bit further away. Sarah asked if he could take us there the following morning, but he said he could not; he had school. Also, the kids who rented the sleds would beat him up if he showed up with foreigners.
Kiddingly, Sarah asked if Nam would beat up trespassers in Fairy Stream. No, Nam told her. That’s mean. The dune kids, he explained, were crazy. I cannot verify what follows, but according to Nam, it is true.
About a week ago, a couple of Japanese tourist went up to the dunes for a bit of sledding. When asked to pay up, the Japanese tourists refused, which prompted one of the kids to assault said tourists. In the end, their driver paid the kids and whisked the bleeding tourist off to the hospital, where the tourist, having learned his lesson, reimbursed the driver for his trouble.
Sarah asked Nam how he’d heard about the incident if he wasn’t allowed to go to the dunes. He said he knew the driver.
I asked Sarah what she thought about the story. She said she didn’t think he had any reason to lie. What’s more, the youth home where she established Armed with a Paintbrush would sometimes get reports that some of their street kids had beaten up another child for attempting to peddle cigarettes, or noodles, or lottery tickets – whatever – in the prosperous, backpacker-rich Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood
On the way back, Nam confessed that mornings he went to school and afternoons he did this, shuttle unassuming foreigners through the stream. He asked us how long it took to get to Vietnam from America. About fifteen hours by place, Sarah told him. What about by car? Nam asked.
We came back to the bridge, where Nam pointed out his best friend, who was waiting loyally. Not realizing Sarah spoke English, he shouted, “How much did you get?” Nam told him he hadn’t asked yet, and turned to Sarah to request a “rental fee.”
In the end, Sarah told me to give him 100,000 VND, about $7. Nam seemed pretty happy with his pay and ran up to meet his friend. We felt pretty good, but still, there was a weight on our shoulders.
Tomorrow, we were due to meet the allegedly psychopathic dune kids…
Continued in The Dune Warriors…