The Dune Warriors

Continued from Nam, the Would-be Dune Guide

Our moment had come. The dune kids were scattered and Sarah had a clear path to Flower Pants. While she slipped away, I waded into the crowd of waiting boys who had been trying hyena-like to lure me away from the table throughout breakfast. It was my fault for having told them my name when we first arrived.

“Tom! Tom! You slide. You slide down.”

Now, as I approached, they seized upon me. “Tom, you slide with me,” said a skinny boy with a baseball hat tilted askew. He grabbed my forearm and led me across the street to the sand dunes. The diversion had worked. There, Sarah was waiting with Flower Pants, the sole girl among the dune kids

In addition to a stroll through Fairy Stream and a daybreak visit to the fishing village, most jeep tours of Mui Ne include a stop at the yellow sand dunes. In photographs posted in Internet cafes and restaurants that double as tour agencies, Westerner’s faces light up with glee as they coast down the golden dunes on plastic sheets akin to over-sized place mats. In the background are the carefree children who rent out the sleds.

Had our visit to the dunes been chaperoned by a tour operator, perhaps ours would’ve been such a joyous visit. Instead, we left with photos tainted by piggish greed.

But as we humped the dunes amongst a cavalcade of pre-adolescents, I couldn’t imagine that those bulletin board pictures were inaccurate. Nor could I make sense of what Nam had told us about the dune kids: that they were a pack of ingenuous, depraved sadists whose sole motivation was greed. Indeed, our friend Phoung had met up with us the day before, and when we asked her opinion on the Japanese tourist story, she conceded that it could be true.

But here were the kids, asking me all sorts of questions, pointing to my aviators and chanting, “Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson.” Now that they weren’t swarming around our breakfast table, my distaste for them faded. I looked back. Sarah was smiling with her coterie of kids, too. Still, I steeled myself against their charm. I handed over my sandals to Crooked Hat when he offered only because I could not think of a polite way to say no.

At the top of the hill, one of the boys asked for Sarah’s camera. “I’ll take picture of you,” he said. I looked at Sarah for confirmation, but she was already handing it over.

Crooked Hat kneeled at the apex and poured sand over the mat. “It slides better this way,” he said. He motioned for me to sit down, and once I had, he grabbed hold of the rope connected to the front of the mat. Suddenly, he lunged backwards, took a few steps, and, stepping aside, let me loose.

I fell off balance and the sled came out from under me at the base. As I got up the boy with our camera began scrolling through the photos he’d taken. I’d expected a blurry mess, but in fact, they were incredibly good photos. He even navigated the camera like it was his.

Up at the top, Flower Pants was trying to get something across to Sarah, but had found a chink in her Vietnamese. Frustrated, she sighed and pulled Sarah’s sunglasses down from her forehead over her eyes. It appeared that Flower Pants had more spunk than we gave her credit for.

Sarah came sailing down, and almost before she had stood, each boy was crowing for us to slide with him next. We ignored their calls and instead just sprinted up the hill and chose a couple boys at random. The boys sent us whizzing down in tandem. Again, they called for another side, but we told them we’d had enough.

The photographer had emerged as the leader, so Sarah got her camera back and squared up with him. She looked in her wallet and found she only had two 100,000 VND bills and a handful of small bills. She handed the boy two of the crisp 100,000 VND bills, and he walked off.

As we began to follow him, the rest of the kids surrounded us and started demanding their share. We told them that we paid the photographer, but they responded that he wasn’t with them. This, we knew, was a crock, but by this time, he had walked over a ridge and out of sight. Desperately clinging to their lie, the kids became downright rotten, calling us liars and cheats. We walked on ignoring their taunts, but then, Crooked Hat hit my last nerve.

“You don’t pay me, so I keep your shoes,” he said.

I kept my eyes averted from Crooked Hat, searching for the appropriate response. What I wanted to do was pick him up and shake him. A ten-year-old had me over the barrel. I didn’t want to get nasty, but I didn’t want to give in to this snotty little brat either. My outrage was stoked by the fact that I knew we’d given above and beyond what most tourists paid. I kept walking until I found a response.

“It’s okay,” I said. “They weren’t very expensive.”

“Okay, fine. You don’t pay me. I keep them.”

“Okay,” I said.

The kids continued to protest, and eventually Sarah gave a boy the handful of small bills, which amounted to less than a dollar. “That’s all I have,” Sarah said, simply wanting to be rid of them. Suddenly, realizing that his bluff had been called, the boy who’d taken the bills gave them back to Sarah, insisting that she buy herself a water. The mood changed like a sudden parting of rain clouds. Crooked Hat handed me my sandals and bid us farewell.

Immediately, we knew what had happened. We’d fallen for a trap they’d probably laid a hundred times. Seeing independent tourists, unaccompanied by a tour group, they’d lulled us to the far end of the dunes where we were hidden from view. We followed. They’d let their friend the photographer take the money and then feigned being ripped off by the alleged free agent. My sandals provided the collateral. Chief among our mistakes, we hadn’t set a price before sliding. My stomach might’ve continued to roil, but I knew we’d allowed ourselves to be duped.

We later found out from Phuong that the going rate is 5000 VND per slide.

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