Lek was my tour guide through Vietnam. Picture the typical guide you’d expect to be allocated to take a bunch of skint, giddy young people through South East Asia. You’re probably thinking of someone with nice teeth, a fifty million Dong smile, charming crow’s feet around their eyes, adventure-dyed skin, wrists a-jangle with bangles, a faded scar or two, hair free flowing, voluminous and wild, full of stories and quirks and gleeful chaos and, and, and… no. Shovel all that shit out of your head now. That wasn’t Lek.
Lek was a 57 year old Thai woman who hated Vietnam. Quite why she was working as a tour guide in Vietnam was never really made clear. She spoke English, but not quite enough for me to ever deduce the reasoning behind this apparently bizarre lifestyle choice.
She was about four foot eleven, at a guess. She wore a bum bag (or fanny pack, I suppose) at all times, along with baggy T-shirts tucked into high waisted shorts. Her hair frizzy and massive, although that’s not saying much because in the Vietnamese wet heat everyone’s hair is frizzy and massive. Mine was diabolical. In fact it was so bad it warrants a haiku. Here you go.
A bird’s nest of angel’s pubes
Dan’s hair in Asia
Nice. I might enter that into a competition. Anyway, back to Lek. On the very first day of the tour, my travelling companion and I rocked up to the hostel only to find that there was noone else booked onto our tour, which was meant to be for 16 people. Arse. Lek introduced herself and apologised that noone else had booked onto our tour for the day (although tours leaving both the day before and after were packed out). We asked to move tours, unaware that this would mean she would be out of 2 weeks work. Kind of understandably, she said we couldn’t switch tours. Thus began the most uncomfortable voyage of my life, with a tour guide who didn’t like the local populace and who now also didn’t like us after we had tried and failed to launch a mutiny against her within an hour of meeting her.
Lek had a wicked tongue that lashed everyone in Vietnam into order. Bellhops and bus drivers were thumbscrewed into attending her every whim – mostly males, I might add. Females avoided the brunt of her tiny wrath. I could never quite make my mind up whether I felt sorry for her victims or found it funny, watching this little old Thai lady in a Micky Mouse bum bag march around telling terrified, floundering Vietnamese men to get their acts together. Woe betide anyone who hadn’t set the table for breakfast when she came down in the morning.
She terrified us, too. Before our first night train journey to Nha Trang, she warned us of the macabre horrors that awaited us.
“Yis, there many rats on the train. Insect, too.”
“There are rats? Do you see them? How big are the insects? Do they climb on you when you sleep?!” I begged in horror.
“Yis, yis, many big rat, they, er, they ver big and the insect are cockroach. Cockroach hide under the bed with rat. Many rat. They bite you.”
Oh Jesus H Christ. Lek spun these yarns with nonchalance until, when the time came and the train came screeching and booming its way into the station in the oily heat, I hardly dared to step aboard. I crammed into the carriage in a jostling sea of Vietnamese faces, and struggled down to our cabin. Tentatively pulling opening the doors, I winced, expecting a tsunami of gnashing rodents to explode out into my face. Instead, there were two simple bunkbeds, a table, a lamp, and some frilly curtains. Damn you, Lek.
She wasn’t all bad. She told us about when she was young, how she had been giving a jungle tour in Thailand. She lost her group, and ended up lost alone in the Thai jungle. Where there are tigers. She told us how she found a wide stream, and sat on a rock in the middle of it, so if a tiger were to creep up on her, she would at least hear it splashing. The water also kept the worst of the creepy crawlies at bay. She told us she wasn’t afraid, instead waiting patiently until it was light enough to see, then hurrying back down the track to safety.
Oh, and we share a birthday, too. She still wishes me a happy birthday on Facebook, which is just about the only time that someone can say ‘Happy Birthday!’ and you can reply with ‘Thanks, you too!’