Buzzing along on a motorbike rented from our modest hostel in Can Tho, Vietnam, I try to warn my partner that on Google Maps, the road stops not far ahead. I urge him to turn onto a wide street, but he’s not interested. He always wants to go where no tourist has ventured before.
Suddenly, the road stops. If it were just grass, he probably would have continued in denial and steered us through the fronds. Lucky for me, there was a fence; No choice but to turn around. Each new path we met, he wanted to know the status on Google Maps. I don’t know why because he continued to ignore my advice and test the dead ends. He thinks I should thank him, and loves telling this story because it ends in me offending one of the most hospitable men in Vietnam.
Sometimes as a female who frequently travels solo, you put up guards and walls that are necessary for your safety. Then, you leave the walls up and ruin what could have been a meaningful human connection.
As we zoomed along these narrow roads along a creek and modest houses, people stared at us. At one point, some of them waved at us to turn around and made the shooing motion with their hands. I got the feeling we weren’t welcome there.
Then we saw a shirtless elderly man standing in the middle of the road. He flagged down our motorbike and pointed up at luscious coconuts dangling above us. We waved him off and attempted to pass. But he was insistent, pointing at the coconuts and then us.
With my previous experiences in Vietnam, I was not interested in stopping in this remote place and waiting to get ripped off. I was sure he would serve up the coconuts and demand a ridiculous price only after we drank the fresh juice inside.
We waited quite some time for him to fetch the coconuts from the top of the tree. I discussed with my partner how much money to get out of my wallet. I was feeling bad for the amount of work it was taking this man to get the coconuts and felt like he deserved more than the average price on the street.
After he climbed down, he escorted us to his home. We were all but forced to sit at a table outside the front door. He and his wife argued in Vietnamese while she prepared the coconuts for us to drink. They didn’t have any straws, and she didn’t seem satisfied with their one plastic cup. So we tilted them back and drank straight from the green fruits.
I was incredibly uncomfortable in this whole situation and wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible. My partner, who is from India, accused me of being too westernized. At this point, he insisted that we could not offer this man money, we should maybe take pictures with them and leave.
I was appalled. What would that look like if we just came and drank their coconuts, took selfies, and left? They weren’t drinking coconuts with us. I saw that as a sign that we had to pay. I couldn’t get up the nerve to simply say thank you and walk away. It felt pretentious to me.
It turns out, that is what I should have done. When I offered the man money, his grin flipped upside down. He waved my extended hand away and shouted something at me in Vietnamese.
I was so uncomfortable I headed down the sidewalk. The man’s wife was squatting near the road, so I tried to offer her the money. She also refused. I found myself with folded hands saying thank you and sorry profusely before getting to the motorbike as quickly as possible.
Neighbors were poking their heads around at the commotion, and I’m sure my face was beat-red knowing that I had assumed the worst of these people who only wanted to share a coconut with some strangers.