After three days of slowly chugging northward from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), our tiny boat pulls into Chau Doc, the northernmost point in Vietnam before crossing into Cambodia.
In suburban centers such as Hanoi and Saigon, I had been well received as a wealthy tourist adding to the economy, but here in this speck of a jungle hamlet I have no expectations.
I thought many in this isolated village might perceive me as a returning enemy soldier, a common sentiment throughout Vietnam. But I intend to keep a low profile – stopping only for an evening's rest and a hot meal.
As our boat pulls up to the dock of the Hotel Victoria, the grandeur of the French colonial past stands in stark contrast to the recent neon and glass offerings of modern developers.
A woman in au dai (traditional dress) shuffles down to greet us with a cold glass of water tinged with lime. She places a lei of flowers around our necks as she kisses our cheeks. Then she guides us to the registration desk, where two Khmer bow and greet us in English.
Inside our room, geckos scurry along the walls. I turn off the ceiling fan and step out onto the balcony into the blast-furnace heat of the evening sunset.
The local rickshaw drivers spot me and begin to congregate below the balcony, yelling up offers of cheap rides. My wife, Irene, joins me on the balcony, and as we step back inside our room, she asks, "Why not go downstairs and see what happens?"
No sooner are we on the dirt street than we are mobbed, not just by the rickshaw drivers but the general populace. What is lacking here are beggars. Not one person asks for money. This crowd is curious, pushing inward as if proximity will reveal hidden secrets.
We smile and bow, making our way to the nearest rickshaw. As the driver assists Irene onto the high seat, I can see that he has gained great face as our choice.
Since I am large, I decide to take a separate rickshaw, hoping not to overburden these wiry men. There is much laughter as a tiny man attempts to help lift me up onto his ride. I pretend to struggle, and the crowd eats it up.
As my driver strains to peddle a weight he is unaccustomed to, people begin to close in and touch my clothing. Most of them say hello in accented English that tells me this is the only word of the language they know. Yet it is said in a sincerely friendly manner.
We are suddenly minor celebrities, and everyone is having a good time.
Our drivers turn up a side street, taking us out of the central area and into an area of private residences where word has preceded us. Folks come out of their houses as we approach.
We are now a parade – with people lining the street, waving, and yelling hello as we pass. Many stick out a hand for a shake or simply to touch mine as we glide by. Several barking dogs have joined us, adding to the carnival atmosphere, and many young children run ahead yelling and laughing.
Elders laugh and wave from their porch chairs. Some young women hide their faces behind a hand with a giggle as I pass, while the men stare openly at Irene. We are both a diversion and a curiosity – and surely the biggest event to hit this neighborhood in quite some time.
We weave in and out of dark muddy streets, getting a taste of rural life that most visitors will never see. Stone and plaster houses stand side by side with cardboard shacks. In the fading light, candles and an occasional gas lantern begin to cast eerie shadows.
One small boy tosses a piece of cane onto my lap as I pass and stands waving as I disappear from his life.
Our ride lasts about an hour, taking us into areas I would not choose to go on my own. Yet, on the rickshaws, we feel not only safe, but happy. We have left the modern world behind and been welcomed into strangers' lives because that is the code of the road.
It is moments such as this that keep pulling me back to the road less traveled – moments that at the time seem insignificant, but in the clarity of hindsight take on importance as the point of connection between peoples whose paths would normally never cross.
Back at the hotel, there is sporadic applause as Irene and I wave goodbye and disappear into a world that is beyond the dreams of most of the people we have just encountered.
In our room, I peek through the curtains and see an animated crowd below discussing the evening's events.
In such rural villages, storytelling is a valued art form. I have now passed from a mere traveler into a story – and by doing so, I leave part of myself here when I go. The thought warms me.