by Anne Vize
Than Le dips her paddle idly into the murky water of the Thu Bon River and gazes across the glassy surface towards her home. She looks at the young couple seated nervously in the front of the boat and smiles at them. They smile back, and then glance at each other as if seeking reassurance that this small gesture has been the correct thing to do. She watches in amusement at their unspoken conversation. It is the start of the Australian holiday season, and the tourists are just starting to fill the hotels and restaurants with their enthusiastic chatter and passion for spreading money around like confetti. Soon it will be peak season, with people jamming the markets and stores and snapping photographs in every direction. But for now it is still peaceful in her small town, and Than Le is making the most of the peace before the holidaying hordes descend.
The water slaps gently at the side of the boat, and she turns her attention back to paddling. They have not progressed very far along the river, but the tourists do not seem to mind. They never do. Than Le is always surprised at how short a distance she can paddle up the river without the tourists complaining. So long as she lets the oars occasionally brush the surface, they seem to be happy. They are talking to each other now, pointing out the scenery as it drifts slowly past. A large white bird glides gently past on outstretched wings. An old woman stands on the shore, gesturing to them. The tourists wave to her enthusiastically and the old woman waves back, a bright, toothless smile lighting her worn features.
Than Le has been paddling this stretch of the river for years now. She makes a reasonable living for herself during the tourist season, ferrying eager travellers from the restaurants to the bridge and back for a few thousand dong a trip. The money she makes supplements the family business. Her mother, like many of the women in Hoi An, is a dressmaker. She spends her days toiling over metres of fabric designing clothes for the western tourists who visit her store. Than Le always thinks it is quite comical that people would travel all the way to Hoi An just to spend their holidays being measured and pinned and fitted for dresses and suits that they could buy just as easily at home. Her father runs a small mini van for a hotel, driving rich Americans to see the major sites around town. Sometimes the tourists pay Than Le in Australian dollars, and these she hides away under her mattress. She is saving them for a trip she wants to take when she is older.
Than Le dreams of one day visiting Australia. She saw Australia on a map once. It was enormous; a great spreading eagle covering half the page. Her own country, by contrast, was tiny. A mere spot at the very top of the map, with only some small writing in the corner to show where the rest of her homeland disappeared onto another page. She would love to visit at Christmas time just to see for herself what all the fuss was about. She had read a story at school called “An Australian Bush Christmas” and ever since she had been fascinated by the notion of everyone sharing a religious festival that seemed to be chiefly concerned with playing sports, visiting friends and giving each other presents.
Than Le’s attention returns to the couple in her boat. She listens to them talk. They have not yet discovered that she can speak English, and so she lets them chat uninterrupted. They think she is a boy, probably because her long, black hair is swept up underneath her floppy sunhat. It is much easier that way; when her hair is down it often catches in her fingers. The young woman is asking the man if he thinks they should give her a tip when they get back to the shore. Than Le giggles quietly and thinks that it sounds like a good idea to her. She doesn’t mind tourists like this couple. Quiet and polite, not like some of the loud, demanding holiday makers who think she should have to entertain them during their boat ride. She likes that this pair can sit in the boat without wriggling, so she does not have to work to balance the boat as well as paddling. Some tourists insist on lurching from one side of the tiny craft to the other so they can take photos of each other and of Than Le. She hates having her photo taken, but most never bother to ask. They just click away with their cameras and videos, taking photos and film of just about everything. Than Le wonders sometimes if they ever get to see the real Vietnam, or just blurred images through the lens of a camera as a reminder of their Vietnam holiday.
Than Le has one photo of herself at home that she keeps in a box by her bed. It was taken by an Australian tourist last year. The girl had been travelling alone, and Than Le had watched her spend some time sitting on a bench besides the river, trying to summon the courage to ask for a boat ride. Finally Than Le had taken her out, and the girl had chatted excitedly for the entire trip. She had quickly discovered that Than Le’s English skills were good, and they had enjoyed a pleasant half an hour chatting about food and Australia and Than Le’s school and family. The girl had asked Than Le if she minded having her photo taken, and had spent some time carefully organising the light and the background for the shot. At the end of the trip, the girl had carefully copied down Than Le’s address into a small notepad and promised to send her the photos she had taken. Than Le had never expected the picture to arrive, and she had deliberately put it out of her mind. Then, weeks later, a small envelope had arrived with a note and a photo inside.
To Than Le,
A picture to remember our boat ride. I hope we meet again someday. I have written my address for you so if you ever have a chance to come for a holiday to Australia you can visit me.
From your friend in Australia,
The young couple are holding hands now and watching her as she paddles. She dips her paddle into the water again and points to her house. It is raised on stilts above the water, and for some reason all the tourists seem to find this intriguing. They often ask about how high the water rises up the stilts during a storm or flood. They seem to enjoy hearing about the big flood last year that carried so many people to their deaths. Than Le still shivers when she thinks about that day. She finds it strange that the tourists want to hear about a day when people died trying to save their belongings and their children and animals. But they seem to enjoy those bits the most. So sometimes Than Le makes the story sound just a little worse than it really was. She invents some extra details about people floating holding their possessions above their heads so they could save them. She tells them about young children performing heroic rescues against the rapidly rising waters. She knows when she has got the details of her stories just right because the tourists gasp and nod knowingly at each other.
Than Le begins the story about the rising waters of the flood for the fifth time this afternoon. She tells the young couple about watching the water creep up the stilts of her house, and seeing her books and clothes disappear into the swirling river muck. She tells them about her mother crying as her treasured sewing machine was swept away. She finishes her story with a nice detail about oranges bobbing on the surface of the water and her fishing them out so her family could have something to eat that night. She likes stories where she gets to be the hero. The young couple look admiringly at her, as if they can suddenly see something more than just a young, dark eyed teenager in a floppy hat.
Than Le has a secret rule on her boat. If the tourists smile at her and her stories and they are polite and well mannered, she tells them about the bridge. If they grunt at her indifferently like some of them do, or if they are rude and ignore her while she is telling her stories, she doesn’t tell them about the bridge until it is almost too late. The bridge sits low over the river, its ancient bulk casting a wide shadow over the water. All the kids who paddle the river play on the bridge. They tie their boats up to it, and climb up to explore the pylons. If there are no tourists around, they might sit near the bridge and fish. They all enjoy the game of paddling unsuspecting tourists towards the pylons, waiting until the very last second, and then pointing casually at the fast approaching stone underside and saying “bridge.” It’s a great laugh to watch the tourists shriek and flatten themselves against the floor of the boat, often making it rock precariously with the sudden movement.
They are almost at the bridge. Than Le points over the young woman’s shoulder and motions to them to duck their heads. She deftly guides the boat under the low bridge, and safely out the other side. The couple sit upright once more, and smile at her in appreciation. The man takes some bananas from his bag and offers one to the woman. She takes one, then motions at Than Le. The man hesitates for a moment, as if wondering if he can afford such generosity. Then he shakes his head and holds the bunch out to Than Le. She reaches for a banana and peels it quickly, the paddle tucked for a moment under her armpit. It has been hours since she has eaten and she is hungry. She smiles a quick thank you to the man and munches happily. The couple smile at each other, pleased with themselves.
When they return to the shore, Than Le steadies the boat against the river wall as first the man and then the woman step gingerly out, her holiday beach bag clutched to her chest. They exchange another look and the man nods decisively at the woman. He reaches into his bag and holds out the rest of the bananas. Than Le takes them from him, pleased to have a snack to eat during the afternoon. The man smiles at his wife and Than Le hears them tell each other that the young boy will have something decent to eat for a change. She forces her smile to stay where it is, and waves to the departing tourists. As they look back, Than Le takes her hat from her head, and shakes her long dark hair out from under it. She runs her fingers through the knots, smoothing it as best she can without a brush. She giggles at the stunned look on their faces as they realise that she is, in fact, not a boy at all.
“Bye,” she calls out to them. “I’ll see you around sometime. Enjoy the rest of your holiday in Vietnam! Oh, and thanks for the bananas!”
A version of “River Girl” was first published in Island, a Tasmanian literary magazine.
ANNE VIZE is an Australian author who works mainly in educational writing, creating books for teenagers who struggle with literacy and their teachers. She is currently a frustrated eco travel writer (hampered by two small fries who don’t travel well) who aims to travel the world in her own holiday times, reviewing wonderful places to stay sustainably. She is sure no one else harbours this ambition, so the market should be wide open. Anne’s latest books are Into Reading Books 1 and 2 published by Phoenix Education.