Guttural, beer-distorted Vietnamese pierces the late afternoon calm. Then a French tourist asks me: “Are those air rifles?” I squint into the sun at a group of men gesticulating frantically at us from across the paddy field and clock the glint of metal barrels. The locals, it turns out, are packing mild heat.
Five minutes earlier, taking this shortcut seemed like a good idea. Our mission to explore Hon Lao—the largest of the eight-strong Cu Lao Cham archipelago 18 kilometers offshore from China Beach in southern Vietnam—on foot had been a fruitful one; an insight into a destination that remains untouched by mass tourism.
After three hours hiking along the undulating pot-holed strip of tarmac that is the main highway on the island’s west coast, our sweat-drenched group is more than ready to shave a few minutes off the journey back to Bai Lang village and the boat waiting to whisk us back to the mainland. Bad move. We’re walking directly into the line of afternoon target practice. “You need to move a little bit quicker,” says Gianni Marcon, our guide, with classic understatement. With the guns adding a sense of urgency out of step with the sleepy pace of the island, we oblige. Clambering out of the paddy, I glance back at our tormentors who, by now, are bent helpless with laughter. They open another round of La Rue beer.