Tim Walker’s Election’17 II

New Zealand’s newest government – effectively a composition of political losers – is, if nothing else, ambitious.

Jacinda’s ‘war on child poverty’ is on schedule to be properly waged by the end of the year and, in fact the way she’s talking, her side will have declared victory before the end of the following year.

Of course with the ‘massive cash surplus’ left behind by the outgoing National party – money prudently set aside for unforeseen circumstances such as a relapse of the Global Financial Crisis which, given the current instability of the US, might just be closer than many of us would ever dare imagine – just like the former, Helen Clark led Labour Government, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government appear to have plans to spend money freely and indeed frivolously; thus after Labour’s three year term, as with the last Helen Clark led Labour Government, the country might well again be bankrupt.

One billion trees are to be planted by around this time in 2027, creating jobs for the men (and evidently the women) employed to plant the (approximately 274,000 daily) saplings while also, reportedly, going some way to driving New Zealand’s response on climate change…

Classic idealistic Jacinda: while planting trees, increasing oxygen and decreasing carbon dioxide does all sound wonderful, in theory, I just wonder if the likes of Canada, who in fact fell and replant over twice that number of trees every year, consider their actions to be anything remarkable; of course I am in support of Labour’s intentions to boost this and reduce that, yet from the perspective of a miniscule slice of land almost drowning in the South Pacific and containing fewer people than the combination of the aggregate populous of its surrounding island nations, short of setting an example, I wouldn’t have thought New Zealand’s ‘planting trees’ would have any real effect on the rest of the world or, perhaps more specifically, be the best use of Government resources at this time.

…Nevertheless that’s one third of Prime Minister Ardern’s loser coalition placated (now all James Shaw and his Green party need is some way to ensure that more of New Zealand’s pristine (‘polluted’) waterways are gushing their trillions of cubic metres of invaluable (‘undrinkable’) water into the ocean so it too can be no good to anyone – as opposed to being distributed over the land where it has the potential to benefit everything New Zealand – least of all the rising level of the world’s oceans), but now how is she supposed to deal with that cigarette smoking, whiskey swilling, other third – particularly after the inexperienced young leader has already sycophantically given opposing leaders conflicting assurances in order to garner support and indeed, to placate them? …

As a political leader it is good to be ambitious but – seemingly this is wisdom that an MP only learns over time and with political experience – one should never promise too much. As a politician your voting public will expect you to maintain the majority of your election promises, or if not that, at least have a viable explanation for why you are reneging on those promises; to simply become a turncoat – as Miss Ardern obviously needed to do in order to lure other loser parties to help build her coalition – in politics (or in fact in life in general), is very dangerous ground on which to base any kind of foundation.

…Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government plan to recruit 1800 new police officers over the coming three years which, although this initiative does sound splendid, given that fewer than 20 in every 100 applicants are ever successful in completing the rigorous New Zealand Police training course, that’s somewhere close to 180,000 police recruits Labour needs to find in a few short political years…

‘Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister’ – perhaps this is how she placated him.

…US President Donald J Trump reportedly made a call to, and had an amiable discussion with, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Elect, Jacinda Ardern; makes me wonder what kind of obsequious platitudes the famously misogynistic Trump had for this apparent leader of a democratic state..?

Firm right-wing supporter I may be, even so I am interested (if not mildly amused) to see where this (more or less) left-wing government will lead the country.

If MMP is democracy at its finest, why is it only the losers that made it into government?

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Lucy R Clition

Photography by A Bomber Trump

 

 

Tim Walker’s Vietnam IX

From Halong Bay we bussed back to Hanoi, and checked back in to our inner city hotel.

While the majority of the group were soon to be heading home or moving on to another area of Southeast Asia, I was booked into that hotel for yet another night…

I was shattered which, as I considered it, did make a lot of sense. Nevertheless I felt good. I felt as though my intention had been fulfilled; I had gone into this excursion with the intention of experiencing the real Vietnam and I reckon I had done just that.

…Despite my fatigue, the sense of liberty, the excitement I felt at finally being alone in this God-forsaken land flooded over me like a surge of ocean tranquillity. While the Intrepid trip had been wonderfully organised and brilliantly put together, I could finally stop feeling like I was having to perform with a certain level of decorum; I could finally stop with the acting…

I’m guessing that for those of you fine folk who have been taking the time to peruse each ‘Vietnam’ instalment it might come as a surprise to hear that my actions, until this point, have been in the least inhibited by thoughts of ‘decorum’ but, believe or don’t, this ‘Vietnam’ series has been an example of me on (close to) my best behaviour; the fact that I have entered into potentially dangerous situations, the fact that I have come so close at times to utter calamity, chaos, or worse, is simply the result of my irrepressibly inquisitive nature and, indeed I am certain, had I been content just to be a ‘tourist’, along with the rest of my tour group, my Vietnam excursion would have resulted in nothing untoward befalling me; but how dull would that have been? I’d have turned around and gone home having learned nothing about the ways of Socialist Vietnam, and that, in my opinion, would have been an entirely wasted trip. Alright, back on task: the time has just passed 11 a.m., therefore I now have half a day and one night before I am scheduled to be taxied to Noibai Airport, Hanoi.

…First order of business, I went back up to my room, locked the door behind me, went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth…

I was fortunate that most hotels in Vietnam provide a daily supply of single-use toothbrushes because, while I had been sure to bring my fully charged electric toothbrush, after ‘losing’ my bag in Ho Chi Minh City only to have it returned to me some days later, having been clearly repacked in the meantime, I found that in the course of those bag-snatchers’ unruly repacking, my toiletries bag – once positioned carefully in the end of my luggage bag so as not to squash the contents – had been completely squashed thereby activating the switch on my electric toothbrush, meaning that its fully charged battery – which I had hoped, in Vietnam’s warm conditions, would provide around 35 half-arsed brushes – must have been buzzing away for at least an hour before the battery ran out then, lo and behold, but as I suspected would be the case, Vietnamese power sockets do not take Western plugs.

…I rinsed under the sink faucet – then swigged a few more gulps of the smelly liquid – the overpowering chlorination ultimately forcing me away, before walking back into the main room, turning the air condition down to 14 degrees, and collapsing on the bed…

When I woke my skin was chilled. I checked my watch; it was almost 4 p.m. Nice one. I stood and grabbed one of the two bottles of water which had mysteriously appeared on the sideboard during the past few hours.

…I maintain I am typically a light sleeper, I just think Vietnamese folk move like the wind. It didn’t matter anyway; I’d taken to sleeping in Vietnam with valuables under my pillow. I slid a hand under my pillow and checked my wallet. I was down to my last 2 million dong. I decided to top up for one last time before leaving this land. I headed back down the stairs (most people take the lifts in hotels but I have found that unless you’re transporting a lot of baggage, after waiting for it to arrive then waiting for it to depart, before then waiting for it to move up or down the one or two levels, it’s more efficient just to take the stairs two at a time) and into the hotel foyer…

As well as clandestine water deliveries, over the past few hours my, once peaceful, hotel lobby had become packed with sweating, stinking (as it would turn out, European) youth. My initial assessment: the boys were wearing too many clothes while the girls, even by my liberal standards, were barely wearing enough; tiny European butts hung out of even tinier European cut-offs, while the boys maintained their impeccably fashionable looks with the latest designer sweatshirts and jackets.

…I approached the front desk, saw that my ordinarily friendly, affable and otherwise very accommodating Vietnamese receptionist was, between doing his best to rapidly translate French, Spanish, and Portuguese to Vietnamese while also distributing room-keys to those European folk who insisted that their needs took precedence over all others, looking beyond flustered…

I took a seat next to a pair of frightfully skinny legs that just didn’t seem to stop going up (I stopped tracking their length even before I reached whatever she was wearing around her hips, on account of my own feeling of awkwardness), and waited. Ten minutes later I stood and, pushing my way through the sweaty and stinky European horde, left the hotel.

…Out on the late-afternoon street, buoyed by my newfound sense of freedom, I turned and walked. My new boots felt like gloves on my feet – it was just fortunate the temperature had come down as the only pants I had to go with those boots were a pair of heavy, black denim jeans – my T-shirt read ‘Good Morning Vietnam’, my face was shaven, my glasses were smudged and as was becoming a habit, my Fedora had swung itself around backwards…

I strode around the corner, found a nice alcove which served food and drink, and rested on some children’s furniture. While waiting for my food I struck up a conversation with a well-dressed Vietnamese man who spoke perfect English and, as I was to learn (among other things) in the course of our conversation, he happened to hold a particularly lofty position with the Vietnamese Government. This piece of information thrilled me more than anything happening around me at the time (until just after this), and he appeared happy to indulge my inquisitive nature, ostensibly without fear of consequence. This being so, elated at the opportunity, I forcibly dredged my brain of all the Viet/Politic related questions I could locate, while making a further concerted effort to ingrain in my memory-bank each piece of new information he imparted upon me. (Despite storing every shred of Vietnamese political information he recounted – which shall be documented in a future ‘Tim Walker’s Communism’ piece – I do forget this man’s name.) My food came, I lost focus and when I looked up again the man had disappeared; the evening began to set in. I was enjoying my meal of ‘egg and bread’ when I glanced up to my left, and saw the most gorgeous young lady I’d seen (since, well, the day before). She turned and caught my eye also. In a flagrant act of impulsiveness I called out and made a few nonsensical hand gestures, attempting to wave her down. To my immense surprise she stopped, and turned. Minutes later she and I were sharing a bag of Vietnamese doughnuts – offered by a, conveniently located, passing street vendor – and chatting freely.

…Whatever the nature of my appearance it seemed to appeal to the stunning Taiwanese lass (who, in fairness, had caught my attention primarily because she was so much taller, also broader, than the Asian women I was accustomed to seeing), who, although she spoke with even more of an American/Asian twang than any other I’d encountered, spoke wonderful English and in fact showed herself to be quite the literary scholar. We chatted about everything from Taiwanese food to US politics. Over an hour later we stood and made our way back to my hotel…

She wasn’t a big Trump fan and, as much as I tried to help her to see that Donald J Trump is just a man who is in fact no bigger of a war-monger and antagoniser of North Korean Dictators than George Bush Junior was, she was immovable on her anti-Trump prejudice.

…Just after midnight I bid farewell to the wondrous Taiwanese woman and just like that – as she coined it – our ‘once in a lifetime encounter’ had passed. Watching her walk proudly down the footpath, exuding more self confidence/esteem than any Asian woman I’d met, I considered going to bed; there was, after all, supposedly a taxi coming to collect me a 9 a.m. tomorrow but on the other hand, I mused, why start dialling it back before you absolutely have to? I stepped back out into the Vietnamese street, wondering what else this city had in store for me – wondering what it was going to try and do to me – before morning…

As I swaggered down the street and in the direction of some bright lights, I had a bottle of water in one hand and several million dong in my pocket.

…The next morning I was showered, dressed and downstairs in the lobby, ready to go by 8:45 a.m. The taxi arrived shortly thereafter. I clarified with the driver that he was here for me by name, clarified furthermore that the ride was with Intrepid and that it was paid in advance (I had only 30.000 dong to my name at this point anyway), threw my bags in the car and headed for Noibai Airport…

Things I saw that night, people I met; the antics in which I partook shall never be recounted (and while this decision may indeed be frustrating to some, believe me, if you’d been there, you would understand). In this respect nothing carnal was indulged, but be assured, if you do happen to come to Vietnam and do decide you want your mind comprehensively blown, all you really need do, is be open to it; amazing what can happen if you just allow it.

…The taxi driver was an ebullient Vietnamese man who made constant attempts to fill the car with conversation; conversely I was weary, wary, and constantly on the lookout for anything unexpected. I sat in more or less silence throughout the journey, just waiting, in a state of perpetual readiness, almost expecting something undesirable to happen…

During the drive to Noibai Airport my driver appeared to, much of the time, be away in his own world and – despite travelling on a two-lane road at over 100kph and at times passing groups of slow-moving traffic at four or even five abreast – seemed more concerned with befriending his passenger than ensuring that passenger’s safe passage to the airport.

…As it turned out we made it to the airport, on time and without incident. I disembarked and, although the driver had dropped multiple jubilant hints throughout the ride (actually indicating toward the stack of money left by his last passengers, and praising their goodwill), I left no tip. I hauled my luggage out of the car, thinking to myself dryly: ‘You want a tip, you take it up with your buddies who charge tourists ten times the recommended fare’…

Sitting in the departure lounge of this Vietnamese airport, waiting for the gate to open, unbelievably, I heard a familiar voice. It was my buddy from the flight over, Zac, who, regarding the missing of our Vietnam transfer flight in Malaysia, had made the indignant remark about the airline paying for our lunch.

…I was approached while at Noibai Airport by a pretty young Vietnamese woman who was apparently writing a university thesis – as it turned out, in Seoul, South Korea, where she had in fact won a scholarship – on ‘Tourism in Vietnam’; she handed me a short questionnaire to fill out and said she would return to collect in ten minutes. Ten minutes later she sat down beside me and looked over my answers. She nodded appreciatively, concluding, “Yes, this is the same kind of thing most people said about Vietnam.”

I felt a tinge of guilt, knowing how brutally honest I had been thus how degradingly my answers might be perceived by a local person.

She then turned to me with a solemn expression and a tone of utter humility, and asked, “What do you think Vietnam should do to improve peoples’ perception of our country?”

I almost choked. This woman was brilliant. I turned to her with a disbelieving smile, looked into her deep brown eyes, took a moment, took a breath then said, “Your country is generally wonderful, but there is a large portion of your population who have adopted the culture that Westerners are nothing but walking money-bags to be cheated and swindled … These people need to learn that the best way to make money from tourists is not to cheat them out of it, but to treat them well … For example, I recall kicking up a big fuss when a Ho Chi Minh street vendor tried to dupe me out of eighty dong, then a few days’ later gave a two hundred dong tip to a Hoi An shop-owner who treated me well.”

“Hmm,” she looked thoughtful, “I understand, thank you … Is there anything else you think Vietnam people can do to improve tourism in Vietnam?”

“In fact,” I took another moment, “there is … By far the most stunning ‘tourism’ spot in your country, is Halong Bay, but it’s just so filthy, as though you don’t care about the state of its cleanliness … The same can be said for many of your cities though – I mean, I witnessed Vietnamese people in Hue urinating in the streets, and in Ho Chi Minh City they throw their garbage in the streets – I’m sorry, what was your name?”

“My name is Deborah, I am from Mekong.”

“Hello Deborah, nice to meet you – and you’re from Mekong, Vietnam’s southernmost city.”

A large smile came over her face, “Oh, did you go there?”

“We did, yes, on the tour’s second day.”

“Oh, what did you think – did you like it?”

“Ah, honestly, the smell was ghastly, the water was brown, but yeah, it was a great place … That’s what I mean though, your people, your Government needs to amend the Vietnamese culture, firstly about the way your people treat tourists and secondly, about the way they care for their land … I mean, Vietnam is tourism, right, and the only way your people can ensure that tourism remains a big part of the Vietnamese economy, is if you start operating responsibly, resourcefully and, more importantly, sustainably.”

“Yes, I have heard people say this before … It’s not good.”

I took an additional moment. “I could be good though, Deborah, your people just need to change the way they think – take Mekong, for example … Mekong – in fact in the islands of Nha Trang as well – the primary source of income is the ocean – the fisheries, yes?

She nodded.

“Well I can’t speak for Mekong because I didn’t swim there, but Nha Trang, and more-so in Halong Bay, the oceans are just full of flotsam – you can actually see the debris, rubbish, and tiny pieces of plastic floating in the water in front of your eyes – how are your fisheries going to survive when your oceans are so full of plastic? I mean the fish breath that water, therefore they are forced to breath plastic … I already knew China’s waters were like that, but if Vietnam’s not careful it’s going to go the same way.”

Deborah nodded, ashamedly.

“Look, it’s not even really the peoples’ fault, it’s the fact they’ve had this tourism boom effectively thrust upon them and are basically unprepared for the sudden influxes of everything that comes with that.”

She looked up and smiled. “So, what kind of thing do you think I should write in my thesis?”

“I think you should write that, Vietnam, for the most part, is beautiful … Write that the people, for the most part, are wonderful … Write that Vietnam is potentially the world’s greatest tourist destination … Write that, in order to realise this tourism potential, your people just need to work on developing a culture of ecology, sustainability, and decency … In New Zealand we go to great lengths to keep our waterways clean (I spoke these words on the 27th July 2017 and at that time, I thought little about them), it just takes the combined effort of a nation’s Government and population … New Zealand’s population is around five million and you’re what – about ninety..? – your country’s culture just needs to change, that’s all … Hoi An is without a doubt your greatest city, they’ve already nailed it – so let Hoi An be the template for the rest of Vietnam.”

“Okay, thank you,” she said with a hopeful smile.

“Good luck with your thesis, Deborah, it was nice to meet you.”

“Thank you very much for your help, Tim, I hope you have a good trip back to New Zealand,” she said before standing, shaking my hand and walking away.

 

My first words to Zac, therefore, referring to an instance now three weeks prior: “Oh hey bud … Did you get any lunch out of Malaysian Air after all that?”

“Oh, yeah man,” he said, sitting down, positively beaming, “couldn’t believe it eh, they gave us all McDonald’s vouchers, so nah, it was good, eh … What about you?”

“Lunch..? Dude, I had a lie down, then had to exchange some of my hard earned dong to pay for some bloody ‘authentic Malaysian cuisine’, airport food.”

“Ah, bugger, man – hey, do you like my teeth?” he smiled a toothy grin, displaying an oral vista more akin to a movie star.

“Nice, man – I don’t recall them being quite so white on the way over..?”

“Nah they weren’t eh, that’s pretty much why I came to Vietnam – had about five grand’s worth of dental work done in Vietnam, cheap as!”

“Huh, nice one – how cheap’s ‘cheap as’?”

“I dunno, few million dong, maybe.”

“You serious? Dude, that is unbelievable.”

“Yeah man, dentists are expensive as shit in New Zealand,” he added with a smirk.

“Yeah, they are, and evidently cheap as fuck in Vietnam … So you spent, what, about a thousand on flights to and from Southeast Asia, then a few hundred more on dental work that would have set you back multiple thousands at home..?”

“Oh, yeah, and also, we had our family reunion there.”

“A family of New Zealanders had their family reunion in Vietnam..?”

“Yeah man, Vietnam’s cheap as!”

“Huh, I suppose you’re right, and once you get past the shit, it’s not a bad country either.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know, hardly went outside – oh, except to get a massage.”

 

I didn’t see Zac again until Auckland and – who on account of his reckless spending in Vietnam (despite it being ‘cheap as’) had blown every last NZD he had – bought him a coffee and a muffin from a New Zealand vendor.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Ima Dunn

Photography by Tull Nix Yare

 

 

 

Tim Walker’s Election’17

With more changes of leadership in recent times than New Zealand politics has ever seen, the 2017 election was never going to be without undulations.

Around 12 months ago Prime Minister John Key abdicated his reign meaning, in a sight not seen since – in fact the year of my debut vote – 2002, hitherto finance minister and deputy Prime Minister, Bill English took on the leadership role for National but not only that, MP Bill English then became New Zealand’s PM.

This shake-up came sometime after Greens leader Russell Norman had stepped down as head of his failing party to make way for deputy, Metiria Turei; a leadership which collapsed shortly thereafter following revelations of fraudulent benefit practices. This laid the foundation for the emergence of James Shaw who, well, he’s doing his best with what he was given.

Think back to prior to the election before today’s one; in an effort to boost party popularity, ostensibly personable Labour candidate Phil Goff had become leader of the Labour party. Push came to shove and he subsequently stepped aside for up-and-comer David Shearer, who was consequently forced out of way to make room for the almighty David Cunliff who, after steering Labour to its grandest election defeat in history, gracefully left the party. This left an opening for newcomer Andrew Little who, in fairness, I don’t think ever sat truly comfortably in his role as leader of the Opposition; thus it was little surprise when this man, more recently, relinquished control to allow his deputy to take the reins…

I never imagined that a woman who so alarmingly resembles a young Helen Clark could ever be considered ‘attractive’ but (this was an opinion formed by a large portion of Labour supporters so I don’t know how much belief one ought to place that assessment), the much-hyped ‘Jacinda Effect’ came next.

…That is a terrible lot of turmoil for any political party to endure, then just when the Opposition support seemed all but lost, suddenly Labour, who has been well behind in the polls for the better part of a decade, came from behind to again be a genuine contender in this current political race…

No one can deny it; Jacinda Ardern has the best interests of New Zealand at heart. The issue many right-wing supporters are taking with her, is the fact that Jacinda is an idealistic dreamer (I believe ‘hopey-dreamy’ is the accepted political term), with no leadership experience thus no real political wisdom.

…Nobody can be quite sure, but the theory is that this so-called Jacinda Effect has less to do with government policy and more to do with aesthetics; a hypothesis boosted by the consensus that ‘Bill English is too dull’…

Yes, this makes a lot of sense; if there is one area of international governance that is repeatedly being called into question, it’s a lack of exuberance shown by our countries’ respective leaders, and yes, obviously Jacinda’s unshakeable grin and unflappable optimism have the potential to remedy this New Zealand Government shortcoming.

…I just worry, if our nation’s team of resident malcontents do happen to effect a shift in governance, leaving Labour – thus Jacinda – in charge, what might happen when New Zealand starts facing some genuinely difficult issues, things that actually matter and which can’t be remedied with a broad grin, some firm hand gestures and a snappy catchphrase or two…

This is the main issue that I take with saying, ‘Every person who is of a voting age needs to vote.’, because while it may be difficult for us impassioned poliphiles to grasp, many people who are of a voting age, simply, don’t give a damn about politics and if they were to vote, would likely end up making some asinine voting selection based on member attractiveness or charm (which, I assume is why the last election saw Kim Dotcom’s Internet party do so well), and not at all related to government policies, which in the long term, might seriously contribute towards the disruption of a nation’s prosperity.

…Typical of bandwagon jumping Kiwis though, and in fact an exemplary illustration of the fickle nature of people in general, when Jacinda first emerged on the political scene – never mind that she is effectively a succession of Andrew Little and everything for which this man once stood – her novelty factor raised Labour’s popularity by around double. A few weeks’ on, once the voting population have accepted that, while the ‘flavour of the month’ is indeed a superb taste to have in your mouth – for about a month – for the next three years and while running your country..?

Poverty, Health, Law and Order, and Housing are some of the major issues facing New Zealand today; both leading parties are quick to point out the other’s shortcomings on these matters, but any voter who believes that any one of our ‘major issues’ can be remedied simply with a shift in government is, as a political analyst might coin it, ‘a touch hopey dreamy’.

Sadly, this is an example of – as has been thoroughly documented in fine publications such as ‘Tim Walker’s Concern’ – a country with so very little to concern it that it struggles to understand the concept of ‘genuine hardship’. New Zealand’s ‘major issues’, when compared to some of the rest of the world, are almost triviality; our waterways might appear polluted, but that’s because a team of eco-warriors took a camera around New Zealand and photographed whatever dirty, stagnant bodies of water they could find. New Zealand’s ‘starving children’, by world standards, are not ‘starving’, they’re hungry – they’re hungry because their parents don’t prioritise their spending and in likelihood, should never have been allowed to procreate at all. Our hospitals are full because many people panic when they see blood and don’t seem to know how to apply a sticking plaster, or bandage a scraped elbow. Petty crime is rife largely because our Police Force is enfeebled after too many mothers-who-never-should-have-been-allowed-to-procreate procreated thereby raising a generation of (gang related, drug dealing, ultimately good for nothing) delinquents, which is largely the fault of the solo-breeding incentive offered by New Zealand’s DPB (but I don’t see any political party with plans to abolish that, do I?). Houses in Auckland are high because of an under-supply of basic housing in the area caused by an over-population of people in the area, leading to a shortage of land on which to build, in the area. Again, that’s more people than Government.

On the topic of ‘a nation’s genuine concern’, Winston Peters who, after honourably stepping back from politics some years ago only to bumptiously force his way back in to NZ First’s leadership some years later, as always seems to be the case, is reported to be this election’s potential ‘king-maker’; ‘king-maker’ of course being the political term for a party that lacks the ability to garner any real bulk of voter support, but which earns just enough to make them impossible to avoid, and in an MMP system of government, ‘impossible to avoid’ essentially translates to ‘problematic’.

(The following was to be this article’s leading paragraph; alas it kept having paragraphs written on top of it until) Paddy Gower called it ‘the most exciting election build-up in New Zealand history’, but then, he’s a little odd too so, in this election, I still don’t know who to trust.

Vote responsibly, New Zealand.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by E Luck-Shinn

Photography by Bill Dip

 

 

Tim Walker’s Vietnam VIII

I have never understood why I did what I did next, but perhaps storming out of my room, wallet clenched in one hand, head down, wearing nothing but tight black underwear; striding down to the ATM on the corner to replenish my funds with an additional three million dong, made me feel somehow less naked.

Maybe it somehow mitigated the sense of violation I was currently experiencing by accepting last night’s loss as ‘just one of those things that happens to tourists’, thereby enabling me push the memory from the fore of my mind – where it was currently beating at the inside of my skull, screaming at me about something to do with ‘…call yourself a light sleeper..?!’ – to somewhere nearer the long-term recollection bank, thus allowing me to move past the entire ordeal…

Alternatively, this surreptitious act of ‘refinancing’ likely aided in the delusion I was quickly fabricating to reassure myself that no, there had not been a man or men last night with the audacity to let themselves into my room before turning on the light and going through my belongings then helping themselves to my carefully managed remaining funds while probably laughing at the idiot Westerner lying comatose on his mattress thus oblivious to whatever level of deceit Vietnam wishes to effect upon him; no, that preposterous turn of events could have in no way happened – I must have lost all my money some other way and just forgotten about it – so I should now forget this outrageous notion of ‘duplicity in Vietnam’ and simply continue to ‘enjoy’ all that this ‘wonderful’ country has to offer.

…From Nha Trang we took some more overnight trains, allowing me to become witness to further criminal acts – where my silently rolling over and, from my bottom bunk bed, ‘unintentionally’ kicking one of these men in the leg, as he attempted to plunder the pillow in the bed above me, I like to think prevented one such act from being perpetrated – to end up in the city of Hoi An…

Having endured and left behind Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, also the ghastly (but admittedly, highly convenient) overnight trains that folk are forced to use to go between these destinations, I can honestly not say a bad word about Hoi An.

…The city is lovely and – having reportedly some years back fallen under the leadership of a man who abhorred thievery, treachery, and in general anything lawless, leading to the unequivocal and immediate incarceration of any character seen to be practising these acts – ultimately Hoi An is Vietnam’s (clean, friendly, honest and law-abiding,) marketplace.

While it is indeed true that much of Vietnam’s tourism sector hinges on commerce, Hoi An brings something different; Hoi An is like the origin of the marketplace or the beginning of Vietnamese trade – delightfully quaint and always bustling, Hoi An to Vietnam is what, I imagine, Venice (undoubtedly the world’s greatest city marketplace) must be to Italy.

Hoi An was to be the group’s longest time in one city, which by all accounts, suited us fine; we stayed at the Sala Hotel – without a doubt the finest hotel we had, or in fact would, experience in Vietnam – with amazing rooms, wonderful staff, stunning facilities, and the most brilliant swimming pool out front.

The group, having separated into our ‘sub-groups’, for the next few days walked the streets of Hoi An with confidence, with wonder, and with intrigue…

Hoi An’s beach, which we were shown initially as a group on pushbike, while glorious, illustrated an alarming example of – perhaps rising sea levels, or maybe it was other factors resulting in – a clear change in ocean and tidal habits; much of Hoi An’s beautiful, golden-sand beach was being slowly devoured by the ocean. Reportedly it was not an uncommon sight around Vietnam to see beaches being taken back by, or returning to, the almighty ocean; this of course, in the process, was devastating to nearby buildings and/or infrastructure. (Perhaps even more interestingly, when our tour reached Vietnam’s northern Halong Bay, we would see an example of exactly the opposite phenomenon at play.)

…A number of women in the group were quick to take advantage of Hoi An’s many fabric/clothing and shoe/leather distributors/tailors. For a woman I supposed it was quite an honour to have a dress/dresses personally crafted/tailored by Vietnamese designers/seamstresses, and even I elected to have a pair of leather boots hand-designed (primarily by me) then handmade (entirely by a professional) for the princely sum of 1.400.000 dong (1.4 million VND is the approximate equivalent of 85NZD, while the boots themselves, I believe could retail in somewhere like Leather Direct NZ for around $300).

Over the coming days I felt as though I developed relationships with most every shop owner along Tran Hung Dao Street (this was the street on which the Sala Hotel was situated, making it the group’s most traversed Hoi An street), and by day four I knew most of these affable characters by name. Wandering along that street, for example, recognising a happy Vietnamese face and calling out, “Bao, sin chow!” The usual response, in that horrendous (but now permanently ingrained) American/Viet timbre, would be, “Tim, hello!”

The afternoon that I excitedly walked back down to ‘Oceans’ (this shop’s name is additionally mingled with some Viet text I shan’t bother to include) to pick up my handmade boots – having been especially crafted in the past 24 hours – it was a little before four p.m. I was halfway to this particular leather-goods shop when I encountered a deluge (which, given the time of year, so I was told, this wasn’t out of the ordinary). I noted how it took only minutes after rain had begun to fall for the streets to become awash with – yes, water, but indeed more notably – plastic-poncho salespeople. Despite having zero inclination to adorn my body in one such flimsy monstrosity – particularly when my body hence shirt was already moist with perspiration and the falling rain more or less matched my body temperature, meaning I barely felt it falling on my bare skin, anyway – I did enjoy haggling with the salespeople as they continuously badgered me with offers of these tawdry ponchos; as with most Vietnamese commerce, a vendor can usually be knocked back by 20 – 30 percent, which, when referring to a piece of plastic that they’re pushing for ‘50’ (50.000VND – under 2NZD), it inspires the question, ‘How the hell do they make this crap so cheaply?’…

As I had by then come to realise though, locally made products are typically cheap while imported products are typically less cheap (but still rather cheap).

…I made it to Oceans a few minutes before 4, saw my boots and almost had a joy-gasm – they looked, smelled (and probably tasted), glorious. I was in the process of showering the shop owner in gratitude when I discovered that, despite being 4 p.m., she had not yet eaten lunch. I had a brilliant idea: “Alright, Ngoc, let me buy you lunch … That can be my tip – for making such a wonderful job of my boots.”

She eventually agreed (despite her first putting up unexpected refusal), wrote down exactly what she wanted (in Vietnamese script), told me it would cost ‘180’ – I believed a perfect sized tip – and directed me where to go. I walked, in a direction perpendicular to the street, for some ten minutes into the depths of the market district, through shady, dirty, smelly, water-logged alleyways, alongside dilapidated corrugated iron fences (where if I were anywhere else but Hoi An, I might have been worried) and past apparently deserted, derelict properties. I eventually found the desired ‘restaurant’ and approached the man who, despite his diminutive appearance, seemed to be in charge.

I showed him the piece of paper Ngoc had given me, then showed him the 180.000 dong. He looked up at me with fury in his eyes. “Who give you?” he demanded.

Taken aback, I pointed in the direction of the street, responding, “The woman who works in Oceans, ah, Ngoc.”

The emaciated Viet’s eyes became, if possible, even more enraged. “You,” he pointed at me, shaking his head wildly, “you no come here!”

I looked around, taking in the frantic activity – the food preparation, the exchange of money, the bustling Vietnamese people – realising, this was not a Vietnamese tourist market; this was where Vietnamese folk came to eat.

The furious little man took the offered cash with a grunt and relayed some Viet gibberish to his cook. He then turned back to me, still with madness in his eyes. “You wait, there,” he pointed to a place against the wall. “You get food, you go,” he said forcefully, “you never come back here.”

Ten minutes later I received my order. The food turned out to be enough to feed a family; there was around five times what I would have expected for 180.000 dong.

I returned to Oceans, shaken and confused. Ngoc appeared relieved to see me; she appeared relieved that I had made I back. I suspect she knew the kind of hostile reception I would encounter at that place…

Given that around 60 years’ ago Vietnam was under total Communist rule, they didn’t have a lot of contact with the rest of the world and, of course, they had far less – if any – international trade. To clarify: Vietnam is technically ‘Socialist’, which is to the right of ‘Communist’ (North Korea), but still not as far right as ‘Capitalist’ (NZ’s National Party), which is still a shade left of ‘Republican’ (Donald Trump, say no more). I came to learn also, in a single, mind-blowing, realisation, that ‘Communism’ is in fact not the filthy word that many believe it to be. ‘Communism’ is effectively the act of a nation exerting its individuality, but to the extreme; it’s like saying, ‘We are us and we don’t need you because we can survive on our own’. The truly mind-blowing aspect of it all though, was this: providing a nation’s people are content with who they are, providing they are content with where they are, providing they are happy to do what they are doing but moreover – and this is the keystone of the operation – provided that nobody yearns to get ahead of anybody else, in fact Communism Can Work; indeed, done properly, Communism is a harmonious existence.

…Vietnam is remarkable in the sense that it produces everything which, as a nation, it needs to get by. From essentials like food and fresh water, clothing and houseware; to recreational products such as cigarettes and alcohol, it’s all ‘Made in Vietnam’, and it’s all dirt cheap for tourists, but it’s even cheaper – as I experienced firsthand – for locals…

The classic, and indeed widespread, belief about Communism is that, ‘There is no incentive to work because every person is paid the same regardless of what they do’, and yes, if the Western world were to suddenly abandon Democracy and embrace Communism, there is no question, it would fail terribly; however, we must bear in mind that this is a people immediately descended from one of the world’s oldest races, where the process of working as one to achieve one basic goal, and in turn being provided with the wherewithal to propagate a basic existence (I guarantee New Zealand’s Polynesian population would be into it) is their culture.

…Sure they cheat, sure they lie; sure, many of the Socialist/Commies I encountered were filthy rotten shit-bags, but they are happy. They are peaceful. They live for the day. They live for the moment; they live for excitement. Vietnamese folk live devoid of worry because they know they are no worse off than the next Socialist/Commie…

We were sad to leave the Sala, having met such wonderful people in and around Hoi An. Nevertheless we travelled northward by bus a comparatively short distance, to end up in the city of Hue (pronounced more like ‘Whey’). While our newest environs were lovely, bordered on one side by the ominous stone walls of Hue’s famous ‘Forbidden City’ (which, as much intrigue as the name engendered and indeed, as excited as many of us were to discover just why it was considered ‘forbidden’, upon entering, while it was definitely a spectacular sight, alas I felt little foreboding, let alone forbidding), and although this hotel did have a pool as well, after the wonder of Hoi An, the group was experiencing a collective sense of let-down.

… I recall my last night in Ho Chi Minh City, I was outside the hotel drinking Jimbean with the Aston crowd, at about 4 a.m. Suddenly there was a power failure. The entire street went dark. Almost immediately a simultaneous cheer went up. I had no idea what was going on. I think I was expecting bedlam to ensue. Fine grabbed me and led me closer to the street for a better look. I peered up and down; I could see no lights anywhere. Aside from the odd scooter headlight traffic was nonexistent. Then the sound of a siren could be heard. The street became packed full of cheering Vietnamese folk, all laughing and having a great time. The siren became progressively loud and discordant until it was utterly deafening. While I had ducked away to protect my ears I saw a pathway clear in the street, as a fire-truck rolled ominously by. It stopped at the next intersection, with locals milling around, screaming, yelling and, still, having a grand old time. It used its ladder to reach some overhead cables, did something then moved on, to do the same thing at the next intersection down, before disappearing around a bend. A moment later electricity was restored but the faces, those little Vietnamese faces, they were positively oozing joyfulness – they were alive.

While swimming did not appear a popular choice among the group (in fact the whole time we were in Hue I saw not one other person use the pool), I spent my spare time walking the streets – eating street food and drinking iced coffee – and swimming in this older, less glamorous but still wet hence refreshing, hotel swimming pool.

We left Hue on the overnight train, headed north and bound for the nation’s capital, Hanoi. (That particular trip onboard the train yielded a sequence of unspeakable moments, of which I shall never speak.) I have never been happier to hear the sound of shrieking locomotive brakes, than I was coming into the station at Hanoi that morning.

As a group we saw some amazing sights in and around Hanoi then the next day, we took a bus to the very top of Vietnam, Halong (‘Descending Dragon’) Bay.

We boarded a small, but wonderfully ornate, cruise liner (this boat would have been 15 metres long with a similar number of berths) and, along with myriad other vessels all with seemingly the same intention, made our steady way out one of the famous island beaches within Halong Bay…

Cruising through the water on the way to this particular island the view was breathtaking; also it was somehow familiar. I then realised, I had seen it before; the tiny island formations, the vibrant greenery, the rocky structures emerging from the water, I could have been in Fiordland. The difference was, where Fiordland’s landscape has largely to do with tectonic movement and volcanic activity from beneath the ground, as our guide would later explain, Halong Bay’s natural (it turned out, limestone) landscapes are the result of aeons of water-borne erosion from above.

…The golden-sand beach on which we docked, we were informed, had been created entirely by man, for man. Halong Bay, on account of its unique formation, is currently rather shallow (whereas a few thousand millennia ago it was supposedly very deep) and had had, presumably, thousands of tons of sand laid atop a naturally formed limestone plateau in order to create a, world famous tourist destination, beach…

From what this layman understood of it, many millions of years ago, over another many millions of years, the eastern Vietnamese ocean beat itself against a limestone cliff at the north of the land, eventually finding an area that was more pliable than the rest, thus gradually forging a path into the stone. Over the millions of years that followed this small indent/path/channel was augmented by the thrashing ocean, thereby creating an inlet, slowly eroding the softer limestone while leaving the harder areas to stand like pedestals amid this majestic harbour.

…A well-maintained staircase carried a large number of the group – at some points almost vertically – to the top of this particular island (although by the end of this climb the numbers had fallen back to just one other woman – who for the record barely broke a sweat, while I had sweat literally dripping – and me), from where we were able to look out across the harbour and take in the entire transcendent view.

That night, back on our cruise liner, after our meal the group congregated on the top deck; it was a marvellous feeling, lying on the loungers, under the stars. As a group, we chatted, we drank and basically we were at ease. One of the younger guys had some music going that, despite not being ‘90s grunge rock, surprised me in its decency. Like this we bonded until before too late we decided to turn in for the night. (As usual I had been allocated a double room to myself and, by myself, I was quite happy to utilise every portion of that bed; after a day at the beach under the northern Vietnamese sun, I was exhausted.) As I carefully slid down the steps to the boat’s main floor, I had left three people still on the top deck.

I walked through the boat’s main dining area, thanking the three Vietnamese men (all staring at me with unnerving intensity) who had provided us service that night, stumbling slightly as the water under the boat (or the alcohol in my veins) shifted. I had just walked past the bar (also the disconcertingly fixated eyeballs) when I stopped, turned and came back. “Shit,” I said, “I need to pay my tab, don’t I?”

The man who had slid in behind the bar looked at me with confusion.

“My bill..?” I began to remove my wallet. “Ah, lahm urn..?”

“Ah,” the man understood, riffling through a stack of papers under the bar. He brought up a selection of four possible accounts and placed them on the bar. Glancing at the others’ bills, having been drinking the insanely cheap local beer, I saw they owed up to 200.000 dong each; I sighed at the sight of my bill, having been going between Ballantynes, Johnny Walker Red and (I couldn’t believe they had) Johnny Walker Black Label, to see that I was liable for just under 1 million dong.

I grudgingly indicated which was my bill then opened my wallet to remove two 500 dong notes, aware, as always, of all eyes fixed on my stash of cash.

The bill settled I made my way to the end of the corridor, to my room. I could still feel those Viet men looking. Putting my key in the lock and turning, I was reminded of the frustration of the last four occasions I had used this infernal door: key goes in, key turns freely to the right, stops dead. Key turns all the way back to the left, stops dead. Key turns again to the right, key contacts resistance, latch can heard moving. Door still appears locked. Shoulder is applied, door opens.

Before going in I turned and gave my three onlookers a wink. Once inside the room, as always, I turned and locked the door. I then took of my hat and glasses, and unloaded my pockets on the chest of drawers at the back of the room. I then hung my damp shirt (or in this case, singlet) over the stool provided, and laid my shorts on top of it.

I stepped into the tiny bathroom, brushed my teeth, wiped my face, and climbed into the bed. I was exhausted, I was tired and yet, I was not sleepy. Of course, they’d had no ginger ale so I’d been mixing my scotch with Coke; that’ll do it. After what felt like hours of mind games I had just felt myself drifting off, when I heard a key being thrust noisily into a door. I couldn’t avoid noticing how close it sounded – the timber panelling on the boat’s interior must readily transmit sound waves – it almost sounded like my door. A moment later I heard the door opening then the quiet audio of the occupant going about their routine.

A little after that I was torn into full consciousness again, as another key was pushed into another lock; the sound travelled so crisply, again, I couldn’t believe how close it sounded. I then heard that door open, I heard a voice, or voices; I had no idea how late it was by now but I just wanted to sleep.

Finally I hear the key in the third lock. I really cannot believe how close it sounds; I would swear that key is in the lock in my door. Oh well, I think through my sleep/alcohol fug, at least this occupant is being more considerate; not just jamming in the key with no regard to how sound travels throughout these sleeping quarters. I think of the three faces I had left out on top deck, and of their names, their nationalities. Of the thirteen person group there were two Kiwis, seven Aussies, two Brits, and two Scots; I had left out on the top deck two Aussies and one Scot…

Shit. Lying on my right side with my back to the door, suddenly I am wide awake.

…Those two Aussies are together; they’re sharing a room. I silently roll to my left side. That key has been working that lock, with almost increasing noiselessness, for quite some time now. Still with eyes closed I recollect the sequence of audio I’ve heard from the lock; key went in, key went one way, key went the other way, key went the first way again – I now hear the latch slide across…

My mind was working furiously: after witnessing me stumble out there those Viet crewmembers likely assume I am very drunk. Add to that is my typical drunken tone, also my typically drunken demeanour, and they must think I’m well past it. Additionally, I know they know I’m carrying a good deal of cash on me. They’d be fools not to try and help themselves.

…My right eyelid flashes open. The room is dark, but not in total blackness. With my right eye I can just make out the outline of the door handle. Is it moving? Surely not. I blink my right eye. I would have sworn I saw that door handle jiggle…

I thought of Nha Trang, such a lovely place, such wonderful people; there was no way I was going to let the slimy pricks do it a second time.

…I hear the key do another rotation, hear the latch silently slot back into place, then hear the key being withdrawn…

My entire body was trembling. My right eye was aching from maintaining a wink for so long. I shifted position in the bed and closed my eyes. I tried to be calm.

…I hear a key slowly, silently, being pushed into a lock. I know it’s my lock. I hear it rotate once. I hear it rotate twice. I realise I am holding my breath as I hear the key perform number three rotation. As expected, I hear the latch slide slowly across. From my left side I open my right eye. Can I hear whispering? Is the handle moving? What are they doing? Are they playing some sort of game with me – have I become the target of every Vietnamese swindler in this God-forsaken nation? …

My mind felt clear, as though the adrenalin had evaporated the whisky fug. I found myself willing the filthy seamen to come, willing them to try it; willing them to try and take anything of mine. I was amped. I wanted them to try; I wanted them to see how far they’d get.

…I hear the door creak. I know they’re leaning on it. I’m waiting for it to pop open. I’m waiting for them to step into the room and quickly check they haven’t woken me. They won’t have; I’ll have closed both eyes again by then. I’ll hear them shuffle towards the drawers at the back and I’ll open my right eye again. I’ll see the dirty little pricks going through my belongings and I’ll smile. Their backs will be to me as I’ll slide out of bed and descend upon them, wrapping my arms around filthy little throats…

I realise at this point that whoever was at my door has gone.

A few hours’ later I’m out of bed and up on top deck to catch the sunrise.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by D Sending-Dragon

Photography by E Onza-Go

Tim Walker’s Cathedral IV

Christchurch officials are, once again, claiming that, for this one last time, the decision, this time for certain, regarding the fate of the Christchurch Cathedral has, definitely, been made.

Forgive me, I did suppress the compulsion to write this article for a number of weeks, but that infernal New Zealand Media just kept rubbing it my face; every night, from three or four weeks’ ago, they’d be on at me, with all their ‘…over six years on…’, ‘…remains an eyesore…’, ‘…fate of the Christchurch Cathedral…’, ‘…rebuild or demolish…’, ‘…so many years on and still not been decided…’

‘But that can’t be right…’ I was, three or four weeks ago, thinking, while hastily referring to my own documentation of this monumental debacle – in the form of ‘Tim Walker’s Cathedral, Cathedral II, and Cathedral III – to find that, (three or four weeks’ ago) shock horror, those unfathomably dilatory yet unquestioningly devout, followers, in fact did have yet to come to a decision.

2015, approximately five years after Canterbury’s 7.1 quake had precipitated the downfall of the Christchurch Cathedral, (as reported in the original ‘Cathedral’) Christchurch zealots, frustrated at the continuing state of disrepair of their beloved church (having some years prior banded together to erect a ‘temporary replacement’ in the form of a $5 million cardboard cut-out of their place of worship; because of course at this time there was still plenty of insurance money left to fritter away on outlandish and frivolous enterprises of that nature), indeed so frustrated they were at the continually changing status of their church – from fixable to irreparable then back and again, and so forth – they finally decided they were going to fix it…

The problem with this apparent (2015) solution was that after over five years’ of litigation costs (along with, I assume, the tea, coffee, and the muffin breaks inherent in the litigation process), generous insurance payout notwithstanding, regarding a potential rebuild there was a mild funding shortfall; within months a new decision has revealed itself – Christchurch’s religious community had again decided to demolish the remains of their existing Cathedral and ‘start anew’.

…A reasonable person might well have expected that the time taken to construct a cardboard cut-out replacement place of worship, then to flip-flop on the decision of what to do with their genuine holy structure, would have provided sufficient time to farewell their beloved, albeit dilapidated, Cathedral, and to prepare it for demolition, thereby making way for this newer, wholly modernised version to be constructed, but no; flick forward to ‘Cathedral II’, and one will see that these infernal God botherers, rather than electing for the logical choice of upgrading to a modern, plush, centrally heated and air conditioned design (estimated at under $100 million), have again elected to repair their existing, broken construction (estimated at up to $200 million).

Flick forward now to ‘Cathedral III’ – where it is clear just how weary I am becoming of this topic – six years on and one will see that the question of the Christchurch Cathedral rebuild has still not been properly answered.

The problem as I recognised it back then, I recall thinking, was not so much to do with the issue of re/construction at all, and nor was it to do with the inevitable bureaucracy that tends to surround this kind of endeavour; indeed shockingly, for the first time in just under six years, those idiot bloody malcontents couldn’t even blame our Government for their church’s ongoing disrepair (because contrary to what most of these Kiwi malcontents seem to believe, it is not our nation’s Government which is in charge of recruiting builders to build stuff, it is in fact our nation’s people). That’s right, on this rare occasion, it turned out to not be the Government’s fault at all; no, as it transpired it had more to do with the fact that Christchurch’s band of religious fanatics had, and evidently still do have, less decision-making ability than a party of 14-year-old girls getting ready for their first big high school dance.

Christchurch’s religious community, typical of zealots, want everything their own way; both ways, if you will. They initially considered their church rebuild a priority that needed to be fast-tracked, despite the majority of Christchurch also requiring extensive repair; ‘We need a place to house and to worship our Lord and Saviour’, they demanded, while many of Christchurch’s tangible residents went without shelter at all.

They then wanted a cardboard monstrosity to be built in replacement of the Cathedral, presumably to house God while they considered their options regarding the fate of His other Christchurch residence. Then after that stage had passed, indicating no progress had been made on the matter at all, with renewed zeal they returned to the ‘Cathedral rebuild/demolish debate’, which is apparently ongoing; but here’s the thing, all the money, and resources, efforts and time that have been wasted in the meantime, are now shown to have been just that – a total waste of time.

The fact is that every bit of this past discussion and debate has been pointless; Christchurch’s religious community were never going to accept that their beloved Cathedral should be demolished.

Now – given that the bulk of their insurance payout has been wasted on deliberation, litigation; ultimately on funding professional procrastination – along with financial assistance from the Government, and of course the always faithful (yet largely atheistic) taxpayer, the Cathedral’s fate has been decided for certain this time (and dear God let’s hope that’s the truth).

The Christchurch Cathedral is to be rebuilt and, to the delight of God-botherers everywhere (just probably not so much the atheistic taxpayers who will likely never step foot inside their investment for as long as they live), restored to its former glory.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Jesus Marianne Joseph

Photography by Jesus H Christ

Tim Walker’s Vietnam VII

I can’t be sure just how far I had ventured into the depths of Nha Trang city on foot, but if the return trip was any indication, it was farther than any sane man ought to walk in one night.

It felt as though I was riding on the back of that scooter for hours.

In fact, balanced as I was on that bike’s pillion seat, I suspect I spent a good deal of the journey slipping in and out of sleep, as I have numerous recollections of our stopping, of my snapping to consciousness, of Dan consulting his map – followed by (what I imagine was) Vietnamese profanity – then our again setting off.

I recall returning to full attention at the sight of the towering Camellia hotel; “Well done, Dan,” I recall jesting, giving the frustrated little Asian man a hearty slap on the back, “you found it, bud!”…

I recall at this point Dan being too busy cussing me out to fully appreciate any of my gratitude.

…I climbed down from the bike and gazed up at the side of my sole landmark – the Camellia Hotel – trying to work out why Dan was so filthy with me; the words ‘Camellia Nha Trang II Hotel’ shone back down at me in large gold lettering. “Ah come on Dan, ’Camellia Hotel’, ‘Camellia Nha Trang Two Hotel’ … Whassa difference?”

“You waste my time, Tim, you waste my time … You pay now, you pay my wasted time.”

“Yeah man, that’s fine,” I replied, having just been in the process of removing my wallet anyway, “like I said, bud, five hundred dong, thank you.” I removed a blue note and handed it to him.

“No, Tim! You pay now, you pay my wasted time – you pay, seven hundred!”

Ah shit, deja vu. “Dude, don’t do this,” despite Dan’s last statement having raised my hackles, I spoke with calmness and clarity. “I offered you five hundred dong for a ride across town … That on its own is a very generous fare” – calmness dwindling – “now don’t you dare try and screw me.”

“Oh come on, Tim,” perhaps sensing danger Dan appeared to have calmed – transforming from angry taxi driver to pathetic Vietnamese dog – and was trying a different angle, “you give me wrong address, man … I’m driving around for hours searching for your hotel, because you give me wrong address, man…”

“I did not give you the wrong address, I simply abbreviated the name … Any decent Internet search engine should have been able to find” – glancing upwards – “the Camellia Nha Trang Two Hotel, with the key words ‘Camellia Hotel’ … So don’t you fucking dare try to screw me, you fil-thy lit-tle rat.”

“Oh, come on Tim…” he continued to push with that awful American/Viet twang.

I turned away, towards my hotel, to see the gates had been loosely chained closed for the night. I was done; I’d had enough of this. Resignedly I turned, unspeaking, to Dan.

“…Oh, come on, Tim, seven hundred..? For my time … Come on, man, I got a family, Tim, I got bills, man … Come on, Tim, I know you got money … Come on, Tim..?”

I knew what he was doing, I had seen it before; this variety of sympathy/guilt tripping appeared to be an accepted Vietnamese sales technique and, pathetic as it was, I did find it difficult to not be sucked into its current. I pulled out my wallet again; a wad of – flicking through – eight blue notes were stacked at the back, along with some differently coloured, smaller denomination notes towards the front. I pulled out the bunch of smaller notes and studied them. One was a 5, there were two 10s, and the other was a 20.

“Nah, come on, Tim, give me some real money, man…”

“You serious..?” I asked in disbelief, holding up the 45.000 dong, “You don’t want this? Really?”

“Nah, come on, Tim” – that ersatz American accent was really starting to grate me – “you owe me another two hundred, man.”

I looked up at Dan with an uncontrollable rush of contempt; “You ungrateful little prick … I don’t owe you anything,” I told him, before turning and stepping through the (Vietnamese-) person-sized gap conveniently left in the otherwise closed hotel gates.

“Yeah, well, fuck you too, Tim,” I heard come drifting through the gates half a minute later; Dan’s genuine voice surprising me in its coarseness.

I stepped into the hotel foyer, saluted the vacant desk then pressed a button for the lift. Up three floors I turned right and walked down the corridor to my room, to be hit by a wave of panic. I went momentarily cold all over. I dug hopefully in my right pocket, and found my key (complete with hotel name and address; a mistake I would not make again), where it had been the entire night. Breathing relief I fumbled the lock, several times, then stepped inside.

Flicking on the light and removing my hat, I walked across the room, took off my glasses and emptied my pockets onto a desk in the far corner…

Possible future regrets notwithstanding, I was pleased with how I had handled the night; I was satisfied with how things had worked out.

…I took off my sneakers and socks then made a point of situating them as far away from my mattress as possible…

In this hotel, ‘bedding’ comprised a thin double mattress – lying on the floor – complete with sheet and two pillows.

…Finally I pulled off my damp shirt and hung it over the back of a chair, slinging my shorts over the same chair’s seat…

I spun/staggered back and caught my – tired, boozy, and without glasses hence astigmatism at full force – blurred reflection in the wall mirror; I looked hideous.

…Walking back to the door I unthinkingly pressed in the lock button before flicking off the light. I then practically fell backwards onto my mattress and there I remained, considering, for the most part how I had managed to spend under four million dong in the entire night…

My brain awoke (I still have no idea why, when going through the process of emptying my pockets at the desk across the room, I had brought my phone to bed with me; yet there it was, buzzing away under my pillow), yet my eyelids remained closed.

…Still with eyelids closed, my brain had kicked into high gear; in the few seconds that ensued, it was working furiously…

My brain’s first thought, at hearing the phone under my pillow, was that I was onboard an overnight train; quick to debunk this theory though were a sequence of rapid deductions pointing out the folly in that assessment.

…I was uncomfortably warm; yet given the trains’ excessive use of air conditioning, in the supposed hope of generating a ‘Westernised climate’, onboard the train excess warmness was seldom the case. Additionally I was on a soft mattress but without any covering; beds on the trains are uncomfortably hard yet they do provide decent blankets. Finally I was lying on my back with arms relaxed yet I did not feel squashed, meaning this bed was wider than the standard overnight train 700mm…

I once spoke with a Vietnam native who claimed to be ‘coming down with a cold’; I recall finding this odd, given that the most common ways, in my experience, for a cold virus to break through a person’s immune defence are, either, overexertion (and nobody overexerts in Vietnam – if they become exhausted, simply, they sleep), or allowing oneself to become chilled and, with the ambient temperature hovering between mid-twenties and mid-thirties, as I mentioned, I just couldn’t see it. I then recall his pining words: “Vietnam isn’t warm for Vietnamese anymore…”, which at the time I thought was referring to the outside climate and the fact that they’re acclimatised to it but no, this chap worked in the hospitality sector – inside a restaurant where the air is constantly at ‘Western room-temperature’.

…It took under a second to transition through ‘overnight train’ and onto my brain’s second thought which – upon realising that I was in a Nha Trang hotel – was the fact that, although it felt as though I had barely been asleep at all and indeed still felt very much drunk, I could see light through my eyelids therefore it must have been morning…

I cursed the world. Around three seconds after my brain had woken, still with eyes closed, I reached under my pillow and pulled out my phone. I half-opened my right eyelid and brought up the message; of course, at 4:27 a.m. Vietnam time, my brother was sending me birthday wishes all the way from – five hours ahead – New Zealand.

…Hang about – 4:27..? I opened my eyes fully. Ah, shit, I’d been so boozed when I’d gone to bed that I’d forgotten to turn off the light. My God I was parched, though. Still lying supine I lowered my chin and cast an eye over myself. Presumably in the same place I had fallen, in the centre of the mattress I lay on my back, arms at my sides, legs straight, wearing nothing but a pair of black Spandex boxers, the mattress’s top-sheet still neatly folded under me.

I sat up. My head started spinning. I lay back down and contemplated. No, I couldn’t put it off; I was too dry. I bounded up and in a couple of ungainly leaps made it to the desk in the corner of the room. I grabbed a bottle of water and, unscrewing the top and biting the neck, managed a couple of massive, but messy, gulps. Placing the water back on the desk, I shook my head and chuckled at how keen I must have been to go to bed last night (which, as I would soon realise, was only about one hour prior); I picked up my shirt and shorts from the floor and hung them over the back of the chair.

On the way back to my mattress I glanced at the door handle; idiot, I had forgotten to lock the door when I’d gone to bed. Shaking my head at my own carelessness – thinking of how fortunate I was that I’d spotted it before anything happened, thinking of the kind of misadventure that might have befallen me had someone come into the room as I slept; a thought that actually made me shudder – I pushed the lock button and flopped back down on the mattress.

At best I dozed for the next few hours; at worst I lay awake until seven. Something wasn’t right in my head. The night didn’t seem as successful as it once had. I wasn’t certain but a number of factors didn’t appear to line up anymore. Memories were jumbled, as though things had happened out of sequence. Incoherent thoughts led the way for incongruous conclusions. My mind was a battleground of disconnected realities. There were too many instances that didn’t make sense anymore. In my head something was telling me that this outcome wasn’t right. Too many things didn’t add up. I knew something was not right.

Ten minutes after 7 a.m. I pulled myself up and strode straight over to the desk in the corner. I stared at my clothes, all neatly positioned on the chair…

Ah fuck it. I cast my eye upwards at the light bulb in the ceiling, with its filament unlit; ah fuck it. I looked across the room at the door, with its lock button firmly depressed; ah, fuck it.

…I grabbed my wallet from the desk. Already I knew it was light. I opened it; 5, 10, 10, 20, and no more. Fuck it.

Of course, this was Vietnam where, as I would come to learn, every lockable door has two keys.

Indeed this was a reality of which I would be later reminded although, at least on this future occasion, I would be ready for it.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Ryder Dann

Photography by Theo Vin Rut

Tim Walker’s Vietnam VI

As I walked I recall glancing at my watch; I recall it reading still before 10 p.m.

I recall thinking about the following day’s plans; being an apparent ‘free day’, the ‘optional activity’ I had selected was a day’s snorkelling off the coast of one of Nha Trang Bay’s picturesque islands.

I recalled the ‘snorkelling’ activity had been a popular one; only two or three of the group had elected for an alternative pastime.

I recalled also that the snorkelling group was to meet in the hotel lobby (dammit, I had forgotten the hotel’s name again – although I did recall it was over the road from one called the ‘Camellia’) and be ready to depart by 10 a.m.; I was aware that most others in the group had gone to bed early in anticipation of this ‘early’ start…

Momentarily halting I lowered my head, then with two hands raised my bottle (I had just seen the irony) of Vietnamese scotch and clamped the neck between my front teeth. Withdrawing both hands I then threw back my head, using my tongue to stem the flow as I leaned quickly forward and awkwardly removed the bottle. It was messy, it was uncomfortable, it was a spectacle for anyone lucky enough to witness the show – also I’m certain that each time it chipped more enamel from my teeth – but it got the job done.

…I recalled the day after New Year’s Eve ’99 (which makes me sound rather older than the number I had just turned…), where as a 15-year-old (…so you work it out) experiencing his first real boozy all-nighter, and after being recruited to head out, along with the morning sun, into the rocky shallows of the bay of the South Island’s Bank’s Peninsula – where the water doesn’t typically start to heat up until late-February – and bring back a swag of seafood for the other (older) revellers’ breakfasts, that in fact there is no better, and indeed more refreshing, way to start the day of the night before, than amid the chilly water and regulated breathing patterns enforced by snorkelling. (Alas as I would come to learn, Vietnamese water lacks the same ‘chilly/icy’ quality of New Zealand water, and the depths to which one can easily swim – even without the benefit of a weight-belt – in the clear – and perhaps less salty..? – Vietnamese oceans were to be anything but beneficial to my condition.)

Without realising it I had entered some kind of nightlife area. I started to feel very good about what the night might bring. I passed a group of laughing Asian men, smiling and nodding my acknowledgement. Out of (recently adopted) habit I gave my right butt-cheek a pat/brush/swipe to ensure my wallet was still where it ought to have been. Any people, any interaction; any distraction, I was aware, was opportunity to have one’s wallet plundered.

Another pause, another swig, another butt-swipe; move on. I then came upon a late night food vendor and stopped. “Sin chow,” I began with a flourish.

“Sin chow,” the attractive woman smiled.

“Ban ko kware kom?”

She momentarily paused in confusion, then, “Doy kwair.”

I pointed to the picture of the meal I wanted.

“One..?” she asked, raising a finger.

“Mot,” I nodded, raising a finger.

“You sit,” the woman said abruptly, gesturing to a few red plastic, children’s play-chairs.

I sat down and felt instant gratification in my feet and legs…

I began to wonder: how far had I walked tonight? I checked my watch; 11:45 p.m. Crikey. By my reckoning it should have been shortly after ten. I looked down at the bottle hanging from my limp wrist; there was only a skerrick left. Crikey indeed. I performed some quick calculations; that was only around five hours. Shit, that must’ve been some kind of record – but then, I had had help. Still, I put it down to exercise; keep moving, burn up that booze. My God, I was dry though. I needed water badly. I was also starving; I needed to find somewhere that sold food. Water as well, I needed water

…“Here you are, sir,” the Vietnamese woman said, placing several bowls on the plastic table before me…

I was so hungry; picking up the chopsticks without thinking I attacked the meal with abandon. It was by far the best thing I had eaten in Vietnam (and wasn’t until sometime later that I realised I was using chopsticks at this al fresco food shop in Vietnam with equal if not better proficiency than I use a knife and fork at the table at home).

…”No, no, no, no,” the woman was saying, before bending down to offer assistance. Taking my chopsticks she showed me how to mix the sauces (which although these had a smell resembling, officially, ‘sweaty feet’; unofficially, ‘unclean genitalia’, they did offer a veritable flavour banquet) and other condiments with the different foods types and ultimately, use the three bowls to make one meal.

Once she had done this I tried again. “Oh, kahm urn,” I said – straining to pull words from my brain – “Ngon kware,” (‘delicious’) I said, rubbing my stomach appreciatively.

The woman smiled and laughed, “Non kwair..? … Non kwair, kam urn.”

After the meal I stood and made my way to the stall’s makeshift counter.

“Bough new tien?” I asked the smiling woman.

Her smile widened, “Seventy.”

“Oh, and some water – ah, nuok..?”

“Thirty,” she responded, reaching into her food-preparation area for a bottle of water.

“Kahm urn,” I said, sliding a 200 over the counter. “Kahm urn.”

I used one of the vendor’s chairs to sit while I opened the water and took a few massive gulps, managing, as is often the way, to choke myself to the point of an uncontrollable coughing fit.

Initially standing, looking on with concern, the woman soon came to my aid, sitting beside me, rubbing and patting my back (and while this actually does nothing to help a person’s plight, the gesture is lovely), despite my frantically waving arms signalling I was fine. Once the coughing had subsided the woman sat down, still with a face of compassion.

I took a small (but very awkward) swig of scotch, felt the burn as it went down, smiled, turned, cleared my throat forcefully, and said, “Den doy lah, Tim.” (My name is, Tim.)

The woman looked at me, bemused.

“Den lah zee?” (What’s your name?)

Her face suddenly brightened, “Ah, Tim … Den doy lah, Nga.”

I smiled. “Nga.” I stood, took her hand and kissed it. “Kahm urn, Nga,” I said, before patting my butt-cheek and striding into the night.

 

My next stop was a night time vendor serving fruit smoothies; I chose three fruits (from the array of unusual shapes and colours) then watched as they were expertly peeled, blended with ice, and served. These concoctions provided a flavour explosion like I have never experienced and, at just 50.000 dong a pop, I had drunk four – from different stalls; it wasn’t as though I planned to just stand there all night – before my stomach/bowels began to groan…

Whether it was the abundance of spicy food I had over past days been ingesting, the bottle of Vietnamese scotch I had just imbibed – the remainder of which I had poured into number two smoothie with an utterly repulsive outcome – or perhaps it had to do with the fact that I had not stopped drinking from hotel faucets, but my usual once-daily defecation break had stretched out to at least three.

…It made sense to my inebriated brain that a sudden excess of essentially pure fruit might have this effect and, while I had seen a number of people urinating in the streets since I’d been in Vietnam, I did not think the passing of solids (although realistically this felt anything but solid) would be an accepted practise.

I calmly approached a doorway of what appeared to be a bar, and stepped inside. I went up one flight of stairs; the word written above the big red arrow read ‘Massage.’ Not tonight, I thought, patting my butt-cheek and continuing up the next flight.

The next word-over-the-arrow read ‘Café’. I ducked inside and walked to the (licensed) bar. I ordered a “Café sua, nuok dah.” (‘White coffee, iced.’)…

“White, iced..?” the attendant clarified.

I nodded thoughtfully, “Kahm urn.” I couldn’t find the word for ‘toilet’ in my head anywhere. It seemed as though it should have been a word I would have learned, but it didn’t appear to be. Adding to this issue was the fact that the room was too dark for me to even see a potential ‘W.C.’ notice on the café walls.

I stirred the black coffee uncomfortably, for one thing having difficulty making it permeate with the condensed milk in the bottom of the glass without tipping over the glass, but moreover, feeling the need to evacuate my bowels becoming increasingly urgent.

I caught the young woman’s attention; “Toilet..?” I enunciated.

Without speaking she pointed upwards.

“Next floor..?” I asked.

She nodded.

I departed.

Up the stairs two at a time I entered the premises on the third floor without even knowing what it was. I went straight to the bar (turns out it was a nightclub of sorts) and wasted no time with pleasantries: “Toilet..?”

The male staff member pointed to a door just to the right of where I had entered. “Nice one, thank you,” I said hurriedly.

Five minutes after that, cleaned up and feeling ultimately relieved, I was back at the night time café, stirring my coffee (with scrupulously washed, yet frustratingly pants-dried – as Vietnamese W.C.s rarely have any means for drying hands), watching the coffee gradually mingle with the condensed milk. Adding the cup-sized ice cube, before it had time to melt too much I pointed to a bottle of Chivas (mid-range scotch whisky), raised two fingers and asked the woman, “Hie..?” (‘Two?’)

She followed my finger, lifted the bottle, found the nip-pourer, and looked at me with confusion.

I raised two fingers, “Hie,” then indicated to my rapidly melting block of nuok dah.

She gave me another confounded look, but went about filling a double nip with the pricy scotch.

I gestured for ‘that’ to go ‘there’, and watched as she obliged.

She then looked at me, as if wondering why this strange man – with his convivial designer shirt, glasses and a backwards Fedora – wanted her to ruin his café sua nuok dah.

“Bough new tien?” I asked.

She consulted her list. “One-forty,” she said.

I gave her two 100s, marvelling at the added expense of importation (my entire bottle of ‘Vietnamese scotch’ from earlier had cost just 170), said “Kahm urn,” and waited for my ice to melt some more.

Later, having finished my Irish café sua nuok doh, under the recommendation of the coffee shop lady, I went back upstairs to the supposed nightclub. Customers were sparse yet the mood was strangely upbeat.

I asked firstly for a glass of water and, with the blessed aid of a straw, drained that; then requested a glass of my old favourite, scotch and ginger ale…

I used to always dilute my scotch but have in recent times found that during a big night, even with my preferred half/half ginger ale to scotch ratio, slurping back multiple ‘pints of scotch’ in one night is simply more sweet liquid than I feel I want to be drinking.

…They didn’t have ginger ale so I settled for Coke, or the modern Vietnamese equivalent.

Having sampled my beverage I was interested to find that it tasted more like Sarsaparilla than scotch and Coke, and was beginning to seriously wonder what I was drinking; with recently developed trust issues at the fore of my mind I had been closely watching this bartender mix two nips of Chivas in with whatever dark liquid was coming out of his soda-gun – when I was joined by two gorgeous young Vietnamese women.

Always the gentlemen I asked if I could buy the ladies a drink; an idea which they both seemed to like and, after conveying their orders to the barman in a foreign tongue, happily watched the rich Westerner pay for their drinks.

Then, one pretty lady standing at either side of me urging me to finish my drink so we could go somewhere else, I hastily finished my drink (I’m certain they didn’t finish theirs but will admit to a loss of clarity around this point), and we left.

We went upstairs, to the fourth floor I didn’t know existed. I must have looked as though I had a terrible itch that couldn’t quite be reached, every minute or so swiping a hand over my backside…

I didn’t trust these women; exquisite as they appeared, heavenly as they smelled, I knew something sinister was going/about to go down, yet was finding it interesting to discover just how far these ladies would push me before I backed off.

…Level four, more drinks; of course I pay. These women are very friendly, and very touchy. (Butt-cheek swipe.) We sit down; I don’t know what we’re talking about because I can’t understand a damn thing we’re saying. The ladies appear to be having a marvellous time with me though. The seductive touching and fondling soon becomes playful grabbing and groping, and I can see exactly what’s about to happen here…

I stand up, staggering wildly. The two women practically fall to the floor. I swipe my butt-cheek just to be certain; everything’s intact. The ladies look up at me with their sad little Vietnamese puppy-dog eyes (which almost made me chuckle because every dog I had seen in Vietnam resembled a sickly rat). I turn to leave. One of them takes my arm and starts to lead me away; I feel the other place a hand at the small of my back. Ignoring their direction I turn again toward the exit, waving a hand above my head, calling, “Sin loi, tahm beeat, hen gap lie.”

…One of the two meets me at the doorway and puts her arm around me. (Swipe.) As I step through the threshold her associate arrives on my other side. (Swipe.) As I walk steadily down the steps I can feel hands touching all over my body. (Swipe, swipe, swipe.) …

When I finally emerge on the street (swipe), I am alone again.

…I stand, I breath, I recompose; I reassess. My head doesn’t feel right; that’s probably understandable though…

I then recalled our guide’s ‘recommendation against’ visiting certain bars in Vietnam, as they were known for luring in tourists, getting them drunk or drugging them before basically taking their money and sending them back out on the street (swipe).

…But that was days ago we were told that, wasn’t it? That was about Ho Chi Minh, surely..? We were on the bus – no, the train station – but that was way back, surely, in that other place, talking about, warning…

Hah, as it turns out, other than the costs of those harlots’ drinks, I haven’t actually lost any money, which is something. I am suddenly hit by panic though. I spin back towards the entrance I just left. I think I am expecting to see someone come running out to finish the job or something. Hah, the job. Joke’s on them, I can’t even remember what job I’m talking about. Shit, about that, I can’t even find where I went inside a minute ago. I gaze along the street façade. Everything has shifted. Have I been walking, or has the street been moving? Nothing is where I remember it. Am I moving now? Nothing is how I remember it. Everything is different now. Am I still me? What if I’m different now, too? I might be a totally different person. I might have super powers. Hang on, how am I moving? I am not walking yet I am moving. Everything around me is all just a ruse. It’s all just designed to scam me. Everyone here’s a crook. Everyone’s full of shit but me. Trust no one. Nothing’s as it seems (hah, Pearl Jam, great song), and right here, right now, nothing is real.

…Be careful where you go in Nha Trang.

Pulling myself together I glanced at my watch, and thought of Ho Chi Minh City. It was after 2 a.m. in Nha Trang. I continued walking. A scooter pulled up beside me. “Hey, where you going?” asked a distinct American voice…

I turned, and saw a young Vietnamese man sitting atop his small motorcycle (the majority of fluent English-speaking Vietnamese people speak with an American twang, on account of their learning ‘American English’.)

…”Where you from, man?”

“New Zealand,” I replied, hearing, in my own head, in my own voice, that awful Kiwi accent – ‘New Zolland’, I had said.

“Ah,” the cheery American-Viet went on, “Kiwi – I love Kiwi!”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “pretty sure it’s not that good – they can’t fly anyway.”

“Hey, Kiwi,” the Viet idled his bike along, continuing his ingratiation, “kia ora, bro!”

“Yeah,” I muttered again, “said I’m a Kiwi, not a Maori.”

“Hey Kiwi, where you going?”

“Honestly sir,” I raised my voice, “I’m not too sure.”

“Hey, you want me to take you there?”

“Well shit man,” I stopped walking, “if I’m not sure, I mean, where the hell do you plan to take me?”

“I’ll take you somewhere good, I promise.”

“Ah” – employing my philosophy – “why the fuck not?” I jumped on and together we rode through the city streets.

My driver must have known exactly where he was going because, not five minutes later, we pulled up outside a massage parlour.

“We’re here!” called the ebullient Viet, in a statement I imagined reminiscent of a carload of Yanks having reached their road-trip destination.

“Where’s here?” I asked stupidly.

“Come inside, Kiwi, we have some fun!”

I stepped off the bike, and addressed my driver. “What’s your name, man?”

“Hey, Kiwi, I’m Dan, how you?”

“How am I? I’m doing alright, thank you, Dan.”

“No, Kiwi, who are you?”

“Ah, Dan, nice one, I’m Tim, thank you for asking – now what’s the go?”

“Ah, Tim, we go inside, boom-boom, Tim, boom-boom.”

“Boom-boom..?” I asked, “You bring me here for boom-boom?”

“Yes, Tim, inside!” the cheerful character pointed gleefully.

“So, you pick me up, you give me a ride, to this massage parlour … So I can have boom-boom..?”

“Yes, Tim, you pay, you pay for both of us! Yes, Tim!”

Honestly I was too busy working out this man’s – Dan’s – motives to listen closely to what he was saying; although when I caught mention of ‘pay for both’, I did at least begin to develop insight into his movements.

“You pay..?” he was seemingly losing faith that I would carry out my half of his deal. “You no have cash, no problem, I take you ATM … We have boom-boom, Tim, boom-boom!”

I unthinkingly swiped my right butt-cheek. The wallet was there – along with I didn’t-know-how-many million Vietnamese dong – yet still I was caught in a quandary.

I wanted to known Dan’s reasons for bringing me here; was it purely so he could get his end away too, or did it go deeper…

In reality I hadn’t been at all surprised when Dan had stopped to ask me if I needed a ride – a Vietnamese stranger on a scooter giving a ride to a loitering solo White man – I had both seen it before and been the subject of it before. These ostensibly benevolent motorcyclists didn’t seem to require a fee for their transportation; I assumed that was all wrapped up in the commission they receive from whatever industry they were aiding.

…”Come on then, Dan,” I gestured, and together we strolled inside.

Through the threshold we stepped, where I wasn’t the least surprised to see Dan shaking hands, smiling and laughing with another couple of guys in the room; old buddies catching up. Dan showed me around the foyer, then through to the massage parlour’s ‘waiting room’ (a term which, I knew if I ever made it home again, would almost certainly be the source of future ‘Vietnam flashbacks’); then finally we went through into the ‘girls’’ room…

I won’t lie, they were breathtaking. There were around a dozen of what I have to assume were the world’s most beautiful creatures; so elegantly adorned in their sheer, silken finery, utterly exquisite and with the most stunning figures, and my God, the most gorgeous smiles. Even the few transvestites – the few that I could immediately deduce (from the lumps at their throats), which says nothing about how many were actually among them – were more alluring than anything I had seen or indeed, would ever expect to see in a Christchurch bar or club back home. These young women possessed a level of beauty that quite simply, in my opinion, transcended anything in this world.

…There was no question, I wanted to do it; glancing at my chauffeur, much deduction was not needed to see that he very much wanted to do it also. Nevertheless I maintained my composure, some ridiculous element of sensibility within my brain assuring me that if I did go ahead with this, firstly, there was absolutely zero chance that it was going to be as spectacular as I expected it to be and secondly, if I did go through with this arrangement – which I could see Dan, having hurried back through to the foyer, trying to set up for me – I was beyond adamant that something was going to eventuate which ensured there was no way I was walking out of this place satisfied that I had received a good deal…

Ultimately I was still of sufficient lucidity to appreciate that this was one of those situations where the notion, the expectation, indeed where the anticipation of the deed, greatly outweighs the deed in actuality; I knew that I would be better off walking away and perhaps spending the next few years of my life kicking myself for what I potentially missed, than indulging my desires thereby throwing away a week’s worth of budget only to destroy my illusion by discovering that these paragons of femininity have flaws just like the rest of us and in reality are not the goddesses they appear to be but in fact are quite likely to be quintessentially silly little girls of the variety that I despise. (I often elect for delusion over reality; shit’s so much simpler that way.)

…Some of the ladies were now giving me the eye, trying to lure me into their embrace, and Dan, having returned from making his deal out front, was further trying to convince me. “How much?” turning to Dan I threw out the obvious question.

“For you Tim, two million.”

I performed some quick arithmetic (2,000,000 divided by 17,000, coming out at somewhere over $100), and came up confused. “For both of us, you mean..?”

“Nah Kiwi, two mill for you, two mill for me – we both have good night, man!”

“But two million, I mean, that doesn’t even work out to be cheap – that’s fuckin’ Western prices..?”

“Nah Kiwi, I saw your money, you can afford it – best night of your life, I promise!”

The head between my legs very much wanted to believe him, yet the head between my shoulders knew that he was full of shit…

“’Best night of my life’..?” I queried, “I don’t believe you.”

“Nah, Kiwi, best night of your life, man, I promise.”

“Yeah, you already said that, but the problem is, Dan, you see, I don’t trust you.”

“Oh, come on, Tim, you can trust me, I make good deal for you – we have boom-boom!”

“Yeah, it’s not just you, Dan, you see, I don’t trust any of you people – you’re all lying, cheating, conning, swindling, loathsome shitheads … Besides, four million dong for a Vietnamese fuck..?”

“Nah, Tim, only two mill for you, you can do boom-boom, you can fuck a girl good, Tim – we both can … Come on, Tim..?”

“Two mill for me, then two mill for you, along with whatever else you end up taking from this place – it’s shit, Dan.”

Even if I had been willing to pay the 4 million dong – which would have almost cleaned me out – while I was occupied, I was confident that my wallet would be cleaned out of the remainder of its cash; a truth which made me less willing.

…The head between my shoulders knew Dan was full of shit because on top of what he wanted me to pay, I suspected he would then have his cut for providing custom to the business in the first place, and that kind of deceit didn’t run with me.

Probably the most compelling factor though, was the fact that, appealing as those young women appeared to be, simply, I didn’t particularly want to engage in prostitution – atypical of a man as full of dark spirits as I was – I thought of the consequences…

Having ‘engaged in relations with a sex worker’, as well as the personal misgivings that would undoubtedly engender, the NZ Blood Service would refuse to take my plasma for, I think, 12 months, and that would be just disastrous. No, it was settled. I was done.

…”Take me home, Dan.”

“What?! No come on, Kiwi, what about the girls – what about the boom-boom?”

“Boom-boom with pretty young sluts..? Not worth the shit.”

“No, what do you mean, Kiwi?”

“I mean, Dan, like I said, I don’t trust you – I don’t trust any fucker around this place – you’re all lying, cheating, fuck-heads … I’ll give you five hundred dong right now if you take me back to my hotel, now.”

“Oh, come on Tim, don’t do that – let’s do boom-boom, you pay!”

“Do you want five hundred or not? If you don’t I’ll find somebody else to take me home.”

“Oh, come on, Tim, let’s have boom-boom, you pay!”

“Fuck off Dan, I’m going home.”

As I exited those premises I could still hear Dan’s chirping voice (‘Oh, come on, Tim..? You pay!’); I wasn’t sure if it was carrying through the establishment or if his tone was now imbedded in my brain. I stepped out onto the vacant street and breathed the putrid, warm air. I could feel myself swaying whenever I stopped moving forward; I wondered how I’d maintained such presence of mind back there, to say nothing of the (frustratingly rational) display of willpower.

I stumbled down the road, surprised also that at this stage in the night I was still apparently coherent in the face of others. In fairness my mind at that point still felt mostly clear; it was just my body that was giving me trouble. I couldn’t really feel my legs, but I think my feet were tired.

I heard a scooter pull up to my left. I turned. “Hop on, Tim, I’ll give you a ride.”

“I thought you’d be busy, Dan.”

“No, Tim, I got no money – that’s why you pay!”

“Not this time, sorry Dan.”

“That’s alright, Tim, I get boom-boom next time … Jump on … Where you go?”

“Ah, it’s the hotel, that’s ah, opposite the, ah, the Camellia.”

Dan took out his phone and started scrolling through Vietnamese maps. A minute later we set off. It’d been one hell of a night. I reckon I’d gleaned more information about Vietnam in that one night than I could have hoped to have learned in a lifetime of reading about Southeast Asia in New Zealand.

I was finally glad that I had come to Vietnam; all the shit seemed to have dissipated amid a fug of whisky vapour and now, I felt – with snorkelling tomorrow – that I could truly start to enjoy myself.

That thought must have struck me at around 3 a.m.; if only I had realised that the underbelly of Vietnam is so much more crooked, so much more devious than I ever could have imagined.

Indeed, the worst was still yet to come.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Crick Kidd

Photography by V Utt Nahm

Tim Walker’s Vietnam V

The following day the tour group, all freshly acquainted and reciprocating inane platitudes, ventured even farther south – towards the equator – to Mekong Delta.

While everybody made preparations for the trip south, lathering on their bug spray, their sunscreen, or even their bug spray with sunscreen – which actually proved to be a bust as the one woman I saw using this ‘SPF bug spray’ was among the few people who was actually touched by the Vietnamese sun – also taking their Malaria pills, and of course avoiding ingesting anything local, I hadn’t bothered bringing bug spray or sunscreen, and in fact I was still drinking from the hotel bathroom faucets…

I came to this country with the intention of experiencing – not avoiding – Vietnam; I wanted to see the real Vietnam, not just the part of it that had been tidied up, domesticated then conveniently set aside for tourists. As I saw it, if it was right for the locals, it was right enough for me (although as I would later learn, even the locals won’t drink the local water in some parts).

…We took a bicycle ride and, as a group, saw a broom factory – elderly women frantically lashing together fronds from a coconut tree – and in general had a pleasant time. We all attempted to construct spring rolls – which were then deep-fried and fed to us for dinner – and had a pleasant evening. Over drinks that night a few of the group talked about being up in time to catch the sunrise over Mekong; it sounded like a swell idea…

We then slept, under individual mosquito nets, in a ‘homestay’ style setup; four berth rooms and an outdoor bathroom with a shower that wouldn’t heat up (mind you, a ‘cold’ shower in equatorial Vietnam is not totally undesirable and besides, ‘Vietnam cold’ is far from ‘New Zealand cold’, anyway.

…As per the previous night’s advice I was dressed and out on the deck by 5:45 a.m. I was thwarted by mild cloud cover – also the fact that all the other ‘early risers’ turned out to have been blowhards – but ultimately, it was a pleasant way to begin the day.

The bus trip back to Ho Chi Minh City was pleasant enough; then, upon entering the Aston Hotel Saigon, the first thing I saw was my bag, stashed safely (tossed carelessly) in a corner. Upon closer inspection, while there were no markings to suggest it had been scrutinised by Viet Customs, my suspicions regarding bag-snatchers were all but confirmed.

Being the aspiring OCD fanatic I am, before leaving home I had positioned all three zips in line with each other; one zip was now left, one had been pulled hard to the right, and the side pouch which I recall having had difficulty closing before I left, now had a large tear in the material around its edge, where it had been pulled together too roughly. Convincing as this was, it was hardly damning; the true evidence came when I opened the bag’s main pouch.

My once neatly packed bag – on account of our tour group’s intended regular accommodation shifts I had elected for a large sports bag over a suitcase, regarding which I reckon I could have previously closed my eyes and pointed to where different clothing types were situated – was now a mess. On account of the unruly packing style employed by these Viet crooks, my once snugly packed bag was now bursting – hence one ripped pouch.

As mentioned there had been nothing of particular value in the bag, which was probably the reason that the only thing now missing was my faith in the integrity of Vietnamese people.

 

That afternoon the group caught an overnight train to Nha Trang. As I was one of only three solo travellers – the other two being women – and given the strict ‘gender separation’ rules implemented in the group by our guide, I took no issues sharing my four-berth carriage with the tour guide and two other, unknown, travellers. Prior to boarding the train our group leader/tour guide/security adviser had passed down the advice: “When sleeping in the train cabins it is important to keep all valuables out of sight – a good idea is put them under your pillows.”…

Although all cabins had locking doors, once somebody had departed for some reason – perhaps a trip to the W.C. – that door remained unlocked until they returned. I have in the past found myself in situations akin to this – backpackers’ hostels etc – and it always amazes me, firstly, how much noise a room of four can make without actually speaking but – particularly – the frequency with which members of that group are up and down throughout the night. In my experience therefore, when one is onboard an overnight train rest is not an easy commodity to harness and, being the light sleeper that I typically am anyway, ‘rest’ became just about the most elusive commodity I had ever known.

…In my (estimated 70cm wide, 175cm long) lower bunk bed (I stand at 183 and have limbs to match), I had closed my eyes early, foolishly expecting the ‘clickety-click’ of the train’s machinery to translate into an orchestra of mellifluous white noise, and the gentle rocking to have a further soporific affect.

Alas between a half dozen more pick-ups, resulting in screeching brakes and other – unbelievably loud and utterly alarming – unknown noises, as well as plenty of bumping and jerking, when I think I did finally start to drift off I was woken by the cabin door being thrown open – I swear – as hard and as fast as it could be opened. I cracked my right eyelid to see a man disappearing out the door and down the corridor; I reached a hand under my pillow and pressed a button on my phone – which had since orientated itself – 12:05 a.m. I cursed the world and slumped back down.

What felt like a minute later I again heard the door rumble open, this time more gently; again I cracked an eyelid. His outline was illuminated by the comparative light in the train’s corridor. A man was standing in the doorway looking in. I wondered if this was the same man who had just left; I supposed it wasn’t. As if first checking that everybody was asleep this man stepped inside the cabin and walked silently to the top bunk opposite my bed. With the sleeping figure oblivious, I watched this man carefully slide his hand under the pillow, slowly remove it then turn to the recently vacated bed, directly above my head. I assume he did the same there then turned and departed.

I closed my eyes but I was not sleeping. A minute later the door opened for a third time, and soon after I felt the bed above me being occupied. I wondered if that man’s possessions were still there. I wondered a lot of things. I think I wondered them for the rest of the night.

It was before 6 a.m. when I heard my guide, in the lower bunk opposite me, stirring. We sat up in unison and looked at one another. The guide smiled and whispered “Good morning”; I frowned, smirking, and shook my head.

Our group congregated outside the train station and took further instruction from the guide, who then dropped a bombshell: “And guess what guys, today is Tim’s birthday!”

Everyone cheered and some even sang. I shook my head and wondered how the hell. We went to our hotel, freshened up then as a group, we went out for breakfast. As it was past 10 a.m. by now, I tried to purchase a celebratory bottle of Johnnie Walker Red – which I assured everybody would go tremendously with our breakfasts – for 750.000 dong, but found myself under a strenuous ‘recommendation against’ from our esteemed team leader. Thus while many of the others settled for a rather hackneyed coffee with Bailey’s, I made do with pensively slurping through a straw a double measure of scotch, neat.

That day was spent largely at one of Nha Trang’s famous beaches, doing not much but, laid back on one of the myriad loungers under sun-umbrellas, doing it in style.

I was overjoyed to find a licensed café in Nha Trang – right near the beach – that would make me a glorious Vietnamese Iced Coffee (a strong, hot, short black mixed in with a generous dollop of condensed milk, ice cubes on the side), where, with the right amount of convincing, after I’d lowered the level of my original beverage, they then agreed to ‘Irish up’ with a double measure of scotch whisky (which, after reading that sentence through – ‘Irish up’ with a double measure of ‘scotch whisky’ – I now appreciate is a blatant misnomer). Regardless, the 12th July was a good day in Nha Trang.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the evening of 12th July that things became underhanded.

Between roaming, beaching, and drinking Irish coffees, (also doing some other stuff), daytime in Nha Trang quickly became evening. Confirming with the day’s ‘activity sheet’ always posted at our respective hotel’s reception, I had just enough time to shower and change before the group would assemble to head out for dinner together…

That night’s dinner was one of our tour group’s many ‘optional activities’ (generally the ‘optional activities’ were trips to see sights not included in our tour, or such, to help us occupy our many ‘free’ days) that Intrepid organised for the tour which, while it wasn’t covered in the initial cost of the ‘tour package’, an individual’s participation was recommended; given that tonight’s festivities would be doubling as my ‘birthday dinner’, and given furthermore that I suspect nobody wanted to be accused of snubbing the lone Kiwi male in the group, full attendance was recorded.

…Seating myself (inadvertently) at the head of the table I looked towards the restaurant bar – then momentarily panicked – they weren’t licensed. I quickly stood and hurried over to where the group leader sat, at the other end of the table. After waiting an impatient minute for sycophants to stop trying desperately to endear themselves to our guide, I lowered my posture, also my voice, and said, “Yeah, I’ve noticed they don’t serve alcohol here … Would it be alright if I nipped out and bought a bottle of scotch, then brought it back here – you know, to share with the group?”

The youthful Vietnamese guide looked up at me, appearing to find my frantically laid contingency plan rather amusing yet, not without a hint of begrudging, replied, “That should be fine, Tim…”

I turned and I was gone.

“…Tim!” the guide’s voice caught up with me…

I turned back and returned eye contact.

“Tim, just please, this is Vietnam … Just be careful.”

I nodded affirmation and set off with little idea where the hell I was going.

Having eating nothing substantial since breakfast, I was ravenous. I left the restaurant premises and, recalling crossing a major intersection on the way there, strode back the way the taxi had brought us. I reached that junction and made an acute right hand turn towards some lights that somehow, I considered auspicious.

The lights turned out to have been a convenience store; it sold most everything a household could desire, yet it did not sell alcohol. I continued on – being sure to imprint in my mind every major landmark and point at which I changed direction – and after around 15 minutes of brisk walking in many different directions, I encountered another restaurant (I was hoping it wasn’t our one because if it was, I had been terribly lost). Upon entry I realised there was no chance of this place providing me with what I wanted; nevertheless staff were insistent, and made a very big deal of showing me upstairs to display everything they had to offer.

I eventually escaped, despite Vietnamese efforts to the contrary, with 100 percent of my finances still intact…

 

I had been withdrawing from local ATMs each day one or two million dong, but in fact had been struggling to spend even that (by 1st World standards) meagre sum. As a result, before heading out that night there had been the accumulated total of a little over four million dong in my wallet; then just for the hell of it – since the Ho Chi Minh fiasco I had adopted a decision-making philosophy of ‘Why the fuck not?’ – I had withdrawn another two million dong. It was while walking back from that particular ATM where, (this short journey back to my hotel had me navigating a gauntlet of Viet bars, massage parlours, Russian Bars, and other seedy-looking shops that sold I-didn’t-even-want-to-know-what), as is the accepted sales technique in Vietnam, shop staff were loitering on the streets outside their premises, trying to cajole passersby (both verbally and physically) to come inside and of course, to spend some money.

In my mildly intoxicated state (bless those Irish coffees) I recall one such interaction being noticeably more forceful than others; I then recall glancing up, seeing the name of this particular establishment – recalling furthermore how a group of young women within our group had been raving about a massage they had received at just this very premises – and thinking that, given the day, given the location, given the occasion – given the way the constant perspiration was leaving me bereft of minerals hence allowing all my old jiu-jitsu injuries to flare up and had been causing me great distress – I felt I could actually use a massage.

I was led (pushed) past the reception and into a waiting room, where I was given a ‘menu’ from which I selected the type of massage that I felt was right for me (this being Nha Trang rather than HCMC, I wasn’t too concerned about ‘misunderstanding’ in this regard); I ended up paying 270.000 dong for a ‘Full Body Vietnamese Massage’ (I was aware that the Ho Chi Minh version of the same ‘massage’ would have cost over one and a half million).

I was taken to a cloakroom of sorts where, with the masseuse waiting impatiently to one side, I undressed down to my boxers and stuffed all my belongings into a small locker. I closed the door and was about to lock it, then thought, ‘Shit, should I have grabbed my wallet?’ I reassured myself with, ‘Come on, this is Nha Trang, not Ho Chi Minh City…’ locked the door and with keys firmly gripped, followed the masseuse up the stairs, excited about experiencing my first ever ‘Vietnamese massage’.

We entered a beautifully laid out room with white hanging sheets blowing in the breeze of the ample air conditioning. The masseuse parted two sheets, gesturing towards a massage table. I climbed up, looking closely, inspecting the surface for anything unsanitary; it all looked above board.

The place was clean, it wasn’t malodorous and ultimately, it appeared high class. I lay, prostrate, and placed my face in the hole in the mattress. I felt the oil being applied to my back. I felt experienced hands go to work on my aching shoulders and back. The masseuse worked her way down my ribcage near the spine, somehow assuaging any discomfort and stiffness in my shoulder-blades. She pushed firmly on each hip and lifted each arm in turn, twisting my torso, cracking my spine. Then seemingly satisfied she’d taken care of the gentle work, she started pounding her fists on my back. I could actually hear my chest cavity (and perhaps my hollow stomach) echoing. Next thing this diminutive Asian woman had climbed atop the table and was actually kneeling on my back. Up and down my spine she trod with her little Vietnamese knees, eliciting all manner of creaks and groans – from my back and from my mouth. This continued for a few minutes before the masseuse climbed down and gestured for me to turn over. I was reluctant. Again she made a turning motion with her hands. Again, I just needed a moment. A third time and I could not refuse. I rolled over onto my now supple back. The masseuse immediately went to work on my chest and shoulders, every so often glancing down and smiling at what she had aroused.

Finally she squeezed and rubbed the discomfort from my feet, calves, and thighs, before stationing her face perilously close to my pelvic area. Then with one hand making a loose fist she asked (in the English tongue that I didn’t know existed in this one), “You want, happy ending?”

At the time I was genuinely surprised (although in hindsight: Come on, surprised..?); on assessing my bulge however, I think someone had had an inkling.

Whether it was the scotch in my veins or the uncomfortable straining in my underwear, I didn’t take long to make my decision. “Yes, please,” I managed to choke out.

Sometime later I made my way back down the stairs and into the cloakroom. I checked my watch; as promised the massage had been a full hour. The masseuse stood smiling to my left as I unlocked the locker door. The moment it swung open my heart sank…

I had stuffed my clothing into that locker, while the masseuse looked on, in an ostensibly arbitrary fashion, but for one area; suspecting that there was another key – my own key I had lain on the floor under the massage table and could be confident that it had never shifted – I had made a point of stacking my locker in what I considered to be an ‘illogical’ fashion. My shirt and shorts I had simply laid in the centre of the cubbyhole but when it came to my sandals, I had deliberately placed one at each corner of the locker; the right at the top left and the left at the top right. My logic was that if anybody unpacked that locker, they were unlikely to repack it in that exact style.

…Without touching anything I looked down at the tiny masseuse, standing innocently, and said, without equivocation, “I’ve been robbed.”…

Upon opening the locker door I saw both sandals had, much more logically, been placed with soles together and slid in at the top left hand corner.

…She peered up at me confusedly, but I had seen her initial expression – her micro-expression of guilt at being caught out – at hearing my words; she knew exactly what the game was. Still standing in my underwear I thrust my hand into the locker and pulled out my shorts. I pulled on the pants then removed from the back pocket my wallet. I was initially surprised to see any large denomination currency left at all. I laboriously flipped through the blue notes at the back of the wallet. (They may have been filthy crooks, but unlike HCMC, these ones were subtle; originally I’d had 4 million worth of 500 dong notes – 8 notes – but had withdrawn a further 2 million – 4 notes – then had used one to pay for this massage – there should have been – calculating quickly – 11 blue notes left.) I counted ten 500 dong notes. (Take so little that the rich Westerners don’t even notice it’s gone.) I glanced at the waiting masseuse who, ultimately betraying her inability to comprehend English, had since called for her superior. I counted the notes again. There were 10. I knew that I ought to have had 11. I removed the wad of notes and counted for a third time…

500.000VND is a mere pittance (somewhere around 20NZD); I had accepted this. What I just could not abide, and the reason that I was so determined to sort this out, was that as much as it might have been dictated by their modern culture, these people, simply, could not treat people like this.

…While it may seem odd to most, knowing exactly how much money one’s wallet contains at all times is not unusual for me; given my preference for using cash, in New Zealand my wallet always has in it at least a few hundred dollars, and I am always aware of its balance to at least the nearest $20.

Returning the 10 500 dong notes to my wallet I looked calmly at the middle-aged Madame who had just appeared. “Your people rob me,” I said in my best broken English. “Why your people steal from me?”

“What steal?” unsurprisingly, the middle-aged Madame only understood when it suited her.

“’What steal?’ My money … 500 dong…”

“Who steal?” It sounded now as if she was playing a game.

“’Who steal?’ You steal,” I was playing along, but without any of the joy that usually accompanies this sing-along.

I glanced down at the masseuse, who was now looking up at me with indignation. The Madame then brought in a number of her middle-aged friends, all looking as belligerent as each other. One of them stepped forward and snapped, “What problem?”

“The problem,” I responded, feeling my ire rise, “is that someone here has gone through my locker while I was upstairs, and taken 500 dong from me.”

“How open locker?” the woman asked, in more of a statement of disproof than a question, “You had key.”

“I did have key,” I held the single key with key-ring in front of her face, “but so do you.”

The woman’s face changed from one of disbelief, to one of despair, to one of anger. Her eyes widened as she brought her face as close to mine as someone of her lower stature could manage, shook her head and exclaimed, “You had key, we no had key.” Her arms shot up, “How we had key when you had key?”

I bent down to her height and answered with a sardonic sneer, “You had key, because there are two keys.”

This put the woman over the edge. Her eyes were enraged as she suddenly kicked her foot up between my legs. I managed to avoid the full force of this blow by reflexively pinching my thighs closed and trapping her ankle in my groin. On one leg she now lunged forward and began slapping my shirtless chest. I pushed her off and she stumbled back, furious. I also was infuriated. I turned to my left, locked eyes with the Madame and bellowed, “Where the fuck is my five hundred dong, you stupid old slut?”

With that she turned and left the room.

There were two other middle-aged Asian women in the room, who had turned up but who had not done or said anything. This left the masseuse and the belligerent crotch-kicker to stand either side of me and eye me furiously. With limited air conditioning in the small cloakroom, also the heat of exasperation cum rage, I was drenched in perspiration.

The Madame returned, holding, to my absolute shock, a blue Vietnamese banknote. We locked eyes briefly, before I surged forward and grabbed the money. I leaned back, dripping sweat and said, calmly, “Why did you steal from me?”

“The woman looked confused.”

This act of feigning confusion pissed me off more than anything and subsequently, I felt my anger return. “Why did you steal from me?” I asked again, holding up the 500 dong as if in demonstration.

“No … Steal..?” Either she had suddenly forgotten how to speak English, or she was having a stroke.

I stuffed the money in my left pocket and, swaying now from the powerful waves of exasperation that were continually assaulting my mind, directing looks of disgust at the masseuse then to the crotch-kicker in turn, stepping into my sandals and throwing on my shirt I edged forward. The crotch-kicker moved to block my path. “The fuck do you want?” I demanded.

She stared at me with her wild eyes, but said nothing.

I made to push past her; she shoved me backward. I caught myself, stepped forward, put my face in hers and said, “Fuck off.”

She attempted to push me back again but I pre-empted her force with my own movement and pushed past her. As I opened the door to exit the cloakroom I could feel crotch-kicker grabbing punching my right arm; another woman was trying to pull me back by my left arm. Then getting in on the game as well, the masseuse was putting her magical little hands to work punching my back. I burst forward, through the maelstrom of grabbing and punching hands. I felt a surreptitious hand slide into my back right pocket, no doubt searching for my wallet; I slid my hand into my front left pocket and touched my wallet, along with the 500 dong note. I pushed through the bodies, I pushed through the heat – I attempted to push through the confusion – I pushed through the door.

Out at reception and into the cool I spun to face my attackers, having now dropped several metres behind. “The fuck do you want from me?!” I yelled.

The response was silence.

I spun around again, utterly dazed, and saw a waiting room full of young European women and some men, most now looking at me curiously.

Turning back to my attackers I lumbered forward, trying to collect my thoughts – my sanity – and caught the arm of my, once lovely, masseuse. She looked up at me with a mask of innocent pleasantness, which didn’t quite disguise the horrid little troll she’d become only moments before.

I leaned in, having dropped the arm and now addressing all five women, speaking steadily but loudly enough that I hoped everyone in the waiting room would hear: “You are a pack of thieving wenches … I paid your bill – I paid up front for God’s sake – then for some reason you broke into my locker and you stole from me … While I was getting a massage you pack of thieving wenches fucking stole from me!”

At this point the tiny masseuse started trying to shove me towards the door, with the words, “You leave, you leave now…”

That was fine; I allowed myself to be pushed backwards all the way to the main entrance then stopped. I stared into the eyes of this furious little Viet woman and, now with every person in the waiting room looking on, I snarled, “I should have fucked you when I had the chance, you thieving little whore.”

 

…So with my funds still intact and still on the hunt for a bottle of scotch to go with my birthday dinner, I stepped out of that restaurant and started walking, then saw the convenience store I had just passed. I stopped, cursed and orientated – indeed re-orientated – myself. I performed an about-turn, and strode in the opposite direction. I soon came upon a minimart – exactly how a ‘minimart’ differs from a ‘convenience store’ would become apparent in the following movements – and expecting nothing new, headed inside anyway. As expected the minimart revealed nothing new; then I spoke with the attendant. I didn’t have a Vietnamese word for scotch, for whisky, or even for whiskey, so I hoped for the best. “Sin chow…” My mind went blank.

The attendant looked at me. “Sin chow..?” he replied, curiously.

Then it flooded back. “…Ban ko kware kom?” (‘How are you?’)

The attendant looked at me as though I was daft.

I tried again, adjusting my accent, “Ben koh queer kohm?”

Suddenly the man smiled, and started nodding his head in delight. “Ah, ban ko kwair kom? … Doy kwair, doy kwair!” (‘I’m fine … I’m fine’)

I reciprocated his joy, while checking behind his counter for bottles of alcohol. Thinking that perhaps I had found what I was seeking after all, I asked, slowly, “Doy muon mooa…” (‘I want to buy…’)

The man nodded appreciatively.”

(Cursing my shortcoming) “Ah … Alcohol … Scotch … Whisky..?”

“Ah,” the man cheered, “whikky … You want whikky?”

“Vung” (‘Yes’) “whikky.”

Reaching into a partially opened box on the floor the man produced a bottle of brown liquid. My eyes lit up. He passed it to me. I read the label. ‘Genuine Vietnamese Scotch Whisky’, it read. (I could have kissed that happy little Vietnamese man right then.) I looked up with a smile, placed the bottle on the counter and pulled my wallet (with all 11 of its 500 dong notes) from my pocket. “Bough new tien?” (‘How much money’) I asked – given that the restaurant which had provided breakfast would have sold me a bottle for 750.000 – expecting a reply along the lines of ‘five hundred’ or even – who am I kidding, I would have paid – ‘a million’ dong for that bottle.

The man’s response was unbelievable. “One-seventy,” he said without hesitation.

My eyes widened as the smile grew. “One-seventy..?” I repeated in disbelief, thinking of my Ho Chi Minh glass of Jimbean for 95 (at this time I had yet to comprehend the fact that local products are extremely cheap while imported products are only mildly cheap).

The man nodded warily, as if he was worried I was going to try and bargain with him.

Grinning I gave the man a 500, told him to keep the change, grabbed the bottle of scotch and powered out the door; calling over my shoulder, “Tahm beeat” (‘Goodbye’) … “Hen gap lie” (‘see you again’) – which I now realise was as stupid as the way that we in New Zealand tell people, ‘See ya’ (‘see you later’), when there is no realistic way that we will ever see that person again.

I strode back down the street, oozing excitement (also scotch whisky) from every pore, almost breaking into a canter but keeping it respectable…

I switched on. I had passed the seedy restaurant. I had passed the convenience store. My hand was sweaty but the grip on my bottle was safe. I was on the right track. My memory of the trip there was vivid enough, therefore all I had to do was invert the memory. Right; simple. It was much darker now though than when I’d come. Alright, first junction; first test at night time orientation in Vietnam. Remember, invert, simple; veer right, simple. I was walking so quickly I felt as though I was gliding. Second junction; all the lights were different to the picture in my head. Remember, invert, simple; turn left. I was having to forcibly keep my pace below a jog. Third junction; remember, invert, simple. It was a hard left this time. I’d only passed three junctions on the way there. My restaurant should have been a few hundred metres up ahead on the left. The lights though, the lights were so different.

…How long had I been gone? I asked myself as I approached the table and sat down. No one even looked up; so busy they were frying their meats and other assorted edibles on the miniature open grills which had been placed around the table. I drained three glasses of water before filling a glass with scotch and slurping back half of it in two mighty pulls. I quickly ate some of the food then made my way around the table and offered everybody a drink. There were few takers. One man, in fact one half of the only two Scottish people in the group, probably from obligation more than desire, did manage a few swigs but ultimately, that bottle was mine to be drunk.

While I was a little disappointed, particularly after such a hearty reception at breakfast, not having to share my hard-earned bottle of scotch didn’t actually bother me one bit.

A thoughtfully coloured birthday cake was presented towards the end of the evening and again people sang; much as I tried to downplay festivities I did appreciate the effort.

Once dinner was done and the majority of the group had headed back to the hotel, I headed the other way. The guide again warned, “Just be careful, Tim … Remember, you’re not at home anymore…”

It was almost as though I had earned a reputation among the group for being a little on the reckless side…

Perhaps it was the fact also that, as I glanced at the glass receptacle being clenched in my right fist, my scotch was down to its last quarter.

…Had I not been so keen to make this night momentous, indeed had I known the kinds of duplicities that awaited me – which realistically, given the ‘massage’ episode only a few hours earlier, I should have at least been less ignorant – I might have heeded some of the advice regarding sensibility…

Alas I did not.

…Therefore as I swaggered away and towards Nha Trang’s famous nightlife for my birthday celebration, my over 5 million dong and I were essentially Vietnam’s for the taking.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Tree Man Douse

Photography by Miss Sarge

Tim Walker’s Vietnam IV

Given how erratic – even deranged – my actions must have appeared, I wasn’t altogether surprised to finally be led up the hotel steps by a rather wary hotel porter.

Evening was setting in as the receptionist presented me with key-card then laboriously told me to take the lift up to my room. I gazed around the foyer of this musty-smelling, dirty-looking hotel and made clear there was no way I was going up to my room alone, as I was certain that it wouldn’t be straightforward. The receptionist assured me it would be fine, and that I should go up to my room. Again I refused, demanding a staff member join me. I was again told to go alone. At this point I started to become angry. Finally a female staff member, who was standing at the desk doing nothing in particular, agreed to accompany me up the lift…

My intention had been to arrive In Ho Chi Minh City a full day before my tour group were scheduled to land in Vietnam, to spend some time exploring and adjusting to this new country/city; however taking into account the airline’s ‘error’ (cock-up) and the ensuing ‘unpleasantness’ (shit-storm) this had precipitated, the first day was almost over and I still felt as though I hadn’t truly arrived in this, potentially marvellous, land.

…On our arrival at my room the woman scanned the card on the door lock. She tried the handle; the door wouldn’t open. She scanned it again. She pushed the handle again; again the door wouldn’t open. She turned the card over and scanned it again, before glancing up at me with nervously apologetic eyes.

“Doesn’t worry me one bit,” I said calmly, leaning up against the doorframe, “I’ve already given up on this country providing me with any kind of success.”

Finally the woman conceded and began making her way back down the lift; I followed.

At the front desk I leaned in toward the receptionist who had been so adamant that I should go alone to my room. “See this?” I said quietly.

She looked up; I was indicating the woman now exchanging key-cards.

I made a point of speaking slowly and clearly: “This is why I wanted an escort … You see, for as long as I have been in your country, nothing has gone right … I did not expect this place would treat me any differently.”

“OK,” the receptionist forced a smile, “you right, I sorry.”

 

I came down from my new room and immediately went on the hunt for food; Intrepid had ‘recommended against’ eating the local food – from street vendors and such – but the way I saw it, I was in Vietnam, I wasn’t about to be selective about which portions of Vietnam I experienced.

The hotel porter, Fine, joined me; suggesting, offering, assisting me in my quest (or as I would later learn, ‘assisting me to spend money in general’, was more accurate). Once I had the food sorted Fine showed me to the hotel bar and offered me a drink…

I noted that in Vietnam, anything local was extremely cheap – local food, local beer, local cigarettes – while anything imported – beef, spirits, Marlboros – by comparison, was around twice the price (yet still very much inexpensive by 1st World standards).

…Looking at the drinks menu I saw that a locally brewed beer cost 30.000 dong (‘30’), while a bourbon (Jimbean, as it was written) would set me back 95.000 dong; my meal had just cost 45.

Pricing inconsistencies notwithstanding, and seeing no scotch on the menu, I ordered a nice cool bourbon and coke for 95, paid with a 100 and told Fine to keep the change (which, as I would come to learn, actually went without saying; it was when you required change that you needed to stipulate), then sat outside and watched the traffic pass by…

In New Zealand the act of sitting at a bar and ‘watching the traffic pass by’ might be considered a ‘peaceful’ pastime; in HCMC, between the noise, the stench, and the overall feeling of mayhem, peaceful it is anything but.

…I had almost finished my drink and was doing my best to work through the anxiety in my head; realistically, I told myself, it was only my missing luggage that was still an issue. I had made it to my hotel, I still had my wallet, still had my hand luggage, along with – I just remembered – the few clothing items that I hadn’t bothered trying to squeeze into my main bag, meaning I really needn’t have been concerned.

It wasn’t really as bad as all that, I told myself, closing my eyes, slowing my breathing, leaning in for a jerky sip, and just focusing on the Jimbean.

“One..? One..?”

I opened my eyes with a start. Fine had come back and was offering to fetch me another drink (using the parlance that I would later come to recognise as Vietnamese traders’ technique for clarifying a single purchase – showing one finger and clearly enunciating the word ‘One..?’).

I leaned forward, slurped back the last of my Jimbean, turned to Fine, lifted one finger, nodded, and said, “Mot,” (‘One.’)

Fine smiled gleefully and dashed away; returning a moment later with the drink. Pulling out my wallet I began leafing through the thick wad of Vietnamese currency (given my inability to easily recognise the notes’ values I had logically stacked them in order of monetary value – which is curiously the very same way I stack my wallet in New Zealand, but this probably has less to do with ease of recognition and more to do with OCD) and noticed, as I did this, Fine hovering over me, looking on attentively.

In the next instant, to my horror, this diminutive hotel porter cum bartender, cum general salesperson, had reached in, whipped a 200 dong note from my wallet, turned and was quickly walking back to the bar. I started to protest then stopped myself; sighed, and sat back in my chair. Fine was back a few minutes later, placed my drink on the table and stood looking at me…

I was very tired and, after the way I’d been carrying on, I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking me stupid; yet when it comes to numbers, I am never that stupid.

…Fine continued to look down at me with that endearing Vietnamese grin. I eventually reciprocated the grin before inquiring, “Change..?”

Fine quickly pulled from a pocket a 50 dong note, and placed it on the table.

I could feel anger surging inside me. I knew these people weren’t stupid; most of them could speak English competently and I was confident that every single one of them was proficient at basic arithmetic…

They were just con-artists; it was in their nature – somewhere along the way it seems to have become entwined in this Goddamned Vietnamese culture.

…Gazing up at Fine’s cheerful face something in my eyes must have changed, because a moment later a second 50 dong note followed the first.

I waited. Fine stood there, and prompted me to try the drink. I did. I then turned slowly to my left, locked eyes with the porter and spoke carefully, but boldly. “That first drink, I let you keep five, because I liked you…”

Fine smiled.

“…This drink, you still owe me five.”

Fine dashed back to the bar then returned holding the outstanding 5.000 dong note.

“Don’t ever try that again,” I said quietly.

 

That night, after Fine had taken me – perched on the back of a scooter (something else Intrepid ‘recommended against’), finding hilarity in crying out “Sin chow” (‘Hello’) to passersby, then “Sin loi” (‘Sorry/Excuse me’) when we obstructed traffic – to a number of new eateries around town, we returned to the Aston, set out a row of brightly coloured, child-sized patio furniture along the verge at the front of the hotel, between the piles of rubble, and spread the food out along the tables. Fine introduced me to the usual crowd – including a wonderful young Vietnamese woman who appeared very keen to know me – where I was cajoled into buying rounds of Jimbean; then together we ate, drank, fended off offers from street vendors all selling the same assortment of worthless crap – some barely old enough to walk, others almost too old to walk – and were indeed merry until the small hours.

The following morning, as is the theme, reality came pounding back, filling my head with the deluge of torrid thoughts that I had last night been so happily avoiding. On just a few hours’ sleep I stormed downstairs to check on any luggage updates. There were none. On the plus side the clothes I wore were now dry and – where in New Zealand if I drench a shirt with sweat then dry it out and wear it again the next day it stinks, in Vietnam my level of perspiration must have been so high that I genuinely think any potentially smelly bacteria had long been washed away and what I was therefore sweating was essentially pure water, which meant that for the majority of yesterday I had actually been giving my clothes a nice rinse – my shirt almost smelt fresh again.

As I strode through the hotel foyer, Mai, the Vietnamese princess I had encountered the night before – having chosen to sleep on the couch rather than smirch her Viet honour by lying with an Englishman, particularly one she’d just met – now woke. Upon seeing me push through the large glass doors and into the gust of ambient 7 a.m. heat, she eagerly followed. As I started clambering down the hotel steps, Mai caught my arm. “Where you go?” she asked, sorrowfully, as though I was disappearing from her life forever.

“Breakfast,” I said simply.

Her eyes lit up. “I take you,” grabbing my arm she bounced down the flight of concrete steps, across the already congested street, and into a shaded alcove harbouring meats, pastas, fresh produce, and very basic cooking facilities.

Over breakfast – 45 dong for pork (which I’d mistakenly thought was beef but later learned that in Vietnam one shouldn’t judge a meat by its colour), noodles, greens, dipping sauce and a whole lot of broth – the same meal in fact I’d eaten now three times in HCMC and which was making me seriously question the Vietnamese perception of the word ‘variety’, I learned that Mai was working that afternoon across town.

Lest I be seen as pillion on a motorbike operated by a lady, Mai phoned a male scooter-driver to come and collect me; then side by side we rode to her place of residence, in District 11…

Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city. Its great expanse is composed of 24 ‘Districts’. 19 of the aforementioned are ‘City Districts’ while 5 are considered ‘rural’. All are considered part of Ho Chi Minh City. Each of these 24 Districts, I discovered, comes with a different theme, or motif; from Vietnamese fish markets to African American gang warfare, HCMC has it all. Through its many Districts, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly named Saigon; the nation’s capital) is believed to be among the most eclectic cities in the world. The Aston Hotel Saigon is in District 1, which is unequivocally HCMC’s filthiest, also the most depraved, District.

…District 11 reminded me of a movie depiction of ‘Chinatown’, with its many fresh produce markets and its quaint aura; with its drying clothes in windows and its hanging sheets for no reason. Traffic in District 11 was much less hostile, which made sense given that the majority of the roads were narrow thoroughfares between buildings…

I recall flying over Ho Chi Minh City on the descent to Tan Son Nhat Airport – oblivious to the kind of unpleasantness that awaited me – peering out the plane window and noticing, firstly, the interminable flatness of the area – like the view of the Canterbury Plains from Mount Hutt Ski-field only for as far as you can see in all directions – and secondly, the dirty brown canal-like waterways that crossed the landscape and which, on account of the flatness didn’t appear to move at all – and renewed me wonder regarding just what the hell people are moaning about, regarding waterways, back in New Zealand – but thirdly and most pointedly, the way the houses in Ho Chi Minh City are built so close together – there would be no need for a homeowner to own a lawn mower, or in fact any outdoor maintenance equipment at all, when the only space around their house was 750mm paved walkways.

…Fetching another set of clothes – Mai had stepped down from her scooter the night before as the absolute height of glamour in her heels (given their typically small statures most Vietnamese women wear heels, even when driving their scooters) and adorned in the most heavenly garb – traditional Vietnamese attire of brightly coloured satin pants, a high-cut, long-sleeved, mid-length, fitting satin blouse of a similar brightness, with a kind of crocheted, full-length shawl (of a similar colour) draped over and hanging low, complementing the outfit’s elegance.

Dressed as such Mai then fastened to her face a light breathing mask, whipped over her luscious brown hair a tatty helmet and, this time with me as pillion, rode between houses and through front yards to come out on a main road (presumably we had left District 11), and the site of Mai’s weekend employment; while it didn’t appear much from the outside, once we had penetrated the façade the premises in question transformed into a dreamlike vista.

This supposed café – where Mai’s job, it turned out, seemed to involve standing in generally the same place, occasionally speaking into a microphone and exuding the officious aura of an exquisitely dressed bouncer – was vast. Upon entering, a customer was unable to avoid the light mist that seemed to pervade every corner of the establishment, and which was undoubtedly in use to provide moisture to the abundant plant-life that grew out of most every corner, most every place in this stunning outdoor area. (The ‘outdoor area’ was actually the majority of the café and, while this was in fact a gargantuan shop-like structure basically replicating the outdoors while in an indoor environment, it simply had a small roofed area over the main work zone and counter.) There were in fact multiple ‘work zones’ all throughout the premises, dotted around this amazing (indoor and entirely manmade) landscape. Ponds with freakishly large goldfish and well-positioned stepping stones (too close to walk naturally yet too far apart to take two at a time), also running streams to replenish these oddly tranquil (given where we were) café features were utterly mind-blowing.

I had agreed with Mai that I would wait around in the café the few hours while she worked, where we would then (blessedly) go out for a meal together.

Amid the serenity of that café, permitting myself to slip into an almost relaxed state I actually made the mistake of considering that my Vietnam fortunes might just have been shifting; if only I’d known how bad things were to truly become.

Four hours later, with a ravenous stomach but having been kept well-hydrated with diligent waitresses topping me up with bottomless glasses of iced tea (which I thought afterwards was perhaps not supposed to be bottomless, it was just that I had the benefit of knowing an influential café employee; but which I later realised, after attending a few Vietnamese cafes which served only liquid, iced tea receptacles are always bottomless in Vietnam), Mai had done her stint and together we rode to a ‘restaurant’ she knew…

It greatly impressed me how Vietnamese street-food vendors always seemed able, despite the suffocating heat, to keep their perishable food products (reasonably) cool and (presumably) sanitary.

…Comprising little more than a hand-built lean-to, food was cooked in the back of the ‘premises’ while customers ate out front. Despite being seated in the shade (atop more plastic children’s furniture), the heat was in sufferable; three fans whirred away on each wall creating constant and unpredictable wind gusts, which was good if one required a draught but awkward if one expected a piece of paper (such as a napkin) to remain in place. We ordered and I ended up eating the same meal that I just could not seem to avoid in Vietnam (much as I was certain I was selecting something different each time, it always ended up being the same bloody thing); we had drinks and, mainly through Google translate, we talked…

Ho Chi Minh City is in southern Vietnam thus very close to the equator; given the current heat I felt as though whatever District we were presently occupying was surely at the southernmost point of HCMC. At one point I ducked away to use the facilities (in Vietnam one does not look for ‘Toilet’ or ‘Restroom’, or even a translation of the two, one looks for ‘W.C.’ – I assumed Water Closet – then again struggles with gender distinction) and found myself entering an area not affected by cooling. Such was the ferocity of the heat it actually felt as though I was walking alongside a furnace or other such radiated heat source.

…We talked until my phone died, then tried to talk some more. The time had passed 4:00 p.m.; I reminded Mai that I needed to be back at the Aston before 5:30 p.m., as my tour group had our ‘welcome meeting’ at 6. I asked how long she thought the trip back would take; she estimated half an hour. She then decided that she ‘didn’t feel well enough’ to give me a ride back to the hotel, and again called for someone to pick me up.

I was left dejected, also mildly confused; although I felt I had been given sufficient clues to draw a reasonable conclusion. Her choice to avoid being seen under the behest of a White man was her call; besides, I wasn’t about to mess with hundreds of years of Viet custom.

The man came, I jumped onboard, Mai waved goodbye, and that was that. In fact I was too jaded to give a damn what happened (although this flippancy would soon turn out a foolish stance to be upholding.)

Careering through some of Ho Chi Minh City’s busiest streets at the busiest time of day was an eye-opening experience. I saw countless scantily attired, gorgeous women riding on the backs of scooters driven by their, comparatively heavily dressed, men. I saw women riding scooters alone, I saw women riding pillion to other woman drivers, then I even saw a five-person Vietnamese family balanced on the back of one of these tiny motorbikes – dad drives, mum sits fourth supporting daughter (third), who holds baby (second), while the son (fifth) clings to mum’s back for dear life, and all five wear their little blue face masks – including the baby.

The tooting was incessant; it is usual in HCMC for a driver to approach an intersection intermittently sounding his horn, supposedly, to ensure he is noticed (along with every other motorist on the road). Balanced on the back of my driver’s undersized motorcycle, hands at my sides as I was, I was intrigued to become a part of a stream of traffic – at times five abreast with other vehicles – meeting at an junction with another two, three, or sometimes even four similar streams of potentially intersecting traffic, all beeping their horns, all just walking their bikes – idling their cars – forward; not ever stopping, just moving forward slowly…

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City always moves; however much traffic there is, a driver will always find a way through. These drivers are constantly vigilant – every motorcycle operator I saw was riding (in the very same way in fact that I ride my mountain bike on the streets) with two fingers draped over the brake lever – they are always ready to stop in a hurry. Perhaps it was on account of this – because of the way the ‘unexpected’ is in fact the most expected outcome, also that everyone goes generally at the same pace – that I witnessed zero traffic incidents the whole time I was in Vietnam.

…As I paid the scooter driver, I noticed, similar to the night before, how the streets were becoming busier with street vendors and particularly, prostitutes. I noticed furthermore, as I opened my wallet in order to pay the driver, how it worked almost like a magnet, and how I suddenly had eyes from metres around all honing in on me, on my wallet; I suddenly had advances, offers and propositions…

I am only human; I am but a male. Please remember these points before judging my future actions.

…The only thing I knew for certain, the only thing that was absolutely real at that time, was that I had a team meeting to make.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Ian Sane

Photography by Scooter Driver

 

Tim Walker’s Vietnam III

There was nothing of particular value in my bag, so that wasn’t an issue. It was the massive inconvenience, the violation of having my possessions under the control of an unwelcome party, that left me so very irate.

I eventually worked out – along with a handful of pale-skinned stragglers from various flights at Tan Son Nhat International Airport – that I had to register with the ‘Lost Baggage Inquiries’. I filled out a form for a Vietnamese man who, despite scarcely being able to speak English himself, complained about the illegibility of my writing then told me, in his finest broken English, “When your bag is ready, it would be sent to the Aston Hotel Saigon.”

I peered at the man querulously. “Why not just get it for me now?” I demanded.

“It will be sent to your hotel,” he said again.

“But you know where it is … I mean I’ve just spent over two hours searching for it … It turned up on an earlier flight, probably spent a few hours doing laps of baggage claim, before your guys claimed it … You know where it is, I’ve filled out your form, why not just give it to me now?”

“It will be sent to your hotel, sir.”

“But I’m not even going to be at that hotel tomorrow … You lot have it … Find my luggage now.” I fought the eruption of rage inside me.

The man glanced at my form and said simply, “Aston Hotel Saigon.”

“So what do I do when my bags turn up at the ‘Aston Hotel Saigon’ the day after I’ve left the Aston Hotel Saigon?”

“You go hotel,” the man pointed to the airport exit.

“Yeah, about that,” I riffled through my Flight Centre Travel Wallet and pulled out the appropriate documentation, “I had someone arranged to pick me up – over six and a half hours ago – where do you think they will be now?”

The man shook his head and pointed toward the exit.

I shook my head and walked toward the exit.

The doors opened and I was hit with the searing residue of a thousand fan heaters; also the noise. Outside was a maelstrom of people holding signs with other people’s names, people holding signs with names of companies; people yelling for their long lost companions, and people who I’m sure were just yelling for the sheer love of making noise.

I stepped into the throng, this cavernous walkway disappearing amid two pulsating masses of Asian faces, peering at the signs, the faces, searching for anything resembling anything helpful. I walked this gauntlet a number of times using my newly acquired, rather basic knowledge of the Vietnamese language to both ingratiate myself, and to downplay offers of transportation, or otherwise – “Sin loi … Khom, khom,” (as it sounds rather than how it’s spelt, essentially meant) ‘Sorry … No, no.’

As I walked, above the ambient cacophony I was trying to think; surely I should call someone – someone with Intrepid perhaps..?

But then, I thought soberly (along with the logic that can only come from a 24 hour stint of awakedness), it’s not their fault I’m late – seems like it’s hardly fair of me to pull them back almost seven hours after their scheduled pick-up, which I missed..?

I walked clear of the throbbing horde and stopped, trying to shut out the noise, the heat, and just trying to think. I checked my phone; according to the time displayed, it had little idea what it was doing either. I considered dialling someone – but whom? I decided on one more pass through the gauntlet. If I could find an Intrepid logo, maybe they could put me right.

Shit. I panicked. Where was my bag? I realised I’d been walking without it for a while now and…

Ah yes, I almost chuckled. ‘Where is my bag?’ indeed.

…I then saw an Asian man holding an Intrepid sign. My heart fluttered. I approached. I then saw the handwritten name beneath ‘Intrepid’. It wasn’t my name. Nevertheless this was the biggest break I’d had. I pushed through the crowd toward the man. His expression was bemused, as he inquired if I was the name on his card. I confirmed that I was not. He started to move away. I pulled him back. “I’m looking for my driver … With Intrepid,” I said, hopefully.

The man shook his head and made to move away again; I stopped him. “Sir, please, I had organised a ride from Ho Chi Minh Airport, to the Aston Hotel Saigon…”

The man looked at me in confusion.

“I need to get to the Aston Hotel Saigon … I am with Intrepid…”

Suddenly there was a voice behind me: “Aston Hotel Saigon … Intrepid, Intrepid!”

I turned to face an excited Vietnamese man.

“Aston Hotel,” he said again, “I take you … Intrepid!”

“Are you my man?” I asked, doubtfully, but really too tired to care.

“Intrepid, I take you, Aston Hotel … Intrepid!” He pointed to his car, which in hindsight I should have taken the time to view properly (Intrepid provided a list of reputable taxi companies and a few minutes later, I would find myself strongly doubting that this man’s company was among them).

“So you are my man, with Intrepid..?”

“Intrepid … Intrepid!”

This repetition did little to boost my confidence in the man but, far as I could tell, he was a legitimate taxi driver. “Alright,” I said resignedly, heading towards his waiting chariot, pulling out my receipt showing payment for transportation from Tan Son Nhat International Airport to the Aston Hotel Saigon.

The Vietnamese man opened the boot and studied at me curiously. “No luggage..?”

“Your fucking country stole my fucking luggage,” I said simply.

I took a seat in the back and leaned forward with my receipt, trying to point out the ‘payment’ portion.

“Where you go?” the man asked suddenly.

I slumped back in the seat, defeated. “Please, just take me to the Aston Hotel, Saigon.”

The car started moving.

I leaned forward again, indicating on my receipt: “You are aware, sir, this trip has already been paid in full.”

The man muttered something I did not understand, then tapped a small card at the base of his centre console.

I leaned closer; it appeared to be a payment schedule.

He lifted it for me to see properly, underlining one line in particular with his thumbnail: ‘Aston Hotel Saigon – 70.000VND’

“No,” I said. “Like I said, I have already paid.”

“You pay,” said the delightful Viet.

“I am not paying, I have already paid.”

“You pay now – you pay me.”

Previously on the precipice of toppling, I now happily lunged over: “I am not paying you, you are a thieving prick … I have already paid Intrepid!”

The driver hit the brakes; it used all my strength to not end up beside him in the front. He turned to me. We locked eyes momentarily. He pointed to the passenger door and shrieked something that must have resembled ‘Get out!’

I was furious. “I am not getting out!” I thrust the Intrepid receipt in his face and pointed to the address. “You will take me here! Do it! Now!”

The man turned to the front and the taxi started moving again; I passed over seven 10.000 dong notes. “Thank you,” I said meekly.

The taxi came to a halt at the end of a street. The driver turned to me furiously: “Seven hundred dong,” he said.

I gazed out the window at the dereliction that lay before me. I felt as though I was in a cheap horror movie, and actually decided that it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up sleeping on the street tonight.

I was drenched in my own perspiration. My head throbbed. My entire body vibrated as my nervous system staged a revolt; I was aware that I was swaying back and forward like a drunkard. I snapped into reality: “Seven hundred..?” I queried calmly. “The fare was seventy … I paid that.”

“Seven hundred!”

“No,” I intoned, sitting back in the seat and feeling my head brush the hood-lining.

“You pay now, seven hundred,” the little man glared at me with a kind of hatred that I couldn’t imagine was strongly promoted by Vietnam’s hospitality sector.

Embracing my newfound calmness I pointed to the receipt and asked, “Are we even here?”

“You pay, I take you.”

I sat up quickly, now beyond furious. I brought my face close to the driver’s wide eyed stare, and in a voice louder than I have ever used indoors, clearly articulated, “You will take me to the Aston Hotel Saigon, and you will take me there now!” With that I sat back and started peeling from my wallet hundred dong notes and throwing them onto his passenger seat: “One hundred thousand … Two hundred thousand … Three hundred thousand…”

Meanwhile the little Vietnamese man was experiencing veritable fits of rage.

“…Four hundred thousand … Oh you’d better start driving, you spineless piece of shit, because if I get to seven hundred and we’re not at the Aston, I am going to choke the fucking life out of you.”

Evidently the majority of Vietnamese taxi drivers speak much better English than they let on, because once I hit ‘five hundred’ he started driving across town very quickly. I waited until I saw the ‘Aston Hotel Saigon’ banner before throwing down the seventh hundred then leaned forward to collect my initial payment of 70.000 from the centre console, to find it mysteriously vanished. “Get out!” (I assume) he screamed; which I did.

Gripping my hand luggage I stormed across the road toward the hotel, amid the stench of poorly tuned engines and the discord of overused horns, before thinking, I really should have grabbed some water from those street vendors…

I turned, glancing left and right, briefly assessing the flow of traffic. (‘Flow’ is an odd word for it; while I was indeed prepared for traffic in Vietnam to travel on the right, what I was not so prepared to see was, at a busy time of day, the way it moved on both sides of the road, and in whichever direction.)

…Stepping around a slab of broken concrete (debris was everywhere up and down the street, and in fact I recall noting how reminiscent it was of Christchurch’s Manchester Street the day after), I placed my foot back into the gutter, looking to the right, trying to judge which way traffic was primarily flowing at this point. Suddenly there was a toot directly behind me. I reflexively stepped back; in doing so inadvertently raising my left arm. I felt hard contact on my left wrist and saw my watch go flying five metres down the road…

I recall glancing down in confusion and seeing looking up at me the angry little Asian face of the man I had just impeded, as he whizzed by on his scooter.

…Disregarding everything else, gripped by this new kind of indignation cum fury, I threw myself out into the middle of the pulsating street, grabbed my broken watch, and in two more powerful strides was amid the rubble of the other sidewalk. I glanced down at my expensive timepiece; now with a broken pin.

“I fix! I fix!” From nowhere appeared a short dark man, looking up at me with expectant eyes. “I fix! I fix!” he yelled again and, before I had time to withdraw my hand, snatched the watch away. He disappeared down the street just as the hotel porter appeared beside me. With a slim, shapeless physique and hair cut short, she could have been an attractive young woman, or he could have been a handsome young man; I wasn’t sure which. Many Asian folk have this ability.

The nametag said ‘Fine’; I was unsure if this was a man’s name, a woman’s name, or an assessment of the person’s overall well-being.

He/She put his/her arm around me and offered me a cigarette. (Every man in Vietnam smokes; also some women.) I was past caring. I took the cigarette, muttering, “Kahm urn.” (‘Thank you.’) Fine tried to lead me back over the road. I resisted, citing my need for fluids. I turned to the first street vendor I saw. He looked at me, unspeaking.

“Nuok..?” I glanced down at the water.

He pushed the bottle towards me.

“Bough new tien?” I asked.

“Twenty.”

I nodded, bending down to place two 10.000 dong notes on the children’s play-table table then picking up the water.

“Forty,” the man interjected.

Hit with another explosion of rage, with forcible calmness I pushed the water bottle back towards the man, retrieved my notes, looked this street vendor in the eye and said simply, “Get fucked.”

I walked/stumbled ten metres down to the next one who, having witnessed my prior exchange, was only too happy to sell me a bottle of water for the typical, 20.000 dong. After trying to remove the safety seal, then the cap, then both at once, then trying to screw the entire top off the bottle – then finally handing it to Fine for assistance and being vividly reminded of the benefit of dextrous fingers – I bit the bottle-neck in my teeth, threw back my head and took a very messy gulp, past caring about anyone or anything. I stumbled back to my start-point navigating stacks of bricks, piles of broken concrete, heaps of sand and other assorted construction/destruction materials. I was seething. Fine looked up at me, as if concerned about what I might do next. Just then the dark man returned with my watch. I gazed upon the excited character in disbelief.

“One-twenty,” he demanded, offering the repaired timepiece.

I was shocked. He could have sold that watch for much more than 120.000 dong. I pulled out my wallet. “One-twenty..?” I confirmed.

The man nodded eagerly.

I handed him a 100.000 and a 20.000 dong note, said “Thank you,” and reached forward to take my watch.

“One-forty,” taking my money, he stepped back.

In a furious surge I grabbed my watch, thrust a forefinger between this street vendor’s eyes then in as loud a voice as I could muster, bellowed, “FUCK YOU!”

The man took a step back, smiled and extended his right hand.

Shaking my head I did shake his hand, adding, “You are a filthy little prick.”

I checked the time; I had been in Vietnam only a few hours and I felt as though it had already robbed me of 20 years of life.

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Rip A Shuss

Photography by Con Mann