Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXVIII

Ho Chi Minh City District 1 comprises intersections, massive junctions where maybe six roads, each with up to six lanes of traffic meet; yet all that traffic, defying belief, never has to stop.

With so many vehicles, so many motorists having slowed to walking pace (I am aware I touched on this phenomenon in last year’s Chronicles but this time there is a different point, so please bear with), the motorcyclists – who, across HCMC, outnumber cars by at least eight to one – take their feet from the foot-pegs and – sometimes wearing jandals, sometimes wearing sandals, sometimes stiletto heels or other ridiculously impractical style of motorcycle-riding footwear – in order to maintain balance while creeping forward, a rider hovers or lightly drags their feet over the road as they virtually walk forward with their bikes between their legs. The problem they encounter, with such dense traffic and so many nimble motorcycles weaving their way over the road – usually with a leg dangling out each side and seldom wearing any kind of protective covering – is that when all those lumbering vehicles are forced to tighten up to squeeze through an egress (perhaps between two particularly widely spaced – but  of course still moving – cars), it becomes very easy for a rider to misjudge/overlook another rider’s flailing foot/leg and collect it with their, for example, own bike’s frame/foot-peg; this may result in the dragging of the other rider’s foot or leg under that passing bike’s frame or foot-peg, the subsequent skinning of that foot or leg, the crushing of that bone, along with the spraining or the outright breaking of that ankle.

Few Vietnamese citizens are likely to have health insurance, and, as most consider themselves retirees, I would speculate even fewer expats; ultimately for the unfortunate people suffering the above affliction, ordinarily, professional healthcare is not even considered meaning wounds are never sterilised, fractures and sprains are never splinted, and breaks are never set. The bigger problem though, even if hospitalisation had been undertaken as an option, the likelihood is, the outcome would not be any better…

During my final week, staying at the Yen Trang, I spoke with a middle-aged Kiwi expat who, although Robbo ran his business out of, thus currently resided in, HCMC, he did make regular trips back to his Whanganui home in New Zealand. Robbo told the story – once directly to me and three times more that I overheard – about a cut that he sustained to his left thigh while in Vietnam some time ago. As he told it, in the beginning it wasn’t a bad gash, but it soon became infected, and this is when things became disastrous; apparently it was only once the wound had begun to stink that he had sought medical attention. Here he was told he had gangrene and the only option was for the Vietnamese Healthcare System to amputate the limb; unsurprisingly Robbo had demanded a second opinion. Rotting from the outside in, he flew home to New Zealand and presently checked into a hospital in Whanganui. The competent Kiwi healthcare professionals immediately set to work dressing, medicating and essentially remedying his problem.

…This, as I earlier mentioned that I would, has explained the alarming frequency around Ho Chi Minh City, as told by a ‘dep chi’ taxi driver on the way to my second dental appointment, of (usually young) adults limping, hobbling, or walking with some form of assistance. There are plenty of other reasons for adult lameness, too, across Vietnam – birth defect, infected bug bite, polio, other injury – but the majority, are most probably victims of the aforementioned, very common, motorcycle mishap.

Reportedly the amputation incident happened to Robbo around a year earlier, and although he does have a horrendous scar (on the limb that, thanks to the competency of the NZHS, he still has), he is currently in possession of both his legs on which he walks no differently to most other portly Kiwi males.

 

One overcast day, from the PC at the Pink Tulip, it was nearing midday when I spontaneously asked Mai if she’d like to join me for lunch; she replied that she would ‘love to’ but as it was starting to rain, she might have been a little late (far as I knew she was also in District 1 and while I had detected the odd spot of moisture, I wouldn’t have considered it influential). I glanced out the Pink Tulip’s large glass doors to see, as is customary with the commencement of precipitation, every commercial outlet in the vicinity was frantically starting to bring in their chairs and tables, their advertising racks, brochure stands and/or other produce…

As with ‘Tropical’ countries (situated between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south), rather than the four seasons experienced by much of the world, these countries undergo just two seasons – a ‘wet’ season and a ‘dry’ season; yet with no ‘icy southerly blast’ or ‘chilling easterly wind’, as I am accustomed to feeling on the east coast of New Zealand – in fact not much air movement in the least – all year round, the Vietnam heat is intense. The rain though, when it comes, it comes in deluges; great hunks of water tumble from the sky like nothing you’ve ever seen – unless maybe you’ve lived in the Hokitika gorge – where, even for someone like me who claims to ‘not be bothered by rain’, conditions rapidly become insufferable. To step outside at the height of a classic Ho Chi Minh downpour/deluge/diluvium one’s clothing will become immediately saturated and, such becomes the water/air ratio, one may actually have difficulty breathing; that is correct, you might literally drown on your feet outdoors.

…Perhaps ten minutes later, once the shower is over and everything exposed to the rain has been washed clean (mind you, all that residue and stink only ends up clogging the gutters therefore they’re really no further ahead), chairs, tables, racks, stands and displays are returned to their places, then out come the brooms and the rags; even though this is likely only brief respite before the next downpour the diligent female staff set to work sweeping water out of entranceways and alcoves, wiping walls and window panes – including spotlessly cleaning every exposed window in the premises – now covered with grime and mud spatter from the driving rain.

I had contacted Mai before 11 a.m. then, from the comparative shelter of the Pink Tulip porch, from midday I waited for Mai; in fairness rain did fall at times between 12 and 1 p.m., so I wasn’t terribly surprised that she didn’t show up. After 1 o’clock though I ducked back inside for a Facebook update; around half an hour earlier she had pointed out again that it was raining and had asked if I still wanted her to come…

This was typical of Ho Chi Minh women, they seemed to require constant assurance that they should continue doing something or simply, they would stop doing it (in the days to come, I will encounter a situation where my oversight of this fact, that Vietnamese women require these constant updates, means that I miss the opportunity of a lifetime).

…’Yes Mai, I’m still waiting here for you,’ I had replied.

‘So sorry I be there soon. I running late,’ she had said.

While sitting on the Pink Tulip porch I found myself in regular discussion with the cheery folk from the hotel opposite – in fact this is where I first became acquainted with a Dutchman named Hubert – and, during these intermittent showers/deluges, rather than calling a few words at a time across the road, I would excitedly skip over the road for a more intimate discussion. There was a sleepy middle-aged woman, Nga, who all day, not unlike most Viet males, seemed to just sit outside this business, doing nothing in particular; achieving nothing in particular, other than to periodically engage in conversation the occasional passing local or – in rare cases – tourist. The time passed 2 p.m.; I went back inside the Pink Tulip foyer for a Facebook update.

‘On my way now,’ was the first, from half an hour prior.

‘It raining again,’ was the next, from two minutes after the first.

‘Are you wait for me,’ had been sent two minutes after that.

‘Do still want me for lunch’ had been sent two minutes after that.

‘Yes Mai,’ I replied, ‘I am still wait for you, as I have been wait for you for the past two hours.’

‘Yes Mai, I do want you for lunch, as I wanted you for lunch two hours ago.’

‘How far away do you stay from the Pink Tulip hotel on Bui Vien?’ I asked.

‘Not far,’ she replied, ‘Very close.’

‘Do you have lunch,’ she asked (a question which, incidentally, since becoming acquainted with Mai over a year ago, I had become all too familiar with hearing; she had a real ‘motherly’ instinct about her and was constantly inquiring into my well-being).

‘No Mai,’ I responded with frustration, ‘I have been waiting to have lunch with you.’

‘It raining,’ she said.

I looked outside; it was raining, but just barely.

I skipped over the road for another chat with Nga and Hubert, to find a lean, middle-aged Australian man had since joined their party.

I briefly explained my current predicament, my intentions and my aspirations, adding that I had been awaiting this woman’s arrival now for over two hours; this sent the Australian into uproar. “You bin waitin’ ova two bleddy ours for a Goddamn wumman…?!” he tactfully inquired. “Matey, you muss be the wurl’s biggess sucka – I neva wayed for no Sheela for inny longar in tan bleddy minniss!”

“Hm,” I considered before offering a rebuttal, “you’re probably quite right to maintain that stance, too … I mean I’ve yet to meet any Australasian women who was of the standard, of the essence, of the immense quality, of these fine Asian women.”

This sent the Aussie into further uproar; between fits of laughter he blurted the question, “You sayin’ thez summin wrong wit our girls, are ya?”

“Sir,” I chuckled at the irony, “let me assure you, there is certainly nothing more wrong with your girls in Australia, than there is wrong with our girls in New Zealand.”

The third uproar was definitely the best one, “You’re a cheeky bugger, entcha,” he called to my back, as I made my way back to my seat on the Pink Tulip porch.

By the time Mai showed up the time was almost 4 p.m. and, subsisting for the past hours only on café sua da and whatever nutrients I could extract from the air around me, I was ravenous. I gave a brief welcome then directed her down a few doors to the Oasis – where I had been assuring the youthful doorman, Stronghold (I never did catch his Viet name although I thought ‘Stronghold’ was an awesome title, and of course I told him as much), all afternoon that I intended to be bringing a lady there for lunch – only to have Mai veto my decision and insist that I climbed onto the back of her motorbike. Therefore, with one final rueful glance in Stronghold’s direction Mai and I puttered away on her little scooter.

We ended up eating at a busy street-food restaurant a little way down the road but, such was my hunger (along with the exacerbation of my bodily tremors that this causes), even my two-handed chopstick technique was failing me. At one point, Mai looked at me with concern, “You … Schtuggling,” she queried.

I raised my head and smiled; she was a typical solicitous Vietnamese woman. “I’m fine, thanks Mai.”

“Use this,” she handed me a spoon.

Noodles and deep Vietnamese spoons don’t go; I’d have rather had the chopsticks.

Mai looked into my eyes, “You get hurt,” she said simply, compassionately.

My mind whirred; could she see the residual black eye behind my glasses or the gash which had by now healed so well it was practically indistinguishable (thank you Nhan Tam mystery dentist for your tub of miracle salve), or had she heard something through the HCMC Hotline – she had been the one to make contact with me, after all.

She leaned forward then used two hands to remove my thick frames, more closely inspecting the dirty brown residue of subcutaneously congealed blood; her eyes darted to the left – to my right cheekbone. “When this happen?” she asked, possibly unnecessarily.

“Over a week ago – it’s fine.”

“I sorry.”

“Like I said, Mai, it’s fine … There’s no trouble.”

“OK,” she sat back. “You like, I show you Vietnam.”

After I had wolfed down as much of the meat substance and packed away as much of the nondescript greenery as I could manage, Mai took me on a tour of HCMC District 1; allowing me to conclude, while you might see more on foot you certainly don’t see as much.

We stopped, inner city, bought glorious Vietnamese smoothies then sat in the dusk, amid a horde of Viet youth, and chatted, in a delightful mix of Vietnamese and English. We drank our drinks, then Mai’s phone beeped; she promptly delved into its realms and was lost therein for the next while. I glanced up and saw the three females of the Viet cohort looking on with dismay and confusion – ’Why does this attractive Vietnamese lady, having found herself a nice Englishman, spend all her time looking in her phone?’ – they seemed to be asking.

Mai dropped me at the end of Bui Vien Street (not the main one or the other one, but the other one). I walked inside the Pink Tulip foyer, looked around; looked at my wristwatch, spun around and walked back onto the street.

I wanted to see Noobie; I was going to Crazy Girls.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by B Sotted Foole

Photography by Wai Nut Mai

 

 

Tim Walker’s Back

There were four Jims in a one kilometre radius of the house in which Prudence happily languished.

She knew one of these Jims owned a gymnasium, Prudence just wasn’t sure which one.

Prudence maintained though, there was only one gym where she could go for a strenuous workout, with refreshments after and ultimately, that would give her a premium service.

Ordinarily a passionate, sometimes even an angry, woman, for over a month now, Scarlett had been feeling blue.

Red, Scarlett’s partner, had always reckoned the two of them were an inseparable duo, so similar they were in every way.

All that had changed though when Scarlett had become depressed and started having relations with Blue Payne.

Although they were brothers, Red Payne very much doubted his ability to outshine the vivacious Blue; so vibrant and warm was his younger sibling.

When Scarlett had discovered that her emotions were being treated with such colourful conduct, however, she reverted to seeing Red.

Scarlett had always been synonymous with rage.

Not flowers though; beauties like Lily always seemed to be gathered in bunches.

One fresh and fragrant day, tantalisingly close to Autumn, Constance had plucked a dozen of her favourite blooms for her younger sister, April.

April had a terrible cold and Constance very much hoped a lovely bunch of lilies might help her to feel better.

Lily was older now and required assistance to keep her property as immaculate as she liked, particularly for when she held tea parties with her friends.

Constance Gardener performed light groundskeeping duties in her spare time.

Lily and counterparts would form groups, small clusters then just stand idly around in the garden, soaking up the light of the day.

Constance was fortunate to have found twelve lilies in bloom so late in the season – she thought she could sense Autumn’s impending arrival and thought wistfully of her ailing sister, April – but was furthermore thankful that she was able to take the blooms without their rightful owner’s knowledge.

Lily Field though, soon came upon her patch of absentee flowers. She called in the nice girl who had been helping her with the garden, “Constance Gardener,” she began, “a constant source of happiness my garden is for me, yet you go and do this – what do you have to say for yourself, my dear?”

“I am terribly sorry, Ms Field,” said Constance, “I required the twelve lilies to give to my ill sister, April – she’s quite poorly, you know.”

“Sibling love,” replied Lily abrasively, “don’t much care for it – what’s the matter with the child, do tell?”

“She has a cold,” replied Constance.

“Hm,” Lily Field considered, “odd time of year to have a cold, April.”

 

‘To the Editor,

I take issue with the frequent and ongoing slaughter of our nation’s wild animals. This is a barbaric practice and it needs to be stopped.

Yours

Hunter Cleaver’

 

‘Dear Hunter,

Thank you for your concern. You are correct, this “barbaric practise”, as you eloquently worded it – although I feel “culling” or “herd management” would be the more appropriate term – is ongoing as it is a necessary institution across our country’s many thousands of rural, and largely unmanaged, hectares.

Yours

Betty Kilwell’

 

Late March April caught a cold. Early April April still had the virus. April Gardener is lucky enough to have an elder sister who cares deeply about her. That autumn Constance Gardener, April Gardener’s sister, trespassed onto the garden of Lily Field – during one of Lily’s famed tea parties, while Lily along with her guests, Gladdy, Rose, Pansy, Daffy, also Lily’s native friend, Hebe, stood oblivious – with the intention of acquiring a bunch of lilies for the benefit of her ill sister.

The man’s title was not Christian although nor was Sir his name, making a form of address obscure at best.

Mr Down was the principal at the local High School; only Mr Down’s close friends and wife were aware of the man’s full name.

Cliff Walker and Roma Hill had been paired for so long that their differences had become virtually non-existent.

Oh, how Mr Down despised his title. He often wondered, had his parents been trying to curse him when they had passed down the name ‘Ulysses’?

Layne Yard had trouble deciding if he was supposed to be long and narrow, or about three feet wide.

Worse than that though was his middle name. It wasn’t actually the name itself that was the issue, it was that, such was the unusual nature of ‘Ulysses’, many who knew him personally referred to the principal simply as U – ‘You’ – which should have been fine, except for the wretched fact that Ulysses’ middle name was Neil.

Matt House wasn’t much a fan of bright colours thus had no time for flowers.

The trouble didn’t stop there for Ulysses, either; You Neil Down’s Asian wife worked at the local supermarket, owned by a Mr Power. Mr Down’s wife had the name Thao – ‘Towel’ – thus was frequently being instructed, over the supermarket intercom: ‘Requesting Towel Down, please, Towel Down, please, is needed in the beverage aisle, now please’.

Matt’s dour view on all things colourful was a constant source astonishment for his superior, Mr Power, who had had, and very much loved, his very own lily field now for years.

Iona Black was a little upset as, among other things, her fiancée, Matt, wouldn’t allow flowers at their wedding.

More disconcertingly was that Iona’s rental property, currently occupied by a wealthy supermarket owner (reportedly with a lily field), was soon to become unoccupied as the tenant planned to move in with his long-time partner.

Matt House could understand his fiancée’s displeasure and, shirking convention, had gone so far as to offer to take Iona’s name, rather than the other way around.

Similarly, Maximus Power, the supermarket owner, was aware that his girlfriend was attached to her surname and, at her age, was doubting that she was ever likely to become ‘Lily Power’.

Matt recalled with a grin, the time his boss had requested a word with two of his employees – he and Thao – how Mr Power had unthinkingly remonstrated with them both, ‘Towel Down, Matt House, your appearance is not befitting of our supermarket’s image – I need you to clean up your acts and, oh, Towel Down, please, I cannot believe you turned up to work in damp clothes’.

Around April, Constance Gardener arranged a bouquet of flowers for the wedding of Matt House and Iona Black, much, she was informed, to the chagrin of the bridegroom, Matt.

Iona had just begun to check the telephone book for a lily field then decided that she was much more likely to find one on Google Maps.

Lily Field (she was adamant she never would become a Lily Power) had since apologised to her casual groundskeeper, Constance Gardener, and allowed her to take as many flowers as she wished from Lily’s field.

April was to be the wedding of Matt and Iona.

Constance decided she no longer wanted to be a gardener.

April was the month April’s dozen lilies shed their petals.

The wedding was not without upset; Red and Blue Payne showed up, uninvited, bringing with them the irascible Scarlett.

One of Iona’s friends, Prudence, was there, and wouldn’t stop bragging about the way she’d been trying out all the gyms in town.

A woman named Betty Kilwell gate-crashed proceedings, using a .308 to shoot one of Matt’s eco-warrior buddies, Hunter Cleaver.

Ulysses arrived with wife Thao and together drinks went down.

Constance Gardener was there as well, with her sister April, and although Autumn was late, pedestal fans were on Max Power, as it turned out the man also owned a Smiths City chain.

While flowers were abundant, there was no sign of any Lily Field.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Mit Reklaw

Edited again by Tim Walker

Published by Mit Reklaw

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXVII

The issue, I believe, with the concept of First World men looking to Southeast Asia in the hope of capitalising on its countless beautiful women is that, as many desirable women as there are in, for example, Vietnam, the likelihood is, nowadays they are being outnumbered by this plethora of Western suitors with the intention of taking them off the market.

Maybe going back thirty years, back to when there was something less commonplace about the notion of a White man taking an Asian bride, there may well have been more available Vietnamese women than there were Western men (I hesitate to use the term ‘single’ when referring to these Western men, as I was recently made aware of a number of Lin’s US suitors already having wives and who likely, were just looking to increase belt notches with a cute little Asian girl young enough to be their goddamned daughter) on the hunt for an Asian bride but nowadays, this is less likely to be the case.

The result of this, I believe – and probably much of the reason these women are so very unreliable in their ability to keep personal appointments – is that any one Vietnamese woman (as 90 percent of them seem to be let’s just say she’s slim, attractive, aged between 25 and 35) at any one time may, and indeed quite likely might, have (again, still only speculating based on what I experienced) any number of Western men on the go.

During my stay at the Pink Tulip, among the different people, among the various nationalities I encountered, there is one Dutch character in particular (no, not Annie but good guess) who stuck in my mind; ‘Oobit’ (I’m guessing the English pronunciation is ‘Hubert’) was a lanky, long-haired dude of around my own age, who dressed, spoke and acted as though there should have been a surfboard under his arm at all times with a tub of Sex Wax in his other hand. While his Netherlands accent was certainly pronounced, he did have a good grasp on both (schooled) English and (self-taught) Vietnamese; a few years back Oobit had fallen in love with and married a Vietnamese woman from Buon Me Thuot then, along with his wife’s seven-year-old son, they had built a house and settled into a nearby township in the Vietnamese countryside. Oobit was in HCMC District 1 (according to what he had told his wife) for a dentist appointment, (yet according to what Annie had told me, it was for something decidedly more recreational) and was returning to Buon Me Thuot in a few days’ time. He was an exuberant character, full of positivity and vigour, and even he – particularly he – could empathise with my situation; “My friend,” he said to me, sitting in the shade, outside on the Pink Tulip hotel porch, one morning over glasses of café sua da, “Vietnamese women,” holding up both hands to show his five fingers on each, “beautiful women, ten out of ten … Vietnamese women, good women,” with hands still held in front of his face he now folded nine of his digits, “one out of ten.”

I chuckled, nodding knowingly. “So, what, you found that one in ten?”

Oobit laughed, his thick accent discernible even through his laughter, “Oh, no, my friend, no, I would still be looking … No, my wife is from Buon Me Thuot … Vietnamese women different in the countryside.”

My eyes widened in recognition, “Oh, I know a woman from Buon Me Thuot – name’s Lin.”

It was Oobit’s turn now to give a knowing nod, “Ah, bet Lin speaks good English, too…?”

“I guess she does, yeah – why would you say that?”

“Further inland you go, the bigger focus on English … Girls from the farming districts, what are they going to do? They go find work in a city or they find a White husband to keep her.”

“Like Lin,” I murmured distastefully, I thought, inaudibly.

His smile grew wider, “She’s the one you want, my friend, hold onto her … Lin will do you well.”

While I appreciated Oobit’s sentiment, I understood he might have misconstrued my musings; for obvious reasons I had reservations about ‘holding onto’ Lin. “I dunno man,” I spoke thoughtfully, “I mean, there are complications, and sure, she’s from Buon Me Thuot, but for the past year she’s been living and working out of District Six.” (I recall as I spoke, casting a thumb leftward, in the general direction of where I suspected District 6 might have been located.)

“District Six,” Oobit muttered, his face becoming intense, “haven’t been there – what does she do?”

“Oh, she’s some kind of, ah, healthcare consultant, I believe.”

Oobit nodded; suddenly his expression lifted in realisation. “She’s not the eldest daughter, by any chance, is she?”

“I think she is, yeah … In fact, yes, she definitely is.”

His smile grew again. “Aha, and you know about eldest daughters in Vietnamese families, don’t you?”

I went cold; it felt as though Oobit was going to drop on me some massive ‘familial sexual abuse’ bombshell or something. “Go on…?” I said with trepidation…

Much of the reason I went back to Vietnam, and certainly the reason that this time I decided to embark on such a prolonged stay, was essentially for this; to meet/befriend locals/expats then to develop relationships of such familiarity and trust that these people felt able to talk to me about reality, without having to filter their speech. The thing I noticed last year, particularly in Hoi An, it was as though Vietnamese locals had a tongue they used when speaking to friends and other locals, and a tongue which they reserved for tourists; it was a happy tongue, a carefree, joyous, ebullient, a sycophantic tongue but ultimately, it was a fake tongue. Thus, I had come back this time with the intention of developing genuine relationships and engendering familiarity to the point where I was not just given that horribly obsequious ‘tourist tongue’. Oobit was one character with whom I managed to develop such a relationship, Annie was also one and, among others, once she realises that I am beyond the point of ‘just another tourist scam’, Mai will become another; the things I learned (will come to learn) from these kinds of people, who have been in Vietnam for long enough to see it go through a number of significant changes, was (and will be) more enriching than reading any recent history book, or listening to any tour guide’s rendition of ‘the facts as they want you to understand them’. These people will impart knowledge of reality, and of events as they happened or sometimes even, as they experienced them.

…“You know that most Vietnamese men don’t work, don’t you?”

“Huh, well, looking around, I was getting that idea, yes – how does that work though … I mean, how do they earn money – what do they do all day?”

“It’s the women, my friend, the wives work … The men drink coffee.”

“That doesn’t make sense … In New Zealand, for example, the man works and, if she chooses, sure, it’s the woman who is less likely to work.”

Oobit nodded with that big affable grin. “That’s normal, my friend, that’s life – in life women are the breeders, men are the workers – but in Ho Chi Minh City also, do you know, many women don’t want to work.”

“I thought Ho Chi Minh City was where women came to work…?”

This inquiry was met with uproarious laughter. “My friend, do you call, lying on your back, while a sweating, stinking White man stabs you with his giant pork sword, working?”

I smiled and stifled laughter at the image (I found myself very much taken with Oobit’s humour – his steady, calm and calculated speech, yet razor-sharp mind – the man was brilliant). “Honestly bud,” I spoke with a hint of irony, “I wouldn’t know, but they seem to think it is – they’re getting paid for it, anyway.”

“That’s it,” Oobit clapped his hands, “that’s all an eldest daughter wants, is to get paid … She doesn’t care what she does, she just wants to get paid … She will fuck for it, she will suck for it, she will scam, con, swindle and thieve for it … But work for it, not so much.”

“What do these ‘eldest daughters’ have against an honest day’s work?”

“Ah, you see, they want too much – much, much more than a normal job can pay them.”

“Like, how much?”

“These women, they’re greedy … See, a farming family would get by easy on five million a month, but these girls, they ask for more like twenty.”

“Yeah but, who pays that, I mean, who do they ask?”

“White suckers – you, me, any other tourist – we’re all rich to these women, and these women, they just want to get paid.”

I just sat there, thinking of every woman I had met so far in HCMC, inwardly choking.

Oobit concluded, “My friend, the eldest daughters you meet in Ho Chi Minh City, they have their family to look after – they don’t care what they do, they just want to get paid.” He paused to brush back his hair then dragged deeply on his Marlboro (along with other imported tobacco brands, these cost 30.0000VND – 2NZD, although the cheapest cigarettes are local – Thang Long ‘Thum Lohm’ – and cost only 10 dong – under $1). “Oh, and here’s a trick,” Oobit grinned deviously, “if you ever have to pay a Vietnamese, and if you say, ‘I can give you one million now, or five million in a week’s time’, they will always take the million now … It’s like they can’t see the future – they’re all about the now.”…

Vietnamese women tend to be very much responsive to tourist advances and in fact (unlike the majority of Kiwi women who will usually either ‘be busy’, ‘be not interested’, ‘have a partner’ or be just plain nasty about the whole thing), in Ho Chi Minh City at least, most women appear only too pleased to indulge a male’s request for company; most were willing to give out phone numbers or Instagram accounts (which, I feel if I’d had any way of making either of these forums work for me things might’ve been quite different) while many are even willing to take a few minutes out of their day, take a seat at a nearby coffee shop and enjoy a beverage (likely making them late for another appointment which merely corroborates my earlier point).

…“What did you mean though, ‘women here don’t want to work’ – I mean, far as I can see, Oobit, this city’s run by women.”

The lanky Dutchman smiled broadly, “It may look that way, yes, but actually Ho Chi Minh is run by families … The wife always is the boss, but the whole family is really the owner,” Oobit pointed over the road at various hotels in turn, indicating that they were owned by different families.

“What about this one,” I observed, “I mean, is Annie not the owner of the Pink Tulip?”

“He is part owner, and he manages it, but that’s all … Did you know, no foreigner can own any, ah, how is it, any, place – any premises, in Vietnam.”

“What about your house – or does that rule not apply in the countryside?”

Oobit chuckled. “My friend, the house where I live in Buon Me Thuot, my wife’s house, that took almost three years just to get the permits to build there.”

“Shit man,” I mumbled, “that’s worse bureaucracy than we have in New Zealand.”

“No bureaucracy my friend, it’s simple – they don’t want me to live there.”

“What, in Buon Me Thuot or, in Vietnam in general?”

“I’m a White,” Oobit stared into my eyes soberly, “Vietnamese Government, and probably most people in Vietnam, they don’t like us – they don’t want us here.”

I sat stunned, thinking of all the Viet people I had met and had, supposedly, befriended – I couldn’t accept what I was hearing – was it all a lie? “Are you serious?” I queried incredulously. “Are you meaning ‘European’ White though, ‘English speaking’ White, or just ‘White’ in general?”

“For Vietnamese Government, it’s general – English, Euro, Western, whatever you want to call us, we’re White, they don’t want us here … Remember the Vietnam War?”

“Technically,” I shot back with a grin, “while you’re here it’s the American War, but, yes, of course, I am familiar.”

“Mm, then you might have also heard about how Vietnamese, how Asian people, are very big on pride, and retribution.”

“Yes, that’s very interesting … I often wondered about the Vietnamese feeling toward US folk, you know, given their history – they appear to treat them well enough though.”

“Don’t believe everything you see in Vietnam, Tim,” Oobit lowered his tone, “it’s not always reality.”

I smiled at the notion. “Still, you seem to be doing alright.”

“They couldn’t stop my wife and me building a house in Buon Me Thuot, anyway.”

“Nice one,” I gave an affirming nod.

“Oh geez,” Oobit looked at his watch in sudden panic, “wow man, I gotta get to the dentist.” With that he stood up and pranced away, giving a wave over his shoulder as he went. “Talk soon, my friend,” he called from the seat of his motorbike (and ‘talk soon’ we would, further exploring this apparent Vietnamese distaste for Western society).

Regarding the earlier paragraph, once a ‘coffee-date’ is over (still I am unsure if this constitutes an actual ‘date’), if I was lucky, I was able to organise another, official, rendezvous (for which, if I was even luckier, she would turn up on time or even just at all); alternatively (and I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this is ‘lucky’ or a form of entrapment), on completion of our tryst she might place her hand over mine and seductively propose that I give her two million dong ($160), so we can go back to my hotel room for some ‘exciting fun’.

As I discovered, Vietnam very well might be renowned as one of the world’s cheapest tourist destinations but, one has first to get the hell out of Ho Chi Minh City.

The place is toxic.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Si Tin Fon

Photography by Etta Price

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXVI

The value system of most Southeast Asian women can be summarised in this simple formula: Sex is Money and Money is Love.

Before anyone judges just think; realistically this philosophy is no different to what we advocate in the Western world – much as I suspect most of us would never admit to such a thing – it’s just a simplified version.

On the other hand, in my quest to experience Vietnam I walked longer and farther than I ever had done, usually returning as a sweaty, exhausted, shell of my earlier self; I wanted to see more of Ho Chi Minh City and while I was aware there were probably less strenuous ways of getting around, walking afforded me the ability to see, smell, meet, and sample the ways of these exotic southern Vietnamese streets.

In New Zealand – also I’m sure around much of the developed world – we see ‘Love’ as support, care, protection, and nurture; all these wonderful constituents of Love though, in the long term, they all require Money, and of course the more money one has, the more able one is to administer these ‘constituents of Love’, thus Money is essentially Love. Furthermore, realistically, most Western men, at least initially, would not stay with a woman and agree to provide for her all these glorious constituents of Love – which we recently established is tantamount to Money – without the assurance of Sex; thus, by implication, Sex is Money too. (To look at it another way: for as long as men have been hopelessly controlled by their lust for a beautiful woman, there have always been women prepared to exploit this desire in return for money therefore again, Sex is tantamount to Money.)

In District 10, the locale of Nhan Tam Dental Clinic, the atmosphere is vastly different to District 1. The primary disparity is the physical atmosphere; District 10 HCMC is significantly less polluted than District 1. Secondarily is the overall feel of the place; less pressure, less urgency, less hostility, less tooting – fewer vehicles, fewer people and less commotion in general. There were still banh mi vendors (blessedly) on the side of the road and most of them (extra blessedly) sold café sua da, but the best thing (even more extra blessedly), during my time in District 10 nobody tried to sell me anything; simply, I approached them voluntarily, they accepted my custom graciously, and I left happily.

Outside the overwhelming Vietnamese penchant for procreation, sex, generally, chiefly, is not an act undertaken for the purpose of enjoyment; it’s something that, predominantly, is used, by women, as a tool, simply, to make Money. Sex to a Viet woman is not particularly sacred or taboo, it does not have to be special or involve a great deal of emotion, nor does it need to be monumental or in fact even the least bit meaningful; it’s just a damned good way for that woman to make money. A Vietnamese prostitute (who, incidentally, may have begun her career as a teenager after, potentially, becoming the victim of sexual assault, perhaps, at the hands of her own family member/s and/or, possibly, their friend/s), for example, will return home with the Money she has been paid in exchange for Sex then show Love to her significant other, by sharing with him that Money. Men in Vietnam, as previously explained, typically, don’t work but instead have a woman who Loves and (for some reason) worships them enough to buy them the things they need and basically, provide them with enough of this Money to propagate an existence.

While many women do work legitimate jobs (prostitution in Vietnam being, technically, illegal), as already mentioned, in Ho Chi Minh City District 1, for the right price, most Vietnamese women will become anything the man with the money wants them to be.

In my quest to meet a nice Vietnamese woman – feeling as though I’d already met my share of skulduggerous ones hence my decision that locating women on the bar scene was not for me – I was not above approaching and, implementing my decidedly basic Viet tongue (which ironically, despite its simplicity, these Viet women seemed to find rather endearing), attempting to strike up a (decidedly basic) conversation. Much of the time though, after politely waiting for me to finish crudely mincing their language’s words, with a grin the Viet woman might interject; for example – “Ah, I have, ah … Some, Engleesh…?” – and in wonderfully broken English we might converse.

The problem I encountered though, was that so often, upon meeting this ‘nice’ woman then perhaps inviting her to join me for coffee it was then her who, perceiving dollar signs all over the youthful White male sitting across from her, would in fact attempt to turn the conversation salacious in the hope of initiating a carnal expedition; of course I was aware, by this stage, of the ‘wholesome Buddhist, four date philosophy’ thus found it perplexing to be invited back to my hotel room for ‘exciting fun’ (or if she was particularly forward, ‘boom-boom’), after only one coffee date. This game that pretty Viet women seemed to enjoy playing with White folk was moreover frustrating when I knew that my intentions (at this point anyway) were good, yet it was she who was trying to bring our budding relationship into premature disrepute.

Mai though, Mai admitted to not being an ‘eldest daughter’ therefore really had no need to be money-hungry; as is the Vietnamese (or perhaps Southeast Asian) way though, acquiring money through unscrupulous channels seems to be in their blood.

When I met her (last year’s Chronicles), evidently, Mai had casual work at a glorious District 6 café as well as, apparently, some other ‘health and beauty’ work; as I understood it, she was a wholesome Buddhist woman driven by love for her family, but not an eldest daughter. I recall last year, sitting in the dingy little café/bar situated under the Aston, being served by hotel porter Fine, slurping through a straw a glass of Jimbean as I made my farewells to Mai – shortly before our tour group were scheduled to head up country where we, a little under three weeks later, planned to fly out of Hanoi – she appeared to become suddenly anxious, as if realising that her plans (perhaps to screw me out of money) hadn’t been executed, or that she hadn’t had enough of an influence on me to ensure that I remained in contact with her (to perhaps try to later screw me out of money). Whatever the reason, on that occasion, she suddenly rushed away to the female WC, to reappear just minutes later having showered and undergone a complete change of ensemble; she had gone from donning her wonderfully elegant traditional Viet garb (last year’s Chronicles) – which I admittedly had found quite arousing – to wearing a sleek black and tastefully but wonderfully short dress along with a pair of stunning 4 Inch heels – which I definitely had found quite arousing. We sat closely for a short while and talked about nothing substantial before Mai blurted (with her limited grasp on English and strong Viet accent), “Need money … My grandma sick.”

I didn’t know what to think; I almost laughed. “Are you serious?” I was in disbelief, “You’re hitting me with the ‘sick grandma’ line…?!”

Looking at me now with a face of (manifestly disingenuous) despondence, nodding, she added, “She very sick.”

“Well shit Mai,” I spoke with levity, “my grandma’s sick too, matter of fact she’s been sick for over a year.”

“Oh,” Mai lowered her head, perhaps realising that the time to swindle me out of my dollars had passed.

Thinking of it, I’m just recalling, at that time, last year, downstairs in the Aston bar, before she had mentioned her grandmother but after she had transformed herself into the sleek goddess in black, I was becoming frustrated, exasperated with her; she appeared to want something but wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell me what it was. This of course was not aided by her very basic English skills but I recall, at one point, she seemed unwilling to let me depart; she had just changed her attire and I had had the sudden thought, ‘Oh wow, she’s actually trying to impress me, she must really want something’, yet despite best efforts, I could not work out what it was that she wanted from me. All she was doing was sitting closely to me, hugging into me as though I was her saviour and making a concerted effort to look sad, all the while dressed like a classy Asian prostitute.

What was I to do? In my frustration at not being able to understand what she wanted from me, why she wouldn’t let me leave, I took the initiative…

It ought to be noted, for those of you thinking, ‘Go on, dick, she wants you to be a man, she wants you to make a move on her’, I can assure you, this is not what she wanted.

…I grabbed her by the butt, pulled her in and tried to kiss her; she writhed in my grasp and pushed herself back with the words, “No … Not want.”

This left me confused and more frustrated; I was about to just stand and leave but had one last thought. I removed my wallet, took out a 500 dong note and said, “What, you want this?”

I recall she had just looked at me with pining eyes.

It ought to be noted though, I didn’t feel at all sorry for her; she was annoying me to the point of insanity. An observer might have concluded as much but there was no way she had developed genuine feelings for me either; we had only met a few days earlier. I withdrew another 500. “What, you want more?”

Still, she had just looked at me.

As I recall I had become extremely agitated; she appeared to have suddenly relinquished any ability to reciprocate verbal communication and it was making me mad with frustration.

Mai refused to take my money yet had still appeared to want something from me; twelve months ago, I didn’t ever find out what she wanted although twelve months on, I now had the opportunity to meet her again and see where things went.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Sax Money

Photography by Minnie Love

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXV

Think it was my eighth night in Vietnam, eighth night a Crazy Girls, I accidentally choked out that American dude, therefore it mustn’t have been until night nine, through my recently accessed Facebook page on the PC at the Pink Tulip, that I finally contacted Lin.

Infatuated as I was with Noobie, ‘woman of my dreams’ as she assuredly was (and if you find that hard to believe, hear this: after only three nights of her pleading with me to shave off over three years’ of prized chin-tickler growth – from bottom of lip to bottom of chin – I did it, for her), I had come to realise that she was only going to care about me as long as I continued to spend a lot of money on her, at her bar; a revelation which did not bode terribly well for a bright future together in the New Zealand countryside.

Realistically though the ‘Lin’ thing was no more promising; while we had been in contact for over twelve months, shortly before I made the journey to Vietnam in the hope of meeting, and hopefully being with her, she had made some admissions…

The incident with – as I recall we labelled the portly American – ‘Craig’, was so stupid it was comical; as documented in a previously instalment Craig had been seated outside watching, among other things, me play pool with a few of the Crazy Girls bargirls and, based on my dress also my ostensible connection with these Crazy Girls employees, he had assumed, naturally, that I was something more than just another patron. I had gone along with his perceived eminence and, without ever having to technically mislead him regarding his assumption, Craig and I had begun chatting; from there it had taken only a moment to realise that the American was, as we call it in New Zealand, a ‘blowhard’. He made certain that I was informed of just about his every accomplishment, achievement, or other embellishment to date then, with the WWE Smackdown playing on the bar television, it was not altogether shocking that we started discussing combative artforms; as a point of interest, after some time I slid into the yarn that I was an active member of a jiu-jitsu club in New Zealand, where of course Craig did his best to one-up me by revealing that he used to compete in MMA (I felt at that point it might have been too much of me to mention that I was a competitor in my sport also and, in fact at my last tournament, had managed to come away with bronze).

…Lin had been good enough to reveal, after over twelve months of communications, and after plans were almost underway for my second trip to Vietnam that, because at the time she ‘didn’t know if I was serious about her’ and she ‘wasn’t so sure about us anyway’, she had been holding communications with other, older (shit she was only 25 herself; where I felt our ten year gap was perhaps excessive, seemingly she didn’t think it was enough), American – not just man – me­n

Being the tough guy that Craig seemed ever-hopeful of portraying himself as being – corpulent middle-aged drunkard that he outwardly was – he wanted me to demonstrate my rear-naked choke on him. This should have been fine, I do it most nights of the week, for God’s sake; it’s not a dangerous manoeuvre if you’re careful with it and you know what you’re doing. As previously documented (I believe, Vietnam XVI), stepping in behind Craig I had carefully set up the choke, for the dozenth time reminding him to ‘tap out’ when the pressure grew too much.

…Apparently things hadn’t gone so smoothly between Lin and her entourage of middle-aged US kiddie-fiddlers and, while I was still in New Zealand, she had begun lobbying for my sympathy vote, apologetically playing the role of the ‘confused little damsel with the world against her’; additionally though, not only had she been ‘conversing’ with these middle-aged American men over the past 12 months – during which time she and I were supposed to have been developing our own relationship – according to her admission she had been meeting, and even engaging in relations with, a number of these older men. (Cough.) That was fine, whatever, I could overlook, I could live with that; while my time had obviously meant little to her, I felt as though I had put in a great deal of effort to our, albeit online, relationship – it’s a typical gamblers mentality but ‘I had invested too much, there was no way I was just walking away now’…

My left elbow aligned with Craig’s chin, back of my right hand forcing forward his skull, using the pressure of the crook of my left arm I gradually closed off his carotid arteries at the base of his neck. Suddenly though things went awry. I felt Craig slipping off his stool and beginning to disappear under the table in front of him. The portly American’s otherwise floppy physique had gone totally limp. Immediately releasing the choke pressure and now using the crook of my left arm just to hold him atop his stool, I glanced leftwards and saw dead eyes. Exerting every muscle of my wiry frame I pushed, pulled and balanced Craig’s mighty deadweight until finally I felt strength returning to his limbs; “You alright, big guy?” I asked, relieved and annoyed at the same time.

Craig stared into space, disorientated; at that point I became intuitively aware of every person at Crazy Girls staring at us.

“You didn’t tap out, bud,” I chuckled, forcing good-humour, “I told you to tap out when it got too bad.”

“Wha you doo?!” One of the more authoritative bargirls, Lona, was angrily slapping my right shoulder, “You leh him go, I see, he do nothing to you … I see!”

“Hey, hey,” Craig’s raspy voice came to life, as he leaned to his right across the table. “This guy,” thrusting a thumb into my chest, “he’s my friend.”

Lona stepped back, looking confused.

“It’s alright,” Craig continued defusing the ordeal, addressing the concerned bargirl. “Thank you for your help, sweetheart, it’s fine … I’m fine, thank you.”

“You sure you’re good?” I asked, giving him a pat on the shoulder.

“Yeah, I’m good, thanks … Hey, it was a good choke.”

“I know it’s a good choke, that’s why you’re supposed to tap out before you go out,” I reminded him in scornful jest.

“Yeah, sorry about that, it came on so gentle, you know, then boom,” Craig slapped his hands for effect.

“That’s the idea,” I nodded, inclining right to put my arm around the recently arrived Noobie.

“It was a good choke, man,” Craig said again as he sipped his beer.

“Thanks bud,” I replied, relieved; appreciating that things might have turned out a lot worse.

“You craaazy,” Noobie looked up at me, grinning wildly.

“Wasn’t my fault,” I argued half-heartedly, “he didn’t tap out.”

“You craaazy boy.”

“Ah, you love my crazy.”

…I contacted Lin on Facebook from the Pink Tulip earlier that evening; while my facial swelling had all but gone down I was now harbouring, beneath the rims of my glasses, the residue of a black eye and as for the slit cheekbone – that gory, gaping fish mouth – it had miraculously pulled itself together (I attribute my good fortune in that regard to Nhan Tam’s unknown dentist with his mystery pot of brown salve) leaving behind barely a mark. I was now left to wonder though, admittedly with mild disappointment, if I would even be left with a ‘Vietnam keepsake’ (what good’s taking a beating if you come away with nothing to show for it?). Turns out, in fact, I appeared so ‘normal’ that during the taxi ride to my second dental appointment, the driver – the same driver who would later explain the prevalence of Vietnamese lower leg injury – a good looking Vietnamese man himself who, without prompting, in fact complimented me on my appearance – said that I was ‘dep chi’ (handsome); I told him, “That’s funny, Sir, I was just thinking how you were very much ‘dep chi’ yourself”, and just like that I felt as though I had made a friend for life – a happily married friend, thank you very much.

Although still technically a resident of the Bali B, as I was spending most of my time in and around the Pink Tulip it was from there that Lin and I began our first date. It was nice; we had a light meal at ‘the Oasis’, on Bui Vien, a strangely verdant family café/bar/restaurant with a swimming pool situated in the middle (patrons sat on a tier around the pool area, in an elevated position so they may view the water), where I drank scotch and she drank coconut water (yet still I swear, Lin was still the more intoxicated of the two of us) and despite the omnipresent background volume, we did our best to talk. Being from the inland region of Buon Me Thuot, as is often the way with residents from this largely farming community, Lin’s English was reasonably good  although her Viet accent was very strongly pronounced; I took great pleasure from listening to her trying to wrap her delightful Vietnamese palate around sounds that simply didn’t exist in her language (for example, ‘shr’, ‘cl’, or ‘tr’)…

On that, when a Vietnamese person puts their finger to their lips in a request for silence, they make the most peculiar sound; rather than the ‘Sshhhhh’ that we assume is internationally familiar, in Vietnam it’s more like, ‘Tthhhhh’. The first time I heard it – Noobie was looking at me blankly, beseeching me to stop talking (‘I no unnerstaan!’) – I laughed out loud; I thought she was making a joke, or mocking, but no, naturally, a native Vietnamese mouth/tongue/palate is not equipped to make the ‘sh’ sound.

…Lin and I parted company then once again, I was left feeling somewhat dejected.

Now with Internet back on my side I was much less anxious about everything; my money woes were still bothering me although with online banking in my favour the issue was more easily managed. I had, perhaps foolishly, transferred some funds to bring my budget back on track the easy way and with that done, I decided to see about experiencing Vietnam, rather than focusing so much on trying to experience the women.

She was wonderful, and she was gorgeous, but Lin was clearly, unbelievably, inexplicably, infatuated with one of these ‘US father figures’ of hers; whatever the case, and although she had remarked that ‘I was more handsome in person than she had expected I would be’, she didn’t ever really ever seem ‘into’ our time together.

The next time I opened my Facebook account my memory was given a swift kick; Mai, the Viet woman I had met  last time I was in HCMC – in fact it was my very first night in Vietnam, drinking ‘Jimbean’ on the street outside the Aston Hotel (last year’s Chronicles) – who had been nice enough but had essentially inspired my feeling of uncertainty towards Vietnamese women in general, what with the fluctuations in her ability to speak/comprehend English and (clarity to this coming sentence will presently be given) because Mai was not the eldest daughter among her siblings of course she had to the one with the ‘sick grandma’…

With no superannuation in Vietnam it is expected that the eldest daughter in a Vietnamese family (crap, have I already mentioned this? Ah well, it’s probably worth noting again, anyway) is the one to support the parents through their older years thus these are likely to be the ones working the higher paying and, arguably, more demanding jobs, such as prostitution (a Vietnamese prostitute can bring in, in one day, as much, if not more than a woman working a regular job, such as store clerk, will make in an entire month), or a masseuse (which often, but not always, is simply a front for that ‘other’ career choice, although even if it’s not, by Vietnamese standards, it likely pays better than most other, ‘regular’ jobs); then there are the bargirls (also a very high-paid position because as well as their employer paying them a standard wage – presumably much the same as any other basic salary around HCMC – as I understand it bargirls take a commission of every ‘sale’ they make, hence their constant badgering – ‘You wan buy ring?’ – two drinks – 220.000VND, also ‘Shishaaaaa!’ – 350.000VND, or ‘Balloooon!’ – at Crazy Girls, ‘NOS Balloons’ – large condom-like balloons containing Nitrous Oxide – essentially laughing gas which, is a simply marvellous form of intoxication yet, like all great drugs, is ultimately deadly – 120.000VND).

…From what I have learned, at the time and thereafter, these so-called eldest daughters are not the kind of women a foreigner on the hunt for a sweet little Asian bride wants to be pursuing; these ladies have genuine need to earn more income than their siblings and generally are willing to do anything to achieve that target. From experience, these women, these Vietnamese ‘eldest daughters’, are money-hungry, rapacious, devious, deceitful, dishonest (but so often the most exquisite specimens you’ve seen in your life), lying, cheating, swindling, thieving and ultimately unscrupulous people…

According to what they each told me Lin was eldest daughter in her family, Vy was the eldest daughter in her family, Noobie was the eldest daughter in her family and, as it would happen, I think just about every damned woman I met in HCMC claimed to be the eldest bloody daughter in their family. Unbelievable as I found it at the time, sometime later looking at this supposed pattern from an objective viewpoint, I realised it does actually make some sense – for example, if an eldest daughter is born to a farming family in Buon Me Thuot (Lin), Pleiku (Noobie), or some other rural area in Vietnam where living costs are low and wages are even lower, it makes sense that in order to later provide for their family, they would jump on Vietnam’s tourism bandwagon, head on down to Ho Chi Minh City and capitalise on that valuable Western dollar.

…Mind you that’s only what I saw of them, and that was only in Ho Chi Minh City, predominantly in District 1; I’m sure some eldest daughters are honest – probably those ones who have already snared themselves a wealthy American husband to keep them in a manner of which they had never dreamed yet, curiously, the manner which they desire.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by El Dust Dotter

Photography by Mania Hing-Grey

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXIV

The following week was more of the same; the same oppressive heat, the same expensive bar, the same licentious women although there was a new, albeit it a very much homosexually orientated, hotel.

In the hope of getting around my communication troubles, during my last few days at the Bali B, I did attempt to enlist the services of this new-fangled Internet contraption, ideally via some sort of Personal Computer…

My time at the Pink Tulip hotel really was joyous; here I encountered and spoke to a multitude of travellers of various nationalities – also sexual orientation – and found increasingly that Vietnam is becoming a popular destination for retirees (example given: among others, Canadian Aiden from the Bui Vien coffee shop), or just people seeking a change in lifestyle (because Vietnam assuredly does offer that).

…Pleading with the Bali B receptionist – a slimy middle-aged man who only spoke English when it was convenient to him and whom, in fact, I swear just last year I had encountered working behind the bar of a cruise ship in Halong Bay (see last year’s Chronicles) – for use of a PC but seemingly, despite this wiry Viet’s ever-smiling face and stress-free voice indicative of ‘no worries’, I found myself continually running into a language impasse…

Unlike the Bali B, where I had stayed for around four days and never truly felt welcome, the Pink Tulip embraced my custom even from before my official date of residency; while still technically signed in at the Bali B where, incidentally, upon seeing their ‘We prefer cash payment’ sign I had naturally removed my wallet and paid them in cash – overlooking the fact that of course I had already given my debit card details when making the online reservation – the (only affable) receptionist had then instructed me, “No matter, you go online and cancel booking.”

…I found it perplexing that the Bali B claimed to not be able to assist with my computing requirements when, looking around the place, personal and laptop computers appeared to be everywhere; first there was the, sealed off and with frosted windows, greenhouse-looking but supposedly airconditioned, area towards the back of the lobby, composed of approximately twelve ‘business’ people and around twice that many PCs (yet who knows what kind of computing they did in there). There was also a table near the business greenhouse where staff often went to eat, and most of them brought out laptops when they sat; then there was the older and apparently disused computer and monitor resting on a sideboard also down that end of the lobby – I asked if they could fire up that one for me but no, again, they couldn’t help…

“Why not just cancel from your end?” I asked.

“Easier if you go online.”

“Yeah, problem with that, my phone” – taking out my Nokia Simplephone in demonstration – “doesn’t have Internet.”

“You, no have Smartphone?” asked the youthful receptionist.

“Correct, I no have Smartphone,” I again put forward my alternative.

Why, no have Smartphone?” his face was of disbelief.

“Oh sorry … I no have Smartphone because I don’t need Smartphone – I don’t want Smartphone, I don’t like Smartphone.”

The receptionist smiled as though I was making a joke that he didn’t quite get but was awaiting further explanation on the punchline.

“Also, I like buttons,” once more putting forward my Simplephone.

“No,” the receptionist’s smile becoming a chuckle as he spoke, “everybody has Smartphone – why you don’t have Smartphone?”

“Sure, in Vietnam, ‘everybody’ has Smartphone … In New Zealand, not everybody has Smartphone … Some people don’t like Smartphone, some people just want Simplephone, like this, like me.”

…Also, at the Bali B reception, behind the desk there were two computers; explicitly not for use by residents.

The confounded receptionist pointed behind him to somewhere over the road – over six lanes of constant traffic moving steadily beneath a palpable haze of unmoving pollution – to a location he seemingly thought I might encounter some technology; water bottle in hand I set off. Vietnam being what it is I was desperately fearful, having foolishly and unnecessarily paid my bill in cash rather than simply allowing the Bali B hotel to take the money directly from my account, that I would be double-charged and, given the progressively dire state of my bank account, I could scarcely afford for that eventuality…

I had reserved the first 14 days’ of HCMC accommodation online, before leaving New Zealand; the wonderful thing about booking accommodation in Vietnam (and perhaps other countries too, I wouldn’t know) online (using services such as Booking.com etc) is that they assured me that (typical of most Internet sites) despite their requiring my card details (as they do), I would not be charged until I arrived at my hotel so, providing I didn’t do anything stupid like try to pay the bill in person upon arrival, it’s a very accommodating system.

…Given I had been allowed to pay for the same hotel booking through two separate platforms, then as much as I had tried to convince the receptionist to either return my cash payment – which he refused to do – or to put a stop on the electronic payment – which he didn’t seem all that willing to do either, I was more than a smidgen concerned; whatever was going to happen I needed to find of way of keeping a regular check on my bank balance for the next while lest those slimy buggers (by whom I refer only to that underhanded and inherently unscrupulous portion of Vietnam’s populous, not the honest ones) have their way with me, again. Eventually I managed to cross the road without too much trouble although I was noticing that, compared to last year at least, road etiquette was shifting; last year, invariably across Ho Chi Minh City, if a pedestrian stood on one side of the road and waited for a gap in traffic (a ‘gap’ being basically any space between two vehicles of more than three metres) then stepped out and walked directly to the other side, without deviation in their speed or direction, they would make it. I was genuinely impressed, this time and last, by the Vietnamese ability to competently operate a motor vehicle, although mainly motorcycles, through precarious situations – sometimes while pulling aside a facemask to smoke a cigarette, usually while operating a telephone, SMS or GPS, and typically while overloaded with people, luggage, and/or implements – all the while remaining fully aware of the road ahead of them and able to perceive/anticipate a potential obstacle’s movements; in Vietnam this kind of constant alertness, also their ability to ‘read’ a situation and calculate prospective outcomes then react accordingly, with extreme efficiency, is the norm yet I guarantee if a sleepy New Zealand motorist tried this same level of multitasking on a road with even half the activity, a collision would take place almost immediately. Last year, as a pedestrian, I embraced this ‘pedestrian has the right of way’ style and used it with abandon yet this year, perhaps I was less confident or maybe I was more courteous but, I didn’t feel that same level of security in crossing the road. As it happened, not ten minutes after making my way across the road, on the search for technology, I realised it was a pointless search anyway, and started to make plans to come back…

The next hotel at which I would stay, the Pink Tulip on Bui Vien, did have a computer for use by customers and, as I would later discover, in fact it is expected in Vietnam that Internet be provided/offered/made available to every person (next to Buddha, in Vietnam, I believe Internet is God).

…As I rapidly crossed the umpteen lanes of traffic I was made aware, in the short time I had been in Vietnam, just how congested my respiratory system had become; sure, probably it had to do a little with the various pollutants that I was wilfully filtering into my lungs, but certainly it had to do with the abysmal air quality across HCMC’s District 1. I recall on the way over, stopping in Singapore with its crisp, clear, very warm but beautifully pristine air, then the transition as our plane landed just a few hours’ away in Tan Son Nhat airport; on stepping outside, my first tentative inhale of Ho Chi Minh City’s warm, fetid, sickly air just about pinned closed my nostrils (because, let’s not forget this is my second time here, I sure as hell wasn’t breathing that putrid substance unfiltered through my mouth – ugh, who knew where it’d been before me? – I’d likely end up catching Herpes Simplex, or worse) then with each subsequent breath whatever was in that air started giving the impression that it was depositing on the surface of my lungs, nasal filtration system notwithstanding, little by little, breath by breath, layer upon layer of lacquer-like Ho Chi Minh residue which I would later be responsible for somehow removing…

Although still checked into the Bali B I thought it would be prudent to go and have a look at, also see about the relative proximity of, my next hotel, the Pink Tulip. I had briefly had a look for it on days past – in fact it was on Monday night, shortly before I’d gone to ‘Nguyen’s bar’, just before I was ambushed by the Viet Cong – up the top of Bui Vien, just a few days ago; to no avail. What I hadn’t taken into consideration was Bui Vien’s silly little perpendicular offshoot (or as it will turn out, offshoots), but once I was made aware of this, there it was. The Pink Tulip hotel appeared homely, it looked welcoming, it seemed unpretentious; it was grand.

…Indeed, at the halfway point, two weeks into my tour of duty, just one day after leaving the Pink Tulip hotel – the day after what was, unequivocally, the greatest night of my life – shortly after checking into the Yen Trang hotel (situated on yet another perpendicular offshoot of Bui Vien Street, only one block over, running parallel with the Pink Tulip one) I would be struck down with a life-halting illness. So utterly congested I had become that, while my breathing wasn’t strictly impaired, I was light-headed, had become listless, devoid of appetite, and just felt weak all over; suffice to say the next two days were largely spent convalescing in my Yen Trang hotel room bed.

The brilliant thing about Yen Trang hotel customer protocol, unlike the others – Aston, Bali B, but perhaps not Pink Tulip, don’t really recall – at the Yen Trang, unless you come down to the hotel lobby and give reception your key, verbally requesting that you would like your room cleaned, they won’t try to enter your room; at the Aston, on two occasions (shit I was only there two nights, too…?), having gone to bed at 6 a.m., I recall being woken around midday by ‘(knock-knock) Housekeeping…?’ which is utterly ridiculous, yet I encountered the very same issue at the Bali B hotel. To iterate, at Yen Trang hotel – unless you come down to the hotel lobby and give reception your key, verbally requesting that you would like your room cleaned, they won’t try to enter your room – they do it right; so why cannot more hotels around HCMC implement this policy?

With perhaps the only functional air-conditioner remote in Ho Chi Minh City, from bed I attempted to moderate the room temperature according to my current state; I was hot – I could appreciate my liver was working overtime to cleanse my system – yet I was cold – I could feel my organs purging themselves of so many toxins leaving my body enervated. Despite a cool room though and plentiful fresh water – having learned my lesson, several times, about drinking from hotel toilets (see last year’s Chronicles; although this hasn’t prevented me from, at around the two week point, having already succumbed to a water-borne bacterium or two on two separate occasions), I had taken to boiling a kettle-full of water then allowing to cool and keeping a water bottle full to always have by my bedside, because the complimentary water (ordinarily two daily 500ml bottles) never is enough – I was dehydrating terribly; despite low perspiration and a plentiful magnesium intake as a consequence I could feel I was running disastrously low on minerals – nagging headaches coupled with horrendous foot cramps added to my overall feeling of misery.

Because self-medicating is the best kind of medicating (additionally by this point in my journey I had heard such horror stories about the slackness and overall incompetency of the Vietnamese Medical System, even if I had been the kind of person who ever ‘goes to the doctor’ for health concerns, there would have been no way I was going to involve the aforementioned  medical enterprise in my current malady) I turned to my suitcase, unzipped my ‘supplement’ pouch and went to work – also unlike Medical drugs where overdose is a possibility and side-effects an inevitability natural health supplements, when used properly, are side-effect free, safe and effective.

It was evening, yet I had zero inclination to head out. I administered myself one Men’s Multi, mainly for B vitamins to give my liver a kick (can’t live without your liver) but also with vitamin C, iron and magnesium, along with a multitude of other good stuff; then another supplement with some more vitamin C, also zinc, garlic and olive leaf extract, to boost immunity and fight the infection that I could by now feel had established in my chest.

Checking the air-conditioning was holding 16 degrees I pulled up my sheet and closed my eyes. This is where the madness truly began. As with any virus sleep was elusive and that infuriating state of subconsciousness, where a brain is adamant it’s awake but in fact is very lightly asleep, lasted for what felt like weeks; then you startle awake and wonder why it’s only been thirteen minutes since you last checked the time.

Vietnam flashbacks while still in Vietnam…? Is that even a real thing?

It was too cold. My skin was chilled, but I was so far from home – my clothes, my blankets – what was I supposed to do about it? I had to put up with it, that’s all there was to it. Endure it because you put yourself in this situation.

Eventually overcoming the mental battle, I forcibly dragged myself from under a flimsy veil of sleep. I really was cold; my skin was icy. Reaching over to the bedside cabinet I grabbed the air-cond remote and, in the semi-darkness using my braille skills, repeatedly pressed the ‘Temp Up’ button until I’d heard it to beep ten times. The cold air stopped gushing out and I ducked back under my sheet, to again slide beneath a film of sleep little more robust than the covering lying over me.

I’m cold again. There’s nothing else I can do though; I’ve already turned up the air-conditioning. What then? I dunno, maybe it’ll warm up by itself.

I’m still cold. This is awful. Why do they only give you one sheet in a room that supposedly maintains sixteen degrees Celsius? What’s that sound? It’s banging. Sounds like it’s in the stairwell. Must be workers. Sounds as though they’re repairing the skirting on the stairs. I noticed that was lifting on the way up. Must be morning then. Cold morning for Vietnam. That’s because the air-cond’s right down. Why not just turn off the air-conditioning then? Then it’ll be too hot. That’s better than being too cold. No, it’s not, it’s thirty degrees out there. Reckon it’s about three in here though. Give it a few minutes without air-cond, it’ll be thirty degrees in here too. Do it anyway, it won’t be so cold. What’s happening? What are you doing? It’s still cold in here. Did you turn off the air-conditioning? Did I? Did you? I think I did, although that might have been a dream. No, that’s right, I decided not to. What now then? It’s still cold in here; turn off the air-cond. Alright, I’ll get up, I need to urinate anyway. What’s happening? What’s going on now? Did you do it? Did I? I dunno. Is it warmer in here, or is it just me? Do you still need to urinate? What’s that soggy patch? Oh shit, really? Dude, are you that confused? Did you seriously urinate in bed? No, I can’t have, I still need to urinate. It must be sweat then. You sure sweat a lot for someone claiming to be cold. It’s not urine though, that’s good. Where’s the toilet? Same place it always is, I guess. At home, it’s just across the hall. No, in Vietnam. What? Stop it. This is Vietnam, isn’t it? What? Stop it. I’m in a Vietnam hotel room, aren’t I? What? Stop doing that. Where am I now? Aha, nice one, dick. You’re not even in Vietnam anymore. You came home weeks’ ago, your brain’s just screwing with you. Wake up, man, you’re at home. Get up, take a leak in a real toilet…

That’s amazing, the games a mind can play with a person. This kind of shit happened last time, waking in my own bed then panicking about nothing, thinking I’m still in Vietnam; thinking I’m being robbed, again. Huh. Why the hell did I go back, anyway? Waste of fucking time that was. Money too; ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s go back to Vietnam so we can be cheated, lied to and ultimately fucked over by women’. Hah, I can do that in New Zealand.

…What a relief though, to know I’m back home. God, that feels good. What a relief. Bloody cold, but. I’m at home again, guess that explains the temperature. Always cold in the winter in good ol’ N-Z.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Med K Teng

Photography by Reeve Urse Fishback

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXIII

Eternally untrusting now of Vietnamese taxi companies, I gratefully left it in the hands of the Bali B receptionist to organise my transportation across town; incidentally the receptionist who was on at that time of day was the only male staff member who didn’t make me feel uncomfortable.

Almost an hour’s travel, in this case, cost me under 140.000VND where, in the past, (see last year’s Chronicles) under half an hour’s travel cost me 700.000VND.

Before embarking on this recent Southeast Asian mission I had heard, and read, numerous negative reports about Vietnam’s dental clinics; word is they are unclean, unprofessional, and generally unsavoury, (as though those idiots had forgotten they’d travelled to a Third World nation to try and do their dental on the cheap) yet, I am very pleased to say, Nhan Tam Dental Clinic, and by implication every other dental practise across Ho Chi Minh City, is wonderful.

Sanitary, professional, efficient, courteous, competent; there was really nothing the good folk at Nhan Tam could have done to provide a better service…

I turned up, briefly explained my puffy-faced situation (which by then had gone down considerably anyway and to someone who didn’t know me – other than for the haphazardly affixed plaster beneath my right eye – I didn’t look a lot different; first thing in the morning seemed to be the worst time for puffiness anyway), they showed suitable shock and sympathy (which given they were two sycophantic women, this was not unexpected), I underwent a full-skull X-ray (which I felt would be beneficial also for showing anything untoward in or around my damaged cheekbone), where I was then taken to a consultation room to discuss my dentistry requirements. Seated across now from a large male dentist (legend had it this was Dr Nhan Tam himself) and his female assistant, on an amazing touchscreen ‘viewing desk’ (the entire desktop was a computer monitor reminiscent of the one on the wall in ‘Minority Report’ – or, I guess, the screen on a Smartphone, I wouldn’t know) they were able to see, mark, show, illustrate, move, zoom, highlight and even project, where and why my teeth needed attention. After over 20 years having not visited a dentist, I was shocked, only two cavities showed up; along with one tooth that required crowning due to structural erosion then there was the old favourite, a root canal (additionally, they would later conclude that as the second cavity was in a molar far at the back – a ‘wisdom tooth’ in fact – they’d be better off just extracting the sucker and be done with it; unlike New Zealand dentistry though where people sometimes elect for extraction over filling as the former is the cheaper option, in Vietnam, or at least, at Nhan Tam Dental Clinic, ‘Tooth Extraction’ costs 900.000VND – less than 100NZD – while a ‘Cavity’ costs only 400.000VND – under half the first, making ‘filling’ by far the cheaper option, still, I was keen as for my first ever tooth extraction). There is also a spot in my lower jaw where, some years ago, a tooth fell/rotted out; the dentist and his colleague took turns explaining to me how they intended to screw into the gap a ‘false root’ then fit that root with a single false tooth. However, as the procedure was to be time consuming and rather expensive and as the missing tooth isn’t something that ever even bothers me anyway, I instructed them to forego the tooth replacement and to just focus on bringing the existing teeth up to an adequate standard.

…To Nhan Tam’s massive credit they are extremely busy fixing the teeth of both locals and  foreigners thus, with so many people rushing around a heavily staffed reception, some administration/clerical shortcomings are to be expected; this might go some way to explaining how the pickup that had been organised for my second scheduled appointment (unbelievably Nhan Tam organised and covered the cost of all dentist-related travel involved), exactly one week after the first (the root canal required three separate sessions, each time with me occupying the dentist’s chair for approximately two hours – a total of six hours – and the whole thing still only cost around 130NZD), those travel plans went a smidgen awry. I had made the three minute walk back to the prior week’s pickup point at the Bali B (in fact I had since shifted to the Pink Tulip but with no easy way to inform the Nhan Tam staff of my movement this seemed the most straightforward option), had informed Bali B staff of my arrangement, was invited to sit in the Bali B lobby while I waited, yet over half an hour past my scheduled pickup time (thus under half an hour remaining until my appointment time), nobody had come for me. Frustrated, bordering on agitated, I asked Bali B reception to call the Nhan Tam hotline to inquire into this transport lapse. Well, it turned out that because they had been unable to contact me on my given number Nhan Tam Dental Clinic had gone ahead and simply cancelled my booking (despite my distinct recollection of explanation to a reception member during my last appointment of my phone’s inability to receive calls therefore how Nhan Tam reception shouldn’t bother trying to contact me to confirm the appointment but to just send the taxi regardless because I would definitely be there; seemingly though this message had been lost in translation)…

The first session was great; I had a gorgeous, English speaking, female dentist with an equally gorgeous, but not so much English, assistant and, although My Hanh’s (Me Hunn’s) drilling over the next two hours was constantly being impeded by my falling asleep in her chair and unwittingly relaxing my mouth, we connected wonderfully.

…That first day when I had strolled into Nhan Tam Dental Clinic, looking like a very low-impact car-crash victim, after briefly explaining my appearance then later, after I had sorted with reception the next appointment I had gone on to explain how they wouldn’t be able to contact me as my phone was acting retarded – in that its ability to make and receive calls had been somewhat retarded – where the staff member had responded with a solicitous face, “Oh, no, you must wan call home…?”

“I really should call home, yes but, I don’t know, guess I might have to buy a Vietnamese phone.”

“Oh no, you have number? You may call here.”

“Really? You’d let me make an international call with your company phone?”

“Phone here, yes.” She scurried away and returned a moment later with a cordless landline handset. From my (otherwise useless but for telling the time) phone, which I for some reason insisted on taking with me everywhere, I recited my sister’s number, where the highly efficient Vietnamese woman added the international digits then handed me the phone. I couldn’t believe it, it was ringing; this place was brilliant – they were taking care of my every need…

Taking care of me also was a dentist of around my own age who, on that first day, with a few Nhan Tam staff away to the side chattering amongst themselves – no doubt about the idiot Englishman who had fallen afoul of a gang of whacked-out Vietnamese street-kids – had approached the chair where I was lying somnolently; without so much as an introduction (and as this man will turn out to be unrelated to my case in any way – other than to say, this man’s actions may just be the reason I managed to avoid life-threatening infection as well as any significant facial scarring – this is sadly the last you will hear of his character), carefully removed my plaster, momentarily assessed the wound, muttered what sounded like a few (Vietnamese) words of disbelief (or possibly expletives), applied some thick brown salve to my cheekbone, affixed a nice new plaster and left.

…It occurred to me later that, of course, dentists are doctors too.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by A Voit-Taxi

Photography Den Tuss/Doc Thar

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXII

Flipping on my hat and slipping on my frames I turned, and I walked.

Despite the street having become packed with revellers, not one person stood in my way. Bloodied and empowered to them I was a madman; to me I was simply a man with a mission. Realistically I had only one thing on my mind – I wanted to see Noobie.

I made it to Crazy Girls and still without speaking to anyone, took a seat under the night sky. A very short and rather chubby but impossibly cute bargirl, My (Me), sidled up on my left. Holding up the drinks menu, little chipmunk-face with large eyes screwed into her typically surprised/shocked semblance, with a finger under ‘Johnnie Walker Black Label’ – which I noted, despite being aged for several more years thus being of a higher quality, was the very same price as ‘Johnnie Walker Red Label’ (potentially the same bottle too) – “You wan riiing?” My inquired, while performing the international blowjob gesture.

“Sure,” I gave a brief nod.

“Tiiiiiiiiiiim!” Above the ambient bedlam I heard Noobie clip-clopping her way across the bar floor to my right; suddenly the footsteps fell silent.

I raised my head and turned. Noobie was standing around five metres back from where I sat, partially obscured by darkness, staring at me with a horrified expression.

She tentatively made her approach, coming to a halt a half metre from my side. Mouth agape she slowly raised a hand to the slit in my cheekbone; I instinctively drew back. “I wan help,” she said quietly.

I gazed into Noobie’s eyes and saw genuine concern. “It’s fine,” I said flippantly.

“It not fine,” she made another attempt at touching the wound; this time I allowed it.

“Hurt?” she asked tenderly.

“Yes,” I answered honestly.

“I wan help … Let me clean.”

“It’s fine,” I said with a dismissive wave, “sit with me, have a drink.”

For the record, that was the first time I had offered to buy Noobie a drink – it was the first time I’d had to – yet for once the prospect of ‘moneeeey’ didn’t seem to lift her spirits. She appeared sad, or guilty, as though she felt somehow responsible for what had happened to me…

It wasn’t a concept that I had even bothered to entertain but of course, she was a young woman and the Viet Cong had been young men; the likelihood is she knew every one of the delinquents involved (as I thought later, the outrageously good-looking ‘petty-thief’ might have even been her brother) which gave clarity to the fact that the prominent emotion I saw in Noobie’s despondent gaze, was in fact one of guilt.

…I noticed, as I sat describing to whomever was listening the sensational turn of events that had just befallen me (in my currently amped state I recall uttering such regrettable phrases  as, ‘This is Vietnam baby, it’s a fucking warzone out there’, and suchlike), Noobie quietly went to work refitting my salvaged lenses into their frames. I had to admire her concentration and perseverance with the finicky task; like most Viet people she was very skilful with her hands and it was only about ten minutes later that she held the repaired glasses up for me. “This enough?” she asked in a complaisant manner.

I was impressed; it almost felt as though she was trying to make up for something.

“Thank you,” I responded, turning to look deeply into her eyes.

“I think I broke…” she was apologetic as she pulled back the glasses and showed me, on the top left corner of the right lens a small sliver of glass had been chipped.

“No,” I smiled as much as I could without evoking searing pain, “Noobie it’s fine, that happened at the glasses shop, in New Zealand, before I even received them … Thank you, you’re wonderful.”

Noobie grinned and bounced on her stool then became abruptly serious as she leaned into me, “Let me clean,” she said again, gently touching my face.

Conceding finally that I wasn’t above letting a gorgeous woman wipe gore from my skin, I stood and followed the woman of my dreams to the Crazy Girls restroom…

The Crazy Girls restroom/bathroom/toilet/WC (see last year’s Chronicles) has a saloon-style, chest-high, swinging door (which swings awkwardly on one hinge), where a male patron can walk in, try in vain to lock the wonky door, soon give up on that, then turn abruptly left to use the urinal; a female patron can enter via the same door, sometimes noticing that a male has entered before her but failed to securely lock the door yet can push past this urinating male to the cubicle at the end, where she is able to then relieve herself in peace. There is a hand basin below a mirror situated between the two stations, with no way to dry hands but, for use by both males and females.

…Cautiously, tenderly – lowering my stance so she could reach my face – Noobie spent some time moistening then blotting the sticky blood from my face and neck. I turned, for the first time seeing my wound in the mirror, and at that moment felt greater respect for her than I ever had. The stomach Noobie had shown to not only remove the clotted blood from one side of my face, to carefully dab in and around an open wound which, now I looked at it, although only about 20 millimetres in length, running horizontally, the skin on either side of the cut gaped open giving the vulgar impression of a toothless fish’s mouth and regarding depth, well, it appeared to go all the way through. Upon seeing the gash close-up, I wasn’t terribly surprised it had bled the way it had (as I surveyed the damage, I watched a thin line of weeping blood – plasma – trickle over my cheek), and wondered to myself, albeit briefly, what severity of facial wound would in fact constitute medical stitches…

Incidentally the Vietnamese Medical industry, around the world but particularly in Vietnam, conversely to their Dental industry, does not enjoy such a scintillating reputation. This probably relates to the fact that, while Vietnam is theoretically, technically, currently under socialist governance (much like NZ), which typically provides for its citizens free healthcare, free education and cost-free other basic human requirements, Ho Chi Minh City and indeed the whole of Vietnam, has adopted very much a (as previously noted) ‘cash only’ society thus the process of taxation can be easily overlooked; cash money comes over the counter, cash money is distributed to employees, cash money is then used to buy in more stock, cash money is used to pay business expenses, then seemingly cash money leftover is pocketed.

…I turned back to Noobie to see her holding out an unwrapped sticking plaster, ready to cover up any signs of damage. “I stick?” she asked in her most adorable of voices…

Without taxes there is no way a Government can provide substantial healthcare for its citizens and while I can almost understand the fact that the likes of street vendors don’t pay tax (also presumably their superiors; because apparently they do all work for someone), even in big business, for example, the Bali B hotel, there is a sign on the front desk ‘We prefer payments in cash’, which I have to assume is an effort to conduct operations (at least largely) free from the ‘oppression’ of Government taxes. More shockingly still, at the Nhan Tam Dental Clinic (and although I have yet to visit this place so far in my journey I assume this is a policy maintained by all dental clinics across HCMC, not just Nhan Tam) they actually offer a discounted rate to cash-paying customers; a fact that I only learned after I had already attended, and paid for, multiple visits – given I made no secret that I was only ever going to pay cash this ‘incentive’ needed never be spoken or, in all likelihood, even deducted from my fee – and even then this ‘tax avoidance’ theory of mine was not constructed until much later.

…Ah, what the hell, I thought, bending at the knees again.

It was after watching a female receptionist carefully fashioning a roll of – not unlike the massive roll of receipt paper one might see at an old school supermarket till – 500 dong notes, rubber banding it then neatly slipping the roll into a drawer, that I suspected something at this fully operational, highly technical, totally professional therefore of course utterly law-abiding, dentistry business might have been amiss. At the time, before I had been made aware that they ‘preferred’ cash payment, I had naturally assumed this ‘cash-rolling’ was simply the clinic’s way of dealing with the residue of its cash-paying clients; upon realising, however, this was their ideal method of dealing with finances I soon guessed why it was their ‘ideal’ method thus began to ask the question, ‘So who the hell under Vietnam’s Socialist Government rule does pay taxes?’ …

On my final night in Vietnam I spoke with a couple of Indian travellers – Adam and Juniper – both were highly educated young men, both came from wealthy families, and both had riotous Indian accents (just as I’m certain, in their perception, I had a similarly uproarious Kiwi accent). We introduced ourselves and chatted briefly about our respective reasons for being in Vietnam, where I touched briefly on my passion for political analysis and, a little more pointedly, my perception of the Vietnamese Government; Juniper was the more talkative of the duo and was vociferous in his opinions about his own country’s governance. “Oh my God,” he leaned back as though in disbelief, speaking as if constantly about to succumb to hilarity, “you write about politics…? Oh my God, Sir, you should write about Government in India … Indian Government is so shithouse! Nobody pay taxes in India so Indian Government doesn’t do anything …  No sorry, sorry, only about top six earning families in India pay tax, right…”

At this point Juniper glanced leftward to check he had the support of his friend; “More like top ten,” mumbled Adam facetiously.

“Alright, top ten earning families pay tax to the Government, because Government in India is so shithouse, right … Oh my God, Sir, it’s like this, right, you have like – how many people in India now? It’s like, what, one-point-three billion?” Another glance toward his learned colleague.

“More like one point five billion.”

“Alright, oh my God, Sir, one point five billion people in India, right, and Government only look out for top ten families because they are the only ones fucking stupid enough to pay the Government taxes! That’s like what, one point four nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine … I dunno, but it’s a whole fucking shitload of people just doing their own thing, working their own jobs, living their own lives, and doing it on their own, because Government in India, man, it’s so shithouse man!”

“It is pretty bad, man,” Adam offered his first unsolicited remark.

“So,” I was intrigued and keen to hear more Indian intelligence, “I would assume then, that what, your families are part of this top ten, tax paying category…?”

“Oh no, shit, no, not even close, brother,” Juniper fell back onto his stool with a grin. “Nah man, I mean our families are wealthy, but we’re not that wealthy … Nah Government doesn’t give a shit about the likes of us, man, shit, we’re not rich enough, right … Yeah, we’re small change, we don’t pay enough taxes – Government in India soooo fucking shithouse, man.”

“Surely though,” I was thriving and compelled to learn more, “I mean I thought India was a democracy … Therefore, if the majority don’t like the way their country is being run, surely it is they who have the power to change that government – do the people of India not vote into power their government?”

It was Adam who took the reins on this one. “Yes, the people of India vote, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything – if the guys currently in Government want to maintain control, they maintain control, simple as that, and we gotta live with whatever they want to do, because our families aren’t giving the Government enough money…”

“Oh yeah man,” Juniper was back on the wagon, “Indian Government, corrupt as fuck, man, and there’s not a fucking thing any of us can do about it…”

“You gotta have the money, man,” Adam came back into focus, “it’s as simple as that, or you have no say what happens.”

“Oh my God, right,” Juniper filled in the blanks, “it’s so fucking corrupt – it’s so shithouse in India, man!”

Alright, now, I’m not willing to make any speculative leaps here, but maybe Vietnam’s Government suffers from a plight felt similarly across many parts of Asia, not just the southeast.

…With the dentistry and hotel industries – also presumably the remainder of the hospitality industry – in likelihood the highest-earning industries in Vietnam not paying their share of tax, it’s little surprise the Vietnamese Government cannot manage to provide adequate healthcare for its people; I lost count of the number of lower leg/ankle injuries I saw on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and was starting to wonder if there was perhaps a congenital defect of the lower legs of Vietnamese people – as is my style though I did inquire I into this oddly recurring sight, during the taxi ride to my second dental appointment in fact, and was given an entirely satisfactory explanation.

 

The next morning I woke feeling better than bad but still more poorly than good; mind you I realised I might just have found a way of resurrecting my budget – early to bed, early to rise.

I had an appointment that morning with a dentist in District 10, at 8:15, and had been advised I should allow anywhere up to an hour’s travel, mainly for traffic congestion. The appointment was all booked, all I had to do was get myself there. Checking my useless (but for telling the time) phone I was glad to see it was still before 6; I was glad furthermore that I had shaved the day before meaning that I wouldn’t have to undergo the discomfort of drawing a razor over my freshly pummelled and tenderised face…

I didn’t know it lying in bed, but I was an unsightly, puffy mess. Upon waking, while my face wasn’t causing me outward discomfort it most certainly was touch sensitive; my first look in the hotel bathroom mirror following Monday night’s fracas genuinely shocked me – reminding me of the episode of the Simpsons where Ken Griffey Jr contracted gigantism – such was the lumpy, moonlike appearance looking back at me, I scarcely recognised my own face.

…I sat up in bed and was aghast at the mess I had made of my pillow; Vietnamese plaster notwithstanding it seemed I had continued to bleed throughout much of the night (which, rather than being concerned, I told myself was a good thing, as it will have been removing any foreign particles and/or potential infection from the wound).

I had a shower and lightly washed my face, before removing the dressing and gingerly immersing the wound under Vietnam’s widely dis-reputed water; a little later while patting dry my swollen face before the mirror I noticed that horrid fish-mouth was still gaping open at me which admittedly, did leave me a little concerned. I laboriously peeled back the spare plaster Noobie had given me, slapped it on, brushed my teeth and headed down to get some breakfast.

“Buhng mee, op la!”

“Aha, café sua dah…?”

“Kahm urn,” I nodded, smiled, then in my grandest Viet accent, “Café sua dah!” (If one wishes to be heard in Vietnam, it is best to speak loudly.)

55 dong later I’m wandering back towards the Bali B feeling as though I’m managing to pull things back on track.

In fairness there is no way, at this early stage, that I should be feeling any semblance of calm, nor should I be at all pleased with my efforts. Now, here, amid the relative safety and comparative sobriety of New Zealand, I can appreciate how close I came the night before to utter devastation; shit man, if three-stripe had used that blade to slit a carotid artery rather than my cheekbone, simply, you would be reading a posthumous post.

Also, in Vietnam, I have now spent over half my budget and I’ve not yet been away from home for a week; ‘Managing to pull things back on track’…? Pull your head in, buddy, long way to go yet.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Fish E Faze

Photography by Buck N Track

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXI

The first youth, the one who had taken my money, glared at me with erratic eyes.

It was an odd look, a look of confusion maybe, of uncertainty or, perhaps even of fear; I decided in those first moments it was not a look of aggression anyway…

Behind him, having just emerged from a concealed doorway three or four metres back, now stood three other wiry Vietnamese youths; while all were initially taken aback by the sight of an ‘Englishman’ confronting one of their buddies it took only an instant for surprised expressions to become looks of anger.

…The tallest of the three recent arrivals, a young man with a head of thick brown curly hair and wearing a green Adidas three-stripe jacket, appeared the most enraged…

Upon witnessing the formation of the Viet Cong then sensing the pugnacity emanating from within, I knew I ought to have just left the money – which my oversized paws and their questionable dexterity are still struggling to extract from the left-front pocket of a pair of well-fitted jeans – I knew I should have just shown my palms in a display of ‘no attack’ and backed the hell out of that situation.

…His eyes at that moment made me think of the 8-ball in a game of pool; big, shiny and black as they were. I knew I ought to have just left it, ought to have just walked away, no harm done; I could still have turned up to Crazy Girls just with one less drink in my budget…

I was never going to do that though, was I? I didn’t give a toss about the money, about the irreverence or the shameless audacity shown by this Viet delinquent; I don’t think at that point I was even considering my own pride – no I’m pretty sure I just wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t walk away.

…Even as I saw three-stripe burst into action; even as he began sprinting towards me winding up for a classic (genuine Vietnamese) Mid Canterbury haymaker, I knew I had time…

With one almighty tug I withdrew my right hand from the petty thief’s left pocket. I saw the unwieldy haymaker in plenty of time; just like the drunken teenaged boys out fighting on Christchurch streets of years gone by, the punch was slow and it looked weak. With my left foot I took a measured step backward. I expected that once three-stripe had launched his attack the other guy, petty-thief, would be galvanised into action and was likely to have a go too, thus was preparing for this eventuality. I was an equal distance from petty-thief and three-stripe when three-stripe brought forward his ugly swing.

…Huh, I remember thinking, how about that, he’s left-handed; I’m not. As the puny fist came for the right side of my face I reflexively swung down and to my left. I knew I had positioned myself out of range if petty-thief came in with a kick but kept my eyes on his feet anyway, as I swung my torso through a 180 Degree sweep…

I felt as though I had judged the distance and timing well so was surprised to feel glancing contact against my right cheekbone.

…Legs bent at the knees, torso bent forward and to the left, I now positioned my hands in front of my face at chin-height and prepared to swing back.

Straightening posture, like a slingshot I whipped back around to the right; I then watched, as if seen in delayed coverage, as a pirouette of blood spatter performed a slow-motion arc before my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; had the little prick seriously knifed me? I glanced downwards and to my right; a trickle of blood appeared to be dribbling down my face, dripping from my right jawbone and making a terrible mess down one side of my beautiful blue three-stripe T-shirt.

Gosh, I thought, that was unexpected.

Deciding then that I’d done enough ‘seeing what would happen’, I was just about to raise my hands in capitulation and back calmly out of the alleyway; the Vietnamese youths though, they had different plans.

Upon seeing blood, the delinquent Viet Cong became feverish; before I even had time to refocus, my head and face was struck by a barrage of furious fists. I pulled back and freed myself from the onslaught. Thrusting a forefinger menacingly in their direction, in a guttural voice I demanded, “Back the fuck up, just back off!”

To this day I do not understand the logic behind what happened next but, standing at the alley’s entrance – blood dripping, adrenalin pumping, voice reverberating, finger thrusting – a middle-aged Vietnamese man rushed up behind me and grabbed me by the arms, yelling, “Halm down man, halm down!” The sight of their target momentarily restrained seemingly rekindled the Viet Cong’s bloodlust; while this misinformed elder pinned my arms to my side all four young men now threw themselves upon me.

Without too much trouble I broke free from my rear grips, lowered my head and raised my arms in defence; the past few seconds had been quite long enough to form the decision that, against four young-adult assailants, puny or otherwise (also apparently one harbouring a shank), no good could come from trying to fight back. The best thing I could do was defend myself and hope to emerge with as few battle scars as possible.

The punches and kicks were coming from all sides; instinctively I held up my forearms to cover my face. I saw my hat go flying; that was followed by my glasses. Until that moment I had been reasonably calm but that, having my hat and glasses knocked from my face, that pissed me off. To my right I saw my banh mi vendor and realised that I had been pushed back out onto the street. I saw my hat a few metres away, on the pavement to my left; taking a couple of quick paces I crouched, leaned forward and reached out to grab it. A firm kick to the stomach ensued. Hat in hand I now straightened and, oblivious to punches and kicks, scanned the road for my glasses. Blurred vision notwithstanding I saw them, having fallen on the road another few metres from the hat. A few more steps and I bent down to retrieve them as well; I tensed my core as I predicted another foot coming at my midriff.

What I didn’t predict was the powerful kick administered to my right hamstring; rendered momentarily powerless that leg collapsed, sending me toppling over backwards.

Instinctively I went down on my right side (jiu-jitsu), stripped of my base but still able to protect anything important. I felt a pummelling of jandal-feet kicking my back, which didn’t bother me particularly, I was just focusing on keeping my skull out of harm’s way. I then saw one of the delinquents – possibly petty-thief – skirting around above me and winding up for a face-kick. From upper peripherals I saw the blue jandal and black stonewash jean-leg making their rapid way towards my face. Elevating my chest, I turned my head slightly to the left then still with my eye on the foot to my right, with my right arm (jiu-jitsu) I scooped the incoming ankle. Rolling fully now onto my back, with the kicker’s foot trapped in my right armpit, I swung his forward momentum to my left. As he toppled to his right I used that inertia (jiu-jitsu) to pull me back to my feet.

Again I was caught in an onslaught of weak punches; hat still in my left hand my only focus now was my glasses. I scanned the ground; there they were. I felt immense relief; they didn’t look broken. Brushing off a few insipid fists I reached down and grabbed the thick-rimmed glasses; my fingers went right through the frames…

Across the next few instants I envisaged the next 20-plus days in HCMC then trying to make it home again, without the aid of my prescription lenses; my world came crashing down. I felt ill.

…I was suddenly furious. I stood at my full 6 Feet. “FUCK OFF!” I yelled, “just FUCK OFF!”…

My assailants fell back and stood looking at me. I inhaled deeply and bit down hard on nothing. Driven by fury I stabbed a finger out of my clenched fist then moving only my lips, mouthed some threatening words at them. Clutching a black felt Trilby in one hand and a set of lens-less glasses in the other; with the temperature nearing 28 and my heart pulling at least 160, unsurprisingly I was still leaking blood profusely. (Additionally, and one of the most horrific sights I’ve witnessed to date, with eyes looking directly ahead, I was clearly able to see the tops of both my cheeks.) Occurring to me also, I was trembling violently. The Viet Cong shrank back into the shadows and I immediately went on the hunt for my lenses. My heart leapt as I saw the first, a mere outline on the road. I pocketed it then went back to where I had originally picked up the glasses and scanned the road again. People milled around staring, laughing, pointing, leering; ignorant. (I hadn’t realised but from the time I had purchased my banh mi – which I had not eaten and in fact, I thought bitterly, had probably been stolen by now anyway – until now, the street had become packed with revellers.) Avoiding looking directly at any Smartphone cameras, chuckling wryly; I might be a You Tube sensation – #whitemanbeatenbyvietcong – I walked in what I thought was a five metre radius of the glasses’ fallen location and found nothing. I was anxious, I was despairing; I was angry – at Vietnam but mainly at myself.

…Oh, I’d found out ‘what would happen’ alright; resigned to three weeks’ not being able to see straight, yeah, nice one…

Unlike the rest of Ho Chi Minh City, District 1 street vendors operate 24 hours a day; anyone can be a Vietnamese street vendor, young or old. The oldest I have seen, according to sources, was over 100 and she was utterly repulsive; the youngest was a boy of about 3 years old, (reportedly an orphan) who didn’t speak a word, but just wandered the HCMC streets with his swag of produce, making beseeching sounds and looking for sales. Where many tourists disregarded, mocked or were rude to this little guy, I always made a point of buying something from him, even if it was just a back-scratcher or a pack of playing cards; suffice to say I returned home with a lot of crap that I really didn’t want (but at least my back’s not itchy as I play another round of solitaire).

…Out of the surrounding horde appeared my favourite little juvenile street vendor; he was peering up at me earnestly, holding something in his extended hand. My heart jumped again, and I reached down to claim my second lens. I grasped it thankfully then dropped to my left knee, crouching in front of the lad. Sliding the lens into the same pocket as the first I pulled from my other pocket the money I had reclaimed from petty-thief and three-stripe. I pushed the 120 dong into the boy’s hand, looked directly into his bright eyes, that beaming little Vietnamese face, and said simply, “Thank you … Thank you.”

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Grey Shous

Photography by Trevor Lah

 

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XX

Arguably the major reason for my going to Vietnam was to have my teeth fixed; I had already booked a consultation at Ho Chi Minh City’s Nham Tam Dental Clinic on Tuesday the 31st at 8:15 a.m. – I just had no idea how many obstacles I would be forced to overcome before making that appointment.

When I awoke it was Monday afternoon; this was to be my third night in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1…

As per my pre-trip booking schedule I had since moved away from Bui Vien (albeit just around the corner), from the comparatively high-priced Aston Hotel to the cheaper Bali B (think it’s alter-ego is the Bali Boutique) on Nguyen Thai Hoc (Nyooyen Tie Hoe).

…Upon waking I felt good; then I remembered how much money I had spent the previous night, also the night before that…

The Bali B was a nice enough hotel and the bed was glorious, the main issue I took with the place is that I just didn’t feel comfortable there, and I wasn’t spending enough time in bed to truly appreciate the latter point.

…Last night had been more of the same; the same ridiculously coquettish Crazy Girls, the same sexually provocative advances, the same implied assurances, the same exorbitant drinks. On the plus side though, the woman of my dreams was there and at that point in my journey I would have done just about anything to be in the same place as her; additionally, we did make a formidable pool duo…

The reality however, my budget to cover the following 25 days in Vietnam was not even close to being on schedule, and this was a genuine worry; worrying me less but still a genuine concern was the fact that my phone wasn’t functioning, and I really ought to have contacted home to update family on my progress.

…Noobie and I had just finished annihilating a very confident, very cocky, but just not very good, young European pair who I guessed were hoping to show off in front of their hot little European girlfriends but who, by the end of the game, were made to look less like pool sharks and more like posers – their girlfriends appeared to have lost interest in them by then anyway and had gone off to find themselves some real men – therefore my partner and I were now looking around for other challengers. There were none so, looking up at me, Noobie asked the question, “You wan play?”

“Me play you…?” I responded with a to/fro gesture, “Sure.”

“You set, I break,” she ordered and strutted towards the bottom of the table.

I set up the 15 balls in perfect formation then watched as the petite little lady steadied herself at the edge of the table and smashed them apart; two were down – big and a small.

“You wan ring?” she asked.

I gave her a 500 and she trotted away; I missed my first shot.

She returned with the drinks and handed me 280 change. “Wha down?” she asked.

I shook my head to indicate I had had no success.

Her shot also went astray.

As we walked toward each other, each holding our own cue, Noobie grinned at me and refused to let me pass, instead delighting in prodding my stomach and pinching my nipples. I laughed and pushed her gently away; she made a show of stumbling then deliberately falling back on the pool table, her tiny (denim) skirt lifting and exposing her underwear. Immediately popping back up, hurriedly smoothing her skirt while pretending to be embarrassed, giggling hysterically with a beaming smile she launched herself off the pool table and collapsed into me. Her huge eyes were bright with excitement as she posed the deal, “OK … You win … I come home with you.”

“Sure,” I said, inwardly feeling a jolt of tension, “I win, you come home with me.”

“OK,” her smile was scintillating as she spoke, “you win, I come home with you … But I win … I come home with you.”

It was the longest sentence I’d heard come out of Noobie since I’d met her; she seemed a little drunk – or high…

As I would come to learn, when a guy buys a drink for him and the bargirl, while her first one or even two might be alcoholic – generally they will claim to be drinking whatever the client is drinking thus in my case Black Label with tonic (Coke keeps me up) – given that the ladies work the floor and the bar simultaneously, usually before the alcohol truly takes effect they will start pouring themselves non-alcoholic beverages of a similar hue; although as I believe I began to mention in a previous instalment, on two separate occasions I saw unconscious young women being carried upstairs on a male employee’s shoulder – Crazy Girls employees having drunk too much – both times after, reportedly, talking a ‘rich Westerner’ into buying a bottle of booze then being talked into helping him drink it – they can’t very well fill their shot glass with ginger ale when he’s pouring from a bottle of bourbon.

…Huh, I thought, she must have actually been drinking with me; I had learned towards the end of the night before (with Noobie jokingly complaining that ‘I was drinking all the booze but I not getting drunk’ I wasn’t terribly surprised to notice how over the course of the night my drink was coming to me with an increasingly potent alcohol content, yet on the one occasion when she actually tasted it to check – ‘Is there even booze in that?!’ – her head had whipped back in disgust and she almost vomited on that awful – awfully good, mind you – scotch flavour) how the ladies in Crazy Girls don’t generally drink a lot of alcohol…

Anyway, I decided that if anyone could survive in Vietnam on around a tenth of their original budget (I had put away enough cash to allow for a daily expenditure of about $100 – which before the Labour Government caused the value of the NZ dollar to plummet with its reckless and crippling taxation thus ultimately kneecapping the NZ economy this equated to approximately 1.200.000VND – which, given that Vietnam is one of the cheapest tourist destinations in the world, should have been plenty. I even had a security cushion in place in case of emergency – yeah, who would have imagined the ‘emergency’ would turn out to be meeting the woman of my dreams on the very first night), I could. The plan: I worked out I needed to separate around 5 million for future accommodation, I found a great street-food joint where I could get a ‘buhng mee, op lah’ (spelled ‘banh mi’ and essentially a bread roll with egg along with assorted Vietnamese ingredients) also my favourite ‘café sua dah’ (iced coffee which, last year, I recall I made the mistake of referring to as ‘café sua’ – coffee, white – ‘nuok dah’ – water, frozen – when in fact the term ‘café sua dah’ is quite satisfactory) for a meagre 55.000VND.

…Drugs though, drugs are rife on the streets of HCMC’s District 1; most every time I walked the length of Bui Vien Street, for example, the offer of ‘illicit’ substances (inverted commas because, come on, this is Vietnam baby, anything goes in Vietnam…) was posed to me – ‘Sir, marijuana Sir…?’ (one must imagine the aforementioned and the following words spoken in a seedy whisper; the later the hour the seedier the whisper too, and uttered with an accent that scarcely allows for articulation of consonants, making it all the more repellent) – that was all through the day until early evening – or, with often the very same vendor doing the propositioning, ‘Sir, cocaine Sir … Sir, crah cocaine, Sir…?’ – that was early to late evening and perhaps after – or the most sinister one – ‘Sir, ice, Sir … Sir, methamphetamine’

Upon hearing this one I actually stopped, turned and looked at the dude – the face of whom, by now, I had grown familiar – and said, “Are you serious – meth?”

“Yes Sir,” the scrawny character replied with a sly grin, his thin lips spreading up over his tobacco-stained teeth, “best ice you can buy … Buy right here … Vietnam meth … Buy from meee.”

I recall exhaling deeply, shaking my head and walking away; although that shady narcotic vendor and I would run a similar theme – if only for comical value – almost every day/night that I was in Vietnam.

…I learned on about day six, from a Canadian expat named Aiden having retired to Vietnam at age 60, sitting outside a (blessedly licensed) Bui Vien coffee shop drinking a ‘café sua dah, whikky’ (see last year’s Chronicles), that most young men, and often even the women across HCMC, in fact use (Vietnamese) methamphetamine like many Westerners might use coffee; the main point of difference, of course, is that where caffeine has a pleasantly uplifting but generally controllable effect, meth usage (in the Western world at least) tends to manifest more of a frenetic disposition…

The thing that I had difficulty tolerating about these kinds of guys, though – I could deal with the fact that they were making a living from the pervading of illicit substances thus potentially destroying the lives of others – was that they are all self-promoting, unscrupulous, loathsome and ultimately shit-headed, liars; one never can be certain of a single word spoken by these kinds of people (interestingly in ‘the book’ that I will later read but which I have yet to encounter in my travels, there is a line that reads: ‘They say if a Thai’s lips are moving, he’s lying’; from what I experienced in Vietnam I’m pretty sure the same ruling applies to the majority of Viet folk as well), meaning that one never truly knows what they’re buying. In fairness though, the same really applies to anything one buys for consumption in Vietnam; a consumer can never be certain exactly what the product they have purchased, at a rock bottom ‘genuine Vietnamese quality’ price no less, will contain – buy a drink over the bar, as I did, ceaselessly, of course one has no idea how much Rohyphnol they’re putting in it (in the projected hope of rendering you sufficiently agreeable to hand over your last thousand dong, then perhaps talking you into going to an ATM to get some more), just as one has no idea when one buys a few grams of meth, or cocaine, or crack cocaine, or even weed, just what that product contains.

…That night on Bui Vien, Monday night and with a devastated budget that I’m still hoping to pull back into shape – having spent under 200 dong so far that day – I’m feeling as though I can afford to head down the street for a few (overpriced) drinks. Currently residing at the Bali B hotel, off the hype of Bui Vien but with around ten times the pollution due to a main thoroughfare, Nguyen Thai Hoc – with a minimum of six lanes of slowly moving traffic honking, merging and cutting off but never hitting each other – running past the hotel front, it was just a short walk, including several perilous street crossings, to get back to Bui Vien…

‘Best marijuana in world, only seven-fifty’, was a claim I frequently heard; I stopped on one occasion in the hope of gleaning some further intelligence on this ‘best in world’ claim.

“Oh wow,” I said, feigning interest in his product, “you say that’s the best in the world – where do they grow it?”

“It grow rie here, Sir, Vie’nam weed, bess in world.”

“Interesting, see, I always thought the best weed in the world was grown in California, or Jamaica…?”

“Oh no Sir,” he waved his hand dismissively, “Vie’nam weed, bess weed in world.”

“Hmm, that’s impressive, and you were saying five grams will only cost me seven-fifty (750.000VND)?”

“That rie Sir, three gram, only seva hun’red and fiffy dong … Bess in world…”

Now, I tried some of his ‘best in world’ weed and, having only days earlier sucked on Canadian Aiden’s bong packed with Vietnamese pipe tobacco (you talk about not knowing what’s in a product; I would guarantee that ‘pipe tobacco’ contained several ingredients other than pipe tobacco), I can honestly say, whatever it was, I preferred the ‘tobacco’ hit.

…That night, Monday night, my third night in HCMC, turning onto the top end of Bui Vien it was still just over an hour before 9:30, the time I had intended to show up at Crazy Girls. I decided to try my budgeting skills at a bar that, while I did recall entering last year, this year I had not; I approached and was immediately cajoled the rest of the way by a very ‘hands-on’ yet, by Vietnam standards at least, not a very attractive, bargirl. This situation was oddly reminiscent of something else – somewhere else. I didn’t ever get the name of this place because in fairness, it gave me no reason to remember its name other than to say, it was across an intersection from my (blessedly licensed) coffee shop. In this instance the bar was deserted but for a few straggling patrons and one woman playing a game of pool with herself. Without hesitation I approached and asked if she was interested in joining me for a game. She agreed to the challenge and I asked her if I could by her a drink. She chose to drink local beer while I drank local scotch with Coke…

While budget constraints meant I didn’t purchase any myself, later in my tour of duty, later one evening, I found myself in the company of an Australian man, Bruce, who did take advantage of the, ‘Sir, cocaine Sir’, offer and, as is the theme in Vietnam, therefore so did most people in the vicinity; honestly though, I reckon I gained a bigger rush from ‘backdrafting’ Shisha (directly inhaling the exhalation of pink vapour from another’s – ideally a beautiful woman’s – lips) than I took from a line of, worryingly affordable, Vietnamese cocaine.

…The first game went to me by a ball; the second went to her by three. She then asked me if I could buy her a ‘balloon’ for 90 dong; I had seen people – mainly women – on past nights with large pink balloons in their mouths and wondered if this was a craze that had yet to make it to New Zealand. Given my budget constraints I considered telling her to buy her own damn balloon then thought, ‘Shit if I were in Crazy Girls I might have already spent ten times that amount’; ultimately, of course, I bought her a balloon. She was an attractive young lady wearing a yellow singlet top (which I couldn’t help noticing showed off a paunch), a pair of tight denim shorts (really?) and an exquisite pair of heels (absolutely the shoes making this ensemble). I couldn’t believe it though, I didn’t even know her name; that wasn’t like me at all. I asked her name and she told me ‘Nguyen’. (Like ‘Ngoc’, also ‘Anh’, Nguyen is very common as both a Vietnamese name and a word/label, also just like ‘Ngoc’ and ‘Anh’, the name/word/label Nguyen can be seen all around Vietnam.) Nguyen the person was wonderful and she was gorgeous, and she drank beer by choice (when there wasn’t a giant condom-like balloon hanging from her mouth) yet she was strangely aloof; while she appeared to speak good English I couldn’t seem to elicit any real conversation from her – typical of many Viet women questions regarding life, family, or work was met with brisk deflection followed by giggling, nipple-pinching and butt-patting. After the fifth time checking that my wallet was still where it should have been I checked my watch; I told Nguyen that this would have to be our last game as I was expected down the other end of Bui Vien in a bit…

That same man, Bruce the 40-year-old Aussie cocaine fiend, upon the consumption of his flour/icing-sugar/cocaine stopped another late-night street vendor. Here he bought a terribly ornate cannabis pipe then, seeming to know exactly where he was going, at sometime after 4 a.m., he ventured out for a stroll. Nobody even seemed to notice his disappearance. He returned some time later to our group of white-skinned tourists/expats and pulled from his pocket a handful of small bags.

…Nguyen won that game and I immediately challenged her to another. “I thought you have somewhere else you need to be tonight…?” she teased in her near-perfect English.

“I did,” I remarked, “But something more important seems to have come up.”

She grinned and gave my butt a smack (I presently checked my wallet was still in its buttoned back pocket).

I bought her another beer and another balloon; I asked what had happened to her last balloon, she told me it had gone down. I asked her why she had undone it, she told me she liked sucking in the air inside the balloon. I recall thinking at the time, that was somewhat of an odd thing to do but then again, I’m somewhat odd myself (it would not be until sometime later that the significance would be revealed of these so-called balloons), so I wasn’t ready to judge…

Bruce was proving to be quite the middle-aged hedonist; taking a seat most people watched as he first packed his ornate pipe with cannabis, lit that, took a few massive hits then passed it around. Using a clear space in the table he then doled out some more of this white substance and fashioned it into short lines; they disappeared in less the half the time it had taken to form them. Bruce then withdrew from his pocket a different pipe which, as there were around twelve English-speaking men sucking on his other one, I supposed it was sensible that he should have two. Nobody else at the table was paying a great deal of attention to what Bruce was doing yet, without looking overly interested, I watched him fill his secondary pipe with contents from the third small bag. He ignited a Zippo lighter any held it beneath the bowl of the pipe; I heard a hissing, popping, fizzing sound coming from within.

…When I finally left ‘Nguyen’s Bar’ the sun had gone down and I was ravenous. I strode down the street – which is to say I walked as fast as the Monday night pedestrian congestion would allow – looking for somewhere I could grab a bite to eat. I had a feeling there was a banh mi vendor down here and right now I could really go one of those a banh mi op las. There it was, just up there on the left…

There was a rumour going around the table that Bruce was smoking meth but, judging by the fumes wafting past my nose, it was something decidedly less sinister.

…“Ban co quear kohm,” I started.

“Ah, doy quear,” the lady smiled with a gracious bow.

“Buhng mee, op lah…?”

The lady nodded and started putting together the morsel…

Bruce had fallen asleep before his pipe was even passed back to him; put to rest were my suspicions also about the contents of the pipe being from the amphetamine gamut.

…I had stepped around the back of the food cart to take a seat as I dined but as I sat, requiring two hands to eat yet with one holding the banh mi and the other gripping my water bottle and 120 dong change, was forced to set down the two right-hand possessions – placing the small wad of cash beneath my water bottle – on the chair beside me and stood in order to rearrange myself. I flipped my wallet from back to front for ease of sitting then turned back to the water bottle; it was just where I’d left it only now it was rocking gently back and forth…

Some other guys around the table were talking about a scuffle they’d witnessed on Bui Vien a little over a week ago. Seemingly a Western tourist had inexplicably antagonised a group of bored, also potentially high, Vietnamese youth; as the man’s story went, the situation had become gory when one of the delinquent Viet Cong had used a blade to open up the White dude’s cheek – it was at this point, through my fug, I realised they were recalling the incident just last Monday, which had befallen me right beside the banh mi vendor’s cart.

…I grabbed the bottle. As I had suspected it was not somehow obscuring my money. I looked up; a lean Vietnamese youth was walking casually away from me down the alley running perpendicular to the main street, to my right. As there was nobody else in the vicinity this man was clearly the guilty party. “Oi!” I called to the disappearing figure.

He made no effort to stop.

Before I knew what I was doing I had taken chase. “Hey, you,” I called again, now more forcefully.

This time he stopped, and slowly turned. He was an alarming good-looking young man and I almost felt bad accusing him of petty theft. “Dude,” I said lightly, even close to chuckling as I spoke, as though this was just some kind of silly misunderstanding, “come on bud, you can’t do that – I was standing right there.”

The young Viet looked at me in confusion and made some unintelligible sound, I guess implying incomprehension.

“My money…?” I extended an open palm with a friendly yet quizzical expression. “Tien…? I asked again, in Vietnamese.

He shook his head in apparent confusion and shifted from foot to foot; at that moment I noticed the corner of a yellow Viet banknote – my Viet banknote – protruding from his left jeans pocket.

“There,” I pointed, again almost laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, “you have my money,” I stepped closer. “Give it back…?”

The youth shook his head vigorously and refused to even look down, instead thrusting both hands in his pockets.

I stepped closer still; now just a metre separated us.

He lifted his hands from his pockets and started to back away.

Suddenly annoyed at the youngster’s unwillingness just to accept when he’s been caught in the wrong, keeping my head upright (never show your opponent the back of your head – jiu-jitsu), I made a lunge for the money in his pocket; as I wrestled my 120 dong (just $10) from his pants I gazed a disbelieving stare into the young Viet’s deep and frighteningly dark eyes.

Suddenly there were three more Viet youths staring at me with their deep dark, soulless eyes.

Four Vietnamese youth with a combined age of no more than 100 and oh my, did they look pissed.

 

 

Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Nev R Buckdown

Photography by D Lin Quint