“Oh! … Soddy, housekeeping…” With that I heard the scurry of footsteps followed by light switches being flicked off and the door being quietly closed.
Through my unique inside perspective, also perhaps the fact that my mind at the time was in a freakishly heightened state of alertness, I had registered the nature of her mistake even before the cleaning-lady in question had registered that she had swiped into the wrong room. I had already flopped back down in bed, mentally shaking my head in frustration – in anger – by the time she had reached the door; expectedly everything on the sideboard was just as I’d left it – Singapore folk, typically, as previously established, are not thieves (regardless, housekeepers, at least in Vietnam, showing up in my hotel room at inopportune moments, was a phenomenon with which I had, some weeks ago, come to the end of my tolerance).
Turning onto my stomach and thrusting my face as hard as I could into the pillow, I tried to ease back into some semblance of rest; alas my body was dominated for the time being by adrenaline – a sensation that could best be described as massive shocks of electricity, were coursing, pulsing, dead-set ripping their way through and around my limbs thus, for the next half hour lying in that bed, I just tried to remain as calm as I could be while enduring the hell of my entire physique twitching and spasming itself into contraction.
A little later that morning, and following a half-hour yoga session to re-stretch my seized muscles, in the Hotel Boss lobby, after again dining at my brilliant Gloria Jean’s café (which I believe I referred to on the way over as a ‘restaurant’; it’s not a restaurant, it’s a ‘café’, or ‘coffee-house’, situated in the Boss lobby, offering delightful morsels, at a reasonable price, and all served by a wonderfully personable local, English-speaking, gentleman), I had a brief word to the Hotel Manager regarding ‘unauthorised entry to currently occupied hotel rooms by misdirected staff members’ (calmly noting, ‘Given I have spent the past four weeks in Vietnam, where hotel room intrusions legitimately do occur, and, well, given my personal level of alarm coupled with the darkness of the room at the time, you were probably just lucky I didn’t cause some kind of serious injury to your unwitting staff member…’), then with my suitcase having been put on the direct route back to New Zealand – my backpack full of nothing of substance but for my flight documents, passport, and of course the few books I’d bought from that Ho Chi Minh City street vendor a few weeks’ back – and myself not required on the same route home until later that afternoon, with iced coffee in hand I made my way out to the gloriously sunny Hotel Boss courtyard to read a book for the day…
Now, and this is possibly the most important part of my story, therefore, I implore you, please, pay attention.
…Private Dancer is a ‘novel’ (inverted commas because the story is so heavily based on fact it might as well be fact) about a young British journalist who travels to Thailand in the ‘90s (given Thailand’s quicker advancement, fair to say this is tantamount to Vietnam in the 2010s) with the intention of penning a realistic travel guide, among other literary works, about the current (90s) tourism boom across Thailand. As is the fashion, in Thailand, he attends a Thai Go-Go bar and quickly finds himself besotted with one of the dancers therein. This dancer, subsequently, interestingly, appears to reciprocate his emotions entirely. Indeed, in this respect the book reads as a love story; the storyline depicts the protagonist’s rapid and helpless tumble into infatuation and how, at the height of his passion – while he is happily spending thousands of British pounds (a literal fortune in Thai Baht) on his Thai ‘girlfriend’ – he begins to experience doubt. This young journalist just can’t work her out; he has been in Thailand many months now and has spent so much of his money on her, yet she never seems entirely ‘there’ with him – their relationship has reached an impasse which he just can’t seem to overcome…
I recalled with a smirk, as I began reading, under the sunshine that day in the Boss courtyard, this book, Private Dancer, had been recommended to me by a group of wizened old expats, sitting outside one night on Bui Vien, listening to my own tales of Noobie from Crazy Girls bar – about how amazing she was and how utterly infatuated I had become with her – this trio of middle-aged men, all apparently having taken Vietnamese brides some years earlier, unabashedly laughed in my face. “Your girlfriend’s a working girl!” they had jested.
I had laughed right back at their faces and briefly explained how I knew Noobie was not a ‘working girl’.
“Well, do you give her money?” one of them asked.
“To buy us drinks, yes.”
“And what else do you buy her?”
“Well, in the bar, I guess, I buy Shisha for us, I buy those Nos Balloons … I dunno, I buy her, anything she wants, I guess.”
“Sure, but you give her the money, and she runs away and buys whatever, yeah?”
“Yes, and at comparatively high prices, I guess,” I replied tactfully, “but I consider I’m paying for the convenience of not having to leave my seat…”
“’Convenience’…? Hah! You’re a fuckin’ sucker’s what you are – she’s robbing you blind, matey.”
I smiled in that way someone smiles when they don’t quite get the joke and are wondering if the laughter they can hear around them is maybe not so much directed at the punchline but is perhaps targeted more at them…? “Yeah, I’m always reasonably cautious of that,” I noted soberly, “I mean, in the beginning they used to try and over-charge me, short-change me and the like – guess they try on everyone – but not so much these days.”
“Alright, well put it this way then – does she go home with you?”
“Ah, after closing, most nights, yeah.”
“Most nights, aha! Think about it, matey, you’re payin’ her, I’m guessin’ millions o’ dong, she’s goin’ ‘ome with ya – mostly – she’s fuckin’ workin’ you over so good and I bet, I bet, you think you’re in love with ‘er, don’tcha?”
“You are a fuckin’ sucker, matey – oh, look at old mate over here,” the middle-aged drunkard became theatrical, putting on a stage-voice and making out he was talking to someone in the distance, “yeah, gone an’ found ‘imself a hot little piece o’ arse at a bar down Bui Vien, and yeah, reckons she’s in love with ‘im, ‘e does – gives ‘er all ‘ees cash, ‘e does, ‘n she fucks ‘im summa the time too – course now ee’s gone and fallen in love with ‘er, but ee’s runnin’ outa cash – ” he for the moment reverted to reality, hissing words in mock secrecy “ – you are runnin’ outa cash, ain’tcha, an’ ya know ya’ll be no good to ‘er once yer cash is gone, don’tcha, matey?”
“Yeah, reckon I’ll be good, thanks bud.”
“Hey, shit, don’t worry about it,” the vile drunkard turned suddenly friendly, “we’re not mockin’ ya or nothin’ – shit, it’s happened t’all of us, matey – happens to all us Whi’ folk in Vietnam … You just gotta make sure ya git out ‘fore it’s too late, ‘sall.”
“Reckon I’ll give it a bit, see what happens.”
“She’s a workin’ girl, matey, that’s a fact.”
“Noobie? Nah,” I shook my head defiantly, becoming a shade frustrated with – what appeared to be at the time – this ignorant run of generalisation. “No way, she’s not like that, she’s intelligent, she’s classy, she’s different…” (Interestingly, that phrase ‘she’s different’, was one I heard frequently spoken by the protagonist in Private Dancer, in his repeated efforts to convince his cohort of his Thai girlfriend’s goodness) “…I mean she’s high maintenance, but come on, all the best ones are…” (Bear in mind this conversation took place at the pinnacle of Noobie’s and my relationship, before she appeared to lose interest; back when, most nights, I would hear the heart-melting string of gloriously accented words, ‘Love you, Tim’.) “…I mean, we go out together,” I continued, in hindsight, I think more in an attempt to convince myself than this table of mocking drunkards, “we have meals together – we do plenty of shit together – she is not a ‘working girl’.”
…As I was saying, regarding my synopsis of Private Dancer, she and he had reached an impasse which he could just not seem to surmount; he’s going insane with exasperation while she doesn’t appear too bothered by anything anymore and, although she no longer sees need to exert the same level of effort with him, of course, she seems to expect that he will continue to be as financially generous with her regardless. In the story, the young journalist is wracked with uncertainty, to the extent that it is adversely affecting his work – he is in Thailand primarily on work duties, after all. He’s going insane. He can’t take it; he hires a Private Investigator, to find out some truths about the woman of his dreams, who we then hear making reference to the protagonist’s case – ‘Just another stupid Farang (Thai name for Westerners), fallen in love with gorgeous Thai bargirl, expects she will love him even after he stops spending money on her’ (while Private Dancer is written in first person narrative, it goes between the perspective of all the book’s main characters in first person, meaning the reader gains insight into inner thoughts, also plans/schemes, of various characters, allowing the reader to know what those characters are thinking despite what they might be saying which, in the story there is a terrible lot of this variety of duplicity). As it happens, in the book, the protagonist soon discovers that his ‘girlfriend’ is already married; unsurprisingly the husband is Thai and, typical of most Southeast Asian males, although this man doesn’t contribute much to the relationship, thanks to her income as a dancer/stripper/prostitute, they own a nice house with vehicles in the Thai countryside…
Interesting to note also, almost everything I read in Private Dancer regarding the way Thai Bargirls spoke to their Farangs, reminded me, chillingly so, of the way Viet bargirls did this very thing; the vernacular was almost identical, to the point where some (Thai) parts of speech in the book were as though they’d been borrowed directly from my (Viet) experience. For example, posing a choice with two potential outcomes, Noobie’s typical response (along with a cheesy grin, cocked head, and the batting of eyelids – just like in the book – was an extremely agreeable, ‘Up to you’; alternatively, when asked a direct question, for example, ‘Do you want one?’ the response was a very cutesy, ‘Only if you wan, too (along with the token eyelid batting).’ It went on like this, with each new example leaving me more bewildered than the last; it was as though somebody had gone to great lengths to orchestrate this thoroughly deceptive charade for me – by the end of the book I could legitimately not believe the nature of the words that I was reading.
…I finished this book, also five or six iced coffees, by that afternoon (and for the record, that afternoon in Singapore, resulted in the only substantial suntan I picked up over the entire month I was away). Despite the ambient heat an icy chill swept over me as I realised, I had allowed myself to fall victim by the allure of Ho Chi Minh City, an area of peril to which I was only recently claiming to be so very attentive, and in fact, had I been just a little more invested, this fall might very well have been headlong into the fabled Curse of Vietnam, from which, only days earlier, I recall priding myself on salvaging Stu’s South African hide.
While I’d definitely had one hell of a time being a part of this real Vietnamese Experience (can’t be too sore about my second successive comprehensive capitulation at the hands of Southeast Asia, because let’s be fair, most everything in Vietnam is a con; they are an ancient land of cheats, thieves, and liars, after all), damn it, it still hurt to know I had been so blatantly deceived.
Also left me a smidgen concerned for my health…
[Bugger. On my Microsoft page I had scanned six pages of results from the Christchurch Sexual Health Clinic – all with NEGATIVE findings – which I thought would have been a nice way to end this saga; alas, evidently this website is too shithouse to project such documents. Sorry about that.]
Huh, while I may have left a great deal in Vietnam – of money, of dignity, of myself – I was ever so pleased to find I didn’t bring anything back.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Glen Billy-Health
Photography by Job Dunn