It was while taking Grandma for a day out over 12 months ago, after being directed to seating at a café in Christchurch’s Bush Inn mall to await our orders, that plans were first put underway for a trip to Vietnam.
In fact the whole thing was largely the result of a fatuous male impulse and, given that I’d scarcely entertained the notion of travelling to or around Southeast Asia before the moment in question, it was just fortunate that things turned out as agreeably as they did.
I had pulled out a chair for Grandma before taking her walking stick and helping her to sit. I walked around the table and took a seat myself, while glancing to my right. My breath caught in my throat. I had never seen anything quite like it. It was spectacular.
From over the five metre mall concourse she looked up, caught my eye, and smiled; I flicked my eyebrows in casual acknowledgement.
I turned back to Grandma who was sitting restively, picking at the foam handle of her walking stick. From the corner of my eye I looked back towards Flight Centre which, as well as apparently being the home of the best airfares, evidently were the workplace of the most exquisite brunette I could recall seeing.
The café was busy; we had been told there would be a ten minute wait on our order. Grandma appeared occupied; she was now busily repacking her handbag. The rest of the mall was quiet; Flight Centre at least had nobody through.
I leaned toward Grandma, speaking boldly. “You getting on alright there?” I asked.
She looked up and, as though I had accused a misbehaving child, shot back, “Yeah … Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, it’s just the food won’t be here for another five minutes at least … I was just checking that everything’s good.”
“I’m fine,” she smiled, setting down her bag; then as though the wily octogenarian in her had read my mind, her smile turned sly as she inquired, “Was there somewhere else you wanted to be?”
I laughed, “In fact I had considered ducking over to Flight Centre there,” illustrating with my thumb, “and seeing about some potential travel.”
“Oh,” she seemed surprised, “do you need me to come?”
“You’d be welcome to come for a look,” I offered, “if you like.”
“No,” she sat back, “that’s fine, you go.”
“Right then,” I announced, standing, “I’ll be five minutes.”
Five powerful strides later I crossed the Flight Centre threshold and spun to my right, looking straight into the eyes of the stunning brunette.
“Hi,” she began, with a trace of an accent that I could not distinguish, “are you and your nana having a nice day?”
“Yes, thank you, it’s been lovely,” I responded, before hesitating slightly – managing to scan the nametag without overtly staring at her breasts – then continuing, “In fact, Babs, Grandma and I are in today to check out Smiths City’s range of microwave ovens – we were hoping to find one that doesn’t get all pissy when you try to cook metal.”
Babs chuckled, “Oh, well, tell your grandma not to be too discouraged, she wouldn’t be the first one to” – her voice dropped – “piss off a microwave by putting metal in it.”
Any ice now decidedly broken, it sat down. “I love that name, Babs – so is that your real name or, you know, is that just what they call you?”
“No, it’s my real name alright, but it’s a bit confusing – it’s not actually pronounced ‘Babs’, it’s actually more like ‘Bubs’.”
“Ah, nice one, Bubs, that’s so cool, your boyfriend wouldn’t even have to come up with a pet name for you, he’d just call you, ‘Bubs’ … Which, I suppose, in New Zealand anyway, is how we’d perceive the British pronunciation of ‘Babs’, so that makes sense … But then you’re not British, so that makes no sense..?” At which point I took an ungainly mental step back from the threatening onset of babble, and smiled; I hoped, endearingly.
“No,” Babs reciprocated my smile, “you’re right, I’m not, British … I’m actually Dutch, so, I guess, it’s a Dutch name … And yes, you’re right, my boyfriend gets off easy.”
“Right, well it’s fantastic,” I cheered, possibly overcompensating for my disappointment on the ‘boyfriend’ thing, “‘Bubs’, not ‘Babs’ … So is it a common name then, in…” I periodically floundered, in my head confusing ‘Dutch’ with ‘Danish’; fortunately clarifying just in time to not appear too ignorant “…Netherlands?”
“Actually, no, it’s a pretty weird name there too … So what can I help you with today, regarding travel I mean?”
Feeling momentarily guilty I turned to look back towards Grandma and our table at the café; our order had yet to arrive.
“Do you need to get back to your grandma?”
“Ah,” I said with my head still turned, then spinning back, forcing myself to think quickly on an empty stomach, “well, Grandma seems fine, and the food’s not there so, no I guess, I mean, if anything, I had been thinking about doing the ah, the Asian tour.”
“Oh, that is such an amazing trip – so were you thinking Thailand?”
“Actually, (I’d not been ‘thinking’ anything much until I saw you, Bubs) I quite like the idea of visiting that whole Southeast Asian region – likes of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, yes, Thailand and, possibly, I mean I’d like to see, Philippines too … If possible..?”
“Right,” Babs turned and stood – revealing the most exquisitely shapely hind quarters I had seen in months – fetched from the rack behind her several brochures, reseated herself and placed the booklets on the desktop before me. “These should outline any trip you wanted to do in Asia,” she smiled and – as if somehow knowing how difficult I would have found it – started idly leafing through the pages, as I looked on.
My eyes widened as I took in the apparently candid, yet obviously commercialised and decidedly staged, photography in the glossy-paged travel brochure. Mesmerised also by Babs’ delicate fingers and manicured nails as she flipped through the colourful booklet, I hesitantly lowered my hand on a particularly eye-catching page: ‘See Malaysia’, the caption demanded, while the pictures of glimmering skyscrapers bordering vibrant city streets offered their invitation in a somewhat more implicit, but perhaps even more compelling, manner.
“Yes, Malaysia’s nice,” said Babs, “but as a first time destination – this is your first time..?”
I affirmed the assumption with a nod.
“OK, I would recommend somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam,” Babs opened more booklets to pages of even more transcendent vistas.
I scanned the cover of one brochure: ‘Take a Contiki Adventure’, it advised; I chuckled inwardly, recalling over a decade ago the name, the reputation Contiki had earned for itself – reportedly ‘Con-fucki’ was an equally accurate assessment. I glanced up at Babs and, distracted by my undernourished stomach and momentarily losing concentration, found myself imagining that I was her boyfriend and contemplating what that might entail.
“Or,” she was saying, “if you really wanted to do Southeast Asia, and if you don’t mind spending the money, there’s this one.”
I peered down at the open booklet: ‘The Complete Southeast Asian Experience’, it called itself; ‘experience Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Malaysia…’ it recommended. I glanced at the price; it was under five grand, which I felt was quite reasonable, and actually thought that I could manage. I checked the duration: 25 days.
Second thoughts, 25 days was a terribly long time to be away from home, particularly during a New Zealand summer…
I could feel the travel agent’s captivating gaze upon me as I considered my options.
…I looked up at Babs, smiled, and said, “I want to do that one.”
Having rejoined Grandma at the café and filled her in on the details, while briefly explaining – with the help of my procured brochures – what I hoped to ultimately do, Grandma seemed shocked: “Oh, I had no idea you even wanted to go to Asia – you like those little Asian girls, don’t you?” she accused, in what I assumed was awkward elderly jest.
“I do like those ‘little Asian girls’, yes – in fact I don’t think that sets me apart from most Caucasian men – but that’s not really the reason,” I said, as my mind’s eye (mockingly) hovered over then (justifiably) queried the ‘real’ reason that I had entered into this potential $5000 contract with Flight Centre.
A little over a fortnight later I checked back in at Flight Centre Bush Inn to take further steps into finalising the booking arrangements.
Upon entering the store I was surprised to see only one other employee occupying a desk; this unknown blonde woman smiled at me with the familiarity of someone she’d known a lifetime – and who was coming back into her life after a prolonged stint of absence – which I found almost unnerving. “Can I help you with something today?” this mildly older, mildly less attractive yet rather more obsequious, woman inquired.
“Yes” – again surreptitiously scanning the nametag – “Kasey, you can.”
Kasey peered up at me expectantly, displaying all the diligence of a seasoned salesperson.
“Ah, I was in here the other day, speaking with a lovely young woman, Babs (‘Bubs’), regarding one of your ‘Asian Experience’ trips…”
Kasey’s face dropped in theatrical fashion – as though she’d just been informed of the death of her favourite Broadway star – but said nothing.
“…Ah, yes,” I went on, somewhat thrown by her facial gymnastics, which in fact caused her thick layer of foundation to crease horribly, “so we had looked over prospective trips, I had then taken away a pile of brochures, and I believe, I have now decided on the trip that I want to take.”
Kasey’s eyes widened, as a big smile of consolation appeared beneath the make-up: “Oh-h, so you were working with Babs … I’m so sorry, Babs doesn’t work here anymore…”
The sensation I experienced at that moment was peculiar. On the one side I was disappointed – even a smidgen heartbroken – at losing contact with the glorious Babs. On the other side of it I think I was a little relieved at avoiding a bill that would have financially crippled me, for a trip that I couldn’t even really be bothered taking.
“…But I can help you,” concluded the ever-attentive Kasey.
“Oh,” I blurted, quickly reassessing my options, through a brain sitting atop a body that although well-nourished, courtesy of the NZ Blood Service, had recently been depleted of 748 millilitres of vital fluid. “Alright then,” I sat before Kasey, placing my stack of booklets on the desk.
“Great,” Kasey repositioned herself, like a lioness preparing to pounce, “so what had you and Babs decided on?”
“Right,” I reshuffled the stack, now discarding the one flaunting Contiki’s 25 days of ‘Complete Southeast Asian Experience’; instead bringing to the top a shimmering picture of a majestically tiered, vibrant green rice paddy, “I was going to do this one.”
Kasey efficiently leafed through the selected booklet, nodding appreciatively; then seemingly arriving at the correct page she looked up: “Oh, that’s a great choice, I hear Vietnam’s gorgeous.”
“Yeah, I just thought, ‘you know, why not?’”
Kasey looked at me querulously, perhaps doubtful of my intentions to see through such a trip, and asked, “Right, now where did you and Babs get to on this?”
“Hmm, technically Kasey, we had not really progressed past her distribution, thus my reception, of these brochures.”
“Oh, OK, so you’re just starting out … Let me show you what you’re in for…”
She stood – displaying a somewhat more generous, but almost as shapely hind quarters as her predecessor – and made her way to the wall. She collected more pamphlets from the rack, and returned.
“…The package you’ve indicated is a fifteen day tour of Vietnam, where you’ll see some of the most amazing sights the country has to offer … The good thing about this one is you’ll be with a tour group so risk is minimised, and…”
Kasey riffled through the booklet again, before looking up and staring at me intently.
“…Are you sure you want to go Contiki?”
“Well yeah,” I paused, “I mean, the age requirement says eighteen to thirty-five – I’m currently thirty-two so, you know, this is probably the last chance I’ll have…”
“I understand that, it’s just that you go with Contiki, you’ll most likely be with a group of teenagers, who don’t really care about sight-seeing, and just want to get drunk every night..?”
“Is that” – I hesitated hoping her point would present itself – “is that an issue?”
“Well it’s just that, you know, most days you’ll be hung over … You won’t be able to truly experience Vietnam and all it has to offer..?”
“I dunno,” I muttered without conviction, “sounds alright to me.”
“What about Intrepid – it’d be a slightly more mature crowd, it’s cheaper, you’d still have a good time, and it’d just be better because you wouldn’t be constantly hung over..?”
“Yeah, for the record Kasey,” I forced myself to brighten up, “I don’t typically suffer hangovers, but alright, let’s have a look..?”
The veteran travel agent went over the details of both options, clearly harbouring bias towards Intrepid, making a point of bringing to my attention how the ‘package deal’ for the Intrepid trip cost over $1500 less than the same deal with Contiki, “…So then once you add the cost of flights…”
“You what?” I abruptly cut in. “’Cost of flights’..? I thought you said this was a ‘package deal’..?”
“I did, and it is … The ‘package’ includes everything you’ll need on the tour … Once you’re in Vietnam…”
“I just need to get to Vietnam..?”
“That is correct, and that cost is of course, additional,” then as if it were some kind of consolation, Kasey added, “but Flight Centre will get you the best possible prices on those flights.”
“So, what are we looking, for flights, I mean?”
“Ah, I’m not sure, but it will be the best price.”
“Yeah, thanks for that, it’s just that, you know, I’m budgeting for a trip, according to the prices of the ‘package deal’ in the brochures … Then you tell me that ‘flights are additional’..?”
“It’s company policy, sir, to only advertise the price of the tour and any activities included, not the airfares.”
“Alright,” I said dismissively, liking this idea less by the moment, “that’s fine … I tell you what, I’ll go away, you put together the cost of this package deal – sorry not the package – I mean the total cost of the deal – that’s everything – including visa, insurance, and any other tag-ons that you guys might have hidden away, then you email it to me … I’ll be back in in a fortnight.”
“OK, no problem,” Kasey chirruped to my already departing figure.
I received the email some days later and happily, the damage wasn’t as catastrophic as I had anticipated.
A fortnight later I dropped in to confirm the deal.
A fortnight after that I stopped by to ‘tidy up loose ends.’
A fortnight after that more ‘loose ends’ appeared and were tidied up accordingly.
Several months had passed since my last visit to Flight Centre when I received notification that the airfares (around half the trip’s total cost) needed to be ‘paid in full’.
I panicked, aware that the funding I had expected to have on hand in order to pay for this trip wasn’t due to arrive in my account for some months yet.
Naturally I hit up a family member for a loan, stipulating that the money would be paid back in full – potentially with interest – in a few months’ time.
The loan application accepted, my mind was again at relative ease.
A few nights later I heard on the News that Air New Zealand were announcing a ‘record profit’ and were paying out a ‘substantial dividend’, along with a ‘one time bonus’ to all shareholders; never had I been so thankful of my holding of 5000 Air New Zealand shares.
Ironically the money that Air New Zealand were to later inject into my account, was almost exactly the total sum required to fly Malaysian Air all the way to Vietnam and back.
Months passed; the only thing I heard from my adoptive travel agent was that she was quitting Bush Inn and moving to Flight Centre in the Palms Shopping Centre.
More months passed; I was now within six months of departure.
Suddenly the remainder of the trip – the tour package – needed to be paid.
This involved selling any Air New Zealand shares – at an unexpectedly hefty profit – skimming that profit then reinvesting the principal; that total was then generously topped up with goodwill from family members.
Finally, it was done.
I was going to Vietnam.
I reflected on how far I’d come over past months.
In around six months I was going to Vietnam for real.
I reflected on the youthful impulsiveness that had set this process in motion.
There had certainly been nothing impulsive about parting with the trip’s final instalment though.
I reflected again on the choices that had led me to this point.
Perhaps I did need to learn to think things through more…
Six months quickly became three.
Three months then became one.
One month became two weeks, where a twice yearly jiu-jitsu grading day almost killed me.
Two weeks then became the final week where, having barely recovered from my near-death-experience in the week prior – a week which in fact had included two more potential thrashings at regular training – I came very close to foregoing the coming week’s two training sessions, if only to be certain there would be no more near-death moments.
Given though how I feel I have become the embodiment of unblemished attendance records, within my jiu-jitsu class, I do have a reputation to uphold…
Today is Tuesday. I am leaving for Vietnam, via Auckland and with a stopover in Malaysia, on Friday.
…I shall be attending jiu-jitsu class tonight; I plan to attend Thursday night’s class also.
There will be, after all, over 12 hours of flight time the next day to recuperate.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Nia Death
Photography by X Perry-Ounce