As I walked I recall glancing at my watch; I recall it reading still before 10 p.m.
I recall thinking about the following day’s plans; being an apparent ‘free day’, the ‘optional activity’ I had selected was a day’s snorkelling off the coast of one of Nha Trang Bay’s picturesque islands.
I recalled the ‘snorkelling’ activity had been a popular one; only two or three of the group had elected for an alternative pastime.
I recalled also that the snorkelling group was to meet in the hotel lobby (dammit, I had forgotten the hotel’s name again – although I did recall it was over the road from one called the ‘Camellia’) and be ready to depart by 10 a.m.; I was aware that most others in the group had gone to bed early in anticipation of this ‘early’ start…
Momentarily halting I lowered my head, then with two hands raised my bottle (I had just seen the irony) of Vietnamese scotch and clamped the neck between my front teeth. Withdrawing both hands I then threw back my head, using my tongue to stem the flow as I leaned quickly forward and awkwardly removed the bottle. It was messy, it was uncomfortable, it was a spectacle for anyone lucky enough to witness the show – also I’m certain that each time it chipped more enamel from my teeth – but it got the job done.
…I recalled the day after New Year’s Eve ’99 (which makes me sound rather older than the number I had just turned…), where as a 15-year-old (…so you work it out) experiencing his first real boozy all-nighter, and after being recruited to head out, along with the morning sun, into the rocky shallows of the bay of the South Island’s Bank’s Peninsula – where the water doesn’t typically start to heat up until late-February – and bring back a swag of seafood for the other (older) revellers’ breakfasts, that in fact there is no better, and indeed more refreshing, way to start the day of the night before, than amid the chilly water and regulated breathing patterns enforced by snorkelling. (Alas as I would come to learn, Vietnamese water lacks the same ‘chilly/icy’ quality of New Zealand water, and the depths to which one can easily swim – even without the benefit of a weight-belt – in the clear – and perhaps less salty..? – Vietnamese oceans were to be anything but beneficial to my condition.)
Without realising it I had entered some kind of nightlife area. I started to feel very good about what the night might bring. I passed a group of laughing Asian men, smiling and nodding my acknowledgement. Out of (recently adopted) habit I gave my right butt-cheek a pat/brush/swipe to ensure my wallet was still where it ought to have been. Any people, any interaction; any distraction, I was aware, was opportunity to have one’s wallet plundered.
Another pause, another swig, another butt-swipe; move on. I then came upon a late night food vendor and stopped. “Sin chow,” I began with a flourish.
“Sin chow,” the attractive woman smiled.
“Ban ko kware kom?”
She momentarily paused in confusion, then, “Doy kwair.”
I pointed to the picture of the meal I wanted.
“One..?” she asked, raising a finger.
“Mot,” I nodded, raising a finger.
“You sit,” the woman said abruptly, gesturing to a few red plastic, children’s play-chairs.
I sat down and felt instant gratification in my feet and legs…
I began to wonder: how far had I walked tonight? I checked my watch; 11:45 p.m. Crikey. By my reckoning it should have been shortly after ten. I looked down at the bottle hanging from my limp wrist; there was only a skerrick left. Crikey indeed. I performed some quick calculations; that was only around five hours. Shit, that must’ve been some kind of record – but then, I had had help. Still, I put it down to exercise; keep moving, burn up that booze. My God, I was dry though. I needed water badly. I was also starving; I needed to find somewhere that sold food. Water as well, I needed water
…“Here you are, sir,” the Vietnamese woman said, placing several bowls on the plastic table before me…
I was so hungry; picking up the chopsticks without thinking I attacked the meal with abandon. It was by far the best thing I had eaten in Vietnam (and wasn’t until sometime later that I realised I was using chopsticks at this al fresco food shop in Vietnam with equal if not better proficiency than I use a knife and fork at the table at home).
…”No, no, no, no,” the woman was saying, before bending down to offer assistance. Taking my chopsticks she showed me how to mix the sauces (which although these had a smell resembling, officially, ‘sweaty feet’; unofficially, ‘unclean genitalia’, they did offer a veritable flavour banquet) and other condiments with the different foods types and ultimately, use the three bowls to make one meal.
Once she had done this I tried again. “Oh, kahm urn,” I said – straining to pull words from my brain – “Ngon kware,” (‘delicious’) I said, rubbing my stomach appreciatively.
The woman smiled and laughed, “Non kwair..? … Non kwair, kam urn.”
After the meal I stood and made my way to the stall’s makeshift counter.
“Bough new tien?” I asked the smiling woman.
Her smile widened, “Seventy.”
“Oh, and some water – ah, nuok..?”
“Thirty,” she responded, reaching into her food-preparation area for a bottle of water.
“Kahm urn,” I said, sliding a 200 over the counter. “Kahm urn.”
I used one of the vendor’s chairs to sit while I opened the water and took a few massive gulps, managing, as is often the way, to choke myself to the point of an uncontrollable coughing fit.
Initially standing, looking on with concern, the woman soon came to my aid, sitting beside me, rubbing and patting my back (and while this actually does nothing to help a person’s plight, the gesture is lovely), despite my frantically waving arms signalling I was fine. Once the coughing had subsided the woman sat down, still with a face of compassion.
I took a small (but very awkward) swig of scotch, felt the burn as it went down, smiled, turned, cleared my throat forcefully, and said, “Den doy lah, Tim.” (My name is, Tim.)
The woman looked at me, bemused.
“Den lah zee?” (What’s your name?)
Her face suddenly brightened, “Ah, Tim … Den doy lah, Nga.”
I smiled. “Nga.” I stood, took her hand and kissed it. “Kahm urn, Nga,” I said, before patting my butt-cheek and striding into the night.
My next stop was a night time vendor serving fruit smoothies; I chose three fruits (from the array of unusual shapes and colours) then watched as they were expertly peeled, blended with ice, and served. These concoctions provided a flavour explosion like I have never experienced and, at just 50.000 dong a pop, I had drunk four – from different stalls; it wasn’t as though I planned to just stand there all night – before my stomach/bowels began to groan…
Whether it was the abundance of spicy food I had over past days been ingesting, the bottle of Vietnamese scotch I had just imbibed – the remainder of which I had poured into number two smoothie with an utterly repulsive outcome – or perhaps it had to do with the fact that I had not stopped drinking from hotel faucets, but my usual once-daily defecation break had stretched out to at least three.
…It made sense to my inebriated brain that a sudden excess of essentially pure fruit might have this effect and, while I had seen a number of people urinating in the streets since I’d been in Vietnam, I did not think the passing of solids (although realistically this felt anything but solid) would be an accepted practise.
I calmly approached a doorway of what appeared to be a bar, and stepped inside. I went up one flight of stairs; the word written above the big red arrow read ‘Massage.’ Not tonight, I thought, patting my butt-cheek and continuing up the next flight.
The next word-over-the-arrow read ‘Café’. I ducked inside and walked to the (licensed) bar. I ordered a “Café sua, nuok dah.” (‘White coffee, iced.’)…
“White, iced..?” the attendant clarified.
I nodded thoughtfully, “Kahm urn.” I couldn’t find the word for ‘toilet’ in my head anywhere. It seemed as though it should have been a word I would have learned, but it didn’t appear to be. Adding to this issue was the fact that the room was too dark for me to even see a potential ‘W.C.’ notice on the café walls.
I stirred the black coffee uncomfortably, for one thing having difficulty making it permeate with the condensed milk in the bottom of the glass without tipping over the glass, but moreover, feeling the need to evacuate my bowels becoming increasingly urgent.
I caught the young woman’s attention; “Toilet..?” I enunciated.
Without speaking she pointed upwards.
“Next floor..?” I asked.
Up the stairs two at a time I entered the premises on the third floor without even knowing what it was. I went straight to the bar (turns out it was a nightclub of sorts) and wasted no time with pleasantries: “Toilet..?”
The male staff member pointed to a door just to the right of where I had entered. “Nice one, thank you,” I said hurriedly.
Five minutes after that, cleaned up and feeling ultimately relieved, I was back at the night time café, stirring my coffee (with scrupulously washed, yet frustratingly pants-dried – as Vietnamese W.C.s rarely have any means for drying hands), watching the coffee gradually mingle with the condensed milk. Adding the cup-sized ice cube, before it had time to melt too much I pointed to a bottle of Chivas (mid-range scotch whisky), raised two fingers and asked the woman, “Hie..?” (‘Two?’)
She followed my finger, lifted the bottle, found the nip-pourer, and looked at me with confusion.
I raised two fingers, “Hie,” then indicated to my rapidly melting block of nuok dah.
She gave me another confounded look, but went about filling a double nip with the pricy scotch.
I gestured for ‘that’ to go ‘there’, and watched as she obliged.
She then looked at me, as if wondering why this strange man – with his convivial designer shirt, glasses and a backwards Fedora – wanted her to ruin his café sua nuok dah.
“Bough new tien?” I asked.
She consulted her list. “One-forty,” she said.
I gave her two 100s, marvelling at the added expense of importation (my entire bottle of ‘Vietnamese scotch’ from earlier had cost just 170), said “Kahm urn,” and waited for my ice to melt some more.
Later, having finished my Irish café sua nuok doh, under the recommendation of the coffee shop lady, I went back upstairs to the supposed nightclub. Customers were sparse yet the mood was strangely upbeat.
I asked firstly for a glass of water and, with the blessed aid of a straw, drained that; then requested a glass of my old favourite, scotch and ginger ale…
I used to always dilute my scotch but have in recent times found that during a big night, even with my preferred half/half ginger ale to scotch ratio, slurping back multiple ‘pints of scotch’ in one night is simply more sweet liquid than I feel I want to be drinking.
…They didn’t have ginger ale so I settled for Coke, or the modern Vietnamese equivalent.
Having sampled my beverage I was interested to find that it tasted more like Sarsaparilla than scotch and Coke, and was beginning to seriously wonder what I was drinking; with recently developed trust issues at the fore of my mind I had been closely watching this bartender mix two nips of Chivas in with whatever dark liquid was coming out of his soda-gun – when I was joined by two gorgeous young Vietnamese women.
Always the gentlemen I asked if I could buy the ladies a drink; an idea which they both seemed to like and, after conveying their orders to the barman in a foreign tongue, happily watched the rich Westerner pay for their drinks.
Then, one pretty lady standing at either side of me urging me to finish my drink so we could go somewhere else, I hastily finished my drink (I’m certain they didn’t finish theirs but will admit to a loss of clarity around this point), and we left.
We went upstairs, to the fourth floor I didn’t know existed. I must have looked as though I had a terrible itch that couldn’t quite be reached, every minute or so swiping a hand over my backside…
I didn’t trust these women; exquisite as they appeared, heavenly as they smelled, I knew something sinister was going/about to go down, yet was finding it interesting to discover just how far these ladies would push me before I backed off.
…Level four, more drinks; of course I pay. These women are very friendly, and very touchy. (Butt-cheek swipe.) We sit down; I don’t know what we’re talking about because I can’t understand a damn thing we’re saying. The ladies appear to be having a marvellous time with me though. The seductive touching and fondling soon becomes playful grabbing and groping, and I can see exactly what’s about to happen here…
I stand up, staggering wildly. The two women practically fall to the floor. I swipe my butt-cheek just to be certain; everything’s intact. The ladies look up at me with their sad little Vietnamese puppy-dog eyes (which almost made me chuckle because every dog I had seen in Vietnam resembled a sickly rat). I turn to leave. One of them takes my arm and starts to lead me away; I feel the other place a hand at the small of my back. Ignoring their direction I turn again toward the exit, waving a hand above my head, calling, “Sin loi, tahm beeat, hen gap lie.”
…One of the two meets me at the doorway and puts her arm around me. (Swipe.) As I step through the threshold her associate arrives on my other side. (Swipe.) As I walk steadily down the steps I can feel hands touching all over my body. (Swipe, swipe, swipe.) …
When I finally emerge on the street (swipe), I am alone again.
…I stand, I breath, I recompose; I reassess. My head doesn’t feel right; that’s probably understandable though…
I then recalled our guide’s ‘recommendation against’ visiting certain bars in Vietnam, as they were known for luring in tourists, getting them drunk or drugging them before basically taking their money and sending them back out on the street (swipe).
…But that was days ago we were told that, wasn’t it? That was about Ho Chi Minh, surely..? We were on the bus – no, the train station – but that was way back, surely, in that other place, talking about, warning…
Hah, as it turns out, other than the costs of those harlots’ drinks, I haven’t actually lost any money, which is something. I am suddenly hit by panic though. I spin back towards the entrance I just left. I think I am expecting to see someone come running out to finish the job or something. Hah, the job. Joke’s on them, I can’t even remember what job I’m talking about. Shit, about that, I can’t even find where I went inside a minute ago. I gaze along the street façade. Everything has shifted. Have I been walking, or has the street been moving? Nothing is where I remember it. Am I moving now? Nothing is how I remember it. Everything is different now. Am I still me? What if I’m different now, too? I might be a totally different person. I might have super powers. Hang on, how am I moving? I am not walking yet I am moving. Everything around me is all just a ruse. It’s all just designed to scam me. Everyone here’s a crook. Everyone’s full of shit but me. Trust no one. Nothing’s as it seems (hah, Pearl Jam, great song), and right here, right now, nothing is real.
…Be careful where you go in Nha Trang.
Pulling myself together I glanced at my watch, and thought of Ho Chi Minh City. It was after 2 a.m. in Nha Trang. I continued walking. A scooter pulled up beside me. “Hey, where you going?” asked a distinct American voice…
I turned, and saw a young Vietnamese man sitting atop his small motorcycle (the majority of fluent English-speaking Vietnamese people speak with an American twang, on account of their learning ‘American English’.)
…”Where you from, man?”
“New Zealand,” I replied, hearing, in my own head, in my own voice, that awful Kiwi accent – ‘New Zolland’, I had said.
“Ah,” the cheery American-Viet went on, “Kiwi – I love Kiwi!”
“Yeah,” I muttered, “pretty sure it’s not that good – they can’t fly anyway.”
“Hey, Kiwi,” the Viet idled his bike along, continuing his ingratiation, “kia ora, bro!”
“Yeah,” I muttered again, “said I’m a Kiwi, not a Maori.”
“Hey Kiwi, where you going?”
“Honestly sir,” I raised my voice, “I’m not too sure.”
“Hey, you want me to take you there?”
“Well shit man,” I stopped walking, “if I’m not sure, I mean, where the hell do you plan to take me?”
“I’ll take you somewhere good, I promise.”
“Ah” – employing my philosophy – “why the fuck not?” I jumped on and together we rode through the city streets.
My driver must have known exactly where he was going because, not five minutes later, we pulled up outside a massage parlour.
“We’re here!” called the ebullient Viet, in a statement I imagined reminiscent of a carload of Yanks having reached their road-trip destination.
“Where’s here?” I asked stupidly.
“Come inside, Kiwi, we have some fun!”
I stepped off the bike, and addressed my driver. “What’s your name, man?”
“Hey, Kiwi, I’m Dan, how you?”
“How am I? I’m doing alright, thank you, Dan.”
“No, Kiwi, who are you?”
“Ah, Dan, nice one, I’m Tim, thank you for asking – now what’s the go?”
“Ah, Tim, we go inside, boom-boom, Tim, boom-boom.”
“Boom-boom..?” I asked, “You bring me here for boom-boom?”
“Yes, Tim, inside!” the cheerful character pointed gleefully.
“So, you pick me up, you give me a ride, to this massage parlour … So I can have boom-boom..?”
“Yes, Tim, you pay, you pay for both of us! Yes, Tim!”
Honestly I was too busy working out this man’s – Dan’s – motives to listen closely to what he was saying; although when I caught mention of ‘pay for both’, I did at least begin to develop insight into his movements.
“You pay..?” he was seemingly losing faith that I would carry out my half of his deal. “You no have cash, no problem, I take you ATM … We have boom-boom, Tim, boom-boom!”
I unthinkingly swiped my right butt-cheek. The wallet was there – along with I didn’t-know-how-many million Vietnamese dong – yet still I was caught in a quandary.
I wanted to known Dan’s reasons for bringing me here; was it purely so he could get his end away too, or did it go deeper…
In reality I hadn’t been at all surprised when Dan had stopped to ask me if I needed a ride – a Vietnamese stranger on a scooter giving a ride to a loitering solo White man – I had both seen it before and been the subject of it before. These ostensibly benevolent motorcyclists didn’t seem to require a fee for their transportation; I assumed that was all wrapped up in the commission they receive from whatever industry they were aiding.
…”Come on then, Dan,” I gestured, and together we strolled inside.
Through the threshold we stepped, where I wasn’t the least surprised to see Dan shaking hands, smiling and laughing with another couple of guys in the room; old buddies catching up. Dan showed me around the foyer, then through to the massage parlour’s ‘waiting room’ (a term which, I knew if I ever made it home again, would almost certainly be the source of future ‘Vietnam flashbacks’); then finally we went through into the ‘girls’’ room…
I won’t lie, they were breathtaking. There were around a dozen of what I have to assume were the world’s most beautiful creatures; so elegantly adorned in their sheer, silken finery, utterly exquisite and with the most stunning figures, and my God, the most gorgeous smiles. Even the few transvestites – the few that I could immediately deduce (from the lumps at their throats), which says nothing about how many were actually among them – were more alluring than anything I had seen or indeed, would ever expect to see in a Christchurch bar or club back home. These young women possessed a level of beauty that quite simply, in my opinion, transcended anything in this world.
…There was no question, I wanted to do it; glancing at my chauffeur, much deduction was not needed to see that he very much wanted to do it also. Nevertheless I maintained my composure, some ridiculous element of sensibility within my brain assuring me that if I did go ahead with this, firstly, there was absolutely zero chance that it was going to be as spectacular as I expected it to be and secondly, if I did go through with this arrangement – which I could see Dan, having hurried back through to the foyer, trying to set up for me – I was beyond adamant that something was going to eventuate which ensured there was no way I was walking out of this place satisfied that I had received a good deal…
Ultimately I was still of sufficient lucidity to appreciate that this was one of those situations where the notion, the expectation, indeed where the anticipation of the deed, greatly outweighs the deed in actuality; I knew that I would be better off walking away and perhaps spending the next few years of my life kicking myself for what I potentially missed, than indulging my desires thereby throwing away a week’s worth of budget only to destroy my illusion by discovering that these paragons of femininity have flaws just like the rest of us and in reality are not the goddesses they appear to be but in fact are quite likely to be quintessentially silly little girls of the variety that I despise. (I often elect for delusion over reality; shit’s so much simpler that way.)
…Some of the ladies were now giving me the eye, trying to lure me into their embrace, and Dan, having returned from making his deal out front, was further trying to convince me. “How much?” turning to Dan I threw out the obvious question.
“For you Tim, two million.”
I performed some quick arithmetic (2,000,000 divided by 17,000, coming out at somewhere over $100), and came up confused. “For both of us, you mean..?”
“Nah Kiwi, two mill for you, two mill for me – we both have good night, man!”
“But two million, I mean, that doesn’t even work out to be cheap – that’s fuckin’ Western prices..?”
“Nah Kiwi, I saw your money, you can afford it – best night of your life, I promise!”
The head between my legs very much wanted to believe him, yet the head between my shoulders knew that he was full of shit…
“’Best night of my life’..?” I queried, “I don’t believe you.”
“Nah, Kiwi, best night of your life, man, I promise.”
“Yeah, you already said that, but the problem is, Dan, you see, I don’t trust you.”
“Oh, come on, Tim, you can trust me, I make good deal for you – we have boom-boom!”
“Yeah, it’s not just you, Dan, you see, I don’t trust any of you people – you’re all lying, cheating, conning, swindling, loathsome shitheads … Besides, four million dong for a Vietnamese fuck..?”
“Nah, Tim, only two mill for you, you can do boom-boom, you can fuck a girl good, Tim – we both can … Come on, Tim..?”
“Two mill for me, then two mill for you, along with whatever else you end up taking from this place – it’s shit, Dan.”
Even if I had been willing to pay the 4 million dong – which would have almost cleaned me out – while I was occupied, I was confident that my wallet would be cleaned out of the remainder of its cash; a truth which made me less willing.
…The head between my shoulders knew Dan was full of shit because on top of what he wanted me to pay, I suspected he would then have his cut for providing custom to the business in the first place, and that kind of deceit didn’t run with me.
Probably the most compelling factor though, was the fact that, appealing as those young women appeared to be, simply, I didn’t particularly want to engage in prostitution – atypical of a man as full of dark spirits as I was – I thought of the consequences…
Having ‘engaged in relations with a sex worker’, as well as the personal misgivings that would undoubtedly engender, the NZ Blood Service would refuse to take my plasma for, I think, 12 months, and that would be just disastrous. No, it was settled. I was done.
…”Take me home, Dan.”
“What?! No come on, Kiwi, what about the girls – what about the boom-boom?”
“Boom-boom with pretty young sluts..? Not worth the shit.”
“No, what do you mean, Kiwi?”
“I mean, Dan, like I said, I don’t trust you – I don’t trust any fucker around this place – you’re all lying, cheating, fuck-heads … I’ll give you five hundred dong right now if you take me back to my hotel, now.”
“Oh, come on Tim, don’t do that – let’s do boom-boom, you pay!”
“Do you want five hundred or not? If you don’t I’ll find somebody else to take me home.”
“Oh, come on, Tim, let’s have boom-boom, you pay!”
“Fuck off Dan, I’m going home.”
As I exited those premises I could still hear Dan’s chirping voice (‘Oh, come on, Tim..? You pay!’); I wasn’t sure if it was carrying through the establishment or if his tone was now imbedded in my brain. I stepped out onto the vacant street and breathed the putrid, warm air. I could feel myself swaying whenever I stopped moving forward; I wondered how I’d maintained such presence of mind back there, to say nothing of the (frustratingly rational) display of willpower.
I stumbled down the road, surprised also that at this stage in the night I was still apparently coherent in the face of others. In fairness my mind at that point still felt mostly clear; it was just my body that was giving me trouble. I couldn’t really feel my legs, but I think my feet were tired.
I heard a scooter pull up to my left. I turned. “Hop on, Tim, I’ll give you a ride.”
“I thought you’d be busy, Dan.”
“No, Tim, I got no money – that’s why you pay!”
“Not this time, sorry Dan.”
“That’s alright, Tim, I get boom-boom next time … Jump on … Where you go?”
“Ah, it’s the hotel, that’s ah, opposite the, ah, the Camellia.”
Dan took out his phone and started scrolling through Vietnamese maps. A minute later we set off. It’d been one hell of a night. I reckon I’d gleaned more information about Vietnam in that one night than I could have hoped to have learned in a lifetime of reading about Southeast Asia in New Zealand.
I was finally glad that I had come to Vietnam; all the shit seemed to have dissipated amid a fug of whisky vapour and now, I felt – with snorkelling tomorrow – that I could truly start to enjoy myself.
That thought must have struck me at around 3 a.m.; if only I had realised that the underbelly of Vietnam is so much more crooked, so much more devious than I ever could have imagined.
Indeed, the worst was still yet to come.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Crick Kidd
Photography by V Utt Nahm