There was nothing of particular value in my bag, so that wasn’t an issue. It was the massive inconvenience, the violation of having my possessions under the control of an unwelcome party, that left me so very irate.
I eventually worked out – along with a handful of pale-skinned stragglers from various flights at Tan Son Nhat International Airport – that I had to register with the ‘Lost Baggage Inquiries’. I filled out a form for a Vietnamese man who, despite scarcely being able to speak English himself, complained about the illegibility of my writing then told me, in his finest broken English, “When your bag is ready, it would be sent to the Aston Hotel Saigon.”
I peered at the man querulously. “Why not just get it for me now?” I demanded.
“It will be sent to your hotel,” he said again.
“But you know where it is … I mean I’ve just spent over two hours searching for it … It turned up on an earlier flight, probably spent a few hours doing laps of baggage claim, before your guys claimed it … You know where it is, I’ve filled out your form, why not just give it to me now?”
“It will be sent to your hotel, sir.”
“But I’m not even going to be at that hotel tomorrow … You lot have it … Find my luggage now.” I fought the eruption of rage inside me.
The man glanced at my form and said simply, “Aston Hotel Saigon.”
“So what do I do when my bags turn up at the ‘Aston Hotel Saigon’ the day after I’ve left the Aston Hotel Saigon?”
“You go hotel,” the man pointed to the airport exit.
“Yeah, about that,” I riffled through my Flight Centre Travel Wallet and pulled out the appropriate documentation, “I had someone arranged to pick me up – over six and a half hours ago – where do you think they will be now?”
The man shook his head and pointed toward the exit.
I shook my head and walked toward the exit.
The doors opened and I was hit with the searing residue of a thousand fan heaters; also the noise. Outside was a maelstrom of people holding signs with other people’s names, people holding signs with names of companies; people yelling for their long lost companions, and people who I’m sure were just yelling for the sheer love of making noise.
I stepped into the throng, this cavernous walkway disappearing amid two pulsating masses of Asian faces, peering at the signs, the faces, searching for anything resembling anything helpful. I walked this gauntlet a number of times using my newly acquired, rather basic knowledge of the Vietnamese language to both ingratiate myself, and to downplay offers of transportation, or otherwise – “Sin loi … Khom, khom,” (as it sounds rather than how it’s spelt, essentially meant) ‘Sorry … No, no.’
As I walked, above the ambient cacophony I was trying to think; surely I should call someone – someone with Intrepid perhaps..?
But then, I thought soberly (along with the logic that can only come from a 24 hour stint of awakedness), it’s not their fault I’m late – seems like it’s hardly fair of me to pull them back almost seven hours after their scheduled pick-up, which I missed..?
I walked clear of the throbbing horde and stopped, trying to shut out the noise, the heat, and just trying to think. I checked my phone; according to the time displayed, it had little idea what it was doing either. I considered dialling someone – but whom? I decided on one more pass through the gauntlet. If I could find an Intrepid logo, maybe they could put me right.
Shit. I panicked. Where was my bag? I realised I’d been walking without it for a while now and…
Ah yes, I almost chuckled. ‘Where is my bag?’ indeed.
…I then saw an Asian man holding an Intrepid sign. My heart fluttered. I approached. I then saw the handwritten name beneath ‘Intrepid’. It wasn’t my name. Nevertheless this was the biggest break I’d had. I pushed through the crowd toward the man. His expression was bemused, as he inquired if I was the name on his card. I confirmed that I was not. He started to move away. I pulled him back. “I’m looking for my driver … With Intrepid,” I said, hopefully.
The man shook his head and made to move away again; I stopped him. “Sir, please, I had organised a ride from Ho Chi Minh Airport, to the Aston Hotel Saigon…”
The man looked at me in confusion.
“I need to get to the Aston Hotel Saigon … I am with Intrepid…”
Suddenly there was a voice behind me: “Aston Hotel Saigon … Intrepid, Intrepid!”
I turned to face an excited Vietnamese man.
“Aston Hotel,” he said again, “I take you … Intrepid!”
“Are you my man?” I asked, doubtfully, but really too tired to care.
“Intrepid, I take you, Aston Hotel … Intrepid!” He pointed to his car, which in hindsight I should have taken the time to view properly (Intrepid provided a list of reputable taxi companies and a few minutes later, I would find myself strongly doubting that this man’s company was among them).
“So you are my man, with Intrepid..?”
“Intrepid … Intrepid!”
This repetition did little to boost my confidence in the man but, far as I could tell, he was a legitimate taxi driver. “Alright,” I said resignedly, heading towards his waiting chariot, pulling out my receipt showing payment for transportation from Tan Son Nhat International Airport to the Aston Hotel Saigon.
The Vietnamese man opened the boot and studied at me curiously. “No luggage..?”
“Your fucking country stole my fucking luggage,” I said simply.
I took a seat in the back and leaned forward with my receipt, trying to point out the ‘payment’ portion.
“Where you go?” the man asked suddenly.
I slumped back in the seat, defeated. “Please, just take me to the Aston Hotel, Saigon.”
The car started moving.
I leaned forward again, indicating on my receipt: “You are aware, sir, this trip has already been paid in full.”
The man muttered something I did not understand, then tapped a small card at the base of his centre console.
I leaned closer; it appeared to be a payment schedule.
He lifted it for me to see properly, underlining one line in particular with his thumbnail: ‘Aston Hotel Saigon – 70.000VND’
“No,” I said. “Like I said, I have already paid.”
“You pay,” said the delightful Viet.
“I am not paying, I have already paid.”
“You pay now – you pay me.”
Previously on the precipice of toppling, I now happily lunged over: “I am not paying you, you are a thieving prick … I have already paid Intrepid!”
The driver hit the brakes; it used all my strength to not end up beside him in the front. He turned to me. We locked eyes momentarily. He pointed to the passenger door and shrieked something that must have resembled ‘Get out!’
I was furious. “I am not getting out!” I thrust the Intrepid receipt in his face and pointed to the address. “You will take me here! Do it! Now!”
The man turned to the front and the taxi started moving again; I passed over seven 10.000 dong notes. “Thank you,” I said meekly.
The taxi came to a halt at the end of a street. The driver turned to me furiously: “Seven hundred dong,” he said.
I gazed out the window at the dereliction that lay before me. I felt as though I was in a cheap horror movie, and actually decided that it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up sleeping on the street tonight.
I was drenched in my own perspiration. My head throbbed. My entire body vibrated as my nervous system staged a revolt; I was aware that I was swaying back and forward like a drunkard. I snapped into reality: “Seven hundred..?” I queried calmly. “The fare was seventy … I paid that.”
“No,” I intoned, sitting back in the seat and feeling my head brush the hood-lining.
“You pay now, seven hundred,” the little man glared at me with a kind of hatred that I couldn’t imagine was strongly promoted by Vietnam’s hospitality sector.
Embracing my newfound calmness I pointed to the receipt and asked, “Are we even here?”
“You pay, I take you.”
I sat up quickly, now beyond furious. I brought my face close to the driver’s wide eyed stare, and in a voice louder than I have ever used indoors, clearly articulated, “You will take me to the Aston Hotel Saigon, and you will take me there now!” With that I sat back and started peeling from my wallet hundred dong notes and throwing them onto his passenger seat: “One hundred thousand … Two hundred thousand … Three hundred thousand…”
Meanwhile the little Vietnamese man was experiencing veritable fits of rage.
“…Four hundred thousand … Oh you’d better start driving, you spineless piece of shit, because if I get to seven hundred and we’re not at the Aston, I am going to choke the fucking life out of you.”
Evidently the majority of Vietnamese taxi drivers speak much better English than they let on, because once I hit ‘five hundred’ he started driving across town very quickly. I waited until I saw the ‘Aston Hotel Saigon’ banner before throwing down the seventh hundred then leaned forward to collect my initial payment of 70.000 from the centre console, to find it mysteriously vanished. “Get out!” (I assume) he screamed; which I did.
Gripping my hand luggage I stormed across the road toward the hotel, amid the stench of poorly tuned engines and the discord of overused horns, before thinking, I really should have grabbed some water from those street vendors…
I turned, glancing left and right, briefly assessing the flow of traffic. (‘Flow’ is an odd word for it; while I was indeed prepared for traffic in Vietnam to travel on the right, what I was not so prepared to see was, at a busy time of day, the way it moved on both sides of the road, and in whichever direction.)
…Stepping around a slab of broken concrete (debris was everywhere up and down the street, and in fact I recall noting how reminiscent it was of Christchurch’s Manchester Street the day after), I placed my foot back into the gutter, looking to the right, trying to judge which way traffic was primarily flowing at this point. Suddenly there was a toot directly behind me. I reflexively stepped back; in doing so inadvertently raising my left arm. I felt hard contact on my left wrist and saw my watch go flying five metres down the road…
I recall glancing down in confusion and seeing looking up at me the angry little Asian face of the man I had just impeded, as he whizzed by on his scooter.
…Disregarding everything else, gripped by this new kind of indignation cum fury, I threw myself out into the middle of the pulsating street, grabbed my broken watch, and in two more powerful strides was amid the rubble of the other sidewalk. I glanced down at my expensive timepiece; now with a broken pin.
“I fix! I fix!” From nowhere appeared a short dark man, looking up at me with expectant eyes. “I fix! I fix!” he yelled again and, before I had time to withdraw my hand, snatched the watch away. He disappeared down the street just as the hotel porter appeared beside me. With a slim, shapeless physique and hair cut short, she could have been an attractive young woman, or he could have been a handsome young man; I wasn’t sure which. Many Asian folk have this ability.
The nametag said ‘Fine’; I was unsure if this was a man’s name, a woman’s name, or an assessment of the person’s overall well-being.
He/She put his/her arm around me and offered me a cigarette. (Every man in Vietnam smokes; also some women.) I was past caring. I took the cigarette, muttering, “Kahm urn.” (‘Thank you.’) Fine tried to lead me back over the road. I resisted, citing my need for fluids. I turned to the first street vendor I saw. He looked at me, unspeaking.
“Nuok..?” I glanced down at the water.
He pushed the bottle towards me.
“Bough new tien?” I asked.
I nodded, bending down to place two 10.000 dong notes on the children’s play-table table then picking up the water.
“Forty,” the man interjected.
Hit with another explosion of rage, with forcible calmness I pushed the water bottle back towards the man, retrieved my notes, looked this street vendor in the eye and said simply, “Get fucked.”
I walked/stumbled ten metres down to the next one who, having witnessed my prior exchange, was only too happy to sell me a bottle of water for the typical, 20.000 dong. After trying to remove the safety seal, then the cap, then both at once, then trying to screw the entire top off the bottle – then finally handing it to Fine for assistance and being vividly reminded of the benefit of dextrous fingers – I bit the bottle-neck in my teeth, threw back my head and took a very messy gulp, past caring about anyone or anything. I stumbled back to my start-point navigating stacks of bricks, piles of broken concrete, heaps of sand and other assorted construction/destruction materials. I was seething. Fine looked up at me, as if concerned about what I might do next. Just then the dark man returned with my watch. I gazed upon the excited character in disbelief.
“One-twenty,” he demanded, offering the repaired timepiece.
I was shocked. He could have sold that watch for much more than 120.000 dong. I pulled out my wallet. “One-twenty..?” I confirmed.
The man nodded eagerly.
I handed him a 100.000 and a 20.000 dong note, said “Thank you,” and reached forward to take my watch.
“One-forty,” taking my money, he stepped back.
In a furious surge I grabbed my watch, thrust a forefinger between this street vendor’s eyes then in as loud a voice as I could muster, bellowed, “FUCK YOU!”
The man took a step back, smiled and extended his right hand.
Shaking my head I did shake his hand, adding, “You are a filthy little prick.”
I checked the time; I had been in Vietnam only a few hours and I felt as though it had already robbed me of 20 years of life.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Rip A Shuss
Photography by Con Mann