Given how erratic – even deranged – my actions must have appeared, I wasn’t altogether surprised to finally be led up the hotel steps by a rather wary hotel porter.
Evening was setting in as the receptionist presented me with key-card then laboriously told me to take the lift up to my room. I gazed around the foyer of this musty-smelling, dirty-looking hotel and made clear there was no way I was going up to my room alone, as I was certain that it wouldn’t be straightforward. The receptionist assured me it would be fine, and that I should go up to my room. Again I refused, demanding a staff member join me. I was again told to go alone. At this point I started to become angry. Finally a female staff member, who was standing at the desk doing nothing in particular, agreed to accompany me up the lift…
My intention had been to arrive In Ho Chi Minh City a full day before my tour group were scheduled to land in Vietnam, to spend some time exploring and adjusting to this new country/city; however taking into account the airline’s ‘error’ (cock-up) and the ensuing ‘unpleasantness’ (shit-storm) this had precipitated, the first day was almost over and I still felt as though I hadn’t truly arrived in this, potentially marvellous, land.
…On our arrival at my room the woman scanned the card on the door lock. She tried the handle; the door wouldn’t open. She scanned it again. She pushed the handle again; again the door wouldn’t open. She turned the card over and scanned it again, before glancing up at me with nervously apologetic eyes.
“Doesn’t worry me one bit,” I said calmly, leaning up against the doorframe, “I’ve already given up on this country providing me with any kind of success.”
Finally the woman conceded and began making her way back down the lift; I followed.
At the front desk I leaned in toward the receptionist who had been so adamant that I should go alone to my room. “See this?” I said quietly.
She looked up; I was indicating the woman now exchanging key-cards.
I made a point of speaking slowly and clearly: “This is why I wanted an escort … You see, for as long as I have been in your country, nothing has gone right … I did not expect this place would treat me any differently.”
“OK,” the receptionist forced a smile, “you right, I sorry.”
I came down from my new room and immediately went on the hunt for food; Intrepid had ‘recommended against’ eating the local food – from street vendors and such – but the way I saw it, I was in Vietnam, I wasn’t about to be selective about which portions of Vietnam I experienced.
The hotel porter, Fine, joined me; suggesting, offering, assisting me in my quest (or as I would later learn, ‘assisting me to spend money in general’, was more accurate). Once I had the food sorted Fine showed me to the hotel bar and offered me a drink…
I noted that in Vietnam, anything local was extremely cheap – local food, local beer, local cigarettes – while anything imported – beef, spirits, Marlboros – by comparison, was around twice the price (yet still very much inexpensive by 1st World standards).
…Looking at the drinks menu I saw that a locally brewed beer cost 30.000 dong (‘30’), while a bourbon (Jimbean, as it was written) would set me back 95.000 dong; my meal had just cost 45.
Pricing inconsistencies notwithstanding, and seeing no scotch on the menu, I ordered a nice cool bourbon and coke for 95, paid with a 100 and told Fine to keep the change (which, as I would come to learn, actually went without saying; it was when you required change that you needed to stipulate), then sat outside and watched the traffic pass by…
In New Zealand the act of sitting at a bar and ‘watching the traffic pass by’ might be considered a ‘peaceful’ pastime; in HCMC, between the noise, the stench, and the overall feeling of mayhem, peaceful it is anything but.
…I had almost finished my drink and was doing my best to work through the anxiety in my head; realistically, I told myself, it was only my missing luggage that was still an issue. I had made it to my hotel, I still had my wallet, still had my hand luggage, along with – I just remembered – the few clothing items that I hadn’t bothered trying to squeeze into my main bag, meaning I really needn’t have been concerned.
It wasn’t really as bad as all that, I told myself, closing my eyes, slowing my breathing, leaning in for a jerky sip, and just focusing on the Jimbean.
I opened my eyes with a start. Fine had come back and was offering to fetch me another drink (using the parlance that I would later come to recognise as Vietnamese traders’ technique for clarifying a single purchase – showing one finger and clearly enunciating the word ‘One..?’).
I leaned forward, slurped back the last of my Jimbean, turned to Fine, lifted one finger, nodded, and said, “Mot,” (‘One.’)
Fine smiled gleefully and dashed away; returning a moment later with the drink. Pulling out my wallet I began leafing through the thick wad of Vietnamese currency (given my inability to easily recognise the notes’ values I had logically stacked them in order of monetary value – which is curiously the very same way I stack my wallet in New Zealand, but this probably has less to do with ease of recognition and more to do with OCD) and noticed, as I did this, Fine hovering over me, looking on attentively.
In the next instant, to my horror, this diminutive hotel porter cum bartender, cum general salesperson, had reached in, whipped a 200 dong note from my wallet, turned and was quickly walking back to the bar. I started to protest then stopped myself; sighed, and sat back in my chair. Fine was back a few minutes later, placed my drink on the table and stood looking at me…
I was very tired and, after the way I’d been carrying on, I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking me stupid; yet when it comes to numbers, I am never that stupid.
…Fine continued to look down at me with that endearing Vietnamese grin. I eventually reciprocated the grin before inquiring, “Change..?”
Fine quickly pulled from a pocket a 50 dong note, and placed it on the table.
I could feel anger surging inside me. I knew these people weren’t stupid; most of them could speak English competently and I was confident that every single one of them was proficient at basic arithmetic…
They were just con-artists; it was in their nature – somewhere along the way it seems to have become entwined in this Goddamned Vietnamese culture.
…Gazing up at Fine’s cheerful face something in my eyes must have changed, because a moment later a second 50 dong note followed the first.
I waited. Fine stood there, and prompted me to try the drink. I did. I then turned slowly to my left, locked eyes with the porter and spoke carefully, but boldly. “That first drink, I let you keep five, because I liked you…”
“…This drink, you still owe me five.”
Fine dashed back to the bar then returned holding the outstanding 5.000 dong note.
“Don’t ever try that again,” I said quietly.
That night, after Fine had taken me – perched on the back of a scooter (something else Intrepid ‘recommended against’), finding hilarity in crying out “Sin chow” (‘Hello’) to passersby, then “Sin loi” (‘Sorry/Excuse me’) when we obstructed traffic – to a number of new eateries around town, we returned to the Aston, set out a row of brightly coloured, child-sized patio furniture along the verge at the front of the hotel, between the piles of rubble, and spread the food out along the tables. Fine introduced me to the usual crowd – including a wonderful young Vietnamese woman who appeared very keen to know me – where I was cajoled into buying rounds of Jimbean; then together we ate, drank, fended off offers from street vendors all selling the same assortment of worthless crap – some barely old enough to walk, others almost too old to walk – and were indeed merry until the small hours.
The following morning, as is the theme, reality came pounding back, filling my head with the deluge of torrid thoughts that I had last night been so happily avoiding. On just a few hours’ sleep I stormed downstairs to check on any luggage updates. There were none. On the plus side the clothes I wore were now dry and – where in New Zealand if I drench a shirt with sweat then dry it out and wear it again the next day it stinks, in Vietnam my level of perspiration must have been so high that I genuinely think any potentially smelly bacteria had long been washed away and what I was therefore sweating was essentially pure water, which meant that for the majority of yesterday I had actually been giving my clothes a nice rinse – my shirt almost smelt fresh again.
As I strode through the hotel foyer, Mai, the Vietnamese princess I had encountered the night before – having chosen to sleep on the couch rather than smirch her Viet honour by lying with an Englishman, particularly one she’d just met – now woke. Upon seeing me push through the large glass doors and into the gust of ambient 7 a.m. heat, she eagerly followed. As I started clambering down the hotel steps, Mai caught my arm. “Where you go?” she asked, sorrowfully, as though I was disappearing from her life forever.
“Breakfast,” I said simply.
Her eyes lit up. “I take you,” grabbing my arm she bounced down the flight of concrete steps, across the already congested street, and into a shaded alcove harbouring meats, pastas, fresh produce, and very basic cooking facilities.
Over breakfast – 45 dong for pork (which I’d mistakenly thought was beef but later learned that in Vietnam one shouldn’t judge a meat by its colour), noodles, greens, dipping sauce and a whole lot of broth – the same meal in fact I’d eaten now three times in HCMC and which was making me seriously question the Vietnamese perception of the word ‘variety’, I learned that Mai was working that afternoon across town.
Lest I be seen as pillion on a motorbike operated by a lady, Mai phoned a male scooter-driver to come and collect me; then side by side we rode to her place of residence, in District 11…
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city. Its great expanse is composed of 24 ‘Districts’. 19 of the aforementioned are ‘City Districts’ while 5 are considered ‘rural’. All are considered part of Ho Chi Minh City. Each of these 24 Districts, I discovered, comes with a different theme, or motif; from Vietnamese fish markets to African American gang warfare, HCMC has it all. Through its many Districts, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly named Saigon; the nation’s capital) is believed to be among the most eclectic cities in the world. The Aston Hotel Saigon is in District 1, which is unequivocally HCMC’s filthiest, also the most depraved, District.
…District 11 reminded me of a movie depiction of ‘Chinatown’, with its many fresh produce markets and its quaint aura; with its drying clothes in windows and its hanging sheets for no reason. Traffic in District 11 was much less hostile, which made sense given that the majority of the roads were narrow thoroughfares between buildings…
I recall flying over Ho Chi Minh City on the descent to Tan Son Nhat Airport – oblivious to the kind of unpleasantness that awaited me – peering out the plane window and noticing, firstly, the interminable flatness of the area – like the view of the Canterbury Plains from Mount Hutt Ski-field only for as far as you can see in all directions – and secondly, the dirty brown canal-like waterways that crossed the landscape and which, on account of the flatness didn’t appear to move at all – and renewed me wonder regarding just what the hell people are moaning about, regarding waterways, back in New Zealand – but thirdly and most pointedly, the way the houses in Ho Chi Minh City are built so close together – there would be no need for a homeowner to own a lawn mower, or in fact any outdoor maintenance equipment at all, when the only space around their house was 750mm paved walkways.
…Fetching another set of clothes – Mai had stepped down from her scooter the night before as the absolute height of glamour in her heels (given their typically small statures most Vietnamese women wear heels, even when driving their scooters) and adorned in the most heavenly garb – traditional Vietnamese attire of brightly coloured satin pants, a high-cut, long-sleeved, mid-length, fitting satin blouse of a similar brightness, with a kind of crocheted, full-length shawl (of a similar colour) draped over and hanging low, complementing the outfit’s elegance.
Dressed as such Mai then fastened to her face a light breathing mask, whipped over her luscious brown hair a tatty helmet and, this time with me as pillion, rode between houses and through front yards to come out on a main road (presumably we had left District 11), and the site of Mai’s weekend employment; while it didn’t appear much from the outside, once we had penetrated the façade the premises in question transformed into a dreamlike vista.
This supposed café – where Mai’s job, it turned out, seemed to involve standing in generally the same place, occasionally speaking into a microphone and exuding the officious aura of an exquisitely dressed bouncer – was vast. Upon entering, a customer was unable to avoid the light mist that seemed to pervade every corner of the establishment, and which was undoubtedly in use to provide moisture to the abundant plant-life that grew out of most every corner, most every place in this stunning outdoor area. (The ‘outdoor area’ was actually the majority of the café and, while this was in fact a gargantuan shop-like structure basically replicating the outdoors while in an indoor environment, it simply had a small roofed area over the main work zone and counter.) There were in fact multiple ‘work zones’ all throughout the premises, dotted around this amazing (indoor and entirely manmade) landscape. Ponds with freakishly large goldfish and well-positioned stepping stones (too close to walk naturally yet too far apart to take two at a time), also running streams to replenish these oddly tranquil (given where we were) café features were utterly mind-blowing.
I had agreed with Mai that I would wait around in the café the few hours while she worked, where we would then (blessedly) go out for a meal together.
Amid the serenity of that café, permitting myself to slip into an almost relaxed state I actually made the mistake of considering that my Vietnam fortunes might just have been shifting; if only I’d known how bad things were to truly become.
Four hours later, with a ravenous stomach but having been kept well-hydrated with diligent waitresses topping me up with bottomless glasses of iced tea (which I thought afterwards was perhaps not supposed to be bottomless, it was just that I had the benefit of knowing an influential café employee; but which I later realised, after attending a few Vietnamese cafes which served only liquid, iced tea receptacles are always bottomless in Vietnam), Mai had done her stint and together we rode to a ‘restaurant’ she knew…
It greatly impressed me how Vietnamese street-food vendors always seemed able, despite the suffocating heat, to keep their perishable food products (reasonably) cool and (presumably) sanitary.
…Comprising little more than a hand-built lean-to, food was cooked in the back of the ‘premises’ while customers ate out front. Despite being seated in the shade (atop more plastic children’s furniture), the heat was in sufferable; three fans whirred away on each wall creating constant and unpredictable wind gusts, which was good if one required a draught but awkward if one expected a piece of paper (such as a napkin) to remain in place. We ordered and I ended up eating the same meal that I just could not seem to avoid in Vietnam (much as I was certain I was selecting something different each time, it always ended up being the same bloody thing); we had drinks and, mainly through Google translate, we talked…
Ho Chi Minh City is in southern Vietnam thus very close to the equator; given the current heat I felt as though whatever District we were presently occupying was surely at the southernmost point of HCMC. At one point I ducked away to use the facilities (in Vietnam one does not look for ‘Toilet’ or ‘Restroom’, or even a translation of the two, one looks for ‘W.C.’ – I assumed Water Closet – then again struggles with gender distinction) and found myself entering an area not affected by cooling. Such was the ferocity of the heat it actually felt as though I was walking alongside a furnace or other such radiated heat source.
…We talked until my phone died, then tried to talk some more. The time had passed 4:00 p.m.; I reminded Mai that I needed to be back at the Aston before 5:30 p.m., as my tour group had our ‘welcome meeting’ at 6. I asked how long she thought the trip back would take; she estimated half an hour. She then decided that she ‘didn’t feel well enough’ to give me a ride back to the hotel, and again called for someone to pick me up.
I was left dejected, also mildly confused; although I felt I had been given sufficient clues to draw a reasonable conclusion. Her choice to avoid being seen under the behest of a White man was her call; besides, I wasn’t about to mess with hundreds of years of Viet custom.
The man came, I jumped onboard, Mai waved goodbye, and that was that. In fact I was too jaded to give a damn what happened (although this flippancy would soon turn out a foolish stance to be upholding.)
Careering through some of Ho Chi Minh City’s busiest streets at the busiest time of day was an eye-opening experience. I saw countless scantily attired, gorgeous women riding on the backs of scooters driven by their, comparatively heavily dressed, men. I saw women riding scooters alone, I saw women riding pillion to other woman drivers, then I even saw a five-person Vietnamese family balanced on the back of one of these tiny motorbikes – dad drives, mum sits fourth supporting daughter (third), who holds baby (second), while the son (fifth) clings to mum’s back for dear life, and all five wear their little blue face masks – including the baby.
The tooting was incessant; it is usual in HCMC for a driver to approach an intersection intermittently sounding his horn, supposedly, to ensure he is noticed (along with every other motorist on the road). Balanced on the back of my driver’s undersized motorcycle, hands at my sides as I was, I was intrigued to become a part of a stream of traffic – at times five abreast with other vehicles – meeting at an junction with another two, three, or sometimes even four similar streams of potentially intersecting traffic, all beeping their horns, all just walking their bikes – idling their cars – forward; not ever stopping, just moving forward slowly…
Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City always moves; however much traffic there is, a driver will always find a way through. These drivers are constantly vigilant – every motorcycle operator I saw was riding (in the very same way in fact that I ride my mountain bike on the streets) with two fingers draped over the brake lever – they are always ready to stop in a hurry. Perhaps it was on account of this – because of the way the ‘unexpected’ is in fact the most expected outcome, also that everyone goes generally at the same pace – that I witnessed zero traffic incidents the whole time I was in Vietnam.
…As I paid the scooter driver, I noticed, similar to the night before, how the streets were becoming busier with street vendors and particularly, prostitutes. I noticed furthermore, as I opened my wallet in order to pay the driver, how it worked almost like a magnet, and how I suddenly had eyes from metres around all honing in on me, on my wallet; I suddenly had advances, offers and propositions…
I am only human; I am but a male. Please remember these points before judging my future actions.
…The only thing I knew for certain, the only thing that was absolutely real at that time, was that I had a team meeting to make.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Ian Sane
Photography by Scooter Driver