From Halong Bay we bussed back to Hanoi, and checked back in to our inner city hotel.
While the majority of the group were soon to be heading home or moving on to another area of Southeast Asia, I was booked into that hotel for yet another night…
I was shattered which, as I considered it, did make a lot of sense. Nevertheless I felt good. I felt as though my intention had been fulfilled; I had gone into this excursion with the intention of experiencing the real Vietnam and I reckon I had done just that.
…Despite my fatigue, the sense of liberty, the excitement I felt at finally being alone in this God-forsaken land flooded over me like a surge of ocean tranquillity. While the Intrepid trip had been wonderfully organised and brilliantly put together, I could finally stop feeling like I was having to perform with a certain level of decorum; I could finally stop with the acting…
I’m guessing that for those of you fine folk who have been taking the time to peruse each ‘Vietnam’ instalment it might come as a surprise to hear that my actions, until this point, have been in the least inhibited by thoughts of ‘decorum’ but, believe or don’t, this ‘Vietnam’ series has been an example of me on (close to) my best behaviour; the fact that I have entered into potentially dangerous situations, the fact that I have come so close at times to utter calamity, chaos, or worse, is simply the result of my irrepressibly inquisitive nature and, indeed I am certain, had I been content just to be a ‘tourist’, along with the rest of my tour group, my Vietnam excursion would have resulted in nothing untoward befalling me; but how dull would that have been? I’d have turned around and gone home having learned nothing about the ways of Socialist Vietnam, and that, in my opinion, would have been an entirely wasted trip. Alright, back on task: the time has just passed 11 a.m., therefore I now have half a day and one night before I am scheduled to be taxied to Noibai Airport, Hanoi.
…First order of business, I went back up to my room, locked the door behind me, went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth…
I was fortunate that most hotels in Vietnam provide a daily supply of single-use toothbrushes because, while I had been sure to bring my fully charged electric toothbrush, after ‘losing’ my bag in Ho Chi Minh City only to have it returned to me some days later, having been clearly repacked in the meantime, I found that in the course of those bag-snatchers’ unruly repacking, my toiletries bag – once positioned carefully in the end of my luggage bag so as not to squash the contents – had been completely squashed thereby activating the switch on my electric toothbrush, meaning that its fully charged battery – which I had hoped, in Vietnam’s warm conditions, would provide around 35 half-arsed brushes – must have been buzzing away for at least an hour before the battery ran out then, lo and behold, but as I suspected would be the case, Vietnamese power sockets do not take Western plugs.
…I rinsed under the sink faucet – then swigged a few more gulps of the smelly liquid – the overpowering chlorination ultimately forcing me away, before walking back into the main room, turning the air condition down to 14 degrees, and collapsing on the bed…
When I woke my skin was chilled. I checked my watch; it was almost 4 p.m. Nice one. I stood and grabbed one of the two bottles of water which had mysteriously appeared on the sideboard during the past few hours.
…I maintain I am typically a light sleeper, I just think Vietnamese folk move like the wind. It didn’t matter anyway; I’d taken to sleeping in Vietnam with valuables under my pillow. I slid a hand under my pillow and checked my wallet. I was down to my last 2 million dong. I decided to top up for one last time before leaving this land. I headed back down the stairs (most people take the lifts in hotels but I have found that unless you’re transporting a lot of baggage, after waiting for it to arrive then waiting for it to depart, before then waiting for it to move up or down the one or two levels, it’s more efficient just to take the stairs two at a time) and into the hotel foyer…
As well as clandestine water deliveries, over the past few hours my, once peaceful, hotel lobby had become packed with sweating, stinking (as it would turn out, European) youth. My initial assessment: the boys were wearing too many clothes while the girls, even by my liberal standards, were barely wearing enough; tiny European butts hung out of even tinier European cut-offs, while the boys maintained their impeccably fashionable looks with the latest designer sweatshirts and jackets.
…I approached the front desk, saw that my ordinarily friendly, affable and otherwise very accommodating Vietnamese receptionist was, between doing his best to rapidly translate French, Spanish, and Portuguese to Vietnamese while also distributing room-keys to those European folk who insisted that their needs took precedence over all others, looking beyond flustered…
I took a seat next to a pair of frightfully skinny legs that just didn’t seem to stop going up (I stopped tracking their length even before I reached whatever she was wearing around her hips, on account of my own feeling of awkwardness), and waited. Ten minutes later I stood and, pushing my way through the sweaty and stinky European horde, left the hotel.
…Out on the late-afternoon street, buoyed by my newfound sense of freedom, I turned and walked. My new boots felt like gloves on my feet – it was just fortunate the temperature had come down as the only pants I had to go with those boots were a pair of heavy, black denim jeans – my T-shirt read ‘Good Morning Vietnam’, my face was shaven, my glasses were smudged and as was becoming a habit, my Fedora had swung itself around backwards…
I strode around the corner, found a nice alcove which served food and drink, and rested on some children’s furniture. While waiting for my food I struck up a conversation with a well-dressed Vietnamese man who spoke perfect English and, as I was to learn (among other things) in the course of our conversation, he happened to hold a particularly lofty position with the Vietnamese Government. This piece of information thrilled me more than anything happening around me at the time (until just after this), and he appeared happy to indulge my inquisitive nature, ostensibly without fear of consequence. This being so, elated at the opportunity, I forcibly dredged my brain of all the Viet/Politic related questions I could locate, while making a further concerted effort to ingrain in my memory-bank each piece of new information he imparted upon me. (Despite storing every shred of Vietnamese political information he recounted – which shall be documented in a future ‘Tim Walker’s Communism’ piece – I do forget this man’s name.) My food came, I lost focus and when I looked up again the man had disappeared; the evening began to set in. I was enjoying my meal of ‘egg and bread’ when I glanced up to my left, and saw the most gorgeous young lady I’d seen (since, well, the day before). She turned and caught my eye also. In a flagrant act of impulsiveness I called out and made a few nonsensical hand gestures, attempting to wave her down. To my immense surprise she stopped, and turned. Minutes later she and I were sharing a bag of Vietnamese doughnuts – offered by a, conveniently located, passing street vendor – and chatting freely.
…Whatever the nature of my appearance it seemed to appeal to the stunning Taiwanese lass (who, in fairness, had caught my attention primarily because she was so much taller, also broader, than the Asian women I was accustomed to seeing), who, although she spoke with even more of an American/Asian twang than any other I’d encountered, spoke wonderful English and in fact showed herself to be quite the literary scholar. We chatted about everything from Taiwanese food to US politics. Over an hour later we stood and made our way back to my hotel…
She wasn’t a big Trump fan and, as much as I tried to help her to see that Donald J Trump is just a man who is in fact no bigger of a war-monger and antagoniser of North Korean Dictators than George Bush Junior was, she was immovable on her anti-Trump prejudice.
…Just after midnight I bid farewell to the wondrous Taiwanese woman and just like that – as she coined it – our ‘once in a lifetime encounter’ had passed. Watching her walk proudly down the footpath, exuding more self confidence/esteem than any Asian woman I’d met, I considered going to bed; there was, after all, supposedly a taxi coming to collect me a 9 a.m. tomorrow but on the other hand, I mused, why start dialling it back before you absolutely have to? I stepped back out into the Vietnamese street, wondering what else this city had in store for me – wondering what it was going to try and do to me – before morning…
As I swaggered down the street and in the direction of some bright lights, I had a bottle of water in one hand and several million dong in my pocket.
…The next morning I was showered, dressed and downstairs in the lobby, ready to go by 8:45 a.m. The taxi arrived shortly thereafter. I clarified with the driver that he was here for me by name, clarified furthermore that the ride was with Intrepid and that it was paid in advance (I had only 30.000 dong to my name at this point anyway), threw my bags in the car and headed for Noibai Airport…
Things I saw that night, people I met; the antics in which I partook shall never be recounted (and while this decision may indeed be frustrating to some, believe me, if you’d been there, you would understand). In this respect nothing carnal was indulged, but be assured, if you do happen to come to Vietnam and do decide you want your mind comprehensively blown, all you really need do, is be open to it; amazing what can happen if you just allow it.
…The taxi driver was an ebullient Vietnamese man who made constant attempts to fill the car with conversation; conversely I was weary, wary, and constantly on the lookout for anything unexpected. I sat in more or less silence throughout the journey, just waiting, in a state of perpetual readiness, almost expecting something undesirable to happen…
During the drive to Noibai Airport my driver appeared to, much of the time, be away in his own world and – despite travelling on a two-lane road at over 100kph and at times passing groups of slow-moving traffic at four or even five abreast – seemed more concerned with befriending his passenger than ensuring that passenger’s safe passage to the airport.
…As it turned out we made it to the airport, on time and without incident. I disembarked and, although the driver had dropped multiple jubilant hints throughout the ride (actually indicating toward the stack of money left by his last passengers, and praising their goodwill), I left no tip. I hauled my luggage out of the car, thinking to myself dryly: ‘You want a tip, you take it up with your buddies who charge tourists ten times the recommended fare’…
Sitting in the departure lounge of this Vietnamese airport, waiting for the gate to open, unbelievably, I heard a familiar voice. It was my buddy from the flight over, Zac, who, regarding the missing of our Vietnam transfer flight in Malaysia, had made the indignant remark about the airline paying for our lunch.
…I was approached while at Noibai Airport by a pretty young Vietnamese woman who was apparently writing a university thesis – as it turned out, in Seoul, South Korea, where she had in fact won a scholarship – on ‘Tourism in Vietnam’; she handed me a short questionnaire to fill out and said she would return to collect in ten minutes. Ten minutes later she sat down beside me and looked over my answers. She nodded appreciatively, concluding, “Yes, this is the same kind of thing most people said about Vietnam.”
I felt a tinge of guilt, knowing how brutally honest I had been thus how degradingly my answers might be perceived by a local person.
She then turned to me with a solemn expression and a tone of utter humility, and asked, “What do you think Vietnam should do to improve peoples’ perception of our country?”
I almost choked. This woman was brilliant. I turned to her with a disbelieving smile, looked into her deep brown eyes, took a moment, took a breath then said, “Your country is generally wonderful, but there is a large portion of your population who have adopted the culture that Westerners are nothing but walking money-bags to be cheated and swindled … These people need to learn that the best way to make money from tourists is not to cheat them out of it, but to treat them well … For example, I recall kicking up a big fuss when a Ho Chi Minh street vendor tried to dupe me out of eighty dong, then a few days’ later gave a two hundred dong tip to a Hoi An shop-owner who treated me well.”
“Hmm,” she looked thoughtful, “I understand, thank you … Is there anything else you think Vietnam people can do to improve tourism in Vietnam?”
“In fact,” I took another moment, “there is … By far the most stunning ‘tourism’ spot in your country, is Halong Bay, but it’s just so filthy, as though you don’t care about the state of its cleanliness … The same can be said for many of your cities though – I mean, I witnessed Vietnamese people in Hue urinating in the streets, and in Ho Chi Minh City they throw their garbage in the streets – I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“My name is Deborah, I am from Mekong.”
“Hello Deborah, nice to meet you – and you’re from Mekong, Vietnam’s southernmost city.”
A large smile came over her face, “Oh, did you go there?”
“We did, yes, on the tour’s second day.”
“Oh, what did you think – did you like it?”
“Ah, honestly, the smell was ghastly, the water was brown, but yeah, it was a great place … That’s what I mean though, your people, your Government needs to amend the Vietnamese culture, firstly about the way your people treat tourists and secondly, about the way they care for their land … I mean, Vietnam is tourism, right, and the only way your people can ensure that tourism remains a big part of the Vietnamese economy, is if you start operating responsibly, resourcefully and, more importantly, sustainably.”
“Yes, I have heard people say this before … It’s not good.”
I took an additional moment. “I could be good though, Deborah, your people just need to change the way they think – take Mekong, for example … Mekong – in fact in the islands of Nha Trang as well – the primary source of income is the ocean – the fisheries, yes?
“Well I can’t speak for Mekong because I didn’t swim there, but Nha Trang, and more-so in Halong Bay, the oceans are just full of flotsam – you can actually see the debris, rubbish, and tiny pieces of plastic floating in the water in front of your eyes – how are your fisheries going to survive when your oceans are so full of plastic? I mean the fish breath that water, therefore they are forced to breath plastic … I already knew China’s waters were like that, but if Vietnam’s not careful it’s going to go the same way.”
Deborah nodded, ashamedly.
“Look, it’s not even really the peoples’ fault, it’s the fact they’ve had this tourism boom effectively thrust upon them and are basically unprepared for the sudden influxes of everything that comes with that.”
She looked up and smiled. “So, what kind of thing do you think I should write in my thesis?”
“I think you should write that, Vietnam, for the most part, is beautiful … Write that the people, for the most part, are wonderful … Write that Vietnam is potentially the world’s greatest tourist destination … Write that, in order to realise this tourism potential, your people just need to work on developing a culture of ecology, sustainability, and decency … In New Zealand we go to great lengths to keep our waterways clean (I spoke these words on the 27th July 2017 and at that time, I thought little about them), it just takes the combined effort of a nation’s Government and population … New Zealand’s population is around five million and you’re what – about ninety..? – your country’s culture just needs to change, that’s all … Hoi An is without a doubt your greatest city, they’ve already nailed it – so let Hoi An be the template for the rest of Vietnam.”
“Okay, thank you,” she said with a hopeful smile.
“Good luck with your thesis, Deborah, it was nice to meet you.”
“Thank you very much for your help, Tim, I hope you have a good trip back to New Zealand,” she said before standing, shaking my hand and walking away.
My first words to Zac, therefore, referring to an instance now three weeks prior: “Oh hey bud … Did you get any lunch out of Malaysian Air after all that?”
“Oh, yeah man,” he said, sitting down, positively beaming, “couldn’t believe it eh, they gave us all McDonald’s vouchers, so nah, it was good, eh … What about you?”
“Lunch..? Dude, I had a lie down, then had to exchange some of my hard earned dong to pay for some bloody ‘authentic Malaysian cuisine’, airport food.”
“Ah, bugger, man – hey, do you like my teeth?” he smiled a toothy grin, displaying an oral vista more akin to a movie star.
“Nice, man – I don’t recall them being quite so white on the way over..?”
“Nah they weren’t eh, that’s pretty much why I came to Vietnam – had about five grand’s worth of dental work done in Vietnam, cheap as!”
“Huh, nice one – how cheap’s ‘cheap as’?”
“I dunno, few million dong, maybe.”
“You serious? Dude, that is unbelievable.”
“Yeah man, dentists are expensive as shit in New Zealand,” he added with a smirk.
“Yeah, they are, and evidently cheap as fuck in Vietnam … So you spent, what, about a thousand on flights to and from Southeast Asia, then a few hundred more on dental work that would have set you back multiple thousands at home..?”
“Oh, yeah, and also, we had our family reunion there.”
“A family of New Zealanders had their family reunion in Vietnam..?”
“Yeah man, Vietnam’s cheap as!”
“Huh, I suppose you’re right, and once you get past the shit, it’s not a bad country either.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know, hardly went outside – oh, except to get a massage.”
I didn’t see Zac again until Auckland and – who on account of his reckless spending in Vietnam (despite it being ‘cheap as’) had blown every last NZD he had – bought him a coffee and a muffin from a New Zealand vendor.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Ima Dunn
Photography by Tull Nix Yare