I can’t be sure just how far I had ventured into the depths of Nha Trang city on foot, but if the return trip was any indication, it was farther than any sane man ought to walk in one night.
It felt as though I was riding on the back of that scooter for hours.
In fact, balanced as I was on that bike’s pillion seat, I suspect I spent a good deal of the journey slipping in and out of sleep, as I have numerous recollections of our stopping, of my snapping to consciousness, of Dan consulting his map – followed by (what I imagine was) Vietnamese profanity – then our again setting off.
I recall returning to full attention at the sight of the towering Camellia hotel; “Well done, Dan,” I recall jesting, giving the frustrated little Asian man a hearty slap on the back, “you found it, bud!”…
I recall at this point Dan being too busy cussing me out to fully appreciate any of my gratitude.
…I climbed down from the bike and gazed up at the side of my sole landmark – the Camellia Hotel – trying to work out why Dan was so filthy with me; the words ‘Camellia Nha Trang II Hotel’ shone back down at me in large gold lettering. “Ah come on Dan, ’Camellia Hotel’, ‘Camellia Nha Trang Two Hotel’ … Whassa difference?”
“You waste my time, Tim, you waste my time … You pay now, you pay my wasted time.”
“Yeah man, that’s fine,” I replied, having just been in the process of removing my wallet anyway, “like I said, bud, five hundred dong, thank you.” I removed a blue note and handed it to him.
“No, Tim! You pay now, you pay my wasted time – you pay, seven hundred!”
Ah shit, deja vu. “Dude, don’t do this,” despite Dan’s last statement having raised my hackles, I spoke with calmness and clarity. “I offered you five hundred dong for a ride across town … That on its own is a very generous fare” – calmness dwindling – “now don’t you dare try and screw me.”
“Oh come on, Tim,” perhaps sensing danger Dan appeared to have calmed – transforming from angry taxi driver to pathetic Vietnamese dog – and was trying a different angle, “you give me wrong address, man … I’m driving around for hours searching for your hotel, because you give me wrong address, man…”
“I did not give you the wrong address, I simply abbreviated the name … Any decent Internet search engine should have been able to find” – glancing upwards – “the Camellia Nha Trang Two Hotel, with the key words ‘Camellia Hotel’ … So don’t you fucking dare try to screw me, you fil-thy lit-tle rat.”
“Oh, come on Tim…” he continued to push with that awful American/Viet twang.
I turned away, towards my hotel, to see the gates had been loosely chained closed for the night. I was done; I’d had enough of this. Resignedly I turned, unspeaking, to Dan.
“…Oh, come on, Tim, seven hundred..? For my time … Come on, man, I got a family, Tim, I got bills, man … Come on, Tim, I know you got money … Come on, Tim..?”
I knew what he was doing, I had seen it before; this variety of sympathy/guilt tripping appeared to be an accepted Vietnamese sales technique and, pathetic as it was, I did find it difficult to not be sucked into its current. I pulled out my wallet again; a wad of – flicking through – eight blue notes were stacked at the back, along with some differently coloured, smaller denomination notes towards the front. I pulled out the bunch of smaller notes and studied them. One was a 5, there were two 10s, and the other was a 20.
“Nah, come on, Tim, give me some real money, man…”
“You serious..?” I asked in disbelief, holding up the 45.000 dong, “You don’t want this? Really?”
“Nah, come on, Tim” – that ersatz American accent was really starting to grate me – “you owe me another two hundred, man.”
I looked up at Dan with an uncontrollable rush of contempt; “You ungrateful little prick … I don’t owe you anything,” I told him, before turning and stepping through the (Vietnamese-) person-sized gap conveniently left in the otherwise closed hotel gates.
“Yeah, well, fuck you too, Tim,” I heard come drifting through the gates half a minute later; Dan’s genuine voice surprising me in its coarseness.
I stepped into the hotel foyer, saluted the vacant desk then pressed a button for the lift. Up three floors I turned right and walked down the corridor to my room, to be hit by a wave of panic. I went momentarily cold all over. I dug hopefully in my right pocket, and found my key (complete with hotel name and address; a mistake I would not make again), where it had been the entire night. Breathing relief I fumbled the lock, several times, then stepped inside.
Flicking on the light and removing my hat, I walked across the room, took off my glasses and emptied my pockets onto a desk in the far corner…
Possible future regrets notwithstanding, I was pleased with how I had handled the night; I was satisfied with how things had worked out.
…I took off my sneakers and socks then made a point of situating them as far away from my mattress as possible…
In this hotel, ‘bedding’ comprised a thin double mattress – lying on the floor – complete with sheet and two pillows.
…Finally I pulled off my damp shirt and hung it over the back of a chair, slinging my shorts over the same chair’s seat…
I spun/staggered back and caught my – tired, boozy, and without glasses hence astigmatism at full force – blurred reflection in the wall mirror; I looked hideous.
…Walking back to the door I unthinkingly pressed in the lock button before flicking off the light. I then practically fell backwards onto my mattress and there I remained, considering, for the most part how I had managed to spend under four million dong in the entire night…
My brain awoke (I still have no idea why, when going through the process of emptying my pockets at the desk across the room, I had brought my phone to bed with me; yet there it was, buzzing away under my pillow), yet my eyelids remained closed.
…Still with eyelids closed, my brain had kicked into high gear; in the few seconds that ensued, it was working furiously…
My brain’s first thought, at hearing the phone under my pillow, was that I was onboard an overnight train; quick to debunk this theory though were a sequence of rapid deductions pointing out the folly in that assessment.
…I was uncomfortably warm; yet given the trains’ excessive use of air conditioning, in the supposed hope of generating a ‘Westernised climate’, onboard the train excess warmness was seldom the case. Additionally I was on a soft mattress but without any covering; beds on the trains are uncomfortably hard yet they do provide decent blankets. Finally I was lying on my back with arms relaxed yet I did not feel squashed, meaning this bed was wider than the standard overnight train 700mm…
I once spoke with a Vietnam native who claimed to be ‘coming down with a cold’; I recall finding this odd, given that the most common ways, in my experience, for a cold virus to break through a person’s immune defence are, either, overexertion (and nobody overexerts in Vietnam – if they become exhausted, simply, they sleep), or allowing oneself to become chilled and, with the ambient temperature hovering between mid-twenties and mid-thirties, as I mentioned, I just couldn’t see it. I then recall his pining words: “Vietnam isn’t warm for Vietnamese anymore…”, which at the time I thought was referring to the outside climate and the fact that they’re acclimatised to it but no, this chap worked in the hospitality sector – inside a restaurant where the air is constantly at ‘Western room-temperature’.
…It took under a second to transition through ‘overnight train’ and onto my brain’s second thought which – upon realising that I was in a Nha Trang hotel – was the fact that, although it felt as though I had barely been asleep at all and indeed still felt very much drunk, I could see light through my eyelids therefore it must have been morning…
I cursed the world. Around three seconds after my brain had woken, still with eyes closed, I reached under my pillow and pulled out my phone. I half-opened my right eyelid and brought up the message; of course, at 4:27 a.m. Vietnam time, my brother was sending me birthday wishes all the way from – five hours ahead – New Zealand.
…Hang about – 4:27..? I opened my eyes fully. Ah, shit, I’d been so boozed when I’d gone to bed that I’d forgotten to turn off the light. My God I was parched, though. Still lying supine I lowered my chin and cast an eye over myself. Presumably in the same place I had fallen, in the centre of the mattress I lay on my back, arms at my sides, legs straight, wearing nothing but a pair of black Spandex boxers, the mattress’s top-sheet still neatly folded under me.
I sat up. My head started spinning. I lay back down and contemplated. No, I couldn’t put it off; I was too dry. I bounded up and in a couple of ungainly leaps made it to the desk in the corner of the room. I grabbed a bottle of water and, unscrewing the top and biting the neck, managed a couple of massive, but messy, gulps. Placing the water back on the desk, I shook my head and chuckled at how keen I must have been to go to bed last night (which, as I would soon realise, was only about one hour prior); I picked up my shirt and shorts from the floor and hung them over the back of the chair.
On the way back to my mattress I glanced at the door handle; idiot, I had forgotten to lock the door when I’d gone to bed. Shaking my head at my own carelessness – thinking of how fortunate I was that I’d spotted it before anything happened, thinking of the kind of misadventure that might have befallen me had someone come into the room as I slept; a thought that actually made me shudder – I pushed the lock button and flopped back down on the mattress.
At best I dozed for the next few hours; at worst I lay awake until seven. Something wasn’t right in my head. The night didn’t seem as successful as it once had. I wasn’t certain but a number of factors didn’t appear to line up anymore. Memories were jumbled, as though things had happened out of sequence. Incoherent thoughts led the way for incongruous conclusions. My mind was a battleground of disconnected realities. There were too many instances that didn’t make sense anymore. In my head something was telling me that this outcome wasn’t right. Too many things didn’t add up. I knew something was not right.
Ten minutes after 7 a.m. I pulled myself up and strode straight over to the desk in the corner. I stared at my clothes, all neatly positioned on the chair…
Ah fuck it. I cast my eye upwards at the light bulb in the ceiling, with its filament unlit; ah fuck it. I looked across the room at the door, with its lock button firmly depressed; ah, fuck it.
…I grabbed my wallet from the desk. Already I knew it was light. I opened it; 5, 10, 10, 20, and no more. Fuck it.
Of course, this was Vietnam where, as I would come to learn, every lockable door has two keys.
Indeed this was a reality of which I would be later reminded although, at least on this future occasion, I would be ready for it.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Ryder Dann
Photography by Theo Vin Rut