I have never understood why I did what I did next, but perhaps storming out of my room, wallet clenched in one hand, head down, wearing nothing but tight black underwear; striding down to the ATM on the corner to replenish my funds with an additional three million dong, made me feel somehow less naked.
Maybe it somehow mitigated the sense of violation I was currently experiencing by accepting last night’s loss as ‘just one of those things that happens to tourists’, thereby enabling me push the memory from the fore of my mind – where it was currently beating at the inside of my skull, screaming at me about something to do with ‘…call yourself a light sleeper..?!’ – to somewhere nearer the long-term recollection bank, thus allowing me to move past the entire ordeal…
Alternatively, this surreptitious act of ‘refinancing’ likely aided in the delusion I was quickly fabricating to reassure myself that no, there had not been a man or men last night with the audacity to let themselves into my room before turning on the light and going through my belongings then helping themselves to my carefully managed remaining funds while probably laughing at the idiot Westerner lying comatose on his mattress thus oblivious to whatever level of deceit Vietnam wishes to effect upon him; no, that preposterous turn of events could have in no way happened – I must have lost all my money some other way and just forgotten about it – so I should now forget this outrageous notion of ‘duplicity in Vietnam’ and simply continue to ‘enjoy’ all that this ‘wonderful’ country has to offer.
…From Nha Trang we took some more overnight trains, allowing me to become witness to further criminal acts – where my silently rolling over and, from my bottom bunk bed, ‘unintentionally’ kicking one of these men in the leg, as he attempted to plunder the pillow in the bed above me, I like to think prevented one such act from being perpetrated – to end up in the city of Hoi An…
Having endured and left behind Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, also the ghastly (but admittedly, highly convenient) overnight trains that folk are forced to use to go between these destinations, I can honestly not say a bad word about Hoi An.
…The city is lovely and – having reportedly some years back fallen under the leadership of a man who abhorred thievery, treachery, and in general anything lawless, leading to the unequivocal and immediate incarceration of any character seen to be practising these acts – ultimately Hoi An is Vietnam’s (clean, friendly, honest and law-abiding,) marketplace.
While it is indeed true that much of Vietnam’s tourism sector hinges on commerce, Hoi An brings something different; Hoi An is like the origin of the marketplace or the beginning of Vietnamese trade – delightfully quaint and always bustling, Hoi An to Vietnam is what, I imagine, Venice (undoubtedly the world’s greatest city marketplace) must be to Italy.
Hoi An was to be the group’s longest time in one city, which by all accounts, suited us fine; we stayed at the Sala Hotel – without a doubt the finest hotel we had, or in fact would, experience in Vietnam – with amazing rooms, wonderful staff, stunning facilities, and the most brilliant swimming pool out front.
The group, having separated into our ‘sub-groups’, for the next few days walked the streets of Hoi An with confidence, with wonder, and with intrigue…
Hoi An’s beach, which we were shown initially as a group on pushbike, while glorious, illustrated an alarming example of – perhaps rising sea levels, or maybe it was other factors resulting in – a clear change in ocean and tidal habits; much of Hoi An’s beautiful, golden-sand beach was being slowly devoured by the ocean. Reportedly it was not an uncommon sight around Vietnam to see beaches being taken back by, or returning to, the almighty ocean; this of course, in the process, was devastating to nearby buildings and/or infrastructure. (Perhaps even more interestingly, when our tour reached Vietnam’s northern Halong Bay, we would see an example of exactly the opposite phenomenon at play.)
…A number of women in the group were quick to take advantage of Hoi An’s many fabric/clothing and shoe/leather distributors/tailors. For a woman I supposed it was quite an honour to have a dress/dresses personally crafted/tailored by Vietnamese designers/seamstresses, and even I elected to have a pair of leather boots hand-designed (primarily by me) then handmade (entirely by a professional) for the princely sum of 1.400.000 dong (1.4 million VND is the approximate equivalent of 85NZD, while the boots themselves, I believe could retail in somewhere like Leather Direct NZ for around $300).
Over the coming days I felt as though I developed relationships with most every shop owner along Tran Hung Dao Street (this was the street on which the Sala Hotel was situated, making it the group’s most traversed Hoi An street), and by day four I knew most of these affable characters by name. Wandering along that street, for example, recognising a happy Vietnamese face and calling out, “Bao, sin chow!” The usual response, in that horrendous (but now permanently ingrained) American/Viet timbre, would be, “Tim, hello!”
The afternoon that I excitedly walked back down to ‘Oceans’ (this shop’s name is additionally mingled with some Viet text I shan’t bother to include) to pick up my handmade boots – having been especially crafted in the past 24 hours – it was a little before four p.m. I was halfway to this particular leather-goods shop when I encountered a deluge (which, given the time of year, so I was told, this wasn’t out of the ordinary). I noted how it took only minutes after rain had begun to fall for the streets to become awash with – yes, water, but indeed more notably – plastic-poncho salespeople. Despite having zero inclination to adorn my body in one such flimsy monstrosity – particularly when my body hence shirt was already moist with perspiration and the falling rain more or less matched my body temperature, meaning I barely felt it falling on my bare skin, anyway – I did enjoy haggling with the salespeople as they continuously badgered me with offers of these tawdry ponchos; as with most Vietnamese commerce, a vendor can usually be knocked back by 20 – 30 percent, which, when referring to a piece of plastic that they’re pushing for ‘50’ (50.000VND – under 2NZD), it inspires the question, ‘How the hell do they make this crap so cheaply?’…
As I had by then come to realise though, locally made products are typically cheap while imported products are typically less cheap (but still rather cheap).
…I made it to Oceans a few minutes before 4, saw my boots and almost had a joy-gasm – they looked, smelled (and probably tasted), glorious. I was in the process of showering the shop owner in gratitude when I discovered that, despite being 4 p.m., she had not yet eaten lunch. I had a brilliant idea: “Alright, Ngoc, let me buy you lunch … That can be my tip – for making such a wonderful job of my boots.”
She eventually agreed (despite her first putting up unexpected refusal), wrote down exactly what she wanted (in Vietnamese script), told me it would cost ‘180’ – I believed a perfect sized tip – and directed me where to go. I walked, in a direction perpendicular to the street, for some ten minutes into the depths of the market district, through shady, dirty, smelly, water-logged alleyways, alongside dilapidated corrugated iron fences (where if I were anywhere else but Hoi An, I might have been worried) and past apparently deserted, derelict properties. I eventually found the desired ‘restaurant’ and approached the man who, despite his diminutive appearance, seemed to be in charge.
I showed him the piece of paper Ngoc had given me, then showed him the 180.000 dong. He looked up at me with fury in his eyes. “Who give you?” he demanded.
Taken aback, I pointed in the direction of the street, responding, “The woman who works in Oceans, ah, Ngoc.”
The emaciated Viet’s eyes became, if possible, even more enraged. “You,” he pointed at me, shaking his head wildly, “you no come here!”
I looked around, taking in the frantic activity – the food preparation, the exchange of money, the bustling Vietnamese people – realising, this was not a Vietnamese tourist market; this was where Vietnamese folk came to eat.
The furious little man took the offered cash with a grunt and relayed some Viet gibberish to his cook. He then turned back to me, still with madness in his eyes. “You wait, there,” he pointed to a place against the wall. “You get food, you go,” he said forcefully, “you never come back here.”
Ten minutes later I received my order. The food turned out to be enough to feed a family; there was around five times what I would have expected for 180.000 dong.
I returned to Oceans, shaken and confused. Ngoc appeared relieved to see me; she appeared relieved that I had made I back. I suspect she knew the kind of hostile reception I would encounter at that place…
Given that around 60 years’ ago Vietnam was under total Communist rule, they didn’t have a lot of contact with the rest of the world and, of course, they had far less – if any – international trade. To clarify: Vietnam is technically ‘Socialist’, which is to the right of ‘Communist’ (North Korea), but still not as far right as ‘Capitalist’ (NZ’s National Party), which is still a shade left of ‘Republican’ (Donald Trump, say no more). I came to learn also, in a single, mind-blowing, realisation, that ‘Communism’ is in fact not the filthy word that many believe it to be. ‘Communism’ is effectively the act of a nation exerting its individuality, but to the extreme; it’s like saying, ‘We are us and we don’t need you because we can survive on our own’. The truly mind-blowing aspect of it all though, was this: providing a nation’s people are content with who they are, providing they are content with where they are, providing they are happy to do what they are doing but moreover – and this is the keystone of the operation – provided that nobody yearns to get ahead of anybody else, in fact Communism Can Work; indeed, done properly, Communism is a harmonious existence.
…Vietnam is remarkable in the sense that it produces everything which, as a nation, it needs to get by. From essentials like food and fresh water, clothing and houseware; to recreational products such as cigarettes and alcohol, it’s all ‘Made in Vietnam’, and it’s all dirt cheap for tourists, but it’s even cheaper – as I experienced firsthand – for locals…
The classic, and indeed widespread, belief about Communism is that, ‘There is no incentive to work because every person is paid the same regardless of what they do’, and yes, if the Western world were to suddenly abandon Democracy and embrace Communism, there is no question, it would fail terribly; however, we must bear in mind that this is a people immediately descended from one of the world’s oldest races, where the process of working as one to achieve one basic goal, and in turn being provided with the wherewithal to propagate a basic existence (I guarantee New Zealand’s Polynesian population would be into it) is their culture.
…Sure they cheat, sure they lie; sure, many of the Socialist/Commies I encountered were filthy rotten shit-bags, but they are happy. They are peaceful. They live for the day. They live for the moment; they live for excitement. Vietnamese folk live devoid of worry because they know they are no worse off than the next Socialist/Commie…
We were sad to leave the Sala, having met such wonderful people in and around Hoi An. Nevertheless we travelled northward by bus a comparatively short distance, to end up in the city of Hue (pronounced more like ‘Whey’). While our newest environs were lovely, bordered on one side by the ominous stone walls of Hue’s famous ‘Forbidden City’ (which, as much intrigue as the name engendered and indeed, as excited as many of us were to discover just why it was considered ‘forbidden’, upon entering, while it was definitely a spectacular sight, alas I felt little foreboding, let alone forbidding), and although this hotel did have a pool as well, after the wonder of Hoi An, the group was experiencing a collective sense of let-down.
… I recall my last night in Ho Chi Minh City, I was outside the hotel drinking Jimbean with the Aston crowd, at about 4 a.m. Suddenly there was a power failure. The entire street went dark. Almost immediately a simultaneous cheer went up. I had no idea what was going on. I think I was expecting bedlam to ensue. Fine grabbed me and led me closer to the street for a better look. I peered up and down; I could see no lights anywhere. Aside from the odd scooter headlight traffic was nonexistent. Then the sound of a siren could be heard. The street became packed full of cheering Vietnamese folk, all laughing and having a great time. The siren became progressively loud and discordant until it was utterly deafening. While I had ducked away to protect my ears I saw a pathway clear in the street, as a fire-truck rolled ominously by. It stopped at the next intersection, with locals milling around, screaming, yelling and, still, having a grand old time. It used its ladder to reach some overhead cables, did something then moved on, to do the same thing at the next intersection down, before disappearing around a bend. A moment later electricity was restored but the faces, those little Vietnamese faces, they were positively oozing joyfulness – they were alive.
While swimming did not appear a popular choice among the group (in fact the whole time we were in Hue I saw not one other person use the pool), I spent my spare time walking the streets – eating street food and drinking iced coffee – and swimming in this older, less glamorous but still wet hence refreshing, hotel swimming pool.
We left Hue on the overnight train, headed north and bound for the nation’s capital, Hanoi. (That particular trip onboard the train yielded a sequence of unspeakable moments, of which I shall never speak.) I have never been happier to hear the sound of shrieking locomotive brakes, than I was coming into the station at Hanoi that morning.
As a group we saw some amazing sights in and around Hanoi then the next day, we took a bus to the very top of Vietnam, Halong (‘Descending Dragon’) Bay.
We boarded a small, but wonderfully ornate, cruise liner (this boat would have been 15 metres long with a similar number of berths) and, along with myriad other vessels all with seemingly the same intention, made our steady way out one of the famous island beaches within Halong Bay…
Cruising through the water on the way to this particular island the view was breathtaking; also it was somehow familiar. I then realised, I had seen it before; the tiny island formations, the vibrant greenery, the rocky structures emerging from the water, I could have been in Fiordland. The difference was, where Fiordland’s landscape has largely to do with tectonic movement and volcanic activity from beneath the ground, as our guide would later explain, Halong Bay’s natural (it turned out, limestone) landscapes are the result of aeons of water-borne erosion from above.
…The golden-sand beach on which we docked, we were informed, had been created entirely by man, for man. Halong Bay, on account of its unique formation, is currently rather shallow (whereas a few thousand millennia ago it was supposedly very deep) and had had, presumably, thousands of tons of sand laid atop a naturally formed limestone plateau in order to create a, world famous tourist destination, beach…
From what this layman understood of it, many millions of years ago, over another many millions of years, the eastern Vietnamese ocean beat itself against a limestone cliff at the north of the land, eventually finding an area that was more pliable than the rest, thus gradually forging a path into the stone. Over the millions of years that followed this small indent/path/channel was augmented by the thrashing ocean, thereby creating an inlet, slowly eroding the softer limestone while leaving the harder areas to stand like pedestals amid this majestic harbour.
…A well-maintained staircase carried a large number of the group – at some points almost vertically – to the top of this particular island (although by the end of this climb the numbers had fallen back to just one other woman – who for the record barely broke a sweat, while I had sweat literally dripping – and me), from where we were able to look out across the harbour and take in the entire transcendent view.
That night, back on our cruise liner, after our meal the group congregated on the top deck; it was a marvellous feeling, lying on the loungers, under the stars. As a group, we chatted, we drank and basically we were at ease. One of the younger guys had some music going that, despite not being ‘90s grunge rock, surprised me in its decency. Like this we bonded until before too late we decided to turn in for the night. (As usual I had been allocated a double room to myself and, by myself, I was quite happy to utilise every portion of that bed; after a day at the beach under the northern Vietnamese sun, I was exhausted.) As I carefully slid down the steps to the boat’s main floor, I had left three people still on the top deck.
I walked through the boat’s main dining area, thanking the three Vietnamese men (all staring at me with unnerving intensity) who had provided us service that night, stumbling slightly as the water under the boat (or the alcohol in my veins) shifted. I had just walked past the bar (also the disconcertingly fixated eyeballs) when I stopped, turned and came back. “Shit,” I said, “I need to pay my tab, don’t I?”
The man who had slid in behind the bar looked at me with confusion.
“My bill..?” I began to remove my wallet. “Ah, lahm urn..?”
“Ah,” the man understood, riffling through a stack of papers under the bar. He brought up a selection of four possible accounts and placed them on the bar. Glancing at the others’ bills, having been drinking the insanely cheap local beer, I saw they owed up to 200.000 dong each; I sighed at the sight of my bill, having been going between Ballantynes, Johnny Walker Red and (I couldn’t believe they had) Johnny Walker Black Label, to see that I was liable for just under 1 million dong.
I grudgingly indicated which was my bill then opened my wallet to remove two 500 dong notes, aware, as always, of all eyes fixed on my stash of cash.
The bill settled I made my way to the end of the corridor, to my room. I could still feel those Viet men looking. Putting my key in the lock and turning, I was reminded of the frustration of the last four occasions I had used this infernal door: key goes in, key turns freely to the right, stops dead. Key turns all the way back to the left, stops dead. Key turns again to the right, key contacts resistance, latch can heard moving. Door still appears locked. Shoulder is applied, door opens.
Before going in I turned and gave my three onlookers a wink. Once inside the room, as always, I turned and locked the door. I then took of my hat and glasses, and unloaded my pockets on the chest of drawers at the back of the room. I then hung my damp shirt (or in this case, singlet) over the stool provided, and laid my shorts on top of it.
I stepped into the tiny bathroom, brushed my teeth, wiped my face, and climbed into the bed. I was exhausted, I was tired and yet, I was not sleepy. Of course, they’d had no ginger ale so I’d been mixing my scotch with Coke; that’ll do it. After what felt like hours of mind games I had just felt myself drifting off, when I heard a key being thrust noisily into a door. I couldn’t avoid noticing how close it sounded – the timber panelling on the boat’s interior must readily transmit sound waves – it almost sounded like my door. A moment later I heard the door opening then the quiet audio of the occupant going about their routine.
A little after that I was torn into full consciousness again, as another key was pushed into another lock; the sound travelled so crisply, again, I couldn’t believe how close it sounded. I then heard that door open, I heard a voice, or voices; I had no idea how late it was by now but I just wanted to sleep.
Finally I hear the key in the third lock. I really cannot believe how close it sounds; I would swear that key is in the lock in my door. Oh well, I think through my sleep/alcohol fug, at least this occupant is being more considerate; not just jamming in the key with no regard to how sound travels throughout these sleeping quarters. I think of the three faces I had left out on top deck, and of their names, their nationalities. Of the thirteen person group there were two Kiwis, seven Aussies, two Brits, and two Scots; I had left out on the top deck two Aussies and one Scot…
Shit. Lying on my right side with my back to the door, suddenly I am wide awake.
…Those two Aussies are together; they’re sharing a room. I silently roll to my left side. That key has been working that lock, with almost increasing noiselessness, for quite some time now. Still with eyes closed I recollect the sequence of audio I’ve heard from the lock; key went in, key went one way, key went the other way, key went the first way again – I now hear the latch slide across…
My mind was working furiously: after witnessing me stumble out there those Viet crewmembers likely assume I am very drunk. Add to that is my typical drunken tone, also my typically drunken demeanour, and they must think I’m well past it. Additionally, I know they know I’m carrying a good deal of cash on me. They’d be fools not to try and help themselves.
…My right eyelid flashes open. The room is dark, but not in total blackness. With my right eye I can just make out the outline of the door handle. Is it moving? Surely not. I blink my right eye. I would have sworn I saw that door handle jiggle…
I thought of Nha Trang, such a lovely place, such wonderful people; there was no way I was going to let the slimy pricks do it a second time.
…I hear the key do another rotation, hear the latch silently slot back into place, then hear the key being withdrawn…
My entire body was trembling. My right eye was aching from maintaining a wink for so long. I shifted position in the bed and closed my eyes. I tried to be calm.
…I hear a key slowly, silently, being pushed into a lock. I know it’s my lock. I hear it rotate once. I hear it rotate twice. I realise I am holding my breath as I hear the key perform number three rotation. As expected, I hear the latch slide slowly across. From my left side I open my right eye. Can I hear whispering? Is the handle moving? What are they doing? Are they playing some sort of game with me – have I become the target of every Vietnamese swindler in this God-forsaken nation? …
My mind felt clear, as though the adrenalin had evaporated the whisky fug. I found myself willing the filthy seamen to come, willing them to try it; willing them to try and take anything of mine. I was amped. I wanted them to try; I wanted them to see how far they’d get.
…I hear the door creak. I know they’re leaning on it. I’m waiting for it to pop open. I’m waiting for them to step into the room and quickly check they haven’t woken me. They won’t have; I’ll have closed both eyes again by then. I’ll hear them shuffle towards the drawers at the back and I’ll open my right eye again. I’ll see the dirty little pricks going through my belongings and I’ll smile. Their backs will be to me as I’ll slide out of bed and descend upon them, wrapping my arms around filthy little throats…
I realise at this point that whoever was at my door has gone.
A few hours’ later I’m out of bed and up on top deck to catch the sunrise.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by D Sending-Dragon
Photography by E Onza-Go