Monthly Archives: September 2018

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XV

Following the briefest of platitudes we stepped out into the mayhem of Bui Vien Street on a Saturday night.

Vy was wearing the same kind of outfit that, as I came to recognise, most young Vietnamese women seem to favour – an oversized T-shirt long enough to cover the top portion of the thighs with a pair of tiny shorts concealed beneath the shirt’s lower fringes, perhaps intended to give the impression that she is wearing only the T-shirt…

Do I think this style of dress is a good look for an attractive woman? In a few words: not so much. I realise it’s fashion and indeed, women everywhere now are donning this arguably provocative attire but seriously, for a beautiful woman with a tidy figure..? A baggy T-shirt covering a pair of, usually denim, shorts..? Yes, it’s quick, yes, it’s casual; yes, it’s probably very comfortable too but honestly, for a first meeting, I was a little let down. It wasn’t as if I had sprung this invitation on her either; Vy had been aware at what time I was coming in and I had said that I’d wanted to take her out that night. She was gorgeous but, call me superficial, I found myself a little stuck on her underwhelming choice of dress (and my God there were some utterly spectacular female ensembles to be seen that night on Bui Vien). In fact the first time I had truly taken notice of a woman wearing this kind of potentially risqué, but really not, outfit – Singapore, only a day ago – I had actually been fooled into thinking that perhaps, just maybe this woman was so bold that there was nothing substantial on under the shirt; of course when I later discovered she was wearing a pair of denim shorts I was suitably disenchanted. Denim shorts on women, in my opinion, are awful; they’re heavy, they’re unattractive, they’re not sleek, they’re not streamline, they’re not elegant, they evoke memories of dirty, smelly denim work-jeans which, in fairness is even more unattractive than the shorts themselves and ultimately, again it’s only my opinion, the only thing worse than ratty old denim shorts on an attractive woman, is a ratty old denim skirt.

…Vy and I pushed and shoved our way up Bui Vien; despite the almost shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian congestion she appeared to know where she was going, while I was just taking in how much the street had transformed from the year prior. Talking was pointless as, while Vy’s English – although she would dispute it – was quite good, the volume of the music inside the bars was overpowering to the extent that, as I would come to understand is a theme in Vietnam, even out on the street with noise coming from both sides I could barely hear the sounds that I made let alone those coming from her.

Eventually she indicated an outdoor seating area where the level of noise was less ridiculous (but only mildly). We sat on barstools either side of a round table. A bargirl came by and, although I couldn’t hear what Vy ordered, I quickly scanned the drinks menu. Seeing no scotch on offer I pointed to the Jack Daniels. “You want with Coke?” The waitress yelled in a high-pitched tone – which I imagine was about the only kind of voice that would penetrate the background discord.

Desperately trying to maintain my sense of calm amid this bedlam, while being quite aware that my own low-treble drone wouldn’t have a hope of piercing the palpable audio (I swear, I could actually see the sound-waves), I simply gave an affirming nod…

Truth was I didn’t care what she brought; I just wanted to get the hell out of that place as soon as possible. This was insane; trying to enjoy a person’s company while being bombarded from all sides by this manmade cacophony..?

…The girl returned with the drinks and said something; I assumed it was along the lines of ‘I’ll start you a tab’…

Aware of the dangers of running tabs in Vietnamese bars – particularly ones where speech hence potential query of a charge is near-impossible, and that’s not even taking into account the language barrier – given the Viet propensity to overcharge when no one’s around to regulate them, I pulled out my wallet. I hadn’t even looked at the price of the drinks but assumed two 100s would cover it (I wondered momentarily if I would require change, or more to the point, if I did if she would return with any change).

…Vy glanced up at me, smiled, blew me a kiss of thanks and sipped her drink. I pulled out the straw I try to always have with me, dropped it in the glass and sipped my Jack Daniels; the sweet woody flavour of American whiskey reminded me why I had become a Scottish whisky drinker. Vy looked at me again and smiled which, given the noise, was all either of us had any hope of doing anyway…

I would later have another attempt along these same lines only this time I would be sure to take charge of location, making a point to steer well clear of Bui Vien but to sadly only encounter a similar, if not worse, regarding manmade volume, situation; I know the Vietnamese like it loud, I guess because if it’s not loud there is so little chance of it being heard over the ambient – traffic along with myriad people trying to make themselves heard above the traffic – noise, yet it is my belief that the main reason Viet folk promote volume the way they do, is in an attempt to befuddle the senses of their, primarily Western, patrons, because it assuredly does do that.

…At one point I did lean in and try to say something to Vy, alas any attempt by me to be sociable was futile. We finished our drinks and I gratefully stood. Vy was demonstrating why Vietnamese are typically not big drinkers; despite her flat-soled shoes (shit even I was wearing 35mm heels) she was looking a touch unsteady on her feet. We nevertheless walked back toward the Aston, into the comparative quiet, where she said simply, “I’m starting get drunk, I should go home now.”

I didn’t know what to say. We’d met, sure, but that was basically all we’d done.

“I busy now,” she went on, “I call you few weeks … K?”

“Sure…” I responded, not really understanding what was happening…

It wouldn’t be until around the three week point before I realised the way a Viet woman’s mind works regarding dating – or whatever the hell you’d call what we’d just done. As I came to understand it, the first ‘date’ is one on one (seemingly with as much noise and outside distraction as possible, perhaps so communication is scarcely an option), the second ‘date’ you meet her friends (I suppose so they can develop an opinion of you as well), the third date (alas I never made it this far as a lack of clear communication, along with Vietnamese women’s inherent unreliability, thwarted me) I think you meet her family and if they like you, and only then, I believe it is unequivocally not until the fourth date, that your relationship may become physical. (I ought to point out, this ‘four date’ philosophy, this applies only to wholesome, usually Buddhist – although as I would come to learn also, it is possible for a woman to maintain a devout Buddhist faith while still being a veritable harlot – women; most of the rest, among Ho Chi Minh City’s female contingent, will do just about anything for a couple of million dong, or sometimes less.) The point though: for a wholesome young Vietnamese woman – think Vy was 26 – making her way in the world of Vietnamese dating, it’s more of a ritual, a process if you like. They have to therefore endure the process in order to reach the conclusion; therefore technically what we did, awful as I felt it to be, did constitute our first date and would have meant, to her at least, that she was one step closer to the culmination, whatever form that was supposed to take.

…I placed my right hand at Vy’s side with the intention of planting a kiss on her cheek, but immediately the hand was brushed away (it was only our first date, after all).

“See ya,” she called cheerfully and disappeared into the swarm of revellers.

“Hen gap lie” (See you again), I murmured with less enthusiasm, turning to climb the steps to the Aston Hotel.

I didn’t imagine I would ever see Vy again.


Slowly, yet two at a time, I ascended the staircase to the fourth floor. I buzzed into my room, checked the air conditioning was maintaining a mild 16 degrees and, drenched in perspiration, flopped onto the bed. Lying there on my back, with eyes closed I went over what had just happened; had it been my fault the evening had been a disaster? What could I have done – what should I have done differently? Had it actually been the calamity I thought it was, or was it just me? It certainly hadn’t proceeded as I envisage a first date should but then maybe it had for her..? Yes, maybe it had played out just how Vy had expected..? Atop the bed I rolled onto my side and stared at the warped veneer of the sideboard (the sideboard in my room last year had been like that too, I remembered – I presumed it was something to do with the accumulating moisture content while rooms are unoccupied) – bent timber notwithstanding I realised I didn’t even believe my own logic; there was no way what we’d just done could be considered satisfactory by any lady. Nevertheless I consoled myself with the sentiment that the ‘Vy adventure’ was a lesson learned and that if I ever had the opportunity to do the whole ‘first date in Vietnam’ thing again, I feel as though I should perhaps find somewhere quieter.

Suddenly I had a thought. I opened my eyes and smiled; alright, next plan. I had been in online communication for over twelve months with a lovely Vietnamese woman named Lin; in fact when we had first became acquainted she was known as Ga Ra Lin but, as I have observed, Vietnamese folk seem to very much like changing their names…

In Vietnam it is not unusual for people to share the same, or similar, names; for instance over the weeks that I was there I met three women and one man named Thao (more like Towel), two women named Tao (Tar), two men named Dung (Dum), one named Ding (Dem), and one named Dong (Dohm); four women named Lin – sorry – three named Lin (as it looks) and one named Linh (same as the first), two women named Lan (Lahn) and one named Lanh (Lung), one woman named Min (as it looks), one named Minh (Ming), one man named Anh (Ang) and one woman with the same name, six, seven or perhaps eight women named Ngoc (Nyowp – no, try it again – Nyowp), and three women named Trinh (Chin). (I’m certain I met many more Vietnamese folk with similar names too but that stint of recollection just there, well that just wasted a good half hour of writing time and I was getting off-track anyway, so I probably won’t be doing much more of that in future.) The point is Vietnamese are not so big on names and in fact an eavesdropper will rarely hear a Viet person address another Viet by their name.

…Lin can wait, I thought as a wave of excitement flooded through me; I’m here for a long time and this is my opening night – this is Saturday night on Bui Vien Ho Chi Minh City and shit man, it’s still before midnight and I’m cashed up.

Still adorned in my first-date finery, but having had a quick rinse-off under the shower to disperse the perspiration that my body just would not stop excreting no matter how cool I made my room, I swaggered down the Aston’s front steps and made my way out onto Bui Vien Street.

What I had not considered, as I minced my way through the pulsating mass of revellers, was that this night would be not only responsible for stripping me of millions of dong – although I wouldn’t realise it at first – tonight I would meet the woman of my dreams.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Ruby Love-Money

Photography by Crazy Girls




Tim Walker’s Vietnam XIV

First task, I needed to contact the woman I had met through; the one who had, apparently, bizarrely – almost inexplicably – not seen my email until exactly twelve months after I had sent it.

I took out my Nokia Basicphone, scrolled down and found Vy’s number; using all of the buttons I then typed a message telling her that I had landed in Ho Chi Minh City and asked if she was keen to meet tonight.

I received a message back immediately: ‘Message From Slingshot Customer Care. Your International Roaming Credit is now below $5. To top up…’

What the hell?! (Fair call, the colourful array of impassioned speech brought about by the aforementioned message was somewhat more forceful than ‘What the hell’; alas I have a varied demographic to consider.)

Before taking to international skies I had purchased a prescribed amount of specific credit which would effectively convert my phone from a ‘monthly’ to ‘prepaid’ plan,  and would allow me to (supposedly) send messages and/or make calls free from exorbitant International Roaming charges…

While still in the air, I believe it was somewhere nearing Singapore’s Changi Airport, I received notification that my special ‘International Roaming Credit’ was now active; I excitedly fired off a few messages at $0.20 (calls were to cost $1.39), then I was in Singapore. I sent no more messages until the next day, where from the lobby of the Boss, I updated family once more of my progress; a total of three messages via International Roaming so far. I then flew to Ho Chi Minh City, my phone having passed through several more time and coverage zones along the way. I landed in HCMC, passed customs, spent two hours in the back of a taxi-van, then before checking in to the Aston I’d attempted to contact Vy. How many is that? Right, it is four, that’s what I thought, four. So 4 by 20 is what? That’s right, it’s 80 – cents.

…Initially unsure of Slingshot’s International Roaming deal I had bought only $15 worth of prepaid credit; I expected that would at least get me started and if I did end up running out (I had budgeted on 75 messages for the month which, given this is almost twice as many as I send at home, I expected should have been ample), I hoped I could gain access to a PC, to access Slingshot’s website, to buy some more. Ultimately I wasn’t perturbed – until now.

I didn’t understand what was happening; had I unknowingly sent off many more messages than I’d thought – or shit – had I pocket-dialled somebody? Or, although they had sent verification that the service was now active, had Slingshot failed to implement my special rates as quickly as they’d sent the message informing me of the rates, leaving me to pay massive International Roaming fees? (Last year, while I was still with Spark, touring the length of Vietnam with my Alcatel Crap-phone, through contacting NZ and the various Vietnamese folk I’d met along the way, at what turned out to be $2 per text and $10 per minute, I managed to accumulate over $350 of these hideous charges – which in this time of free Facebook messaging, where I reckon I am just about the last person in the world to own a Smartphone, how can anyone justify charging $2 for a stinking text message?) Anyway, this seemed the more likely explanation. Problem I was facing now, even if Vy did get back to me, I didn’t know if I had enough credit to reply to her response, even once.

I have learned the ability, at most times, across most situations, to force myself into calmness; alas this variety of ordeal was not among those times or situations. I was furious, I was wound up; I decided I needed to speak to someone, using my tongue.

Dismissing the porter, and conscious of maintaining steady breathing as I walked, suitcase in hand I climbed the steps of the Aston. Behind the desk sat the same woman who had been there last year; I wondered if the rest of the Aston team had remained the same…

I later realised the reason for my lack of immediate recognition of my surroundings upon arrival, given that the Aston Hotel and the street on which it is located was such a memorable part of last year’s antics was that, as well as the street this time being packed with revellers along with more bright lights and distractions in general, the façade of the Aston Hotel (Saigon), one year on, looked downright tawdry and unappealing. Later still I came to another realisation about Vietnam (HCMC, District 1); property owners just don’t seem that fussed about presentation of their property. This might have to do with the fact that many HCMC businesses are owned by Westerners and, given that foreigners cannot actually purchase property in Vietnam these ‘owners’ are merely leaseholders of their premises, thus the desire to maintain to a high standard is maybe less. It might have to do with the inordinately high rainfall this time of year which tends to leave everything bedraggled and shabby; it might have to do with the fact also, that Vietnam (HCMC, District1) is a squalid hellhole and although Vietnamese shop owners do take great pride in their street-fronts – keeping footpaths swept, free of litter and such – the structures’ overall condition, also the airborne stench engulfing everything and everyone willing to inhale the toxic air, particularly when it rains, is not so easily managed therefore is not of great concern.

…Evidently the Aston team had not remained the same as, throughout the check-in process, two new faces approached and attempted to ingratiate themselves to me.

I made myself known to the female receptionist, hoping to refresh her memory on the previous year, and asked if Fine was still about. She didn’t appear to recall any ‘Fine’ and handed me my key-card. With startling efficiency she told me my room was ready and that I should check to see that it fitted with my expectations. I asked if she could offer assistance, briefly explaining my predicament regarding a woman named Vy and the case of the missing mobile credit; showing minimal interest she simply pointed outside, with the words, “Get boys help.”

Leaving my bags in the Aston foyer, I plodded down the steps and assumed a position along the street edge that, as déjà vu struck, I realised was very much reminiscent of last year; a couple of younger guys I remembered for the year prior smiled at me and made quite the fuss about my being there, seemingly remembering me too.

I stepped forward to the, as I recalled, better English-speaking of the two young men, pulling out my phone as I did so and scrolling down to Vy’s number. I quickly explained the situation and, looking on, the man immediately appeared to recognise the Vietnamese name on the screen. He crowded my phone for a moment, seeming to study the (11 digit) number for a second or two, then stepped back and pulled out his own (Smart)phone…

He started scrolling through his device while talking excitedly to his buddies; I couldn’t help noticing how much the word ‘Vee’ was being mentioned. It was then that I realised every time I’d seen her name written I had been mispronouncing it in my head; Vy is ‘Vee’, not ‘Vie’ –  that could have been embarrassing – ‘Vie, Sin chow … Oi zoy oi, Vie, dep qwar … Tahm beit, Vie.’

…I looked up a moment later to see the phone to his ear. His cohort were giggling and chirping excitedly. “Who’s that?” I pointed to the first while asking the other guy I recognised from last year; the one whom, on account of his distant demeanour and poor English skills, I had not given much time.

“It Vee!” He now squealed delightedly.

“What, my Vee?” I pointed to my phone, still with Vy’s contact details on screen.

The young Viet man nodded and giggled. The first man hung up the phone and leaned towards me, “Vee said she be here, one hour.”

“Here..?” I asked, gobsmacked. “You mean the Aston..?”

He nodded coolly and stepped away; I was stunned – then I heard a familiar voice…

I recently disclosed my ‘conspiracy’ theory about Vietnam – or at least greater HCMC – being communicatively intertwined; this recent phenomenon gives yet more strength to my theory. From what I understand, Vy works full time while taking night-classes for some kind of engineering degree; she resides in a city 90km from Ho Chi Minh City, yet this man who has worked at the Aston for at least the past two years, clearly knows her. Admittedly this could have been a freak, some kind of massive coincidence but here are the facts: the Viet dude from the Aston had only to glimpse my phone and – without the aid of a photo – extrapolated from the number alone that the ‘Vy’ he was seeing, was the same ‘Vy’ who he already knew. Wait on though, you might be saying, perhaps he just called the number he saw in your phone and organised the date on your behalf..? I don’t buy it; he may have recognised the number in my phone, sure, but he still went back through his own phone to locate the number. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it wasn’t as if the young Viet even took time to memorise the number he saw on my phone, he merely glanced at my screen and anyway, in the 21st century, how many younger people have the kind of memory that perceive and recount phone numbers? The title ‘Vy’, in Vietnam, is by no means an uncommon name yet he appeared to know, immediately, the ‘Vy’ I was trying to contact and what’s more, he must already have had her number in his phone.

…I turned but couldn’t see. Then there was laughter; I would never forget the sound of that laughter as long as I lived – “Fine!” I called to the diminutive figure across the table. The Fine I remembered was dressed in a darkly coloured, well fitted shirt and trousers; this Fine was wearing a brightly coloured, bulky woollen jersey and in fairness to my observation ability, he was standing in the shadows.

He stood, smiling at me across the table. “Sin chow!” He yelled with a joyous grin and exaggerated accent.

Call me presumptuous but I felt I knew precisely the moment to which he was referring. “Sin loi!” (Excuse me), I yelled back with my own exaggerated Vietnamese accent…

As I believe I have already documented in last year’s Vietnam Chronicles, on the first night that I met Fine – while still in a conundrum regarding the little Viet’s gender – he showed me around the vicinity, pointing out the good, the bad, what were the best places to eat and, very much in contrast with our tour guide’s (at that time yet to be heard) instructions, from the back of an erratically ridden scooter and devoid of helmets, we motored up and down Bui Vien like a couple of drunken school-kids as I endeavoured to ingratiate myself to the locals with about the only two Vietnamese phrases I knew at the time; ‘Sin chow!’ and ‘Sin loi!’

…He laughed that unforgettable Viet cackle and we shook hands warmly.

“I told you I’d come back,” I said to him quietly.

He just stood there grinning and nodding, making me wonder how much of what I had ever said to him, other than ‘sin loi’ and ‘sin chow’, had actually been understood.

I glanced around and noticed other faces I recognised which, judging by their excited smiles and gesticulation, may have recognised me as well. Shit. I checked my watch; I had just over half an hour until Vy was supposed to be arriving.

From the footpath I bounded up the Aston’s steps two at a time (this would become a habit in Vietnamese hotels as, given Vietnamese are a generally smaller people than most of those in the the Western world, everything is just that little bit – often frustratingly, sometimes dangerously, rarely conveniently – smaller), grabbed my stuff, jumped in the lift, went up a few levels at a painfully slow rate (I remembered at that moment why I had elected last time just to use the stairs), found my room, buzzed in, threw down my gear then, thankful for the familiarity, jumped in the shower. The cold water was blissful; the hot water never came. Some bottled soap went on and even some – for the first time in over fifteen years – shampoo which, although I was just discovering you regular shampooers are probably already well aware, can double as soap when one requires fragrant suds in a hurry yet through rush-induced, also probably sixteen-or-so-hours-in-transit-induced, bodily tremors, one has dropped the small bottle of bath gel and no amount of futile fumbling amid a puddle of smelly water while more smelly water trickles up one’s nose can seem to re-gather it.

Out of the shower not more than three minutes after entering then a quick tooth scrub with a single use toothbrush; dress shirt, dress pants, Vietnam boots (see last year’s Chronicles) matched with best hat and – in the hope of avoiding any more perspiration than is totally necessary – I’m heading back down the lift…

Bugger, forgot deodorant; no matter, a quick waft test down my shirt and, again, I’m thankful for the shampoo.

…I use the time, during the painstakingly slow journey back down the inside of the building, to calm and attempt to compose myself; also to straighten my button line and pull up my fly completely. The lift dings; the doors gradually open. My head is down, my eyes are closed; I am deep in meditation. I raise my head slowly and make to step out of the lift. I swing to the right and stop.

My God, she is even more beautiful than her Facebook shot.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Vienna Maze

Photography by B Yootie

Tim Walker’s Vietnam XIII

Landing at Tan Son Nhat airport Ho Chi Minh City I was dealing with a fair amount of uncertainty.

I was on time but would my suitcase this time have made the entire voyage with me? Also like so many Westerners before, and likely after me, was I going to be conned into paying ten times the recommended taxi fare, again?

I bowled through the airport ultimately dismissive of anyone not essential to my passage thus, before I had even really allowed myself time to register my surroundings, it was with a terrible sense of foreboding that I emerged at baggage claim.

Shifting my hand luggage from my right to left shoulder, hearing the crunch as the empty water bottle in the side pouch slammed into my torso, extending to full height I stood back and scanned the area. There were around seven conveyors carrying bags in arbitrary circuits with dozens of seemingly deranged travellers hunched around each one scrambling to collect their respective bags then get as far away from that Godforsaken airport as possible.

I saw individuals wheeling up trolleys and loading on bags; I witnessed one furious traveller watching in disbelief from metres back as his suitcase was pulled from the conveyor by another man’s hand, before being snatched back by the traveller who then turned and hurriedly exited this airport of horrors.

I breathed, closed my eyes, flexed my neck, and was forcibly calm. After my first slow pass of all seven baggage conveyors showed up nothing I actually accepted that my antiquated brown Paddington Bear-style suitcase, littered with cracks and plastered with Rock stickers, was not coming back with me today.

I walked back past the conveyors, thinking about the botched system that is the whole ‘baggage claim’ at airports; anybody with a free hand is welcome to simply take from the conveyor whatever item they wish. I saw a few exasperated passengers I recognised from my plane standing at the Number 2 pickup zone; I was going to head over and tell them not to worry, ‘Your luggage will turn up, it just might be a few day’s late and it will have been plundered by Vietnamese Customs, but you will get it back’…

I couldn’t believe it – I believe I uttered a few astonished cuss-words – there, coming gradually down the line, Rock stickers prominent, there was my relic of a suitcase; still in one piece, still looking as dilapidated as ever.

…I peered up at the increasingly exasperated – probably first time to Southeast Asia – travellers, gave them what I hoped was a reassuring smile, before grabbing the handle of my own passing suitcase and giving the handle and almighty yank – a strong slow movement ensuring optimum follow-through – I then watched gleefully as my worthless suitcase along with its 20.1 kilograms of largely worthless contents skidded and spun across the polished airport floor.

I was elated; I had made it – my luggage too.

My suitcase wheels having some time ago stopped performing with any amount of efficiency and 20.1kgs being a mite too heavy to easily carry in one hand – that is without the weight constantly thumping into my leg causing me to walk drunken lines and I didn’t fancy anyone in HCMC realising just how much Red Label I had slurped on the plane – I continued kicking, pushing and skidding my suitcase over the floor until reaching the exit threshold.

I envisaged the hordes of drivers out there, ready to swarm upon the next English face they saw; unscrupulous taxi drivers awaiting their next mark.

I turned to my right. There was a taxi kiosk. Well, I thought, this has to be safer than the alternative. I approached the desk. A lady, in wonderful broken English and with an accent that I realised I had sorely missed, asked, “Hello Sir, where you need go?”

“Sin chow,” (Hello) I said employing my best Vietnamese accent, sliding my pack exhaustedly from my shoulder. “Ban ko quear com?” (How are you?)

The lady looked delighted, “Doy quear,” (I’m fine) she responded, nodding enthusiastically.

I pulled from my bag a computer printout I had run off especially for a moment like this…

I remember, last year, the challenge of trying to pronounce company names and/or addresses could be a debacle, therefore in an effort to assuage this awkward confrontation, one pouch of my bag – my filing cabinet as I was referring to it – was packed full of papers, notes, addresses, reminders, and such. (Bearing in mind my old-school propensity, there was no laptop concealed in that bag and certainly, I had no bloody Smartphone in my pocket.)

…”I’m looking to get to the Aston Hotel Saigon,” I articulated as clearly as the current state of my speech centre would allow, and held up the printout for her to see.

The woman didn’t raise her head, instead hollering instructions to an assistant who quickly shuffled across the floor in our direction, to receive a slip of paper with a few handwritten words, along with the spoken words “Eashtin Hoitel Shaigun.” The woman then looked at me, “One hundred and twenty,” she enunciated carefully.

I brought out my wallet and peeled off a 100.000 and two 10.000s, handed them to her, then took a moment to consider the deal that I was brokering…

Last year I had been quoted 70.000 dong for the same trip and, although it had ended up costing me ten times that much, I was aware the going rate from the airport to the Aston had been 70.000 (as I explained last year, such is the nature of their undervalued currency, all prices in Vietnam are stated in thousands – ‘70’ is 70.000, ‘120’ is 120.000, ‘500’ is 500.000, ‘one million’ is 1.000.000, and such like – because given that the smallest Vietnamese denomination is 1000, there is not so much need to add to prices the word ‘thousand’, as it is very much implied); I found it odd to think the price had increased by around half but assumed it had to do with the ‘taxi company’ that I was using rather than aimlessly blundering out the door, walking the gauntlet and entering into the cauldron of scam taxi drivers waiting for the next naïve Westerner who has no idea of the value of his Viet dong in relation to the dirt-cheapness of most Viet services.

…The assistant nodded, smiled, glanced at me, smiled again then took my arm and directed me out the main door.

She waved down a taxi-van. Surprised that she was ordering a van, but assuming this might account for the additional cost, I shook the assistant’s hand and thanked her warmly. The van driver and I then departed…

Flying in to Ho Chi Minh City just after 6:30 p.m., I would have sworn that I could have pointed out Bui Vien – the street on which I intended to be staying – for its brighter lights, its ostensibly higher level of commotion and, as the plane lowered in altitude, for its much higher number of revellers.

…Curiously the van turned and drove in the opposite direction to which I had been expecting. I almost leaned forward and intervened – ‘Ah, Sir, I’m pretty sure Bui Vien’s back there’ – but knowing how important ‘face’ is to Asian folk and how they hate to be told they’re in the wrong in any regard, I sat back and with increasing anxiety but forced calmness, I waited to see what would happen…

That seemed the theme with my recent trip to Vietnam – the regular thought process, my adopted mindset if you like, was one of ‘Yeah I probably shouldn’t do this but I’m going to do it anyway because I want to see what happens’ – because the truth is, nothing exciting ever happens when procedure is being followed; nothing truly remarkable is likely to take place if one always stays within life’s recommended boundaries.

…Around 45 minutes later (it ought to be noted that I am by now beyond exasperated but still very much intent on seeing how this abortion is going to play out) in a journey that should have taken no more than 15, we enter a hotel driveway. From my backseat position I bend my head downwards to peer through the front windscreen; printed in large gold lettering above the entranceway are the words ‘Eastin Grand Hotel Saigon’.

Intense frustration coupled with mild rage erupted. I unzipped my bag, pulled out the computer printout, leaned forward and held it in the driver’s face; “Aston Hotel Saigon, the Aston – just as I said to the woman at the desk … The fuck would you take me to the Eastin?!”

“Aston Hotel Saigon..?” The driver finally betrayed his ability to articulate English…

The entire trip, any time I attempted to say, or to ask the driver anything, his response had always been along the lines of ‘Huh?’, ‘What?’ or the classic, ‘Sorry, no English’.

…“Two million dong,” he now said.

“You fucking what?!” My eruption continued unabated.

“Aston Hotel Saigon, two million dong,” he repeated.

“You can get fucked,” I said calmly, opening my door. “Open the boot, give me my suitcase.” With that, grabbing my bag I bounded out of the van and strode around to the back, waiting for the luggage compartment to open. The boot popped, I lifted the door, grabbed my suitcase and was turning to walk back to the street – I had no idea even in what District I was currently placed – just as the Eastin hotel porter arrived at my side.

“Sir,” he said looking at me curiously, “what’s going on?”

Again I pulled out my, now crumpled into a ball, well-prepared computer printout. The porter appeared to speak English very well therefore – where I might otherwise have curtailed and simplified the explanation for speakers of a Viet tongue until that explanation was so curtailed and so simple it’s practically meaningless thus rendered pointless – I felt able in this case to reveal the full story. “I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City about an hour ago … I went to the airport taxi desk … The lady there was supposed to get me to the Aston Hotel Saigon … This man,” I pointed to the taxi driver, “brought me to the EastinNow he’s trying to charge me two million dong to get back to the Aston … He can go fuck himself,” I concluded to the impassive porter before turning back and walking towards the street.

“Sir,” the porter called after me, “Sir, please come back.” I looked around to see the driver and the porter in discussion. “Sir,” said the porter again, “we have the airport taxi desk on the line, would you like to speak to her?”

Honestly, no. I couldn’t see the point. Either through the fault of that woman, or the fault of this man, I was now effectively stranded almost an hour’s drive from where I ought to have been. Nevertheless I took the call. “Sin chow, ban ko quear com?”

“Yesh, helloh,” her voice wasn’t as friendly as I recall, “you tell me go to Eashtin – you tell mee.”

“Ah, no,” I countered, “I showed you a printout of where I wanted to go – the Aston … I think perhaps you failed to look at my paper, which clearly said that I wanted to go to the Aston.”

“No no!” The woman’s chirruping voice seared through my eardrum, “No no, you say Eashtin!”

“Look, it doesn’t matter what I said, I showed you, if you had only looked … Forget it though … As a result I am now a long way from where I should be – from where I have already paid to be…”

“You pay to Eashtin, you pay to Eashtin!”

“Ah fuck it doesn’t matter … I am at the Eastin, I want to be at the Aston, and your man is trying to charge me two million dong to get there.”

“Let me speak,” her tone had calmed somewhat.

“What, to your driver?”

“Yes, let me speak.”

I passed over the phone as both porter and driver now looked at me with horrified expressions; I guess, given the violent tremors and convulsions that tend to rip through my body whenever I assume an awkward posture, such as standing and holding a phone to my ear, particularly while holding a heated discussion, fair to say I may have appeared somewhat freakish/dangerous/murderous.

Some minutes later the driver again handed me the phone. “Yeah,” I offered down the line unenthusiastically.

The woman’s heckles were back up. “You tell me Eashtin!” She was very enthusiastic.

“I showed you, if you had only looked, that I was going to the Aston.”

“You tell me Eashtin!”

“Ah fuck off,” I took the phone from my ear, handed it back to the driver and, following a massive convulsion of my entire body, again lifted my case.

“Sir, Sir,” just moments after I had given up on a successful outcome the porter was calmly addressing me, “Sir, it’s fine Sir, you can go.”

“What? I am going.”

“No, Sir, Sir, you can go with him,” the porter indicated my original driver.

I shook my head definitively, “No way, that fucker wants to charge me two million dong to get somewhere that should have cost me a hundred … I’ll find my own taxi, thank you.”

“No, Sir, Sir, it cost nothing … You go,” he motioned with his hand in a reassuring gesture of passage.

I looked at the driver who had already grumbled his way back to the driver’s seat. “You sure..?” I inquired speculatively, “Are you certain this fuckhead is not going to try and charge me two million?”

“No Sir, yes Sir, all sorted for you Sir.” The porter struggled to heft my suitcase back into the rear of the van then looked at me, “Have a good trip, Sir.”

I clambered back inside the van and – judging by his frequent use of Google Maps – with a driver who had little idea where he was going, made our way to Bui Vien Street.

I had never seen so many of Ho Chi Minh City’s dark and squalid, impractically narrow back streets as I saw that night, sitting in that van behind an increasingly frustrated taxi driver as he drove through the city in circuitous patterns which by my reckoning, ultimately had us no further than a few kilometres from where we’d begun.

Almost an hour after leaving the Eastin – which, incidentally, we’d left around an hour after leaving the airport – the van came to a halt. Road cones blocked the street. I snapped back to focus and gazed out the window. People were everywhere. I peered up. A banner was strung between two buildings, hung high above the road; ‘Bui Vien Walking Street’. The driver turned to me, looked back to the road and pointed, “There,” he said. I stared at the building he was indicating – around 100 metres inside the coned area – blinked, focused then slowly, vision rotated and recognition returned; I realised in those moments I had never actually perceived the Aston Hotel from this point of view – it had always been from down the street looking up.

The building’s lettering which, last year, I recall had shone brightly all night was now just nondescript lettering affixed to the side of a dilapidated building; ‘Aston Hotel’, it read. I was certain it used to have the word ‘Saigon’ at the end but I wasn’t going to argue the point. I knew I was finally where I was supposed to be; a location just fifteen minutes from the airport where I had, over two hours ago, paid to be.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by X S Praytion

Photography by Noah Listen


Tim Walker’s Vietnam XII

Arriving in Singapore Friday evening, after manically riding the one of the hundred-or-so elevators up and down the inside of the gargantuan Hotel Boss to check out each of the – as it turned out generally identical – floors until being joined by a managerial-looking but not terribly affable Singaporean dude who presumably suspected I was a well-dressed drunkard having wandered in from the street thus demanded to see my key-card, I went in search of what I expected might be my last decent meal in four weeks.

The Singapore Steakhouse appeared to have what I was seeking so after devouring 250 grams of – mutilated by tenderisation yet somehow still chewy – back fillet, I took to the streets.

I had been recommended by the shuttle driver (he’d been tough to hear as he spoke in broken English and over the Vellfire’s vibrating engine mounts as the vehicle lumbered forward at about 12kph in 3rd gear) to head to ‘Singapore Party Central’, a street called Arab Street.

As I walked I couldn’t help observing the high number of dark – Pakistani, perhaps Indian but certainly not what I imagined were Singaporean – faces glancing up as I strode by; call me bashful but I had reservations about asking one of these characters for directions to a place called ‘Arab Street’. Don’t misunderstand me, I would have had no problem asking one of these dark-skinned passersby, for example, if they knew the way to Sesame Street, but Arab Street, I had this fear that the response might be belligerent, along the lines of ‘What, as if I should know..?’

It was a daft fear and after walking around for almost an hour in what I thought had been the direction of the shuttle driver’s vibrating finger, I did ask pose the question to one of these (smaller) men. “Pardon me Sir, are you able to please point me in the direction of Arab Street?” I watched for his reaction with mild trepidation (shit I wasn’t even in Vietnam yet, it was still far too early to be antagonising locals with unintentional racial slurs or other means of affront – indeed that bloodbath would come later, to be precise on my third night in Ho Chi Minh City). The only reaction I detected however was genuine surprise followed by a compelling desire to be of assistance.

“Ah,” the young man glanced around as if he had no idea of the street’s location but was still desperately keen to help, screwed up his nose and pointed, “yeah, pretty sure it’s just over there a bit.”

“Thank you Sir, you have a good night,” I said, striding in that general direction.

By the time I made it to ‘Singapore’s Party Central’, Arab Street – having enlisted the help of several more dark faces along the way – it was almost 2 a.m. and the street looked to have been dead for about half an hour.

I wondered about getting back to my hotel then, as if gazing skyward for the Bat Signal, I simply looked to the skies; taking up an entire city block of real estate and towering above any of its competitors, with an initially clear line of sight, Hotel Boss can be seen from most anywhere. This was fortunate as I was shocked to see, having found a clearing in the city’s undergrowth giving me a good view of the surrounding skies then searching those skies for a number of increasingly panicked moments, there, away in the distance, far in the distance – so damned far I almost cried – I saw the shiny red outline on black lettering: Hotel Boss.


The next morning I was checked out by 11 a.m. and after a bite to eat at the hotel restaurant along with a Singaporean iced coffee (sorry Singapore, it was good but it had nothing on a Vietnamese café sua da) then, hand luggage in hand and wishing I’d had the foresight to pack a change of lighter clothes, I took in the city of Singapore by day.

As with the previous night, despite my initial ‘reluctance’ to ask for directions, I spoke to as many foreign people as I could – be they local, tourist or otherwise – all in the ultimate quest for understanding.

It is truly remarkable how much knowledge can be gleaned from this world, without Internet, without a computer or in fact without any technology at all, if one just looks for it; if one simply asks for it.

I learned, as many of you will probably already know, before they demanded independence, Singapore was a city in Malaysia and was inhabited primarily by Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian immigrants; the majority of so-called indigenous Singaporeans therefore, are in fact Malaysian, Chinese, or Indian, or an insanely attractive mix of all three.

Alas Singapore women reminded me of Kiwi women, and solidified the fact that I simply cannot envisage spending my life with the latter; many Singapore women, from what I experienced, similar to many Kiwi women, from what I have experienced, are a touch full of themselves and tend to operate with an often unjustifiable sense of self importance (it should be noted at this point that almost every Singapore citizen under the age of 50 is fluent in English). Admittedly some Singaporean women were cool, yet many gave me the classic Kiwi ‘Ugh, really – you actually think that you are good enough to speak to me?’ look, while others, well, others just pretended not to hear or simply refused to return my approach.

Every piece of worthwhile information I learned about Singapore came from the ever helpful male contingent; that was, until my last day…

From under the shade of a tree in the Hotel Boss courtyard reading cover to cover the book that resurrected my temporarily shattered life and in fact, had I read it before entering Vietnam, I am certain it could have prevented me from blowing over half my budget in the first week.

…On that first day in Singapore though, feverish, fearless as I was in my pursuit for knowledge, I was sure to be back in the Hotel Boss lobby by 1 p.m., having affixed my orange sticker – given to me along with a brief explanation of its purpose by a highly efficient woman at Changi Airport Travel desk – to guarantee my pickup and transfer back to the aforementioned airport.

It was while seated on one of the Hotel Boss foyer’s many sofas that I became acquainted with one of the most interesting people I have met; she was exquisite, even by Singapore standards, had a typically Asian semblance yet unlike most typical Asians, her skin was a kind of golden brown, or bronze, more indicative of Western sun…

Across Southeast Asia most women subscribe to the principle that ‘White is beautiful, brown is ugly’; across the rest of the modern world most White men would assuredly dispute this mantra (fortunately there are a number of Vietnamese girls simply born with darker skin as a matter of gene selection).

…It is largely the above belief that means many Vietnamese women, through much of the daytime, regardless of an ambient temperature pushing 35 degrees, do their best to cover any bare skin; long-sleeved shirts with collars up keep their torsos white and full-length skirts or trousers keep their legs white, with gloves keeping their hands white and stockings keeping their feet white, all while the Vietnamese sun and its comparatively feeble UV Index does its best to burn through the cloud, the haze, the exhaust pollution and all the other airborne pollutants that help to make Ho Chi Minh City District 1 the cesspit it is…

At this point I need to be clear: the following 25 days, unless otherwise stated, take place solely in District 1 of HCMC. Any future reference I make which implies ‘Vietnam in general’ – given that, due to self-imposed budget constraints suffered during the first week meaning that where I had perhaps intended to see more of Vietnam and maybe even venture into the countryside I ended up experiencing only District 1 of HCMC therefore any negativity directed at the rest of Vietnam is unwarranted and ultimately unfounded – it is relating strictly to District 1, HCMC.

…Seated on a couch in the foyer of Hotel Boss just along from this tanned Asian goddess – she didn’t have the facial distinctions of a Viet nor did she have the face shape of a Thai; she was assuredly not Japanese although I did suspect she was an international traveller thus less likely to be Singaporean and in fact, I speculated, aside from her glorious tan, she actually looked Chinese – she must have sensed my inquisitiveness because turning, glancing at me her expression and briefest moments of eye contact said ‘I know you have something to ask me and while I might appear untouchable, I am actually a very warm soul and I would welcome your inquisition’, or something along those lines.

“I’m sorry, it’s just … Hi,” I eventually decided to begin with the same ingratiation I had been so far using across Southeast Asia, “my name’s Tim, I’m a journalist from New Zealand … I’m on my way to Vietnam but have stopped over for twenty-four hours in Singapore … Anyway, I am compiling information, and plan to write articles on, among other things, ethnic diversities across Southeast Asia, thus while I am here, I am speaking to as many interesting faces as I can…”

“Do you consider me an interesting face then?” She chuckled. I was gobsmacked.

“Ah crap,” I muttered.

The Asian goddess laughed, “Not what you were expecting then..?”

“Not exactly … See, I’m sitting here going through all the Asian ethnicities I know in my head but I just can’t place you, then you speak…”

“I know, dead giveaway, right?” She laughed again.

“So, forgive me, what are you?” I shook my head in perplexity.

Now her laughter really opened up. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she joked, “for not conforming to your standards on how people should look in relation to how they sound – guess.”

“Guess..? Alright … Your features are quintessentially Asian, but your complexion, your skin colour, refutes that … You’re not smoky-brown like a Thai chick, you’re golden-brown like a Western chick…”

“So, what kinda chick am I?”

“So I’m thinking, well after hearing you speak, I mean you’re obviously American but then, you’re obviously Asian – other than the tan I’m thinking Chinese..?”



“You got it.”

“But how does that work, I mean, your distinguishing features are totally Chinese, yet you have utterly no hint of Asian accent, you speak quintessentially US and let’s be fair, you look – I mean according to your skin-colour – like an American … Which almost implies that, either you’re a Chinese ex-pat who’s been travelling in the North for so long you’ve ditched your Asian accent or, you were born in the US to Chinese parents..?”

“Oh, so close,” she slapped her leg and leaned forward as I would imagine every Yank is taught to do from a young age. “No,” she continued in her broad US tone, “actually I was born in China…”

At this point I had completely forgotten about my orange sticker and the shuttle that was supposedly coming for me at 1:30 p.m. In a moment of panic I tore myself from the most scintillating conversation I’d had in years and (in what must have appeared a rather rude gesture) glanced at my wristwatch. I breathed relief; I still had fifteen minutes of scintillating conversation to go.

“…in the ‘90s and adopted out to American parents.”

At that point I forgot all about the time; I forgot everything other than what I was hearing. “Are you serious?” I was in disbelief. “You were born, in China, in the ‘90s, a baby girl, yet you are sitting right here before me..?”

I was aware that in the’90s China adopted their ‘One Child Policy’ and in many cases, although such practice was never officially recognised, a baby girl was executed in favour of a baby boy; clearly this baby girl though, in favour of execution, had been fortunate enough to have grown up with a loving family in the US.

“I’m Paige,” she extended her bronzed hand.

“Such a Western name, Paige,” I grinned and clasped her hand. “Paige,” glimpsing the time, “my taxi-man will be here soon but, your story is amazing – I want to know more about you.”

“OK, sure,” she smiled, “but I won’t be home for another month…”

“Hah, neither will I.”

“OK, perfect.” With that Paige gave me her email address and we parted ways. “Chat soon,” were her final words.

A minute later a flustered-looking taxi driver popped through Hotel Boss’s glass doors; spying my sticker, in what might have been perceived as an ominous gesture, he simply stood in the entranceway and pointed at me. I stood and obligingly made my way to the door. Half an hour after that I was at Changi airport Singapore, in transit to Tan Son Nhat airport, Ho Chi Minh City…

Interesting thing about HCMC, few locals ever refer to their city as ‘Ho Chi Minh City’, preferring to use the older, and indeed the former Vietnamese capital’s former name, Saigon. (This had often struck me as odd so, what does one do when one has no other means of sourcing information – what have we learned?) Obviously I had to inquire about it. Here is what I found: General Ho Chi Minh, as is widely understood, is a Vietnamese war hero; problem is he fought with the North Vietnamese Army. Curiously Ho Chi Minh City is situated far to the south of Vietnam. Turns out most Southern Vietnamese folk don’t actually think much of dear old Ho Chi Minh, fighting Vietnamese civil wars against them and such; hence, ‘Ho Chi Minh City’..? More of a name for tourists; the locals of South Vietnam are always going to opt for ‘Saigon’.

…Soon I was in the sky, Saturday evening, slurping Johnnie Walker Red through a straw, on my way to HCMC District 1, the unequivocal Party Capital of Vietnam.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Gloria Ash

Photography by Asia E Merrican