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 Eastin … Now 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