Tim Walker’s Vietnam XIV

First task, I needed to contact the woman I had met through VietnamCupid.com; 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

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