Tim Walker’s Vietnam XVIII

We slept until after midday then, woken by housekeeping, Noobie and I went out for breakfast at a nearby street-food restaurant.

There is something inherently romantic about being fed by another; that goes tenfold when using chopsticks.

Wandering back towards Crazy Girls, I already understood she worked in the bar but was shocked to learn that Noobie lived there too – as I would later see for myself, along with a number of other ladies all crammed into an upstairs ‘loft’ in a setup not unlike a scene from what I imagine might comprise a news article on ‘Inhumane Living Conditions for Workers at Chinese Sweatshop’ – we stopped in at another café/bar for a quick game of pool and a drink…

Crazy Girls didn’t technically start trading until early evening yet, checking my watch to find the time was nearing 2 p.m., I had no compunction about drinking my first scotch for the day (90.000VND), and at a different bar.

…There were no other customers in the small establishment which – as the supposed bar manager observed us from a table near the wall looking half asleep/drunk while smoking a cigarette and sipping a heavily iced drink – afforded us the freedom to talk, laugh, be idiots and moreover, to be happy in each other’s company. Looking around the inside of that bar, watching Noobie as she elegantly pranced around the table balanced atop ridiculously high heels (it had yet to occur to me that when she removed those shoes in fact she became ridiculously short), seeing the bar manager go behind his bar to fetch himself another beverage; watching the woman of my dreams sink yet another ball, then the black, before grinning, giggling, turning and wiggling her butt in my direction in an apparent display of mockery, I actually found myself wondering how this moment could be any better. I thought about the night before, stepping up to the Crazy Girls pool table as challenged; how it had struck me but not terribly fazed me that I had actually not played pool in around 15 years…

I used to play all the time, used to love it; shit I even used to be considered good at pool. I recall back in 2003 shooting down to the pub to play pool after work, drinking lime-water and catching up with buddies (obviously these were different times; still working a real job, still teetotal, still with a circle of people I could call friends); alas with the progression of the severity of a Post Traumatic Tremor, the first aspect of that former life to become little more than a cherished memory was the career in diesel mechanics along with the majority of any hands-on abilities, then at around the same rate the ‘friends’ had dissipated, the booze was reintroduced. Huh, funny how that worked out.

…I remembered the night before, the sense of exhilaration as I assumed the position at the edge of the table, cue in hand but having no idea how my body, after all these years, would react to the concentration, the immense pressure faced in a game of pool…

Sunday morning – sorry, afternoon – in Ho Chi Minh City, having recently eaten (been fed) a breakfast of that same meal that I just could not seem to avoid during my last visit to Vietnam (see last year’s Chronicles), followed by a glass of scotch and a fairly intense game of pool, and Noobie is claiming to be ready for bed (sleep in Vietnam, as I did learn last year, given the high number of night-time workers also the way many people choose to sleep in their air conditioned rooms rather than endure the daytime heat, is generally taken whenever and indeed wherever one can manage it); as she points out, anyway, she has to start work in about five hours and is hoping to grab a few hours’ nap before then.

…Saturday night, as I recalled, forcing calmness – difficult given the massive speaker mounted on the left wall pelting inordinate volume in my face and indeed, through my entire being (as I recall this particular songstress was repeatedly demanding that someone ‘give it to her’) – I surveyed the table. Even from afar I could tell it was in awful condition; while the felt was intact it was the table’s surface irregularities that concerned me – for someone hoping to get back into the game of pool following a 15 year hiatus, I didn’t know if the challenges presented by a lumpy table were going to be altogether surmountable.

“You break..?” Noobie asked, cocking her head, batting her eyelids and giving me the cheesiest smile, with the brightest red lips I’d seen.

I gave a casual nod and stepped up, carefully adjusting the white ball’s position on the D (in fairness the table bore no markings at all, players simply had to presume where the dot, the line, and the D was located); meantime I was just being careful not to allow a spasmodic hand to slap the white down the other end of the table. I was actually a little anxious; I didn’t know what I was going to do if my nerves refused to cooperate – I could hardly step out of a game before we’d even got into it, but nor was I willing to make an idiot of myself if spasming limbs did become prominent. I’d just drained my sixth glass of supposed Black Label with Coke and Noobie was pushing me to buy us both another. I gave her 3 100s and she trotted away…

I felt at that point – definitely feeling the effects of the booze but still a few from ‘drunk’ – the alcohol ought to have been working for, rather than against me; just the right amount of booze, I’ve found, renders me calm and comparatively steady and while not enough has little or no effect, too much, well too much alcohol and it appears my nervous system starts getting pissed again, and not in the good way.

…Good, I thought, hoping to relieve some of the self imposed mental pressure, she’s gone – at least now if I mess this up I can quickly reset and re-break.

Splaying my right foot back and left foot forward, cue gripped in right hand pressed against my hip to hold it steady, slowly bending my torso over the table, I felt everything just slot into place; it was as though I’d played the game yesterday – my stance, my cue coordination, even my hand bridge (well, with a few minor adjustments to take care of twitching fingers that I didn’t recall posing an issue 15 years ago) was on point. Noobie had set up the balls horribly, leaving the triangle well off centre and with the peak directed almost at a corner pocket. Never mind, I thought; just bash ‘em up and see what happens. I drew the cue back and forwards a few times, smiling wryly at the way my right arm spasmed and jerked throughout the movement…

This was always the thing back in 2003; I used to shake a lot, I used to look downright awkward, but I could always somehow get the job done. At the time, sinking balls with a jiggling cue, I’d flippantly maintain that I would just wait until the constantly moving cue tip passed over the centre of the white then I would give it a quick tap but realistically, I don’t know how I did it. At that moment, watching the cue tip jump about, I remembered the first piece of advice I was ever given regarding the game of pool: ‘The first thing you need to do to make any kind of shot in the game of pool is, for Christ’s sake, hit the white square on.’

…My smile became broader as I felt the adrenalin surge through me; this was it. Spasmodic limbs, flailing arm notwithstanding I felt good, like I was meant to be in this position. I drew back the cue for one final practice manoeuvre, squared it up against the white and…

At that moment, from my right peripherals, I saw Noobie returning with the drinks.

…I wasn’t worried; I knew I had it nailed. I gave the horrendous set my strongest break with a powerful follow-through (the misconception with breaking a pool triangle is that the shot has to be hard; on the contrary, the force of the shot is not so important, it’s the follow-through that gives the ball its inertia – its ability to break). There was a satisfying ‘crack’ and every ball on the table scattered – every ball other than the black…

I’m told that’s a sign of a good break – when every ball scatters but the black doesn’t move.

…I straightened my torso as a few errant balls came to rest in the lower half. I saw, far left corner pocket, number 10 down; I was on ‘bigs’ (or ‘stripes’, or ‘overs’, depending where you’re based). I walked calmly past Noobie who was looking on with suitable admiration. “What you on?” she inquired.

“Bigs,” I replied, making a ‘large’ gesture with my shaking hands. I then identified my drink, leaned over the table and, with one hand placed on the corner and one foot hovering slightly in the air, I placed the straw in my mouth and with five massive slurps, drained the glass.

Noobie looked at me wide-eyed, grinning like a maniac, “You wan ‘nother?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, handing her another couple of hundreds and turning back towards the pool table, “less ice this time though, yeah?”

“OK,” she answered eagerly. Somehow over the pelting audio I could still hear her clip-clopping most of the way towards the drinks dispensary area.

Back on task, I lined up the 13, having left it wonderfully close to the adjacent corner pocket. It was a simple shot, but awkward, given that I had to access the shot from the wrong side (also I could see the table surface around that pocket was particularly uneven). I raised a foot, leaned forward, extended my posture, and my neck started to spasm (which wouldn’t be so bad only a thrashing neck is effectively a thrashing head which tends to result in a quivering torso; also I struggle to see through a blur). I stood back on two feet and swung the cue around left handed…

I was never a fan of left handed shots back in the day but in fact over the years, given my increasing difficulty with both sides, feeling it could be a beneficial skill to learn, I have been working on my ambidextrous ability.

…It was awkward and the Tremor, if anything, was additionally troublesome yet, by clasping the cue butt between extended fingers rather than a gripped fist then rotating my hand outwards and holding the cue far away from my body, with a little effort and a lot of discomfort, I made it work; boom, 13 down.

I heard Noobie clapping and cheering from back at our table and wondered momentarily if Vietnamese appreciated sarcasm. The next best shot, the 15, was a side-pocket shot and involved a great deal of angle; the kind of shot, back in the day, at which I used to excel. Nowadays, I was less confident. I lined it up anyway. It didn’t matter; I had already sunk two – already surpassed the point of total incompetence. No, damn it, that didn’t matter; now I knew I could still play, shit man, now I wanted to win.

I assumed the position and lined up the shot. I saw the lines in my mind; I transferred the lines to the felt. It was a big angle but I could make it, all I had to do was make sure I hit the white squarely. My head shook, my shoulder jerked; I stood up again. I surveyed it from a standing position then resumed the pose. I didn’t waste so much time this time.

I swung the cue gently (never hit side-pocket shots hard); perhaps too gently. Crap. Still doubled over I watched the white meandering towards the burgundy ball. I was surprised to see it contact exactly where it was supposed to, glancing off and starting the 15 rolling directly towards the side pocket. (In that moment I was impressed that at least I had struck the ball at the correct angle and, irrespective of outcome, expected Noobie would be too.) The ball still had around 250 millimetres to go before it reached the pocket. Wow, I thought as it continued to make its gradual way across the table, that felt must be really worn. The ball just kept on rolling. The 15 rolled for about 200 millimetres, slowly but with inertia, then began to pull up. It now had only the width of the ball to go but was practically stopped. I couldn’t believe it though; it just kept on moving. It was as though it was propelled by some otherworldly force, it just kept on moving. I could see Noobie from the corner of my eye, watching with anticipation; never had I seen a pool ball travel so slowly towards a pocket but still keep moving. This shot, where most pool shots are over in a matter of seconds, seemed to be taking minutes to play out. Either way, I conceded, I’ve left it close. Finally it was there. The ball appeared to hesitate right on the precipice. I couldn’t believe how close it was. I glanced at Noobie with a grin. Her mouth was agape. Suddenly the ball dropped. Noobie jumped off her stool, clapping madly, then ran over and threw her arms around me. “You amaaazing,” she said in a tone of admiration/adoration.

I tried to play it down but couldn’t stop the massive grin spreading across my face. “Damn right,” I muttered with a laugh.

Suddenly she pulled back, a big smile plastered to her face and almost screamed the word, “Shishaaa!”

I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know what she was saying.

She was still looking me with that mischievous grin, “You want Shisha?” she asked, cocking her head.

“I … Don’t … Know…”

With that she grabbed the drinks menu and pointed, “Shishaaa!”

I looked; ‘Shisha, 350VND’, it read. “Sure,” I said.

Noobie again dashed away to return a while later holding a large jug/urn/bong-like structure, and the word “Shishaaa!”

Shisha. Now I understood. I had seen this around Christchurch bars a bit but had never known the name; two 30 by 5 millimetre pellets sit smouldering atop this ornate bong, then participants inhale their smoke – having first passed through water (hence, bong) – from two hoses protruding from the sides…

A variation on an Indian method of tobacco-smoking, where it has reportedly been used for centuries, where Shisha differs from a conventional tobacco pipe is that firstly, the tobacco, similar to vaping, is blended into some awful strawberry flavour and secondly, the act of passing the smoke through the water supposedly rids it of its tar along with various other pollutants. Make no mistake though, this is not an innocuous alternative to cigarette smoking; Shisha is equally – some have argued more – harmful than conventional tobacco smoking. The technique used to smoke Shisha is similar to the way one would smoke a Cannabis bong – rather than easing the smoke into the mouth then regulating how much one actually inhales, this is direct inhalation – a Shisha smoker inhales a lungful – and after watching it being done, alluring as the pink vapour looks filtering from the nostrils of a beautiful Asian woman, again similar to vaping, they are inhaling massive volumes of smoke; studies believe that in a night smoking Shisha a user might inhale the equivalent of 200 cigarettes and even if the tar is removed, that’s only one of tobacco’s deadly constituents – let’s not forget, nicotine, like most heavenly drugs, is ultimately a poison…

I feel as though we’re getting off track; toxin or otherwise, I want to take a moment to reiterate, during this recent voyage to Vietnam, if only to find out what happened when I did, I did not shy away from any substance I encountered and if it was airborne, oh you better believe I inhaled it.

…Like most poisons though, take just the right amount, the outcome is heavenly.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Puffy McGee

Photography by Sukkan Shisha

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