Honestly, I didn’t much care for Shisha; I just could not embrace the concept of inhaling strawberries and anyway, without a calyx to chew, how can one be certain they are strawberries?
My return to the game of pool had been a success and I was excited about hopefully replicating Saturday night’s efforts tonight; Noobie had returned to her dingy lair in the upstairs of Crazy Girls for sleep, before the start of her workday, that night, Sunday…
I on the other hand wasn’t so accustomed with long periods of sleep while in Southeast Asia; worst to worst I knew I could take a nap tomorrow. I felt as though I could really get into this ‘5:30 a.m. to bed, 12 p.m. (or later) rise, perhaps followed by a mid-afternoon nap’ schedule; Vietnamese mornings just aren’t so ‘invigorating’ in the way that I find mornings in New Zealand – in Vietnam the mornings are hot and they’re smelly, they’re just not terribly uplifting.
…9:30 p.m. Sunday I stepped off the pavement and into Crazy Girls premises; I was greeted warmly by employees and noticed that most of them were even addressing me by name (which I found odd because while I had, naturally, retained all of their names I never expect that people will bother to recall mine because, let’s be fair, in New Zealand at least, most people don’t; but which I now realise was/is a brilliant tactic by the bar manager/bargirls at Crazy Girls to make a longer-staying, potentially repeat customer – I believe I had mentioned to Noobie on Saturday night that I intended to be in Vietnam for weeks rather than days – feel important therefore more likely to spend time thus money at the establishment in question)…
This was to be my second night in HCMC and if I was get my budget back on track, I had to ensure it was more cost-effective than the previous night had been; that plan sadly vaporised the instant I heard Noobie’s shrill, nasally, but classically Asian timbre virtually screamed at me from across the floor, “Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiim!”
“Noobiieeeeee!” I called back as the doll-like little lady precariously burst forward on a pair of 6 Inch heels, propelling herself/stumbling/falling/collapsing into my waiting arms.
Recomposing herself she looked up at me with a face of disingenuous indignation. “My name not Noobie,” she said forcefully, uttering each word in a clipped manner; furrowing her brow but still with a grin in her eyes. She was exerting a concerted effort not to break into laughter as I observed her winding up for her next line; her big eyes lit up then her eyebrows went up, her chest went up then her little shoulders went up as well as the breath went in and finally, “It Rrrrrrnnoobie,” she attempted to enunciate the English version of her name with her Vietnamese tongue/palate, and in a tone similar to that of a child with a head-cold.
Feigning surprise I pulled my head back suddenly, clasping her delicate shoulders while still maintaining contact with her big shiny eyes. Taking an exaggeratedly large breath inward and dropping all expression from my face I abruptly blurted, “Noobiiiiiiiieeeeeeeee!”
With that her head rolled back and she laughed; not cute Asian giggles, not the kind she is paid to do, not fake, not ‘canned’ laughter – this was genuine, hearty, stomach laughter. (I reckon it was the most beautiful thing I saw that night, too, and if you knew some of the sights I saw that night, believe me, that statement would astonish you).
I stood there with my forcedly blank expression, staring at this exquisite little Asian princess as she uninhibitedly howled with laughter, and wondered how I could be so fortunate.
She eventually stopped laughing and regained eye contact. “You craaazy,” she said meekly with moisture around her eyes and the cheesiest of grins pasted across her face.
“You say I am a crazy boy…? … You are the Crazy Girl.”
She giggled (canned laughter), “You craaazy boy.”
I stared into her eyes, “Ah, come on, you lurve my crazy.
“Tim craaazy,” Noobie spoke thoughtfully, then as though she was playing word games with herself she went on, speaking each word individually rather than in sentence form, “Love … Tim … Crazy … How you?”
Initially confused by the swift change of tack I responded presently, “Oh, I’m good now, thanks.”
“You good day?” she asked, leading me to wonder why the English language uses so many obviously extraneous words; although she only used half the word-count that I did her wonderfully broken English was still fully comprehensible.
“It was alright, thank you.”
“What do?” (Even fewer words yet still totally comprehensible.)
“Walked, mainly – how was your nap?”
“Good – where walk?”
“Oh, around – across a couple of Districts.”
“I see you.”
“What?” I was shocked, “Where?”
“You walk by bar.”
“I did, yes,” I smiled, “I passed your bar twice – I would’ve expected you’d be asleep – once heading out, and once heading back, several hours later.”
Noobie’s face became distorted with confusion, or perhaps it was distrust; insecurity. “Where you go?” she pushed.
“’Where did I go?’ What do you mean? … I just said, across a couple of Districts – nowhere in particular.”
Her face brightened. “Why?”
“’Why?’ Because I enjoy walking,” I leaned back and surveyed the gorgeous specimen before me; I decided she looked hurt. With no idea how anything I’d said might have had a negative effect, but deciding that I wanted to see her smile again, I put on a macho voice and said, “Walking keeps me fit and muscular, see?” Standing at full height with hands now at my belt buckle, wearing jeans and a tight white T-shirt, I gave my right pectoral muscle a few twitches. Seeing a mild reaction from my audience I then twitched my left one a few times.
Noobie’s eyes widened and that glorious smile returned. “Do again,” she ordered.
“Do what?” I said as, with thumbs hitched into my belt and looking aimlessly around the room, I twitched the left then the right in succession a few more times before resting my eyes back on her.
“You amazing,” she stepped forward, “you craaazy, but you amaaazing.”
I tilted my head, pursed my lips and flicked my eyebrows in acknowledgement; Noobie stepped closer and I draped my arms over her shoulders. She pressed closer and wrapped her arms around my midriff; I kissed the top of her head.
She suddenly pulled back and looked up at me with a start. Still standing in my light grasp she cocked her head and looked at me, her eyes beseeching. “You buy ring?” she asked with a smile.
I went suddenly cold. I understood that I was not totally aware of Viet custom regarding dating/marriage, but surely just one sexual encounter did not constitute a platform for betrothal – surely she didn’t expect that the purpose of my stroll today was to purchase an engagement ring…?
I looked into the eyes of the Vietnamese doll peering eagerly up at me and tried to read her face for more information (and for the record I had decided, in those few moments, that if she wished it, then yes, blown budget notwithstanding, I would buy an engagement ring for Noobie).
She must have detected my confusion as she brought to my attention the drinks menu…
Incidentally the third hotel at which I stayed during my voyage was, overall, the best hotel (I am leading somewhere); in fact I would have extended my stay at the Pink Tulip, situated on an offshoot of Bui Vein Street – while not technically ‘Bui Vein’ there are two parallel streets near the top of Bui Vein Street running through one city block perpendicularly to the main Bui Vein – but sadly, by the time I had finally decided that I wished to stay on amid the Pink Tulip’s inviting atmosphere, the place had become flooded with British and Dutch homosexuals (more on this later, also the male owner/manager named Annie) meaning, in that hotel at least, there were no unoccupied openings to be found.
…With her black-painted fingernail underlining ‘Johnnie Walker Black Label’ she asked again, “You wan riiing?”
Finally I understood: the Vietnamese language is composed primarily of vowel sounds thus consonants – the main point of distinction for most English words – are not afforded so much focus; this means that a Viet’s ability to enunciate a language’s hard consonants, unless they have had extensive diction training at a, usually American, language school, is generally lacking – hence Noobie’s inability to properly pronounce her own English name. (Like so many Viet women her Vietnamese name was Ngoc – ‘Nyowp’.)
Many Viet names, as already documented, to the Western ear, are almost identical, yet to a Vietnamese ear, the highly nuanced articulation of vowel sounds is what sets apart one form of address from another. Interesting (as a White man) learning a Vietnamese name, one must listen extremely carefully then mimic the sound exactly – or risk becoming the source of great amusement because while a mispronounced vowel sound mightn’t seem much to an English speaker, to them, it might be tantamount to calling a Michael ‘Michaela’ or a Brendon ‘Brenda’ – and the same goes with their everyday speech – consonants are often dropped from the beginning and end of Viet words, yet provided that clear enunciation is projected of the word’s inherent ‘sound’ the intended word/meaning is generally conveyed; it is for this reason that foreigners (like me) who, although the words spoken might have been accurate, with their (my) inaccurate accents hence ‘sounds’, they (I) sometimes have (had) difficulty being understood…
The Pink Tulip hotel on Bui Vein was wonderful; it was comfortable, it was homely and importantly, it was cost effective. What I had not realised when I made the booking from New Zealand however, is that apparently the Pink Tulip is registered online as a ‘Gay Friendly’ (curious, two terms which, in one sense, mean practically the same thing, yet in another sense, take on a mildly different meaning), meaning that if a homosexual tourist from, for example, Netherlands, or Great Britain, wishes to stay in Vietnam but wants to be assured their sojourn will be free from persecution, or just want to be surrounded by like-minded travellers thus free to revel in their gaiety, they should come to the Pink Tulip. I did initially find it odd, when chatting with a well-dressed, middle-aged Brit seated outside the hotel having his customary midday bottle of local Viet beer, that he should, (in context mind you), disclose his sexual orientation to be homosexual, and this only hours after speaking to a Dutch man who had revealed to me the very same thing (I realise this is beginning to sound queer) which was just the day before I would speak briefly to a homosexual woman who in fact, (as I was by now noticing a pattern) didn’t need to reveal a thing, and that was shortly before bumping into a veritable bevy of, pleasantly aromatic, men of a similar persuasion.
…The only times Noobie seemed to have difficulty understanding me though was when I embarked on one of my famed rambles, or if I tried to explain something about which she had no clue, or better yet, if I had one of my impassioned rants; she would step back from wherever we were or whatever we were doing, armed with a face of consternation, in a big (albeit shrill, nasally, and typically Asian) voice then, while looking all flustered and upset, she would angrily flap her arms while demanding that I ‘Stop talking!’ This was usually followed by, in her clipped-words manner, ‘You … Too … Many … Words!’ Then finally my favourite, also I believe their favourite as it affords Vietnamese folk a great deal of liberty regarding commerce and ultimately any kind of dealings with foreigners – with a shake of the head and often a pull of the earlobe (for some reason) – ‘I no unnerstaan!?’
The manager/owner of the Pink Tulip was a lovely Dutch man of around middle age – who would also turn out to be homosexual – who introduced himself to me as ‘Annie’. I spent some time ensuring I was hearing him correctly and yes, as he confirmed, it was a typical girl’s name, and as it turned out, Annie had come to Vietnam some years ago from Netherlands with the very intention of investing in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. While Annie loved the people and had embraced the ‘HCMC 24/7’ lifestyle, he admitted, in fact he had arrived in Vietnam ‘Arnie’ (or it might have been ‘Ernie’, I’m not entirely sure); yet given the Viet people’s unwillingness/inability to enunciate consonants, Arnie (or Ernie) became ‘Annie’, which the gentle homosexual eventually accepted as his handle.
At the bar, Sunday night, I gave Noobie three 100s and watched her trot off to fetch the drinks; admittedly I was left feeling a little dejected – I had three goals that I wanted to achieve while in Vietnam and the possibility that, on only my second night here, I had located an exquisite Vietnamese woman who was willing to share a life with me, that would have effectively been one goal achieved.
Alas, Noobie did not expect a marriage proposal and the question ‘You buy ring?’/’You wan ring?’/You wan buy ring?’ (along with a variation of the international ‘blowjob’ symbol – loose fist to mouth in a twisting motion – which I presume was the Crazy Girls version of subliminal messaging) was an inquiry that I would hear many times over the next 23 days.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Noah Ring
Photography by Tue B Bort