Arguably the major reason for my going to Vietnam was to have my teeth fixed; I had already booked a consultation at Ho Chi Minh City’s Nham Tam Dental Clinic on Tuesday the 31st at 8:15 a.m. – I just had no idea how many obstacles I would be forced to overcome before making that appointment.
When I awoke it was Monday afternoon; this was to be my third night in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1…
As per my pre-trip booking schedule I had since moved away from Bui Vien (albeit just around the corner), from the comparatively high-priced Aston Hotel to the cheaper Bali B (think it’s alter-ego is the Bali Boutique) on Nguyen Thai Hoc (Nyooyen Tie Hoe).
…Upon waking I felt good; then I remembered how much money I had spent the previous night, also the night before that…
The Bali B was a nice enough hotel and the bed was glorious, the main issue I took with the place is that I just didn’t feel comfortable there, and I wasn’t spending enough time in bed to truly appreciate the latter point.
…Last night had been more of the same; the same ridiculously coquettish Crazy Girls, the same sexually provocative advances, the same implied assurances, the same exorbitant drinks. On the plus side though, the woman of my dreams was there and at that point in my journey I would have done just about anything to be in the same place as her; additionally, we did make a formidable pool duo…
The reality however, my budget to cover the following 25 days in Vietnam was not even close to being on schedule, and this was a genuine worry; worrying me less but still a genuine concern was the fact that my phone wasn’t functioning, and I really ought to have contacted home to update family on my progress.
…Noobie and I had just finished annihilating a very confident, very cocky, but just not very good, young European pair who I guessed were hoping to show off in front of their hot little European girlfriends but who, by the end of the game, were made to look less like pool sharks and more like posers – their girlfriends appeared to have lost interest in them by then anyway and had gone off to find themselves some real men – therefore my partner and I were now looking around for other challengers. There were none so, looking up at me, Noobie asked the question, “You wan play?”
“Me play you…?” I responded with a to/fro gesture, “Sure.”
“You set, I break,” she ordered and strutted towards the bottom of the table.
I set up the 15 balls in perfect formation then watched as the petite little lady steadied herself at the edge of the table and smashed them apart; two were down – big and a small.
“You wan ring?” she asked.
I gave her a 500 and she trotted away; I missed my first shot.
She returned with the drinks and handed me 280 change. “Wha down?” she asked.
I shook my head to indicate I had had no success.
Her shot also went astray.
As we walked toward each other, each holding our own cue, Noobie grinned at me and refused to let me pass, instead delighting in prodding my stomach and pinching my nipples. I laughed and pushed her gently away; she made a show of stumbling then deliberately falling back on the pool table, her tiny (denim) skirt lifting and exposing her underwear. Immediately popping back up, hurriedly smoothing her skirt while pretending to be embarrassed, giggling hysterically with a beaming smile she launched herself off the pool table and collapsed into me. Her huge eyes were bright with excitement as she posed the deal, “OK … You win … I come home with you.”
“Sure,” I said, inwardly feeling a jolt of tension, “I win, you come home with me.”
“OK,” her smile was scintillating as she spoke, “you win, I come home with you … But I win … I come home with you.”
It was the longest sentence I’d heard come out of Noobie since I’d met her; she seemed a little drunk – or high…
As I would come to learn, when a guy buys a drink for him and the bargirl, while her first one or even two might be alcoholic – generally they will claim to be drinking whatever the client is drinking thus in my case Black Label with tonic (Coke keeps me up) – given that the ladies work the floor and the bar simultaneously, usually before the alcohol truly takes effect they will start pouring themselves non-alcoholic beverages of a similar hue; although as I believe I began to mention in a previous instalment, on two separate occasions I saw unconscious young women being carried upstairs on a male employee’s shoulder – Crazy Girls employees having drunk too much – both times after, reportedly, talking a ‘rich Westerner’ into buying a bottle of booze then being talked into helping him drink it – they can’t very well fill their shot glass with ginger ale when he’s pouring from a bottle of bourbon.
…Huh, I thought, she must have actually been drinking with me; I had learned towards the end of the night before (with Noobie jokingly complaining that ‘I was drinking all the booze but I not getting drunk’ I wasn’t terribly surprised to notice how over the course of the night my drink was coming to me with an increasingly potent alcohol content, yet on the one occasion when she actually tasted it to check – ‘Is there even booze in that?!’ – her head had whipped back in disgust and she almost vomited on that awful – awfully good, mind you – scotch flavour) how the ladies in Crazy Girls don’t generally drink a lot of alcohol…
Anyway, I decided that if anyone could survive in Vietnam on around a tenth of their original budget (I had put away enough cash to allow for a daily expenditure of about $100 – which before the Labour Government caused the value of the NZ dollar to plummet with its reckless and crippling taxation thus ultimately kneecapping the NZ economy this equated to approximately 1.200.000VND – which, given that Vietnam is one of the cheapest tourist destinations in the world, should have been plenty. I even had a security cushion in place in case of emergency – yeah, who would have imagined the ‘emergency’ would turn out to be meeting the woman of my dreams on the very first night), I could. The plan: I worked out I needed to separate around 5 million for future accommodation, I found a great street-food joint where I could get a ‘buhng mee, op lah’ (spelled ‘banh mi’ and essentially a bread roll with egg along with assorted Vietnamese ingredients) also my favourite ‘café sua dah’ (iced coffee which, last year, I recall I made the mistake of referring to as ‘café sua’ – coffee, white – ‘nuok dah’ – water, frozen – when in fact the term ‘café sua dah’ is quite satisfactory) for a meagre 55.000VND.
…Drugs though, drugs are rife on the streets of HCMC’s District 1; most every time I walked the length of Bui Vien Street, for example, the offer of ‘illicit’ substances (inverted commas because, come on, this is Vietnam baby, anything goes in Vietnam…) was posed to me – ‘Sir, marijuana Sir…?’ (one must imagine the aforementioned and the following words spoken in a seedy whisper; the later the hour the seedier the whisper too, and uttered with an accent that scarcely allows for articulation of consonants, making it all the more repellent) – that was all through the day until early evening – or, with often the very same vendor doing the propositioning, ‘Sir, cocaine Sir … Sir, crah cocaine, Sir…?’ – that was early to late evening and perhaps after – or the most sinister one – ‘Sir, ice, Sir … Sir, methamphetamine’…
Upon hearing this one I actually stopped, turned and looked at the dude – the face of whom, by now, I had grown familiar – and said, “Are you serious – meth?”
“Yes Sir,” the scrawny character replied with a sly grin, his thin lips spreading up over his tobacco-stained teeth, “best ice you can buy … Buy right here … Vietnam meth … Buy from meee.”
I recall exhaling deeply, shaking my head and walking away; although that shady narcotic vendor and I would run a similar theme – if only for comical value – almost every day/night that I was in Vietnam.
…I learned on about day six, from a Canadian expat named Aiden having retired to Vietnam at age 60, sitting outside a (blessedly licensed) Bui Vien coffee shop drinking a ‘café sua dah, whikky’ (see last year’s Chronicles), that most young men, and often even the women across HCMC, in fact use (Vietnamese) methamphetamine like many Westerners might use coffee; the main point of difference, of course, is that where caffeine has a pleasantly uplifting but generally controllable effect, meth usage (in the Western world at least) tends to manifest more of a frenetic disposition…
The thing that I had difficulty tolerating about these kinds of guys, though – I could deal with the fact that they were making a living from the pervading of illicit substances thus potentially destroying the lives of others – was that they are all self-promoting, unscrupulous, loathsome and ultimately shit-headed, liars; one never can be certain of a single word spoken by these kinds of people (interestingly in ‘the book’ that I will later read but which I have yet to encounter in my travels, there is a line that reads: ‘They say if a Thai’s lips are moving, he’s lying’; from what I experienced in Vietnam I’m pretty sure the same ruling applies to the majority of Viet folk as well), meaning that one never truly knows what they’re buying. In fairness though, the same really applies to anything one buys for consumption in Vietnam; a consumer can never be certain exactly what the product they have purchased, at a rock bottom ‘genuine Vietnamese quality’ price no less, will contain – buy a drink over the bar, as I did, ceaselessly, of course one has no idea how much Rohyphnol they’re putting in it (in the projected hope of rendering you sufficiently agreeable to hand over your last thousand dong, then perhaps talking you into going to an ATM to get some more), just as one has no idea when one buys a few grams of meth, or cocaine, or crack cocaine, or even weed, just what that product contains.
…That night on Bui Vien, Monday night and with a devastated budget that I’m still hoping to pull back into shape – having spent under 200 dong so far that day – I’m feeling as though I can afford to head down the street for a few (overpriced) drinks. Currently residing at the Bali B hotel, off the hype of Bui Vien but with around ten times the pollution due to a main thoroughfare, Nguyen Thai Hoc – with a minimum of six lanes of slowly moving traffic honking, merging and cutting off but never hitting each other – running past the hotel front, it was just a short walk, including several perilous street crossings, to get back to Bui Vien…
‘Best marijuana in world, only seven-fifty’, was a claim I frequently heard; I stopped on one occasion in the hope of gleaning some further intelligence on this ‘best in world’ claim.
“Oh wow,” I said, feigning interest in his product, “you say that’s the best in the world – where do they grow it?”
“It grow rie here, Sir, Vie’nam weed, bess in world.”
“Interesting, see, I always thought the best weed in the world was grown in California, or Jamaica…?”
“Oh no Sir,” he waved his hand dismissively, “Vie’nam weed, bess weed in world.”
“Hmm, that’s impressive, and you were saying five grams will only cost me seven-fifty (750.000VND)?”
“That rie Sir, three gram, only seva hun’red and fiffy dong … Bess in world…”
Now, I tried some of his ‘best in world’ weed and, having only days earlier sucked on Canadian Aiden’s bong packed with Vietnamese pipe tobacco (you talk about not knowing what’s in a product; I would guarantee that ‘pipe tobacco’ contained several ingredients other than pipe tobacco), I can honestly say, whatever it was, I preferred the ‘tobacco’ hit.
…That night, Monday night, my third night in HCMC, turning onto the top end of Bui Vien it was still just over an hour before 9:30, the time I had intended to show up at Crazy Girls. I decided to try my budgeting skills at a bar that, while I did recall entering last year, this year I had not; I approached and was immediately cajoled the rest of the way by a very ‘hands-on’ yet, by Vietnam standards at least, not a very attractive, bargirl. This situation was oddly reminiscent of something else – somewhere else. I didn’t ever get the name of this place because in fairness, it gave me no reason to remember its name other than to say, it was across an intersection from my (blessedly licensed) coffee shop. In this instance the bar was deserted but for a few straggling patrons and one woman playing a game of pool with herself. Without hesitation I approached and asked if she was interested in joining me for a game. She agreed to the challenge and I asked her if I could by her a drink. She chose to drink local beer while I drank local scotch with Coke…
While budget constraints meant I didn’t purchase any myself, later in my tour of duty, later one evening, I found myself in the company of an Australian man, Bruce, who did take advantage of the, ‘Sir, cocaine Sir’, offer and, as is the theme in Vietnam, therefore so did most people in the vicinity; honestly though, I reckon I gained a bigger rush from ‘backdrafting’ Shisha (directly inhaling the exhalation of pink vapour from another’s – ideally a beautiful woman’s – lips) than I took from a line of, worryingly affordable, Vietnamese cocaine.
…The first game went to me by a ball; the second went to her by three. She then asked me if I could buy her a ‘balloon’ for 90 dong; I had seen people – mainly women – on past nights with large pink balloons in their mouths and wondered if this was a craze that had yet to make it to New Zealand. Given my budget constraints I considered telling her to buy her own damn balloon then thought, ‘Shit if I were in Crazy Girls I might have already spent ten times that amount’; ultimately, of course, I bought her a balloon. She was an attractive young lady wearing a yellow singlet top (which I couldn’t help noticing showed off a paunch), a pair of tight denim shorts (really?) and an exquisite pair of heels (absolutely the shoes making this ensemble). I couldn’t believe it though, I didn’t even know her name; that wasn’t like me at all. I asked her name and she told me ‘Nguyen’. (Like ‘Ngoc’, also ‘Anh’, Nguyen is very common as both a Vietnamese name and a word/label, also just like ‘Ngoc’ and ‘Anh’, the name/word/label Nguyen can be seen all around Vietnam.) Nguyen the person was wonderful and she was gorgeous, and she drank beer by choice (when there wasn’t a giant condom-like balloon hanging from her mouth) yet she was strangely aloof; while she appeared to speak good English I couldn’t seem to elicit any real conversation from her – typical of many Viet women questions regarding life, family, or work was met with brisk deflection followed by giggling, nipple-pinching and butt-patting. After the fifth time checking that my wallet was still where it should have been I checked my watch; I told Nguyen that this would have to be our last game as I was expected down the other end of Bui Vien in a bit…
That same man, Bruce the 40-year-old Aussie cocaine fiend, upon the consumption of his flour/icing-sugar/cocaine stopped another late-night street vendor. Here he bought a terribly ornate cannabis pipe then, seeming to know exactly where he was going, at sometime after 4 a.m., he ventured out for a stroll. Nobody even seemed to notice his disappearance. He returned some time later to our group of white-skinned tourists/expats and pulled from his pocket a handful of small bags.
…Nguyen won that game and I immediately challenged her to another. “I thought you have somewhere else you need to be tonight…?” she teased in her near-perfect English.
“I did,” I remarked, “But something more important seems to have come up.”
She grinned and gave my butt a smack (I presently checked my wallet was still in its buttoned back pocket).
I bought her another beer and another balloon; I asked what had happened to her last balloon, she told me it had gone down. I asked her why she had undone it, she told me she liked sucking in the air inside the balloon. I recall thinking at the time, that was somewhat of an odd thing to do but then again, I’m somewhat odd myself (it would not be until sometime later that the significance would be revealed of these so-called balloons), so I wasn’t ready to judge…
Bruce was proving to be quite the middle-aged hedonist; taking a seat most people watched as he first packed his ornate pipe with cannabis, lit that, took a few massive hits then passed it around. Using a clear space in the table he then doled out some more of this white substance and fashioned it into short lines; they disappeared in less the half the time it had taken to form them. Bruce then withdrew from his pocket a different pipe which, as there were around twelve English-speaking men sucking on his other one, I supposed it was sensible that he should have two. Nobody else at the table was paying a great deal of attention to what Bruce was doing yet, without looking overly interested, I watched him fill his secondary pipe with contents from the third small bag. He ignited a Zippo lighter any held it beneath the bowl of the pipe; I heard a hissing, popping, fizzing sound coming from within.
…When I finally left ‘Nguyen’s Bar’ the sun had gone down and I was ravenous. I strode down the street – which is to say I walked as fast as the Monday night pedestrian congestion would allow – looking for somewhere I could grab a bite to eat. I had a feeling there was a banh mi vendor down here and right now I could really go one of those a banh mi op las. There it was, just up there on the left…
There was a rumour going around the table that Bruce was smoking meth but, judging by the fumes wafting past my nose, it was something decidedly less sinister.
…“Ban co quear kohm,” I started.
“Ah, doy quear,” the lady smiled with a gracious bow.
“Buhng mee, op lah…?”
The lady nodded and started putting together the morsel…
Bruce had fallen asleep before his pipe was even passed back to him; put to rest were my suspicions also about the contents of the pipe being from the amphetamine gamut.
…I had stepped around the back of the food cart to take a seat as I dined but as I sat, requiring two hands to eat yet with one holding the banh mi and the other gripping my water bottle and 120 dong change, was forced to set down the two right-hand possessions – placing the small wad of cash beneath my water bottle – on the chair beside me and stood in order to rearrange myself. I flipped my wallet from back to front for ease of sitting then turned back to the water bottle; it was just where I’d left it only now it was rocking gently back and forth…
Some other guys around the table were talking about a scuffle they’d witnessed on Bui Vien a little over a week ago. Seemingly a Western tourist had inexplicably antagonised a group of bored, also potentially high, Vietnamese youth; as the man’s story went, the situation had become gory when one of the delinquent Viet Cong had used a blade to open up the White dude’s cheek – it was at this point, through my fug, I realised they were recalling the incident just last Monday, which had befallen me right beside the banh mi vendor’s cart.
…I grabbed the bottle. As I had suspected it was not somehow obscuring my money. I looked up; a lean Vietnamese youth was walking casually away from me down the alley running perpendicular to the main street, to my right. As there was nobody else in the vicinity this man was clearly the guilty party. “Oi!” I called to the disappearing figure.
He made no effort to stop.
Before I knew what I was doing I had taken chase. “Hey, you,” I called again, now more forcefully.
This time he stopped, and slowly turned. He was an alarming good-looking young man and I almost felt bad accusing him of petty theft. “Dude,” I said lightly, even close to chuckling as I spoke, as though this was just some kind of silly misunderstanding, “come on bud, you can’t do that – I was standing right there.”
The young Viet looked at me in confusion and made some unintelligible sound, I guess implying incomprehension.
“My money…?” I extended an open palm with a friendly yet quizzical expression. “Tien…?” I asked again, in Vietnamese.
He shook his head in apparent confusion and shifted from foot to foot; at that moment I noticed the corner of a yellow Viet banknote – my Viet banknote – protruding from his left jeans pocket.
“There,” I pointed, again almost laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, “you have my money,” I stepped closer. “Give it back…?”
The youth shook his head vigorously and refused to even look down, instead thrusting both hands in his pockets.
I stepped closer still; now just a metre separated us.
He lifted his hands from his pockets and started to back away.
Suddenly annoyed at the youngster’s unwillingness just to accept when he’s been caught in the wrong, keeping my head upright (never show your opponent the back of your head – jiu-jitsu), I made a lunge for the money in his pocket; as I wrestled my 120 dong (just $10) from his pants I gazed a disbelieving stare into the young Viet’s deep and frighteningly dark eyes.
Suddenly there were three more Viet youths staring at me with their deep dark, soulless eyes.
Four Vietnamese youth with a combined age of no more than 100 and oh my, did they look pissed.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Nev R Buckdown
Photography by D Lin Quint