Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXIV

The following week was more of the same; the same oppressive heat, the same expensive bar, the same licentious women although there was a new, albeit it a very much homosexually orientated, hotel.

In the hope of getting around my communication troubles, during my last few days at the Bali B, I did attempt to enlist the services of this new-fangled Internet contraption, ideally via some sort of Personal Computer…

My time at the Pink Tulip hotel really was joyous; here I encountered and spoke to a multitude of travellers of various nationalities – also sexual orientation – and found increasingly that Vietnam is becoming a popular destination for retirees (example given: among others, Canadian Aiden from the Bui Vien coffee shop), or just people seeking a change in lifestyle (because Vietnam assuredly does offer that).

…Pleading with the Bali B receptionist – a slimy middle-aged man who only spoke English when it was convenient to him and whom, in fact, I swear just last year I had encountered working behind the bar of a cruise ship in Halong Bay (see last year’s Chronicles) – for use of a PC but seemingly, despite this wiry Viet’s ever-smiling face and stress-free voice indicative of ‘no worries’, I found myself continually running into a language impasse…

Unlike the Bali B, where I had stayed for around four days and never truly felt welcome, the Pink Tulip embraced my custom even from before my official date of residency; while still technically signed in at the Bali B where, incidentally, upon seeing their ‘We prefer cash payment’ sign I had naturally removed my wallet and paid them in cash – overlooking the fact that of course I had already given my debit card details when making the online reservation – the (only affable) receptionist had then instructed me, “No matter, you go online and cancel booking.”

…I found it perplexing that the Bali B claimed to not be able to assist with my computing requirements when, looking around the place, personal and laptop computers appeared to be everywhere; first there was the, sealed off and with frosted windows, greenhouse-looking but supposedly airconditioned, area towards the back of the lobby, composed of approximately twelve ‘business’ people and around twice that many PCs (yet who knows what kind of computing they did in there). There was also a table near the business greenhouse where staff often went to eat, and most of them brought out laptops when they sat; then there was the older and apparently disused computer and monitor resting on a sideboard also down that end of the lobby – I asked if they could fire up that one for me but no, again, they couldn’t help…

“Why not just cancel from your end?” I asked.

“Easier if you go online.”

“Yeah, problem with that, my phone” – taking out my Nokia Simplephone in demonstration – “doesn’t have Internet.”

“You, no have Smartphone?” asked the youthful receptionist.

“Correct, I no have Smartphone,” I again put forward my alternative.

Why, no have Smartphone?” his face was of disbelief.

“Oh sorry … I no have Smartphone because I don’t need Smartphone – I don’t want Smartphone, I don’t like Smartphone.”

The receptionist smiled as though I was making a joke that he didn’t quite get but was awaiting further explanation on the punchline.

“Also, I like buttons,” once more putting forward my Simplephone.

“No,” the receptionist’s smile becoming a chuckle as he spoke, “everybody has Smartphone – why you don’t have Smartphone?”

“Sure, in Vietnam, ‘everybody’ has Smartphone … In New Zealand, not everybody has Smartphone … Some people don’t like Smartphone, some people just want Simplephone, like this, like me.”

…Also, at the Bali B reception, behind the desk there were two computers; explicitly not for use by residents.

The confounded receptionist pointed behind him to somewhere over the road – over six lanes of constant traffic moving steadily beneath a palpable haze of unmoving pollution – to a location he seemingly thought I might encounter some technology; water bottle in hand I set off. Vietnam being what it is I was desperately fearful, having foolishly and unnecessarily paid my bill in cash rather than simply allowing the Bali B hotel to take the money directly from my account, that I would be double-charged and, given the progressively dire state of my bank account, I could scarcely afford for that eventuality…

I had reserved the first 14 days’ of HCMC accommodation online, before leaving New Zealand; the wonderful thing about booking accommodation in Vietnam (and perhaps other countries too, I wouldn’t know) online (using services such as Booking.com etc) is that they assured me that (typical of most Internet sites) despite their requiring my card details (as they do), I would not be charged until I arrived at my hotel so, providing I didn’t do anything stupid like try to pay the bill in person upon arrival, it’s a very accommodating system.

…Given I had been allowed to pay for the same hotel booking through two separate platforms, then as much as I had tried to convince the receptionist to either return my cash payment – which he refused to do – or to put a stop on the electronic payment – which he didn’t seem all that willing to do either, I was more than a smidgen concerned; whatever was going to happen I needed to find of way of keeping a regular check on my bank balance for the next while lest those slimy buggers (by whom I refer only to that underhanded and inherently unscrupulous portion of Vietnam’s populous, not the honest ones) have their way with me, again. Eventually I managed to cross the road without too much trouble although I was noticing that, compared to last year at least, road etiquette was shifting; last year, invariably across Ho Chi Minh City, if a pedestrian stood on one side of the road and waited for a gap in traffic (a ‘gap’ being basically any space between two vehicles of more than three metres) then stepped out and walked directly to the other side, without deviation in their speed or direction, they would make it. I was genuinely impressed, this time and last, by the Vietnamese ability to competently operate a motor vehicle, although mainly motorcycles, through precarious situations – sometimes while pulling aside a facemask to smoke a cigarette, usually while operating a telephone, SMS or GPS, and typically while overloaded with people, luggage, and/or implements – all the while remaining fully aware of the road ahead of them and able to perceive/anticipate a potential obstacle’s movements; in Vietnam this kind of constant alertness, also their ability to ‘read’ a situation and calculate prospective outcomes then react accordingly, with extreme efficiency, is the norm yet I guarantee if a sleepy New Zealand motorist tried this same level of multitasking on a road with even half the activity, a collision would take place almost immediately. Last year, as a pedestrian, I embraced this ‘pedestrian has the right of way’ style and used it with abandon yet this year, perhaps I was less confident or maybe I was more courteous but, I didn’t feel that same level of security in crossing the road. As it happened, not ten minutes after making my way across the road, on the search for technology, I realised it was a pointless search anyway, and started to make plans to come back…

The next hotel at which I would stay, the Pink Tulip on Bui Vien, did have a computer for use by customers and, as I would later discover, in fact it is expected in Vietnam that Internet be provided/offered/made available to every person (next to Buddha, in Vietnam, I believe Internet is God).

…As I rapidly crossed the umpteen lanes of traffic I was made aware, in the short time I had been in Vietnam, just how congested my respiratory system had become; sure, probably it had to do a little with the various pollutants that I was wilfully filtering into my lungs, but certainly it had to do with the abysmal air quality across HCMC’s District 1. I recall on the way over, stopping in Singapore with its crisp, clear, very warm but beautifully pristine air, then the transition as our plane landed just a few hours’ away in Tan Son Nhat airport; on stepping outside, my first tentative inhale of Ho Chi Minh City’s warm, fetid, sickly air just about pinned closed my nostrils (because, let’s not forget this is my second time here, I sure as hell wasn’t breathing that putrid substance unfiltered through my mouth – ugh, who knew where it’d been before me? – I’d likely end up catching Herpes Simplex, or worse) then with each subsequent breath whatever was in that air started giving the impression that it was depositing on the surface of my lungs, nasal filtration system notwithstanding, little by little, breath by breath, layer upon layer of lacquer-like Ho Chi Minh residue which I would later be responsible for somehow removing…

Although still checked into the Bali B I thought it would be prudent to go and have a look at, also see about the relative proximity of, my next hotel, the Pink Tulip. I had briefly had a look for it on days past – in fact it was on Monday night, shortly before I’d gone to ‘Nguyen’s bar’, just before I was ambushed by the Viet Cong – up the top of Bui Vien, just a few days ago; to no avail. What I hadn’t taken into consideration was Bui Vien’s silly little perpendicular offshoot (or as it will turn out, offshoots), but once I was made aware of this, there it was. The Pink Tulip hotel appeared homely, it looked welcoming, it seemed unpretentious; it was grand.

…Indeed, at the halfway point, two weeks into my tour of duty, just one day after leaving the Pink Tulip hotel – the day after what was, unequivocally, the greatest night of my life – shortly after checking into the Yen Trang hotel (situated on yet another perpendicular offshoot of Bui Vien Street, only one block over, running parallel with the Pink Tulip one) I would be struck down with a life-halting illness. So utterly congested I had become that, while my breathing wasn’t strictly impaired, I was light-headed, had become listless, devoid of appetite, and just felt weak all over; suffice to say the next two days were largely spent convalescing in my Yen Trang hotel room bed.

The brilliant thing about Yen Trang hotel customer protocol, unlike the others – Aston, Bali B, but perhaps not Pink Tulip, don’t really recall – at the Yen Trang, unless you come down to the hotel lobby and give reception your key, verbally requesting that you would like your room cleaned, they won’t try to enter your room; at the Aston, on two occasions (shit I was only there two nights, too…?), having gone to bed at 6 a.m., I recall being woken around midday by ‘(knock-knock) Housekeeping…?’ which is utterly ridiculous, yet I encountered the very same issue at the Bali B hotel. To iterate, at Yen Trang hotel – unless you come down to the hotel lobby and give reception your key, verbally requesting that you would like your room cleaned, they won’t try to enter your room – they do it right; so why cannot more hotels around HCMC implement this policy?

With perhaps the only functional air-conditioner remote in Ho Chi Minh City, from bed I attempted to moderate the room temperature according to my current state; I was hot – I could appreciate my liver was working overtime to cleanse my system – yet I was cold – I could feel my organs purging themselves of so many toxins leaving my body enervated. Despite a cool room though and plentiful fresh water – having learned my lesson, several times, about drinking from hotel toilets (see last year’s Chronicles; although this hasn’t prevented me from, at around the two week point, having already succumbed to a water-borne bacterium or two on two separate occasions), I had taken to boiling a kettle-full of water then allowing to cool and keeping a water bottle full to always have by my bedside, because the complimentary water (ordinarily two daily 500ml bottles) never is enough – I was dehydrating terribly; despite low perspiration and a plentiful magnesium intake as a consequence I could feel I was running disastrously low on minerals – nagging headaches coupled with horrendous foot cramps added to my overall feeling of misery.

Because self-medicating is the best kind of medicating (additionally by this point in my journey I had heard such horror stories about the slackness and overall incompetency of the Vietnamese Medical System, even if I had been the kind of person who ever ‘goes to the doctor’ for health concerns, there would have been no way I was going to involve the aforementioned  medical enterprise in my current malady) I turned to my suitcase, unzipped my ‘supplement’ pouch and went to work – also unlike Medical drugs where overdose is a possibility and side-effects an inevitability natural health supplements, when used properly, are side-effect free, safe and effective.

It was evening, yet I had zero inclination to head out. I administered myself one Men’s Multi, mainly for B vitamins to give my liver a kick (can’t live without your liver) but also with vitamin C, iron and magnesium, along with a multitude of other good stuff; then another supplement with some more vitamin C, also zinc, garlic and olive leaf extract, to boost immunity and fight the infection that I could by now feel had established in my chest.

Checking the air-conditioning was holding 16 degrees I pulled up my sheet and closed my eyes. This is where the madness truly began. As with any virus sleep was elusive and that infuriating state of subconsciousness, where a brain is adamant it’s awake but in fact is very lightly asleep, lasted for what felt like weeks; then you startle awake and wonder why it’s only been thirteen minutes since you last checked the time.

Vietnam flashbacks while still in Vietnam…? Is that even a real thing?

It was too cold. My skin was chilled, but I was so far from home – my clothes, my blankets – what was I supposed to do about it? I had to put up with it, that’s all there was to it. Endure it because you put yourself in this situation.

Eventually overcoming the mental battle, I forcibly dragged myself from under a flimsy veil of sleep. I really was cold; my skin was icy. Reaching over to the bedside cabinet I grabbed the air-cond remote and, in the semi-darkness using my braille skills, repeatedly pressed the ‘Temp Up’ button until I’d heard it to beep ten times. The cold air stopped gushing out and I ducked back under my sheet, to again slide beneath a film of sleep little more robust than the covering lying over me.

I’m cold again. There’s nothing else I can do though; I’ve already turned up the air-conditioning. What then? I dunno, maybe it’ll warm up by itself.

I’m still cold. This is awful. Why do they only give you one sheet in a room that supposedly maintains sixteen degrees Celsius? What’s that sound? It’s banging. Sounds like it’s in the stairwell. Must be workers. Sounds as though they’re repairing the skirting on the stairs. I noticed that was lifting on the way up. Must be morning then. Cold morning for Vietnam. That’s because the air-cond’s right down. Why not just turn off the air-conditioning then? Then it’ll be too hot. That’s better than being too cold. No, it’s not, it’s thirty degrees out there. Reckon it’s about three in here though. Give it a few minutes without air-cond, it’ll be thirty degrees in here too. Do it anyway, it won’t be so cold. What’s happening? What are you doing? It’s still cold in here. Did you turn off the air-conditioning? Did I? Did you? I think I did, although that might have been a dream. No, that’s right, I decided not to. What now then? It’s still cold in here; turn off the air-cond. Alright, I’ll get up, I need to urinate anyway. What’s happening? What’s going on now? Did you do it? Did I? I dunno. Is it warmer in here, or is it just me? Do you still need to urinate? What’s that soggy patch? Oh shit, really? Dude, are you that confused? Did you seriously urinate in bed? No, I can’t have, I still need to urinate. It must be sweat then. You sure sweat a lot for someone claiming to be cold. It’s not urine though, that’s good. Where’s the toilet? Same place it always is, I guess. At home, it’s just across the hall. No, in Vietnam. What? Stop it. This is Vietnam, isn’t it? What? Stop it. I’m in a Vietnam hotel room, aren’t I? What? Stop doing that. Where am I now? Aha, nice one, dick. You’re not even in Vietnam anymore. You came home weeks’ ago, your brain’s just screwing with you. Wake up, man, you’re at home. Get up, take a leak in a real toilet…

That’s amazing, the games a mind can play with a person. This kind of shit happened last time, waking in my own bed then panicking about nothing, thinking I’m still in Vietnam; thinking I’m being robbed, again. Huh. Why the hell did I go back, anyway? Waste of fucking time that was. Money too; ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s go back to Vietnam so we can be cheated, lied to and ultimately fucked over by women’. Hah, I can do that in New Zealand.

…What a relief though, to know I’m back home. God, that feels good. What a relief. Bloody cold, but. I’m at home again, guess that explains the temperature. Always cold in the winter in good ol’ N-Z.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Med K Teng

Photography by Reeve Urse Fishback

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