Ho Chi Minh City District 1 comprises intersections, massive junctions where maybe six roads, each with up to six lanes of traffic meet; yet all that traffic, defying belief, never has to stop.
With so many vehicles, so many motorists having slowed to walking pace (I am aware I touched on this phenomenon in last year’s Chronicles but this time there is a different point, so please bear with), the motorcyclists – who, across HCMC, outnumber cars by at least eight to one – take their feet from the foot-pegs and – sometimes wearing jandals, sometimes wearing sandals, sometimes stiletto heels or other ridiculously impractical style of motorcycle-riding footwear – in order to maintain balance while creeping forward, a rider hovers or lightly drags their feet over the road as they virtually walk forward with their bikes between their legs. The problem they encounter, with such dense traffic and so many nimble motorcycles weaving their way over the road – usually with a leg dangling out each side and seldom wearing any kind of protective covering – is that when all those lumbering vehicles are forced to tighten up to squeeze through an egress (perhaps between two particularly widely spaced – but of course still moving – cars), it becomes very easy for a rider to misjudge/overlook another rider’s flailing foot/leg and collect it with their, for example, own bike’s frame/foot-peg; this may result in the dragging of the other rider’s foot or leg under that passing bike’s frame or foot-peg, the subsequent skinning of that foot or leg, the crushing of that bone, along with the spraining or the outright breaking of that ankle.
Few Vietnamese citizens are likely to have health insurance, and, as most consider themselves retirees, I would speculate even fewer expats; ultimately for the unfortunate people suffering the above affliction, ordinarily, professional healthcare is not even considered meaning wounds are never sterilised, fractures and sprains are never splinted, and breaks are never set. The bigger problem though, even if hospitalisation had been undertaken as an option, the likelihood is, the outcome would not be any better…
During my final week, staying at the Yen Trang, I spoke with a middle-aged Kiwi expat who, although Robbo ran his business out of, thus currently resided in, HCMC, he did make regular trips back to his Whanganui home in New Zealand. Robbo told the story – once directly to me and three times more that I overheard – about a cut that he sustained to his left thigh while in Vietnam some time ago. As he told it, in the beginning it wasn’t a bad gash, but it soon became infected, and this is when things became disastrous; apparently it was only once the wound had begun to stink that he had sought medical attention. Here he was told he had gangrene and the only option was for the Vietnamese Healthcare System to amputate the limb; unsurprisingly Robbo had demanded a second opinion. Rotting from the outside in, he flew home to New Zealand and presently checked into a hospital in Whanganui. The competent Kiwi healthcare professionals immediately set to work dressing, medicating and essentially remedying his problem.
…This, as I earlier mentioned that I would, has explained the alarming frequency around Ho Chi Minh City, as told by a ‘dep chi’ taxi driver on the way to my second dental appointment, of (usually young) adults limping, hobbling, or walking with some form of assistance. There are plenty of other reasons for adult lameness, too, across Vietnam – birth defect, infected bug bite, polio, other injury – but the majority, are most probably victims of the aforementioned, very common, motorcycle mishap.
Reportedly the amputation incident happened to Robbo around a year earlier, and although he does have a horrendous scar (on the limb that, thanks to the competency of the NZHS, he still has), he is currently in possession of both his legs on which he walks no differently to most other portly Kiwi males.
One overcast day, from the PC at the Pink Tulip, it was nearing midday when I spontaneously asked Mai if she’d like to join me for lunch; she replied that she would ‘love to’ but as it was starting to rain, she might have been a little late (far as I knew she was also in District 1 and while I had detected the odd spot of moisture, I wouldn’t have considered it influential). I glanced out the Pink Tulip’s large glass doors to see, as is customary with the commencement of precipitation, every commercial outlet in the vicinity was frantically starting to bring in their chairs and tables, their advertising racks, brochure stands and/or other produce…
As with ‘Tropical’ countries (situated between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south), rather than the four seasons experienced by much of the world, these countries undergo just two seasons – a ‘wet’ season and a ‘dry’ season; yet with no ‘icy southerly blast’ or ‘chilling easterly wind’, as I am accustomed to feeling on the east coast of New Zealand – in fact not much air movement in the least – all year round, the Vietnam heat is intense. The rain though, when it comes, it comes in deluges; great hunks of water tumble from the sky like nothing you’ve ever seen – unless maybe you’ve lived in the Hokitika gorge – where, even for someone like me who claims to ‘not be bothered by rain’, conditions rapidly become insufferable. To step outside at the height of a classic Ho Chi Minh downpour/deluge/diluvium one’s clothing will become immediately saturated and, such becomes the water/air ratio, one may actually have difficulty breathing; that is correct, you might literally drown on your feet outdoors.
…Perhaps ten minutes later, once the shower is over and everything exposed to the rain has been washed clean (mind you, all that residue and stink only ends up clogging the gutters therefore they’re really no further ahead), chairs, tables, racks, stands and displays are returned to their places, then out come the brooms and the rags; even though this is likely only brief respite before the next downpour the diligent female staff set to work sweeping water out of entranceways and alcoves, wiping walls and window panes – including spotlessly cleaning every exposed window in the premises – now covered with grime and mud spatter from the driving rain.
I had contacted Mai before 11 a.m. then, from the comparative shelter of the Pink Tulip porch, from midday I waited for Mai; in fairness rain did fall at times between 12 and 1 p.m., so I wasn’t terribly surprised that she didn’t show up. After 1 o’clock though I ducked back inside for a Facebook update; around half an hour earlier she had pointed out again that it was raining and had asked if I still wanted her to come…
This was typical of Ho Chi Minh women, they seemed to require constant assurance that they should continue doing something or simply, they would stop doing it (in the days to come, I will encounter a situation where my oversight of this fact, that Vietnamese women require these constant updates, means that I miss the opportunity of a lifetime).
…’Yes Mai, I’m still waiting here for you,’ I had replied.
‘So sorry I be there soon. I running late,’ she had said.
While sitting on the Pink Tulip porch I found myself in regular discussion with the cheery folk from the hotel opposite – in fact this is where I first became acquainted with a Dutchman named Hubert – and, during these intermittent showers/deluges, rather than calling a few words at a time across the road, I would excitedly skip over the road for a more intimate discussion. There was a sleepy middle-aged woman, Nga, who all day, not unlike most Viet males, seemed to just sit outside this business, doing nothing in particular; achieving nothing in particular, other than to periodically engage in conversation the occasional passing local or – in rare cases – tourist. The time passed 2 p.m.; I went back inside the Pink Tulip foyer for a Facebook update.
‘On my way now,’ was the first, from half an hour prior.
‘It raining again,’ was the next, from two minutes after the first.
‘Are you wait for me,’ had been sent two minutes after that.
‘Do still want me for lunch’ had been sent two minutes after that.
‘Yes Mai,’ I replied, ‘I am still wait for you, as I have been wait for you for the past two hours.’
‘Yes Mai, I do want you for lunch, as I wanted you for lunch two hours ago.’
‘How far away do you stay from the Pink Tulip hotel on Bui Vien?’ I asked.
‘Not far,’ she replied, ‘Very close.’
‘Do you have lunch,’ she asked (a question which, incidentally, since becoming acquainted with Mai over a year ago, I had become all too familiar with hearing; she had a real ‘motherly’ instinct about her and was constantly inquiring into my well-being).
‘No Mai,’ I responded with frustration, ‘I have been waiting to have lunch with you.’
‘It raining,’ she said.
I looked outside; it was raining, but just barely.
I skipped over the road for another chat with Nga and Hubert, to find a lean, middle-aged Australian man had since joined their party.
I briefly explained my current predicament, my intentions and my aspirations, adding that I had been awaiting this woman’s arrival now for over two hours; this sent the Australian into uproar. “You bin waitin’ ova two bleddy ours for a Goddamn wumman…?!” he tactfully inquired. “Matey, you muss be the wurl’s biggess sucka – I neva wayed for no Sheela for inny longar in tan bleddy minniss!”
“Hm,” I considered before offering a rebuttal, “you’re probably quite right to maintain that stance, too … I mean I’ve yet to meet any Australasian women who was of the standard, of the essence, of the immense quality, of these fine Asian women.”
This sent the Aussie into further uproar; between fits of laughter he blurted the question, “You sayin’ thez summin wrong wit our girls, are ya?”
“Sir,” I chuckled at the irony, “let me assure you, there is certainly nothing more wrong with your girls in Australia, than there is wrong with our girls in New Zealand.”
The third uproar was definitely the best one, “You’re a cheeky bugger, entcha,” he called to my back, as I made my way back to my seat on the Pink Tulip porch.
By the time Mai showed up the time was almost 4 p.m. and, subsisting for the past hours only on café sua da and whatever nutrients I could extract from the air around me, I was ravenous. I gave a brief welcome then directed her down a few doors to the Oasis – where I had been assuring the youthful doorman, Stronghold (I never did catch his Viet name although I thought ‘Stronghold’ was an awesome title, and of course I told him as much), all afternoon that I intended to be bringing a lady there for lunch – only to have Mai veto my decision and insist that I climbed onto the back of her motorbike. Therefore, with one final rueful glance in Stronghold’s direction Mai and I puttered away on her little scooter.
We ended up eating at a busy street-food restaurant a little way down the road but, such was my hunger (along with the exacerbation of my bodily tremors that this causes), even my two-handed chopstick technique was failing me. At one point, Mai looked at me with concern, “You … Schtuggling,” she queried.
I raised my head and smiled; she was a typical solicitous Vietnamese woman. “I’m fine, thanks Mai.”
“Use this,” she handed me a spoon.
Noodles and deep Vietnamese spoons don’t go; I’d have rather had the chopsticks.
Mai looked into my eyes, “You get hurt,” she said simply, compassionately.
My mind whirred; could she see the residual black eye behind my glasses or the gash which had by now healed so well it was practically indistinguishable (thank you Nhan Tam mystery dentist for your tub of miracle salve), or had she heard something through the HCMC Hotline – she had been the one to make contact with me, after all.
She leaned forward then used two hands to remove my thick frames, more closely inspecting the dirty brown residue of subcutaneously congealed blood; her eyes darted to the left – to my right cheekbone. “When this happen?” she asked, possibly unnecessarily.
“Over a week ago – it’s fine.”
“Like I said, Mai, it’s fine … There’s no trouble.”
“OK,” she sat back. “You like, I show you Vietnam.”
After I had wolfed down as much of the meat substance and packed away as much of the nondescript greenery as I could manage, Mai took me on a tour of HCMC District 1; allowing me to conclude, while you might see more on foot you certainly don’t see as much.
We stopped, inner city, bought glorious Vietnamese smoothies then sat in the dusk, amid a horde of Viet youth, and chatted, in a delightful mix of Vietnamese and English. We drank our drinks, then Mai’s phone beeped; she promptly delved into its realms and was lost therein for the next while. I glanced up and saw the three females of the Viet cohort looking on with dismay and confusion – ’Why does this attractive Vietnamese lady, having found herself a nice Englishman, spend all her time looking in her phone?’ – they seemed to be asking.
Mai dropped me at the end of Bui Vien Street (not the main one or the other one, but the other one). I walked inside the Pink Tulip foyer, looked around; looked at my wristwatch, spun around and walked back onto the street.
I wanted to see Noobie; I was going to Crazy Girls.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by B Sotted Foole
Photography by Wai Nut Mai