The evening of arrival at my newest hotel, the Yen Trang, I could feel my body beginning to succumb to the illness that would have me in bed for the best part of three days.
Every pollutant that I had inhaled over the past few weeks, coupled with much too much booze and far too little sleep, had rendered my chest congestion much too severe to ignore so, after an early evening meal of ‘bung me op lah’, I ducked up to my room to sleep/rest/sweat out what was effectively a two week hangover (the horrors of this ordeal are documented in previous instalment, Vietnam XXIV).
Those few days’ downtime in fact came as welcome relief as even my resurrected budget was now at risk of being blown; while I had been sure to pay my total accommodation bill up-front affording me a feeling of security in that respect, with my remaining few dentist appointments still to come I needed to be continually mindful of overspending…
The issue I had encountered, and indeed the reason I was having such difficulty maintaining my everyday sense of frugality, albeit while overstaying in the ‘world’s cheapest tourist destination’, could be summarised in just one word – starts with a capital ‘N’ and rhymes with doobie – Noobie.
…Feeling faint and still very much ill, after around 72 hours of terribly broken sleep I hauled myself out of bed (to this day I have no idea how I kept such an accurate account of time/days, but I didn’t miss/wasn’t late for any scheduled appointment), plodded downstairs and had the Yen Trang reception organise my transportation back to District 10, for my fourth (or perhaps fifth) appointment at Nhan Tam dental clinic. I then recall arriving at the premises and being promptly taken through to the dentist’s chair. I recall sitting in that chair for another few hours as the attractive female dentist drilled away at the last of my decayed root; I recall My Hanh’s irritation as, for the umpteenth time, I somnolently allowed my mouth to fall closed…
The woman of my dreams had rendered me utterly smitten and with that came the compulsion to give, and to do, for her, everything that her adorable little heart desired (then later, when I read ‘the book’, there are no words that will describe how stupid I feel).
…By the time the taxi dropped me back at the end of the third Bui Vien – following completion of a root canal, the filling of cavities, as well as the extraction of my first wisdom tooth, it was evening and darkness was beginning to fall…
Having a wisdom tooth removed was one of my trip’s major highlights; I am unsure if the technique used at Ho Chi Minh City’s Nham Tam Dental Clinic is the same strategy employed by other dental clinics around the world, but this was awesome. The lovely My Hanh had just finished drilling and filling a cavity; she rose to her feet and said simply, “Now we do wisdom tooth extraction, OK?”
“Sure,” I replied excitedly (having never had a wisdom tooth pulled I was very keen to see what it entailed and, in fairness, to this point I had suffered none of that fabled ‘dentist pain’ which seems to prevent so many grown adults from ever going to the dentist, and I think I was feeling a little excluded).
With that, to my disappointment My Hanh turned and left the room, to be replaced by another, somewhat less attractive, male dentist. He sat in the dentist’s chair and started rummaging through his tray of heavy metallic ‘instruments’ (dude, just say it, they’re tools). The dentist then selected one of these instruments and indicated that I should assume the ‘open-mouthed upward-staring’ position. My Hanh’s cute little assistant went about applying local anaesthetic to the targeted area of my gums, in the process numbing out half my left cheek. Mouth agape from the corner of my eye I gazed upon the dentist brandishing his shiny metal ‘dental tongs’ (which I had already decided would have looked more in place at a Classic Kiwi barbecue, turning snags, shifting onions, or the like).
Suddenly he was in. No messing about, he just went for it; twisting and pulling, twisting and pulling. At first I felt nothing; in my ears there was just the distant sound of splintering, like a foot stepping into a shallow iced puddle. It was only when I felt my head starting to move from side to side that I realised how much force this Vietnamese dentist must have been exuding on the task at hand. I focused on the man, gripping now with two hands his pair of barbecue tongs, twisting and pulling, twisting and pulling; dead set wrenching on this sage old tooth. The splintering audio became louder, like dry twigs now being snapped inside my eardrums, as the dentist continued working the tooth out of the jaw. Twisting and pulling, twisting and pulling (I could feel the climax nearing and at this point, I won’t lie, I was getting pretty excited); I glimpsed the dentist’s strained face and saw sweat beading on his brow. Twisting and pulling, twisting and pulling – then all at once the dentist’s weight fell back.
Still with mouth agape, still staring at the ceiling, my tongue, which I had been prudently holding well clear of the worksite, instinctively darted back, feeling for the hole. Oh wow, there it was. Oh wow, it was so deep – my tongue went right inside it. Oh wow, it was like there was no bottom to it at all; the hole was just so deep. I looked wide-eyed at the dentist as he, triumphantly it seemed, clasped in the end of his dental tongs my very first extracted wisdom tooth. I unthinkingly sat up in the chair and started applauding; I didn’t even really understand why I was clapping, it just seemed so, I don’t know, deserved.
…I went straight up to my room (curiously, despite my enduring illness, still I insisted on taking the stairs two at a time to the fourth level), showered for only the second time that day – the norm is at least three – shaved and, with only the one appointment remaining thus having now paid the dentist bill in full, headed down the street, to again become the wilful victim of extortion, exorbitantness, exhibition and entrapment, but moreover, obviously, to see the woman of my dreams…
That initial endearment of ‘Woman of My Dreams’ – despite knowledge that any long-standing pursuit of the goddess Noobie would be futile, despite my better judgement, despite what I knew was great folly in logic, despite my most basic mental attachment to common sense, despite everything – was being quickly replaced by ‘Love of my Life’.
…That night, as I once more handed over 500 after 500, it seemed, just for the opportunity to see Noobie’s delighted face, between pool shots I sat and, for probably the fourth time in two weeks, I re-evaluated: I had come to Vietnam with the intention of meeting, falling in love with, and hopefully marrying a Vietnamese woman named Lin (bold plan, I know, but I don’t do shit half-arsed). That plan had disintegrated before it had begun and while I had also hoped to reunite with Mai – which I had since done – I didn’t hold out much hope of dredging out a future there, either. Additionally, I recalled, I had more recently had email contact with the woman named Vy and, while I had initially considered it underhanded to be effectively playing one against the other, as I knew it, the Vy thing had gone nowhere also. Joke was on me then, in that regard; once feeling so clever with all my wonderful ‘contacts’, now feeling a touch stupid as those contacts had presently turned into ‘no contact at all’…
Early-evening, as I had done most days since arriving in Vietnam, I sat outside at whatever hotel I was currently a resident and calmly, sedately, repetitively, went over everything I had done, everything that had taken place that day – recounting in my head every conversation I’d had while similarly burning into my brain the names of the people I had encountered – as well as skimming over notable details of past events, to ensure nothing was forgotten when it came time to document this year’s Chronicles.
…Then there was Noobie – woman of my dreams, bargirl, extremely high maintenance, beyond belief exquisite, ability to effortlessly engender the feeling that I was the only man on Earth (and like I said, ‘no words to describe how stupid I would feel’) – of whom I had had no knowledge before entering Vietnam, but for whom I had developed the strongest of emotions while in Vietnam. Logic told me to leave it; compulsion drove me to push on.
By day I was feeling raked out, hollow, eviscerated; by night, unfulfilled. It might have been the lingering effects of my illness, or perhaps it was a side-effect of the antibiotics they’d prescribed to ensure the bottomless pit at the back of my gums didn’t become infected but I felt empty, as though I’d failed in my quest to conquer Vietnam and by implication, I think, I was struggling with the feeling that I was failing life in general. I couldn’t shake the sensation and, after binning my remaining week’s supply of prescription meds, forced myself to reassess, refocus and lastly, importantly, to redirect.
As with many Vietnamese hotels, the Yen Trang started on the first floor, rather than the ground level. On the ground level, tucked inconspicuously under the Yen Trang reception and situated a few metres back from the road – yet in front of the hotel living quarters and the family who lived there – was the most delightful eatery I had encountered while in Vietnam, Loan’s Café.
The owner (whose husband, rather than sitting outside the premises maintaining ‘security’, did in fact help with the waiting duties), and head chef of Loan’s Cafe, Loan (Luhn), was a wonderful woman who, coupled with Yen Trang receptionist, Lieu (Layho), were more than willing to assist with my self-imposed search for redirection; together these two fine women aided in my freshly revised quest, my ongoing endeavour to glean as much knowledge about the ways of the ‘real’ Vietnam as was possible and ultimately, made my final days in Vietnam tolerable.
It was from here, Loan’s Café at the base of the Yen Trang hotel on Bui Vien, that every Vietnamese woman with whom I had been close – Mai, Noobie, Vy, also indirectly, Lin – would, in a bizarre and confusing turn, over the next few weeks, again present themselves to me as if in one final attempt to mess with my brain.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Dee N Lieu
Photography by Yeo I Wish