I wandered home from Crazy Girls bar that night, alone, confused; what had happened to Stu? In fairness anything might have happened to Stu; highly intoxicated, first-time-in-Vietnam, solo traveller Stu, and while I wasn’t worried per se – reckon the man could talk his way of any situation – it was certainly odd.
As it happened, a few days after that ordeal Noobie emerged from her den up the dark end of Bui Vien and afforded me a visit at the Yen Trang hotel (in reality I think her conscience was eating at the inside of her brain); I was stationed outside Loan’s Café at the time, contentedly sipping a glass of café sua da, when she showed up. Deciding it might be nice for Noobie and me to have lunch together, and although I was aware her preference is pizza, in buying a greasy meal of ‘Hamburger and Fries’ from Loan’s Café, I really thought I was doing the next best thing; she nevertheless grumbled and moaned her way through much of it, clearly pining for her squalid upstairs shared-living quarters also the dankness of the Crazy Girls bar and obviously not wanting to be there in the daylight much less the open air, additionally complaining of a sore stomach throughout…
I was asking around, but nobody had seen Stu; of course, everybody remembered Stu – that amazing British/South African dude whose dreamy smile and radiated warmth appeared to have touched the hearts of all involved (women were smitten and guys had man-crushes) – they just could not seem to explain his disappearance. At this point, while I was still not willing to concede ‘worry’, upon having made it out unscathed to then witness your buddy dash back inside a seedy bar, to fetch their footwear which they have inexplicably removed and left therein, then not return, if nothing else did elicit a decided sense of bemusement. That afternoon I sat in my usual afternoon spot and, as I usually do from my afternoon spot, I pondered.
…Noobie’s stomach pains were worrying; she had assured me they weren’t the usual bought of womanly pains and in fact they’d been a feature of almost all our time together. Evidently alcohol aggravated the discomfort which, given her profession, made it particularly worrying (I didn’t say anything at the time but shooting around my brain were the terms ‘ulcer’, ‘cyst’, ‘tumour’, ‘stomach cancer’ among others) therefore, being the gentleman I am, I had insisted that whenever I bought us drinks at her bar, she was to make mine the regulation Johnny Walker Black Label but I wanted hers to be Coke, or ginger ale, or something of a similar hue that she could pass off as alcohol but which was not going to aggravate her stomach pains like alcohol did…
Since checking into the Yen Trang and becoming a regular patron of Loan’s Café, as well as perceiving passers-by in their daily activities, using my limited grasp of basic Vietnamese, (also some English depending who was the target audience) I had been passing the days in a concerted effort to drum up custom for the incipient business that was Loan’s Café; before Stu arrived I had been relying on a charming demeanour and mispronounced vowels to win over tourists and locals respectively – then imagine my delight to have at my disposal a bona fide advertising guy. That was it, I was now officially concerned for Stu’s wellbeing.
…In fact the masterful deception of a bargirl drinking soft drink and passing it off as liquor (in order to satisfy the ‘bargirl’ expectation) is not a concept for which I can take credit; as I’m sure is documented in one of this year’s earlier instalments, given that it’s the bargirls who work the floor and it is also the bargirls who work the bar, the duplicity of ‘false drink representation’ was a scam to which I fell victim during my first week frequenting Crazy Girls; if a lady feels she is becoming perilously inebriated while her mark is not, instead of pouring a round of, for example, vodka for her and the aforementioned male, she’ll make his a vodka and hers a tonic water or similar, invariably still charging ‘220’ (the price of two alcoholic drinks) for the service.
Evening had descended upon Bui Vien and still the people were bereft of Stu. Several hours earlier Loan from the cafe had asked me if I knew of Stu’s whereabouts then later Lieu from reception had asked me the very same thing; his room at the Yen Trang was still ‘occupied’ yet he was not there.
Stu had come to Vietnam, following a career in advertising, as an insanely youthful 45-year-old man (in fact upon meeting for the first time, the question had come up of our respective ages, where he had – at the time, of course, drunkenly – responded, ‘Guess how old I am then’. I had said, ‘I dunno, let’s say, what, 35…?’. Then regarding his attempt at my age, ‘Hm, your look, your overall presence, hm, I reckon you sound, oh, reckon you’d be, say, 45…?’ Suffice to say we were both surprised; more-so to find that the correct ages had been guessed, they were just around the wrong way), where Stu was intending to secure employment as an English Teacher for Vietnamese students.
In Vietnam ‘English Teachers’ are very well paid, reportedly, even by Western standards. I believe Stu had lined up a number of interviews over the coming days and I was becoming concerned (I suppose like every good fleeting acquaintance ought) that should he not resurface soon he might end up like so many other Western-Vietnamese hopefuls; come to Vietnam on a one-way ticket, ready to shirk the old life of obligation, keen to live it up amid a world of heat and beauty, excited to throw off the shackles of oppression and just cut loose – only to blow out in the first few days, to become disorientated by flashy lights and seductive aromas, to grow infatuated with so much smooth skin and batting eyelids, enamoured by promises of unimaginable delights and to be cajoled into wilfully giving away everything, then be forced to abjectly retreat, with nothing, and to mope home just a few weeks’ later on a friend’s credit card, bewildered, penniless and dejected, yet another victim of the insidious ‘Curse of Vietnam’.
I was determined to not let the same fate befall Stu; it seemed like he was genuinely keen to make a go of this ‘English Teacher’ racquet and he was, after all, ‘such an amazing guy’. At this point, relaxing out front of Loan’s Café as I was, in the semi-darkness with a fruit concoction pleasantly spiked with a double measure of Beam, I am not ashamed to admit, I was very concerned about Stu.
That was when I heard it, the unmistakable South African timbre – momentarily I forgot whether this meant he was drunk or sober – so glancing to my left, to the backpackers’ hostel, which appeared little more than a threshold for scantily clad European women – often giggling and usually trailed by a horde of eager men – to emerge and disappear, along with the seating out front of this threshold, there he was.
Engaged in one of his fabled ‘heart-to-heart sales pitches’ Stu had employed his typically stooped posture leaned over a table, placing himself awkwardly up on one shoulder to ensure eye-contact with his audience, positioned ostensibly at the ‘behest of his client’, and looking as though he was attempting to convince this (presumably English-speaking) tourist of something rather complicated. From my position not ten metres behind Stu (admittedly, feeling massive relief), in full view of the adjacent seating arrangement but technically at a different establishment, in a loud voice I called, simply, “Stu you wanker.”
I watched his ears prick up, watched him slowly turn; the grin, the animated expression on his face telling me that yes, he was still very much the drunkard. Standing now at full height Stu threw his arms in the air as if in celebration, “Tim you cunt!” he yelled with similar volume to my own then, dismissing his prospective client, slowly jogged the short distance between us. He stopped half a metre from where I sat and took a knee by my side, his mouth agape in a wide smile; I turned, grinning and nodding slowly, gazing upon the droopy-eyed, swaying specimen before me. With that, unexpectedly, Stu lurched forward, throwing his arms around my shoulders, stuffing his whiskery face into my neck. A moment later he pulled back, “Oh Tim mate,” slobber speckled my left cheek as he enunciated in his South African tone, “it’s so good to see you … I thought they might have killed ya.”
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Stuart Reet-Urn
Photography by Con Fusan