That afternoon I received the invite to, and that evening I attended the function of, the joined birthday party of two close friends of Vy; along with their boyfriends as well as another couple, Vy and I made up the numbers to eight.
We ate and celebrated at a street-food restaurant on Bui Vien – bustling with people as it was it seemed well-prepared when the street’s electricity went out – immediate distribution of candles indicating power-failure was not a rare occurrence on Bui Vien and – although I swear one of the birthday girls’ boyfriends was looking to punch me – possibly because she was making sultry-eyes at me all night or possibly for other reasons entirely – I did never find out what had happened to Vy for all these weeks gone but – from what I could understand through her seemingly subjective display of broken-English – whatever the reason it was largely my fault – an assertion which I magnanimously accepted.
As Vy and her friends had parked their motorcycles near the entrance to the Yen Trang hotel, near the top end of Bui Vien and from where Vy and I had started the night, once the celebration had been deemed finished, given that this particular street-food restaurant had been situated near the bottom of Bui Vien, we again walked the entire length of the street (must be about number 319), with Vy repeatedly brushing away my attempts to casually put an arm around her waist because, apparently, walking holding hands, arm in arm, or engaging in a similar contact of the upper limbs, indicates that the couple is in love, and under no circumstances, after only two ‘dates’, were she and I permitted to be ‘in love’.
I went to bed that night, tired, exasperated, and convinced that when I boarded that plane tomorrow afternoon, not only was I going to be glad to be going home – actually, just to be leaving Vietnam – I was never coming back.
That next day – my last day in Vietnam – only minutes after gifting my last 500 dong note to Loan as appreciation for all she had done for me, I was contacted by Mai. She wanted to see me before I went home; thus the obvious question, the same one in fact I had put to Vy, who had essentially left me alone for four weeks before deciding she wanted to ‘see you before you fly home’ – ‘Where have you been?’ Also, ‘Why now – why not weeks ago?’
Not unexpectedly Mai gave me the classic, ‘Oh, but Vietnam lady very busy, you see, Tim’ – leading my perpetually exasperated mind to flash through image after image of so many sedentary Viet women – occupying a chair, sofa, or just a clear spot on the floor, splayed out, relaxed, or sometimes sleeping; granted, some Vietnam ladies might be ‘very busy’ but most (I’m guessing, any daughter who is not an eldest daughter), they take their merry time and do essentially as they please amid the tropical cesspit that is Ho Chi Minh City.
Predictably we’d met outside the Yen Trang hotel, where I noticed immediately, Mai had done herself up for this ‘date’; she was wearing a lovely floral summer-dress, sensible heels, with the typical (utterly hideous) Vietnamese stockings – ghastly, thick, woollen, skin-coloured things – but the most amazing thing, for the first time since I’d met her, Mai was wearing makeup (most younger Vietnamese women have the kind of skin and facial features that receives little benefit from the addition of makeup; indeed most Asian women appear to wake each morning with a congenital dusting of foundation and lick of mascara), and my God did she look beautiful.
I ordered a couple of fruit smoothies from Loan’s Café behind us (an additional 80 dong, on top of the 500, because I couldn’t very well renege on my generosity at this late stage), and we chatted.
My mood, having been exposed to this intermittent Vietnamese shitstorm for quite long enough to leave me feeling very much under the weather, was understandably deflated. I was happy to notice, however, compared with the first time I’d met Mai (Aston Hotel Saigon, circa tour of 2017) or even to just three weeks’ ago, her English had improved markedly; evidently I was not her only ‘English’ friend though, and in fact (I recall her noting excitedly), I was not even her only English friend from New Sealand – apparently she also kept in communication with somebody named Tietrian from Tietreurt which, after some blind guessing and cryptic extrapolation, I was able to deduce this was ‘Christian from Christchurch’ (as previously noted, the Viet palate struggles with its ‘chr’ and ‘rch’ sounds), who chatted with her regularly.
As our beverages were dwindling and Mai’s departure was nearing, I could appreciate that she had become strangely concerned; turns out she was worried that I might neglect to maintain our (let’s be fair, already very tenuous) lines of communication. With that though, almost in a revelation, I understood why it was so important to her that we had this meeting; it wasn’t about her further leading me on with implied assurances of an intimate relationship, it wasn’t about her setting me up now to dupe me out of more cash later or in fact, far as I could tell, almost unbelievably, it wasn’t directly related to money at all. It was simply that, as a Vietnamese woman, seemingly, Western friendships are extremely valuable (which, in fairness, is still a little bit related to money).
Mai puttered away on her scooter; I shook my head in the hope of expunging some of the fug left by her pining words, also by the last month in HCMC in general, then staggered up the steps to the Yen Trang lobby. Walking through the glass doors, first thing I saw was Lieu, almost in tears, looking decidedly shaken.
“Lieu,” I began, with as much tenderness as I could be bothered employing. “What’s up?”
She looked at me, nerve-wracked, terror-stricken, but said nothing.
“Lieu,” I tried again, more firmly, “what the hell happened to you?”
“I … I just got mugged,” she eventually mumbled.
I almost laughed. It seemed so ridiculous. Tourists in Vietnam get mugged, not locals; not this quint essentially Vietnamese woman who has lived in Vietnam all her 20-something years thus who knows and understands the ways of the Vietnamese people, and who should presumably know how to avoid this filthy Vietnamese scourge…?
She peered up at me, her big dark eyes wet around the edges.
“Are you serious – you were mugged – what, by Vietnamese dudes?” I blurted the inquiries, disbelieving.
Lieu nodded, “They attack me, they try take my phone.” She held up her Smartphone as if illustrating how close it was to being stolen.
“You serious?” I was still finding this very hard to believe, “Vietnamese men assaulted, and tried to steal from you, a Vietnamese woman?”
Lieu nodded silently, no doubt wondering why this peculiar Englishman was asking her so many stupid questions.
“That’s unbelievable,” I had turned off the filter and was now dis-compassionately speaking my mind, “those gutless little shitheads … Stealing from tourists,” I went on, “I mean I kind of get that, but from your own countrymen – from people who they must know are finding it just as tough as they are … That’s fucking disgraceful … So what happened, Lieu, where did they attack you – where were you?”
“It was on bus, on way here,” it was her turn now to blurt speech, “I was using phone, then at stop, some guys stood up get off, they try snatch my phone, as they go past, and I wouldn’t let them, I stand up, I try push them, but they are two guys, one try take my phone, Tim, I start yelling, ‘Thief, thief, thief here!’, and they run away…” With that she dissolved into tears.
I shook my head, placing a spread hand on the outside of Lieu’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry you’ve been through that, Lieu, it sounds awful – sounds as though you did very well for yourself, though.”
The pretty young Asian woman smiled, nodding. “I din wan lose my phone,” she mumbled, tears bubbling at her lips.
Once Lieu had cooled off, she booked me a taxi to the airport, then I was ready to leave Ho Chi Minh City and not look back.
Hours later I was being driven from Changi Airport to Hotel Boss in Singapore. The place was surprisingly dead; shortly after my check-in, I was in bed.
I wake. Someone is scrabbling at my door. Mental assessment; I am quickly aware that I am a resident of Hotel Boss, Singapore. Even with eyes closed I can tell it’s still dark. I suspect it must be a mistaken, or drunken, handle-grabber, in which case I’m not worried – feverishly alert, but not too worried. Suddenly my eyelids are lit up. Somebody has just opened my door. My heart, my blood, adrenaline; everything inside me pulses with such immediate force at that moment I feel as though my heart might burst. My eyes are still closed as, now from a supine position in my Boss hotel room, I hear an intruder shuffling along the foot of my bed, between the bed and the room’s sideboard, where I had carefully laid out all my belongings the night before…
Before getting into bed the previous night, I recall chuckling to myself as I had removed my wallet and, where in Vietnam I might have slid it under my pillow or suchlike, last night I recall thinking, ‘Nah, no security issues here, bud – we’re in Singapore now’ then, as if in some kind of defiant statement, I recall mischievously catching my eye in the mirror then casually dropping it onto the sideboard.
…I listen to a pair of, what appear to be soft – slipper, or perhaps sock – feet shuffling across the carpet at the end of my bed, and I realise, in horror, all of my belongings are either on that sideboard or crudely stuffed into bags on the floor just below, but still very much in clear view for anyone who wanted to see what was available to idle hands.
In my Boss bed, eyes squeezed shut, body clamped by adrenalin’s frightfully icy grasp, I curse my complacency. I might be out of Vietnam but, lest I forget, I am still very much in Southeast Asia; indeed, the only person I can trust in this place, essentially at the behest of this continent of depravity, is me.
I blink, once, twice; then in a frantic movement with a puff of air exploding from both nostrils, I throw myself upright in bed.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Arf Bucket
Photography by U R Boned