Flipping on my hat and slipping on my frames I turned, and I walked.
Despite the street having become packed with revellers, not one person stood in my way. Bloodied and empowered to them I was a madman; to me I was simply a man with a mission. Realistically I had only one thing on my mind – I wanted to see Noobie.
I made it to Crazy Girls and still without speaking to anyone, took a seat under the night sky. A very short and rather chubby but impossibly cute bargirl, My (Me), sidled up on my left. Holding up the drinks menu, little chipmunk-face with large eyes screwed into her typically surprised/shocked semblance, with a finger under ‘Johnnie Walker Black Label’ – which I noted, despite being aged for several more years thus being of a higher quality, was the very same price as ‘Johnnie Walker Red Label’ (potentially the same bottle too) – “You wan riiing?” My inquired.
“Sure,” I gave a brief nod.
“Tiiiiiiiiiiim!” Above the ambient bedlam I heard Noobie clip-clopping her way across the bar floor to my right; suddenly the footsteps fell silent.
I raised my head and turned. Noobie was standing around five metres back from where I sat, partially obscured by darkness, staring at me with a horrified expression.
She tentatively made her approach, coming to a halt a half metre from my side. Mouth agape she slowly raised a hand to the slit in my cheekbone; I instinctively drew back. “I wan help,” she said quietly.
I gazed into Noobie’s eyes and saw genuine concern. “It’s fine,” I said flippantly.
“It not fine,” she made another attempt at touching the wound; this time I allowed it.
“Hurt?” she asked tenderly.
“Yes,” I answered honestly.
“I wan help … Let me clean.”
“It’s fine,” I said with a dismissive wave, “sit with me, have a drink.”
For the record, that was the first time I had offered to buy Noobie a drink – it was the first time I’d had to – yet for once the prospect of ‘moneeeey’ didn’t seem to lift her spirits. She appeared sad, or guilty, as though she felt somehow responsible for what had happened to me…
It wasn’t a concept that I had even bothered to entertain but of course, she was a young woman and the Viet Cong had been young men; the likelihood is she knew every one of the delinquents involved (as I thought later, the outrageously good-looking ‘petty-thief’ might have even been her brother) which gave clarity to the fact that the prominent emotion I saw in Noobie’s despondent gaze, was in fact one of guilt.
…I noticed, as I sat describing to whomever was listening the sensational turn of events that had just befallen me (in my currently amped state I recall uttering such regrettable phrases as, ‘This is Vietnam baby, it’s a fucking warzone out there’, and suchlike), Noobie quietly went to work refitting my salvaged lenses into their frames. I had to admire her concentration and perseverance with the finicky task; like most Viet people she was very skilful with her hands and it was only about ten minutes later that she held the repaired glasses up for me. “This enough?” she asked in a complaisant manner.
I was impressed; it almost felt as though she was trying to make up for something.
“Thank you,” I responded, turning to look deeply into her eyes.
“I think I broke…” she was apologetic as she pulled back the glasses and showed me, on the top left corner of the right lens a small sliver of glass had been chipped.
“No,” I smiled as much as I could without evoking searing pain, “Noobie it’s fine, that happened at the glasses shop, in New Zealand, before I even received them … Thank you, you’re wonderful.”
Noobie grinned and bounced on her stool then became abruptly serious as she leaned into me, “Let me clean,” she said again, gently touching my face.
Conceding finally that I wasn’t above letting a gorgeous woman wipe gore from my skin, I stood and followed the woman of my dreams to the Crazy Girls restroom…
The Crazy Girls restroom/bathroom/toilet/WC (see last year’s Chronicles) has a saloon-style, chest-high, swinging door (which swings awkwardly on one hinge), where a male patron can walk in, try in vain to lock the wonky door, soon give up on that, then turn abruptly left to use the urinal; a female patron can enter via the same door, sometimes noticing that a male has entered before her but failed to securely lock the door yet can push past this urinating male to the cubicle at the end, where she is able to then relieve herself in peace. There is a hand basin below a mirror situated between the two stations, with no way to dry hands but, for use by both males and females.
…Cautiously, tenderly – lowering my stance so she could reach my face – Noobie spent some time moistening then blotting the sticky blood from my face and neck. I turned, for the first time seeing my wound in the mirror, and at that moment felt greater respect for her than I ever had. The stomach Noobie had shown to not only remove the clotted blood from one side of my face, to carefully dab in and around an open wound which, now I looked at it, although only about 20 millimetres in length, running horizontally, the skin on either side of the cut gaped open giving the vulgar impression of a toothless fish’s mouth and regarding depth, well, it appeared to go all the way through. Upon seeing the gash close-up, I wasn’t terribly surprised it had bled the way it had (as I surveyed the damage, I watched a thin line of weeping blood – plasma – trickle over my cheek), and wondered to myself, albeit briefly, what severity of facial wound would in fact constitute medical stitches…
Incidentally the Vietnamese Medical industry, around the world but particularly in Vietnam, conversely to their Dental industry, does not enjoy such a scintillating reputation. This probably relates to the fact that, while Vietnam is theoretically, technically, currently under socialist governance (much like NZ), which typically provides for its citizens free healthcare, free education and cost-free other basic human requirements, Ho Chi Minh City and indeed the whole of Vietnam, has adopted very much a (as previously noted) ‘cash only’ society thus the process of taxation can be easily overlooked; cash money comes over the counter, cash money is distributed to employees, cash money is then used to buy in more stock, cash money is used to pay business expenses, then seemingly cash money leftover is pocketed.
…I turned back to Noobie to see her holding out an unwrapped sticking plaster, ready to cover up any signs of damage. “I stick?” she asked in her most adorable of voices…
Without taxes there is no way a Government can provide substantial healthcare for its citizens and while I can almost understand the fact that the likes of street vendors don’t pay tax (also presumably their superiors; because apparently they do all work for someone), even in big business, for example, the Bali B hotel, there is a sign on the front desk ‘We prefer payments in cash’, which I have to assume is an effort to conduct operations (at least largely) free from the ‘oppression’ of Government taxes. More shockingly still, at the Nhan Tam Dental Clinic (and although I have yet to visit this place so far in my journey I assume this is a policy maintained by all dental clinics across HCMC, not just Nhan Tam) they actually offer a discounted rate to cash-paying customers; a fact that I only learned after I had already attended, and paid for, multiple visits – given I made no secret that I was only ever going to pay cash this ‘incentive’ needed never be spoken or, in all likelihood, even deducted from my fee – and even then this ‘tax avoidance’ theory of mine was not constructed until much later.
…Ah, what the hell, I thought, bending at the knees again.
It was after watching a female receptionist carefully fashioning a roll of – not unlike the massive roll of receipt paper one might see at an old school supermarket till – 500 dong notes, rubber banding it then neatly slipping the roll into a drawer, that I suspected something at this fully operational, highly technical, totally professional therefore of course utterly law-abiding, dentistry business might have been amiss. At the time, before I had been made aware that they ‘preferred’ cash payment, I had naturally assumed this ‘cash-rolling’ was simply the clinic’s way of dealing with the residue of its cash-paying clients; upon realising, however, this was their ideal method of dealing with finances I soon guessed why it was their ‘ideal’ method thus began to ask the question, ‘So who the hell under Vietnam’s Socialist Government rule does pay taxes?’ …
On my final night in Vietnam I spoke with a couple of Indian travellers – Adam and Juniper – both were highly educated young men, both came from wealthy families, and both had riotous Indian accents (just as I’m certain, in their perception, I had a similarly uproarious Kiwi accent). We introduced ourselves and chatted briefly about our respective reasons for being in Vietnam, where I touched briefly on my passion for political analysis and, a little more pointedly, my perception of the Vietnamese Government; Juniper was the more talkative of the duo and was vociferous in his opinions about his own country’s governance. “Oh my God,” he leaned back as though in disbelief, speaking as if constantly about to succumb to hilarity, “you write about politics…? Oh my God, Sir, you should write about Government in India … Indian Government is so shithouse! Nobody pay taxes in India so Indian Government doesn’t do anything … No sorry, sorry, only about top six earning families in India pay tax, right…”
At this point Juniper glanced leftward to check he had the support of his friend; “More like top ten,” mumbled Adam facetiously.
“Alright, top ten earning families pay tax to the Government, because Government in India is so shithouse, right … Oh my God, Sir, it’s like this, right, you have like – how many people in India now? It’s like, what, one-point-three billion?” Another glance toward his learned colleague.
“More like one point five billion.”
“Alright, oh my God, Sir, one point five billion people in India, right, and Government only look out for top ten families because they are the only ones fucking stupid enough to pay the Government taxes! That’s like what, one point four nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine … I dunno, but it’s a whole fucking shitload of people just doing their own thing, working their own jobs, living their own lives, and doing it on their own, because Government in India, man, it’s so shithouse man!”
“It is pretty bad, man,” Adam offered his first unsolicited remark.
“So,” I was intrigued and keen to hear more Indian intelligence, “I would assume then, that what, your families are part of this top ten, tax paying category…?”
“Oh no, shit, no, not even close, brother,” Juniper fell back onto his stool with a grin. “Nah man, I mean our families are wealthy, but we’re not that wealthy … Nah Government doesn’t give a shit about the likes of us, man, shit, we’re not rich enough, right … Yeah, we’re small change, we don’t pay enough taxes – Government in India soooo fucking shithouse, man.”
“Surely though,” I was thriving and compelled to learn more, “I mean I thought India was a democracy … Therefore, if the majority don’t like the way their country is being run, surely it is they who have the power to change that government – do the people of India not vote into power their government?”
It was Adam who took the reins on this one. “Yes, the people of India vote, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything – if the guys currently in Government want to maintain control, they maintain control, simple as that, and we gotta live with whatever they want to do, because our families aren’t giving the Government enough money…”
“Oh yeah man,” Juniper was back on the wagon, “Indian Government, corrupt as fuck, man, and there’s not a fucking thing any of us can do about it…”
“You gotta have the money, man,” Adam came back into focus, “it’s as simple as that, or you have no say what happens.”
“Oh my God, right,” Juniper filled in the blanks, “it’s so fucking corrupt – it’s so shithouse in India, man!”
Alright, now, I’m not willing to make any speculative leaps here, but maybe Vietnam’s Government suffers from a plight felt similarly across many parts of Asia, not just the southeast.
…With the dentistry and hotel industries – also presumably the remainder of the hospitality industry – in likelihood the highest-earning industries in Vietnam not paying their share of tax, it’s little surprise the Vietnamese Government cannot manage to provide adequate healthcare for its people; I lost count of the number of lower leg/ankle injuries I saw on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and was starting to wonder if there was perhaps a congenital defect of the lower legs of Vietnamese people – as is my style though I did inquire I into this oddly recurring sight, during the taxi ride to my second dental appointment in fact, and was given an entirely satisfactory explanation.
The next morning I woke feeling better than bad but still more poorly than good; mind you I realised I might just have found a way of resurrecting my budget – early to bed, early to rise.
I had an appointment that morning with a dentist in District 10, at 8:15, and had been advised I should allow anywhere up to an hour’s travel, mainly for traffic congestion. The appointment was all booked, all I had to do was get myself there. Checking my useless (but for telling the time) phone I was glad to see it was still before 6; I was glad furthermore that I had shaved the day before meaning that I wouldn’t have to undergo the discomfort of drawing a razor over my freshly pummelled and tenderised face…
I didn’t know it lying in bed, but I was an unsightly, puffy mess. Upon waking, while my face wasn’t causing me outward discomfort it most certainly was touch sensitive; my first look in the hotel bathroom mirror following Monday night’s fracas genuinely shocked me – reminding me of the episode of the Simpsons where Ken Griffey Jr contracted gigantism – such was the lumpy, moonlike appearance looking back at me, I scarcely recognised my own face.
…I sat up in bed and was aghast at the mess I had made of my pillow; Vietnamese plaster notwithstanding it seemed I had continued to bleed throughout much of the night (which, rather than being concerned, I told myself was a good thing, as it will have been removing any foreign particles and/or potential infection from the wound).
I had a shower and lightly washed my face, before removing the dressing and gingerly immersing the wound under Vietnam’s widely dis-reputed water; a little later while patting dry my swollen face before the mirror I noticed that horrid fish-mouth was still gaping open at me which admittedly, did leave me a little concerned. I laboriously peeled back the spare plaster Noobie had given me, slapped it on, brushed my teeth and headed down to get some breakfast.
“Buhng mee, op la!”
“Aha, café sua dah…?”
“Kahm urn,” I nodded, smiled, then in my grandest Viet accent, “Café sua dah!” (If one wishes to be heard in Vietnam, it is best to speak loudly.)
55 dong later I’m wandering back towards the Bali B feeling as though I’m managing to pull things back on track.
In fairness there is no way, at this early stage, that I should be feeling any semblance of calm, nor should I be at all pleased with my efforts. Now, here, amid the relative safety and comparative sobriety of New Zealand, I can appreciate how close I came the night before to utter devastation; shit man, if three-stripe had used that blade to slit a carotid artery rather than my cheekbone, simply, you would be reading a posthumous post.
Also, in Vietnam, I have now spent over half my budget and I’ve not yet been away from home for a week; ‘Managing to pull things back on track’…? Pull your head in, buddy, long way to go yet.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Fish E Faze
Photography by Buck N Track