Saigon Sunday Blues
Here is E@L in the Executive Lounge (ha! like E@L is executive material - "You're fired!" Trump would scream before E@L'd even opened his mouth...) of the New World Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City with a free day to do touristy things and all he wants to is sit back and chill. Lounge in the lounge...
The wind is blowing a gale up here, howling; it may be the Venturi effect around the building or it may be the edge of Typhoon Prapiroon (apparently not) which took the roof off my friend's house in Stanley, HK. It may be the wailing lament of The Hungry Ghosts, for it is coming up to the full moon of the seventh month in the Buddhist year.
He doesn't want to go outside. He does want to wander around dodging nightmarish traffic, threatened by thunder-storms (60% chance of rain says the weather channel), tourist touts and four-year-old beggars. He's seen all that before.
He's just about had enough of this traveling shite. Eight years at 50% travel time. And wherever he goes, there he is.
He'd rather be out in the cold wind in Melbourne, watching his team
win loose again in the Aussie Rules league. He'd rather be snuggled up on a couch reading a good book. He'd rather be in a garret somwhere writing a magnificent, world-changing story.
He'd rather be at home, wherever the fuck that is, doing home things.
However, this is still better than going to the office. Most mornings, a real heaviness sits in his chest as he wanders into Harbor Front Centre from the taxi drop-off point or down the steps from the MRT on those late mornings when he is in Singapore and has to front. What's that line about reluctant school-boys dragging their satchels slowly to school? Keats? Shakespeare? Adrian Mole?
He'd rather be blogging. He'd rather be sleeping.
He'd rather be golfing...
Problem with Vietnam is, there are only four golf-courses in the entire country.
What brought this foul mood
back on? Maybe it's because he's been writing up this trip for the Australian Sonographers Association journal Sound Effects (my idea for the name!) and has been analyzing his life a bit too closely for his own comfort.
Here's Draft One of Day One, in the MORE section... (Expect it to be heavily edited prior to publication.)
Meanwhile, having another condensed-milk sweetened coffee is
The flight out of Bangkok was delayed. The old Don Muang airport is groaning under the load of the Northern Hemisphere's late summer holiday tourists. The queues at immigration are longer, the spread of languages more babel-like. And the schedule of flights is, not to put too fine a point on it, ambitious.
We are 30 mins on the runway apron as other planes in front of us take off and land in a sequence determined by those guys up in the Flight Control Tower, struggling to get too many planes in and out on the available runways. Our short trip to Ho Chi Minh City is now 50% longer than anticipated. I hope that my greeting party doesn't give up in frustration at the delay and leave me to make my own way to the hotel. At Bangkok, which I must have visited 50 times, this would not be a problem for me, but this is only my third visit in eight years to the old capital of what was South Vietnam. The airport in the town now officially called Ho Chi Minh City, but stubbornly referred to as Saigon by the locals, is still unfamiliar. And besides, I am not 100% certain of the name of the hotel I am staying at. Or the exchange rate for Vietnamese Dong. How much would it be a reasonable amount to pay a taxi driver? Don't be shocked by these confessions; being an accidental business traveller and not a genuine tourist I am depending heavily on our distributors to look after me for these "minor" things. In fact, I am a really terrible tourist.
For the last eight years, my 'working life' (call this "work", call this a "life"?) has been one with about 50% of time spent in international travel. Originally I was based in Hong Kong while working for *** and then - 'gobble' - ******, but now I am in Singapore working for ***** (yes, they still exist!) The job is essentially the same. Clinical Support. Applications Specialist. No big deal really. I had a more official sounding title in ******, Clinical Marketing and Training Manager, yada yada, but basically it is the same old thing. I had been centred around North Asia with ***/******, but now my responsible areas are pretty much everywhere EXCEPT Greater China, Japan and Korea, Europe and the Americas. Even though I have had the odd trip back to Hong Kong or Beijing, or even Canada for major conferences and of course training sessions in Japan, I have been hovering around South-East Asia predominantly, the sub-continent (India, to the uninitiated), Middle East and Africa to a lesser amount.
It sounds great, yeah? But actually my life is a shuffle from airport to hotel, then on to a hospital or clinic or conference venue, back to the hotel and then to the airport again. I rarely get any free time to look around, except from the window of a moving car should I manage to stay awake. (I have occupational-transport narcolepsy - going anywhere for work I fall asleep.) Over the years, I have missed out on many great opportunities to get my proper visitor's photo-ops. For example, it took six trips to Delhi before I could convince them to allocate enough free time for me to get out to Agra and see The Taj Mahal. A total of over a month in India and no Taj? What sort of tourist would claim that as good organisation? In a trip to Jaipur we went past the magnificent Palace of the Winds every morning, but we had no time to stop as I had to stand on a conference booth all day instead. Sigh.
But here I am in Ho Chi Minh City and I expect something a bit different for this trip. I am scheduled to visit Ben-Tre, a small town somewhere in the broad delta of the Mekong river, to assist doctors funded by a Japanese charity organisation perform cardiac ultrasound on poor children from the province. I expect to see some things I have not seen before, and not just on the cardiac scans either.
I have tomorrow Sunday off, the business manager tells me as he escorts me to the hotel counter. I can do what I like tomorrow, be a tourist. Yippee.
Then I get my first disappointment. He informs me that we may not be staying overnight in Ben-Tre, it may be just a day-trip. Damnation. I was looking forward to some adventurous Indian Jones of Ultrasound stuff to thrill you with. This may be a boring travelogue after all.
My hotel in Ho Chi Minh City is the New World. Quite a fancy place, no back-packers admitted here, unless they have a platinum American Express. But inside my room with the curtains drawn I could be anywhere in the world. For an upgrade package I get a free breakfast (which I'll never get to eat as they'll pick me up at 6am) and free wireless broadband in the Executive Lounge. That's me - an Executive! And thanks to the delay in Bangkok, by the time I have checked in and gotten myself organised in my room, all the restaurants in the hotel are closed. That's OK, I am on a diet.
Well, I am bit peckish really as I haven't eaten since a mediocre Pad Thai at lunch-time in Thailand. I venture around the park outside the hotel, which contains mainly couples on parked motorbikes, embracing each other awkwardly on their seats in the evening, and I spot some places through the trees that seem to have bright lights shining. A cyclo (rickshaw) driver calls out to me. He comes right up to the footpath, asking where I am going. This is how quickly I am reminded that I am in a poor country, a desperate country. "Where you go? I take you," he says. "Drink? Massage? Pretty girls? VERY pretty girls," he emphasises. "Meaow krup," I reply before I realise I have spoken Thai to him. I chop my hand laterally a few times at waist level, a universal sign for "No, go away." He doesn't go away, eventually I will give in he feels. I get this everywhere. A single man on the street in Asia - he must be a sex-tourist, right? OK, I am a balding, overweight and ageing Westerner. I might LOOK like I fit the stereotype but it gets to you after a while, all this unwarranted soliciting, being the pimps' target demographic.
To escape, I thread myself through a series of moving lights - these are motorbikes roaring around me in a laminar flow pattern as I cross the street against the traffic lights. No big deal, they expect pedestrians to do weird (but predictable - walk at an even pace!) things. Here on the other side of the park there are five or six small local restaurants side-by-side, all crammed with patrons on plastic chairs, and their plastic tables placed out on the broad sidewalk. The faces are shiny with sweat, not from the heat as it is a mild and pleasant evening, but with the effects of alcohol. Many beers are being consumed this Saturday evening by many, many people. I would be happy to join in but there are no English menus for these small places selling aromatic noodle and delicious looking steamboat dishes. I could just point and grunt, I guess. However, the waiters don't look like they want or expect me to join and I feel uncomfortable lurking, a bit unwelcome. A small child, maybe four or five suddenly appears and places a blue plastic bowl in front of me, asking for money I presume. I see many children ahead on the footpath now. Adults are standing back in the shadows, keeping an eye on their charges. A man, one of the drinkers, urinates by tree just around the corner, still in the full light.
Maybe I won't eat here after all. I turn around.
There are some more garish neon lights just back a bit, closer to my hotel. I find a big tourist-friendly restaurant that has a cowboy theme. A sign advertises their new specialty - horse meat done Mexican Style. OK, gross, but they have an English menu. I order one of the popular beers (Singapore's Tiger brand), decide to the skip the dish called "Barrel and Bullets" - the penis and scrotum of some unspecified beast (not the horse I hope, that would really be a cowboy sized meal!) - and ask the purdiest, tiniest, slimmest cow-girl balanced imperfectly on high-heels you ever did see to bring me some salted fish and chicken in fried rice.
The band is playing Creedence Clearwater Revival, the drinks girls are hovering, the TV monitors are playing an HBO movie - The Chronicles of Riddoch - and I ponder why, if he has had night-vision surgery done to his eyes, Riddoch takes his glasses off in the sun and puts them on at night-time...
My first night in Vietnam ends with absurdity after absurdity.
OTHER MONKEYS SAID
I actually used to know this, we did Marlowe at school, but as I didn't like it, I forgot it.
Home is easy...it is the loneliness that such a place also encompasses...the emptiness that no matter how decorated, or how filled, echo's with only a single set of footsteps that sucks the most.
I hear you on the wanting something more.