Ha Noi March 2007
Motorbikes, thick as porridge
I emerge from Arrivals into the concourse of Ha Noi Airport with $400 in my bum-bag. But the local buttons are dongs, 31,000 to the £1, so I need a Bureau de Change. There isn’t one. There’s an INFORMATION sign over there but no one behind the counter.
That smart young bloke in a brown suit, walking across the concourse, seems to have recognised me. At least, he’s suddenly started waving in my direction and shouting ‘hello’ in English. What’s this about?
I look round to check who he’s aiming at but there’s no one behind me. He must be shouting at me then. Does he think he knows me? Maybe he’s from Cardiff. He looks a bit like one of the waiters from the Happy Gathering. ‘Blimey,’ he’s coming over. He wants to shake hands! Who’s making the mistake? Me, or him?
‘I get taxi,’ he says.
That’s handy. ‘But I’ve got to change some money first,’ I tell him. ‘I need dongs.’
‘Come,’ he says, striding towards the exit.
‘No!’ I shout, ‘money! dongs!’ I keep upping the volume. Maybe he’s deaf. ‘I’ve only got American Dollars,’ I tell him when he looks round.
‘Dollah OK,’ he assures me. ‘Dollah velly good.’ Now he’s gargling into his mobile.
It all fits. That Chinese bloke on the plane told me they like dollars out here.
‘Wait,’ the Happy Gatherer tells me when we arrive outside.
Now a taxi swings into the kerb and Gatherer tells me to get in the back while he feeds my case and rucksack into the yawning boot. OK so far. But now he’s climbing into the front passenger seat. That’s different. ‘Where go?’ he asks.
‘I’m going to the Heritage Hotel,’ I tell him. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I go home,’ he tells me. ‘I give help. You pay taxi. I get ride.’
So we’re going to divert to the Happy Gathering. The guy’s a chancer, nothing for nothing. ‘How much?’ I ask warily.
He inclines his head and looks thoughtful. ‘Eight dollah,’ he decides.
I spot a sign; HANOI 21 Km. And they’re going to charge me five-quid? ‘OK, we’ll settle for that,’ I tell him. ‘A hundred-and-twenty-eight-thousand dong...’
Now we’re at a road toll. ‘You pay,’ the Gatherer tells me.
When I offer the driver a one dollar-note his expression turns from confusion to anger. He waves it aside and gives me a mouthful of verbal scrambled egg. ‘He want dong,’ says the Gatherer.
‘I haven’t got dong,’ I tell him impatiently. ‘You said he’d take dollars.’
The two men sit yodelling at each other for a couple of minutes then, ‘OK,’ says the Gatherer, ‘driver pay now. Then we go bank. You get dong. Then pay driver.’
We push on along a dual carriageway amid the din of motorbikes. Traffic pollution hangs like sediment in the humid air. I wonder if these guys pack any unpleasant surprises?
We’re entering Hanoi now. I relax a bit. But when the bank turns out to be an ATM, I tense again. I’ll be in trouble with the wife. She comes from Scotland. She objects to paying interest to holes in walls.
I get out of the taxi and approach the machine. This is scary. All the numbers have strings of zeros after them. The ones towards the bottom are in millions. When I punch in 128,000 the machine gets violently sick and spews notes over me. I gather them up and head back to the taxi.
I offer money to the driver. He goes unstable and starts screaming at the Gatherer who waves the notes aside. ‘This small money,’ says the Gatherer. ‘Driver want big money.’
‘Looks big enough to me,’ I tell him, ‘all those noughts.’
‘Cents,’ he tells me.
‘You’d better come and explain,’ I say, jerking my head towards the machine. I’m beginning to feel uneasy. Come to think of it, I’ve never been at ease since I met this guy.
I pay them enough to stop the driver’s palpitations and trigger my own. I’m not used to dealing in big numbers. And what’s the interest on a string of zeros? Maybe I’ve just broke the bank.
Ho Lo Prison aka Hanoi Hilton
It’s the next morning and I’m in a taxi heading for the 5 star, £58, luxury of the Melia Hotel. After I booked the Heritage I saw a report on the internet that it was the worst hotel in South East Asia. So I switched my second night to the Melia. In the event, the £28 Heritage was value for money; clean and spacious. But it’s in the grot of the suburbs so I’m going along with the change. The Melia’s Central.
This is a pukka taxi, with a meter. The trouble is, there are three sets of figures on it... all going up at different speeds. The lowest figure is in thousands. I think the top one is in billions. It’s a long journey and the motorbikes are as thick as porridge. The driver doesn’t speak any English, only scrambled egg. I offer him 100K – £3. He looks delighted. So that’s his tip as well.
I watch a hotel porter whisking my case and rucksack away. Viet Nam is a Communist country. It’s overstaffed. The whole country specialises in inefficiency. The upper-class hotels have a bellhop in every plant pot.
An angel in a long white dress and hat that looks like a halo hands me a piece of paper with a number written on it. It’s not her phone number. It’s too short. Pity. I check-in but I’m too early. My room’s not ready. They’ll have my luggage in there at noon. ‘What’s the number?’ they ask.
‘You said the room’s not ready, so I don’t know the number.’
‘No – your luggage number? The lady in white gave it to you.’
‘Did she? I dunno. I’ve lost it.’
‘OK sir. We fix.’ Five star service, caters for idiots.
I collect a map from Reception and head outside for a walk. I like walking. I’m a walking person. But in Viet Nam, no one walks. Everyone goes everywhere by motorbike. There are eight million people in Sai Gon, that’s Ho Chi Min City, and six million have motorbikes. That’s a lorra bikes in one city. Ha Noi looks to be the same. And all those bikes seem to be on the road all the time. It’s like nobody goes anywhere in particular. Just get up in the morning, cock a leg over a bike and meander round the maze, honking your horn till bedtime.
I consult the map. There are two targets within walking distance, Ha Noi Prison Museum, that’s the Hanoi Hilton where the Vietnamese kept shot-down American pilots, and the Catholic Cathedral.
Outside, on the pavement, reality dawns. A road separates each block from the next. And the roads are no-go areas, rivers of motorbikes with a 20 knot current, every bike doing its own thing. They’re not in lanes. They’re all going in different directions on the same patch, half men, half women, honking their horns in fruitless mating calls. It’s like an ant run out here, high speed dodgems.
It gets worse. The overspill is on the pavement. They come up from behind and whiz past me. The secret of staying alive is to keep walking in a straight line. If you deviate, or stop suddenly, you scramble the equation. Everyone out there respects everyone else’s space – when they can guess where it is. The same rules apply crossing the road. Step off the kerb, close your eyes and keep going straight, repeating the mantra to yourself... ‘My Space. My Space. My Space.’ If you stop to cough you’ll have six-million bikes on top of you.
I’m a target now. A swelling convoy of trishaws keeps pace with me, yelling for me to leap aboard for a ‘ten dollah’ tour with a commentary in scrambled egg. Motorbike-taxis, one after the other, swerve in front of me, heading me off, urging me to squat on the pillion for a ‘ten dollah’ roller coaster whirl of engine-revving bliss. When I pause to consult the map, chancers step out of nowhere, applying for the job of personal guide. It’s like nobody understands the concept of somebody walking, or the joys of orienteering among flowing streams of horn-blasting traffic in the polluted air of a sweltering city.
What these guys don’t know is that I’m not a tourist. Not a real one. I’m on a beeline from Cardiff to Saigon, on a mission to find my way to the Cu Chi tunnels without the aid of a travel agent or guide. It’s a budget trip. The plane fare subsidised by Air Miles, and hotels and train tickets booked on the internet. I’m the only human involved. I was getting lethargic back there in Cardiff. I needed some action. So I set myself a challenge.
Outside the cathedral, a pretty girl in a palm hat tries to sell me bananas from one of the bowls that hang from either end of the pole she balances on her shoulder. When I turn her down she offers to pose for a photo. ‘OK,’ I take a shot and slip her 20K. Further down the line an old beggar-woman sticks out a bony arm for a handout. I’ve been along this route before, many times. If I give 50 pence to every beggar who pops out of the pavement, a few hundred of the world’s poorest will have their only chip butty of the year. The down-side is that I’ll be out of beer-tokens before lunchtime.
So here’s the dilemma. Did I give that girl 20K because she’s pretty, then go and turn the old woman down because she ain’t? Hmm? I know... I hold up 20K and my camera. The same offer’s on the table for the crone as for the girl. She turns it down with a gesture of contempt. I pocket the money and walk away. Maybe that’s why she’s a beggar. She won’t do something for something. Or have I got that wrong too?
Through the window – could it be a knotweed plantation?
Another day, another task, board the train for a 32 hour trip to Sai Gon. Trouble is, I didn’t sleep last night. A king-size bed in a 5 star hotel and I couldn’t sleep ‘cos I had Nasi Goreng for supper. It’s the best I’ve ever had, but it was big. Egg and rice are clogging my guts.
It’s raining today, muggy as hell. I’m sat in the station in a gathering crowd, waiting for boarding time. My ticket’s in my bum-bag. I’ll be in coach 10, compartment 1, berth 1. The tickets were waiting at the Heritage when I arrived. All done by mirrors, couldn’t be simpler. It’s a piece of cake. I’ve no problems.
The crowd are all Asians except for me and two European couples. I guess the couples are Frogs. The hotels are full of ’em. I suppose it’s natural. This was a French colony once. I seem to be the only Brit left in the world.
That tall thin railway worker went over to both European couples as they came into the station and showed them to empty seats. He seems to make a point of looking after Europeans. After a tip no doubt. Everyone here’s looking for the main-chance. He’s heading for me now.
It’s getting near boarding time. The ticket inspector’s opened the door that leads to the trains. We get to board an hour before take-off. The thin guy’s confronting me now. He’s making gestures. I dunno what he wants. It’s all in scrambled egg. Uh... he wants to see my ticket. Now he wants me to follow him. He’s got my case and we’re jumping the queue. He’s heading for coach ten. So he’s got it right. Now he wants my ticket. Maybe he wants to see my compartment and berth-numbers, or to show it to the guard or something. Better give him a tip. I’ve got two 10K notes here... 30p each. I’ll try him with one. If he looks unhappy I’ll give him both.
We’re in the compartment now, four bunks. There’s nowhere for the cases. It’ll be a tight squeeze if someone gets in with their shopping. The guy suddenly spins round and sticks his hand in my face. ‘Ten dollah!’ he snarls. He’s gotta be joking. ‘No way,’ I tell him, ‘ten thousand dong.’
‘Ten dollah!’ he yells. He thinks he’s Dick Turpin but he’s just a wanker. ‘Ten dollah?’ That must be the first line in the Vietnamese–English Dictionary. ‘Twenny dong,’ I tell him, shoving two notes in his hand. ‘Ten dollah! Ten dollah!’ he screams. We’re struggling now, me trying to ram 20K into his hand and him pushing it away, a strange situation. Suddenly he strides past me. When I turn... he’s gone.
‘Jesus.’ I sit down. That took my breath away...
‘I think this is my bed...’ Startled by the falsetto voice, I look up. And there’s Emo Philips, the American comedian, reincarnated as a tall gangling Chinaman, complete with a medieval bobbed haircut, hovering above me, arms and legs all over the shop. We go outside and check the compartment number. Emo’s right, it’s 24. I’m supposed to be in 1. Turpin dumped me on the wrong bed then demanded money. People aren’t the same anymore.
I hump my stuff to the right bed. The berths are filling up. There’s a Vietnamese bloke in the bed above me and a middle aged woman in the one opposite. They’ve both got luggage so there’s not much room. Now a girl in her 20s arrives with a total of 7 cases and bags. We’re overcrowded, big time. But, on the bright side, the return journey is only Two-million-two-hundred-thousand-dongs – £78. For that, I get to Saigon and back, and beds for two nights. So I’m saving something like £300 on air, hotel and food bills. And I get to see Viet Nam from top to bottom.
Nightmare! The last time I saw my train ticket was in Turpin’s hand. He never gave it back. He broke off in the middle of the struggle and strode away. I’ve got problems...
Yaah! God...! Emo’s at the door, standing there like a four-legged daddy-longlegs. This guy’s surreal. He wants a chat. That’s the last thing I need. I just want to sit and worry. My head’s in a whirl. I don’t know whether I’m coming of going. Emo wants me to polish-up his English. He thinks I should go to China and teach it. He says I don’t need to learn Chinese. They all learn English anyway. They just need to polish the pronunciation. But teaching Emo is a fulltime job in itself. His voice keeps changing register in mid-sentence, jumping from baritone to falsetto and back in rapid succession. His arms and legs are the same. He scratches his left cheek with his right hand by putting his right arm round the back of his neck. Then he does the same with the other hand. He’s come from Shanghai to Viet Nam, job hunting. He can’t speak a word of Vietnamese. And, if he could, what would he do? We have two drivers on this train. They earn £30 a week each. It’s a 32 hour journey. And they have to buy their own food. Emo, sunshine – go home!
The train’s well underway now. It’s getting dark and there’s the mother of all storms outside. The rain is like hosepipes, lightning exploding in rapid succession. It’s like the B42’s are back with the napalm and we’re the target. Now I realise, my coat’s gone missing. I go down the train to see if I left it in Emo’s place, but I didn’t. That bastard, Turpin, must have grabbed it.
The guard arrives, demanding my ticket. I tell him the tale of Dick Turpin but he only savvies scrambled egg. He goes away and comes back with two helpers. These trains pull a full coach-load of spare guards and comic-singers. There’s no-end of reinforcements. The men gargle and jabber among themselves then bring their boss. This guy’s the bad-cop... like the Jap guard on the River Kwai. ‘No ticket,’ he raps in English. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ No messing. I like that in a man.
I repeat the tale of Turpin. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ he orders. I look at the window, black dark, rivers of rain, lightning flashing! The thought of leaving the train on a night like this, lumbered with luggage and nowhere to go, no bed... no ticket... no nothing... in a land full of scrambled egg... is... well... not good.
In desperation I fumble in my rucksack and produce a piece of paper with the phone number of Tony Kheim, the guy on the internet who delivered my train tickets to the Heritage. I always carry backup. ‘Phone this man on your mobile,’ I tell them. They do. He confirms that I did buy a ticket. It takes the heat out of the situation. But... I can’t stay on the train without a ticket.
‘OK. I’ll buy another one,’ I tell them. I fumble in my bum-bag and scrape 500,000 dong together. The boss waves it away. ‘I want... million!’ he demands. ‘But I haven’t got a million,’ I tell him. ‘Off train! Next stop!’ he barks, in his best concentration-camp English. ‘What about this?’ I offer my credit card. ‘Pah!’ he pushes it away. ‘Its Tesco’s Platinum,’ I tell him. He’s unimpressed. ‘American dollar?’ I ask. His eyes light up. ‘Now you’re talking,’ his eyebrows tell me. ‘A hundred and twenty,’ he says, after a calculation.
‘That’s nearly the return fare. I’ve already paid for this bed,’ I tell him.
They jabber among themselves. ‘OK,’ says the boss, at last, ‘downgrade to couchette, 80 dollah.’ They know I’m no dodger and they’ve softened a bit. ‘No,’ I tell them, ‘I need a bed. I’ll pay the 120.’ They jabber again. ‘OK OK,’ the boss weakens. ‘Eighty dollah. Keep bed,’ he tells me.
There’s no buffet. A woman comes round with a trolley, doling out food to keep us alive, foul soup, chopsticks, a ton of boiled rice, dollop of soggy pickled-cabbage, fatty pork. It’s worse than nothing at all. Vietnamese music blares full-blast from a speaker in the corridor. It’s hot and stuffy. I lie on my bed, sweating and gasping for air. I can’t sleep. I prowl the corridor in my socks. All the windows are locked. I look for a toilet. It’s a squat. I come out with feet stinking of piss.
This is it. I’m stuck here till 9 o’clock tomorrow night. That’s 24 hours away. Time stretches before me like a waterless desert. There’s nothing to do, no one to speak to. Even Emo would be a blessing. But he’s on his bed, lifeless, like everyone else... corpses in a mobile morgue.
For no reason I pull the screwed-up dong notes from my back pocket and iron them out. ‘I don’t believe it!’ There, in the middle of the ball... is my bloody ticket. It’s tattered and torn, but it’s real. It must have come from Turpin’s paw in the scuffle.
In the end coach I pin a guard down and tell him the story. He hasn’t a clue what I’m saying but summons an ever increasing number of assistants. At last I’m talking to the guy from the Kwai, through an interpreter who speaks perfect English. It takes a long time and a lot of jabbering. ‘You see,’ says the interpreter, at last. ‘We have already paid 80 dollah to the government.’
I frown and scratch my head. We’re on a moving train.
‘So,’ he goes on, ‘if we give you 80 dollah, we lose a lot of money.’
‘So what are you saying?’ I ask.
‘We want you to be very happy,’ he tells me.
‘So do I,’ I tell him.
‘So, if we give you 40 dollah, we lose 40 dollah and you lose 40 dollah. Will that make you very happy?’
‘I’ll be 40 dollars happier,’ I say.
‘No... very happy?’
‘No... very happy?’
This is Vietnamese for don’t rock the boat. ‘OK. Very happy,’ I concede.
Kwai puts his hand in his back pocket, pulls out my wad of $80, miraculously retrieved from the government, and deals me 40. So that’s me... very happy!
The girl with the pile of cases leaves the train at noon the next day. And there’s my coat, under the last one. I find an open window, and air, then a European toilet – and people who speak English. I’m back on course. A little wiser, a little poorer.
Through the window
I’m in the middle of the crowd leaving Saigon station. It’s dark and I’m looking for a taxi. A weasel-faced wanker in a peaked cap and denim jacket is pulling at my arm. ‘Taxi, ten dollah,’ he chants. ‘Taxi, ten dollah.’ How does he know its ten dollars? He doesn’t know where I’m going.
There’s a taxi rank at the end of the approach – a long line of smart, white, four-wheel drives, filling up and pulling away. These are the boys I want. I head straight for them, humping a rucksack, pulling a case and fighting off the Weasel. I flag a taxi. The driver ignores me. I try another and another and another... They all ignore me. It’s like I’m invisible.
Maybe the Weasel’s got the first claim on me. OK. I can sort that. ‘Get lost!’ I roar at the top of my voice and give him a push. His face fills with hate but he slinks away with his tail between his legs. The taxi-men still ignore me. I don’t get it. Even if they can’t see me they must see my case. Ah... Maybe they are out in sympathy with the weasel.
There’s another guy at me now, in a grey uniform with an official number on it. He’s got more manners than the Weasel. He wants me to go with him. He must be a taxi driver. I follow him across the approach.
‘Oh no...’ he’s loading my case onto trishaw. I don’t believe it. I’ve landed with Gunga Din. It’s not even a decent trishaw, like the posh ladies go promenading in. This is ancient, a single-seater, moth-eaten and battered. I don’t want to know it. But I’ve no option. The taxis have rejected me. ‘Rex Hotel,’ I tell him.
‘’Otel,’ he echoes.
‘No,’ I tell him, ‘not any hotel, the Rex Hotel.’ He’s another chancer.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Red ’otel.’
‘Aahh, gerronwithit,’ I tell him. ‘Rex Hotel, fifty-thousand. No Rex, no money.’
We start off. It’s uphill. Gunga’s got a load on. He’s struggling a bit. I’ve got my feet on my case with my knees in the air and my rucksack under my chin. He’s edging into the traffic. There’s no order on the road. Just swirling eddies of motorbikes, honking horns, claiming their space. But he copes. He’s been doing this all his life – with the same trishaw by the look of things. When traffic lights go green, bikes zoom away on all sides. Gunga stands on the peddles, struggling to get momentum up the slope. The journey goes on and on. I sense he’s flagging.
‘’Otel!’ he shouts hopefully as we approach a dingy Vietnamese doss.
‘Rex,’ I tell him.
He tries it on again and again with every ‘’otel’ we pass. He hasn’t a clue what we’re looking for. I’m running out of patience. I’m tired, two nights without a proper sleep. I need a shower and a change of clothes. I’ve got Vietnamese piss on my socks. I bang the side of the trishaw. ‘Let me off,’ I yell. ‘I’ll find a taxi.’
‘No. No.’ he pleads. ‘Red ’otel. OK. OK.’
He shouts to people on the sidewalk. They shout back, pointing uphill. We’re going the wrong way up a one-way street now, in the dark without lights, against a solid wall of motorbikes. It’s like the M25 is coming at me.
He’s behind, standing on the peddles. I’m his shield. He sees my problem. He gets off the bike, comes round the front, and starts pulling me, like a horse and cart. He chickens out and makes for the sidewalk. Now he’s peddling along the pavement. I’ll settle for that.
We come to a corner. ‘There!’ he shouts triumphantly. ‘Rex ’otel!’
And there it is. ‘Closed!’ Boarded up. Dead as a Christmas turkey. I booked it on the internet. I’ve been suckered again. Gunga Din sees the problem. He thinks I’ll blame him. He shouts frantically to a guy sitting on the steps. The guy shouts back and points. We move on, round another corner. And there it is. A blaze of lights. The Rex Hotel. The boarded bit was the back entrance.
A coach has pulled-up outside, disgorging middle class, middle aged Frenchies. Gunga pulls alongside and dismounts. Then he misjudges and the trishaw crashes onto its side, shooting me nosediving among the crowd, rucksack and all. The Frenchies pause and gaze disdainfully down. ‘Another idiot Rosbeef.’
Gunga hops around on one leg crying ‘sorry sir, sorry sir.’ He can see 50K evaporating. He might be a chancer. But he’s hurt himself. And he’s no wanker. He’s worked bloody hard. We agreed on fifty. I give him a hundred. ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din,’ I tell him.
In the cool of the rooftop bar, the inevitable Philippino musicians murder Western pop music on the corner stage. A couple of aging French couples dance to the racket, clapping enthusiastically after every number. One middle aged bloke, a Chirac look-a-like, is swaying and clapping and tapping the table like a star-struck kid.
The service is crap. I go to the bar to get more drink. The local hooker sidles up, ‘you’re new,’ she tells me.
‘Not the usual description,’ I say.
She says she runs a massage parlour on the floor below. ‘Do you need a rub down?’ she asks.
‘Or rub-up?’ I wonder.
‘I manipulate,’ she says.
‘I bet you do,’ I tell her. She’s attractive, in a pale skinned 4-star well-groomed kind of way. But I prefer the girls outside, pale gold skin and almond eyes, sitting astride their motorbikes in skin-tight jeans, shiny black hair tumbling over their shoulders. They’re like dainty dolls. And they walk like dolls, little awkward steps. It’s like their mothers wind them up every morning, stick ’em on high-heel stilts, then turn them loose to stagger about till they find a bike to cock a leg over. These girls are wild flowers. Once they master the walking problem they’ll take over the world. The hooker’s a houseplant.
I tell her, ‘no, I just need beer.’ She looks disappointed. ‘I’m married,’ I say. ‘You’re against the rules.’
The next night she arrives at my table. ‘Can I sit with you?’ she wonders.
‘I’ve told you,’ I tell her. ‘I’m married.’
‘Just for a chat,’ she says.
‘Naah. You’d better not,’ I say. She looks crestfallen and goes back to her table. I bite my tongue. It’s 30-odd pence a pint in here. A double whisky’s a pound. For less than two quid she could tell me tales to make my toes curl.
I’ve booked the trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels for the second day. That’s what this journey’s all about. But I’ve got my doubts. If I end up with a coach load of Frenchies it’ll be a nightmare. And the hotel’s full of ’em.
In the morning I go to the foyer and wait for the call. The place is awash with Yanks and Frenchies. It doesn’t bode good. Then this girl comes up and says, ‘Mr Gregory?’ I say, ‘yes.’ And she says, ‘follow me.’ Suits me. She a wild flower in tight jeans.
She takes me to a chauffeur driven car and opens a rear door. ‘Am I the only one?’ I say when we’re underway. ‘No,’ she tells me, ‘there are two of us.’ It’s getting better.
We do the tunnels and the war museum. She’s the best courier I’ve ever come across. She walks with her arm round my waist and keeps feeling my muscles and saying ‘wow.’
She takes me to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch. ‘I don’t eat with clients,’ she tells me. ‘But you’re nice and happy. I want to eat with you.’ She’s probably winding me up for a tip. But I can stand that. Especially after the meal, when she starts kneading both our stomachs to see which one is the fullest.
At the end of the day I follow her up the hotel steps to the foyer. At the top she turns, puts her arms round me and presses her cheek to mine. Maybe she wants a bigger tip. But it makes an old man happy.
In the bar that evening, the hooker’s back. ‘Can I come to your room tonight?’ she wants know.
‘I keep telling you; I’m married,’ I say.
‘For you, I do it for love,’ she tells me.
‘Aww shucks,’ I cover my eyes with my hand. It’s very nice of her. We hardly know each other. ‘I’ve still got this marriage problem,’ I tell her.
She plants a kiss on my lips. And then she’s gone.
Mission accomplished. I’ve done the tunnels. I’m dreading tomorrow’s train trip. But hey, I’m homeward bound.
The fun’s over for this trip...
Charlie aka Viet Cong…. Now you see… Now you don’t
Enter Antonio ...
I’m on the train now. A colony of Frenchies are swarming into the coach. This is worrying. I don’t want them in here... But I needn’t worry. In walks Miss Saigon. She looks about 19 but she turns out to be 27. She looks a dream as she clambers up and down onto the bunk above me. A woman in her 30’s is in the bottom bunk across the way. She’s nice and friendly, wants to share her water but I’ve got my own.
I wander into the corridor. The French have got the windows open. Brilliant. It’ll be great to have some fresh air in the place. But now the chief guard has come along with a key. He’s pushing the French out of the way and locking the windows. He’s a bit of a Hitler, this guy.
Five hours later the train stops and the French swarm away. The woman in the bottom bunk has closed the compartment door and we all sprawl on our beds gasping for air.
Suddenly the door’s flung open and a bloke in a khaki shirt and shorts barges in with a massive canvas bag which he dumps between the bunks. I don’t believe it... He’s wearing a blue crash helmet. ‘I’m Antonio... from der Nederlands,’ he roars in a foghorn voice, snatching off the helmet and throwing it on the vacant bunk. He points to the bag. ‘You’ll have to lift dis on der bed for me,’ he orders Hitler, who is standing behind him. ‘I have a heart condition.’
Hitler bristles. He doesn’t lift. He shoves Frenchies about and locks windows. I get off the bunk. ’I’ll give you a hand,’ I tell them. Three of us heave it up and shove it on the bunk.
Antonio pulls up a shirt sleeve, bends his arm and tenses the muscle, ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells Hitler. Now he leans over the bottom bunk and shakes the woman. ‘I’m Antonio, from der Nederlands,’ he shouts. ‘Who are you?’ She looks bemused and mutters something in scrambled egg. Antonio does the same with the girl above, and gets the same response.
‘Ratatatat!’ He suddenly crouches between the bunks, firing a heavy machine gun, full blast. ‘Bang! Boom!’ He roars, lobbing hand grenades onto the bunks. ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells the girls, who are now sitting lotus fashion on the lower bunk staring at him, wide eyed. ‘I vos in Curacao.’
He’s 65 with a shock of grey hair and grey moustache. And he’s been on a 2 month cycling tour in the Meikong Delta. ‘You’ll have to talk up,’ he tells me, ‘I’m deaf.’
‘It’s all those bloody hand grenades,’ I tell him.
‘I lost my hearing aid in the der crash,’ he tells me.’ He was in a collision with a motorbike and lost his front wheel. ‘Mudder and daughter,’ he suddenly roars, looking at the women. It’s not very tactful. But it’s very Antonio. ‘Bridget Bardot,’ he roars, suddenly realising how beautiful Miss Saigon looks. He dives into the canvas bag and produces a camera. ‘You are der sex kitten,’ he tells her. ‘I take your picture.’ She’s posing for him now, combing her hair and preening herself. He’s got something going for him.
Swish! A sandal skims my nose in a karate kick. ‘I vos a Marine Commando,’ he tells me. ‘Ratatatat! Boom! Bang!’ He’s off again. This guy did 2 years National Service in the 60’s and, by the sound of things, he’s lived off it ever since. But he’s no more a soldier than I am.
He’s at his pills now. ‘Von for my heart,’ he announces. ‘Von for my blood pressure. And von for Diabetes... Bang!’ he lobs a hand grenade into the corridor.
I look at the women. ‘Mad as a typhoon,’ I tell them. They nod enthusiastically. They don’t know the language. But they guess what I’m saying.
‘Dare vos dis Russian vife in the Meikong,’ he tells us. ‘Antonio, she tells me. I love you. I love you very much. You must come to me in Russia... And I vill go,’ he assures us. ‘And I vill give her much umpety-umpety.’
The women leave the train at 0700. Antonio produces pictures of his wife and daughter, two attractive women. There’s a postcard from his daughter too. ‘Come back healthy,’ she tells him. ‘And tell us lots of stories.’ He’ll definitely tell her stories.
At 0800 he decides to go a walk down the train. I hear him telling a Vietnamese guy about ‘giving umpety-umpety to a vife on the Venice Express.’ The guy hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.
Half an hour later he’s back at me. ‘Meet the new girlfriend,’ he tells me. He pushes a Vietnamese wildflower towards me. He says she’s 23. But she looks younger, much younger. He says she has an apartment in Ha Noi and produces a condom. ‘I vill sleep vith her tonight and give her umpety-umpety,’ he tells me.
It’s only half-eight in the morning. He’s not had his breakfast yet. And he’s already picked up a scrubber.
I don’t know how he knows she has an apartment, or that he can sleep with her. She doesn’t speak a word of English. I think he tells her what he wants. And if she nods or smiles, it’s a done-deal.
She leaves him now and goes to a compartment further down the coach. There are two young blokes in there and she spends most of the day with them, behind a closed door.
‘I have to be careful,’ Antonio tells me, holding up the condom. ‘I had dis near miss vid a black vife in Africa. I think she had Aids. It vos new then. I had to tell my vife about der girl. Ve both had to have tests and medication.’
‘Christ. It’s a wonder she didn’t divorce you.’
‘Oh no, no. My vife understood. I vos just a young boy at the time. And I had been avay on business for a couple of veeks.’
‘Oh. That’s OK then. How old were you?’
‘Only 35; just a young boy.’
I nod my head. There’s no answer to that. But it explains his daughter’s postcard.
He wants to know what I think of his new girlfriend.
‘She’s not just an ordinary girl,’ I tell him. ‘Miss Saigon was an ordinary girl.’ I point to the top bunk. ‘She let you take photos. But that was all. Ordinary girls don’t take you back to their apartments for umpety.’
He gets another packet of pills from the big bag, takes one, then washes it down with bottled water.
‘What’s that one for?’ I wonder.
‘Diarrhoea,’ he tells me.
‘Have you been drinking the water?’
‘No. But ven I’m vith dis little vife tonight, I might be excited and get the shits.’
I nod wisely. There’s no answer to that one either.
The girl’s back at him now. Making pillow signs with her hands against her cheek. He throws me an, ‘I told you so,’ look, as she takes his hand and leads him away.
I stand corrected. Looks like he’s struck lucky.
But she takes him to the boys’ compartment, where he’s invited to buy satay and coffee all-round off the food trolley.
When he comes back he asks me again, ‘vot do you think of my girlfriend?’
‘She’s with two blokes,’ I tell him. ‘She could be a hooker, working the train. Ask the guards if they know her.’
He asks Hitler, but gets waved aside.
She’s back in our compartment now. Sitting on the lower bunk, cuddling Antonio. He falls for it big time. She suddenly stands up and leaves without giving a reason. Ten minutes later, one of her boyfriends comes and stands in the corridor, eyeing the Dutchman. There’s something sinister about him.
‘They could be setting you up for a honey trap,’ I warn Antonio. ‘Two men and a girl.’
‘Yah,’ Antonio gets the point. ‘I vill put my things in a safe in the station,’ he decides. ‘And take only $30 to her apartment. Nothing more. If dey pull a gun. Dat is all dey vill get – $30. But if dey have no gun, I vill destroy dem. Two fingers fly at my face. First, I take out deir eyes. Den I chop dem.’ Swish! Swish! His hands fly through the air in karate chops. ‘Den I finish dem.’ He leaps to his feet and goes kicking down the corridor, like a German soldier who’s lost control of his goosestep.
We’re getting near Ha Noi now. The girl’s back on the lower bunk, cuddling Antonio. ‘I love you,’ she tells him in English. ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’
He looks at me, wide eyed. ‘I told you,’ he says. ‘She loves me. She has told me dis herself. You heard her.’
‘Give me a kiss,’ he cries, taking hold of her shoulders and pulling her towards him.
‘Yeeeaaow,’ she squeals and struggles like an angry cat. ‘No kiss! No kiss!’ she screams.
She rises and goes to the door. ‘Goodbye,’ she calls over her shoulder, with a wide grin. Then she’s back with the two boys, who are waiting in the corridor.
‘Vot do you tink?’ he asks, hopefully.
‘She’s taking the piss,’ I say.
He nods his head. ‘Yah. You might be right,’ he concedes. ‘So I need a hotel in Ha Noi. Is dare room at your place?’
‘Dunno,’ I say. ‘I booked it on the internet.’
‘Have you got a double room?’ he wonders.
‘No way,’ I tell him. ‘I’m not sharing. I’m not playing second fiddle to a scrubber.’
On Ha Noi station I see Antonio being towed away by one of the wankers. ‘Dis man has a hotel,’ he shouts to me. ‘He vill give me a room for der night.’
‘I bet he will,’ I say, as I go looking for a chancer with a taxi.
The pictures below might interest the historians out there...
Now Some of Charlie’s Toys
Step on it...
and down you go to a bed of spikes.
This one rolls you down and pierces back and front
With this one you hang with your armpits impaled
There’s one that opens like a window
See Saw Marjory Daw. Then down to the spikes.
Then, for your convenience
This one folds like a chair – with spikes
Get out of this when you’re under fire.