Phuoc and the Ngoc Lam

This is the ninth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about friendship.

This story begins on my very first day in Southeast Asia.

It was February 16, 2008 and I had spent the last six months studying for my undergraduate degree while working part-time in a newsagency, scrimping as much money together as I could for the imminent adventure. I was off to teach English at the Marketing University of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, having never set foot in a non-English speaking country before.

I had read the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam backwards twice in anticipation, as well as many Wikipedia entries, novels and history books. I also specialised in Vietnamese cinema studies in 2007, going deep into the U.S. war zeitgeist and the films of Tran Anh Hung in particular. I felt like I had done a thorough job of preparing myself – and in retrospect I guess I did.

The night before boarding the plane I went out on the town with two of my best friends, a couple of guys I’d known since I was 14 and had lived in sharehouses with. We got far, far too drunk; I ended up vomiting and being driven to the airport by my mother feeling downright seedy. Mum and the two mates waved me off, I boarded the plane, buckled in and tried to sleep.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I was immediately drawn in by the heat, the traffic, the smells – I loved it. Instant love. And this was even before I partook in the coffee, beer and food culture.

I caught a taxi from the airport to the Ngoc Lam Hotel on Ly Phuong Kiet and was met by a young porter named Phuoc. Slightly built and with a trendy haircut, I had to almost fight him off as he persisted in trying to carry my backpack. We struggled in the lobby.

“Really, it’s OK!” I implored.

“No Mr Luke, you must let me,” his implacable response resounded, hands darting around my pack, pinching my skin. Little did I know this was going to be the first of many awkward interactions I would have with Phuoc. After capitulating and taking me into my room he said, a little weirdly, and flanked by further pleasantries:

“If there’s anything I can help you with, anything, please, it’s OK. Anything.”

I’ve met my fair share of overzealous people but Phuoc was right up there.

As I settled into the city in the coming weeks I got to know him a bit better. He made constant requests to meet for coffee, and given I was fresh to the scene, I was happy to go along and learn about the city. He showed me some nice places like Nirvana (no longer around) and told me about his life and troubles. Although working at the hotel every day, Phuoc was actually a qualified hairdresser and dreamed of opening a salon overseas. He was also flamboyantly homosexual, which was not easy in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our friendship peaked after about two months when he decided to get to the point. He asked me if I could help him immigrate to Australia by pretending to be his homosexual spouse. We would need to take a lot of photographs, get statutory declarations etc. He had done his research and gave me a package of paperwork. In return, he would give me US $20,000. The offer had a real sense of gravity to it, like Phuoc had always been paving the way to this, that this was a culmination.

I said no.

But Phuoc was reluctant to take that as a final answer. I shielded him off from my other friends and had coffee with him a couple more times, but it got to the point where I had to stop responding to his phone calls and requests to meet. That nearly put an end to it. Nearly.

A month later I was dropping a visiting friend off at her hotel after drinks. It turned out that she was staying at the Ngoc Lam Hotel, where Phuoc worked. I figured that if I was stealthy, I may not see him – or he may not see me. But if we had to interact it shouldn’t be a big deal given the hotel was his workplace. He was hardly going to implore me to be his pretend spouse in the lobby of his employer.

In the end we said goodbye out the front and I rode off without a hitch. A large set of traffic lights are just north of the hotel on Ly Thuong Kiet, and as I was cutting across the city to my place in Tan Binh (through Little Korea town, the alley with the dog carcasses, the two canals that were blacker than black, and the …. Ah, now I miss Vietnam!) I had to go through them. So there I sat waiting in the throng of motorbikes, Honda Dreams and Future Neos and Super Dreams and Waves and all manner of aspirational two-wheeled revolutionaries, listening to the humming of the engines.

Then something else.

“Luke! Luke!” I clearly heard my name above the road noise, coming from behind me, not too far away. I turned my head slowly. There, less than five metres behind, dressed in his gaudy hotel uniform, helmetless and grinning, was Phuoc. But as anyone familiar with Saigon traffic can attest, five metres is a long way when you’re crunched in the middle of motorcycles. He couldn’t reach me, nor I him.

I had two choices. I could have been the better human, smiled, pulled over and reasoned with Phuoc. Perhaps he was going to apologise, let bygones be bygones, say he would never mention the marriage plan ever again. If I had of been a little older, a little more patient, I think I would have done this. Instead, when the traffic light changed I rode off – and fast.

This is how I came to be involved in my first real motorcycle chase. A chase with stakes, imagined or otherwise. He pursued me. I ran from him. Through Little Korea, countless alleys, across bridges, around corners, along footpaths I chugged my little scooter away from the figment of desperation. I only heard his voice once more, at another intersection, when he must have gotten close. It was an absurd situation.

When I had left Phuoc behind a corner at one point I turned into a street that had a large dumpster in it and took a risk out of the movies. I stopped behind the dumpster, in a very tight wedge, and waited. Phuoc rode past, his eyes forward. It was hard to tell, but I don’t think he was smiling. I remember a face of intense concentration. An antagonist.

I wheeled my bike out, rode off in the opposite direction and took a long, complicated route home.

As an emblem of privilege in developing countries I have been approached many, many times to facilitate immigration, but never has it been so drawn out nor so dramatic as that first time. Phuoc prepared me well. And I remain more than a little ashamed, but I was learning.