Tag Archives: memoir

Tricky Decisions

This is the tenth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, travelling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about the low point of my time teaching in Vietnam, 2008.

Thinking through all of the experiences I had living in Vietnam one particular period stands out.  At the end of my contract at the Marketing University of Ho Chi Minh City I headed north with a friend to Hanoi, where another friend of mine was working at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel on Ngõ Huyện.  We stopped off along the way at Nha Trang and Hue doing excellent touristy things before arriving in busy and bustling Hanoi.

I was planning on finding more teaching work in Hanoi with a view to gaining a “rounded” idea of the country (I had seen so much of the south, but none of the north), so I came very much with a mission in mind.  I also planned to utilise my friend’s connections at the Hostel (it was owned by two Australians; every night was party night) to go on cheap tours etc.

On arrival I bunked with my mate at the Rose Hotel in the Old Quarter and sought about.  My first lead saw me heading to a primary school on the outskirts of town to have lunch with the family of a teacher (she cooked some of the best pork tofu I’ve ever had) and then teach a lesson at the school.  The students were very young so there was much “Ring around the Rosie” etc.  Unfortunately that school could not pay a salary above US$6/hr so I didn’t do many lessons there.  In retrospect perhaps I should have.

Instead I hit upon a Korean school, this one out in Cau Giay, a fairly bare area of mud and high-rises twenty minutes’ ride from the Hoan Kiem centre.  The owner was a Canadian citizen of Korean extraction who had moved to Hanoi in order to cater to the growing community of wealthy Korean expats managing the various manufacturing endeavours the big firms (Hyundai etc.) were involved in at the time.  I moved into the penthouse apartment above the school with a huge balcony and two Dalmation puppies for company.  I enjoyed walking them around the local area.

It was an exercise in exhibitionism; the only thing odder than a Caucasian traipsing through the marshes of Cau Giay in 2008 was a Caucasian traipsing through the marshes with two Dalmatians.

In hindsight, there were a number of warning signs that this school was not going to work out.  First, the teacher whose role I was taking over was an alcoholic who had “fallen” off the top floor balcony in a moment of despair, been hospitalised and was now moving to Bangkok for further treatment.  Second, I was paid two weeks in debit, meaning I was always owed about US$800.  Third, the head of the school, while charming, had a cruel streak.  He did not treat his Vietnamese partner very well.  Further to that, I soon found out that he was in fact “hiding out” in Vietnam; he had made some enemies in the club scene of Toronto and apparently could not return to Canada easily.

And there was a LOT of marijuana around.

However, the pay was high and the classes were interesting.  It was different teaching Korean students who were children of rich corporate citizens – they were much more studious, had a global outlook and were in general more verbose, for better or worse (they could be very stubborn).  In addition to classes I also had weekly appointments tutoring in their homes at the Citputra apartments, which was also insightful.  I was treated with great respect by the families, always given lovely Korean food, drinks and thanked for the hours I taught their children.

But I experienced all of this with the knowledge that the man in charge of the school was, at the least, troubled and unpredictable.

After two months things came to a head.  A friend and I were playing a game of tennis around the corner from the school one afternoon.  My mate had eaten a marijuana-cookie but still managed to destroy me; he’s a far better athlete, altered states or not.  After the game we parted and I rode out to the Citputra apartments to tutor a young girl, one of my better students.  After parking my motorbike under the shadow of the high rise I checked my phone.  I had eight missed calls from my friend and several from the owner of the school.  Neither of them picked up when I rang them back.

So, I got right back on my motorcycle and went back the way I came – with a sense of foreboding.

I never quite worked out the details of what actually happened while I was riding the roads to Citputra and back, but the skeleton of it is this: after the tennis match, my friend started riding his motorbike home, but soon felt queasy and nauseous.  So, he turned the bike around and rode to the school, where he went up to my apartment and lay down.  He then began having heart palpitations and rang an ambulance.

The owner of the school freaked out when the ambulance arrived and sent it away.  He later tried to rationalise this to me that ever since the previous teacher had “fallen off” the top balcony he was trying to keep a low profile, that it was my friend’s fault, and by extension mine – that I was jeopardising this “harmony”.  After the ambulance departed he had forcibly prevented my friend from leaving, physically bailed him up in my room, taken his wallet and started phoning me.

When I arrived I tried to diplomatically set things straight and managed to do so, within reason.  An hour or two later when my mate felt better we went and had pizza.  He wasn’t bleeding but he was bruised – physically and emotionally – this was definitely the low point of his time in Vietnam also. 

So I was faced with a decision, which I delayed for another week. But finally I packed my bags and explained that I was leaving the school.  I asked for the money I was owed at that time (it was more than US$800) but received none.

It was a lousy situation but again, as is a theme of these recent memoir posts, it was also a learning experience.

I had to decide after leaving the school whether I would renew my VISA or not.  It was a big decision given I had never been so long outside of Australia, missed my family, etc. but also felt like I hadn’t given enough of myself to Vietnam.

I hired a dirt bike and went up on the northwest mountains to think it over.  But that’s another story.

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.

Blame the Victim

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

Something I found confronting on my first trip to a relatively poor country was what I initially perceived as the transactional basis of human relationships. This can be argued as part of all relationships everywhere depending on power dynamics (and more fundamentally, ideology) but I felt as a young man in Vietnam, 2008 for the first time that many people who may have considered me “friends” were merely cultivating relationships based on give and take, on favours, rather than from a personable bond or closeness.

Early on in my tenure I found myself on a trip out to Can Gio, a mangrove and beach area just south of Saigon, as a result of one of these relationships –I was never quite sure if I was being “used” or if I was the recipient of real generosity, I still hadn’t quite learned how to go with the flow.

Mrs. Hoa, a woman who worked in administration at the Marketing University in which I taught, had offered to take me to Can Gio with her daughter and her daughter’s friend in order to practice English with them. It was a lovely outing – I was very spoiled, we went speedboating through the mangroves, ate luscious fruits on the beach and I genuinely enjoyed coaching the girls on their spoken English.

The monkeys, however, were challenging.

Which is a shame as I had loved the creatures ever since I went to the Melbourne Zoo as a child and saw a squirrel monkey for the first time, and I’ve had many pleasing primate experiences subsequently. But this particular trip was a firm introduction to their potential for cheek.

In the car on the way out to Can Gio we discussed what was to come.

“Luke, you must be very careful of the monkeys,” Mrs. Hoa said.

“Absolutely,” I replied non-committedly. Was I being made fun of?

“They like your skin the best.”

Of course they do. I was reading The Bourne Identity at the time, not a particularly good book but a page-turner with enough of a rollicking plot to keep one interested. I also had a water bottle. I was warned specifically by Mrs. Hoa and my companions that the monkeys would try to steal these belongings. I found it all quite endearing.

In time the dusty, flat landscape became pockmarked by patches of mangroves as our car rocked and clanged its way towards the coast. We eventually stopped on the side of the road in order to walk to the speedboat ramp. The dirt road was flanked on both sides by mangroves stretching into the nether under a searing, buildingless blue sky. I put my book and water bottle in a plastic bag as recommended by my paranoid handlers, opened the car door and stepped out into the sun.

I was attacked immediately, before I could even shut the car door. It was really quite comical, though at the time confusing. I heard a kind of scuffle-noise, then felt a large weight. A decent-sized grey-brown monkey had leapt from places unknown and was hanging off my arm and the plastic bag containing my belongings. I lifted the bag to head height incredulously, looking the beast in the eyes; it hissed at me.

And then, through sheer gravity and monkey muscle, the creature ripped open the plastic bag.

My book and water bottle fell to the road with the master mammal, who landed gracefully and scooped them up before I could even process the theft. Then the canny burglar awkwardly ran across the road, half-carrying, half-dragging the water bottle and book, arms full of booty. It leaped into the mangroves and retreated a few metres into a thicket of saline bush – too far for me to go without getting wet, but I could still make the creature out visually. It was already flicking through The Bourne Identity in a very humanlike fashion.

Mrs. Hoa and the girls were apologetic and terse. The pure immediacy of the theft – as soon as I exited the car, from a monkey unknown, and its brevity – the whole operation took less than thirty seconds – was in retrospect hilarious. Mrs. Hoa handed me another bottle of water with businesslike efficiency and we left the car, and the monkey with a penchant for spy fiction, to wait for our return.

Of course, it was gone by the time we got back. Sunnier pastures one hopes.

Tomato Flood

This is the seventh in a series of posts running throughout 2015 about living, teaching, travelling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a river near Da Nang.

The little outing in question took place in April 2008 around the central region of Vietnam (Annam in the colonial period), home to beautiful tropical mountains and bays, friendly people and delicious food. I was spending a few days partying with a group of English teachers and backpackers in Hoi An, which was great fun, but the lure of the countryside beckoned. Earlier I had ridden out past Da Nang and found a river to swim in, a quiet, shady spot with only a few people dipping their toes and lazily eating fruit.

So of course I contrived to disturb the serenity of this convenient jungle oasis. Canvassing the English teachers I managed to organise a caravan of four motorbikes and six intrepid volunteers. We duly headed off one balmy morning, stopping by the Marble Mountains along the way for some moderate hiking and amateur spelunking. After another hours’ ride, we arrived at the river and started on a picnic of fruit, beer and spicy fried egg rolls.

The river was quieter than the last time I visited, with only a very weak flow sluicing between large grey boulders. A couple of friends and I decided, after feeding and imbibing, to hike up the riverbed and see if we could get to a waterfall I had heard about. Apparently at the top of the river, high in the hills, was an old hill town in the region of the Ba Na (Bahnar) people. At some point the river had to widen out, we also reasoned, and that might be a better place to swim.

So three of us climbed up the wide riverbed, leaving the others to relax in the shade of our picnic site. It was a hot slog, but pleasant enough between jungle and boulder, with butterflies, dragonflies and lizards for company. Soon we could hear the roar of a waterfall, then we came to make out a kind of structure on a hillock over the river, with some uniformed security guards lounging about. We approached them and they took us through to a huge construction site, seemingly appearing out of nowhere from the jungle.

A long steel cable crossed a substantially wider section of the river up into the forested hills. The cable was being used for transporting goods up and down the valley. When I walked up to the cable landing I could see a waterfall down below, sadly inaccessible, a sheer drop of churning, brown and white water. It looked about eighty metres high. We had found the waterfall, but there would be no frolicking today.

The three of us were stared at as we dallied about the piles of concrete, rocks, wood, and piles of cables punctuated by earthmoving equipment. It was an odd situation: three white foreigners climbing up a river and into a construction site of frozen labour, perched precariously above a flowing stream. I rewarded the staring through physical clowning and limited Vietnamese, but soon it got to the point of either joining in to play cards or hiking back down to our friends. We said our goodbyes.

Climbing back down the river took no time at all. Once there we lounged around and ate watermelon, made some more sandwiches and finished our beer. We were all seated on a boulder when the sound of water running started getting louder. I can remember looking upstream and seeing the river’s tiny trickle appear to bulge, to rise, thinking it was strange. Those of us who noticed first must have looked quite bemused and confused until we realised what was happening. The water had risen thirty centimetres in as many seconds. The river was flooding.

Half-laughing, half-scared-hysterical, we picked up our fruits and vegetables and cutlery and other tidbits and waded towards the riverbank, where our motorcycles were waiting. We all made it before the water got too high but my best friend at the time, Amy, decided to go back to save a lone tomato. It sounds pretty silly now and it was then too. She managed to get back to the boulder, grab the tomato – and then she froze. The water was going ferociously fast at this point.

Luckily Pat, another Australian teacher working in Hung Yen, was close to the bank and waded out to help her. He pulled Amy and the lucky tomato to the shore and we all watched, wet, as the water rose and rose. The deluge came to move extremely quickly, with no sense of letting up, so we shrugged, got back on our motorcycles and rode back to town, where the rivers are black and polluted but don’t try to kill you. Unless you’re lucky enough to fall in.

Over two years later I found myself once again in central Vietnam and returned to the same patch of river with Amy and three other friends. This time a group of men were waiting at the bank and took our motorbikes to a secluded area, promising to watch them for fifty cents; a common informal parking security situation in Vietnam. There were a couple of families and young couples swimming – all Vietnamese, munching (and sharing!) lychees and leaping from boulders into the water, which was high this time.

Throwing caution to the wind we did as the locals and waded in for a proper swim. Thankfully there were no flash floods. We made some new friends, got sunburnt, and headed back to the bikes. I was curious about the construction site, so rode up the road to where I remembered it should be. Standing over the waterfall was now a large cable car operation, taking passengers over the river and high up into Ba Na. It was insanely busy – we considered going up, but the queue was simply not moving.

I’d like to go back to that little patch of Earth again some time. I’ve often thought about that river, that waterfall, that patch of ground. I don’t know any of the region’s names, I’ve forgotten the name of the river etc. – but I reckon I would remember the route out there from Danang.

In the next installment I will cover some of the other trips I took while teaching in Saigon, including to Da Lat and Can Gio.