Goooood Morning Vietnam. I woke early for my flight from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) Vietnam. This was going to be my first time in the "Nam".
I was sent to the Far East on a mission. Bangkok being my base, I would be in Asia for 6 weeks, sourcing Textile Print Mills for a large supplier to the biggest name on the High Street. Already having spent time in Bangkok, I was quite happy to fly anywhere from there and use it as my central hub to access Asia.
I remember it was a 6 am flight from Don Meuang to Ho Chi Minh, I was picked up from the airport and headed straight to the first mill. That was the idea anyway.
Visiting Vietnam on business, you had to have a letter of invitation from a resident business to allow you in to do business and a visa.
Landing at Ho Chi Minh, I duly handed my passport and letter over to the official, who disappeared for half an hour, only to return and say "Letter not correct". I knew it was, I had had it checked. So I rang my Vietnamese contact, who subsequently spoke to the official to allow me in, but to no avail. It can be frustrating when you don't know the language although I understood "No Visa".
As I took my documents back from the official, he looked at me, and in broken English said: "I sort you special visa"..............I am in a foreign country, miles from home, knowing I am about to get screwed over. "How much is special visa", I asked. "50 Dollar" came the reply. At the time, it was £25 in Sterling. I had 2 options, fly back to Bangkok and try again or pay £25 to the corrupt official. "Okay" I said reluctantly, "Let's go for Special Visa".
I followed the official to a small box room, he sat me down, took my Passport & letter off me and told me to wait. "How long?" I asked, knowing now I had crossed the threshold. "Many hour" came the reply. "Where can I go for a drink & food" I said. "Cannot! You stay in room!". "Okay, forget it, I will fly back to Bangkok". I wasn't going to sit in some sweaty box room for hours on end. No way.
"I can take you to special place" he said. "Is that $50 Dollar too?" I asked. "Of course Sir, $50". That was it, I was getting in deep. "Take me to special place".
So I am in a Communist Country, it's my first time here and I'm being bribed by an official. Am I playing the game correctly? "Okay. Please wait"
10 minutes later he arrives back at the sweaty room with 3 other officials. "Please follow" Yes, my brain is saying "What the fuck are you doing". I am duly marched straight through the Airport, two in front of me, two behind me, skipped passport control and through a throng of people which parts like the Red Sea for my new entourage. The guard behind me says "You feel like Rock Star". I didn't have the balls to say no I am shitting myself, so I gave a small smile. At the airport entrance a white Stretch Limo was waiting for me. Yes, like a Rock Star Limo from some dodgy 80's Porn Film. I got in the back, followed by one guard either side of me. As we pull away leaving the airport in the distance, I look behind me as if I am being driven to prison, only to notice the lace doilies adorning the Parcel shelf behind me. The very same ones your grandma used to have, normally this would make me chuckle but I lost all sense of feeling and my mind & body had switched off.
Half an hour into the journey I remember just smiling to myself, no rhyme or reason. The officials were fine enough with their broken English conversation of football and England,after an hour on the road we had arrived at a small town. We pulled up outside a hotel & I was told to "Buy room". The receptionist swiped my card for $70, gave me a room key & vouchers for two beers. "We come back later" &and with that the officials trotted off, no passport, just me in some Vietnamese Town.
I slumped off to the room, lay down and stared at the ceiling. "What the fuck am I doing?". Over and over in my head I questioned what I had done wrong. I looked across at the bedside table and there were my beer vouchers, may as well use my 2 lifelines. I made my way back past reception and cashed in my chips, I just relaxed with my beer. Nothing else I could do but wait.
One beer down, one token remaining and losing my mind I decided I may as well have a look round while I am here, I went to walk out the hotel only to be stopped by two officials who had been stationed at the Hotel entrance. "Christ!" Back to the bar for my second beer (It's still before lunchtime and I'm supposed to be working). The lady behind the bar asks me what brings me here, so I gave her my story. She went to the officials at the door, came back & said "You can go to Hotel over the road. You can get food & sit by pool". Why not I thought, so off I trotted with a smile to the officials for good measure. The hotel did have a pool, and a little restaurant. I ordered spaghetti bolognese and a can of Coke. So Western of me but I needed something I could trust.
With my belly full, I decided to lie on a sunbed. It had been a very long morning so I needed no help to drift off in the sun, only to be awoken mid dream with a "Hello", "Hello". I opened my eyes to see a young lady stood over me, in a gold bikini. Was I still dreaming? No, I wasn't, this had to be the next phase of the setup. Was she beautiful? Yes, she was, but I wasn't going to get drawn into some Lady of the Night in a Gold Bikini. I'm, not James Bond.
The beautiful lady in gold bikini turned out to be a Cambodian, who catches a bus into Vietnam, stays a few days while purchasing garments and then returns home, very entrepreneurial. With us both being in the textile industry, it turned into a rather pleasant afternoon chatting all things fashion. 5 pm came, it was starting to get dark so I head back to my hotel, alone. 6 pm came with a knock at the door. As I open the door, my Passport is thrust at me without a word spoken. Visa stamped the works.
Now let me get to the Renaissance Riverside Hotel, the 5 Star that I had booked. I think I had earned it. It was a simple check-in, shower & food sort of arrival. By now I had rung my contact to say I was in Nam, we arranged for him to collect me at 8am. The Hotel had Steak & Chips on the menu, Yes Sir, just what I needed. I was fed, relaxed & ready for a beer, I ask the Concierge lady where I could go for a drink "Tonight Sir, cannot go for drink with you, but tomorrow can", was the response I got, the day gets weirder.
I was given directions, "Turn left & turn left" easy. Which led to The Apocalypse Now Bar. (Still exists by the way). In I went straight to the bar, a bottle of Heineken & deep breath. I slugged on that beer like never before, emotions still all over the place. I turn on my stool, only to see lots of Vietnamese guys in Hawaiian shirts, all toting guns. "Fuck me", I must be dreaming this shit.
"Hello Handsome", came a voice. She couldn't mean me, but she was stood at the side of me, looking straight at me. Being a Bangkok Veteran, I knew this was a lady of the night. "Where you from" she asked. "I am from Bangkok" was the reply. "Ah, you know everything then." I knew that if I said Bangkok, I would get left alone to enjoy my beer in peace, as she would not see me as fresh Western meat to subtract money from. "Please come play Pool with my friends". I asked her why all the Vietnamese men had guns, to which she replied " To protect you", with a smile. So the evening was spent playing Pool with ladies of the night. The witching hour of 11 pm came, so I made my excuses to leave (It was a work trip), I refused the ride home on the back of her Motorcycle, instead I made my own way and crashed into a deep sleep.
8 am sharp and I am waiting in the lobby for my Vietnamese contact, we will call him Barry for this. I still remember his real name..... off to the factories we went, following beautiful tarmac roads, then straight onto sandy bumpy roads. This was prior to the full-blown Far East economic explosion, so it was hit & miss.
With a days work complete Barry dropped me off at the hotel to get showered & changed, he would pick me up at 8 pm for drinks. I ate at the hotel & current as it is in the Fast East, Barry arrived at 10 pm, raring to go. " Shall we go to Open Club or Closed Club?". I had no idea what he meant so crack on my friend. He chose a closed club first, this was my first experience of this kind of club. We arrived outside a multi-storey building, two doormen greeted us and walked us through the back of a Korean restaurant, into a small lift and up 4 floors, which opened into a sea of colour. Vietnamese women dressed in traditional silks, flowing in amongst Japanese businessmen, with me at 6ft 2", towering above the whole scene. We go into a room and Barry orders us beers. A strange room with a TV and a huge L-shaped settee. A bucket of 12 Budweiser and a bowl of fruit arrived at the table, which Barry says "for you". I do like a beer no doubt, but I am here on business. I smile, we sit down, crack open a beer, the door opened and in walk 14 or 15 Vietnamese ladies. Going to make this bit as polite as I can. "Take Lady" says Barry. "I am okay thank you Barry" The following 10mins ensued with Barry telling me I being disrespectful to his hospitality. By now you should realise what I am talking about and where I am. Naive Westerner.
The TV turns out to be a top of the range Karaoke Machine, somehow I find myself singing Imagine by John Lennon, quite apt really. I passed the mic back quite pleased with myself as I got a 99% score for being in tune and on note. Legend. So as I have swerved Barry wanting me to perform with Ladies of the night, back in his car he tells me he will now take me to an "Open Club".
A nightclub called Lips was our destination. A real legit Nightclub, 4 Bouncers run down, swing open the door & escort us through the masses to the VIP area. Right behind the DJ. The scene pans out as 2 Bouncers, then me, then 2 more bouncers, then the DJ, then another bouncer, Barry and another Bouncer, all staring at a 100% Vietnamese Crowd. I stood there like some lanky forlorn rockstar. I couldn't even get close to talk to Barry.
As in the movies, you don't see people going to the toilets much and you don't even bother to talk about it. This one I have to. I get through to Barry that I need the toilet, so a gate opens at the side of the DJ Booth and once again I am escorted through the Red Sea of parting people, just to go the toilet. The toilets are cleared and two bouncers wait outside, while the other two follow me in to pee. You know those times when you just can't pee. This is one of those.
I loved my Vietnam experience. I wasn't harmed or injured in any way. Everyone I met was good-hearted. Even Barry apologised to me.
If you don't have experiences in life, are you living?