Saturday, May 07, 2005

My Vietnam Hell

Vietnam, yesterday.

This week is the thirtieth anniversary of the final evacuation of Saigon, Vietnam. In honour of this occasion I thought I'd post this account of my own trip there, for Maxim magazine, several years ago. They never published it because they thought it was too 'lurid'.


Three a.m. and I'm lying in my bed in the Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City with a beautiful naked Vietnamese whore called Bun. The duvet is strewn with empty cans of beer and finished miniatures of vodka and ripped up packs of 555 cigs. The phone rings: it is Reception.

'Meeter Thomas? Meeter...?'

'Er, yeah?'

'You ha Vietnamese girl in room. Police. Police come now..'

The phone clicks shut. I gaze from Bun's wide inquisitive face to the mess on the bed - and then to the bits of burnt opium in a saucer and the wraps of unsmoked fresh opium on top of my Lonely Planet guide. Secreting a Vietnamese girl in one's room is illegal: as all prostitution is 'technically illegal' in Vietnam. I can't imagine my position with the authorities is going to be improved by my having loads of Class A Drugs about the place as well.

I am, in a word, mullahed. How did I get here?

Rewind two weeks. My Midlands-based car-dealing friend David and I are pushing through the Chinese New Year crowds at Ho Chi Minh City 'international' Airport. I am on a mission to write about the war and weirdness of Vietnam. Dave is on a mission to have sex with as many partners as possible. It looks like he is going to be in luck. When we shunt beyond the hubbub into the streets of South Vietnam's one-time capital Dave stops and stares: in front of us thousands of identically gorgeous Vietnamese girls are cycling graciously home from school in their pure white ankle-length pyjamas, their ao dais. Dave gazes at the girls. He drools.

Ho Chi Minh City turns out to be big (population six million and growing) but unexpectedly quiet and traffic free (communism and poverty means everyone rides Honda mopeds, so there's comparatively few cars). The food is good (best croissants east of Suez), the restaurants cheap. In fact everything's cheap in Vietnam: Asian recessions and the general Third Worldness of the country mean you get plenty of Vietnamese Dong for your quids. And I mean plenty of Dong. Change ten pounds and you get a great big block of 1000 Dong notes which you have to stuff in your strides causing a heavy metal guitarist's bulge in your groin and lots of inevitable subsequent conversations like:

'Jesus what's that in your trousers?'

'Oh, it's just my Dong.'

The poverty of Vietnam also means that the ravages of the thirty year war fought by the Viets against the French, then the Yanks, then themselves, are still to be found all over the country. They simply haven't got the money to repair the towns, to locate the landmines, to help the cripples. A particular problem is unexploded bombs. More bombs were dropped on Vietnam by the US Airforce than were dropped during all of World War II. That's a vast amount of ordnance and much of it is still lying around in the jungle, unexploded, waiting for some hapless Vietnamese kid to come exploring. Especially sinister are the leftover canisters of 'Willy Peter' - White Phosphorus. This was a strange substance, used enthusiastically by the US army, which was designed to ignite on contact with air and burn through anything it encountered: like children. Once this stuff got on you the only solution was to chop away the burning flesh with a razor blade.

One of the best places in HCMCity to grasp the wickedness of the war is the Remnants Museum. I am keen to go there. David is less keen. On arrival in town we have ensconced ourselves in the Apocalypse Now Bar in downtown. This was perhaps a mistake, as David is now sitting back on his stool surveying the pub's unique war-chic decor: the camouflage netting on the walls, the earthquake bombs behind the jukebox, the Laotian beauty grinding her bare brown butt into his pelvis. David is particularly pleased as he has just discovered that the Vietnamese slang for hookers is 'chicken'. He is busy making up jokes based around the concept 'bang bang chicken' and I am busy trying to persuade him to go to the museum. Nothing doing. You go, he says, you're getting paid.

Alone, I cab across town to the museum. After an hour looking at the atrocity exhibition: the snaps of grinning GIs with decapitated trophy-heads, of napalmed children screaming in death-agony, of South Vietnamese soldiers force-feeding VC suspects until their stomachs burst open, I've had enough.

By the time I get back it's about four p.m. and David has already had his first chicken, his first whore.

'Fat bird on some coconut matting out the back. It's all a bit secret cause they won't go back to the hotel, apparently it's illegal.'

I have to ask:

'How was she?'

Sipping his Red Bull and Tequila he eyes me, and chuckles:

'Finger licking good'

Seventeen beers later he is searching for new thrills. It is now four a.m. and we have done all the main drinking holes - the Monkey Bar, the Wild West Saloon, the posh place on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel. HCMCity is closing down. But David is undeterred. As we stroll the empty tranquil boulevards a gaggle of rickshaw drivers approach us and offer us dope and women. David, Asian old-timer that he is, is intent on something else, however. He asks, straight out, if they know where we can get some opium.

I wince and wait for the outraged reaction. Instead the Viet guys laugh and nod and they cycle us to an open air worker's caff on a boulevard near the Saigon river, where we end up smoking pipe after pipe of the dreamy, treacly stuff, through the night, through the long tropical night, until the first office workers are out on the streets playing badminton and I am banjaxed.

David looks at me, at my drooping eyes, my shattered, jetlagged demeanour; then he checks his watch and says:

'Hey. The bars should be open again now.'

I know I have to get a grip. To try to keep control, do some work. It's just a bit difficult being on assignment with Kidderminster's answer to Mephistopheles. I have to do research but Dave is quite happy to stay in the hotel room ordering tom yam soup on room service and only venturing out after midnight for his carnal bargain bucket.

Finally, after too many days in HCMCity smoking opium through a $4 pipe, we climb in a car and drive through the shanty-town suburbs. We are at last going to see the land, we are en route to Cu Chi. This region, fifty miles out the city, seems peaceful enough as we motor through it. Thirty years ago its name was synonymous with one of the war's eeriest phenomena: the Cu Chi tunnels.

A 250km long web of dug-outs and underground hospitals and kitchens and Viet Cong command centres, the Cu Chi tunnels, constructed during the French war but used to best effect during the American conflict, were one of the greatest secret weapons of the communist guerrillas. And the emphasis is on that word secret. So well-hidden were the Cu Chi tunnels the Americans unwittingly built one of their biggest bases right on top. For months the Americans couldn't work out how at night so many of their soldiers were being killed inside the compound, inside their tents: until it was realised that the killers were popping up under cover of dark from the very ground beneath them.

In the last few years short sections of the Cu Chi tunnels have been opened to the public - at the villages of Ben Duoc, and Ben Dinh. That means it is now possible, should you wish, to painstakingly crawl a few hundred yards down the hideously hot, dank, claustrophobic red earth tubes. Should you be brave enough to do so you'll soon grasp how horrible it must have been to fight down there, to fight for your life, often in pitch darkness, always dripping wet from sweat, listening to your own heartbeat in the silence, not knowing if you'd ever see the sun again.

But the tunnels are not the only reason to come to this laid-back province of paddyfields and rubber plantations. Cu Chi Visitor Centre, for instance, also has a macabre selection of 'punji' traps - those notorious, low-tech booby-traps which managed to strike terror into the most gung-ho GIs. Here are the famous bamboo-spiked pits into which Green Berets would fall, never to come out. Here are the metal barbs on wooden flaps designed to slap into the next Marine's testicles. Some of these spikes were deliberately smeared with human excrement so as to induce grotesque infection in anybody they impaled. You don't have to know that to find them strangely disturbing.

But then, all of Vietnam is 'strangely disturbing'. Even the ostensibly nicer places. From Cu Chi we journey through the hills of west Vietnam, to Dalat, the 'Alpine' mountain resort north of Saigon which was the favoured hang-out of French administrators, and US officers, and then victorious VC politicos. Dalat seems pleasant and tranquil enough: a cool welcome change from the heat of the coastal plains. But as we drive through the surrounding misty jungle I realise these green rolling uplands were where the VC kept many of their POWs, those poor saps from The Deer Hunter, the teenage Yankee 'grunts' dragged screaming from their foxholes into the leech-infested forests, there to die lingering deaths in waterlogged bamboo cages. I lean across the car to tell this to David but he has spotted a beer sign outside a Karaoke bar.


Before I can stop him he is out the door and up the steps. As far as I can establish, over the next forty-eight hours he has about thirty four prostitutes. He has maxed his credit cards and is now really punishing his Dong. I stay in my room and make notes and he comes back at six a.m. and snores all day. Great.

And so it goes on. Everywhere we go I steadfastly refuse to indulge in whores, muttering about my girlfriend and my professional integrity; everywhere we go David gets head from most of Asia, and buys shedloads of opium to boot. It is becoming increasingly difficult to resist: almost impossible to resist when we hit the coast, the playground of the country: China Beach.

You might have seen China Beach on war documentaries, you might have seen it in books. If you're of a certain age and American you will definitely know it: China Beach, a long strip of white sand and palm trees a dozen miles south of the industrial port of Danang, was the most infamous resort for 'R & R' (rest and recuperation) - this was the notorious fleshpot where war-mangled, shell-shocked, napalm-crazed GIs would be choppered in from the firefights of the nearby Demiltarized Zone for a weekend of Budweiser and baseball and boomboom in the dunes - before being helicoptered back to the terrors of Khe Sanh and Hamburger Hill.

Those famous days might have passed now, but David does his best to personally re-enact them. I sit in the beachside bar making notes on all the war cripples, the wall eyed beggars selling 555 cigarettes and the tragic girls selling amputee sex, and David trawls the neighbourhood looking for a threesome. A foursome. A moresome. He also scores opium, as he has scored opium in every town we've visited. I can feel his decadence wearing me down.

By the time we get back to HCMCity David is looking seventy five years old - but happy - and I am at breaking point. The spirit is willing but the flesh is a wanker. Inside the Wild West Bar I am approached by an almond eyed beauty called Bun who says the usualL

'You wan chicken, you wan boomboom, you wan souvenir girlfriend?'

Fuck it. Eyeing her coolly - and ignoring Dave's triumphant grin - I say the fatal words:

'How much?'

And so I am lying here in the Hotel Majestic, surrounded by drugs, loaded on beer, compromised by the naked bird in my bed - with the police heading up the stairs armed with shotguns and nightsticks. I am heading for a six stretch, probably. Thanks David. It was worth it. And I really really mean that. I really really do.

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Daniel Burns said...

You better post what happens next!!!

Nice writing!

J Tan said...

Yeah, what happens next?
By the way, where is the exact place that sells opium in HCM City?

Jonny Genius said...

You complete moron, where in Ho Chi Min do they not sell pure brown?