The March of the Dragons Chapter 2 (minus the last paragraph due to word count).
The customs officer looked barely out of his teens. Red and gold epaulets on the shoulders of his lime green tunic might have signified some lofty rank; if it wasn't identical to that of all the other immigration officials. Timothy shifted from one foot to the other while his passport was scrutinized. Finally, the boy closed the passport and without looking up pushed it toward Timothy with a curt nod of acceptance.
'Cảm ơn,' Timothy mumbled, practicing the only Vietnamese phrase he knew.
The boy was already waving forward the next in line. Timothy slung his backpack over his shoulder and headed to the escalator. The terminal building was small for an airport servicing such a large city as Ho Chi Minh. A few dozen paces separated the bottom of the escalator to the main entrance with little in between; baggage collection points, a snack kiosk, and a cleaner mopping the highly polished floor,
A solitary security guard dressed in enough braid and stars to be a General stood at attention beside the doorway. The arrivals waiting area was outside. From behind a rope cordon a small crowd of faces peered into the terminal. Timothy nodded at the guard who blinked and watched him saunter toward the automatic door.
The dense heat of Vietnam struck immediately beyond the threshold of the air conditioned terminal. The warmth palpable even in the air breathed. The sun's intensity immediately parched the skin as heat rolled over him in a wave. It took a couple of seconds for the shock of the sudden climate change to pass.
Some of those waiting in the crowd held signs with names scrawled on them; some bore European names. None were his. He ambled past the flock of expectant, bored and anxious faces. Chewing his bottom lip, he glanced at his watch; 4.18pm- a little later than he was expected. So where was his guide?
'Mister Campbell! Mister Campbell!' cried a cheerful voice.
He spotted a thin arm frantically waving over the crowd, her a face smiling at him over someone's shoulder. She pushed sideways between bodies emerging from the press with a grin as wide and friendly as any he'd seen.
'Mister Campbell!' the girl exclaimed presenting her hand. 'Please, welcome to Vietnam!'
A cluster of gold bracelets jangled on her wrist as he shook her offered hand. Her broad smile exhibited pure white teeth behind bright red lips. Her hair tied in a neat ponytail hanging over her shoulder. A dark pinafore accentuated her pearly skin. Even in heels she was short; he stood almost a head above her.
'Nancy? Glad you recognised me. I don't look much like my passport photo,' he said with a smirk which he hoped was charming. She was much prettier than he'd expected.
'Wow, Mister Campbell your accent is really strong!' she gasped in exaggerated surprise, 'I should keep a dictionary with me!'
They chuckled at her jape.
'It's okay. I've got my Vietnamese phrasebook. We'll muddle through.' He patted the satchel at his hip.
'Oh, Mister Campbell, you should learn Vietnamese! I will help you!' She enthused.
'I'm not sure I'll have time for that, but please call me Tim.'
'Tim…' she tested the sound of the name before nodding her satisfaction. Her smile faded into a frown. 'You have no suitcase?'
He unslung his rucksack from his shoulder. 'I prefer to travel light. Change of clothes, camera, notebook and I'm good.'
Smiling again, Nancy tugged at his hand. 'Come, we should get a taxi before the sun turns my skin dark.'
He couldn't help but admire her seemingly natural elegance. Her pinafore clung to her thin form. He fixated on the swing of her hips as she led him by the hand. She turned; catching his inappropriately wandering gaze and breaking his enchantment. His apologetic lopsided grin provoked a solitary chime of laughter from her. She's used to the attention, he mused.
Releasing his hand, Nancy engaged in Vietnamese with a waiting Taxi driver. Tim caught sight of himself in the rear window of the taxi. He swept his fingers through his sandy fringe and straightened the collar on his Ben Sherman shirt. He could already feel the effect of the humidity on his pores; his underarms felt moist and the clammy warmth around his legs made him regret wearing jeans. He knew from his time in similar climates that it would take days to adjust after several cool months in the UK.
With the negotiations apparently concluded, the driver opened the nearside rear door of his green taxi cab, motioning for Tim to climb inside.
'Ladies first.' Tim swept his palm toward the open door.
Nancy grinned before stepping inside. Sliding across the seat to the far side of the cab. The driver motioned for Tim to hand over his backpack. Tim ducked into the taxi while their driver deposited the rucksack into the boot.
'Oh, I don't have Vietnamese cash!' He winced through his embarrassment, 'it’s a closed currency...'
Nancy dismissed his excuse with a wave of her hand. 'Is ok Mr Tim. I pay. You pay me later. In Vietnam can also use US dollar.'
'I know… there must be an ATM around here.'
Nancy slapped her hand on top of his. Squeezing it to quiet him. 'Is ok, Mr Tim. Don't worry.'
'It's just Tim.'
'I say it wrong?' she pursed her lips, confused.
'You don't need mister.'
'Tim.' Nancy's grin reached her cheekbones, narrowing her eyes to slits.
The taxi pulled away from the curb. The driver fiddled with the radio until he found a western song; a recent dance track which Tim didn't know the name of. The driver turned in his seat to gauge Tim's reaction to the tune while enthusiastically bobbing his grinning head to the beat. 'American music. Very cool!'
Tim flashed a faint smile. Nancy laughed and said something in Vietnamese to the driver who turned the volume down and returned his attention to the road. The car stopped at a booth on the airport's exit. Wordlessly the driver handed the attendant a ticket with some brightly coloured banknotes, and then they were on their way into Ho Chi Minh City in the comfort of the air conditioned taxi.
The cab was quickly surrounded by a throng of motorbikes and scooters weaving around each other with abandon along the four lane highway; sometimes three riders to single bike. Many of the huge roadside billboards advertising expensive brands were in English. Large red banners bearing gold star of Vietnam lined the neatly trimmed grass of the central reservation.
Nancy pointed out various sights they passed. The CT plaza mall with a huge movie poster plastered on its side alongside adverts for pizza hut. Many coffee chains popped up along the route; Trung Nguyen, Highlands coffee, and others all looking very much like Starbucks. Statues at the centre of roundabouts depicted heroes from Vietnam’s past.
'Who's that one?' Tim pointed at an ancient looking warrior statue.
'Oh, some king who defeat the Chinese,' Nancy pointed past the statue, 'over there McDonalds.'
They whizzed past colourful shop fronts- usually before Tim could ascertain what they were selling. Almost every building had at its ground floor a shop or business of some sort. He glimpsed numerous fashion shops, a row of shops selling washing machines, and a row of clock shops. They passed Mercedes and Porsche showrooms and plenty of grocery stores, which at a glance had identical layouts.
Nearing the more densely populated central District 1 the footpaths became crowded with vendors selling street food; Vietnam's famous Pho, dried squid, spring rolls, bread and much more besides. The streets were as full with pedestrians as with motorbikes. No vehicle stopped even at marked pedestrian crossings; bikers easily navigated around crossing pedestrians without slowing. Tim did a double take when noticing a pair of motorbikes driving on the pavement; walkers stepped out of their path without a hint of irritation.
'Bloody hell,' he mumbled.
'This street one way,' Nancy said, 'easier drive on sidewalk than go longer way around.'
Despite it all, Tim saw an apparent order to the chaos. Aside from the constant beeping of horns and a palpable impatience at traffic lights, everyone knew how to manoeuvre around everything and everyone. There was an almost frantic pace not unlike London or New York; chaotic only to the visiting observer.
'We are near your hotel. This is the heart of Saigon. Look, here is Uncle Ho!'
The statue of the wizened leader sat smiling down at sculptures of adoring children. It reminded Tim of a photo he'd seen showing a ring of stone children dancing around a fountain among the ruins of Stalingrad.
Nancy pointed out the opera house; its grand pillars and Imperial design stood out majestically among French colonial buildings, modern malls and stylish brand shops such as Louis Vuitton, Versace and Dior- all of which Nancy proudly indicated with a tap of her index finger on the cab window.
'There, next to the Opera House- the Continental hotel. That is where the Quiet American was written. Many foreigner journalists stay there during the American War.'
'The American War?' Tim puzzled, 'ah, the Vietnam war.'
Nancy nodded enthusiastically. 'For us, is the American war.'
The Taxi passed the expensive looking Caravelle hotel, glimpsing the Sheraton Towers. Above numerous tall buildings, the massive Bitexco tower stood gleaming in the sunlight like a giant shard of glass pointing toward the heavens. The taxi pulled into a side road and stopped. The driver sprung from the cab, rushing to open the boot.
There was Tim’s hotel; Mai Long 5. It didn't look particularly grand. Its huge sign tilted outwards either precariously or by design. The sign, windows, even the steps were bordered in a tacky gold colour. The hotel’s slim form was compressed between its neighbours; another equally garish hotel and a shop selling leather products; its sign in English declaring 'Alligator, python, Stingray'.
A young bellboy- smart in his red tunic and matching cap, sprang from his seat outside the hotel to pull open the taxi door even as Tim had one foot outside the taxi. He wordlessly waved Tim toward the hotel entrance before hurrying to the driver to relieve him of the luggage. Nancy paid the driver while Tim ignored the bell boy's repeated gestures urging him inside.
The scent of street food lingered. Boiled vegetables, strange sauces and various seafood mixed with the smoke of exhaust fumes from the heavy traffic. It was little wonder that many pedestrians and motorists alike covered their mouth and nose with a paper surgical mask. Nancy skipped to him. Winking, she took his arm and guided him up the hotel steps.
The hotel foyer was as garish as the exterior; tacky but clean. A large fish tank sat beside the entrance adjacent to a sickly coloured sofa, which was of course gilded in gold trim. A wall-mounted widescreen TV showed Stephen Segall in a knife fight with Tommy Lee Jones. The receptionist smiled from behind a desk cluttered with leaflets for tours, boat trips and massages.
'Welcome, sir. Do you have a reservation?'
'Yes. It's Timothy Campbell.'
Pushing in front of him, Nancy conversed with the check-in girl in what Tim thought to be authoritative, almost harsh tones. The corners of the receptionist's mouth curved down and she nodded politely. He listened to them chatter for a few moments before the receptionist asked for his passport; in return giving him a room swipe-key which she offered with both hands.
'They will keep your passport tonight,' Nancy said, 'they copy it to the Police station. It is the law.'
'Oh... guess I won't be getting away with any crazed murders if the Police know where to find me.'
Nancy rolled her eyes. 'Oh, Mr Campbell you are funny,' she said without a hint of mirth. The bell boy directed them toward the lift with a tired gesture.
'What was all that between you and the receptionist?' Tim said.
'Ah, I got you a better price.' Nancy's cheeky chuckle belied her shy shrug. 'I told her price is too much for mini-hotel. They should make a bargain or we find cheaper hotel.'
'Wow, thanks. I'd have liked the Continental or Sheraton, but a working man like myself has to make do. So, how much am I paying?'
'$38 a night,' she beamed.
'Oh. The original booking was $35.'
'Yes, but now you have the best room. Discounted to half price!'
The lift doors opened, Nancy walked ahead. Smirking, Tim shook his head. He was paying her to assist- she knew the City, so he'd give her some latitude.
The room was spacious, with a large sized flat screen TV which the bellboy switched on. A writing desk, large double bed, and L-shaped sofa. A window spanning the width of the room provided a nice view of the street. The bathroom was pristine. Tim nodded in satisfaction; a bargain indeed.
'Thank you, sir,' said the bellboy. Bowing as he backed out of the room then closed the door.
Standing at the centre of the room, Nancy spread her arms magnanimously. 'You are happy for this room?'
'Yes. It'll do nicely.'
She stood watching him and smiling. He wondered if he should remind her he was spoken for, or was he getting the wrong signal? He feigned a yawn.
'I leave you to freshen up,' Nancy chuckled, 'I come back after two hours then we go eat.'
'Uhh, yeah... that'll be fine.'
She twirled toward the door. Waving her hand over her shoulder as she bounced away.
'Oh, bugger!' he Winced.
Nancy turned. Her head tilted questioningly and brow furrowed in concern.
'Oh it’s just...' he shook his head, 'I didn't tip the bellboy.'
'Is ok Mr Campbell. Not necessary. If you want, you can give him something later. There is ATM over the street.'
'Thank you, Nancy.' he called