I meet Linh again after lunch. She arrives at the hotel by motorbike with her friend Truc Linh, who happens to share part of the same name as her. Truc is a university professor who lives with his family in a two room house they share with their livestock. He makes 200 dollars a month and is expected to take bribes to supplement his salary. Each day he has to negotiate how many bribes he is willing to take, what he will let students bribe him for, and whether he can convert the bribes into private tutoring instead of grade handouts. In his spare time he taught himself english and is now fluent. Thanks to that and his hard work at applying for grants, he’ll be studying in California for his PhD next year.
They were just at her parents villa, and things are not great over there with regards to maintenance. The property is kind of in shambles at the moment. They spent the morning cleaning the floors, getting rid of three years of dust, and have managed to make two rooms liveable, but the yard is a total mess and the AC might not be working. I tag along with them, riding on the back of Truc’s scooter, as he tells me about local history, his studies and the country in general.
The villa is down a narrow road between a crafts market close to a famous temple. The road is paved with big pieces of cement, lined up after one another and beaten down by years of use and dust. The villa is right at the corner, behind a cement wall with barbed wire at the top. There’s a dog at the gate. His name is No, and he is jittery around visitors. He yaps and yells, and I know then that there’s no way anyone could break in within this dog raising all hell with his siren lungs.
There’s a wide open courtyard leading to the front steps with a raised porch. There are chairs there and a long emptied fish tank. Chickens roam the yard, but fewer than was expected. We think the house sitter probably made away with more than a few of the birds over the years. The yard itself looks like a messy jungle. It’s thick with fruit trees and vines. Durian fruit, khaki, papayas and bananas hang from branches, and dead leaves slump to the ground like torn curtains.
The three of us spend a few hours cleaning the house before we call it a night. I get a ride to a local electronics store awkwardly named”VietThongA” to buy an adapter for my phone. My plugs worked well enough in Japan, but the voltage out here is totally different. And so is the experience in the store.
At the door we’re greeted by a security guard. Past him we’re met by what are essentially the electronics store equivalent of convention center booth babes. Women just thereto look pretty and make you buy shit. I also notice a table with three cashiers, a manager and possible assistant manager and a handful of sales clerks. The place is hardly larger than a garage but it’s got over a dozen employees in there.
Truc and Linh inform me that because labour is so cheap and people are so desperate to get any job oftentimes employers will essentially overstock their store with employees bevause, well, they can. The average person makes about a hundred bucks a month in cities, even at stores that sell appliances and devices for roughly the same cost as back home. The difference is instead of being understaffed liked every damn store in Canada, they are over staffed instead.
After my purchase, we took a drive through the old citadel at night. Hue was once the imperial capital and in spite of the destruction that happened here during the war much of the old palaces are still there, though hardly intact. It twas too dark to go into the inner walls of the imperial city, but the outer walls are always open and a road runs between the two, following the moats. At pretty much any time of day, people come here to just hang out. There’s a big courtyard and plenty of green space,a so the locals park their scooters, gather their friends and just chit chat the night away with the remnants of their old capital city in the shadows behind their stove tops.
I stayed at my hotel one more night, the intention that we would eventually clean out that villa well enough for all three of us to stay there. No more work was done that night though, so tomorrow was look iffy.
The sky over Hue th following morning looked like a wet rag. I couldnt tell if it was pollution, humidity, threat of rain, or a bit of all three. I would see that same sky day in and out for most of my time in that citt. The air also felt like a slap in the face. In Japan it felt humid and wet, and by the evening you felt cold drenched in your own clothes. Here it was different, the air itself felt hot and not just from the humidty, almost like hot pavement that you were walking through. It was barely 8. Steping out of the hotel, it made for unpleasant welcome. Part of me groaned over the fact I had just checked out of a place with AC and was going to move into one that still didn’t have much in the way of working fans for the next three days.
On the agenda for that day was visiting the citadel during the daytime. I got dropped off there in the afternoon, after the worst of the heat had passed, and was free to explore until closing. Outside the gates, people moved about in all directions. Some were visiting the citadel, some hanging out, some even fishing In the moat. A few kicks were playing soccer against one of the Inner walls. A security guard sat on a chair watching them with a single eyebrow cocked. Entry wasn’t cheap but it was worth it once I was inside.
The palace must have been gorgeous in its heyday. Even in shambles, meshes of colour, carvings of dragons, and elegant pagodas filled the space with a mystique of its own. It somehow felt forbidden to walk through those gardens, across bridges, around ponds and into bed chambers and temples long unused. Once this was the home of royalty and their attendants, the palace where the emperor came to hold court and attend to matters of his kingdom, spending the remainder of the time elsewhere in other villas and fortresses around the country.
Linh picks me up send along the way we run out of gas.We push the scooter up to the roadside and she buys gasoline from a woman who keep it in old plastic orange juice jugs. There are gas statios, but few and far between, so most people who live by the road keep extra gasoline on hand to sell to motorists.
When we’re backat the villa, she goes to pick up Truc and I’m left to my own devices. I’m basically out of fresh clothes, so I do the only thing I can: I wash my clothes in a blue plastic tub in the back yard. As I do, Chickens cluck as they hop from their pen and scurry up the fence. They pick through dead banana leaves looking for food. A rooster in the lot next door caws with jealousy. I wrench my shirts by hand and hang them up to dry in the sun.
Linh drives back wiyh Truc shortly after I’ve finished with the wash. She carries some water, juice and some containers of local vegetarian street food. Inside the styrofoam crate is a mass of thin sliced and fried veggies, tofu flavoured with pepper, sugar and a handful of msg, and some good old sticky rice. As I pick out a big red chili pepper I realize that the average white guy from the west wouldn’t be able to do this. They would die out here unless they could find a pizza hut. Being able to ear spicy food is just about the only survival advantage I have out here. Another day like that under the sun and I would be toast. Thank goodness this is a mostly vegetarian city from what I can tell.
Truc gets the AC working and the three of us eventually bunker down in the one cool room for the nignt. I sleep on the floor, using my blanket for a mattress and Truc does the same. Linh gets the one mattres. It’s her house after all. All things consideeed, the floor feels just fine when you have just enough air conditioning g to forget the heat for a few hours before the rooster in the yard wakes everyone up.