Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?
The year is 2003AD, the month is February; the time just after eleven a.m. You are in a rented house on the non-colonial-side of the French Quarter in Hanoi, standing in the kitchen wearing a woolly hat, a fake North Face fleece jacket, sports socks pulled up over the ends of tracksuit bottoms, a multi-coloured “ethnic” scarf, and a dashing pair of jaundice-yellow plastic sandals — standard at-home-attire for residents across the city during cold snaps. Nobody told you there would be days like these when you booked a ticket on a flight bound for the Orient. Your erroneous understanding of a “tropical country” in Southeast Asia was a land perpetually steeped in a steamy heat that would justify: a) wearing a pith helmet at social gatherings; b) sleeping for two hours of every afternoon; and c) sipping gin and tonics all evening, every evening. In a survey of expats in bars-you-frequent, it seems nobody imagined there would be freeze-the-balls-off-a-brass-monkey-days like these. Everyone (read: every expat you know) points out over and over, and over, and over again exactly why it’s the worst kind of cold they have ever endured even though everyone has experienced winters with lower temperatures. It’s the complete absence of central heating. It’s the lack of insulation. It’s the tiled floors. It’s the humidity. It’s riding around on a motorbike from a house with no heating to an office with no heating to a bar with no heating… It’s all of these things, and for you, and only you, it’s also living in one of the city’s dankest, mustiest houses, strategically located to avoid sunlight all-day long — in your defence, this seemed a wise choice when being shown the city’s humblest abodes-for-rent on an insufferable summer’s day (42 degrees Celsius, 95%-humidity). Now that it’s winter, it is still warmer outside your house than it is inside. Your house is also being slowly subsumed by a dominion of mildew (in a thousand years time, maybe less, the Empire of Mould will be firmly in control, of that you are sure) — it has penetrated every sheet, duvet cover, pillow case, pillow, item of clothing you own and who is to say it isn’t slowly subsuming your biodegradable self? Maybe it’s already too late? On a normal morning, or on a typical afternoon, as soon as you wake, you ride off in search of food as quickly as you can (you have cooked precisely three meals since moving to Hanoi roughly a year ago and they all involved the frying of eggs). But today a crippling hangover has empowered your inner-agoraphobic. You have no desire to see or speak to anyone. Mooching around your house, however, you realise there is nothing to do in your house. Perhaps, today is the day you crack into the basket filled with the exotic fruits of the industrialised world (a ‘traditional’ gift from your students at a State-owned firm on the occasion of the Lunar New Year): breakfast tea by Lipton, Choco pies by Orion, crackers by Ritz, instant coffee by Nescafé, butter cookies by Danisa, cigarettes by State Express and Russian “champagne” by Liquor Factory №9…
Your grab the box of tea, fill the kettle and contemplate what can be done about the pain in your head. It’s not the most spectacular hangover you’ve ever had (that honour falls to a Bangkok-and-Benzedrine-fuelled belter for which you teamed up with a Glaswegian and a Liverpudlian to taste-test every available formaldehyde-infused Thai spirit — all quite quaffable when mixed with Coca-Cola ) but certainly bad enough to make you think upon waking: “Fuck, I hope I have some Codeine.”
But you don’t so now you are wondering if your housemate Jenny does. She is from somewhere pristine and sparsely populated in Canada and probably doesn’t get headaches because she’s a herbal tea-drinking vegetarian, who practices yoga at dawn — a routine that makes you feel like even more of a crazed alcoholic when you storm in the door, steaming drunk and speaking in tongues after a night on the sauce. Most impressively, she can still roll her eyes and speak while in the “Head on the Floor, Legs Akimbo”-position (“Oh my god, don’t tell me you drove home in this condition?”)
This won’t be the first time you have crept into her bathroom (you generally come to steal toilet roll and toothpaste) but it never fails to impress. Yes, it is identical in its geometry and interior décor to yours yet by comparison it’s like a bathroom from an alternate universe: it is spic, it is span; it smells of potpourri rather than piss… Her cabinet is comprehensively stocked with a multitude of items (including things you would never buy personally but could probably use: Q-tips, dental floss, skin cleanser, mouthwash…) but in terms of painkillers, all you can find are some minuscule 30 milligram Aspirin tablets for treating angina. How many would you have to take to match the potent power of two 500-miligram Codeines? You pop out eight — your logic: enough to pack some punch, not enough to kill you — and return to the kitchen where you open the fridge even though you know there’s fuck all in the fridge. You find a few sachets of Heinz ketchup, a four-day-old-slice of pizza, one half-empty/ half-full can of tonic, three-quarters of a lime, and a single egg.
A nutritious ‘bia hoi’ (‘fresh beer’) style Hanoi dinner of Vinataba, boiled peanuts and other morsels. Illustration by Oslo Davis (2001AD)
Staring into this mostly barren fridge, your mind begins to drift… were you drinking copious shots of alcohol made from goat testicles last night after a three-hour session at a street-side beer joint? Yes. Yes you were. And were you, subsequently, wrestling with your friends on the floor of this goat-testes emporium? Yes, next flashback, please. After somebody paid the bill, did you try to ‘liberate’ a goat? Did you get caught? Did you and your friends, subsequently, race through the streets on your two-stroke motorbikes with your tops off as if you had stolen the goat even though you hadn’t? Yes to all of that. Did you all storm into a dingy nightclub-slash-karaoke-joint to determine who is the greatest drunken crooner of them all? Did you sing a version of Bohemian Rhapsody that was described by some of your biggest critics as “close to spectacular”? Did you get into a protracted debate with some increasingly aggressive staff over the price of a fruit plate you didn’t order and the number of beers you apparently drank and a dozen vodka-cokes you ‘invited’ for a gaggle of girls all called Thúy? Yes, yes, yes. Did you and all your friends reconvene at an all-night expat bar and laugh it all off over several beers for the road? Yes. And, last but not least, did you drive home without crashing? You examine your knees, which bear only the well-aged scabs from your last late-night spill two-weeks ago. You walk to the door and stick your head out to observe your recently-fixed motorbike (nicknamed Shitty — short for Shitty-Shitty-Bang Bang) on the ground with a smashed indicator and a broken clutch and a trail of oil oozing through the grime. You stagger outside, wincing in the brightness of the day, and heave him/her (so hard to tell) into an upright position and pat her/ him on the petrol tank by way of apology and, as you do, last night’s pitiable, closing scenes flash inside of your mind: You kicking open your gate, driving into the yard and slamming on the brakes just before smashing into the wall, but ultimately keeling over as you forgot to put a foot down; you, subsequently, lying under Shitty for a minute or more, groaning but too drunk to feel any pain; Jenny appearing at the door, if only to judge you (“Oh my fricking God, not again…”); Jenny disappearing; you crawling from underneath Shitty and staggering inside; the sound of Jenny’s bedroom door being slammed, and locked; you erupting joyously, and defiantly, into song: “Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?” and now, standing in the yard, feeling so bad that you wish you’d never been born at all, you know, it’s exactly both of those things.
Connla Stokes, Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon, 2014–2015