I am once again an emigrant. I’ve been in Saigon for a week now.
I spent almost two weeks in Dublin and Cork (and Ballina, just because) between getting home from Italy and coming to Vietnam but I had psychologically moved here already at that stage and the time flew. I spent about a week of that time at my parents’ house, sorting through all my possessions, watching 80s sitcoms on DVD with my parents, and packing. By Tuesday I was fully packed and my parents drove me to Cork Airport to pick up a rental car. Of course, nothing can touch me quite as much as the love of my family. My dad gave me a travel-size bible to bring with me to Vietnam. My mum mentioned my homosexuality for the second time ever. “Be careful, son. I don’t know how they are with gay people out there.” Even thinking of both of these things is making me well up now.
I was renting a car to take me and all my luggage to Tuam in the West of Ireland on Tuesday, then to Dublin on Wednesday, and to the airport on Thursday. I hadn’t driven in almost a year.
I can be a real scaredy cat. And a catastrophist. Even when I’m a passenger in a car, I usually visualise us crashing and dying at least once every five minutes of a journey. I’m the same with stairs. I can’t stand at the top of a flight of stairs or walk down stairs without seeing myself falling down them, breaking my neck and dying. (I’m fine with walking up stairs, it’s just when I’m going down them.) I can’t see a pigeon without imagining it pecking out my eyes. I can’t see a bowl with something in it without imagining it falling on the floor. I can’t see a dog without imagining it biting me. I can’t see a police officer or airport security guard with a gun without imagining them shooting me dead. I can’t see an egg without imagining it breaking on the floor. I can’t see a wire with tape on it without imagining an electrical fire causing me to get trapped in a room and die. I can’t get in a lift without imagining it hurtling to the ground and killing me. I can’t plug in a phone or alarm clock near my bed without imagining myself getting the wire accidentally wrapped around my neck and strangling me and dying in my sleep. I can’t turn over in bed without imagining accidentally putting too much weight on my neck and my spinal chord snapping and me dying. I can’t walk near scaffolding without imagining a brick falling on my head and cracking my skull and me dying. In short, I imagine my own death and those of people around me a lot. I don’t let it really effect how I live my life. I just carry on. Usually.
It does mean I’m a slow driver though. As I drove from Cork to Tuam, my first time driving in a year, driving an unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar road in the dark I couldn’t stop imagining me crashing. It wasn’t just a Ford Fiesta in my head. It was a giant deathmobile. The traffic was diverted through country roads around Buttevant and I spent a good 45 minutes driving at my speed while a long, long queue of cars crawled along behind me. At last we got to a big road and as cars and lorries overtook me I whooped with relief. We were now on a big main road. People could overtake me. I could drive as slowly as I liked. Google maps said it should take me 2 and a half hours to drive from Cork to Tuam. It took me four and a half.
I had a lovely morning with my nieces and nephews, my brother and sister-in-law and the priest and seminarian they live with and then I drove to Dublin. On Wednesday night and Thursday morning there were more goodbyes. Some more emosh than others. None of them were that emosh though. I will be home at Christmas after all.
I got to the airport in good time and checked in for my flight. I’ve never flown Etihad before. It was lovely – so much luxury. I felt like a king. Or a sheik I suppose. All I had to do was look uncomfortable and a flight attendant would come running to offer me ice or a moist towelette in an exotic accent. I’m anyone’s for a moist towelette.
My Etihad experience got me thinking about how much I’ve liked some of my former Arab students. Then we landed in Abu Dhabi. Everyone there was beautiful. I fell in love with three different airport security guards. They do “manly” very well in the Middle East. I started regretting my decision to move to Vietnam. Vietnam hadn’t ever been on my list. But I’ve been fascinated by the Arab world for a long time. And not just because of the men, though it helps. And not just because I have a body type that’s more prized sexually and socially in the Middle East than in other places, but that helps too. As does the mystique of the surprisingly active Arabic gay scene. And the tempting consumerism. And the sense of humour. And the boundless generosity. I stood in Abu Dhabi Airport, imagining my marriage to the moustachioed security guard and didn’t want to go to Vietnam at all.
But, of course, I got on the next flight anyway.
It was Friday night when I landed in Saigon AKA Ho Chi Minh City. There is no Arrivals Hall as we would know it. Once you clear customs, you’re spat out into the massive outdoor arrivals area where hundreds of people have congregated to meet the people coming off the planes. The heat hit me immediately, as did the humidity. I saw palm trees and I heard a deafening roar of traffic. I haven’t stopped hearing it since.
It felt gloriously foreign. I was excited again. I was to be met by someone from my hotel. Crowds of people held up signs with names on them, including one which said “Mr or Miss Barry Lee”, which I enjoyed a lot. I saw my name. The woman who held the sign with my name greeted me impassively and asked if I had a cigarette. When I said I didn’t, she told me to wait. I waited for about ten minutes and then she came back and told me that my car was coming and that I should “Only say thank you. No fine. No pay. No fee. No money. Only say thank you.” The car was air conditioned, which I already needed.
The driver drove me through the streets of Saigon silently. This was my first time in Asia and it did not disappoint. I’ve always romanticised big cities and this is a proper city. Incredibly noisy and smelly. Full of life. I immediately appreciated two things. One was the abundance of coloured lights. Businesses here seem to prioritise having their name on a sign in coloured lights over things we might regard as essential in Ireland, like having a front door for your shop or a toilet for your cafe. These are priorities I can live with. The other thing I noticed was the motorbikes. So many motorbikes. Everywhere. So many of them. Like a biblical plague or a Chinese army. On one motorbike, I saw a man who looked like he owned the world. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and beads of sweat glistened on his perfect pecs as he revved his bike confidently. I forgot about my Arab dream. Sexy doesn’t have borders.
At one stage the taxi driver pointed out the window, saying “Halloween”, the only word we exchanged during the whole journey. I looked out at what he was pointing at. There was group of young Vietnamese goths on the side of the street singing death metal. They were all wearing devil horns. Around them, blocking two lanes of traffic, was a huge semi-circle of people sitting on their motorbikes (the audience was about three or four motorbikes deep all the way around) listening, watching and singing along.
The taxi got to my hotel where I was greeted joyfully as “Mr Connor” and made to feel like I was the most exciting guest they’d ever had. The hotel didn’t really have a front door. Or a reception. But it did have sign in green and red flashing lights saying “hotel”.
Two shy teenage boys were dispatched to carry my suitcases up to my room, a room which was simultaneously dingy and clean. It was in bad need of a paint job, a new floor, new tiles in the bathroom and some new furniture, but there wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere. They wordlessly presented me with remote controls for the TV and the air conditioning and ran back down the stairs. Two minutes later, one of them was back up to me. I have a feeling he’d been sent up. He was carrying two cold bottles of water and a plate with a fruit on it. He gave them to me, still without saying a word and ran back down the stairs again.
I tried the fruit. It looked like grapefruit, which I’m not a big fan of, but it tasted nothing like any citrus fruit I ever had. It had a light sweetness, like a pear or a red apple. I truly was somewhere completely foreign now.
I fell into bed, and even though I was absolutely exhausted and had been travelling for over 24 hours, I didn’t fall asleep immediately. I was far too excited. I love foreign!
More to come very soon.