I sat in the waiting room with a piece of paper in my hand. I had no idea what was written on it, it was in Vietnamese. This bit of paper with writing I did not understand would get us on the bus and back to Saigon. “It would wouldn’t it”? i thought. “Yes of course it would”. Belief is such a wonderful thing, reassuring, calming, certain.
There were many of us in the waiting room each with their own bit of paper certainty in their hand. A ticket to Saigon.
“I want you to read this” the priest said. I was 15 and had stopped going to church. I had spoken to my parents, both devout Catholics, and explained my views. They had been understanding but asked me to speak to the priest.I did. The book he lent me was by a catholic theologian. It made the case that you did not have to believe in god, you just had to “want to believe.” What an argument i thought, right to the heart of the human condition. The fundamental question “What is true and what is a lie” could be approached within the framework of “ what I want to believe”. In retrospect it seems a common approach. It could be belief in a currency, a bank or the ability to repay a loan, it does not matter, but when belief goes so financial systems and economies collapsed when the belief stopped in 2011. When belief stops so does hope. So we all sat there in the waiting room holding our bits of belief, and hope, the ticket to Saigon.
I mention all this because of a few things that happened whilst we were in Can Tho.
We arrived tired and hungry. We had used the the local busses which was great fun but hot and tiring. We had been given a recommendation for a hotel. When we got there I could see that it was called Ninh Kieu 1A . Just a little further on there was hotel called Ninh Kieu 2A and round the corner was hotel Ninh Kieu 3A. It seems that they are all state hotels. A mismatch of aspirational buildings and poor plumbing. We were greeted by the receptionist, a man in his 50’s. His English was good, he had a self depreciating way about him and he smiled and laughed a lot. He showed us the hotel rates and got us a key. I asked him where we could get a boat to take us to the floating markets the next day. He invited us to sit with him at a table in the foyer, got out a brochure and started to explain where the trip went to. I had actually meant where would we find the boats, intending to negotiate with the owners direct. He on the other hand was selling us the hotel tour. What he was describing was what we wanted but the price was steep. We offered half and ended up haggling and agreeing at the mid point. Im sure it was more expensive than haggling on the waterfront, but being in the town for 24hrs you don’t always have the time to find out the best/cheapest ways to do things. I asked him about the bus service back to Saigon and found myself in a similar way agreeing to him sorting out the tickets. This cost us more than doing it ourselves, but was a lot easier. All the places we have stayed in have been helpful in getting things sorted for us, and many have told us what sort of price we should pay and protected us from scams. This should feel no different. But it does. There was nothing I could put my finger on, but it was there nonetheless. Perhaps it was the certain look in the eye and the easy smile. The sense of unease became much stronger when the real receptionist returned and went behind the desk. I went up to her and asked her if the man we were talking to worked at the hotel. She said no. On further questioning it transpired that he did have a relationship with the hotel and in fact “worked the three hotels in this area arranging trips etc. Despite the fact that I had received the tickets for the boat trip I told him that I did not have enough cash to pay and would need to go to the bank first. After he pointed in the general direction of there ATM I said that we would eat first and would be backer later.
I felt bounced. My initial reservations had been compounded by the fact that he did not work for the Hotel.
We went into the town and having found a bar had a rather delightful smoothie followed by a good coffee, and we talked through what had happened. Jo had similar feelings to the ones I have described. The problem could be described as:
‘Do you believe its legit and pay the money or do you think its a scam and pull out despite the fact that you have little time and no local knowledge.’
We got the money, walked through the markets for a couple of hours and then went back to the hotel. We paid for the trip. We also paid for the bus tickets which he said he would get for us tomorrow.
One of the people in the smoothie bar had given us the address of a vegetarian restaurant. It took some finding but was well worth it. We were given a menu but were none the wiser. At least there was no risk of a meat mistake. Jo, with impressive decisiveness walked around looking at what other people were eating and ordering what she liked to look of. I stayed at the table and tried to make sense of the menu. A voice said “Are you English?” I said yes. “Ah he said, I used to teach English at school, would you like me to help with the menu?” He looked the part, thin, well dressed, gold rimmed glasses and at ease with himself. After a few minutes Jo rejoined me. The conversation continued an he asked if we minded him joining us as he did not get much chance to practice his English since he retired. In his retirement he had been helping raise funds for a charity. He wanted to know it we were vegetarians then we talked about the market and the treatment of animals.The said he was a Buddhist. One of his children was in the USA serving in the forces. He and his wife wanted to move there themselves. He was a good conversationalist and good company. When we had finished he offered to pay for our meals. We said he was very kind and declined. “Well at least let me buy you a coffee” We agreed and he said he used the coffee shop on the corner of the street. He went there on his scooter looking like something out of a 1950’s film. We walked to the coffee shop talking about what we would accept and where we would set boundaries.
The coffee was good which is something of a rare event in Vietnam.The conversation continued easily covering education, families and history. With the Coffee finished and the conversation winding down, he said “You must let me have your phone number so I can make sure you get home aright”. “That wont be necessary” Jo said. The conversation continued easily for a short while, talking about Buddhism and meditation. We all stood, said our goodbyes and went in different directions. I saw him drive off on his scooter without looking back.
Now it may be my background or my natural suspicious nature but it is odd asking someone you have just met for their phone number so you can make sure they get home OK. And would a Vietnamese Buddhist really be so proud of his son-in-law serving in the 101 Airborne Devision?
It had been an unsettling day, lots of uncertainty and no information to make an informed decision. What was true and what was a lie? how can you tell? We went down to the river on the way back to the Hotel. It was a glorious night. People were out sitting and talking in the riverside gardens. Couples were sitting close together enjoying the silence between them. A huge statue of Ho Chi Minh looked down on the riverside while boats moved people around the river for what seemed like just the pure enjoyment of it. Peace descended and all was calm. We went back to the Hotel and set the alarms for 5:00 am.
I drifted off to sleep thinking about the way we make decisions decide what is true and what is false. Do you trust to luck or believe in a pre ordained path? Do you use an internal formula to assess the options and risks, and if you do do you call it “intuition”. Do you use a set of rules, commandments or guideline prescribed by a faith, or do you just assume that, on the whole, it will be all all right in the end. Do you just flip a coin?
Does any of this matter? I don’t know, but I did find myself wondering if the Man in the Hotel was a ripoff merchant and either the trip would not exist, or the person with the boat was being paid a pittance and we had been stung.
I also wondered if the man that bought us coffee was a gentle cultured Buddhist feeling a bit lonely since he retired who wanted to help people out or was he someone with more sinister motives.
The truth is I did not know about either of them. I went to sleep wondering what I wanted to believe.
At 5:30 the next morning the man was there with the boat. He was funny, charming and very entertaining. His english was limited but better than our Vietnamese.
The river trip was stunning. Seven hours of fascinating river life. Floating markets, walking through rice fields and mango plantations. While we were having a meal a Vietnamese woman walked up to Jo and gave her a flower of Jasmine, urging her to hold it close and smell it. I was half expecting the woman to ask for money, Instead she just smiled at Jo and walked away waving. Eventually we made our way by boat back to the town. When we drew up to the jetty the hotel man was there. He and the boatman were very friendly with each other shaking hands, patting shoulders and smiling. He came over to us and gave me the bus tickets
So I thats how I ended up in the bus station with a piece of paper in my hand.
The bus did take us to Saigon, but to a bus station we did not recognise. We asked about a bus to the city centre. We were pointed unconvincingly to a bus. I rang Jonathan and told him we were in a bus station somewhere in the Saigon area but I did not know where. i said I thought we were getting on a bus to the centre but I did not know. Jonathan said “ I am sure it is going to the City centre. We will meet you at the Rex Hotel” The bus actually took us to another bus station somewhere on the City outskirts. We were lost. We took the easy way and got a taxi to the Rex where Jonathan and Jill were waiting for us.
It is now Early evening and, after a wonderful but hectic few days in the Mekong Delta, I am sitting in the rooftop gardens of the Rex Hotel drinking cocktails. I am also reflecting on the duality of man, the nature of truth and who, if anybody, you can really believe. I can tell you now that this writer has no more idea now than he ever had.