something smells rotten about this story…

While Brendan & Amber were here for three weeks we spent a great deal of that time travelling the length of Viet Nam from Can Tho in the Mekong Delta to the south up to Sa Pa close to the border with China in the north. During that time we shared many laughs and good times along with the frustrations that occur whenever you are on the road here. On the day that they were leaving Viet Nam we sat down to lunch at a lake-side restaurant in Hanoi and decided there were three incidents that were the funniest things to have happened to us while they were here and the funniest of them all happened within the first 24 hours of their arrival.

Their flight into HCMC arrived at 11.30pm which meant that by the time they had cleared customs etc. and we had caught a taxi back to the house it was past 1.00am. We sat and talked until about 3.30am and although none of us wanted to sleep we realised that we would have to if we wanted to get out and about around the city during daylight hours.

Later that morning we drove the Vespa and with Brendan & Amber on the back of Xe Om’s we headed off to Cholon and the Binh Tay and An Dong markets. After lunch Lisa and Amber decided that they would like to take a nap and have a break at home for a while, so Brendan and I decided to go and have a massage.

It has taken me a while and a lot of trial & error, but I have found a massage place where the staff are very well trained at their craft, the price is reasonable and there is no pressure to fork over huge tips for “special” massages. The business is called Ngoc Anh situated at 33 Nguyen Binh Kiem St not far from the Saigon Zoo and as a rule I try and have a massage here at least once a week. Not many ex-pats seem to patronise this place and it is very communal with the massage taking place in rooms containing from 6 to 12 patrons (males and females have separate areas) and services such as the traditional art of cupping are available also.

I told Brendan that it was my habit to begin by taking a very hot steam bath for about ten minutes, then jump under a cold shower, back into the sauna for a further ten or fifteen minutes followed by another shower and then on to the massage. We agreed to follow this routine and as we walked into the locker rooms we both commented on the pleasant smell that permeates through this place due to the menthol they use in the water for the sauna.

We stripped off and wrapped in our towels we entered into the steam bath which has white tiled walls and ceiling and a similarly tiled bench around three sides as a seat. There were two Vietnamese guys already sitting on one side and I went in first just far enough to allow room for Brendan to sit inside the glass door. The amount of steam in the room made it extremely difficult to see anything but we both nodded briefly to the other two guys and sat down to begin the whole process of sweating.

Normally this is the time when I begin to relax my body, clear my mind of any stress brought on by the outside world and bring my breathing down to a shallow level. However, it became apparent immediately that the pleasant smell of menthol that we had experienced outside the steam bath had been replaced by a stronger more pungent aroma that was reminiscent of a mixture of dirty football socks and country toilets that have not been cleaned in a while. Brendan said “Hell, what do they do to get the place to stink like this?” and I commented that I wasn’t sure.

Now what you need to understand is that Viet Nam is full of a wide variety of interesting and sometimes not so pleasant aromas and that after you have lived here for a while these aromas become less noticeable. Let’s just say that you begin to become accustomed to them and they don’t trouble you as much. So I’m thinking to myself, “Well, yep, that is a really bad smell, but it could just be coming from the drain so I can ignore it OK and get on with relaxing”.

However, Brendan was slightly more attuned and as it turned out slightly closer to the source because after a few seconds he piped up with, “Dad, does this look like shit to you?”

I leaned over and looked at what he was indicating and sure enough, no more than 20mm’s from his right leg on the edge of the seat was a great big pile of very fresh and very smelly human excretement. In fact he had just been about to put his hand into it. On the floor below was an equally large pile that had been deposited on top of the drain and it was patently obvious that someone had not been able to wait, taken a dump and vacated without flushing.

I replied “Yes mate, that definitely is a pile of shit!”

I looked over at the two other guys and pointed out the fact that there was this pile of shit here and after peering over through the steam and realising what I was going on about they began wildly reassuring us that they were not responsible for the said deposit. Brendan got up and moved to the bench at the rear of the steam bath and for a few moments the five of us sat there together. Brendan and I, the two Vietnamese guys and the stinking obnoxious pile of human crap.

The weird thing is, initially we all remained sitting in such close confines breathing in the offensive odour and it didn’t occur to us to get up and leave. We just sat there, sweating and breathing in the heavy damp stinking air. Finally though we all arose as one and burst through the door to the fresh air outside demanding that the attendants take care of what lay behind us. The attendants in turn stuck their heads through the door and let out wails of incredulity at the sight of what they were about to have to clean up.

The four of us headed for the sauna, opened the door cautiously and sniffed around a bit before we entered.  I said to Brendan, “Well, welcome to Viet Nam son. As you can see, you never know quite what to expect in this place, but I wasn’t expecting anything quite like this on your first day here!”

After our initial shock we had a chuckle to ourselves at the absurdity of what had happened, the fact that someone had taken a dump there, that the two Vietnamese guys hadn’t even noticed it and finally, after we had realised the fact that we continued to sit in there with it grin


Footnote: it would be fair of me to issue a disclaimer and say that “usually” Ngoc Anh is scrupulously clean and hygienic, so if you are reading this in HCMC please patronise them with confidence.