I’m in Taiwan now on a seven-hour layover. I should have gone with Korean Airline. Their layover is ten hours long, but they book you a hotel with those awesome digital toilets that thoroughly clean your underside at the touch of a button and even, for the adventurous, provide a “massage” using a swirling stream of high-pressured water. Everyone, put that on your bucket list RIGHT NOW. Or your YOLO list. Or whatever stupid phrase is currently popular.
The last few days of vacation were finally actually relaxing. Dalat was wonderful after the family left and we had two days to just explore the pleasant city, with its myriad hills and pine trees, beautiful and serene and cool. At night, the women set up small shops on the sidewalks where you can get steaming glasses of homebrewed soymilk, or cornmilk, or mung bean milk, or sesame milk, all flavored with the intoxicating and soothing scent of pandan leaves. Really, if you’ve never experienced pandan before, you need to. It’s like the Southeast Asian equivalent of vanilla. Jameelah is obsessed with it.
Anyway, Dalat was great. Unable to find any good dance clubs in Nha Trang, I was determined to try out a couple in Dalat. The first one we went to was a great little ballroom dance place for older couples. It was dark and the couples there were really good dancers. Kind of. Sure they were kind of robotic and all their various styles looked the same. But they had great turns! We got to know the couple next to us, who took a liking to me and started explaining the different dances. “This dance is called Bebop,” they said, getting up to dancing. “This one is called Cha Cha Cha.” I was too intimidated to try it. “This one is called the Vang,” they said, “you just spin around in circles until you get dizzy, then you sit down.” The Vang? I watched them. It was the Waltz, but that’s too hard for the Vietnamese tongue, so it is the Vang. The ten or so couples did really just spin around and around for four minutes. Onstage, various people took turns singing Karaoke music for the rest to dance to. Some were pretty awful, as the locals have the bad habbit of holding the mic way too close to the mouth. A good singer will know to pull the mic slightly away during long, loud notes.
I had ordered a red wine, also called “Vang” in Vietnamese, but this time because the French word for wine, “vin” is too hard to pronounce. It came tasting weirdly sweet and salty. I looked and found a preserved plum in it. Preserved plums are a type of candy here, the preservation process making them extremely sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. They are great for the poor or cheap, as they are so extreme that you have to eat them slowly, nibbling one micron at a time. As a kid, and poor, it took me two or three days to eat one. It was weird to find one in my vang. I switched and had four or five beers. By this time, our friends were as tipsy and kept goading me to get up to sing a song. From the age of this crowd, I didn’t think my obvious choice for a Karaoke song, which would be Juvenile’s “Back that Azz Up,” would be appropriate, so I chose the only ABBA song I knew, “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” which I had heard at a drag show once while at Wash U a few times in Vietnam. People love ABBA here for some reason.
“Next up,” said the hostess, “is Huy, with a rendition of ABBA’s Gimme Gimme Gimme.” I got up. The keyboarder was flustered, unable to find it on his computer or something. “Pst,” he said, “sing the first few lines so I can get the key right.” “Uhhhh,” I said, trying to regress back to that drag show. “Half past twelve something something” I sang, “and I’m something all alone, blah blah blah something something blah blah blah something something…”
“Ah, got it,” he said, “let me find the lyrics for you.” He started searching for the lyrics. The rest of the mid-age couples were waiting anxiously. It had been two minutes. “Hey everyone,” I said to the crowd, slurring a bit, “please excuse us. I’m from the US, and I can’t read Vietnamese very fast, so we’re trying to find an English song.” They started clapping. What a friendly crowd. “All of you will get up to dance to support me, won’t you?” They clapped again. The song came on and I started singing. Terribly. It was pretty awful, like some sort of inebriated dying weasel. But people started coming to the dance floor. They formed a circle and started dancing! It was fun! Trouble is, I didn’t know when to start or stop with the refrains. The keyboardist kept trying to give me little hints, but I didn’t understand them. “Pst,” I said during a instrumental break (I think), “am I done yet?” He nodded, and I exited to the clapping of the very friendly crowd. The club closed after that and we left. “Thanks for dancing with us old ladies,” said one of the women as she boarded her motorbike, “you’re a great singer.” “You’re a great liar,” I said, and we both laughed.
It was 11pm, and we were not done clubbing, so our friends drove us to a club for younger people, called “Rain.” It was psychadelic with the decorations, and ultra expensive. This is where the young, rich, and reckless go to burn money and showoff. As soon as we walked it, the well-dressed and attractive wait staff ushered us to a table. They could smell the Americanism on me, mainly because I was so poorly dressed, with shorts and flip-flops and vacation hair, while the locals were sleek and stylish. Jameelah was the only foreigner in there, and she had brought along one of her clubbing dresses for the occasion, looking very pretty. “Older brother,” said the attractive waitress, “how about some liquor? We have some very good Hennessy.” I opened the menu she handed to me. $100USD, $200USD, even something for $750 US dollars. That’s more than what many poor rural families make in an entire year. “Nope,” I said, “that’s way expensive!” She smiled, trained to conceal her annoyance. “Beer!” I said, “bring out the beer!”
And they did, and they assigned us a kid, a boy in his twenties, to be our permanent server for the night. It was ridiculous. Every time we sipped our glasses, he would fill it. Every drop that was spilled, he wiped it up. When there were three or four watermelon seeds in the ashtray, he would bring a new ashtray. I had found some vegan deer jerky (seriously) and brought it along. It is delicious with sriracha. Sensing this, the boy immediately brought a small dipping plate of sriracha. I was tipsy, so the all-Techno music did not bother me as much. There was a small silver platform in the middle of the room, with fog and spinning colored lights all around. We got on the platform and started dancing, drawing the attention the locals, since Jameelah was there, and I was so shabby-looking. They started jostling to dance with her, kind of obnoxiously throwing one of their friends, a girl, at her. Jameelah got annoyed. The girl later asked Jameelah to dance, and she refused. “Dance with her,” I said. I think a good rule to live by is to always dance with people who ask you to dance. After all, it takes a lot of courage to ask someone. Jameelah was slightly annoyed by the obnoxious group, but then went over and asked the girl to dance.
By this time, all the beers had gotten to me, and I needed to use the bathroom. In the antechamber of the room, there was an older woman mopping the floor. “Auntie!” I said, “you’re still working?!” She nodded, smiling. In the bathroom, which was very clean, there was an attendant, very unnerving. After I peed, I went to wash my hands, and he handed me a towel.
We went back to our table, where a girl was talking to one of our friends. As soon as I came back, she zoomed in on me. “Anh,” she said, (“older brother”), “would you like me to invite other girls to come and dance with you and your friends?” “WHAT?” I said, unable to hear anything. She repeated it. “What?!” I said. She repeated it a third time. “Oh, no no,” I said. She smiled. “Come and dance with me,” she said. “No no,” I said, pointing at Jameelah, who was glaring poison-tipped daggers at this girl, probably getting ready to cut her. “That’s my wife,” I said. “What?!” said the girl, before hiding her shock and graciously leaving.
Throughout the night, we would dance and drink, sometimes with Jameelah’s new friend, whom Jameelah thinks had a crush on her. Our hyperattentive server would make sure we were always taken care of. Every five minutes, I would have to use the restroom, exchanging small and shouted conversations with the cleaning woman in the bathroom. “Isn’t this too loud for you?” I asked her. She said she got used to it. “You’re still here?” I said at the next round. She smiled. “2am” she yelled. “Where is your home village?” I asked at the next round. “Dong Nai,” she said, “where’s yours?” “Don Duong,” I shouted. “Ah,” she shouted, “that’s a nice place!” I wished I had more time to talk to her, and ask her what it must be like to work cleaning the bathrooms for rich, spoiled kids who would spend the equivalent of several months of her salary in one night.
We paid the bill, which came up to be about $100USD for 15 cans of Heineken and some fruit. Our server smiled sweetly. What a nice kid, I thought. He had spent over two hours waiting on us. I went over to shake his hands. He thought I was giving him a tip, so he opened his hand, then quickly realized his mistake and changed his hand to shake mine. I patted him on the shoulders, then reached inside my shorts pocket and pulled out a 200,000VND bill, which I handed him. $10USD, a pretty huge tip for Vietnam. He beamed. What great kid.
1:30am, we were starved. Our friends drove us on their motorcycles to a porridge place near the central market and we had pandan-flavored porridge out on the streets. The women selling things in the morning had started arriving to set up their stations. It was pleasantly cool. I pulled out some more vegan deer jerky, then remembered I had a bar of Trader Joe’s chocolates. We broke that out and shared with our three guy friends, laughing and talking.
It was a great night. My only regret was forgetting to say goodbye to my new friend, the bathroom cleaning lady.
Six hours left in Taiwan. I realized there were so many adventures that I didn’t write about, which bothers me, mainly because there are so many great people here, and I need to write them down so I don’t forget about them. It is easy to forget things, to forget people. There is a clearer and clearer division between the rich and poor here. The rich just pass the poor by as if they’re furniture. Jameelah and I were thinking how great it would be if I could spend a year here, interviewing and writing a book about people like the bathroom cleaner, and the cyclo drivers, and the women selling hot silken tofu with caramel ginger sauce on the beaches. They are such hardworking people, with interesting and important stories.
Oh well, another time. I’ll try to catch up when I get back to the US, or maybe later today, since I have so much layover time and this computer is free to use. Right now, I think I’ll go try to find a spot to take a nap, and maybe something to eat. Thanks for reading this very long rambling. See you soon.