An Annamite on My Pillow or How I Cured an Ecstasy Overdose

“To take an Annamite to bed with you is like taking a bird; they twitter and sing on your pillow”.

Pop! The sound resembled gunfire, a bit of irony for me. When I had arrived in Ho Chi Minh City a year earlier, my mind was filled with old ideas about war and conflict in Vietnam. I am an American who grew up in the sixties. The Vietnam War was the dominant cultural influence for me back then. Okay, we had moon landings, political assassinations, The Beatles, sex, drugs and rock and roll too. It was a hell of a time. But the Vietnam War was the elephant on the cultural table back when I was young. A media induced, imaginary vision of Vietnam akin to a scene from Apocalypse Now clouded my perception.

Within hours of arriving at Than San Nhat International Airport, I discovered my imagined preconceptions of Vietnam were wrong. Saigon is filled with warm, welcoming ambitious young people most of whom were born after the war ended.

The pop was a backfire from a motorbike making a U-turn in front of the house I rented. I can wax poetically about Vietnamese arts and culture; the food and countryside; and most of all, the women. Vietnamese woman — indigenous Vietnamese are known as Annamites — are the most beautiful in all of Asia. But the non-stop presence of motorbikes everywhere, including the little residential alleyway where I lived, was getting me down.

I came to Asia in 2010 for work. I had signed a six month contract to teach yoga at a high end yoga spa in Singapore. Four years later I was still there. I had fallen in love with Asia. When the yoga studio I worked for went out of business, I lost my Singaporean work permit. I would have retired in Singapore if they had a visa for me. They did not. So I went looking for a place in Asia where a retired New York City Fire Lieutenant who can teach yoga would be welcome.

I quickly ruled out Indonesia; I did not feel welcome there. The Philippine people are warm and friendly. But when I noticed teenage security guards at mall entrances armed with shotguns in Manila, I took notice. And Philippine food sucks. Say “spam” to most westerners and they will envision unwanted email, or perhaps a Monty Python skit. In The Philippines Spam is a delicacy.

Thailand was calling me. The Thai culture is charming, and despite Thailand being thought of as a third world place, Bangkok is a very modern city. It looked as if Bangkok would be my new home. But I wanted to check out Vietnam prior to making a commitment. I flew into Ho Chi Minh City with the idea of ruling out Vietnam as a place to live.

If Vietnam were a woman I chanced to meet on a beach, we were holding hands walking in the sand within moments of our fist encounter.

Love affairs are a kind of psychosis. In the early, walking hand and hand on the beach stage of romance, all is well. One year in, you discover the beautiful young Vietnamese girl that was a vision of a feminine ideal is far from perfect. If the love affair is with a city, the non-stop, ubiquitous, popping motorbikes begin to grate against your nerves. Both such scenarios were playing out for me as I sat looking down the Saigon alleyway where I had lived for the past year. The was a charm to the place; I would miss it.

I had resolved my initial conflict about which city to choose, Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, by getting a place in both cities. I rented a townhouse on a back alley in Saigon where I could set up a small yoga studio. As a result of overbuilding in Bangkok, one can find decent, inexpensive apartments to rent. A good friend, Mark, in Bangkok made his living managing Airbnb apartments. Mark would keep my Bangkok studio filled with tourists when I was practicing yoga in Vietnam. I was living in two distinct cities and cultures, life was good.

Phuong was a beauty I had met by chance when standing in front of the house I would eventually rent. Passing by, while I struggled with Google Translate attempting to communicate with the owner of the home, a smiling Phuong made eye contact with me and asked in English: “can I help”?

Phoung

“The landlady wants a one year lease at nineteen million Dong a month” Phuong said disdainfully.

At approximately eight-hundred US dollar a month, the well kept, four story townhouse at 15 Lê Thánh Tôn Blvd, walking distance to City Hall, was a steal from the perspective of an old New Yorker where in Manhattan eight-hundred dollars a month gets you a parking space. Learning that my new, cute, friendly interpreter lived nearby had already closed the deal in my mind. Phuong thought it was too much.

“I can show you other places for less”.

This was my first indication of Phuong’s formidable skill at wheeling and dealing in the back alleys of Saigon. After what sounded to me like a terse exchange between Phuong and the landlady — I have since learned most exchanges in Vietnamese sound harsh to non natives — Phuong told me the landlady would accept eighteen million Dong.

“You just saved me sixty dollars a month. You must let me buy you dinner”.

I would later learn the reason for Phuong’s polite refusal was two-fold. One, she worked evenings. More importantly, Phuong was the youngest of seven children born to a destitute mother in a then still impoverished country in 1990. Coming of age along with her tortured post-war nation created a near fanatical frugality within the strong willed Phuong. The money I would spend on a decadent meal in a western stye restaurant could feed her older sister’s family of five for a week. Bahn mi on seriously good French bread with authentic French fires — Saigoneers retained lots of good French ways after kicking their imperialistic asses out — purchased from a street cart would be one tenth the price of a fancy restaurant.

After helping me close a home rental transaction, Phuong was suddenly in my life as an interpreter, a fixer, a friend and lover. She knew how to get things done in the labyrinth of alleyways where we both now lived. After helping me find a contractor to install mirrors for my yoga studio, Phuong became an ardent practitioner of my challenging style of yoga. She liked the exercise and the stress reduction that comes from a regular yoga practice. Phuong’s friends began arriving for classes as well. A chance meeting in an alley opened lots of opportunities for me. It was nice.

Phuong’s presence in my Vietnamese orbit made the vibrant city where I spent most of my time even more lovely. I know the bedrock of a relationship with a gorgeous Vietnamese woman half my age is money. An older western man with resources is a prize for a woman like Phuong. However, finance and romance are not mutually exclusive. You can do both. But as the young woman’s seductive attempts to sway my aversion to marriage produced poor results, Phuong became distant. Phuong had kept her own place down the alleyway from my yoga house, and she began to spend more and more time away from me. Her overnight stays with me became rare.

I received an urgent call from Mark in Bangkok. The management of my Bangkok condo building forbade any more Airbnb rentals. The City of Bangkok resolved to prohibit short term condo rentals and Lumpini, my condo management, compiled. I would no longer have an income from my Bangkok condo making the cost of living in two cities prohibitive. Once again, I was presented a choice: live in Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City.

Making a choice between the two cities was difficult for me. The annoying presence of constant motorbike traffic everywhere, including walkways, made Saigon an uncomfortable place to get around on foot, a favorite travel method for me when possible. And the air quality in Ho Chi Minh City was the worst of any Asian city I have spent time in.

In Bangkok, duplicating my yoga studio would not be difficult. The costs were similar in the two cities. And Bangkok was way out in front of Ho Chi Minh City with modern amenities. Bangkok was a much more developed place.

Saigon offered me an art scene, a coffee culture and food I found more appealing than in Thailand. And within the population of beautiful women of Vietnam, there was one with whom I had a special affinity, Phuong. But I had not seen or heard from Phuong for over a week since we last spent time together. So I was reluctantly accepting our relationship was ending.

As I was lying in bed at about 10:00 PM, I heard my doorbell ringing furiously. After coming down from my third floor bedroom and opening the substantial steel gate enclosing my front car park, I discovered Phuong.

Phuong had been spending time with a wealthy cousin and his entourage of party people, club rats. I did not like her cousin. He was a sinister guy. He made his money from gambling and selling ecstasy, an hallucinogenic. Phuong was not a stoner, she rarely even drank alcohol. So I was surprised to find her at my front door stoned to the point of needing medical intervention.

At first I was reluctant to allow her in my home. We sat on a bench in the alleyway. Phuong told me she took six doses of Ecstasy, that is six times a normal does. Phuong was drifting in and out of hallucinations, having conversations with dead people. When not hallucinating, Phuong was frightened. It was the first time I had experienced the woman as someone needing protection. She was reaching out to me for help. I brought her into my home. Without conversation, Phuong undressed and got into my bed holding the covers under her chin like a frightened child.

WTF? applied here big time. I did not even know how to call for emergency assistance, or who to call. I was unaware of emergency services available in Ho Chi Minh City. Nor did I wish to involve the police if I could avoid that problem. The person I would normally go to for advice was Phuong.

Earlier in my life I was Fireman in New York City. It is a brotherhood that often transcends borders and I knew where the closest fire station was in Saigon. I resolved my considerations about emergency services knowing I could walk to the local fire company and, with the help of Google Translate, perhaps enlist them if needed. Now, what do I do with Phuong?

Way back at the beginning of this story, I mentioned growing up in the sixties, you know, sex drugs and rock and roll. So I have smoked pot. But not very much. Wanting to be a responsible parent and Firefighter I gave up all intoxicating substances in 1978 before Ecstasy existed. I did not know what to do with Phuong. So I called Mark in Bangkok.

Mark was an impressive business man. But Mark once confided in me that he had demons of his own to overcome prior to his success. Mark knew about drugs. So I called him for advice about what to do with Phuong. We talked for a while about Ecstasy and its popularity inside of the club scene. The drug enhances perception, causing users to have an experience of expanded sensation. Music, colors, sounds and movement seem more intense. Sensate perception becomes enhanced. A solution for my problem short of medical intervention, however, was still elusive. Mark suggested I simply seek to calm Phuong in between hallucinations.

“To take an Annamite to bed with you is like taking a bird; they twitter and sing on your pillow”.

I loved that sentence written by Graham Greene in his masterpiece about Vietnam, The Quiet American. It is a story I have read several times about an older British journalist in love with a young Vietnamese woman also named Phuong.

Well the Annamite on my pillow was talking to her dead grandmother.

Mark and I talked about how Ecstasy users like to say how the drug enhances sex. It is the reason for using Ecstasy I have most frequently heard from people, both men and women, who have used the drug.

Between hallucinations, Phuong would grab my arm and snuggle up close to me. While I had a momentary pause and some concern about having sex with an impaired woman and all the possible considerations around consent, at the next arm grab snuggle, Phuong and I made love.

It worked. After a mattress thumping anti-hallucination therapy session, Phuong fell asleep. In the morning all was well.

I called Mark and told him how to cure Ecstasy hallucinations. A week later I moved to Bangkok.

You can watch a companion video to this story on YouTube.

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Former FDNY Lieutenant, 911 Veteran, Writer, Vlogger, living in Bangkok.

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Charlie Hub

Former FDNY Lieutenant, 911 Veteran, Writer, Vlogger, living in Bangkok.