IT’S 4am and already 28 degrees when I check into the dodgiest airport hotel I have ever encountered. I’m in Kuala Lumpur enroute to Saigon and my hotel is a cross between an Australian outback motor inn and a detention centre. In a bid to make the place sound more exciting, they’ve named the cell blocks “terminals”. “You’re in Terminal 4,” the receptionist tells me upon check-in. I have about 13 hours here to kill and tell myself things will look brighter when the sun rises.
Later that morning I stumble across Susan from Sabah, and her massage parlour. Susan speaks in a gravelly voice, sports a cackly laugh, and wears a long red silk outfit that looks like pajamas. Her masseuse guides me into the room and asks me whether I’d like a sauna. I’m so tired from my overnight flight from the Gold Coast I am unsure whether it is a question or an invite. At this point I should also mention I have been reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I decline and lay on the table. My masseuse smooths out a few knots in my back and then rolls me over, picks both my legs, and holds them together like one would to tie chicken drumsticks before baking. I am buck naked and my legs and buttocks are being held high in the air. Me and my modesty are about to profusely protest when I realise it’s Ramadan. The poor lady hasn’t eaten all day and IS probably dreaming about a chicken drumstick. No funny business here. I make a mental note to stop reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
The next night I arrive in Saigon and head out for a Vietnamese omelette stuffed full of prawns, pork and spices. I take my first bite when an old lady who looks at least 100 walks into the restaurant carrying a pile of books as high as her head. She points to Fifty Shades of Grey. “You want to read?” she asks, a twinkle in her eye. “I’m already reading it,” I confess as she punches her first in the air. “Boom, Boom!” she laughs and disappears into the night.
I head on to the beach resort town of Nha Trang. I’ve asked for a Vietnamese massage, unsure of what it exactly entails. My masseuse slathers me in oil and starts to rub my naked body. Then, without warning she slaps me, hard on the buttocks. I think it must be a mistake as she resumes her gentle rhythmic rubbing. Whack! She slaps me again. This continues for the next hour. Is every woman in south-east Asia reading THAT book, I wonder as I lay on the torture table. Have I entered the red room of pain? I finish my bondage session and head for a late-night skinny dip in my private plunge pool overlooking the South China Sea. The lights of the fishing boats out of the horizon wink back at me.
The next day, out on a boat tour where the sea lice bite as much as Christian Grey himself forcing me out of the water with welts on my thighs, I ask Trong, my tour guide, about how to find a man in Vietnam.
“You put on some perfume, and some nice makeup on your face, then we march into the bar and look for a hot, young, horny boy. And then you have a happy ending,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“If they are tall and skinny, then they have big dong.”
I’m unsure whether by dong, Trong means the local Vietnamese currency or something else but there are no happy endings in Nha Trang and I head on to the mountainside of Dalat which is believed to be the City of Love.
Here, on two separate occasions, I’m stalked by guys on motorbikes. “I have been following you all day,” they say without any irony. I wave them off and wander into a local restaurant for some Pho. Twenty sets of chopsticks stop chattering and 20 pairs of eyes fix firmly on me as I slurp on a bowl of chicken soup. For the princely sum of $4.50 I am their dinner and their show.
Back in Saigon, a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl befriends me in a museum. Her name is Thanh. She runs away and returns with a small doll as a gift. My mind frantically scans my handbag for a return present. All I can think of is a half eaten packet of chewing gum and a box of tampons. Where, oh, where are those skanky little clip-on koalas when you need them?
I apologise to Thanh that I don’t have a gift for her, and thank her profusely for hers.
“My aunt thinks you are beautiful,” she says before skipping off.
I stand there and smile to myself. Just my luck to pick up an ageing Vietnamese woman who may or may not have read Fifty Shades of Grey.