‘Oh come on! …Oh fuck this. No. No, we’re not doing it again. YOU GODDAM CHINKY BASTARDS I’LL KILL YOU I’M FUCKING OUT OF HERE.’ – And with that the lieutenant was gone. His platoon looked over to see him elegantly thrashing his way back through the Vietnamese jungle. Stopping only once to viciously tug at his clothes, removing everything aside from his vest and tighty-whiteys, in a flurry of crazed embittered energy that seemed to glow and pulsate from his crooked sunburnt form. The man had gone feral. Rabid. He would join, as one, with the forest now. He would have to adapt to survive. Would he become a lone tyrant? The king of all creatures, wreaking havoc on his new kingdom? Or would he take to crawling through the dirt, naked and shivering. Cowering beneath the lowest rung on the ladder of jungle hierarchy, and let the chimps and baboons have their perverted way with him? We discussed this at length over the following few hours, and predicted the latter.
‘I told yoo bru, he was tweakin’ ‘ja bru I knou. His eyes were all over the place. He woz tweakin like a mad fokker’. The Saffer brothers were right. There had been something undeniably ‘off’ about the Lieutenant. As the oldest of our ranks he had held court at the beginning of the day with the frantic confidence of a man with more coke running through his veins than white blood cells. Then, as we left Hanoi, in a minibus headed to the countryside mountain town of Ba Vì, his sharp decline in temperament had been shockingly quick. So, our ranks were down by one. But, the show must go on! So we readied ourselves for another take.
I had responded to an add on a Facebook forum asking for pale-faced foreigners to take part as extras in a Vietnamese war film about Ho Chi Minh; the universally revered leader and founder of the communist revolution in Nam. One thing led to another, and now, this unlikely group of expat nomads, outlaws and ruffians (myself included) had bonded over a vague enthusiasm for amateur dramatics and weaponry. Donned in an eclectic wardrobe of one-size-fits-no-one military gear, we were embodying the villainous but cowardly French army being shot at and chased back through the Jungle. It was hot. Humid. The terrain was rugged and we clutched heavy antique weapons, which, we found out later, where the genuine article. They came from the war museum, and the government had generously lent them to the film crew.
At lunch I made small talk with the director in broken English. I found out the guy had made nine other films… all about the life of Ho Chi Minh. The fucker had made NINE essentially IDENTICAL films about the SAME bloke! Why? Simple economics. Vietnam is a poor country. A poor communist country at that. (Ironically EVERYONE here loves the concept of democracy. Even the damn director was banging on about the benefits of having ‘elections with multiple candidates’. I told him that what he was describing was called democracy. He blushed and changed the subject. The grass is always greener I guess.) Vietnam is poor, communist and corrupt. Very corrupt. Films cost a lot of money to make. No one has that kind of money. Except the government. The only films the government will fund are films SPECIFICALLY about their beloved uncle Ho. Vietnamese directors are therefore limited to a borderline inexistent level of creative expression, and, as if in purgatory, are forced to regurgitate the same film over and over again if they wish to continue their career.
After lunch I went back to running around the jungle like a headless chicken, carrying a gun that had probably seen enough bloodshed to make old Colonel Kurtz choke back a tear. My lunchtime chat had put me rather off-kilter and I continued the day with a growing sense of unease. By the end of the shoot I’d lost half my body weight in sweat, cleared a deck and a half of coarse Vietnamese smokes and fought alongside a squad of western nutters for 12 hours to please the whims and fancies of the communist regime. Exhausted, I pocketed my 25 quid earnings and headed for the minibus.
I looked back at the platoon for the last time before we parted. We were a strange and dysfunctional bunch of humans. From the casually but maliciously racist South Africans, who believed that ‘the black’s’, as a collective, were fit for no more than menial labouring jobs due to their inferior brain capacity. To the guy that owned a hostel in a national park, instigating backpacker piss-ups every night in the same bars; numbed to the natural beauty around him by a constant transient stream of strong liquor and intolerable douche-bags. Not forgetting the meth-riddled disgraced veteran who couldn’t hack a couple hours without a fix.
And then there was me. No better than the rest of this stinking shit-heap of fuck-ups and nut-jobs. The term expats did not do us justice, no. Perhaps ‘disturbed drifters’ would be a more apt term. All teetering on the knife-edge of insanity. All running from some twisted daemons. But the most brutal and destructive part of this story is that, although we may have been extras in some shitty Vietnamese war film today, for the rest of the year we are all English Teachers. Vietnam, pay attention! These are the fucked up, dead-eyed slobs that are TEACHING YOUR CHILDREN.
We’ll sell our souls for a few bucks, spend the money on your cheap ‘bia hơi’* that night, drug ourselves with bush-weed before a class; insult your people and joke casually about ‘white privilege’. Then, when we have taken all we can from your country, like flies to shit, we will drift to the next place and repeat the process. Hide your kids. The Tây’s** are in town.
* Bia Hơi – Vietnamese draft beer of the poorest quality. Probably considered carcinogenic by the rest of the world. Cheap as chips.
** Tây literally translates into ‘West’ in English. It is used to refer to a white foreigner, or more specifically a westerner.