If You’re In Bangkok, Bring An Apple is the account of how Tom and Jacob wind their way from Hanoi to Bangkok by way of beautiful Danes, lovable prostitutes, lucky pants and all manner of failed seductions.
It’s a story that accurately reflects the day-to-day world of backpacking and casts a critical (though pustulous) eye over what happens when young adults travel thousands of miles to expand their horizons get drunk, stoned and forget that the exploitation of a country and its people should be frowned upon.
The four of them sped through the dark, rubbish-strewn streets. Tom again had the feeling he could be taken anywhere. On the back of bikes driven by smacked-up dealers, taken through the streets at speed to fuck-knows-where. The newspaper headlines came again, SSSHHHDUMPH, SSSHHHDUMPH, SSSHHHDUMPH. He looked across at his friend who was leaning back, arms spread out wide and howling into the night sky. How was it that he was able to take this on with such abandon? Why wasn’t he scared that they were about to be beaten, robbed, raped and murdered? Maybe it was the heroin? But no, Jacob had been like this since they had arrived, not scared by anything, and just getting stuck right in. As if sensing Tom’s eyes on him, Jacob looked across and, face like a beacon of rapturous enjoyment gave his mate two thumbs up.
“This is fucking amazing!” he screamed above the noise of the engines, “no one at home will fucking believe this!”
Tom thought about it. He thought about it hard, and in a way he had to agree with his friend: It was true, it was fucking amazing. Who else did he know had driven around the streets of Hanoi, in the dead of night, riding pillion with a driver on skag? That was how he had to look at things: not as terrifying incidents likely to kill him, but as adventures he may never repeat. He looked at the two guys driving and was immensely impressed that, despite the opiate in their bloodstreams, Lanh and Huu were able to control the bikes at high speeds with the panache that he would ordinarily expect from a TT Superbike driver. Not one of the ones that end up splattered across the Isle of Man’s roads and walls, but the good ones. The ones that win. They wouldn’t let anything happen to him. They were involved in the mayhem, and by the looks on their faces were loving it too.
Soon they pulled up outside a building that could best be described as ‘derelict’. A broken neon sign flickered and flashed, only occasionally lighting all letters at the same time, confirming that they were finally at The New Century Club. Leaving the bikes on the street the four strolled in, as promised, for free.
Tom and Jacob hit the dance floor and were almost immediately surrounded by beautiful women, grabbing at them and pushing various parts of their anatomies against the young men, but the friends had eyes for no one but each other. For the first time on their trip they felt like they were in it together. There was no competition, no battles for supremacy and, though they were only two days away from home, they felt that between them they had achieved something; they had conquered a small part of Vietnam as well as their worries.
“I fuckin’ love you, mate,” Tom shouted over the heavy pounding of the Euro-trash dub.
“Me and you big man,” Jacob called back, grabbing Tom round the neck and pulling his friend to his embrace, “we may have our ups ands downs, but we’re gonna fucking do it together. We’re gonna tear this country apart!” They danced together, arms round each other, jumping on the spot to the erratic beat pounding from the immense speakers. They held each other tightly, a little too tightly; just long enough for the girls around them to slowly edge away giving each other knowing looks. It was Jacob who first noticed the sudden depletion of female attention and playfully pushed his friend away.
“C’mon you gaylord, get off me. You’re chasing all the birds away. Let’s go get another drink.”
Back by the bar Lanh and Huu were blissfully unaware of their surroundings, heads bobbing to the beat of the speaker they were painfully close to. They sharpened up, all smiles, at the return of Tom and Jacob and insisted on getting another round of drinks, again on the house.
“It’s all about who you know,” grinned Jacob before heading off to the toilet.
He returned soon after, much peppier, and slipped a wrap into Tom’s hand, “Go have a quick bash on that. Just a little one, mind. It’s pretty strong stuff.”
Tom nodded at his friend, handed over his beer bottle and headed to the toilets. As he walked into the gents’ he had to take a step back and check that he had read the sign properly. Yup, it was definitely the gents’, but when he walked back in it was still wall to wall with pretty Vietnamese women, most of which were in some stage of sexual congress with white, drunken and mainly overweight men. The cubicles were all occupied and Tom stood staring at one of the doors, trying to ignore the overtly sexual advances of the non-occupied girls. Eventually one of the doors opened and Tom stood aside whilst a young American, his already remarkable height increased by a particularly impressive afro, stepped out followed by a middle-aged Vietnamese woman hitching her short skirt back down her thighs.
“Whoop, whoop!” shouted the American holding his hand in the air. Tom responded with an embarrassingly limp high-five, before edging into the cubicle, hurriedly closing the door in case anyone decided to follow.
Finding no suitable flat surface, Tom inefficiently wiped down the toilet seat and, once he was certain that there was no residual fluid, he poured out half of the contents of the wrap onto the porcelain. Just a little one? thought Tom. Stingy bastard! He chopped out a short but thick line on the cold seat, rolled a five thousand Dong note before holding it to one nostril.
He chuckled to himself for a moment, imagining what his mum would say if she could see him in a whore-filled bathroom about to snort a mystery powder from a toilet seat. The thought didn’t last for long as he inhaled through the tubed note with only a brief consideration that it felt a little grainier than last time, WWWHHHHOOOOSSSHHHHH!!!!!
Tom’s head exploded into innumerable tiny pieces before putting itself back together. What worried Tom most was that he wasn’t certain everything had gone back into the right place. That and the rivulet of blood that was gushing from his nostril. He hadn’t noticed the scream though, the one he had let out as the powder shattered his brain, just one of the reasons he was so confused to see the locked door come crashing in on him and the American stood there in its place.
“You alright dude?” he asked, but the look on the pitiful Englishman’s face told him all he needed to know.
Tom, however, was completely oblivious to what was being said as the world swam around him. He flashed the American a bloody grin as he was hoisted up by his armpits to the sink. Most of the girls were ignorant of the crisis, or at least just didn’t care. If it was going to effect their night’s work they didn’t want to get involved. A couple of them helped the American wash Tom’s face and pour some water down his spine, sobering him slightly. The American made sure that Tom could walk with the assistance of one of the girls and made it to the door before running straight into Jacob and Lanh.
“Dude, this guy one o’ yours?” Jacob nodded his acceptance and took Tom by the waist. “You better get him the fuck home before he gets himself into trouble.” Jacob thanked the American for his help and ushered Tom out into the club.
“What the fuck happened to you, mate?”
Tom looked up at Jacob, for the first time recognising who it was that now had hold of him. “Jacob?”
“Did you medicine me?”
“You medicined me good.”
Jacob looked at his friend with an overwhelming affection and hugged him tightly “Yeah mate, I medicined you good and proper. Thing is though, we should probably get you home. You look a bit of a mess, sunshine.”
“I think I need me bed.” As the world began to swim in front of Tom’s eyes, Jacob and Lanh ushered him out and on to the back of Lanh’s bike. The fresh air had begun to help sober Tom up a little, but despite Tom’s protests that he was now okay, Lanh insisted that he took him home.
Jacob gave Tom a big hug; a proper matey hug with plenty of backslapping to show that there was nothing gay about it. “Get a good night’s sleep and I’ll see you when I get back,” said Jacob, “oh, and don’t lock the door, I haven’t got my room key yet.” Tom nodded and almost fell from the bike as it whirled into the road.
The streets were coming to life as Hanoi woke for the day’s rigours ahead. The sun was beginning to rise, bringing with it an orangey haze to the pollution. Tom wasn’t sure whether it was the mystery drug in his veins or the terror of winding around roads at high speed, but the city suddenly became vibrant and sleepy at the same time. It was a dream-like adventure where everything was beginning. The smells coming from the pans and drums of the street vendors wafted in his nose and mingled with the sickly sweet smell of the refuse that lay in the gutters.
It was unbelievable how the city would change from ancient back-road to cosmopolitan boulevard, and then back into a modernised street, all within the space of a few metres. The people were already busying themselves with their morning tasks and the old men and women had begun their Tai Chi; the half light of morning reflecting their slow, graceful movements in the stillness of the lake.
Tom smiled to himself, amazed that, not even twenty-four hours ago, he was terrified of this country: of this city, of the people and of the motorbikes. Especially the motorbikes. Now though, he was sure he was fit for the challenge. Just as long as he got hold of the Lonely Planet.