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The most amazing date I’ve ever been on was in 2007: 10 days in Singapore and Vietnam. I came home with many happy memories, a beautiful designer watch and a new tattoo.
My date was Shelley Cooper. Actually, I was her date. She had won some or other sales incentive with the big corporate she worked for. Part of the prize was attending the global sales conference in Singapore, with a plus-one, and the option of adding on an extra trip at the end. She invited me as her date, and we chose to go to Vietnam.
“And you can’t go to ’nam without getting a tattoo, right?” I half-joked. Turns out the half-joke was on me. After more than 10 years of friendship, I’d somehow forgotten that Shelley Cooper is not one for half measures. Suddenly the tattoo became the main topic of conversation whenever our trip was mentioned. Shelley was planning to get her pets’ paw-prints tattooed on the back of her neck. She had taken prints of her three dogs by covering their paws in ink and stamping them on bits of paper. These she had carefully redrawn into the exact tattoo that she wanted. Perfect.
Me? I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was really half joking.
The trip was amazing. We hooked up with friends in Singapore who showed us the places tourists don’t go to. We shopped ourselves to a standstill, ate and drank ourselves broke, and took in all the sight and sounds – as you do when you travel. In Vietnam our small group had our own tour guide. His name was Dong, same as the local currency.
“Anything you want, just ask,” he said.
And so we did: “Where can we get a good tattoo done?”
“I know a prace,” he said. “I wi’organise. I wi’teh you when.”
After a few days, Dong hadn’t delivered. Every time we asked, he said, “I wi’organise. I wi’teh you when.”
Finally, on our last day, he told us when. The tour group was sitting in the bus, about to head off to a tea demonstration.
“Corrin, Sherry,” he said. “No demoslation for you. Come.”
We got off the bus and Dong deposited us into the back of a tiny car – about the size of a Fiat 500. Maybe smaller. The alternative, of course, was a scooter (like a Vespa, not a skateboard with a steering-pole). Probably 99% of all vehicles in Hanoi are scooters, and they’re all loaded to the hilt. We saw one carrying two people and three water buffalo, and another carrying a family of five and a door. No jokes. We were grateful for our cramped back seat.
After 45 minutes, however, it started getting a bit old. Hanoi is a hot place and our cab had no aircon. Perhaps a Vespa would have been better?
By now we were deep in the back streets of the city. The roads had deteriorated to mud. The houses were right up against the road – no sidewalks. I remember goats, potholes, kids in nappies, washing hanging everywhere, and a slight sense of trepidation. We had no clue where we were, no language, no dongs (only “Yankee dorrah”), and no idea what would happen if things went awry.
Eventually we arrived at an 80s-style face brick house with a bit of a lawn and a gate. Our driver stopped and motioned for us to get out. No sooner had we reached the gate than the little Noddy-car sped off and we were stranded in suburban Hanoi armed with nothing but our African fortitude, our tourist backpacks and Shelley’s paw prints. (On a fax, by the way. She’d accidentally left the original in Joburg, and the fax machine was the best option for such things back then.) Most houses in Vietnam double as a business and living space so we weren’t sure what awaited us in the brick house.
Inside we were greeted with big smiles and a volley of Vietnamese – including the word Dong, which we recognised.
We smiled and nodded effusively, and were invited to sit in the waiting room. Eventually the tattoo artist came out of the back. To be honest, I don’t remember anything about him. Shelley showed him her paws-fax. He smiled and nodded effusively before heading over to the machine thingy that prints out the ink outlines. After much pointing and smiling and nodding, Shelley’s template was ready.
Although I’d been inked before, it was Shelley’s first time. I went in with her and held her hand as her dogs’ paws were etched indelibly on to her back.
My turn. Crap. Having second thoughts.
“Oh no you don’t,” said Shelley. “I did not just go through all of this to have you backing out on me.”
“No, no, no, I’m not backing out,” I said. “I’m just … I hadn’t 100% decided what I wanted yet. But now I know. I want the star from the Vietnamese flag on my arm.”
Point, nod, smile … and my template was ready.
Seeing stars and a sleeping beauty
I lay down on my side on the tattooist’s chair. There was a dirty curtain inches from my face. Behind the curtain was a sleeping Vietnamese man, whose face was as close to the curtain as mine was. On his side of the curtain an oscillating desk fan was doing its best to keep the room cool. Every time it swung my way, the curtain would lift a little and I’d get a peek at the man, no more than half a metre from me, whose snores I could hear above the bzzzzzz of the tattoo gun. Maybe he lived here, maybe he worked there, maybe he was just catching some afternoon shut-eye.
“Yoga breaths,” Shelley was saying. “Breathe yoga breaths” … as if we were some weird Lamaze class.
Suddenly Sleeping Beauty woke up. Actually no, it wasn’t sudden. The waking up part wasn’t. One swing of the fan and his eyes were closed. On the next swing they were half-open. Then the snoring stopped. By the third swing his eyes were open wide (imagine that), indignant, raging. Sleeping Beauty’s stream of shrill invective spouted right through the curtain. My presence obviously incensed him, but the tattoo-dude seemed unfazed.
“Yoga breaths. Yoga breaths.”
Bzzzzzzzzzzzz. The tattooist carried on, undaunted.
The next time the curtain lifted I caught a bit of Sleeping Beauty’s spit on my forehead as he continued his diatribe.
“Yoga breaths. Yoga breaths.”
And then he was gone. The tattoo artist finished up his work, the fan continued to oscillate, but Sleeping Beauty was no longer there.
I didn’t have the language to enquire WTF that was all about. But that’s okay – I get to tell the story. And that, after all, is what a tattoo is all about.