Cheap travel in Vietnam, Cheap hotel in Ho Chi Minh

When Jimmy’s wife arrived at the Lucy Hotel, we knew there would be trouble, but sitting in the cool, tiled lobby, sipping iced coffee with condensed milk and wiping away the rings of condensation that formed on the glass-topped table, we had no idea what kind of trauma we’d witness.

Two days later, in that same lobby, Jimmy’s wife (I never learned her name) was bawling at Lucy, who had been sleeping with Jimmy since he arrived from the Philippines months before. Things escalated, and soon she was threatening Lucy with a chef’s knife which she finally turned on herself, slashing her wrists in despair. Jimmy drove her to the hospital in Lucy’s green Mitsubishi.

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Piecing together the story with my friends the next morning, we all agreed: The Lucy Hotel was the best hotel in Ho Chi Minh City and probably the best in the world.

The misadventures and crises at the Lucy Hotel ranged from neocolonial cliche to third-rate sitcom. The day I arrived, a young girl in a loose white blouse was playing simple sonatas on a piano and I could hear water trickling in an artificial pond in the background and a ceiling fan spun slowly overhead. A few weeks before I left, almost a year later, a Scottish girl on the first floor literally went nuts: She yelled and sang and screamed at herself, her confused words echoing up the stone stairwell for half an hour before her traveling companions calmed her down and put her on a plane back home.

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The Cast of Characters
By some miracle, I discovered an amazing group of friends at the Lucy Hotel, virtually all of whom I keep in contact with to this day. But while they are a unique bunch themselves, what made the Lucy so unusual was the bizarre and random array of human beings who had also somehow found their way to the Lucy.

Mr. Bob was the Lucy’s oldest tenant. Paunchy and red-faced, Bob had been in Vietnam for years, ever since the U.S. military closed its base in the Philippines. He spoke badly accented French and just as awkward Vietnamese, and he proudly showed off his complete set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and shelf full of mail-order literary classics The Odyssey, Shakespeare, Mark Twain none of which had ever been cracked open. Bob also owned a store, the Yankee Trader, which sold rip-off Calvin Klein T-shirts and perfume imported illegally from Manila, and where he employed one of the Lucy’s desk workers, Ms. Luc, in the afternoons.

Ms. Luc herself had stories: about her cushy life before the Communist victory in 1975, her parents’ deaths, her forced work in the forests, her return to a house whose possessions she sold off to survive, her despair and madness and eventual hospitalization, her marriage and pregnancy and the mysterious disappearance of her husband. In the late 1980s she had to sell lottery tickets and cigarettes on the street to survive, carrying her infant daugher, Evin, on her back, until several years later she met Bob, chatted with him in French, and they became friends. Bob set her up at the Yankee Trader and got her a job at the Lucy, which was then known as the Hana Hotel.

Hana was Lucy’s Korean boyfriend, who had bought the hotel and given her $40,000 U.S. to redecorate it before returning to Korea for a short visit. Apparently, when he returned, expecting to run the place with his beloved, she no longer recognized him, and since everything was in her name (foreigners are not allowed to own property in Vietnam) there was nothing he could do. Lucy was in charge.

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Lucy was shrewd and loud and combative and sweet and coy and trouble. She would protect you in every way she could, paying off the police every month so that your Vietnamese lover could stay overnight and helping you negotiate a good deal on a motorbike rental. But you did not cross her, and you did not argue about your hotel bill. “She can either cater to you or be your worst nightmare,” says Colin McGreal, who lived at the Lucy in 1997 while working as a TV commercial director. McGreal survived by taking another resident’s advice about staying on Lucy’s good side.

“Every morning,” he explains, “I’d descend the stairs and compliment Lucy on her hair or her shirt, which usually was enough to turn the hardened business woman into a giggling adolescent girl. Sometimes I’d sit down and talk to her, and I definitely made sure to get her a nice birthday present (a ceramic tea set which she loved). This was insurance that should I ever need anything done for my room, Lucy would respond.”

And respond she did. When McGreal finally decided to leave Vietnam (because the economic crisis meant a lack of work), Lucy, he says, “had gotten attached to me enough to offer a free month of rent.”

This from a woman who fired the hotel’s sweet little maids, two country girls named Thuy and Duyen, because they asked to be paid their past two months’ salary.

No End of Nuttiness
The sheer number of rumors and legends and cataclysms and personalities makes recounting each one here impossible. I’ll just refer to them by name, and hope each carries with it the mythical/moral baggage of an Aesop fable: Suzanne the Lusty but Frustrated French-Indonesian Housewife, The Korean Gangster on the Second Floor, Lucy’s Ectopic Pregnancy, The Awful Canadian Policeman, and Lucy’s Brother Quang. No one but Lucy knows all the tales, or the amount of truth in any one, but merely living there you felt yourself in the presence of drama, whether domestic, criminal or high tragic.

Sadly, when I visited Ho Chi Minh City briefly last April, Lucy was feeling the effects of the economic crisis. Bob had returned to the U.S. Ms. Luc had quit and vanished. Lucy had had to sell off part of the hotel, and lower her rates. Luckily for her, all the spacious, cool rooms, with their wicker and cast iron furniture and tiled floors, were booked. And she and Jimmy were still together, still in love, or whatever passes for love in Ho Chi Minh City, but for me, I had to find my drama elsewhere.

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