Getting attacked by a gang of monkeys leaves Dana Filek-Gibson wishing Vietnam took “safety first” a little more seriously.
Lush, green and incredibly lenient, Vietnam is the Land of Almost. Across the country, the floors of apartments and office buildings are almost level, restaurant dishes are almost clean and driving the wrong way down the street is almost illegal. Operating outside the confines of hard-and-fast rules, daily life here is full of maybes, sort-ofs and half-steps.
Three years in, few of these things still surprise me. On the contrary, my day is not complete without almost being on time or almost getting what I ordered for lunch. Having the flexibility to modify your expectations is a valuable life skill. But while there is some room for adjustment, I have a bone to pick with many of Vietnam’s safety-related shortcomings. Nothing, after all, should be commonplace about almost experiencing a traffic accident or almost getting injured at the water park, but at one point or another it has happened to everyone.
For this same reason I should have known a placed called Monkey Island would be a mistake. If you don’t know, Monkey Island is located in the heart of Can Gio, just south of Saigon. As a whole, it is merely a tourist attraction. There’s a restaurant that is almost affordable and a sparsely populated museum of guns and taxidermied rodents that almost explains why anyone would choose to stick a dead animal behind glass. But the main attraction of the park is a gathering of sedate, almost-wild monkeys. They sit in the trees or swing around on a wide dirt path, where visitors come to see the animals in their natural environment and, occasionally, to suffer at the tiny hands of the uncaged and perpetually hungry.
I drive out on a Friday afternoon, when no one else is around and the lone employee of the park is busy napping. With no attention span for the almost-museum, I make a quick loop of the monkey-viewing area before turning back toward the parking lot, disappointed. A couple hours on the road and a full tank of gas, it turns out, have amounted to a day trip that is only almost interesting.
Until, en route back to my motorbike, a previously placid monkey leaps from the ground onto my backpack and begins eating my shirt. The park employee has long disappeared and, since I am alone, the monkey’s entourage of small, furry hoodlums take full advantage of the opportunity to climb all over me and stick their tiny hands down my pockets in search of food. Terrified, I resolve to wait until either a) the monkeys realise I have no food or b) the park employee returns.
When it becomes clear that neither of these circumstances will happen any time soon, I take a step in the direction of the entrance gate, monkey still on my back, and this time the animal spits out my shirtsleeve and sticks a full set of monkey teeth near my face. What began as panic quickly becomes total hysteria, and I am convinced that I will die here, on stupid Monkey Island, or worse, have to live the rest of my life horribly disfigured by a monkey bite to the face.
It takes a good five minutes of bloodcurdling screams, but eventually the park employee arrives, brandishing a stick as he chases the monkeys away. For a few extra minutes, I continue to yell and hyperventilate to further my point. My legs will only go so fast as I beeline for the parking lot, just having been mauled by a gang of animals half my size, and in my wake neither the monkeys nor the park employee is apologetic. In fact, no one is: as I put more distance between me and my animal aggressors, I am laughed out of Monkey Island. “She’s afraid of them!” the park employee shouts after me, slapping his knee. At least three separate people find amusement in my trauma. All the way home, I try to recover from my hysterics, mentally adding ‘disfigured by monkeys’ to the list of things that have almost happened to me in this country.
I’m beginning to think that maybe, for all its wonders, this great Land of Almost could at least throw up a warning sign here and there. Safety above all is a big ask, but couldn’t we at least bump it up to safety above most things? Dana Filek-Gibson is a Canadian expat living in Ho Chi Minh City.