Billy McNamara — the unluckiest Hanoi expat on two-wheels in 21st century history (so far anyway)
Do you think there really is a guy somewhere in the world with all the luck? If so, you should have met our old pal from Ennis in county Clare, Mr. Billy McNamara, while he was living in Hanoi. Why? Because he must have been the poor unfortunate at the arse end of the spectrum: the guy with zero luck. At least when it came to motorbike crashes.
Sure, Billy was clumsy and hapless, and you could also argue that he didn’t do himself too many favours in the decision-making department but everyone was wilfully reckless in those days — riding around on a two-stroke motorbike with no helmet after drinking a litre of cirrhosis-inducing rice wine was all part of the adventure.
Inevitably, every one of us had a spill or three but Billy consistently outdid the lot of us. Even when it was a minor scrape, there was always a cruel twist. One time he crashed on the same day he was supposed to have a date with the Mexican ambassador’s very, very attractive and gamey, 21-year old daughter. She was studying in some idyllic Californian college town and was only in Hanoi for a few weeks. Every young, single, male expat in town was after this girl. Hell, even married guys were jostling each other out of the way to have a crack yet somehow, amongst this crosstown melee, Billy “Anyone for Ennis?” McNamara scored a dinner date with her. It was like seeing a thousand-to-one-longshot emerge as a front-runner at the Grand National with two furlongs to go. Did we want him to get over the line? Well, maybe not but no one wanted the poor bastard to get run off the road by an empty taxi tải slaloming down Doi Can Road on the morning of the date, which is exactly what happened. Now, valiant Billy wasn’t going to pull out, even if he couldn’t lift a pair of chopsticks to his mouth without wincing in pain. But when the girl saw Billy hobbling in to the restaurant with bandages on each elbow and both knees, she was quickly making an obviously made-up excuse. She called daddy’s driver and disappeared into the night; Billy summoned the nearest beer-addled moto-taxi man and made for the Old Quarter— yeah, insert caption: “Same planet, different worlds.”
I remember Billy nursing his wounds with a few medicinal vodka tonics in the Toast Bar where he tried to laugh it off. But the kick in the teeth was yet to come. The next morning, a bedraggled Billy found the Mexican ambassador’s daughter in his kitchen cooking an eggs and bacon breakfast for his house mate Trent, who was in his boxers with a big shit-eating grin across his face. Oh man, that must have hurt.
In terms of straight up, physical injuries, his worst crash was when he careened into a street cleaner’s abandoned dumpster on the Dyke Road. Yeah, okay, sure, it was in the wee hours of the morning and maybe his blood stream was 80% Halida beer and 10% Jameson, but the dumpster had been left in the middle of the road. So it still counts as bad luck, if you ask me. He broke his collar bone and messed up his face pretty bad. Of course, he didn’t have insurance, so he asked whoever scraped him off the road to be taken to a local hospital, where the doctors were under the cosh so some cack-handed hospital staff dealt with him. They ended up setting his collar bone wrong and as far as I know to this day he still wakes up every time he rolls onto his gammy shoulder in bed.
Then there was the time he clipped a guy delivering eggs at the crack of dawn near his house on “Chainsaw Alley” (the noisiest back street in the known universe). The guy went down in a heap and Billy stopped to watch in horror as the yolks and albumens of who-knows-how-many eggs oozed into the grime. There was no way Billy would be the kind of guy to hightail it. Believe me, many others would have. Billy helped the egg man up and after apologising profusely, in his very limited Vietnamese, he asked how many eggs were broken so they could figure out how much he owed. All the early-rising residents came out to have a look at this pitiable scene. Eventually, after some head scratching and conferring with bystanders, the egg man came up with a figure that sounded not too unreasonable to Billy. So he dug into his pockets and, sure enough, he had nothing but a few crumpled notes and a crumpled pack of Vinataba with some squashed cigarettes. The locals there that day are probably still talking about the look on the egg man’s face as Billy offered him a consolatory smoke.
Through a mixture of mime and language, Billy got the egg man to follow him to his house, which was only around the corner. He knew he probably didn’t have any money there but maybe Trent would. Trust Billy’s luck, Trent hadn’t come back that night — not yet anyway. Still in a quandary, Billy invited the egg man into his house and said, look, how about just taking something that’s about the same value. Billy reckoned the guy didn’t quite understand, so he grabbed his most valuable possession, an ersatz, but not inexpensive, North Face fleece jacket purchased at the “Russian Shop” and handed it to the egg man. When the egg man looked hesitant, Billy offered up Trent’s military-calibre waterproof pants and the egg man seemed happy enough with that even though they were probably longer than his whole body. Yeah, I know, that’s what you call a Billy McNamara solution for a Billy McNamara problem. I’m sure he felt pretty relieved—well, until Trent resurfaced to tell him the waterproof pants were worth 150 Australian bucks.
Even indirectly he had no luck with motorbikes. He was thinking about buying a pimped up Minsk from an architecture drop out turned mechanical whizz-kid. Billy couldn’t really afford the bike but in pretending he could he got to meet the guy’s sister, a young, super cool (and superhot) aspiring MC with artfully-placed tattoos and a smile that would knock you sideways. Billy couldn’t believe his luck when she asked him out. Nobody could believe Billy’s luck really. Soon they were dating and looking every inch the head-over-heels-with-each-other-couple (for the record, I wasn’t one of the five or six so-called friends who tried to steal her while everyone was fourteen sheets to the wind down at Phuc Tan Bar).
Anyway, they had only been dating for a month when there was talk about moving to London. She would do an M.A. in media studies. Billy would find work as a sub-editor and try to form a band. But then one night, we were upstairs in the Labyrinth and Billy abruptly announced she wasn’t there as she didn’t want to come to a smoke-filled bar as she was pregnant. At first we weren’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing — he just blurted it out. But he said he couldn’t wait to be a dad and he bought a bottle of Sambuca to celebrate. Not so long after that the girlfriend confessed she was pretty sure the kid wasn’t his — Billy and her had been using condoms but she’d been having unprotected sex with her ex-boyfriend, some moneyed overseas Vietnamese guy, who’d recently returned to the motherland from some Russian city nobody had ever heard of. Needless to say that was that. Understandably, Billy didn’t want to talk about it so when he wasn’t around, we made up our own theory. We figured it was likely she’d only been going out with Billy to wind this ex-boyfriend up and win him back. Billy was just an unwitting stooge, we were sure of it.
Billy being Billy, well, he just went back to being Billy after that. “Billier than ever,” somebody quipped when we heard about his next tale of misfortune on two wheels (he was haring down Dai Co Viet Street when his bag was stolen with a month’s salary in it). All the while, he must have been spotted on every street in town trying to kick-start that piece of crap Minsk of his, which he bought (for way too much money while completely pissed) outside Le Maquis bar at 2am — in the history of expats selling lemons to expats that has got to be the biggest lemon ever sold.
So why in the Hell do I want to tell you about my friend Billy McNamara anyway? Well, here’s why: in spite of everything that happened to him, this guy was the only person I ever knew who never had a bad word to say about anything or anyone in Hanoi, and every time I met him, I swear to God he’d be grinning ear to ear, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world, and whenever I heard Billy say, “Man, I love this city…” it would make you feel like a dick for complaining about anything. And when I say anything, well, I mean just about everything and everyone.