Enlightenment at Pangloss Riperium Hotel

(No.5, Vol.2 May 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

A middle-aged, European-looking woman slipped and fell in front of my deck chair on the verge of a swimming pool at a so-called five-star Vietnamese hotel – for which I now invent the name ‘Pangloss Riperium’ – shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, 6 April. I did not know the woman, but in hindsight it could have been Cunégonde, one of the characters, along with the optimistic Pangloss and others, in Candide, the Enlightenment novel by Voltaire.
The pool and surrounds were moderately crowded. It and its main changing room, which had a tiled steam bath and wooden sauna, were cramped and seedy, and had been over the many years I had been going there, as a day guest. I had been in this part of Vietnam 11 years. There had always been slippery tiles on the verges of the pool. But the pool was cheap, recently only about $15 a time, and high above the bulk of the large-particle air-pollution in the streets. I had been able to float on my back and watch swifts swooping about in the evening. When things had got the least bit boisterous in the water, the staff had stood a yellow, plastic easel saying, ‘Caution: Wet floor’, and hurried with mops and squeegees. At the entrance to the changing room was a permanent sign saying, ‘Caution: The floor is slippery’. It referred to a floor faced by a row of open urinals on the wall. The floor was of glossy stone. Recently, when I started to put a cloth bath mat down so I would not slip, an attendant told me not to. The reason was a mystery. The mat was frayed, as well. Now it was as if I was Candide, the naïve hero, and having sordid reality brought home to me by the cynical character Martin. That Voltaire’s novel was so short perhaps told me I needed to get enlightened faster.

Since I was so familiar with the history, I thought I had better fill a complaint form on the topic of the poor condition of the pool verges and the changing room, before I left the hotel on the evening in question. A young woman behind the hotel’s main desk corrected my phraseology to ‘feedback’ form. A man there asked me for my ‘room number’ and told me that (a) the form was available only in the rooms and that (b) it did not exist. An assistant front-desk-manager sat me down with a glass of iced water and told me, twice, that, although he (this assistant manager) had not been present – a fact I pointed out and he did not deny – the man at the desk had not been lying, as I had remarked that he had been. The assistant manager rang me later to say, aha! an investigation had shown I had not been staying in the hotel. As if I had said I had been. Nevertheless, a meeting with the Director of Sales and Marketing had been set down for me for a few days hence.
The DSM was a fair Pangloss, though of the opposite gender. She said the ‘Caution: Wet floor’ sign had been put out only because they were ‘cleaning’, not because water had lapped and splashed out of the pool. She did not appear to think it odd that cleaning was being done when the pool was in full use by guests, around 5 p.m. and not 5 a.m. (any time cleaning actually took place was the ideal time to clean, Pangloss would have said). The DSM said no slipping accident causing injury had occurred at the pool or in the changing rooms in the time I had been in Vietnam (11 years, as I had told her). This was positive, and I remarked as much. Some moments later, The DSM said she would like to ‘rephrase’, to say she was ‘not aware of’ any such accident. I asked how long she had been in the job and she said a year-and-a-half. This left me as a prime witness to the best part of a decade, as general managers of global chain hotels like this also changed over after about the same time. With a Panglossian lack of alarm, the DSM said she had not been briefed prior to our meeting. She said that normally an ‘incident report’ was made, and one might have been, in this case, but she had not seen it. On complaint forms, the DSM said guests ‘may or may not’ be given a hard-copy complaint form. She said the form might or might not ‘get into the box’, because of ‘manipulation’. As to whether she was speaking on behalf of the General Manager, it was both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. She was speaking on behalf of ‘the hotel’. Asked if the hotel was in a satisfactory state, she said something out of character: the hotel needed ‘refurbishment’. The rooms were on the list for this year. But the pool and change rooms were not on the list for this year. The latter showed super-optimism as to how the fates would look after the likes of Cunégonde.
Then Martin told me deeming the form to be merely for ‘feedback’ warded off the need for an apology and possible compensation that might follow a ‘complaint’. Martin said the request for my room number was, in effect, whether it was intentional or not, a ubiquitous, in his part of ‘Gentian’, the example of a country he was familiar with, aggressive attempt to marginalise day guests, whose complaints counted for less because for the most part they had paid up front, as opposed to at check-out (and, hence, by the way, he suggested, it was no mystery that it was the rooms that were being refurbished first). The question front desks used was not, ‘Are you staying with us, Sir/Madam?’ or the quite unprejudiced and far less loaded, ‘I am sorry to hear that, Sir/Madam. Would you like to give us the details, on this form, with this pen? It will be read by the General Manager as soon as she has a moment.’ According to the DSM, an on-line form was available after check-out, which was, Martin suggested, after the money had been paid, delayed and in cyberspace anyway. The expression was ‘less than Shakespearean and lacks legal weight’, he told me.
On 13 April I phoned the General Manager, and was told she was ‘not in her room’. To get through, I had to say that if I did not speak to her immediately someone might die. I had apparently learnt a lot on our journeys from the practical man of action Cacambo. Cacambo noted approvingly that, though what I had told the telephonist was true only in the most literal sense, the false sense of urgency had brought about good. This good was noted by the GM herself, whose character I have so far not been able to place from among those of Voltaire. The GM said action would be taken as soon as possible about the verges of the pool, as soon as safety flooring arrived from overseas. Further work would be done next year. She said that the gloss on the stone was not to make it easier to clean, as I had naively thought, but due to what I can now paraphrase as a Panglossian approach to interior design from an era not so long ago when slickness was paramount.
I remember something Martin told me as we lay on deck chairs looking at the swifts. In ‘Gentian’, the country of his experience, there was no responsibility on magazines publishing in English to name names. Hotels were clients of magazines, and both sides were worried about bad publicity. Foreigners who wrote for English-language magazines based in Gentian were not permitted to be journalists and hence could not demand to be published on the basis of journalistic, or broader, for that matter, ethics. Potential customers who read in English would not get much inkling of bad features of particular ‘five-star’ places till they were affected. The customers were grist to what was called the ‘Never see you again’ tourism mill, even if they were staying guests.
Recently, on lying, Martin said what was said, in Gentian, was often said in order to produce a result, not to represent a truth inherent to the situation. Words were like hammers and screwdrivers and not like those used by his inventor, Voltaire, to enlighten. Ultimately, apart from the immediate moral turpitude, lying led to failures to do such things as refurbish swimming-pool-surrounds and changing rooms, which added up to a stymying of economic development, which you would think hotels and magazines were in favour of. Real development was intelligent and not just more phantasmagoric cement possibly to bang your head on. Hotels and English-language magazines – Martin mentioned the Panglossian Signature magazine – could take a leaf out of the poolside reading of Cunégonde, who had not seemed to have been injured and who had remarked that the instant she had felt her feet go from under her (fact) she had just relaxed (how to deal with fact). Martin imagined that very likely Cunégonde had felt wonderful (though this would have passed), while her de facto, often unwitting, no doubt, antagonists, the hotels and certain magazines, had experienced an unpleasant struggle to accept reality.

By James Gordon
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