Week Three: in North Vietnam, 11/18/ 2010

I reluctantly left Hue this morning. I would have loved another day there to visit some of the Pagodas. I had a good breakfast at the hotel, finished packing, and took a taxi to the North Bus Station. The taxi took me for a ride. His meter was set at 12kd/kilometer, when the going rate is 8kd, so it cost 82dk for a pretty short ride. The bus stations create agita, since they are always hard to maneuver and decipher. It appears that there was only one bus, a big deluxe sleeper with bunks, and it didn’t go anywhere, since it wasn’t leaving till 10. I was quoted 150kd, but learned from a phone call to clarify schedules, that the fee was 130kd, so that was what I paid. I used the WC twice, and a young lady kept hollering at me that I owed her money for using the public toilets. I just walked away from her. Then I saw the bus driver pay her, and I realized that these might not be public toilets. I asked the ticket lady, whether we were supposed to pay, and she took a key and unlocked the public toilets, which were unmarked and were pretty disgusting. These were the toilets now just used by the ticket people probably, so I returned to the young woman and paid her with apologies.

I took a top sleeper, with the back up in a sitting position, in the very front, and was pretty uncomfortable for most of the 7.5 hour trip. I took the fewest pictures of any day, since it is hard to see a picture when you are looking out the side windows. I should have taken the train today. A young girl next to me, offered me hard candies twice, and she was very pleasant. She is a second year college student, but her English was negligible. A man on the other side of her kept encouraging me to take more pictures, and near the end he presented me with a warm corn on the cob, which I felt obliged to accept, and it was pretty awful. It had been cooked so long that the corn kernels were like mush. It was inferior to what we are used to, but I ate the whole thing, since it was my first Vietnamese corn, and it was filling and healthy. We stopped twice next to trees, and people piled out to pee by the side of the road. This company was avoiding the fees if they used a big reststop with giant restrooms. I was surprised that the women just went 10 or 15 feet from the men and pulled down their pants. Many of them put on their smog face masks. You could see their butts, but not their faces. The Viets are discreet though, and they tend to not look while others are relieving themselves.

We did pull into a lunch place at 1, that had toilets without toilet paper, as usual,  and I was charged 30kd for Pho Bo, Noodle soup with a little beef, only to find out from a woman that the price was 20kd. I would have said something to the man who took me, but he had disappeared as we left. My college girl bunk neighbor threw up into plastic bags two or three times, she was very discreet, but not travelling well.

We went through and over some really big mountains, but I couldn’t manage any photos sitting up on the top bunk. The houses seemed to have a slightly different style. Many had two or three doors to the road, but all to one house, so they were like giant windows. I saw a lot of hovels and shacks, and new mini mansions, all with satellite dishes. It was hard to focus on the world outside. The 3 young men who ran the bus were playing rock videos with gorgeous teenagers singing, and then a Jackie Chan movie, and then several very violent martial arts film parts. There was a female assassin who killed a lot of oriental gangster men.

I had to make myself study the rice paddies. Can I get a good picture of one of the magnificent water buffalo. I saw many more buffalo here than anywhere else. There are a lot trucks carrying pigs, and today I saw two men on two motorbikes, with live pigs, all hog tied, on the back of their cycles, as they were being taking to a restaurant or small butcher.

We finally got to the industrial center of Vinh, and it is a big city of about 300,000. It was bombed to smithereens by the Americans, so now it has many grim, modern, office and apartment  buildings built with the help of  East Germany, and parts of it look a lot like a dismal, Soviet city.

At the train station, I took my suitcase over to the WC, and a girl there was charging people to use the public toilet, but at least she watched my luggage for her 2000d. I got picked up by a young man who wanted me to check out his new hotel across the street for 200,000, not in the guidebook, because too new. I looked at a room, and took it, but after standing in it for 2 minutes alone, I realized is smelled of smoke, there was horrendous traffic outside, and it and the lobby had no place to sit and type. I left, and took a cab to the APEC Hotel, on Ho Tung Mau, and it is lovely, with a Christmas tree in the lobby, but the set up for writing is minimal, and I’m trying to concentrate while a very violent American movie about convicts taking over an airplane is blaring in the corner. The Viets like violent movies, and use them as background music. I asked the girl behind the counter to turn off the film, and she said sure, and then didn’t. The movie was gripping, and I finally relented, and watched the ending.

Earlier, I walked out the alley to the boulevard, and sat at a little, open air, noodle shop,  but under a roof, and had trouble ordering, because we couldn’t communicate. Finally a customer asked if she could help me, and informed me that they were out of chicken, and had no fish. All they had was some beef, and she recommended a beef noodle soup called Bo Don Nhung. First it would be 100kd, then I found it in a menu for 60, and after I’d made friends with one of the waitresses, and gave her an English lesson which she sorted of initiated by sitting with me and asking unintelligible questions, she charged me 35kd, which I think was the going rate. The food was good and hot, with Nuoc Mam, but no soy, and I got up to use the toilet. I had to walk through the kitchen,  a dark narrow space where the young women were cooking on three or four woks, over small gas canister fed burners. The water closet had a toilet bowl, without a seat, which was not flushing, so there was a large bucket of water with a scoop, so you could dump some water in it.

My hotel reception girl thinks there is a train leaving for Hanoi at 10am, and I’m tempted to give up on buses, for a change.

Friday 11/19/10  I worked last night till almost midnight, so slept till 7:15. I was  out of the hotel by 8:30, and found a handsome youngster to take me to the train station  for 8kd/kilometer, proving that it can happen. It was also just a few minutes away. The guidebook says, there are no tourists in Vinh, because there is nothing to see there but ugly East German architecture. The train station, unlike the bus terminals, was organized, and Lenin like, with a huge display in a large courtyard, of a real, antique steam engine, set on real tracks. The next train was at 12, though I’d been told on the phone one every hour, and the guidebook said every hour.  It would cost about 120kd, but it was only 9 AM. I decided to ride out to the bus station and see what was running up to Hanoi.

I was greeted by hustlers who literally dragged me to a big bus nearby, with a big Hanoi sign, and it was exactly like the horrible sleeper bus the day before. I  watched them put my suitcase in the baggage box, and I removed my shoes and tried a few seats, legs out flat or bent, like a beach cot, still didn’t fit, and then I realized that all the side windows in the front had been shattered, so you couldn’t see out of any of them. That was why all the curtains were pulled. I decided I would take the train if necessary, though at 6-9 hours, I could be in the dark for 3. The driver and his agents were quite upset with me, but I had told them my concerns before trying out the bus, and I pointed out the broken windows, and said I couldn’t see.

My getting off the bus and demanding my suitcase caused something of a sensation. I decided to tour the lot, that had 20 to 30 buses in it, and way down at the end of that row, was another sleeper bus, only much bigger, also going to Hanoi, though at 10, and it was, on inspection, very different. The bus was so clean, that it seemed new, and the glass was clean, I could see all around clearly, so I agreed.

I was waiting outside for the assistant to show up, to stow my suitcase out of harms way, when a pompous young uniformed security agent of the bus depot came over to harass me, probably since I’d abandoned a bus run by his kick-back buddies. He spoke English very well, but he treated me like a criminal, and I felt my temperature rising. After I explained the whole history , though it was none of his business, he said something accusatory about, I didn’t buy my ticket in the ticket office. He was wearing a dark green uniform with red epaulettes.  I told him I knew very well I could pay the driver’s assistant directly, had done it just yesterday. He admitted that this was true. He ordered me to pay this new company the 130kd immediately, as if I was trying to cheat them. I said that was unnecessary, since they collect the money when they choose to. Why was I standing there?, he said suspiciously. I was just waiting for the assistant, to stow my suitcase so I could further inspect the bus. We were in a standoff of sorts, but he started yelling for the assistant, who put my suitcase in the crib, and I started smiling at him, which had a positive effect. I then tried the seat beds, and that’s when I realized that this bus had great viewing, and the seat beds were bigger, and I actually fit in them. So I paid the Ticket taker, a slip of a female who materialized, and now the big bully had nothing more to do that he could think of, as I had been hard to intimidate, so he drifted away.

I had 30 minutes, so I left the driver and his staff, and found a great breakfast about 20 yards away in an open room restaurant. I ordered the omlette, bread and coffee for about 50kd, but the charges came in at 35? Probably because I complimented the owner, and they don’t see many foreign tourists in Vinh. The omlette was served in a small, hot,  frying pan, it had two fried eggs, only half cooked, and scallions and greens and spices. The proprietor noted my confusion, and he signaled I was to scramble the eggs with the provided spoon, and this provided a perfectly cooked scrambled egg with scallions etc, which I ate with the bread, since they obviously didn’t have butter. The coffee was cold, and thick, and served in a double shot glass, with a dousing of condensed milk, which added cream and sugar. I had learned to my delight that the deluxe bus had a real head on board, so I indulged in a second glass of this wonderfully strong coffee concoction.

Another man had moved my backpack and taken the seat behind the driver. I confronted him and he showed me his ticket, it had the seat number, so he’d purchased the seat fair and square. Knowledge is power, and I laughed and moved. I wanted the left side, because that is where the most mountains are. I took his picture, and asked him to take mine. This seemed to dissolve all tension.

We left the station, and I was quickly in heaven. The berth was comfortable, and the views in 3 directions were excellent. You get to see a lot of a country, when the windows are large, unobstructed and clean. We left the industrial Vinh, and rolled up

Route 1 through rice and vegetable fields, and occasionally moved between beautiful hills.

There were a few small LCD flat screens set up to view DVD’s, and the driver’s assistant put on a very serious, professional looking martial arts movie, apparently made recently in Thailand, about ancient Vietnam, and  prodigy boy martial artist.

I watched the film selectively, and learned that the choreographer of the fights thinks that the ancient kung-fu had all the aikido techniques that I chose to use in my novel.  This was satisfying, to see how clearly the aikido moves fit into a Viet martial setting, costumed and choreographed for antiquity. The name of the film was Ouyen Thai  (Win Tai), and there was a logo that said Kantana.. Next came on a modern gangster film, featuring a young prodigy martial arts student, who was only about 11 years old, and I managed to watch mostly Vietnam instead. I saw a lot of nice big houses and towns with better infrastructure. It seems in a quick tour of the entire country, that the north is bleeding the south of resources, like a victor and its colony. There seems to be noticeably less poverty, and fewer huts jammed together up here along the main road.

Next they put on the film, The Gods they must be Crazy, and I jumped down to move around to the other side, to take pictures of some gorgeous mountains, with limestone hump formations like in Guilin, China. The   ticket assistant was in the back sleeping, so I plopped down in his big chair, next to the driver, and facing the giant front wind screen, and now I couldn’t be distracted by the movie screens, and I watched the country roll by, and took pictures. The driver got excited by my choices, mostly mountains and rocks, and soon he was pointing out good shots I should consider. I got cold, since the air-conditioning was blaring, and I took a lovely cotton quilt blanket, which was white, maroon and burnt umber, my favorite colors, and wrapped it around me like a shawl, and now I felt like a prince or a lord, entering the Hanoi region in my $200,000 dollar deluxe sleeper bus, my staff doing the driving, a porto-potty on duty, and I riding in the throne, in the shotgun seat with my camera.

As we got closer to the real Hanoi, since there are 5 or 10 towns right before it on Route 1, there appeared a divider, with pruned bushes full of red flowers, that went on for miles. I never saw anything like that in the south. One whole town was full of little mansions, each the shape of a shoe box on its side, but like Mai Khac Ung’s house, with fine woods for the doors and shutters, and fine tiles for the porches and main rooms.  I remembered Dr. Wang, who stayed with me years ago, saying confidentially, “If someone have such a house, you know they are Party Members.” She was describing red China (PRC), but you get the gist of my conjecture.

We stopped at a lunch place for tour groups, and I ordered Mi Ga, not recognizing what it was. It was Chicken soup with yellow egg noodles, what we call ramen at home in the US. It came with a bowl of fresh greens that you submerge into the hot water, so you eat the vegetables barely cooked. I sat with my new friend, who had won my seat, and he drank a Red Bull, which my son likes, so I tried one, knowing it has caffeine. It was ridiculously sweet, so I’ll return to diet Coke. I kept asking him what things cost;  the staff wanted me to pay 60kd for a 30kd meal.

My new friend for the trip proudly showed me his lunch. He’d bought bundles of something wrapped in green palm leaves. This was the type of food that the Viet Minh and Viet Cong carried into war zones, and lived off of without cooking, like C rations. He opened one to show me. It was mostly leaf wrapping, 3 layers, and inside, in airtight plastic, was a porc sausage. He offered me one, and I lost all my good sense and tried it. I was extremely curious, since this food is historically important. I asked him if the meat was cooked, after I ate it, and he said no , it was raw, which made me feel extremely stupid and irresponsible. But after thinking about how slowly I would die, I realized he was just wrong. It had to be cooked, or it couldn’t be an unrefrigerated meat product for very long. Summer Sausage in Wisconsin is also not refrigerated all the time. My stomach started doing summersaults, and 2 hours later I needed to try out the head, but I seem to have kept my health, knock on wood.

The bus station for Hanoi was outside,   in the next town, Giai X?  The taxi ride to the hotel center in the old quarter was long and hard, since the roads were crazy jammed with traffic at 5pm. With almost no traffic lights, as in Ho Chi Minh City,  if you have to cross a busy road, you just plow into the traffic, and it slows, and moves around you, as you slowly wade through the flow of traffic. The ride took a while, and cost 245kd, or $12.25. I was 20kd short. The driver refused to give me proper change from a 500kd note, and when I pointed out he was a hundred short, he produced all but 5,000, but now I was pissed so I told him I wanted my change. He got in his car and drove off. It’s important to carry plenty in small bills. He could have driven off with 255,000. D. I probably should have required the change before handing him the note.

I had called 4 places this morning, from the Vinh hotel, and they were all full. The Queen of Heart Hotel said just show up, and they would send me someplace, so I did. Their cheapest room is now $25, but all full, and they sent me to the Hanoi Spark Hotel around the corner, where the cheapest room is $30, but my god is it a beautiful room. New building, new everything, Shanghai-Mitsubishi elevator, holding 6 people, and the room has dark oriental teak furniture and a glass wall to the bathroom, with a glass door to the shower. The nice hotel in Hue was the first and only one I’ve stayed in that had a shower curtain. I decided at 6:15 PM to take this gorgeous room for at least a night, and then walking back to get my suitcase, I checked in two other hotels, and both started at $30, and one was full. At Hanoi Spark, breakfast is included, and best of all, they have a room off the foyer for breakfast tables that is elegant, and where I can type at a real table with an outlet.

I made them show me how to turn on the air-conditioner, and set up in the breakfast room to check email, which is almost like having along friends and company- virtual companionship.

I locked up my computer in my suitcase out of habit, and because I  just can’t risk losing it, and walked out into the night traffic noise in another great metropolis, to find dinner. I walked up the first corner, and there was a crowd of Vietnamese eating at tiny plastic tables, sitting in tiny plastic stools, and I looked at what people were eating, and it was snail clams, big clams, little clams, crabs, other crustaceans, and fish. I went over to the cooks, working at a cart with two propane tanks, and there was a portable display of a small fish market. I didn’t realize that there were so many types of clams.

I ordered the snail-clams, that looked like small walnuts, and were as hard to open- called So, and a beer, and sat with a friendly young couple, professionally dressed, and apparently on a date. The head waiter brought me my small dark clams, and sauce, and spices, both heavy with lime juice, and a bowl of fresh greens, heavy leaves, and light gentle leaves, stuff I would call weeds, but here, its salad. The guidebook says such dishes are a big no no, because they are washed in tap water, but I am starving for raw green vegetables, and wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t a risk taker. The head waiter carefully showed me the utensil, like a tire wrench in a bike kit that was run over by an earth compaction rolling machine. It came to a sharp point at one end, like a little spear. You held the sharp other end  of the tool against the little clams shell, and forced it open. These clams do not open when you cook them! They were delicious plain, and fabulous dipped in the sauce and then the spices, which I also used as my salad dressing. One clam wouldn’t open, and after numerous tries, I enlisted the waiter. He took the tool sideways, so the entire edge of the tool caught along the clam, and it gripped and opened. I laughed so loud that all the girls behind the cart, who had been carefully watching with amusement anyway, all started to laugh, as did the couple I was sitting next to. I felt pretty stupid, but it was funny. I saw the couple eat a whole plate of cucumber sticks, so I asked them what they were called. Dua Tchua?  (Zooah Tchua). After this fabulous dinner, maybe the best of the trip, for 95kd, ($4.95), I walked around, and found the Queen of Heart Hotel, and interviewed a rude and surely young man about their expensive $38 one day tour of Halong Bay. He was disgusted with me for not wanting to go tomorrow, but Sunday, and it’s not what I really want. It is more recreation than research. I want to see the Red River down to Haiphong and back for my book research. Everyone I’ve met who has visited Halong Bay said it was the highlight of their trip: Lisa Carter, Barbara Lamb, the girl from Canada-  it was an option to sleep on.

Saturday, November 20, 2010 

I slept in till 7, though a communist diatribe through a giant sound system woke me at 5.  I took a short walk, then had breakfast, which was terrible, bad eggs, bad toast, bad service, and then I showered. The drain in the new glass enclosed shower is so slow, that the stall began to fill like a tub. At the end, I tried to turn on the cold water, and it was hot too. The plumber had screwed up, so there was no cold water option. I called two cheaper hotels, got through to the Prince 1 Hotel, 51 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, and took a short moto ride over to check it out. I negotiated 20kd, and it should have been 10, the blocks in the old quarter are short, and I should have walked. The driver had asked for 60, then 50. When I gave him a 50, it looked like I wasn’t going to get my change, but then he reminded me I still had his second helmet. I said I needed my 30kd change. He huffed and puffed, but the helmet was worth a lot more.

At the Prince 1 Hotel, I didn’t care much for the room for $20, it was fine, but dark, with no window, and depressing after the wall of windows at Spark, but I took it anyway, to move on. The moto ride had been so short, I walked back to Spark Hotel, packed, paid, and then walked, with all my luggage, suitcase rolling, the 6 or 8 short blocks to the new place. I looked at a much nicer room, with a window, for $25 US, and asked if I could have it for $22 if I took it for 3 days. The young clerk checked with his boss, and said no, and I took it anyway. I have a fine room, with a lovely writing table. I don’t have to use the lobby tables to type.

After organizing, I went out to look for lunch, and found a place the travel agent in the lobby said had spring rolls, and they were good. It was a room with a garage door open, and the spring rolls seemed more like pork sausage to me, not all wrapped in rice paper like I expected. It came with hot soup, and  cold rice noodles, and a basket of weeds:  parsley, mint, watercress, bean sprouts, and one or two leaves of lettuce as the garnish. The guide book said to stay away from salads from non western restaurants, because the greens are washed in tap water, but even though my bowels are getting shaky at last, you miss the Vietnamese experience of their cuisine without the weeds wrapped around the spring rolls-  and I have always been willing to die for delicious food.

I left my hotel again, with only my shoulder bag and camera pouch. It is best to travel through the crowded streets, with the occasional  bag grabbers and pickpockets, with as few bags as possible. Also, I think the rainy season has ended up here. Vietnam has 3 completely separate climate zones, so no time apparently is perfect for the whole country. Hanoi had great weather in mid November.

I decided, poorly with hindsight, to walk way down to the History Museum, looking first for the Red River, which is behind highways, and byways, and I couldn’t get to it, and then I walked to the Hoan Kiem Lake. There were many wedding couples, in full white wedding gowns and tuxes, with their professional wedding photographer. I crept up and snapped pictures of these handsome couples, for pleasure.

Then I got lost, walked 4 blocks too far, had trouble finding the history museum, and then its entrance. I paid my 20,000 at 3pm, with only an hour and a half  till closing. The Lonely Planet says it’s a lousy museum, and here the Guidebook  is just wrong. It’s a relatively small museum, with the best collection of Vietnanese historical artifacts in the entire country. Many of the other exhibits I’ve been to, in Ho Chi Minh City, and the Quand Trung Museum in Phu Phong for example, had what I think were copies of  items in this museum. The gold crowns and swords and tea sets of the Nguyen dynasty were simply not to be seen anywhere else, and same for the jade and gold weapons, or the furniture and paintings of fine blackwood, teak?, in mother of pearl inlay instead of paint, like wood cuts, only these were pearl inlay paintings of scenes, with people and animals and dragons.  There were paintings of ministers at work in the Court at Hue, Fine wood book boxes, meaning, cases for scroll books. A wall of intricate bronze incense burners, and another wall of bronze bells, some the size of bureaus, though thimble shaped. In a room full of artifacts from digs from 2500 to 2000 years ago, there was a large 3.5 foot high bronze jar for cremation ashes, and on the lid, were figurines in bronze of naked men copulating with naked women, though the figurines were small and primitive, each the size of an index finger. They made me think of the sculpture Steven Lindsay’s flying astronauts.

It was great to see real treasures from the Hue Court of the Nguyen Dynasty. There were hardly any such object to see at the Hue Citadel and Imperial Palaces. I took a bunch of photos, quickly, since photography is absolutely forbidden in any of the museums for or of Ho Chi Minh, and the modern revolution. The communists are, however,  not so concerned with respect for pre revolutionary dynastic treasures. The guards here were lounging or sleeping.

Unfortunately, I needed a rest room, and the History Museum actually had real toilets and toilet paper, and soap for the sinks. First public toilets I’ve seen in 16 days here with either toilet paper or soap. Maybe there is hope for the rest of the country. As I left the museum, I passed a park with badminton net. In Vinh I saw a park with maybe 10 badminton nets in a row. In Ho Chi Minh City, the folks put up their own nets, or often, play in the parks without them, pretending nets. Two men here were kicking a shuttlecock over their badminton net, droping the shuttlecock after just one or two kicks. They were yellow belts compared to the circus performers I saw backkicking the shuttlecock back and forth, almost endlessly in the park opposite Le Loi Street in Saigon.

I decided that since it was only 4:30, I would walk all the way back up to my Hotel, maybe 1 or 2 miles, but I was driving the underemployed bicycle rickshaw men and cyclo drivers crazy. They swarmed me like beggars, and some followed me, almost harassing me. I was tired, and my left foot started to hurt, but, I wanted the exercise, and to learn to navigate the Old Quarter of the City. Tomorrow I will visit sites way across town, and give plenty of motormen some business.

Back at my new hotel, the Prince 1, I took a shower, and organized my clothing to have some laundry done. I went out early, and walked back to my old hotel, and found the fish restaurant, on the curb by 77 Nguyen Huu Huan Street. I deliberated between all the bins of shell fish, and decided on some really ugly critter, sort of like a small lobster without the claws. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it turned out to be jumbo shrimp, the biggest ugliest ones I’ve ever seen. Of course, I never seen them with heads and full of armor shells. They grilled up a pair of these for me, I reordered the skinned cucumber stalks, and I went very lightly on the weeds, and drank cold ice tea instead of  beer. Meal was 182,000 or $9.10. I might have paid a premium. The head waitress quoted me 450, then 720, after weighing a jumbo shimp. I took her calculator and put in 72,000., and she nodded and said yes. I wonder if she was adding a zero to see if I would pay, $36.00, because the abbreviation here of 72,000 Vietnamese Dong, or VND, is 72.

As I was walking through the most intensely crowded streets in the Old Quarter, around 5:30 PM, with motorcycles rushing past, honking at you, as if you didn’t belong there, and you are walking in the street, because the sidewalks are completely blocked with either parked motorcycles, dozens of them per block, or 10-20 customers eating at an outdoor food stall restaurant, I wanted to kick some of these honking cycle drivers right off their bikes. At one point I had to pivot, as one came right at me and pushed me off the line, and he was going the wrong direction on a one way street. I can’t really recommend Vietnam, or at least, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, to other travelers. This place is absurdly crazy with congestion. You have a city of many millions of people, and only a few dozen green and red traffic lights. So few, that many Viets, when confronted with one, ignore it, because they know how to plow through traffic, with it, against it, or going across it. I know that my friend Lisa Carter, who came here last fall, and inspired me to get over here myself, was terrified about crossing an intersection in this City. She learned to wait for a Viet, and shadow them.

One of the drawbacks of the outdoor restaurants, is you get approached by independent sales people and beggars several times each meal. During my dinner, sitting on a plastic stool, a foot of f the ground, a poor woman came up selling what looked like doughnut holes. I turned these down several times today, but now, I thought I’d find out what the little balls were, so I brought 4 for 4,000. A nickel a piece. They were sweet, moist and delicious, and obviously a fine confection- Viet doughnut holes.

Then I walked back to my hotel through the hordes of people fighting with cars and motorcycles, so many people, that some of  the smaller streets were almost like they were closed to vehicles, there were so many people out walking in them. A woman asked me to buy her yellow fruit. I shook my head and walked by on auto pilot, but then, returned to ask her politely what was she selling. She took a knife, and cut piece of the fruit off, and gave it to me. It was wonderful. I asked her how much, she said, 100,000. I looked at her funny. She said, for a kilo. I said I wanted two nodule, each the size of 3 fingers. She said 30, I said 20, and she accepted. I walked down the street marveling at this great mysterious yellow fruit. It came out of a big green roundish gourd, like a watermelon, with spines on it like a cactus. I saw a young lady sitting in one of the hundreds of tiny travel agencies in the city, trying to sell overpriced tours, and I asked if she spoke English, she said yes. I said, can you tell what is this fruit, and I held it up. Certainly, she said, it is mit.

I feel I should end the day right there, but vdict.com says that mit is jackfruit. I feel great about discovering mit, though I probably paid triple the going rate. In this exchange, perhaps I was the jackfruit. It is even pleasant to let the street people gain a small advantage, since their 200% overcharge is often 50 cents.

Sunday 11/21/10

I couldn’t sleep last night for really the first time on the trip, so I took two sleeping pills, diphenhydramine 25mg,  and read the guidebook from 12:30 until 2. Lonely Planet says that the Viets are deeply into geomancy, or feng shui, which they call phung thuy. “The orientation of houses, tombs, dinh (communal meeting halls) and pagodas is determined by geomancers. …..Westerners planning to go into business with a Vietnamese partner will need to budget for a geomancer to ensure the venture is successful.” P.49.  This is part of  Vietnam that I think I missed. There are currently no geomancers in my novel.

I knew that Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism had fused with popular Chinese beliefs, and Vietnamese Animism, but not that the Viets had a name for this amalgam, that they call Tam Giao, or Triple Religion. Of course, Christians also worship their own version of Triple Religion- the Trinity.

I had a late breakfast from 9:15 to 10, and then walked East, trying to get across several 2 lane highways to see the Red River. Motomen told me I’d have to use a vehicle to get to the river. My GI tract is better, and I walked down to the Hoan Kiem Lake, and went to the Ngoc Son Pagoda, which turns out, is a temple to worship none other than General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th  century. There are also statues to recognize La To, the patron saint of physicians, and the scholar Van Xuong. I looked carefully at the incense burners and oil lamp statues. I wonder how the latter worked. There is a bowl for the oil, but they must have dropped a wick into the bowl of oil, perhaps weighted, so the wick went to the bottom of the oil, and stood erect. Who of my readers knows how this worked?

I had some time to kill till the museum ticket taker returned from his or her 2 hour lunch break, so I walked down to the museum, actually, it is called the Vietnamese National Museum of History, and on the way I found a barber for a $3 haircut, and a street stall for a 20,000 Dong  plate of fried beef and shrimp on top of rice, with cooked cabbage- good meal for a dollar. I then found a coffee shop, and drank thick black coffee while enjoying several doughnut holes from a woman encountered earlier. The woman had wanted 50kd, but readily took 5, for 5 balls. Then she said I shorted her, it was 6,000. I disagreed. She opened  my little bag. She has slipped an extra ball into it. I made her take it back, not to save a nickel, but to defend my waistline, and the principle of  honesty, and perhaps a hunger for fair treatment. Traveling alone in a foreign country where you do not speak the language is about the loneliest thing I’ve ever done. I figured out that these 5 cent balls are made of rice flour and sugar, and are loaded with oil- not a good daily practice.

I spent almost 3 hours back at the National Museum of History. I kept trying to leave, and then would rewalk one of the rooms, and find something new, even if it was looking at items I had already studied. I retook a bunch of photos, since last night I uploaded my new pictures onto my laptop, and many pictures that I cared about had the flash of the camera as a big white blob in the middle of the picture. So this time I stood to the side of each valued treasure. There are ancient books as well as scrolls, that look just like western manuscripts, though read from right to left. I found an old manuscript of the Tale of Kieu, “the Story of Kim Van Kieu”.

The photos of the 6 great resistance leaders of the last 150 years included:

Phan Dinh Phung, who led the Huong  Khe Uprising, 1885-1896 in Ha Tien Province;

Hoang Hoa Tham, who led the Yen The Uprising 1887-1913 in Bac Giang Province;

Phan Chu Trinh 1872-1926, advocated non-violent resistance to the French,

Luong Van Can, who established the Dong Kinh Thuc Movement in Hanoi, 1907;

Phan Boi Chau, 1867-1940, preached violence, and established the Dong Du movement in 1904,

Nguyen Thai Hoc, 1904-1930, founded the Vietnam National Party, and led the Yen Bai uprising. He was executed by the French in 1930, which helped guarantee that the resistance would be led by the communists led by Ho Chi Minh going forward.

When I set out to write an historical novel, it was originally supposed to be about Hoang Hoa Tham, or De Tham the tiger, but I never found much about him in English or French, but one short French history that said he was a monster and a baby killer. While researching De Tham, I found the story of Pierre Pigneau, Nguyen Anh, and the Tayson, and decided to completely change centuries.

I befriended a pleasant young Frenchman, and we looked at  bunch of objects together. I conversed with some lovely and elegant Japanese women, because they kept studying the same artifacts that I was interested in. There was a fancy gold and jade container, covered in jewels and stones, possibly an incense burner. It had a lid, and stood on legs, made of solid jade and gold.

The Japanese women and I discussed one of  the paintings of the Hue court, the Secret Council, and they were quite sure that the Emperor was not present. He would have been behind a curtain, or farther off, as in Japan, and as in China. The Vietnamese, as did the Japanese, borrowed much of their government practice and Imperial practices from China, one of these women insisted. I think she is right. But the Emperor, as an institution, was doomed, if he couldn’t see or hear clearly what his cabinet thought and discussed.

I left at 4:15, toured the outside gardens, took pictures of the giant Banyan trees, and found a motorcycle man who quoted me 30kd to go to my hotel, and I didn’t even argue. His fee was just 10-15 off from the Viet rate of 15-20, so I smiled and accepted with a big smile.  I took pleasure in meeting a man with a fair price.

I checked with the young men who work the desk, and they said the items in the mini bar are each a dollar, so I walked across the street and bought a cold Tropican Orange Twister and and a BIA Hanoi Beer, each for 50 cents, and at a liquor stall I picked up a flask of mystery whiskies for $1.50. It is nowhere near as good as the Wall Street brand that I presented to Mai Khac Ung.

I went to dinner to a real restaurant out of the guidebook, just down 3 blocks in the old Quarter called Five. It was elegant, table cloths, and I ordered the spring rolls for 75kd, which I’d been looking for. I passed on the drinks for about 100kd. (100,000 VN Dong=$5.) What arrived was a plate with mystery meat pate and white chicken, and cut vegetables, and short stack of fancy transparent rice paper, so thin I at first thought it was plastic saran wrap. The waitress took away my wine goblets and full set of silverware, and set down a pair of chopsticks. The finger foods came with a small 1 inch diameter bowl of mild hot sauce, and another of something that was sweet and sour, which I’ve seen before, and it might be a very gentle version of  nuoc mam. Making the little spring rolls took some time, eating them was quick. The guidebook praised their desserts, so I ordered the cake of the day, a chocolate cake, and a decaf, the first decafe I have met here, and left some of the cake uneaten it was so terrible. That terrible cake with the coffee doubled the price of the meal. I’m so used to being off the gringo trail, that it feels foreign when I visit it.

I did some Christmas shopping, and negotiated with a woman for only one small bag of her fresh pineapple. She wanted 50kd, which was annoying, since I’d bought a full lunch today for 20,000, so I just looked at her. She dropped the price to 40, and I started to walk away. Then I heard 30, then 20. “How much,” she begged.  I came back to her, to be polite, and to allow her to keep her face, or dignity,  and looked at her seriously. I looked at the little bag of fruit and said, 10. She looked annoyed, but said OK. It was still probably 2 or 3 times the going rate. In this country, a lot of things still go for 1,000 vnd, or 5 cents or less. The woman made me uncomfortable. She wasn’t interested in selling to her own people, she wanted dumb, rich tourist margins. Or was she like Amahl’s mother in the Menotti opera. To her, was I was one of the kings from afar.

As I was walking back to my hotel, I was hugging the side of the street, since the sidewalks were taken with parked motorbikes, and a young man on a motorbike ran over the back of my heel and didn’t stop. I yelled at him so loud, that I got a small cheer from toss-pot tourists who were on the opposite sidewalk drinking beers. The young man looked at me, and drove off. The pain quickly subsided. He hadn’t hurt me, just scared me. And I was mad.  I had a moment of regret, that I didn’t assault him, and then realized, it was good that tomorrow is my last day here.

Now that I’ve calmed down, I realize the young man didn’t hit me from behind on purpose, he was going too fast and he goofed. But I do not recommend this country to everybody. The traffic has become a daily grind, and accidents waiting to happen. The congestion here in the big cities, and on the highways, with one lane going each way, and a 1 meter safety lane for bicycles and cycles, is like every day riding on a powder keg and waiting for someone to forget where they are and lighting  a match. At least two of my bus drivers drive with reckless disregard for life.

Since I walked to the wonderful National Museum of History again today, past many communist government buildings and perhaps several embassies, I noticed that amongst these big fancy buildings, surrounded by fancy 5 star hotels, that there are traffic lights. The communist bureaucrats in Hanoi are not stupid, but they err in providing for themselves services that are elitist, since most of the city has no traffic lights,  just many, many drivers and pedestrians, some trying to weave through each other carefully, while others bully their way through the congestion. It is extraordinary, that Vietnam is trying to run an entire road system with just a few simple rules, such as: over taking vehicles keep clear, and when a police officer stops you, with or without cause, you pay him his bribe price to continue on your journey.

As discouraging as the corruption here is, I remind myself that in the book, “The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens,” Steffens proved in a series of articles for McClures Magazine around 1915, that the police in every major US city at that time ran the organized crime in those cities for their own enrichment. It is possible, that Vietnam is going through a developmental stage that most every modern economy hits in an early part of its development. What I do not understand, is if all this corruption is preventable. Vietnam has had an economy since before 1000 B.C. The corruption of petty officials and law enforcement officers was an epidemic in the ancient regimes of the Vietnamese Emperors.  One of the reasons for the communist movement, was to counter the excesses of the Imperial dynasties. The communist government will lose the mandate of heaven, if they are seen to be as venal and base as the government they defeated militarily. They have blocked a few western web sites, like Facebook, oddly enough, but the whole country is online on the world wide web. Still imitating China, century after century, the Viet Communists are riding a tiger. Just like China, they want the benefits of capitalism in a totalitarian state, and for now, with a 5.3%  annual growth rate, they are staying on the tiger’s back. Index Mundi says that their estimates of the Viet economic growth are 8.5% in 2007, 6.3% in 2008, and 5.3% in 2009. Those are healthy numbers, if they are correct. Index Mundi says the numbers come from the CIA World Fact Book. I found the numbers at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2003.html

For comparison, the US grew at 1.97% in ’07, 0% in ’08, and -2.6% in ’09. Maybe I should be looking for work in Vietnam.

Monday 11/22/10  Last full day in Hanoi and Vietnam.

This morning, I augmented the Pho downstairs, (noodle soup),  with a fresh croissant from the bakery down the street for 27,000, and a mini baguette from a street lady for 5000. As is often the case here, the 5 cent baguette was 5 times better than the $1.35 croissant. I was about to check my email when the building lost all power, and the router to the internet also went dead. It was 10 AM by the time I went out armed only with my handbag and camera.

I found a motorman to take me to the Temple of Literature about  2 kilometers to the west, and to drive around parts of the Hanoi Citadel, still an active military base, so I could see what it’s walls looked like. The Citadel walls were modern, and painted yellow, and were a cement or brick base for a modern iron fence with sharp points to discourage climbers. On the western side, up 5 or 10 blocks, we came to what was obviously a section of the old wall from the 1700’s, and the cycle driver pulled up to it and pointed. I got excited and jumped off and took some quick pictures. There had been a massive old fortress here once, and I wonder how much of it is inside the huge military base, that is off  limits, and protected by armed guards in dark green uniforms and red epaulettes at every entrance.

The Temple of Literature was crowded, with both foreign and Vietnamese tourists. On Monday, most of the museums in the City are closed, so this was the place on Monday. Van Mieu was started in 1070, and it is one of the most complete and well preserved sites of old Viet architecture in the country. Founded by Emperor Le Thanh Tong, the temple is dedicated to Confucius, and was the first university in Vietnam. It was expanded to have shrines and a bronze worship statue of  Chu Ban An, added in just 2003, in a  pagoda behind the one for Confucius, and the nationalistic emphasis is clear. This Viet scholar, who was a very famous Director of the University in the 14th century, is now the biggest statue in the fanciest building, at the very end of the series of 5 courtyards. The third courtyard is full of long open pavilions filled with 82 stelae, huge stone slabs on the backs of giant stone turtles, with the names of thousands of famous scholars and mandarins carved into the stone slabs. After 1442, entrance to the University changed, from being just noblemen’s sons, to include any in the country with the highest examination scores.

Remember the container of jade and gold at the Musuem that I couldn’t figure out. Well, each worship statue had certain sacred objects in front of and behind it. In front was a large incense holder, candle sticks, and three covered vessels the exact same shape as the jade and gold object. I found enough French to ask a guide with a French group what the  3 covered vessels were, and he said that they  were for: incense, water and oil. He said the one for incense is now and has been for a long time redundant, since before the three covered vessels, was a lovely, wrought iron or bronze stand for hanging an incense coil. These Viets are all just like high Episcopalians, they love smoke and gold.

Several of the information plaques on the walls were in English, and one said that the three Le Emperors were largely responsible for introducing Confucianism into the government bureaucracy, and were therefore responsible for bringing a strong code of ethics, order and propriety to Vietnamese government.

I took pictures of the temple, but also of the teenage girls, all dressed up in festive Au dai gowns, who came in large groups, apparently, to take pictures of one another next to the sacred objects revering higher learning.

Upon leaving, I found a motodriver, and had him take me up north about 2 kilometers to the south side of the very large West Lake. The Lonely Planet said there were many seafood restaurants there, and you could get a good meal of seafood for under 100,000. I found the shoreline, and a restaurant with customers in it, but they ran to another restaurant to get a Menu in English, where all the prices had been crudely scratched out, and now, all the fish dishes were 400,000, or $20. I tried to get the young lady to serve me for 100kd, but she refused, so I got up and left, and went to the place across the street. There, I saw the Viet menu and picked it up as I walked by. They were owned by the first place, I found out later, and I got the same menu, brought back across the street. She recommended Fish Spring Rolls, for 400,000. I read the Viet words, and found the same item in their Viet menu, for 95,000. She said, that is for only one spring roll. I said nonsense, and ordered the dish. I was pretty upset, and decided that if she brought me one spring roll, I would walk out, but a waiter brought a plate of spring rolls, and bowls of weeds, cold rice noodles, and light nuoc mam based soup/sauce to dip everything in. I asked her how you were supposed to eat this food, and she balked, but a gentleman at the next table instructed her to show me, and she suggested that you take the sprint roll, and wrap it up in a large leaf of lettuce with some noodles and weeds, to then dip in the sauce. Her lesson was so terrible, that I would have been lost, if  I hadn’t remembered someone once describing this process a long time ago.  The food was fine, but cold rice noodles are not my favorite, and the best part of the meal was the spectacular view of  West Lake. I was the only customer in the place to not get a cloth napkin, but I got up and took a cup of  paper napkins form an adjacent table. I left without saying a word of thanks. Outside I recorded the name of the restaurant, as Nha Hang,  Vong Ba Lan, So 4 Thuy Kue Street, and the other place I’d walked out of was Nha Hang Van Boc Laa, of the same address, in case I could figure out who to effectively complain to. They were the same restaurant.

I found a moto driver, and had him drop me at the Long Bien Bridge, where rumor has it, you can walk across the bridge and see the Red River (Song Hong). I had trouble finding access, the road in front had a big sign, no pedestrians. After persisting, I found a staircase up to a railroad station, and walking across the tracks, though the building and out the door, I found access to 2.5 foot wide sidewalk next to a motorcycle lane, next to the railroad track on this narrow bridge. A female railroad official was gesticulating to someone as I emerged from the building, and she smacked me in the head with her hand, but it was just an accident. Next time I do this, I will find and approach from Hang Manh St.

It was such a long walk across the little sidewalk, that I started to wonder if  I shouldn’t have just had the motorman drive across and back. The bridge went over about ¾’s of mile of farmland, and then a mile of river. In the middle of the river was a huge sandbar, or an island, and the second channel was the main one, with all the huge barge boats. I didn’t see any really big ships, but I could feel that they could have managed the river, but not the bridges, which were too low. So the port for the big ocean going ships must have been to the south out of sight. Almost half way across this long bridge, I came across 20-30 women and men all selling corn. People over here set up shop just about anywhere. Walking back, I noticed that most of the farmland below were corn fields, and these people were probably the farmers, and they probably had regular customers pick up baskets and bags of corn on a daily basis.

Finding the egress on Hang Manh Street, I couldn’t agree with the a motoman about the fee to go back to my hotel. It was 8-10 blocks, and I was at 10, and he was at 20. So I walked a little farther, and asked a different driver to take me down to below Hoan Kiem Lake, to the women’s Museum, which might be open, and time was running out to see it if it was. We agreed to 25kd, but this was 4 times farther than my hotel. He dropped me off, and a guard told me cheerfully that the museum was closed on Mondays. It was just an oversight in the guidebook not to say so.

I strolled north, with nothing else on my list of things I needed to do, and found a coffee at a small shop. I then wandered up the west side of Hoan Kiem Lake, and visited the monument and temple to Le Thai To. “Legend has it that, in the mid- 15th century, Heaven sent Emperor Le Thai To (formerly Le Loi) a magical sword, which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war he happened upon a giant golden tortoise swimming on the surface of the water; the creature grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of the lake. Since that time, the lake has been know as Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) because the tortoise restored the sword to its divine owners.” (LPGV)

I wandered up to my hotel, in the heart of  the Old Quarter, and discovered that the internet was back, and I had mail from friends and finally, my brother.

Going downstairs to settle up, I was informed for the first time that the room wasn’t $25, but $27.50, because of a 10% VAT tax. I responded, you quoted me $25, not 27.50, and so, the tax is yours not mine,  it was never mentioned. He looked hard at me. He said, OK, and crumpled up the paper, and started the receipt over again.

I had carefully asked the other desk man yesterday, if they could provide me with some cash, by my putting extra onto the credit card bill, and he had said, sure, no problem. This man said they couldn’t, and that it was against the law, (which protects the government owned banks), so I have to be careful about spending tonight. I could have gone to a bank today to get cash off my credit card, but now I have to survive till the airplane, on 143,000 dong, and  $23 in greenbacks. It is frustrating to be in a country, where you cannot trust the information you are given. Luckily, I have done almost all of my shopping, and the two fares to the airport should come to about 100,000 dong. It would be ironic if I missed my plane because I bought Christmas presents last night and today.

I went out at 7 pm to find the shellfish stand at 1 Dinh Liet Street, and they were closing up, so I wandered around, and came across a very humble street stall, a small gas burner kept a pot of soup hot, and the woman  had one plastic table in front of her, with 3 or 4 little stools around it. A relatively well dressed couple was eating her soup, which on inspection was Pho with porc. I asked how much, she got out 25000 in notes and showed them to me, and I said OK. Her daughter and I were able to communicate in English a little, and  it turned out I was enjoying Bun Bung Thit. Noodle Soup with Porc. It was intimate, I was sitting with the other couple, with the woman across from them, mostly staring and smiling at me. In the middle of my meal, she pointed across the street, a Viet man with a large telephoto lens, was taking my picture- a big white man sitting on 8” plastic stool, at smallest pho shop on Dinh Liet Street. The mother sorted through her porc pieces with her bare right hand, pulling out the ones to drop in my bowl, soon to be covered with hot soup. She added salt, and later, I added some red hot pepper, and some dark pepper paste, which imbued the entire stock with flavor and zest. The daughter asked me my age, and I told her, 58. I asked her her age, and she told me she is 20. She agreed to take a dollar bill, and 5,000d, increasing my dong horde for taxi and shuttle van to the airport in the morning. I said goodbye to this sweet lady and her lovely daughter, found my hotel, and climbed the 4 flights of stairs. Taking my laptop, I put on the Spyglass Waltzes CD, with Rodney and Elvie Miller, and started to pack again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010  Last Day.                             

I woke at 6:10, and started to wash and finish packing. There was no wakeup call from the young men downstairs, so this was a good morning to wake up. I walked around outside, not many people up, after a huge weekend with late nights. There was a bag of mini baguettes hanging on a hook by a street corner, but the vendor they were left for hadn’t arrived yet, so I just admired them. At the hotel, I had an omlette, toast, coffee, mandarin oranges and a banana. I asked the young man to call a taxi, but when I got down stairs, he was just making the call. Outside, a taxi went by, and I hailed it. Somehow, the time had slipped away, and I watched with helpless anxiety, as the cab moved slowly through very crowded streets of traffic. Under the protection of the local genii, I caught the Vietnamese Airlines shuttle van, with only 5 minutes to spare, and got the last real seat in the vehicle. A woman said she was saving that seat, but the driver, a military type, told her to give it up. When the woman’s companion showed up, it was her daughter, a petit 20 year old . Patriarchal Confucian society was asserting itself. I guess I was being treated as a senior citizen as well as a male. Also, I was the only non Viet in the Van, and several taxi men offered to take me personally to the airport for “just $10.00.”  The driver collected money from everyone, and I noticed that the fare was 40,000 d, and I triumphantly handed him my last 100,000 dong note, and he gave me the correct change promptly-  a professional.

The van moved so slowly through the dense commuter traffic, that I again regretted taking the 8am shuttle instead of the 7:30, but I still enjoyed the long ride. We headed north, past the Hanoi Citadel Military base, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on the right. We finally climbed onto a 4 lane highway, but our second lane was for motor bikes, so we moved at about 30 miles an hour for the longest time. We crossed a very long bridge, that went over farmland, and then at least two branches of the Red River, so I took pictures. I was impressed by seeing farmland 30 minutes from the Old Quarter, squeezed in between industrial buildings and storage sites.

Suddenly, we were at the airport, and I got out, because everyone else did. I paid my respects to the rest room, at the far left side of a huge cavernous room, and then found the ticketing for DragonAir. I had no problem getting through the passport check and security. Near the gate, it seemed like a small airport. I could see about 3 medium-small sized jets. I went upstairs to the restaurants, was refused entry to the Business Class restaurant, but was admitted into the public one, which was pretty fancy. Mostly men, sat mostly alone, at large 6 person tables, with their laptops in front of them. Coffee was $2.50, but I was prepared. I had a 50,000 dong note that would be worthless in just a few minutes, so I splurged, only to find out that their free WIFI wasn’t working on my HP laptop.

Sitting before the gate, a nice Viet business man answered my question: where is the Hai Van pass mentioned in The Tay Son Uprising by George Dutton, which I will read all the way home – Answer: between Danang and Hue,. This same gent told me that DragonAir is Chinese. He then presented me with his business card, so I gave him mine.

I requested and received a nice window seat on the Airbus 320. We took 30 minutes to get airborne, but after all the waiting, the jet roared its engines, we gathered speed and lifted into the air in what felt like 15 seconds. These big birds have thrust; they know how to fly. I watched Vietnam get smaller and smaller, first the airport, then the farmlands. Suddenly the grid of small houses, roads and farmlands looked like it could be almost anywhere in the US. Soon after, there was nothing but clouds.

DragonAir provided a fine lunch, seafood or beef, and it was surprising that they would leave out salt and pepper, after doing such a good job on the shrimp, squid and scallops.

The Hong Kong Airport is big and beautiful, and the free wifi works. The mountains of Hong Kong were hidden in smog. I took care of email, but was asked to move by security. Ten guards in white shirts with black epaulettes arrived, and now, a crowd is going through a second, surprise baggage search of all carryon luggage, before boarding flights to Singapore, Los Angeles and New York. I’ve read that Homeland Security is also using this technique of random change, to confuse our enemies.

I spent a fair amount of energy at both airports, trying to price fancy Scotch at the duty free shops, even though I’m carrying too many books and computer, to want to lug a big bottle of Scotch home.  The prices are so high, that there seems no saving from Vietnam, and from Hong Kong, the savings is not impressive, although they do not add 3% for using a credit card. In Hong Kong, a female, retail clerk, asked me where I was going. She pointed out to me that Americans and Australians are no longer allowed to take any liquids over 100 milliliters on any plane, The sacrifices we make for the motherland. I wonder if Homeland Security isn’t just helping raise the tax participation of international travelers.

For the plane ride back to NY JFK, 15 and a half hours, I sat next to two cheerful Chinese grandparents from Hong Kong who spoke almost no English. He watched karate films, while I read the George Dutton Book, The Tayson Uprising. Half way through it, I think my novel will not have to be rewritten because of this motherlode of research. I got the general background facts right, or close, most of the time.

I had trouble sleeping in the upright chair, so I worked until midnight, after a big dinner with 12 year Chivas Regal compliments of  Cathay Pacific. Dutton discovered that the Ho brothers were real operators and opportunists. They convinced local peasants that they were supported by supernatural powers by staging faked supernatural events before them. I came across a few gems, like:

(Nhac) smuggled some drums and gongs up the hill and secretly arranged for them to be sounded and accompanied by flashing lights on the night of a local festival. Feigning surprise, but also curiosity, Nhac gathered a group of adventurous locals and led a procession up the hill. In the mists a the top they encountered a wizened old man who summoned Nhac by name and then read from a bronze tablet on which were inscribed the words, “The Jade Emperor orders Nguyen Nhac to serve as the country’s Emperor.” After reading it, the old man handed the tablet to the Tay Son leader, and vanished into the night. The old man was in fact Nhac’s teacher, Truong Van Hien, who, according to some versions, had advised him in arranging this stunt to enhance the rebel leader’s mystical aura.

At one point I went to the head, and through a window opening, I saw snow fields and mountains of northern Canada for miles and miles. It was night on the airplane, but midday outside in the bright sunshine. The stewardesses fed us lunch at 6 AM Vietnam time, because we were on the ground by 8 AM on my watch, which was 8 PM in NYC. The baggage took over 40 minutes to come out the shoot, which on almost no sleep felt like an eternity. I breezed through customs,  a character of no immediate interest to the government, and caught the CT Limo to New Haven. The black female driver drove faster and faster, till we were screaming 80 mph up CT I-95. I borrowed the only other passenger’s cell phone, and a friend picked me up, and I was home at midnight, or 12 noon, now the next day in Hanoi. I had now recouped the 12 hours lost in the flight over to Ho Chi Minh City. My teenagers were with their Mom.

Eldest son was driving down from the University of Connecticut at Storrs, having forgotten that he had agreed to pick me up. The cats, Dolly and Rolly, were surprised but pleased to see me, as were the neighbors, I soon discovered,  since I would put a stop to 2nd son’s unauthorized and illegal parties.

My credit card bill arrived. I had charged $432 in Vietnam, and used up $350 in cash, and $250 in travelers checks. So the trip cost about $1030., plus $1345 for airfare and limo, and $200 for the Yale Travel Clinic, totaling about $2600. At home, 2nd son confessed that a boy with his friends who’d crashed one of his larger parties  had all been ejected, and they had sent rocks through two basement windows, which took me about 5 hours to re-glass and glaze this week. Probably connected to these 5 unauthorized but large parties, the washing machine started to back up.  The main sewer line in the basement was clogged, and cost $370 for a plumber to fail at clearing, and then a  professional drain man to snake clean. On the other hand, I have some great pictures of my trip to show you all, which I can’t wait to edit down from 1000 to 100. I look forward to returning to Vietnam, one of the most beautiful and interesting countries in the world.    -30-

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