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Of course, borders are sexual, at least for men, for you’re about to enter a normally forbidden territory. This buildup, anxiety and euphoria is lessened if the border is a mere formality, or if you have a strong (and stiff enough) passport. For women, border crossers can promise adventure, for they may deliver you to another world, after entering yours.

For two weeks, I’ve been hugging a border. I type this in Si Ma Cai, just four miles from China, though the trek there is not level, and there’s nothing on the other side but wooded mountains.

Just last week, though, I was in Lao Cai, where each day I could stroll along the Red or Nanxi River and see what the Chinese were doing on their streets and balconies, or inside their windows. Along the bank of the Red River, a few men were fishing against a green backdrop of towering wild grass and bamboos. I fleetingly glimpsed two women walking their dogs.

Most of the time, though, there was no life. Most stores were closed. Unoccupied hotel rooms had their curtains always drawn. At mid-morning, a four-lane avenue leading to a grand gate and steep steps, a magnificent vista, had but one motorbike moving.

Normally bustling, Hekou and the Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture have become unnaturally void and silent, even as their multi-colored lights still dazzle at night. Thanks to the coronavirus, much of China is locked inside. Though seeing a Chinese in public is not quite like spotting Elvis or Big Foot, it is rare.

I came to Lao Cai from Dien Bien Phu, on a minibus that took ten hours, with stops to pick up passengers and to eat lunch. There was a friendly Chinese who communicated with me via a translation app. About forty-years-old, he alternated between looking eager and subdued.

Learning that I was Vietnamese, he asked, “Will you help me to find a wife?”

“Sure, when we get to Lao Cai,” I laughed.

“A beauty pageant winner?”

“Yes, of course. There are many.”

“A Vietnamese wife is too expensive,” he cranked up the humor. “Three hundred thousand dong [$13] for just half an hour!”

Since a conversation of this nature could only go so far, we didn’t say much more. A few hours later, the Chinese turned his attention to an Argentinian man, sitting right in front of me.

His opening, “I’m from China. I go back to China tomorrow. I’m only playing in Vietnam. Where are you from?”

When the Argentinian said something nice about China, the Chinese surprisingly retorted, “Dictatorship!”

Most people onboard were headed for trendy Sapa. In 1995, I saw its famous 1935 church still in ruins. It had been shelled by the Chinese during their 1979 invasion. A local told me people had fled in terror to the hills. In 2020, I opened the minivan window to better scan all the new, brightly-lit hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars.

Lao Cai was completely destroyed during this barely remembered border war, and was abandoned for a dozen years. Both sides laid down thousands of mines.

This remote region has long been fought over, however, for it’s a lucrative trade route between Yunnan and Vietnam. Opium shipped downriver while sea salt flowed upstream. Fattening on taxes, the Black Flag bandits were based in Lao Cai. Tai and Hmong Lords staked out territories.

Trying desperately to retain their identity, there are ethnic groups here almost no one has heard of, such as the Kháng (down to 14,000 people), the La Chí (13,000), the Phù Lá (11,000) or the Pa Dí (just 2,000). Much larger groups, though, are also losing this battle, and yours, too, of course. Cultural castration is a worldwide pandemic. We’re all being unmanned.

As the British rushed to reach Yunnan via Burma, the French got there first through Lao Cai, in 1886. In 1906, they linked it with Hanoi by a railroad that cost 12,000 Vietnamese and Chinese lives, plus 80 European ones.

When the Englishman Archibald Little came to Lao Cai in 1911, this was what he saw:

LAO-KAI presents the same contrast to Ho-k’ou, that the Model Settlement does to the Shanghai city; on crossing the railway bridge that now unites the two towns, one passes abruptly from filth and disorder into wide macadamised streets lined with shade trees; clean white bungalows, one and two-storied, a small bund with pontoon wharf—a miniature Point de Galle with the same tropical air and vegetation, but also a close, steamy atmosphere due to its situation in a narrow valley distant 265 miles from the sea. There are few or no Chinese in Lao-kai (it costs them about six shillings a head to enter French territory) and, in the siesta hour, in which we landed, there were apparently no inhabitants. The military are stationed on the right bank and have to cross the rushing river by ferry to come into Lao-kai; the piers of a high bridge, solid circular pillars of brick and stone, were erected some years ago, but the idea of completing the bridge seems to have been abandoned. The chief buildings are the offices of the administration, a spacious Custom-house with godowns attached, the offices of the “Messageries Fluviales,” the Post Office and the Hotel Fleury, where we put up, also a roomy military “cercle,” pleasantly situated on a bluff overlooking the river, and a bandstand in the central “Square.” Towards evening, after an enjoyable dejeuner at the hotel, we sat on the verandah listening to a military band, we having happily arrived on band-day, and felt that in crossing the Nam-ti we had re-entered civilisation; but we pitied the folk whose duties relegate them to this depressing spot, with little to occupy them, no sports, no society, nowhere to go; hemmed in as they are by pathless jungle.

A century later, Hekou has surpassed Lao Cai in tall buildings, array of shops and modernity, for China is no longer mired in “filth and disorder.” Things can reverse fast.

Just before we entered Lao Cai, the Chinese showed me his phone, “Can we stay together at the hotel?”

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: China, Vietnam 
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Nothing is equal to anything else. In 1904, Jack London traveled from Korea to China. As soon as he crossed the border, he saw what he thought was a much more energetic, resourceful and resilient civilization,

“I rode to the shore, into the village of Kuelian-Ching. There were no lounging men smoking long pipes and chattering. The previous day the Russians had been there, a bloody battle had been fought, and to-day the Japanese were there—but what was that to talk about? Everybody was busy. Men were offering eggs and chickens and fruit for sale upon the street, and bread, as I live, bread in small round loaves or buns. I rode on into the country. Everywhere a toiling population was in evidence. The houses and walls were strong and substantial. Stone and brick replaced the mud walls of the Korean dwellings. Twilight fell and deepened, and still the ploughs went up and down the fields, the sowers following after. Trains of wheelbarrows, heavily loaded, squeaked by, and Pekin carts, drawn by from four to six cows, horses, mules, ponies, or jackasses—cows even with their newborn calves tottering along on puny legs outside the traces. Everybody worked. Everything worked. I saw a man mending mending the road. I was in China.”

Gushing at length over the Chinese, London concludes,

“The Korean is the perfect type of inefficiency—of utter worthlessness. The Chinese is the perfect type of industry. For sheer work no worker in the world can compare with him. Work is the breath of his nostrils. It is his solution of existence. It is to him what wandering and fighting in far lands and spiritual adventure have been to other peoples. Liberty to him epitomizes itself in access to the means of toil. To till the soil and labour interminably with rude implements and utensils is all he asks of life and of the powers that be. Work is what he desires above all things, and he will work at anything for anybody.”

Having been around enough Koreans, I wouldn’t categorize them as slack or worthless. They seem very energetic, and even fierce, to me, but London is correct about the Chinese’s industry. Grunting, they press their sweaty shoulders to the wheel.

Crossing from Laos back into Vietnam, I thought of London’s comparison, for immediately, the landscape became animated with people buying, selling or working in the fields. Across verdant paddies, dozens of figures were bent over to plant rice seedlings. Everything seemed more purposeful than in Laos. Even the herons flew straighter, and each dog yawned with more determination.

On the minibus itself, we had had to endure one very loud Vietnamese. Though hardly typical, he was certainly a product of a more aggressive society, than Laos’. Overdoing it, the foul mouthed and desperately cocky young man may end up dead or in jail soon. “Fuck mother” was his constant refrain, with “fuck grandma” thrown in occasionally for variety.

There is no place that isn’t worth revisiting, so that one’s impressions can be deepened, complicated or even inverted. Some towns, though, continually tug within one’s mind, so that, given a chance, I’d love to become more confidential and sweaty with Juarez, Great Yarmouth, Kiev, Napoli or Missoula, for example, and Dien Bien Phu, too, for my first fling was just too brief. I had missed too many insinuations.

Thanks to its epoch changing battle in 1954, Dien Bien Phu is legendary, and during my first visit in 1995, the road leading towards it was so bad, and the population so thin, that one could imagine it had changed little since those epic 56 days. A French tank, two pieces of artillery and General de Castries’ bunker stood lonely in the open fields. Until the 1990’s, a trip from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu still took five days.

Even more than stones, bricks or people, stories make a place, and Dien Bien Phu’s are larger than life. Since it was a catastrophe for the French, there were no Gallic heroes save the nurse Geneviève de Galard. Stranded because her medevac Dakota had veered off the runway, then shelled to pieces, de Galard stoically joined Dien Bien Phu’s squalid and gory hospital, until she too was taken prisoner with the rest. The only other women in the French garrison were Algerian and Vietnamese prostitutes in two bordels militaire de campagne.

The French commander is not so well-remembered. In Kevin Boylan and Luc Olivier’s Valley of the Shadow, he’s succinctly indicted, “On the very first night of the siege, de Castries had surrendered most of his authority as garrison commander to Langlais by making him responsible both for defending the Main Position and managing the reserves. This remarkable abdication of authority was symptomatic of a crisis in command that arose because de Castries, stunned by the shocks and reverses of the siege’s first hours, had sunk into pessimism and inertia.”

As for his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel René Keller “suffered a nervous breakdown and sat motionless in the command bunker cowering under a steel helmet that he never removed.” On the third day of the siege, the artillery commander Charles Piroth committed suicide with a hand grenade.

To be fair, it’s not easy to fight a war across the globe with a hodgepodge army of Germans, Italians, Belgians, Moroccans, Algerians, Congolese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laos, Hmong and Tai, etc. Non-French troops made up 87% of Dien Bien Phu’s 14,000 defenders.

Most Tai sided with the French since Dien Bien Phu was on their territory, which they had controlled since at least the 15th century. Correctly, they feared the Vietnamese more than the French, whom they knew were already halfway out the door. There were never enough French in Indochina to overwhelm Tai villages or warp their identity. Now, Tai children in Vietnam study the Vietnamese language and history, and know nothing about their own heroes, Deo Van Tri or Deo Cat Han, etc.

The Viet Minh also had their Tai allies, so at Dien Bien Phu, you had Tai fighting against Tai, and Vietnamese warring against other Vietnamese, with each man believing, or allowing himself to believe, he’s defending his people’s interests. Although the African and European mercenaries could not be so justified, they could claim to be fighting for “the free world.”

After defeat, Geneviève de Galard was not just feted in France, but the United States, where she was given a ticker tape parade down Broadway, lined with 250,000 admirers. A congresswoman lauded Galard as a “symbol of heroic femininity in the free world,” and in Washington DC, Eisenhower awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Covertly, Eisenhower had authorized dozens of American pilots and hundreds of mechanics to assist the French in Vietnam, and the CIA was also active there. The Viet Minh got help from Chinese advisors, mechanics and perhaps truck drivers. Historical events should always be reexamined, new evidence dug up and debates encouraged. It is not just absurd, but a cowardly crime, to criminalize historical investigations.

Although Bernard F. Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place is a classic, it gets several key facts wrong, but no one has ever accused him of dishonesty. Fall set the stage for latter historians. No ivory tower-percher, Fall humped bushes and died from stepping on a mine near Hue. His exact last words, as captured by a tape recorder, “We’ve reached one of our phase lines after the firefight and it smells bad, meaning it’s a little bit suspicious. Could be an amb…”

 
• Category: Culture/Society, History • Tags: Vietnam, Vietnam War 
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So now I’ve been to the Plain of Jars. Among places, it has among the most evocative of names. It sounds so plain, yet so poetic, because we simply don’t associate any plain, or meadow, with jars, and we’re not talking about Mason ones here, but stone, and huge, with the largest ten feet tall and weighting 14 tons.

The average Lao man is only 5’3”, and the average woman, 4’11,” so these tiny people used iron tools to shape and hollow out thousands of these funerary urns made of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone or breccia, except that they didn’t, because the current inhabitants of Laos weren’t here two thousand years ago, when these jars were made.

Laos have their own explanations. Some believe these jars were used by a race of giants to brew and store alcohol, in celebration of a hard-fought military victory. Whatever their size, they had the surplus time and wealth to make such expensive coffins.

Even when well-documented, history is filled with distortions, if not outright lies, and though some of our greatest achievements may survive our protean and often gleeful destruction, their significance is often lost.

The Plain of Jars has many more secrets, not least the CIA’s Secret War. Initiated by Eisenhower, it would be clandestinely sanctioned and escalated by Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. It was here that the “intelligence” agency became a rogue fighting force, accountable to neither the Pentagon nor Congress, much less the eternally clueless American public. Using unprecedented airpower and a proxy army, the Hmong, the CIA’s Secret War in Laos provided the template for other American interventions, down to our days. Instead of using troops to conquer an enemy, America would just bomb the targeted society into submission. It would be machine against flesh, often civilian. Drones have no conscience, never cower and cannot be mourned.

Tiny, thus weak, Laos has long been intruded on, however. Just since the 19th Century, this Land of a Million Elephants has been invaded by the Thais, Burmese and Vietnamese, not to mention the White Tais and their fearsome Chinese ally, the Black Flag Army.

Bet you haven’t heard of this punk band. Led by the Hakka Liu Yongfu, the Black Flag were bandits and mercenaries. Fighting against the French on behalf of the Vietnamese, it killed Francis Garnier, the conqueror of Hanoi. Always looking for a blood bath, Liu ended up in Taiwan in 1895, where he was immediately made a brigadier general of the fleeting Formosa Republic. Promptly defeated by the Japanese, Liu fled Taiwan on a British ship, disguised as a coolie. Don’t you believe, not even for a second, slanderous accounts that insist Liu was dressed as a hag. May the nearest black flag lance, repeatedly and with a twisting motion, such reckless rumor mongers!

Visiting Laos in 1950, Norman Lewis never made it to the Plain of Jars, for the roads were much worse then. Plus, there were the Khmer Issarak and Viet Minh guerrillas to avoid. With frightful understatement, here’s how Lewis describes an accident in his convoy, “On our right was a precipice, but the vegetation was so thick that you could get no idea of the drop […] we were nosing our way round the hill, keeping a lookout for occasional gaps in the road left by subsidences, when the lorry ahead suddenly turned off the road and went over the side. Gently, almost, it was lowered from sight amongst the bamboos. Up till the last fraction of a second before a thousand graceful stems screened it from our view it was still upright and quite level. The soldiers in it had hardly risen from their seats and raised their arms not so much in alarm, it seemed, as to wave farewell.” Even then, multiple deaths in Laos hardly registered.

My 10-hour minibus trip from Vientiane to Phonsavan, the portal to the Plain of Jars, was nowhere nearly as eventful, but with all the potholes and switchbacks on endless mountain passes, I disembarked feeling like hell anyway. I am not young.

In the lobby of my one-star Nice Guesthouse, I noticed some Pathet Lao weapons on the floor, as decorations, but over the next several days, it was much more common to run into American bombshells, literally hundreds of them. They fronted restaurants, hotels and travel agencies, and were used in the countryside as columns and fence posts. Inside the Dokkhoune Guesthouse, cluster bombs, artillery shells and ammunition belts were stacked on mesh wired shelves, and outside a huge wedding banquet hall, several dozen yellow bombs, with many rusted brown, stood sentry to lend, I don’t know, a macabre tint to each matrimony.

Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Si Phan Don all receive many more visitors than out-of-the-way Plain of Jars, so on my minibus, I was the only non-Lao, yet even in Phonsavan (pop. 40,000), there’s an excellent Indian restaurant, and even a highly regarded Italian one, with a Genoese owner and a Spanish chef, one who had learnt his craft in il bel paese.

The most conspicuous foreigners, though, were Vietnamese. They ran all types of businesses throughout town. At Phonxay Restaurant, I noticed two scrolls on the wall with Vietnamese writing, so I talked to its owner. Seventy-one-years-old, she came to Phonsavan in 1955.

Nineteen Vietnamese families were recruited to this area by the Chinese Communists, she said, to clear the land. Chinese Communists in Laos? So that’s another secret. Struck by various jungle sicknesses, some Vietnamese died soon after arrival.

“There were so few doctors, and almost no medicines,” she said.

“Of those 19 families, how many are left?”

“We’re the only one! Most left for Vientiane, or even overseas. They dropped a lot of bombs here.”

“Were you here during that entire time?”

“Yes, I was. When you hear them coming, you have to jump into a hole. We had holes dug all over.”

A bomb shelter at a home received a direct hit, so 11 people died, she said, from two families, “It was worst for three years. From 1969 until 1971. In 1972, it stopped.”

“How long would it last, each bombing?”

“It would last for ten minutes, but another wave would come, then another wave!”

“So how long would it last altogether, sister?”

“On the worst day, it went from 6 in the morning until 7 at night.”

“So you just had to stay in the hole all day long?”

“Yes, but some people got out early…”

“And they died?”

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Laos, Vietnam War 
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The first white I met in Laos was a man of about 50. He was hunched over on a couch in the shabby lobby of a mini hotel, by the Savannakhet bus station. Not a big tourist attraction, the city does have an elegant Catholic church and dinosaur bones in a museum. When I addressed the man in English, he replied, “Ah, my English, not so good!”

“So what do you speak?”

“French, German, Spanish, Italian and a little bit of Portuguese.”

“Where are you from?”

“Luxembourg!”

The second white I met was at the No Name Bar in Vientiane. It is open onto the street, with half of its stools outside. The bartenders are young and pretty.

He came in with a youngish South Asian man and a middle-aged Lao woman. They were boisterous, alright.

The Lao’s English comprehension was good enough to understand just about everything her companions said, apparently, but when she spoke, it was mostly interjections, punctuated by constant laughter, “Sometimes, I look him! Very stupid!”

Or, “You drunk already?!” I drunk!”

Or, “I drink! You drink! We happy! How many you drink?”

If this woman doesn’t stop speaking English soon, the world will run out of punctuation marks.

The white man’s English was clearly not American, so I guessed, “Are you Australian?”

“No, Norwegian!”

“But you speak English perfectly.”

“Thank you.” He smiled. “In school, I did better in English than Norwegian.”

His name was Thom, and he had been in Laos for three months, he explained, and he would stay three more weeks.

That’s a very long vacation, I thought. “So are you a rich guy?”

“No, no, I’m not rich!” Thom laughed.

“So how do you make money?”

“I’m an online gamer. I have my PlayStation here.”

“Very interesting.”

“And I also get a pension.”

“A pension?! You don’t look old enough.” Thom’s a thin, pale man of about 5-10, with groggy eyes, a moustache, scraggly beard, mullet haircut and no wedding band. “How old are you?”

“Thirty-four.”

“How do you get a pension at thirty four?!”

“That’s Norway! But I was sick, really sick. I was pissing blood, shitting blood. I worked in transportation, but I couldn’t work anymore, so I said to them, ‘Why don’t you just give me my pension?’ So they did!”

“When was this?”

“A year ago. I get 14 million kips a month. That’s, like, 1,600 dollars!”

For doing nothing, that’s not bad at all, though not so great if you’re still in Norway, where a draft beer is $10, then you’re expected to tip 15%. A plate of spaghetti at an ordinary restaurant will set you back $23.

In Laos, Thom can drink without limits, and have very fine meals for under $10, easy. A bowl of udon with crispy pork is just $1.70, and a good cheeseburger costs $5. He can get a savory crepe at an excellent French joint for just $6.50, not that he’s that kind of a guy.

Not all is well, though, for Thom’s trouble magnet, “I have no impulse control. If you felt like breaking a window, you wouldn’t do it, would you? But I would. That’s why I have to take pills, but I can’t get them in Laos. It is a problem.”

Since you can get all kinds of illegal drugs here, for very cheap, I don’t see why prescription ones should be a problem?

Thom, “I’ve been robbed, man, scammed. I’ve been mugged. They wait outside the bar for you, then follow you. The other day, three of them tried to rob my motorbike, but I fought them all off!”

“That’s not very smart. You didn’t know how many of them there were. They could have killed you.”

“But I fought them all off, and I yelled to this tuk-tuk guy nearby.”

“And he helped you?”

“And he helped me chase them away!”

“You must know how to fight. Most guys don’t.”

“I don’t punch. I headbutt. That’s how you get them.”

I just laughed.

Thom, “About ten days ago, I was just dancing and having a good time, but this farang guy thought I had looked at him funny, so he gave me shit.”

“What nationality was he?”

“I think he was British. The bar owner is my friend. He said, ‘Thom, it’s not worth it,’ so I just walked away.”

“He’s Lao.”

“Yeah, he’s Lao. So I walked away, but the British guy followed me outside the bar, and he just punched me!”

“He sucker punched you?”

“Yeah, but I grabbed him by the head, and I headbutted him. I knocked him out!”

“Just like that?”

“Yeah, then I ran!”

“You know what you’re doing.”

“No, I don’t. A few days ago, I fell down in the bathroom, and knocked myself the fuck out! I thought somebody had beaten up.”

“You must have been super drunk.”

“Yeah, but there was water on the floor.”

“There often is.”

“Three guys carried me out. When I opened my eyes, I asked them, ‘Did somebody beat me up?’ It was pretty funny. I did hurt my fuckin’ knee,” and he rubbed his right knee. The memory made him shudder.

“You don’t want to go to the hospital here, or to jail.”

“I almost did. I was with this farang guy when he ODed, and the cops took me in.”

“They thought you had given him the drugs?”

“Yeah, but I had nothing to do with it.”

“So did he die?”

“No, he didn’t. They took him to the hospital, then deported him.”

“What nationality was he?”

“I think British.”

Because of his English proficiency, Thom’s likely to hang out with English speakers, one must assume, so French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian guys, etc., may also be fighting and overdosing as much, just not in Thom’s presence.

Thom’s South Asian friend turned out to be a Nepalese-born resident of Dubai. An executive for a multi-national, he’d been in Laos for 67 days, but not for work, just for fun.

“Oh man,” Thom lamented, “In three months, I’ve lost about 37,000,000 kips.”

“Man, how do you lose that much? That’s, like, more than four thousand bucks!”

“They rob you, trick you, put shit in your drinks.”

“That’s so much money, man, but you’re still here, and having a good time, so everything is cool. You should think of it as a tax. It’s your tax for being here.”

“That’s a pretty high tax!” Thom laughed. “It’s worse than Norway!”

After this, I’d see Thom around Baan Anou, and he always appeared happily drunk, except once. Just after 7AM, Thom was sweetly curled up at the corner of Setthathilath and Saigon. He had but one flipflop on, and behind his ass, on the street itself yet still upright, was an empty bottle of Beerlao. That very evening, Thom was out again, whooping it up with other youngish farangs.

In two days, Thom’s flying back to Norway to check on his sick grandma, so don’t tell me he’s not responsible!

We talked over country songs of Thom’s choosing. He loves Billy Carrington, “God is great, beer is good and people are crazy!”

Toby Keith, “We got winners, we got losers / Chain smokers and boozers / An’ we got yuppies, we got bikers / An’ we got thirsty hitchhikers / And the girls next door dressed up like movie stars / Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, I love this bar!”

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Laos 
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I’m in Vientiane, a sleeping beauty just starting to wake up. I’m typing this at Spirit House, because it’s quiet. Three tables away sit two middle-aged monks. Checking their smartphones, they’re just chilling. Puffing a cigarette, one flashes his purple nipple episodically.

In his cage, a crested bird whistles, while others, flying freely, chirp. The Mekong is within sight but barely trickling. There are too many dams upriver, most of them Chinese. With its hand on the spigot, China has much of Southeast Asia by its yellow balls. It’s always soothing to watch the red sun set, right from here.

After spending a week at the Davika Hotel, in a windowless room costing $20 a night, a bit too much for my taste and welfare, I’m now contentedly tucked into the alarmingly named Mixok.

For just $11 daily, I might just linger here until death do us part, though this wheezing resthouse is likely to collapse before I do, in the middle of the night, under an impossibly huge moon. A final monsoon will wash us all away.

My barred window looks into a narrow and pleasantly noisy alley. This is the tropics, man, where men, birds and/or insects are supposed to generate an unceasing cacophony. Within shouting distance, there’s the Lao Poet Hotel, but that costs $90 a night, and at the far end, there’s La Cage du Coq. It’s not a whorehouse, cockfight club or mixed martial arts gym, but merely a French restaurant, where entrees hover around nine bucks. No, thanks.

Traveling alone, I’m accompanied by a French corpse. Montbéliard-born Henri Mouhot (1826-1861) wrote wonderfully in English, “It is only in the solitude and depth of the woods that one can fully admire and enter into the sort of harmony and concord which reigns in the songs of the various birds, forming such a pleasing kind of symphony that the voice of one is rarely overpowered by that of another; one can enjoy at once the general effect and the melodious note of the particular winged musician we prefer. Scarcely does the sun begin to gild the tops of the trees, when, alert and gay, they commence their morning hymn. The martins, the warblers, the drongos, and the dominicans, respond to the turtle-doves’ cooing in the highest branches. Music of a less dulcet nature is discoursed by the aquatic and rapacious tribes, such as cranes, herons, and kingfishers, who from time to time utter their piercing cries.”

Even in a Lao city, birds still serenade all day long, so I’m happy to have a window again. The most blessed trees are riotous with twittering birds.

Before dawn, orange clad, barefoot monks in single files make their rounds to exchange chanted blessings for food. Waiting for them on sidewalks, the devout sit on straw mats or low stools. In front of them are woven baskets and aluminum or wooden bowls containing sticky rice, bananas, money and/or bottles of water. Lao and Thai monks are forbidden to eat after noon, so many down soft drinks all day long, resulting in more than a few turning into virtual Buddhas, in form if not spirit.

Also out are whores with verifiable snatches and ladyboys, trawling for drunk farangs. Seeing me wandering, a smiling beauty puts her hands together and stands on one foot.

I had wanted to come earlier, but flights from Saigon were indirect and surprisingly expensive, and there were no vans or buses from Ea Kly, where I also lived. This time, taking a bus from Da Nang to Savannakhet cost me just $17.30, but I almost didn’t make it to the station.

The hired driver freaked when I spoke to him in Vietnamese, on the phone. Soon after hanging up, he texted, “I’m sorry, brother, but I don’t drive Vietnamese or Viet Kieus. You should contact the travel agent for a refund.”

At least he answered my call. “Brother,” I pleaded, “I’ve already booked a hotel in Laos, and I’ve returned my room in Hoi An. I’m standing in the dark, with my bags. Not all Viet Kieus are the same, and you don’t even know me. Just do me a favor, brother, and take me to Da Nang.”

After fifteen minutes of haggling with him and the travel agent, the crank finally showed up, but only on the condition that he wouldn’t charge me anything, just to show that this was never about money. He just hated his fellow Vietnamese, at least as customers.

With relief, I entered his car. As dawn paled, however, I got a closer look at this man’s face and realized, with renewed anxiety, that we had met days earlier.

I had walked into his travel agency after seeing a board listing bus rides into Laos, “Brother, I have an American passport. Do I need a visa for Laos?”

“Of course, you need a visa! You need a visa to enter every country!”

“Actually, you don’t. Some countries don’t require a visa.”

“They all require a visa!” He smirked.

“Brother, I’ve been to about thirty countries, and many of them didn’t require a visa. I know.”

“I don’t care if you’ve been to a hundred! They all require a visa!”

Shaking my head, I had walked out, yet here I was, being driven by the same combative man. I was at his mercy. How does a guy like that stay in business? Who can live with him?

In silence, we rolled up Highway One, on a stretch that had been littered with the mangled dead, screaming wounded and busted vehicles in March of 1975. Finally, the bus station came into view in gorgeous sunshine. I got on my coach.

The twelve-hour ride was uneventful. There were three rows of two-tiered sleeping berths, with each made for a stunted, bunched up munchkin. The two aisles were also packed, with one man forced to sit nearly the entire time. This scrawny and frowning dude could have gained a bit more space just by piping up a bit, for the woman right in front of him had too much room. A Gimpel the Fool type, though, he kept his peace.

We passed through Quang Tri, then Khe Sanh. All along the way, there were many cemeteries embellishing the landscape, for most of them were quite gorgeous, with their graves inspiringly ornate, each a miniature Oriental temple. These cities of the dead looked better than the living ones, nearby. There were also many military cemeteries, where the unidentifiable also rested. We’re just pondering hash.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Laos 
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From 10AM to 11PM, Hoi An’s old town is choked with tourists, so just get there just after sunrise if you want to admire its architecture, and it is magnificent. How did this slice of old Vietnam survive?

During the Vietnam War, Hoi An was the administrative center for the entire province, so it was well-protected by the South Vietnamese. After 1975, Le Duan ordered many shrines and temples destroyed, to eradicate superstition. For two decades, he was the head honcho of the Vietnamese Communist Party. A true progressive, Duan relentlessly lunged towards an ever-elusive utopia as he copiously farted at the stinking and reactionary past, but at least he was anti-Chinese, many Vietnamese will add in his defense. It was left to a Pole, interestingly, to save much of Hoi An.

The architect and preservationist Kazimierz Kwiatkowski spent nearly 16 years in Vietnam. Working with Vietnamese archeologists, he documented the astonishing Cham site of My Son, then turned his attention to Hoi An, then atrociously neglected. Primarily through his efforts, both My Son and Hoi An have become recognized as World Heritage Sites. On Tran Phu Street in the heart of Hoi An’s old town, there’s a Kazimierz Kwiatkowski Park, with an eight-foot-tall stone portrait of this noble man, as executed by sculptor Pham Hong.

Documenting My Son, eight members of Kwiatkowski’s team died, either through illnesses or by stepping on unexploded mines, left over from the Vietnam War. Kwiatkowski could have easily been one of them, but it was all worth it, “I can put up with anything, as long as I can live for these [Cham] towers.”

Wandering around Hoi An, I can’t help but notice how hideous are many of the tourists. As one with an extensive catalog of congenital defects, generic and likely even unique, I should be the last one to judge. Still, I think their ugliness can be partly attributed to the fact that they’re hectically being herded on tour, with the imperative to constantly admire everything in front of them. They’re denied travel’s chief pleasure of freedom. Surrounded by beauty, they look like constipated grief.

The point isn’t to enjoy yourself anywhere, but to take enough photos to prove that you have had a great time in some place your neighbors haven’t been. Just as nearly all of life now comes to us via photos, we can only convince others, and ourselves also, of having lived, through photos. The world’s infinite richness has been reduced to a monotony of duckfaced selfies.

In Hoi An, I often felt like I was plowing through a biblical-sized daytrip from some mental hospital, for I certainly bumped into Nurse Ratched at least half a dozen times, as well as (mostly Chinese) versions of Chief Bromden, Billy Bibbit, Martini and Candy, etc.

Looking uncomfortable, they sit exposed on pedicabs to be steered, most recklessly, through the packed-sardine streets. It’s Vietnam’s version of the Running of the Bulls. For variety, maybe Spanish Toro Bravos can be imported here, and demented pedicab drivers can be dispatched to Pamplona.

Sitting on a low stool, an eyeless man suggests to passersby, “You buy Tiger bomb?” He means “balm.”

Flabby, mouth-breathing dude, “INSTALLING MUSCLES / PLEASE WAIT.”

Scowling broad, “THAT’S GLITTER / NOT SWEAT.”

Strutting primate, “BATHING APE,” with a tricorn wearing monkey, on top of a cartoony skull and bones.

There is a tiny, tucked away oasis from all this at Tadioto, a bar owned by Nguyen Qui Duc. One afternoon, I looked up my old friend to find the mofo as suave as ever. With Vietnam’s turbulent history, few can claim to be from a pedigreed family, but Duc comes close. His great grandfather is Nguyen Van Tuong, a Machiavelli, Cromwell type who had a hand in the liquidation of three Vietnamese kings. He screwed a queen. Deported by the French to Tahiti, Tuong died there in 1885. Duc’s father was the highest South Vietnamese civilian official arrested by the Communists in 1968, and he wasn’t released until 1980.

“This guy is a great poet,” Duc introduced me to his manager, a young South African.

“Yeah, right, you’re so full of shit,” I wearily replied, then to the South African, “How long have you been here, dude?”

“Just five weeks.”

“Five weeks?! What brought you here?”

“My girlfriend.”

“Is she Vietnamese?”

“No, Australian, but she was born in Hoi An. She speaks Vietnamese perfectly.”

“Amazing!”

Duc told me he was finishing his Morocco novel, and starting a screenplay about Madame Nhu. What a mess of a family. Her brother killed their parents in Washington D.C.

Duc is infatuated with Morocco. He stays there for a month each year. Since the 62-year-old had only published one book, I urged, “You better get your ass moving, man. Soon, it will be over. I already feel exhausted.”

To rejuvenate myself, I finally got a shave, by the way. This cost me but $1.30, so now I only look five years older, and not 15 or 25!

One day, poet, journalist and documentary filmmaker Lieu Thai rescued me from this mass tourism madness. In their beat-up Corona, he and his wife whisked me to their home in rural Dien Minh. Thank God I’m a country boy, at least for a day.

Suddenly, I was no longer among sad cases in retarded T-shirts, but salt of the bombed earth desperados, standing in fragrant and pristine mud. With its rows of areca palms, the landscape was a softly lit, balming retreat into a more eternal existence. Lieu Thai’s wife quickly dished up goat, pork then chicken with bamboo shoots, but she didn’t care to get sloppy with us, so Lieu Thai and I steadily clanked glasses of three Vietnamese wines, one from as far north as Sapa.

Though this was our first meeting, Lieu Thai didn’t hesitate to offer me an indefinite stay at a house he owned, “It has all amenities, and you can even use of a motorbike!”

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Vietnam 
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It’s always good to get up at dawn to walk around, for you’ll see a less guarded, composed and worn out version of humanity. They’ll still have the rest of the day to blunder, lapse, commit a crime or jump off a bridge. Passing a Nha Trang park, I spot middle aged broads dancing the cha-cha-cha, and an old man clapping his hands loudly as he sternly strolls around its perimeter. Like everybody else, Vietnamese are more or less insane. Always grumbling about the Chinese, they pray daily to Chinese gods.

Ducking into a cafe, I promptly email my friend Niccolo Brachelente in Okinawa, “I’ve been in Nha Trang for a few days. It’s my first close look at this city. Tons of Russian and Chinese tourists, and lots of restaurants serving foreign food. I talked briefly to a guy from Puglia. He owns Da Fernando. You may want to find work in Nha Trang. I think you’d like it here.”

A sommelier then restaurant manager, Niccolo has been in Asia and away from his beloved Tuscany for 15 years. He’d rather go home and teach yoga, but the economy there is bad. Niccolo’s sister toils in Germany.

I always take care of my fellow Italians, capite? I have no idea why il mio padre gave me such a non-Italian sounding name?! Vafanculo to him and his spaghetti barge, if there’s such a thing! Next time I’m in Sicilia, I’ll get La Cosa Nostra to burn down la casa nostra, with him in it. That will teach il coglione to not fuck with a real Italian!

It’s not even 7AM, so I better calm down. Tranquillo, tranquillo! This day might not go well. Like I said, I met Fernando. As I scanned his persuasive menu on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, the white-haired dude ran out.

“I lived two years in Italy,” I said to him in Italian.

“Me, many more.” Funny man. “I’m from Puglia.”

“I lived near Siena.”

“Siena.”

““In Certaldo. The birthplace of Boccaccio.”

“Very famous, Boccaccio. No one knows him.”

A natural comedian, this Fernando. Hardly anyone in the West knows his heritage anymore, and if he does, he’s deeply ashamed of it. For soiling us all with The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare should be expunged, at least, if not drawn, quartered, decapitated and dipped in chopped liver. Ban that cracker!

In Vietnam, heritage is always stressed, for nationalism is what holds this nation together. Military heroes from centuries past are revered, and key poets have streets named after them. On propaganda billboards, it’s patriotism, national unity and the need to protect the country that are stressed, with nothing ever said about international brotherhood or communist solidarity. That shit doesn’t fly here. Russia and China, too, have become unequivocally nationalistic, and that’s why they’re still confident and strong, unlike a certain bickering, confused and opioid-addled pseudo nation.

In the US, working class bars are festooned with flags, and politicians spout patriotic slogans and concerns for Main Street, but it’s all mindless symbolism and desperate or cynical posturing. There is no emphasis on knowledge of history or preservation of heritage.

In Nha Trang, there’s a street and high school named after Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943), and his house is a museum. There’s even an Association des Admirateurs de Yersin that does a lot of charity work. A great man, the famed bacteriologist is justly honored in his adopted homeland.

Russians and Chinese swarm all over downtown Nha Trang, but do they mingle? Of course not, for they can’t talk, or have anything in common culturally. They both eat dumplings, but one with a thin sour cream, and the other with satay and soy sauce. When I sat in the Russian-owned Killed Kenny Bar for several hours, I met people from England, Northern Ireland, Australia and the United States, but no Chinese or even Vietnamese.

The American was Nathan Mathabane, son of Mark, who wrote Kaffir Boy. Nathan is impressive enough. A geology major who also ran Division 1 tracks, he’s now an Assistant Dean of Admission at Princeton. Nathan’s in Vietnam to check out its diving scene. Happy to run into each other, we talked at length about Oregon, New Jersey, Philly and the sad state of an increasingly angry country. I hope to run into you again, Nathan.

At Grill Yard, there’s a mural of a Chinese and Russian toasting, with the first in a Manchurian outfit, complete with queue, while the second is a rotund tourist, with a camera dangling on his vodka-infused beer belly. The Grill Yard’s cook, though, is a Vietnamese in a New York Yankees cap. Though American culture is still dominant worldwide, Chinese and Russians are consolidating their hold on Eurasia. Fearing to be left out in the cold, Uncle Sam is doing his best to disrupt this.

Now, I must make some hushed confessions. Yesterday, I slipped into a Greek restaurant to regale myself with an indifferent, practically smirking moussaka, and two days ago, I stole into Haus Bremen, to inhale, in near record time, its honest-to-God pork schnitzel. At Swiss House La Casserole, I also stuffed my face with a chicken cordon bleu. A Vietnam-based Swiss who can no longer taste anything, thanks to tongue cancer, told me about this wonderful joint. On its wall, there’s a mural of a Saint Bernard, lounging next to an alphorn, with the Matterhorn behind him.

Twice this week, I planted myself at Red Café to pig on its delicacies, with salty fish and beer on the last occasion. Vobla and pivo, I craved. You see, once you’ve enjoyed something, no matter how briefly, you’ll miss it at some point, so the more you roam and splurge, the more you’re constantly deprived of just about everything. Even in Manhattan, London or Tokyo, life must be local.

So don’t travel, OK? Just stay home with your meatloaf, corn and mash, but I miss that too!

Missing so much, contemporary man makes do with a ruthless stream of colorful shadows. Since he can’t be everywhere, he must welcome the facsimile of everything into his insatiable skull, and that’s the logic of television, the internet, endless pornography and even multiculturalism.

In Haus Bremen, I met 60-year-old Dieter and 50-year-old Hằng. Before opening this restaurant 3 1/2 years ago, they had a beer garden in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a decade.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Vietnam 
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Last month, I frowned on those who are drawn to the vagabond, rootless lifestyle, who think it is ideal to move from hotel room to hotel room. Guess what? I’ve joined them. Life is goofy that way.

After my mother-in-law threatened to stab me more than ten times, I left Saigon and stayed in Vung Tau for over a month. Days ago, I took a 11-hour bus ride to Ea Kly, where I still had my stuff. Arriving at 3AM, I was out of that hill town by 6:30. With a backpack and two bags, I paid $4 to travel 88 miles to Nha Trang, via two vans. You can’t even go half a mile in a NYC cab on that.

In the first van, our legroom was severely trimmed by bundles of bamboo rods, laid on the floor. It was a delivery vehicle as much as a passenger one. At one stop, a bag of iced chicken was left at a restaurant, for that day’s lunch. A Rade man bargained his fare from $1.25 down to 85 cents. When an old lady got off, she also knocked off her fare by a third, “Ten thousand are enough for auntie.” The driver just chuckled. He couldn’t chase her down and tackle her to the ground.

For just over $8 a night, I’m well tucked into a luxury suite at Queen 3 Hotel, right downtown. At the reception, I mumbled through my white, pho-flavored moustache and whisker, “How many days do I have to stay to get a discount?”

“There is no discount, uncle. We’re already the cheapest.”

And they are. In the lobby, four mismatched, ratty couches line one wall, where staff and guests often lie. Wrapped in a mangy blanket, a dark and skeletal young man sleeps dreamlessly with his mouth half open. Next to him on the floor, there’s a full ashtray and an empty can of Saigon Beer, lying on its side. It’s a war zone, minus the moaning and blood. A sign lists a thicket of rules in Vietnamese and English, including “No prostitutes to bring in here.”

The elevator can fit four severely malnourished individuals, stand pressed together, without anyone talking or breathing. There’s often some liquid on the floor for some reason, but at least it’s not piss. The button panel is held in place with plenty of clear tape, impatiently applied, with even his or her “fuck it” lingering in the stagnant air, like mist. It’s the hotel’s motto, to be muttered secondly by all who enter.

I have two beds to myself. Why can’t the CIA send me al pronto two or even three Swedes? With nothing to lose, I’m ready to be entrapped. “I love you both equally, Astrid and Ingrid, but one thing at a time, please. I only have four balls and three strikes left.” I’m swinging.

Water pressure in the bathroom sink barely exists, and the toilet must be flushed at least twice each time. All fixtures and porcelain are so old, they look suspect even when clean, but hey, I’m in a great location, right downtown. I even have a pseudo balcony that’s useful for hanging laundry, which I wash by hands, in the morose, I’ve seen it all sink. He, too, is on his last legs.

Every shelf tilts outward. Nothing is level in this room, but it’s probably better this way, to remind you that life isn’t fair. The paint job was likely done by a blind, depressed, arthritic and distracted monkey, but I’m sure he tried his best. All you can ask for is love.

In Brussels in 2003, I had a musty room near the train station, in a hotel mainly patronized by morose and prune faced Arabs. Two years later, my wife and I somehow survived three nights in Edinburgh’s Three Sisters, where all through the early hours, drunkards howled, laughed and staggered in the hallway, just outside our thin door. We felt like these blokes and birds were all in the same room with us. Worse, the bed was so lumpy, we had to sleep on the floor. It was a lovely city, though, one of my favorites.

In El Paso in 2006, I paid $35 for a room with no toilet at the dingy Gardner Hotel (where John Dillinger once stayed!). My sheet had cigarette holes.

Compared to all that, my Nha Trang suite is a Medici Palace, and who knows, maybe some Vietnamese gangster once slept here as well.

Twenty years ago, I had my beat-up glasses stolen on the beach in Nha Trang. Life was desperate then. This city is now a stylish resort attracting throngs of tourists, mostly Russians and Chinese.

White T-shirt on a tallish Chinese, “WE ALL START OUT AS STRANGERS.” Another dude, “BEAUTIFUL HELL,” with a beach scene, crudely sketched in black.

Chinese come here to be massaged and cheaply stuff themselves with Cantonese dishes. It’s almost like home, but much warmer, and more exotic than Hainan. Chinese see Vietnamese as wayward cousins. So close to Chinese, Vietnamese can’t stand them, and I’ll probably get beaten up in a minute for even writing that. Ukrainians are not Russians, Catalonians are not Spaniards and Scotts are not English, etc.

With beaucoup cash to be made, everyone gets along in Nha Trang, at least on the surface, so there are even Hungarian, Swiss, Armenian, Caucasian, Uzbek/Tajik, Turkish, Greek, Egyptian, Argentinian and Mexican restaurants. Miss Universe 2008 was held here.

Nha Trang is served by Cam Ranh Airport, just down the road. There are direct flights from 33 Chinese cities, and four Russian ones, including Irkutsk in Siberia. It’s 3-degree Fahrenheit there right now, compared to 82 in Nha Trang. Where would you rather be?

Solzhenitsyn, “You could count on a month with nowhere to go for a warm, not so much as a dog kennel. You wouldn’t even be able to light a fire out in the open—where would the fuel come from? Your only hope would be to dig, dig, dig, for all you were worth.”

Translator H.T. Willetts did one hell of a job, for sure, “Standing there to be counted through the gate of an evening, back in camp after a whole day of buffeting wind, freezing cold, and an empty belly, the zek longs for his ladleful of scalding-hot watery evening soup as for rain in time of drought. He could knock it back in a single gulp. For the moment that ladleful means more to him than freedom, more than his whole past life, more than whatever life is left to him.”

OK, OK, so present day Siberia is no gulag, but it might as well be, compared to paradisal Nha Trang, and that’s why half of the Russian Far East are lying on the beach here, it seems. Sated by sun and sea, they can gorge on pelmeni, borsch, chebureki and fried potatoes with mushroom, etc., at dozens of local restaurants.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Russian Far East, Vietnam 
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I’m renting a hotel room in Vung Tau for $130 a month. For just $22 more, I could have had an air conditioner, but I don’t need it. Even the electric fan is often turned off.

I have a TV, which I don’t watch. I’ve always preferred silence.

I’m two minutes away from Mulberry Beach, the least popular in Vung Tau, so often, I find myself swimming alone, or with just a handful of others. Just offshore, there are small fishing boats and freight ships. A fisherman may float on just a woven basket, or paddle his tiny rowboat with his feet. Standing in shallows, bronzed men cast nylon nets. Onshore, there are restaurants and hotels, mostly modest if not shabby, but still clean. Five-star hotels and loud discos are on the other side of the island. Around Mulberry Beach, four factory girls from Saigon can share a $8.63 room, so that’s their weekend getaway.

The slimmest walleted can even rent just a hammock for the night. You’ll share a large room with a number of snoring, belching and farting bodies, and while that’s not such a big deal, there’s also a damnable rooster that will start to crow at just after 2AM, and he’ll keep it up episodically until well after dawn. Sleep well!

During the boat people era, corpses routinely washed up on Vung Tau beaches, for it was near suicide to escape on an unseaworthy vessel, but such was their desperation. Though every local past a certain age remembers this horror, it’s recorded in no history book, so what else is new?

During the Vietnam War, 61,000 Australian troops were stationed in Vung Tau altogether, and many have returned to live out their last days, for just like half a century ago, they can still get plenty of sun, sea, sand and, well, a young pussy, though they might have to marry her now. Together, they can start a business. All over Vung Tau, you can see bars and restaurants that are clearly envisioned and even named by a Westerner. There’s Billabong, Down Under, Bearded Clam, Ned Kelly and The Office-The Way Work Was Meant to Be, etc.

The main hub for Aussies and Kiwis is Belly’s Watering Hole. With its large, airy space filled with comfortably spaced tables, it resembles a community center, and there’s even a library. Its 200 or so books are mostly garbage, however, with volumes by Ian Irvine, Sandra Brown, Lisa Unger, Scott Sigler and Alex Palmer, etc. Opening at 7AM, it’s patronized mostly by older white men who, more often than not, sit alone, to space out, listen to music with headphones, play computer games, read or eat in silence. They just want to wind down in peace.

All the waitresses are pretty, young women who must also speak enough English to understand what the fuck these old farts are saying. Bantering, though, is mostly out of reach.

Bald and pot-bellied Strayan, “Where’s Douglas?”

Viet Lolita, “He go bee.”

“He went to the ladies’ room?”

“He go bee.”

This raises an obvious question. If those two, say, get married, what can they possibly talk about before sleep? Even with a relationship built on humping, fellatio and cornholing, you must still chatter with your partner before and afterwards, and all day long too, for language is at the heart of all human interactions. A constantly compromised, frustrated and degraded dialogue must mess up an already suspect emotional bond.

Leaving Belly’s one day, I stumbled upon Century Fish and Chips, with two white guys sitting at the front.

“Is the fish and chips here any good?” I asked them.

“It’s all right.”

“American?”

“Yeah.”

“And you too?” I asked the second man.

“Chicago.”

“He’s not from Chicago!” the first guy interjected. “He’s from some dumb place in Illinois!”

“And where are you from?”

“DC. And you?”

“Philly. I lived there for about 30 years.”

“Cool.”

“Hey, it’s good to hear an American accent. All you hear around here is Australian!”

“He’s Australian,” the first guy nodded towards a balding, white mustachioed man sporting an earring, elaborate biceps tattoos, blue dress shirt with cut off sleeves and plaid shorts. “He just got married. Yesterday!”

“Wow!”

His Vietnamese wife was maybe 30 years younger, and together, they owned this just-opened restaurant. The slim lady had her hair cut short and dyed blonde. She had been married for 14 years to an abusive Vietnamese, she later told me.

In every country, there are bad husbands who cheat, scream, drink too much or can’t bring home the carbohydrates, but in Vietnam, there’s also the added hell of wife-beating or a tyrannical mother-in-law, who often lives in the same house. Though “mẹ chồng, nàng dâu” simply means “husband’s mother, daughter-in-law,” it connotes the all-too-familiar abuse of the younger woman by the hag.

Often, the fury also has veto power over her son’s choice of a wife. One evening by the sea, I met a balut vendor who said she couldn’t marry the man she loved because of objections from both their families.

To cheer her up, I offered, “I’m only in Vung Tau because I just had a huge, violent fight with my mother-in-law. The old lady threatened to stab me more than ten times!”

She laughed. I laughed. It’s good to make people laugh.

It pains me very much to write this, because it involves a hurting toddler, my 2-year-old nephew, Suki. My mother-in-law has been abusing the poor child psychologically and even physically, for as long as I’ve been able to observe them together, which is nearly his entire life.

I witnessed a six-month-old Suki routinely overfed, so that he would often vomit. I saw the old woman press down the screaming child for half an hour at a time, to force feed her gross concoction into his mouth. When he spat this out in terror and pain, the old woman would rage and scream.

I’ve heard her say to Suki, “I’ll break your leg,” “I’ll tie you up with a rope” and “I’ll beat your mother to death,” which is the Vietnamese way of saying, “I’ll beat the living fuck out of you.”

Once, the old lady hit Suki on the ear in the presence of his mother, May.

May, “Don’t do that, mom. You’ll make him deaf!”

Old lady, “Let him be deaf!”

Why would anyone talk this way to a child, and why is she so angry?

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Vietnam 
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My writing on society and politics has made me quite a few friends, some I’ve been able to visit on their home turf, from Scranton to Burgazada, to Leipzig. Others have come to me. In July of 2018, just before I left the US for good, I had a few beers with Bill, who drove to Philly from Allentown.

My Obscured American series was supposed to be a book, but like my Collected Poems, it has been scuttled by a publisher. Such is life in woke America. As its mind shrinks, it sinks.

Billy Joel sings of a post-industrial Allentown where the people are disappointed, restless and adrift, where even an education and hard work may not yield much. Twenty-six years after its release, this song describes just about all American towns. “It’s getting very hard to stay,” except there’s really nowhere to go, besides the often lethal escape to opioids.

Fleeing Allentown, Bill took a Greyhound to California, which was expensive enough in the 70’s. Now, with Chinese money flooding in, even a ratty couch in the Tenderloin or Skid Row is out of reach for most Americans. California dreaming is just a goofy song. After eight years in that elusive, faux paradise, Bill returned to Allentown.

When Bill first emailed me in 2012, he spoke of living among “backwoods “reactionaries” who “just love disgusting stuff.” With an IQ of 136, Bill has few peers. His work and life aggravations are compounded by his frustrations as an unread writer, unheard musician and unseen artist.

It’s presumptuous to call oneself an artist or poet, I know, I’m doing it, too. Speaking as Folly, Erasmus observed:

Poets aren’t so much in my debt, though they’re admittedly members of my party, as they’re a free race, as the saying goes, whose sole interest lies in delighting the ears of the foolish with pure nonsense and silly tales. Yet strange to say, they rely on these for the immortality and god-like life they assure themselves, and they make similar promises to others. “Self-love and flattery” are their special friends, and no other race of men worships me with such wholehearted devotion […] Of the same kidney are those who court immortal fame by writing books. They all owe a great deal to me, especially any who blot their pages with unadulterated rubbish. But people who use their erudition to write for a learned minority and are anxious to have either Persius or Laelius pass judgment don’t seem to me favored by fortune but rather to be pitied for their continuous self-torture. They add, change, remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends, keep for nine years and are never satisfied. And their futile reward, a word of praise from a handful of people, they win at such a cost—so many late nights, such loss of sleep, sweetest of all things, and so much sweat and anguish. Then their health deteriorates, their looks are destroyed, they suffer partial or total blindness, poverty, ill-will, denial of pleasure, premature old age and early death, and whatever remaining disasters there may be. Yet the wise man believes he is compensated for everything if he wins the approval of one or another purblind scholar.

Having shed 10 pounds recently, Bill appeared trim in his T-shirt and jeans. He wore thin glasses, a scraggly walrus moustache and soul patch, and his white hair was combed straight back. His slight overbite accentuated his age.

My father was very poor, from a very small town by the Susquehanna River. It’s a classic American small town, Porchville. His father and my mother’s father were unemployed during the Depression. They lived a block from each other, so my mother and father knew each other in the baby carriage. Their mothers were friends.

They were very poor, growing up, but my grandmother, I remember her telling me, “The best time of my life was the Great Depression.” I said, “Why, grandma?” Here’s another one of my little memes, but it’s a great story. She said, “Well, I have a soup bone. The woman down the street has some peas, and the woman up the street, uh, has some bread. We come down, make the soup and feed all the kids in the neighborhood.”

My father got into the Air Force, and my mother got into the Navy, during the war. My father flew B-17’s. My mother was a secretary in Washington. He ended up being an instructor. I can’t imagine being an instructor of flight school at 19 or 20. He says, or he said, he’s dead now, right before they sent him to Europe, the war ended, and right before they sent him to Japan, the war ended. He had a twin brother who was also a B-17 pilot, and they both did everything together.

Neither of them went overseas. After the war, they joined the National Guards, for money, then went to Vanderbilt Law School, all on the G.I. Bill. They could never have afforded it, otherwise.

Then my father’s twin brother, who had the same name as me, flew his B-17 into a Tennessee mountain. Nobody knows how it happened. That tore my father up. First big disappointment of my father’s life.

The thing that inspired my father to fly was a barnstormer. A barnstormer landed in a farmer’s field, across from his house, when he was a kid. He was babysitting, and Chuck Glassick was the boy’s name, and he took him down to the barnstormer. Imagine nowadays, if you took a kid that you’re babysitting up on a plane, without asking his parents! Chuck Glassick just told me at dad’s funeral. He said, “Ed said it was all right, and I believed him, and it was all right.”

My father wanted to be a pilot, but I think my mother nixed that, or else he lost his gumption, you know. So anyway, that was his second disappointment.

He got his law degree from Vanderbilt and came home, but he never became a lawyer. He never passed the Pennsylvania bar. He got a job at All States Insurance Company. In those days, adjusters, believe it or not, had law degrees.

He should have started out in sales, because guys who started out in sales ended up millionaires. He became a small office manager. He really hated that job. He tried to pass the bar again in his 40’s, by studying at night. I’d come home and see him fall asleep over his books, on the living room couch.

At some point, we moved to Levittown, and he worked in one of the big Philadelphia offices, but something happened, and he got demoted and sent back to Allentown. I never got the full story about that, but he said that they wanted him to do something that he morally couldn’t do. I don’t doubt it, really. They wanted him to fudge something, and he couldn’t do it.

Levittown
was brand new. It was all these veterans, and all the houses looked exactly the same. I was six-years-old when I walked out the door, walked three houses down, and started knocking on doors, “Where’s my mommy?! Where’s my mommy?!” Finally, one of the ladies said, “I think you belong in this house!” and she took me down to my house.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Academia, Poverty 
Linh Dinh
About Linh Dinh

Born in Vietnam in 1963, Linh Dinh came to the US in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). He has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, among other places. He is also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (2006). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. His writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and he has been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Reykjavik, Toronto and all over the US, and has also published widely in Vietnamese.