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Tuesday, April 25, 2017



I don’t know what connectivity will be like from cheap hotels in China, so I thought better get this done.  I am lying in bed, the sun is coming up, and I have to pack and be out of here soon.

Hanoi is defined against its rival Saigon, in the same way that Berlin is defined against Vienna, Seattle against Portland (Portland -”You comparing us to that pretentious place?” Seattle: “Where?” )  or Beijing against Shanghai.  Saigon is more frenetic, definitely more entrepreneurial, varied, and cunning.  Past is prologue, and the Americans left their mark on Saigon, for better and for worse.

Hanoi is more self-confident.  The Government imprint is here in a big way.  Half of the city (the north side) is one big government compound, and they live well there.  The coffee houses around Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum are filled with the adult children of officials, hanging out, flirting with each other,  posting photos of each other.  They dress very chic, talk loudly in public and seem
confident of their future.

In the old town district, where the streets are narrow and winding it is different.  Everyone has a little business that they put out on the sidewalk, selling everything and anything. Handmade postcards, whole kiosks filled with door hinges, travel companies, and of course food. Lots of food, specialized, and often cooked right there in front of you.  The foreign business presence is not as great, (as Saigon).  The tourists are mostly from Europe, young Germans, and Brits and Scandinavians mostly, but maybe that is just the season.      

The lakes in the middle of the city really give the place a serene feel. You can walk a block from the bustle and sit and look at the lake and think you are in the country somewhere.  There are two main lakes, Hoy Tai, which is huge, and is located in the northern section near the government area.  It is where John McCain parachuted when he was captured during the war. Hoan Kiem is a smaller lake and is in the old section of the city. There are broad paved walkways around both of them, and you can see the personal side of Hanoi on the park benches, people being most intimate and sincere. Saigon has nothing like these lakes. The parks in Saigon have pavilions where in the early morning hours, older people arduously rehearse their ballroom dance moves .

The hotel I am staying at, the Graceful Hanoi Hotel, made all the difference.  They are so nice, they serve a great breakfast, and room is perfect.  And I can afford it, let’s just say I got a good deal, ($20/night).  If they raise their prices it will still be a bargain.

Anyway, I have to pack for China now.  I am looking forward to being in a place where I can speak the language and seeing some of my old students.   But right now, Vietnam is the place to be.  It is open, easy and cheap to get a visa, and amazingly welcoming to all tourists.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Leaving Saigon

On the train, just leaving Hue station. Its about 6 am and I guess I slept ok. Left yesterday morning about 9:00 am.  It is a long ride up the coast of Vietnam.  

My last night in Saigon was eventful, I should have taken more pictures.  I finally met Dave Fox, a travel writer from Seattle who lives in Saigon with his wife Kattina, a teacher at the International school.  We both have the same publisher and our editor Linda Franklin put us together.
I had spent the afternoon at the Cu Cui Tunnel site, about 60 Km up the Saigon River, not far from the Cambodian border. I took a speedboat tour with some Aussies and New Zealanders and we had a great guide.    Cu Cui was a battlefield where the VC held out against constant attacks over several years.  It is the start of the highlands, and when you get off the boat it is a steady rise into a sparse forest. During the Tet Offensive, about 19,000 VC troops were stationed here.  There were no permanent facilities as we think of them because the area was subject to bombardment and frequent incursions of South Vietnamese Army and Americans.  But the tunnel systems and the methods of camouflaging them was amazingly complex.  They had logistics and defense systems that applied ancient and modern technology at every junction. Every student of military matters should come here. There were 75 miles of tunnels, and they used no heavy machinery or concrete to build them.  All hand dug, with shovels and baskets. It would be interesting to study to learn why a modern juggernaut like the US military was stymied here.  

But our guide was no propagandist for the Communist government - much the opposite.  His father had been a fighter pilot in the South Vietnamese Army and most of his family lives in the US.  He was full of interesting facts I hadn’t been aware of.  For example during the Christmas Bombing of 1972, according to our guide, the Vietnamese Politburo had written up a letter of surrender, if the bombing had continued, (he said) for only one more day.  I seem to remember the reason we gave for stopping it, (no WiFi here so flying on memory)  was to figure out how to stop the Vietnamese from shooting down so many of our B-52s. A woman from Wichita I knew at that time,  whose Dad worked for Boeing on the B-52s and said he had been working night and day trying to figure out a way to avoid the Russian-made SAM missiles that could hit the planes at 72,000 ft.   Our guide said the real reason we stopped the Christmas bombing of Hanoi was because the Russians threatened to start a nuclear war if we didn’t stop. I think I remember Nixon claimed we were close to a truce, but am foggy about that too. I am going to do some research when I get back to sort all that out, but if anyone reading this knows more about the situation around the Christmas bombing please comment.

Anyway, it was a very interesting trip, and pleasant too in the heat on the speeding boat.  A few miles outside Saigon, it is the jungle on both sides, although you can see development is creeping out.  I thought about what it would have been like to fight there, and am very glad, for many reasons that I missed it.

It was very dry at Cu Cui, the mud was hard. One of the Aussies asked our guide, wasn’t it supposed to be the rainy season?  He said, yes, it was late this year, it should start any day.

Looking out the window of the train, I see the rain has just started.  I think we are now in what was North Vietnam, north of the 17th parallel. Rice paddies as far as I can see on both sides of the train.  At about the 20th hour on the train. This is the richest agricultural land I have ever seen.    

So after I got back from Cu Cui, I met Dave at the Whistling Seal Bar just down Dang Thi Nhu street from my hotel, the Quy Hung. When I come back to Saigon I am staying there, because I have made friends with everyone (and it’s pretty cheap).   The Whistling Seal is owned and operated by a young American who told me that the beer scene in Saigon was taking off and that a number of breweries had opened in town in the last six months.  He brewed all his beers and I tried a couple, and they were good. Even though I live in Portland, I am generally not a beer drinker, (too many calories for this old mesomorph) but the Whistling Seal  Hef was very good.  Anyway eventually Dave showed up and we had one more and then walked down to Bui Vien street, which I had missed in my self-guided three-day walking tour of Saigon.  Dave called Bui Vien street the “backpacker’s ghetto”, and on cue, there were lots of westerners wandering around.  It definitely had a hip feel and the shops reflected it.  An old propaganda poster store was right next to a massage parlor.  Teams of cheerful, beautiful young women gently tried to coax young foreign men into their establishments. To me, they were respectful and deferential.  Respect for age has not completely died in Asia. There was a movie house down the street. I only made it about a quarter of the way down the street before we stopped, but I imagined San Francisco might have had this feel in the summer during the 50s.

Dave was acknowledged by many of the locals and we stopped at his favorite spot, sat out on little chairs on the sidewalk and drank Saigon beer - amazingly cheap, less than 50 cents a bottle.  We were joined by a couple of educated English speaking hipsters who said they were Thai. They had just met each other that evening oddly and were extremely smart and they both had a sophisticated understanding of society and world politics that you rarely find  even among older Europeans. We were joined by an Aussie about my age, who lives in Bangkok, and for reasons he did not explain, said he, “will never go back to Australia”.
So we sat, drank, and talked, and I felt very much among interesting friends, at ease, at home, and I watched the action on the street, which was a kaleidoscopic verte theater.

I don’t want to steal any thunder from Dave, because he has written some travel books, (Globejotting, published by Inkwater Press - and is working on one about the local Saigoners who live on Bui Vien street.  He has worked with and for Rick Steves and has an extremely sympathetic eye for the hard difficulties of the local people trying to make a living and feed their families on the streets of Saigon.  I am going to order his book on writing Travel Journals (Globejotting) as soon as I get back. (I definitely need some guidance). But for the short time I spent with him, the Bui Vien street experience was fun and eye-opening, maybe a  high point of my visit to Saigon. Dave loves the city.  He said what he really loves is the spirit of "getting it done" that surpasses anything he has found elsewhere.  I see it.  People step up to help strangers with no ceremony and accept the inconvenience others might cause them with a relaxed “let me help you fix it” attitude.  It isn’t just because I am a foreigner and they are hoping to make that connection, although there is some of that of course.  But everyone applies their best effort and ingenuity to finding practical workarounds to the many inconveniences of living here. And that makes all the difference between a drag and a delight.

Dave’s wife Kattina showed up and joined the conversation, adding some funny acerbic observations about conversation and behavior of the rest of us, who were further into our cups than she was. Soon it was time to go, because I had to get up early to catch this train.  As for Bui Vien street,  I have to stress that the company and the conversation was only icing on the cake of the evening.  If all I had done was sat and watched the street, it would have an amazing experience.  It was a 360 degree carnival of reality, commercial, yes, but lively and in the moment.  Life is what you make it, and they make it well here in Saigon.      

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Saigon 2 More pictures

Sleep is so profoundly healing. Every once in a while there is nothing better than an afternoon nap.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017



I’ll be taking the train north to Hanoi in a couple of days.  I am skipping Hue, and will probably regret it, but I have to leave Ho Chi Minh City later than planned because of train schedules, and the only fixed event in my itinerary is a flight from Hanoi to Kunming, which is already booked.

Saigon has 13 million people, and 7.5 million motorcycles.  If you have to superficially sum up this city that might be it.  For a foreigner, the primary skill you must learn for a short visit is how to cross the street.  On the main thoroughfares, waiting for a break in the traffic is pointless.  There are traffic lights, but, (with one or two exceptions  I have seen) there are no yellow lights and everyone starts about five seconds before the light changes anyway.  So you just have to walk in front of the speeding motorcycles, buses, and occasional cars, and never look at the drivers and riders - you can’t hesitate.  Hesitation can be fatal.  They are timing their moves based on you maintaining a predictable pace and direction.  And of course if you can join up with a group, that always seems to give you a better chance of making it to the other side of the road. Saigon is a city you can see most of (for the short 3-5 day visit) on foot.

I don’t want to get too wrapped up in disputable history, but for an American my age, Saigon has a significance that salted ruins of Carthage might have had for a Roman longing for the republic during Augusta’s time, or Moscow might have had for a Frenchman during the Bourbon Restoration of the 1830s; it is the place where everything changed, where it all went wrong.  In the fifties we were taught as kids that “America never lost a war” and never would because our heart was pure and intentions were noble. We were told so many lies about Vietnam in the early sixties, and the costs of those lies were 55,000 dead Americans, maybe three million dead Vietnamese. American society that has not been the same since. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead.  It isn’t even the past.”

The first morning after I arrived I went walking. The outside of Saigon proper, it is a commercial city, with little family-owned factories and warehouses, but the city itself is small, and like Portland Oregon, it is the junction of a couple of rivers.

It was Easter Sunday and I had no plan for my first day.  Strangely I wasn’t too jet lagged, but I think I did sleep some on the plane during the 25 hour trip from Portland. On the street in Saigon it was over 100⁰ F so after coffee and some great pastry, (as befitting a former French colony) I went looking for some sunscreen.  The entire city seems like a giant kiosk/bodega, which seemed to follow neighborhood patterns - some blocks everybody sells plumbing supplies, other shoes, etc. But I found my way to a street with lots of travel agencies, and eventually found some.

My Dad loved Saigon, he was a merchant seaman (Chief Engineer) and was over here a number of times during the Vietnam War, making big money for the time bringing ammo (double hazard pay mostly to Da Nang) and other stuff.  “Wide open” he used to say, but as I searched my memory of his stories all I remembered specifically was the long trip up the river to the city with jungle on both sides, from where the Viet Cong never fired on the ships. He said that in return, a certain percentage of the supplies were guaranteed to Charlie. I have no way of knowing if that was true.

I remember when I was in high school, and was much more conservative in my political outlook than I am now, I asked him if we were winning. I remember we had at least one guy from our high school who died over there, and several more were on there way, while several from my class soon would be.  Anyway, he said we were getting beat, and would never ever win there. He drank with officers and soldiers in Da Nang and they told him horror stories of whole platoons getting wiped out. He didn’t want me anywhere near the place, and gave me some sage advice as to how to go to the end of the draft line at the end of the year (“Drop your deferment” he said just before Christmas, 1969, so my low (50 something) draft number would be before the following years crop of cannon fodder.)  At the time my grades freshman year in college didn’t bode well for a long stay in academia.

The following spring was Cambodia and Kent State and I did my best to express my discontent with American actions and policy, (recorded elsewhere). That Spring 1970  semester ended early and we all got passing grades  (so we would have leave sleepy Lawrence Kansas for summer break before we burnt it down). So you can say that the war ensured I would I make it through the first year of college.

Anyway, Dad told me he loved Saigon and its beautiful the women in their slit skirts, and the easy-going colonial, tropical atmosphere, even during the war. He said he just missed being blown up after leaving a  floating bar in the middle of the river by a few minutes, but I have never been able to confirm when or how that happened.  

So, I was craving shade, and found a little park with some big trees, and a place to sit.  What I would subsequently discover that as an older western man, walking in a park, a market or near a museum, that there would be many old Vietnamese men with well practiced self introductions. I was called over by an old man sitting on a bench.

“Hey, come, I show you!” It was my first morning of my first day in Saigon.  “You fight in 1973? What outfit?”

No, I was a student. Protest.” I pantomimed waving a sign.

He smiles.  “Good. No more war.  We all live in peace. Americans the best.  Here look! This was me.”

He shows me a picture of a young man maybe mid-30s. He had a mustache and reminded me of Colonel Ky, the “dashing” South Vietnamese Air Force Colonel who was in power for a while in 1967 or so.  I think I remember he ended up running a liquor store in Miami.

“Henry Cabot Lodge!” It took him a few tries saying it before I understood. “1955, I work for Colonel P- (French). Then Westmoreland.  I run the motor pool for Westmoreland. Chevrolet.”

“What’s your name?” I interrupted.

“Toch Dey,” I think he said.   He goes off with some French words I don’t understand. “No money, no pussy!” He cackles.  “Sucky fucky. How old are you?”


“So young! I am 87. Here look.”  He has some postcards -

“1974 - Vietminh come. 1968 - Blow up embassy. Here take postcards.  

I took them. “How much?”

“American dollars?  Not much.”

I hand him two. “Enough?”

“Maybe more. My wife needs medicine.” I give him two more.

“You be careful - They steal your money.”

Later another one, closer to my age, comes up on motorcycle. He pointed at the back.  “Get on, Let’s go, I take you.  Very safe.”

No, I say, I want to walk, remembering Toch Dey’s warning.

“Look!” He shows me a leather bound notebook, lot’s of testimonials from satisfied Americans.

“I need the exercise.”

“No, no, I’ll show you.” I shake my head. “You fight?” he asked.

“No. Student.” I do my sign waving dance.

He frowns. “This government treats my family very badly.” Still he persists. “I take you to war museum.” I shake my head and walk away.

A guy offers me a coconut with a straw. “How much?”



“He cuts the coconut. “50,000.”

“What?” I go to walk away.  He pouts, because he has ruined a coconut for me.  I relent, give him the 50,000 dong. (a little over $2, outrageous!)

Not many people smoke here, which is pretty cool.  Cigarettes are available, but it appears to be an open black market. Everyone wears a helmet when riding a motorcycle. (except for the little children riding on the gastank.)

Anyway here are some pictures.