The Rodeo Drive of Bootlegging

I had to get up at 3 am to meet my 6 am flight from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City, where I would transfer for the flight to Bangkok. I’ve been ill for over a week and couldn’t face the long train journey. I got no help from my Seattle-based travel agent, who has failed to grasp the International Date Line concept and sent an explanation after the fact about how the terrible snowy weather forced her to rush home early and she “almost had a car accident.” I made the arrangements myself at the hotel travel desk and saved $226. (The Seattle Times website showed bare and dry streets; still, I’m glad she’s OK).

I was able to watch the Gonzaga Bulldogs beat St. Mary’s in overtime on my laptop over the Green Field Hotel’s wi-fi system.  No audio but I’m not complaining.

When I got to the lobby at 3:30 am the attendant was asleep on a wooden bench under a mosquito net. The trip to the Danang Airport was past the dozens of new resorts under construction in the area, one of the biggest ones under the name of an Australian golfer. The Airport is a throwback to the 1960s but made breakfast available to us business class travellers. Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone continues to call Saigon, has a modern airport and I had no problem making the Vietnam Airways flight to Bangkok.

Lots of people want to visit Bangkok, and the immigration queue at P1010156Suvarnabhumi Airport is long but simple once you get to the desk. Customs is even simpler. I rode the green Sukhumvit Line, part of Bangkok’s BTS Skytrain, most of the way into the Pratunam Market section of town, where my hotel is. It is called the Amari Watergate, but only because Patunam means “water gate.” I collapsed early and slept soundly for 12 hours. Being sick is getting old and making me into a crank. I’m going to rest up for a few days in Bangkok.

The weather here is bad, temperatures in the 90s and brutal humidity.  Even on Sunday the roads are jammed. Pedestrian walkways tend to be narrow and are made narrower by the tiny specialized shops that crowd in on both sides. I went to a huge electronics market not far from the hotel and wandered for a bit – 8 stories of shopping, non-air conditioned. I think it is the Pantip Plaza – “The Computer City.” Outside over the entrance is a gigantic picture of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, although I question whether he would approve of the commerce that goes on under his benign visage.

I’ve had my eye out for pirated software and movies in China and Vietnam and have seen some but really nothing like the scale seen operating in the open at The Computer City in Bangkok. P1010152Here you browse the covers of recent movies on large rolodexes and point to what you want. I was offered True Grit, Black Swan and The King’s Speech for 80 baht each, or around $2.60 US. Additional discounts were available if I ordered in quantity. Had I bought one of the movies, they’d have burned it to DVD disc on the spot and handed it over. Touts work the aisles and let you know that porn is available too. Just next door were the pirated software shops. There you could order all of the Microsoft catalogue and just about anything else. The bootlegged Windows 7 comes with a crudely rendered picture of Bill Gates for some reason. Next to them are pirated PC games, and so on. Elsewhere in the sprawling market you can buy legitimate copies of software and DVD movies but at prices that would make it hard to resist the bootleggers downstairs. Notably, all the products on offer that I saw, movies, software, and games, were from the US.

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Having familiar music with me takes the edge off being so far from home and, oddly, makes the places I’ve been less foreign. I’ve been on a Neil Young, Richard Thompson and “The Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” tear. Nina Simone’s version of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” which I recently learned was written by Billy Taylor, is in rotation. Drive-By Truckers.

Popular music here doesn’t do much for me. Maybe they’re hiding the good stuff, but radio sounds like weak imitations of the American boy band genre. And why is it played so loud in bars, restaurants and hotel lobbies?

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Hoi An via Danang by Bus (rev’d)

The bus passengers from Huế to Danang and Hoi An were mostly European and of diverse ages. I now regret passing up the train, which would have taken longer but is through what must be very beautiful country. The route the bus takes is not scenic. It takes the Hai Van Tunnel through the best parts of Hai Van Pass, thus missing the parts that Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear described as “one of the best coast roads in the world.”

The bus driver was skilled in the techniques of driving in Vietnam – never give an inch, pass everything, use the horn, straddle the center line if you feel like it, etc. The problem with horn use in Vietnam is the same as the problem of vuvuzela use at the World Cup  in South Africa: it is indiscriminate. Horn honking is used to express warning, fear, joy, romantic interest, panic, etc., but there is only the one tone that is available to articulate these divergent emotional states. I stopped counting after the driver went to his horn 100 times in the space of about 15 kilometers.River in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is where tourists come to spend time at the beach and to have bespoke clothing made. While here I’m getting some shirts. I ripped one on the Baltimore and am ready to toss a couple others. I am making room in my bag by giving away the Australian boots I bought a couple months before the trip. I had thought it was just a matter of breaking them in but they won’t ever be broken in, they’re terrible. Blundstone #500 boots are just the ticket if you’re looking for nerve damage.

The hotel I’m at is the Green Field. It’s old and run down but the bed is fine, it is air conditioned, and offers mosquito nets over the bed. It reminds me a little of the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen going nuts in an old hotel while that Doors song plays. I shareLinda, a street vendor, Hoi An beach lodgings with a small gecko who has staked out the bathroom.

After an hour in my room I heard chickens outside my window. I asked at the front desk if there was a rooster next door as well and the young man brightly confirmed it, as if it were a feature rather than a bug. What time does the rooster begin crowing? Oh, usually starting at 4 am. Would you like another room? Why yes, yes I would, thanks for offering.

The beach is about 3 kilometers from the hotel, too far to walk in the heat but only a $2.40 taxi ride. The beach is sand and fringed with coconut palms trees. The surf is small. While I was there the Vietnamese beach goers were in the shade of the trees and the Europeans  in the sun closer to the water. “Linda,” operating the smallest of small businesses, sold me some stuff under the palms while I waited for my cab. Again I enjoyed the bargaining, which really does have a social element to it. Linda carried the day with “That would be very good for you, but not so good for me.” That cuts right to the heart of it, both parties need to feel good about the transaction.

February 27 – After I’ve left Vietnam I discover another reason to regret taking the bus to Hoi An. I brought along a copy of Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and in rereading it find his description of the Ashua Valley on his rail journey from Huế to Danang:

We were at the fringes of a bay that was green and sparkling in bright sunlight. Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain, and cloud – all at once – independent quantities of color. I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me in the same degree the emptiness had in rural India. Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur? Though we can hardly blame a frightened draftee for not noticing this magnificence, we should have known all along that the French would not have colonized it, nor would the Americans have fought so long, if such ripeness did not invite the eye to take it.

People recommend the bus over local trains because they assume the tourist wants to get to the next town, and the next marketplace, in the shortest time with the least hassle. Yes the bus conveniently picked me up at my hotel in Huế and dropped me off at my next one in Hoi An but at the cost of missing what Theroux called the loveliest place he’d seen since beginning his travels in London.

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Preparing to Leave Huế.

Other than breakfast, which is included in the Romance Hotel room rate and is good, I have been living on ham baguettes, phở and chicken curry in Huế. The quality of the restaurants here is low, and they cater to backpackers for the most part. Last night I went to Missy Roos for anything and wound up with ham baguette again. AlthoughP1010119 extravagantly reviewed, probably by Australian friends of the owner, they have never heard of mustard. While settling the bill a large rat darted through the open dining room. Not even the gay German couple sitting next to me got excited, although they saw it too – their server kept on with their order for Greek salad as if nothing had occurred.

Seattle is a port city and I’ve seen the occasional rat there but the only time I saw one in a restaurant, at a Bento place on University Avenue, the owner went crazy chasing it around the place. At Missy Roos – which has the cheek to offer cooking classes – the attitude is: Hey, everybody’s gotta eat, even vermin.

Every restaurant I’ve been in here has the standard 1000 item menu, so you know that there is nothing they are really any good at. Jack of all dishes, master of none.

So what am I doing? Moving to Hoi An tomorrow, an even more downscale Vietnamese city near the beach, 100 miles or so south of Huế.

I went for a walk along the beautifully named Perfume River, and ateP1010123 at a crummy restaurant that purported to float on the river. (1000 item menu; watery chicken curry). The riverbank is lined with gaudy aluminum boats with dragon heads at the front. The tour buses dump out their customers and they pile into the larger boats for a one hour tour.

The smaller wooden boats hustle marks like me off the riverbank. $5 for 1 hour tour! What will I see? Everything! How about 100,000 dong for one-half hour? Sure! Just get on the boat! I decide to test the limits of the young hustler’s agreeability and draw a crude picture of a water skier in my notebook, and show it to him. Can you do this? Sure!

His mother is the hostess for the cruise (she laughed at the picture) and his father is Master and Chief Engineer. Once on board I immediately wish I was on shore, because it’sP1010108 boring and the woman uses the time to try to sell pictures, postcards, trinkets and assorted junk. I buy a cold Coke but tell her I don’t want anything else. I ask them to go across the river to where a smaller river empties into the Perfume but, after seeing this, I’m done and back across we go, about a 15 minute trip. When I realize I only have a 200,000 dong note, this is the occasion for more bargaining – the cost of the trip is now 200,000 dong. No, I say. OK,  150,000? OK, but that has to include the Coke. Done deal, smiles all around. Total cost of the boat ride on the Perfume River: $7.44, but the best part of the whole excursion was the bargaining.

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Huế’s Purple Forbidden City

I spent the morning at the Purple Forbidden City and Citadel in Huế. I didn’t know what to expect as my knowledge of Vietnam’s history, at least before the 1960s, is shamefullyP1010079 inadequate. The area is across the Perfume River from my hotel and I got an early start, beating the tour buses.

It feels trite but words can’t do it justice. The area is immense, surrounded by wide moats and high walls. Inside are a mix of beautiful buildings and stunning ruins. There are broad tree-lined boulevards, stone and brick walls over 20 feet high, waterways, huge open spaces and brick walkways. The buildings are a mix of stone, finely crafted wood, plaster-covered brick and glazed ceramics. I stayed the whole morning and didn’t take it all in. The plantings are not meticulously maintained; in its prime it would take hundreds of full-time gardeners to keep it pristine. I took well P1010032over a hundred pictures and videos, and will try to post some here.

The limited narrative plaques make it clear that the Forbidden City suffered along with the rest of the Country during the French colonial period, The Second World War under the Japanese, and during the American misadventure, when the site was seized by communist forces during the 1968 Tet Offensive and a long battle to recover it ensued. It appears to be in a process of slow restoration and preservation with functioning brick making and carpentry shops situated behind some the walls.

Just outside the palace grounds, an island in the middle of broad brick approaches,P1000987 is a squat pyramidal structure with a gigantic Vietnamese flag at its top, a modern addition I assume. It is closed to the public. I haven’t been able to figure out what is is, but thought initially it must be the Citadel, the Emperor’s safe house.  I am now certain that that is incorrect and in fact think it must have been built by the French. Its exterior walls are blackened with age and it has a threatening appearance. There certainly would be no sneaking up on it by opposing armies and it would have been a very tough nut to crack.

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I duck into a place called Musik Coffee near my hotel in order to escape an obnoxious pedi-cab driver who was stalking me. I’m the only customer. The place is decorated with Elvis and Michael Jackson stuff but the “musik” is by boy bands. A young woman takes my order – fruit plate and espresso, ordered right off the menu. I’m using their wi-fi connection when I notice that about a half hour has passed with no sign of my order, andP1000939 she’s on the phone. Then a young man comes in the front door, removes his coat and gets to work in the back. Ten minutes and here comes the fruit plate and espresso, brought by the waitress with mimed apologies. Both are excellent. Guy puts on coat and leaves.

Is it me? Last night I couldn’t get my waiter to understand the “rum and coke” concept.

When I get back to the hotel the entrance is outlined in pink and red balloons forming a heart shape, and there is a professional picture of a handsome young Vietnamese couple on the outside stoop. A wedding, the doorman says, and inside the whole hotel isP1010018 rocking to the sound of martial karaoke music from the second floor. It is 12:45 pm. Why are they getting married on a Monday, I ask the young woman at the front desk. Because this is the day the fortune teller picked for them she says. “It is important to have your wedding on the correct day.”

I arrange at the front desk to take a bus south to Hoi An on Wednesday. I had wanted to take the train but the receptionist talked me into the bus, which will pick me up right outside the hotel at 8 am. Total bus fare: $5.74 for the three-hour trip. By the time I’m done making these arrangements so is the wedding party, and the revelers file out at 1:15.

The book I bought to try to better understand the history of Vietnam is noP1010061 help at all. Example:

Kinh Durong Vuong ascended the throne in the year Nham Tuat (that is, prior to 2,000 B.C.). He married the daughter of Than Long (Dragon God), King of Dong Dinh Lake. His wife gave birth to a son named Sung Lam, who subsequently married Fairy Au Co who gave birth to a sac of 100 eggs. From those eggs hatched out 100 sons who became the ancestors of the Bach Viet (hundred Viet) ethnic groups.

One day King Lac Long Quan told his wife, “I am descended from the Dragon, while you are a Fairy. Our natures are very different, like fire and water. Therefore, we can hardly live together.” …

How typical that he came to this realization about mixed marriages only after she bore him a sac of 100 eggs, and had lost her girlish thorax.

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