Blacksmith Street, Hanoi

The New York Times features a well-written article by Seth Mydans about Nguyen Phuong Hung, the last blacksmith on Blacksmith Street.

“Once I am gone the street will have no meaning anymore,” he said. “Blacksmith Street will be only a name.”

That has been the fate of almost all the 36 narrow streets in Hanoi’s tree-shaded Ancient Quarter, each of them named for the guilds that once controlled them — Fan Street, China Bowl Street, Sweet Potato Street, Conical Hat Street.

There is nothing like this little corner of the urban past anywhere else in Vietnam. Only four of the streets have retained something of their original businesses, said Nguyen Vinh Phuc, a leading historian of Hanoi.

There are still jewelry shops on Silver Street, sweets and pastries on Sugar Street, votive papers and toys on Votive Paper Street and pots and pans on Tin Street.

“Of course, when nobody sells the product any more, then all this history will disappear,” said Mr. Phuc, 84. “I’m an old man. I feel sad to see us lose these ancient streets.”

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Delegating My Visa Headaches

On Friday I went to Visa Services Northwest in the Melbourne Tower Building downtown. The hassle of obtaining visas on my own for China, Vietnam and Russia was too much. Each requires you to send your original passport to a consulate or embassy, and can take several weeks for processing. Li Chen, who runs VSN, projects efficiency and said she could get all three visas before Christmas. I was glad to get this tedious job off my back for a reasonable cost.

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Hammer and Sickle and Soccer

‘Football is my favorite game,’ Deng Xiaoping said in the 1950s. ‘But when I watch China play, I feel like I’m suffocating.’     –“Missing from the World Cup? China.” Los Angeles Times June 19, 2010

None of the countries I am so far planning to visit sent teams to the 2010 World Cup. For all the foolish talk last summer about the “inherent socialism of soccer,” only one of the five remaining socialist republics, North Korea, sent a team to South Africa, and it suffered consecutive losses to Brazil, Portugal and Côte d’Ivoire. (Reports that the North Korean coach and players were treated on their return to a six-hour public excoriation, dubiously sourced to the US-funded Radio Free Asia, were brushed aside by the DPRK).

Don DeLillo, a baseball fan, plays with this in his short story “Hammer and Sickle” in the December 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Narrator Jerold Bradway, sentenced to white-collar prison for insider trading, watches his daughters on television daily read financial news suggesting the imminent collapse of world economic systems. The increasingly apocalyptic tone of the broadcasts, which appear on a children’s network, is scripted by Bradway’s estranged wife. The show is popular with Bradway’s fellow inmates, all serving sentences for financial crimes. Some  openly root for Armageddon.

As an aside, Jerold addresses the matter of fútbol as he watches the other inmates play:

I thought about soccer in history,the inspiration for wars, truces, rampaging mobs. The game was a global passion, spherical ball, grass or turf, entire nations in spasms of elation or lament. But what kind of sport is it that disallows the use of players’ hands, except for the goalkeepers’? Hands are essential human tools, the things that grasp and hold, that make, take, carry, create. If soccer were an American invention, wouldn’t some European intellectual maintain that our historically puritanical nature has compelled us to invent a game structured on antimasturbatory principles?

This is one of the things I think about that I never had to think about before.

DeLillo’s “Pafko at the Wall,” first published in 1992 as a short story in Harper’s, became the prologue to the novel Underworld, under the title “The Triumph of Death.” “Hammer and Sickle” stands on its own but, similarly, reads like part of a broader work.

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What A Visa Application Reveals

I am applying for tourist visas for the first time, and thought about what the process discloses about the host country. The visa application form for Vietnam is straightforward: name, birthdate, address, employer, purpose of visit, dates of entry and exit, and contact in Vietnam “if any.” It’s a single page document that can be downloaded in Word format. It makes no health inquiries, and requires a photograph of the applicant.

China’s visa application seeks all that and also asks if the applicant suffers from HIV/AIDS, “Mental Diseases,” tuberculosis, leprosy, or venereal disease. China also asks for one’s occupation and includes a box in that section for “Staff of Media.” Under “Major Purpose(s) of your Visit(s)” China asks if the applicant is seeking entry as a “Resident Journalist” or a “Journalist for Temporary News Coverage.” The multiple questions about journalistic intent suggest great concern about how the country is portrayed.  The itinerary of the trip must be disclosed in detail. It is a two page document in .pdf format that can be filled in on-line and printed. Photo required.

Russia’s is a dense two page form that must be filled out by hand. It asks for all the above and then some, including spouse’s name and place of birth. Also:

• Your father’s full name

• List your last two places of work, excluding the current one

• List all educational institutions you ever attended, except high schools

• Do you have any specialized skills, training or experience related to fire-arms and explosives or to nuclear matters, biological or chemical substance?

• Have you ever been involved in an armed conflicts, either as a member of the military service or a victim?

The Russian form has the feel of an application for a very unsavory job.

For comparison purposes the US tourist visa process for citizens of Vietnam, China and Russia requires a mandatory  interview with embassy consular officials in the applicant’s home country. During that interview “an an ink-free, digital fingerprint scan” is taken. The application form is only available online, and is accessed from the applicant’s computer or at an embassy. A digital photograph must be uploaded to the State Department server. I haven’t logged in at to study the form but the Q&A makes it clear that the process is onerous:

Q: Have any new questions been added?

A: Yes. For example, the Form DS-160 now asks for the applicant’s social security number and driver’s license information, detailed information regarding previous visa applications, the full name and immigration status of all immediate relatives in the United States, and includes additional security-related questions. In addition, all applicants are now required to answer citizenship and passport-related questions previously listed only on the Form DS-157. (The DS-157 is a supplemental application form with additional security-related questions, and is required of all male applicants between the ages of 16 and 45. Some consulates require all applicants to submit a Form DS-157).

It’s all very sleek and high-tech but the process for obtaining a US tourist visa, if required, takes between 30 and 60 days, far longer than the times required for Vietnamese, Chinese or Russian tourist visas. The Department of Homeland Security’s involvement in the application processing may account for the lengthy timelines.

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Finding a Ship

The Baltimore is a container ship constructed at Hyundai Heavy Industries in Ulsan, South Korea, and christened in 1995. It is German-owned with European officers and Filipino crew. The ship is chartered by Hanjin, the Korean shipping giant. It can carry 8000 containers (twenty-foot equivalent units or TEUs), and flies the Marshall Islands flag. The ship operates between Seattle and the Far East, including Shanghai. It’s a 22 day crossing, and the ship’s owner makes a few passenger cabins available, at €85 per day. There are additional charges, of course, including port charges and “deviation insurance,” which isn’t as interesting as it sounds: It covers the ship’s costs if it is required to go off course to offload an ailing passenger.

The polyglot nature of the ship is typical. The oil rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico last June had a similarly multinational pedigree, according to the LA Times:

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico was built in South Korea. It was operated by a Swiss company under contract to a British oil firm. Primary responsibility for safety and other inspections rested not with the U.S. government but with the Republic of the Marshall Islands — a tiny, impoverished nation in the Pacific Ocean.

I booked passage on the Baltimore for early next year. The booking paperwork is in the mail and, in the meantime, I am working on visas for China, Vietnam and the Russian Federation.

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I need a small bag, new shoes, clothing that can be washed in a sink, if necessary, and quickly dried. It’s easy to get carried away as there are no end of websites that offer advice. “Pack light” is the mantra. But multiple continents and climates are involved, and travel by ship, trains, airplanes, so some planning is required.

But it makes no sense for me to obsess about travel gear. I keep reminding myself that wherever there are people, there are T-shirts and toothpaste for sale. Climbers can now surf the Internet and send 140-character updates from Mount Everest since 3G towers were recently constructed near base camp in Nepal. (“My Sherpa is so slack! 1★!”) Theroux says he travels with a small carry-on bag and buys clothing as needed in secondhand shops:

But most of the time, if I needed clothes, I went to the market. And you may have given clothes at one time or another to Clothing for Africa Fund. If so, I was wearing them because you get them and launder them. But I had T-shirts saying Top Notch Plumbing and — you know, the Saskatchewan Blue Bombers and things like that. I tried — it`s protective coloration. I tried not to stand out.

He also travels with a portable shortwave radio, which he calls his “only electronic indulgence.”

A computer is a millstone, a pager is a joke and a cellphone to me is a secular form of purgatory — merely a subtle, more nagging version of the electronic ankle bracelets that perverts and felons have to wear. But a shortwave radio is instant access to the wider world. It’s enlightenment, security and amusement.

I want a computer to help with making arrangements, for music, and for keeping up with this thing, but can surely do without the cellphone. We’ll see about the shortwave radio but for now getting away from the constant news stream is attractive.

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