Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, We’ve All…

Hanoi, Vietnam – February 16, 2018

It is Larry’s second trip to Vietnam, if you don’t count the first one.

Larry did not spend his recent 70th birthday here. He did spend his 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays here, on that first trip, the one he doesn’t count.

It is my first trip to Vietnam, and it is New Year’s Day, the beginning of Tet, a holiday known to Americans mostly because of the eponymous battle fought in this country exactly 50 years ago. The Viet Cong sacked Saigon, then, including the American Embassy, Hue, and other major cities in an attack that stunned both the American and South Vietnamese. In response, the B-52s of the U.S. Air Force bombed the cities into shards.

“It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it,” U.S. Major Peter Arnett said.

Tens of thousands of combatants on both sides died in the fighting. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the bombing. Hundreds of thousands lost everything.

That was Larry’s first trip.

This Tet is not like that Tet. It is quiet in the streets this morning, the, perhaps, one day of the year when Vietnamese get up late, having celebrated late into the night after fireworks marked the beginning of the new year. Houses were cleaned, debts were settled, rice wine was swallowed. Even the police partied. Shortly after midnight a patrol  had pulled up in front of my hostel, shouted some things at the foreigners smoking out front, shot a tube of confetti, threw the spent tube out the back of the truck, and drove off, leaving the cannon and the rainbow river of sparkling paper lying in the lane.

So this morning is quiet. The coffee shops and pho stands mostly keep their shutters down and only a few motorbikes hum through the alleys. At Hoan Kiem lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, people stroll across the aching stretch of red wood that links the shore to the temple island. I stand up from trying to snatch their likenesses from the morning mist.

The Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

The Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

“Did you get a good one?” someone behind me asks in American. And there Larry is, gray ponytail fluttering, smile tucked behind the points of his mustache. He is leaning on a shiny wooden cane.

We talk first, of course, about the weather, which in Hanoi is much warmer than it is his home in Juneau, Alaska, which itself is much warmer than it used to be. The snowblower he and his friend bought this year, well, they’ve only used it once. These days, the rain gets to the snow before he can. Larry’s wife, 16 years his junior, thinks that’s funny. She’s a workaholic executive in Juneau, and Larry knows the time difference by heart so he can text her every morning from Hanoi to chide her that it’s time to get out of the office.

Larry’s wife wanted to go to Africa this year, but Larry said he’s too old now to run away from rhinos.

“Where do you want to go?” she’d asked.

“I think I want to find the perfect bowl of pho,” he said.

And so he’s back in Vietnam, this time by himself, rather than with his wife and rather than with an army of other American boys.

The first time Larry came to Hanoi, about a decade ago, he’d gotten the shakes. He never planned to come Vietnam, not ever again after that uncounted first time. His wife had been planning a trip to Thailand with a jaunt into Vietnam and he’d stay in Thailand and wait, but then plans changed. The trip would be all Vietnam, instead.

Ah, what the hell, he’d thought and decided to go along. Then, as the plane descended into Hanoi the shaking started. He almost couldn’t get off the plane.

“I knew they’d hate me, after what we’d done to them,” he said.

The airport in Hanoi reeks of confusion and frustration, knots of foreigners trying to sort out their visas. It was worse 10 years ago, Larry says. He milled around trying to understand the chaos when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned.

The vomit green uniform, topped with that red star hat, hadn’t changed much since the  the last time Larry was here. The AK-47 slung across the man’s shoulder hadn’t changed much, either. Larry wanted to turn the floor the color of the uniform.

“Passport,” the man with the gun said. Larry knew what was going to happen. He handed it over with a trembling hand.

“American,” the man said. It wasn’t a question. “Come with me.”

This was it, Larry, thought as he followed. This was a big, big mistake. The soldier led Larry to the front of the immigration queue. As he passed, people bowed.

“American,” they said, smiling. It wasn’t a question.

Something was different about Vietnam, Larry realized. It was a realizations he’s come to again and again.

One thing hadn’t changed, though: the smell.

“As soon as I stepped out of the cab into the Old Quarter, bam, I was right back. It smelled the same,” Larry said. “There something about that olfactory memory, it never goes away.”

The smell. Hanoi is a city of things in millions: people, food stalls, motorbikes. A dash of cinnamon and anise, a slab roasting beef and onions, a plate of fresh herbs, a liter of gasoline. Mix it together and let it simmer, like the broth of the city’s most famous dish, and you get the smell.

It pervades the Old Quarter, as if the raucous, twisting alleyways were one giant pho stall during the lunchtime rush.

“If I didn’t have a wife, I’d never leave,” Larry says.

He loves that food stall more than anywhere on earth — and seen the earth he has — so much so that in the last few days he’s walked it back and forth until he couldn’t walk anymore. Bad hip, he says nodding sideways. Hence the new cane.

“Do things when you have the chance, that way when you can’t do them any more, you won’t regret it,” he says, then mimes picking up a pail of water with the hand that isn’t resting on the cane. “When people ask me what’s on my bucket list I say ‘My bucket’s already pretty full.’ I’ll tell you another thing: Don’t go to the grave healthy and safe; go screaming up to the edge, tip right in and say ‘That was a hell of a ride.'”

These days Larry doesn’t do much screaming, though, and that’s OK. He’s content to spend his mornings walking the lake, looking for students, who are always happy to practice their English and teach him more about Vietnam. Sometimes he heads into the Old Quarter searching for that perfect bowl of pho, and sometimes strolls the French Quarter to sip on the country’s famed coffee — strong and sweet, often with condensed milk — and gaze up at the jarring Hanoi skyline.

In Hanoi’s dynastic days, the crown levied property taxes based on the width of the storefront. So the vendors and homeowners built “tube houses”, narrow and really long, like gigantic square pipes. In recent decades Hanoi’s tube houses have also shot skyward, some as many as seven or eight stories, and have tacked on facades that look vaguely French, Chinese or both.

The result is a city that looks as if someone handed a toddler a set of Lego’s designed by a cocaine-addled, out-of-work architect with delusions of artistic grandeur and let the child go to town.

Larry’s made a lot of friends already on his two trips to Hanoi, even if some of his conversations happen only in pantomime. He’s going out to a village with one friend next week (he hopes someone will speak a bit of English to avoid one really long game of charades), and the hotel staff even asks him to watch the desk while they run errands.

“I’m not just a tourist anymore,” he says. “I came down this morning and they said ‘No one eats alone on New Year’s Day,'” he says. He shared their New Year’s breakfast. In a country whose culture very much still revolves around the Confucian centrality of family, there’s not much higher honor.

Through his chats next to the lake, Larry no longer fears how people will react when they learn he’s American and that once, that uncounted time he came to Vietnam, he came here to kill.

“They say ‘Nobody cares anymore; that was our grandparents.’,” Larry says, then laughs. “But I’m the grandparent!”

So they know, Larry says, the grandparents know.

Next week he’s arranged a meeting with a few of those grandparents — Vietnamese veterans of the American War — to talk. I don’t ask Larry what they will talk about. I’m not sure he knows. I do know he wants them to understand the fear he felt during that first trip to Vietnam in 1965 and the fear he felt on what he sees as his first trip 50 years later. I think that he wants, somehow, through shared experience communicated in gestures and translators, to try to atone for something.

“They kicked our asses,” Larry says, and I add the French and the Chinese to his list while he nods. “When I got back, I started reading about Ho Chi Minh. I probably read everything he wrote. We were wrong. Ho Chi Minh is a hero. For a country that is supposed to be about freedom and democracy, when they asked for it, we wouldn’t even let them have it.”

Uncle Ho rests here.

Uncle Ho rests here.

Because Larry is still trying to understand how the people of this country could embrace him the way they have even after what he and his country did to them.

“I was 20 years old when I left this place,” Larry says. “There aren’t too many of us left.  When I walk around here and I see someone my age and they see me, we just know.”


Boats in Three Acts: Xiamen

January 22, 2018 – Xiamen, Fujian Province

“You can’t get there from here,” the woman at the ticket window said.

She did not look up at my outstretched arm, pointing across the bay. Nothing in her face moved, except for her lips. I stood for a moment and watched the boat docked “here” fill up with people, then rumble away, the start of a roughly five minute journey to “there”.

I turned back to the ticket woman, who still hadn’t moved her eyes from whatever was just below the window, out of my view, and I started to protest, having seen the boat go exactly where I wanted to go. She cut me off.

“You have to go to a different dock. Cross the street, then get on Bus 58. Go to the other dock.”

I sat down on a ledge not far away from “here”, and watched the cross-bay ferry arrive “there:” Gulangyu Island.

Gulangyu is a tiny, pedestrian-only island across the bay from Xiamen’s old town. The 2-square-kilometer island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting more than 10 million visitors a year who want to wander the lanes that wind past Victorian-era European-style villas, consulates, police stations and churches, many of them (at least I’m told) now converted into coffee shops and B&Bs.

Gulangyu once was a foreign island among a sea of Chinese. After the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 that opened up both Fuzhou and Xiamen to foreigners, nationalities from across the world settled on Gulangyu, administering it with an independent governing council. Thirteen countries took part in its administration before Japan took it over entirely during World War 2, and for decades the British Empire’s Sikh police force from India patrolled the settlement.

My plan to take a ferry to an island for a mini vacation had fallen apart, and instead of relaxing anywhere, I’d spent two full days stuffed into the seat of one metal box or another. I had one last chance to make something of my island plan, even if were for only a few hours before we had to catch the train to Fuzhou to catch the bus to the airport to catch the flight to Tianjin to catch the train back to Beijing to catch a cab home.

But “here” I was, sitting on the dock. Again.

I’d been thrilled the night before to discover that our hotel lay just up the street from this dock on the bay, across which, in the dark, a cherubic light illuminated the hilltop church as if it were the painted head of a some medieval saint.

If Gulangyu is a Cavallini, Xiamen’s old city, then, is a Picasso, a jarring and disjointed amalgamation of geometries that together make an almost coherent, maybe beautiful whole.

Xiamen’s newly rebuilt main old town shopping street is a white-blasted assault, European buildings juxtaposed against the international and Chinese brand name stores fitted into their lower levels and people everywhere. But outside this artery, a network of capillaries branches out like spider veins, and it’s in there one can find the lifeblood of the city.

Xiamen Old Town

Xiamen Old Town

These vessels narrow, some to just shoulder width, and overhead, buildings and wires twist upward, competing for space, all of them colonized by moss-like laundry drying slow in the humid air. Open doors face the street, and families laugh over dinner in front of LCD televisions on sterile floors below their loft beds. Up that way, the Buddha’s face shines down the stairs, concealed by a whole garden of plants. Down this way, a man fries noodles for a customer through a cloud of shifting steam and smoke, while his grandfather in the back rustles Mahjong tiles with the neighbors. One doorway leads into a hotel, while another one opens into a convenience store and another into a schoolyard.

Some of these veins pour out into community parks, complete with a stage, a library, some art. Other veins flow back into the arteries, where crowds jostle for seating at Vietnamese restaurants or red-paper shops. Some veins empty into the local seafood market, where vendors shout through cigarette-stuffed lips at passersby, trying to sell one last octopus, crab, or turtle before they pack up their stalls, and sling water into the street to wash up the blood, scales, and guts. By daylight, fresh hauls of shrimp, eels, and shark will fill the street, along with the cacophony and the smell.

We spent the night swimming these lifelines, then biked through the burgeoning art and bar district before settling in to chat with the owner-brewer at Fat Fat Beer Horse about life in Xiamen (he likes it). By the time we biked back it was near 1 a.m., but I still planned to make it to the morning ferry. At least the walk to the dock was short.

Or so I’d thought, before I stumble trudged toward Bus 58, lids heavy, to take it to “the other dock”, wherever that was.

I got off the bus 20 minutes later. I’d seen a sign for “To GulangYu”, and I walked up to the ticket window at an even smaller dock than the first.

“Gulangyu,” I said. “One ticket.”

“Do you have the card?” she asked.

“What card?”

“So you’re a tourist. You can’t take this boat. You have to take the tourist boat. The local boat is 8 yuan. The tourist boat is 50. You can’t take this one. You don’t have the card.”

“But how do I get to the tourist boat?” I asked, after a sigh.

“Take bus 58.”

I wanted to scream. As I pedaled lethargically back to where I started, I was ready to give up.

No more boats for me.

I passed the stop where I’d first boarded Bus 58. I stopped and watched as the bus pulled in. People loaded on.

No, I thought. No more boats.

I looked across the bay at the island, the church high above the trees, tree which hid all but the peaks of those colonial buildings. I imagined walking under those trees gazing at history as I strolled, winding my way up the hill to the church — no bikes, no cars — and looking back toward Xiamen and its skyline. I imagined sipping a black coffee and sitting in the warm winter sun, gazing out over the sea. I ran to catch the bus.

I rode Bus 58 to its last stop. I arrived, finally, at the tourist ferry terminal. The boat tickets were sold out. I turned around and started my day-long journey back to Beijing.


Being watched at the Xiamen train station.


Goat’s Head Soup

August 12, 2015 — Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

As darkness fell, the night market ignited.

Backlit by the multicolored neon trim of nearby buildings, the square across from the mosque sparked into action. Grills were pulled from alleyways. Vats of entrails were put to a boil. Noodles were pulled long. Legs and livers were skewered. Potatoes were sauteed. Fruits were arranged. Breads were baked. People came.

Kashgar's Night Market

Kashgar’s night market.

We came for the goat’s head soup.

The smoke from multitude of grills choked the night as we walked out of the tunnel underneath the street separating the market from Id Kah, finally managing to dodge the Hungarian guy who’d wanted nothing more than to hang out with us and make sexist jokes.

Music bumped from the restaurants around the square as every cart vendor vied for attention and people crowded onto stools to eat. We stopped here and there for noodles, dumplings, or skewers.

Twice someone tried to pickpocket Dave. He spun on the second one, slapping his hand away. The middle aged man shouted at Dave in Uyghur, slapping the bottom of his shoe and acting offended as he blended back into the crowd. A woman grabbed Dave’s attention and made hand motions, trying to explain to him what had happened and suggest we be careful.

We all checked our pockets and shifted some stuff around. Then we found the goat heads.

Boiled goat heads. Stripped of their fur, left with just the meat clinging to the skull, the brain and eyeballs still encased. Matt had been drooling over the prospect since Beijing. He ordered one from the kid at the stall.

Goat Heads

The goat heads are ready to go into the soup.

The kid grabbed a head with a pair of tongs and dropped it into the boiling broth. After a few moments of waiting, he ladled it back out onto a plate and handed Matt at pair of chopsticks.

He dug in, yanking the sagging skin from the skull and stretching it toward his mouth. Next, he shoveled a lump of white, cottage cheese-like brain out of the anterior.

“It’s not bad, man,” he said and handed the chopsticks to me.

I dug out a pea-sized lump and placed it on my tongue.

The congealed blob split apart as I chewed. I can’t recall the taste, except that it tasted like nothing and also awful at all once. I forced myself to swallow the chewy, slimy bit, gagging all the way, and rushed for something to drink.

Matt laughed, then went for the eye. He wrenched it out of the socket, skin and nerves hanging on, and popped it into his mouth. The smirk faded with each chomp. He wretched and wretched again, forcing the whole twisted chunk down his throat.

“That was pretty bad.”