Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Is that a retractable claw that's pierced your tail bone and protruding from your pelvis or are you just happy to see me?

"Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you, but not in the one ahead."

-Bill McGlashen

Is that a retractable claw that's pierced your tail bone and protruding from your pelvis or are you just happy to see me?

In a jungle on an island in a foreign country a hemisphere from home you don’t see a sole human soul for nine hours. In same places the rainforest’s overgrowth constricts the trail’s width to a mere three inches. In some places there is no trail, only jagged limestone you must find a way up. You realize that rainforests, they’re the metropolises of the natural world, the vegetation as dense as the insect and animal life. Locusts hum, birds cry out, shadows shake the foliage. You spot ants as large as dragonflies, dragonflies as large as lizards, and lizards as large as a Cat Ba langur, a golden haired monkey with a punk rock hairdo.

You don’t see the langur though. It’s one of the world’s rarest primates, the most endangered of Asia, supposedly no more than sixty-five strong, all on this island. Observations during your exploits lead to a Wikipedia update. The Catba Langur is now extinct.

The locusts’ orchestra halts hastily, the birds swallow their calls. The silence, it lasts a split-second as palms sway in the distance. Branches break, fauna bends and upends itself to make way for the large object hurtling towards you.

Then it hits you. A semi-truck-to-the-forehead realization. There’s a reason this island looks a lot like Isla Sorna, the island from Jurassic Park. A damn good reason. Then you remember that not only do velociraptors hunt in packs, that not only do they stand homo-erectus upright with physical abilities superior to panthers, they have eight-inch scythe-shaped retractable claws that disembowel and ask questions later. Your intestines will be drooping from your fingertips before noticing the quill knobs on the reptile’s head, telltale of its aviation evolution. You’ll be so busy with the last throes of death you won’t even register the feathers lining its spine.

You’re about to meet your maker. Say ‘hi’ for me. Ask him why, when molding myself, such a copious amount of clay was plastered around the nostrils but so little of the pink spongy stuff was placed between the ears. Am I the product of an apprentice or was the kiln in arrears with repo-men on the way so was formed in haste?

Vietnam’s Cat Ba Island, in the majestic Halong Bay, is cinematic. You go from Jurassic Park to Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s just you, a kayak, and the open sea. Strike that. By no means is it ‘open.’ Around 3,000 limestone mountain-islands erupt from the emerald waters of the Gulf of the Tonkin. Schools of small fish fly out from the water fifty at a time parallel with your vessel, you’re pointing and exclaiming even though alone. You sail through grottos and caves carved by wind and wave, your eyes sending images to the brain so stupefying chin stubble grates against the belly-button. As the afternoon settles in so does the mist. Now paddling through clouds, sheer gray-green cliffs cut through the heavens.

The next day you're in Star Wars: Episode 6 zipping through the Ewok forest on speeder. Either Chewbacca's moaning in the background or your stomach’s telling you that, in your excitement, you forgot breakfast again.

Damn, Chewy, we’ll double up on lunch, okay?

Confucius say, ‘Harder throttle turn harder dragonflies smack face.’

Commandeering a motorbike, leaning into the turns around the island's coast line, it’s California’s Pacific Coast Highway One turned psychedelically tropic, bereft of development aside from a few small farms and shanty houses. Oh, and you have to dodge herds of goats. Either they don’t understand the consequences of collision or have lived karmically sound goat lives and are eager for rebirth as higher beings.

Perhaps, post impact, the goat and you, you’ll switch places, only for the event to play out again in the next cycle. As it will be for eternity.

Maybe you’ll get lucky, you’ll only maim a baby and get dinner out of the ordeal. Bones or headlight shards, it all goes down—and out—the same.

Maybe the island is small and you have the rest of the week—nay—the rest of your life to see it all. You’ll wait five minutes or five hours for the herd to pass. “Wisdom is the power to put our time and our knowledge to the proper use” and this seems as proper a use as any. Then again, no one’s ever accused you of being wise.

In Laos, the ‘Land of a Million Elephants,’ your wisdom declines rapidly. The pace so slow, so humidly tranquil, that your days are filled with nothing more than lingering, dawdling and other like verbs indicating complete and utter inaction. Even in Vientiane, the country’s capital, whispering is the norm of the open markets as orange-hued monks stroll for morning offerings.

A passage from the Lonely Planet Guidebook well sums up the country. “Peter, a Dutchman, [had] been seriously ill in Berlin. A week after his arrival in Laos he found that his constitution became stronger; a month later he dispensed with his medication. ‘There’s something about this place,’ he said, ‘it just slows my heartbeat.’”

Getting to Laos sped mine up considerably. If you want adrenaline hop on the back of a motorcycle taxi and explain to the driver in broken Vietnamese that you’re late for the bus to Laos, that you know traffic at five in the afternoon in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, is at a standstill, but if he can get you across the city in under half an hour he’ll be the beneficiary of an extra 50,000 dong ($2.50).

Then hold on.

I guarantee you those Six Flags thrill rides will be forever inadequate moving forward. Assuming, of course, that you survive. Red lights, one-way streets and construction road-blocks aren’t barriers, but hurdles. Sometimes jumping is in order, other times ducking. A horn makes little sense when it’s always pressed down. How dare you scream on the Batman Ride, or the Superman, or the Incredible Hulk. How dare you feel superhuman afterwards. There’s a rail and seatbelts for Buddha’s sake, you’re more likely to maim yourself watching The Days of Our Lives.

I guarantee you how your knuckles will look is skeletal, even though there’s nothing to clutch on to. The crotch rocket, it wasn’t made for two passengers.

I guarantee you that you’ll need to change your underwear after. If you’re not wearing underwear, well then, I wish you, sir, a very pleasant twenty-two hour bus ride to Vientiane, Laos.

Keep drifting.


Cat Ba Island's interior.


Looking out towards Monkey Island, Halong Bay.

A cavern that begs for exploration.

Cat Ba Island via Star Wars speeder.

"Yes I am a pirate, a few hundred years too late..." -Jimmy Buffet

Is your bully button feeling chin stubble yet?

A floating pirate village in Halong Bay.

The mist starting to settle in for the afternoon
 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

For a tantalizing moment I see the life that was Prince Charming disperse into it's many components in your small intestine.

Edible, adj.: Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

~Ambrose Bierce

For a tantalizing moment I see the life that was Prince Charming disperse into it's many components in your small intestine.

You've walked Hoi An's historic Old Town, you've crossed the Japanese Covered Bridge constructed in 1593. In Hue, Vietnam you spent hours in the Citadel, the former imperial city built in the early 1800s surrounded by a moat that couldn't keep out American bombs. You've trekked to temples, cycled to pagodas, canoed to royal tombs. You sat foot in the Forbidden Purple City. It continued in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, where Ho Chi Minh's remains remain, embalmed in the tradition of Lenin and Stalin and Mao despite his dying wishes to be cremated. You strolled by the communist revolutionary's presidential palace and stilt house, you read in the Temple of Literature because, well, it seemed appropriate. The front gate is inscribed with a command: 'Dismount from your horses.' And you did that too.

You've been on the go-go-go, you're in one of the world's most exotic countries, in all likelihood you'll never return. You must see it all. Right now. Before it dissolves in the mist or, more likely, modernity. You wake up stuffing your pockets with peanut brittle and run from one attraction to the next, rehydrating with Bird's Nest Beverage and reenergizing with raw ginseng root. Yesterday a blur, today moving with the flash of the camera lens, tomorrow just a blink of an eye. The entire country an obscure smear in the mind, abstract art, you have the rest of your life to make sense of it all. Throughout all this you've remembered to breathe.

Congratulations. You're familiar with Vietnam's architecture and its former leader's face gracing every dong bill, now more waxy than real. You have a first-five-pages-of-a-five-ton-book understanding of the country's history.

Take a day, take your time, don't be the hare or even the tortoise. Embody the sloth. Sit in Hanoi's Lenin Park, stare out across Bay Mau Lake, watch people who are watching people who are watching people who are watching you. Old women shuffle past in conical hats, old men slide cylinders on chalk-on-pavement Chinese checker boards, a string between two trees serves as a badminton net, a young couple cries together, kids skip and laugh and spot you and laugh harder.

You never knew how funny looking you were until visiting Southeast Asia. Sure, you had your suspicions, you even caught you're mother laughing at your appearance behind your back, but this day-to-day giggling at the sight of your sorry mug has removed all doubt. Again, congratulations. You're finally beginning to see things as they are.

Take, for instance Cambodia. The country is recollected in the following order. (1) The exuberant smiles of pitifully poor children, (2) a rickety bamboo train ride with two fun female travelers, (3) the deformed hand of a beggar that continues to haunt, and (4) Angkor Wat. Some regard Angkor's temples as the most impressive structures built by man (and maybe a woman or two) but they pale in comparison to the feelings elicited by the sight of a child in torn shorts slouched against a wall torn in two crumbling sections by American ordinance from the Vietnam War.

Hey, if the vietcong had been hiding in Canada in the late 1960s Toronto would have been obliterated too.

Realize this, that the 'sights' are just that, they may engage the eyes and the mind's five-minute attention span for, you guessed it, five minutes, but prove half as interesting as watching a sculptor craft the 'sights' of the 22nd century. They're half as memorable as a child's curious disbelief with your size 13 sneakers in Lenin Park that he requires you remove them and wiggle your toes.

Okay, enough with the solemn reflection, you're too serious for your own health. Let's talk food. In Hanoi everything is on the menu and it doesn't come fresher. Walk into a restaurant with tanks and choose a fish. Pick a rabbit from the cages. Deliberate among frogs hopping in a bucket, decide which potential Prince Charming will take up residence in your stomach. No, that isn't a kennel, silly.

What was that? You're in the mood for Lassie-mignon wrapped in bacon-a-la-Odie? There's a place for that. Hell, there's a whole street dedicated to dog meat. It's 6 kilometers north of the Old Quarter where all the Caucasoids are quarantined. Sure, the street is out of the way, easy to avoid, you can go without eating a Scooby-Doo taco. You can visit Vietnam on the neutered setting. Hell, you could just stay home and watch a Travel Channel special on Southeast Asia between innings of the Yankees game.

Or, you can walk the open markets where chickens are grabbed by the neck. They're twisted until the heads pop off. The carcasses drained of blood, you're stepping over crimson streams as you continue on to a table where fish are beheaded and gutted. Your face feels the spray from the butcher's knife. Pigs squeal one last time. These Vietnamese, they'll fry the tail, they'll throw a leg--hoof and all--into a boiling soup pot.

While eating sesame fried bunny foo-foo I'm regurgitating against it's chewy texture while bones snap-crackle-pop between molars. Later, I spit out what appear to be teeth. They didn't belong to me. They're much better suited for the back jaw bone of a rabbit.

In Thailand I went days as a vegetarian and was considering conversion. Cambodia and Vietnam solved the problem by offering far less in the protein-nutrition department. Good riddance. I'd be losing out on a primary cultural experience, local cuisine. You can't read about eating Fido over an open fire.

So I'll take that one. Yep, in the back there. The bitch hasn't stopped barking since I've been here.

Keep drifting.

----------------------------------

A confession: I didn't dine on canine. I went to Dog Meat Street to discover that, generally, Old Yeller is reserved for special occasions. I.e., it's expensive, at least by Vietnamese standards. After eating rabbit and frog in mild disgust no 'special occasion' came to mind. You're right. I could have just watched a Vietnam special on the Travel Channel between innings of the Yankees game.

A Hoi An pirate ship.

At Hue's Citadel.

Welcome to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Bau Mau Lake in Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh Masoleum, Hanoi.

Inside the Temple of Literature, Hanoi.

Hoi An's Japanese Covered Bridge.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

If you want a kidney you're going to have to ask nicely.

"I love blackjack. But I'm not addicted to gambling. I'm addicted to sitting in a semi-circle."

―Mitch Hedburg


If you want a kidney you're going to have to ask nicely.

An intersection from Naraka—a world of great suffering in Buddhist cosmology—a downtown Saigon, Vietnam roundabout where six streets converge. It’s five hours after noon, rush hour. Hell, around here it’s always rush hour. I stammer out a Conan O’Brien pep talk, “K-Keep cool, my babies,” then wade into motorbike mania. Horns blare, the lungs expand with carbon monoxide. Engage survival mode, Spock.

Walking slowly, giving astute drivers time to adjust to my presence amidst the chaos and the careless a split-second to run over my shoelaces instead of sending us both to a Third World hospital, there’s a tug on my shirt sleeve. A man about my age, he wants to shine my shoes.

Well how about seeing if I make it to the other side alive first? If I’m struck you can pull the dong from my pocket before the blood bath renders it worthless. (So there’s no confusion, the italicized refers to Vietnamese currency, rather than the first thing that entered your mind.)

More horns, handle bars brush against my ninth vertebrae. Another tug.

Dude, seriously?

A bus and semi truck side by side, there’s a few feet between the two. I suck in my stomach and am left in a black exhaust thick enough to serve Lucky Charms in.

The lung cancer, it’s on the house.

The tugging turns to yanking.

Please, allow me the opportunity to delay becoming an organ donor. At least wait until we make it across.

Oh, you’re right. Success, we get to keep both kidneys. Those are just motorbikes that couldn’t fit on the road that are coming at us.

The shoe shiner grabs at my feet before I can make a break for it. I’ve said ‘no thank you’ in English and Vietnamese six times a piece. I don’t see any point to the exercise. It’s raining.

“Please, sir,” he says, my frayed shoelaces disintegrating between his fingers, “I need money and you a very lucky man.”

A motorbike whizzes by, it’s foot peg knocking him unsteady providing the distraction needed for escape. To my back he calls out, “You know you a very lucky man, sir.”

Hours later his words resonate. I am incredibly lucky. I survived the traffic. I have enough money in my pocket to enjoy dinner anywhere in the city. I was born in a geographical location at a time corresponding with relative economic prosperity. In the crapshoot called life I rolled an eleven. I can be anywhere on the planet right now, and so here I am.

In a Saigon park I meet Sophie from the Philippines, visiting Vietnam to oversee her sister’s wedding. She refers to the United States as the “land of opportunity” where “even blacks are given a chance.”

Hell, Sophie. Have you seen our latest president?

Political correctness and a fetish for ‘personal rights’, such as privacy, are constructs of the industrialized west. Like many Southeast Asians willing to put up with the rot emanating from my armpits Sophie inquires into what I previously regarded as unfit for impersonal interaction. Within five minutes of meeting I answer questions about relationship status (hopelessly single), income level (homeless and unemployed), and ‘How do you put up with the Blacks and Mexicans?’ (I suppose the same way they put up with me). This in-your-face forwardness continues to bewilder; it’s a culture of unabashed honesty until it comes time for a briefing on a nuclear meltdown. Then it’s silence before shame, a lesson that continues to allude.

Dalat, Vietnam is, appropriately, nicknamed ‘The City of Eternal Spring’. Blessed with cool weather, pine trees, mountains, French-colonial villas, lakes, waterfalls and flowers, flowers everywhere, it’s wearisomely romantic. An Asian-Parisian land-o-love’in or, for the solo-traveler, a great place to get wet and muddy.

A fifteen kilometer bike ride brings me to the Lang Bian mountains. I manage to turn the three hour ascent into five. At a fork in the climb I choose the higher peak. I have to prove my manhood to all the people I’ll never see again.

Fantastic, I’m alone with the elements for hours. For good reason. An unusual shift in ecosystem, it’s as if I’m lost in the Biosphere. The pine trees mutate into rainforest flora and fauna. Abruptly, I’m blanketed in mist. It begins raining. The trail turns to mud, then puddles. I grasp onto tree roots, I clutch at plants that come away with my weight. I climb two meters and slide down ten. I don’t reach the top, instead turning back to settle for the smaller, dry, all-pine route. There people stare. Covered from foot to Adam’s Apple in mud, it looks like I just returned from the bush after weeks of tracking Vietcong. That 1973 troop withdrawal, it was just for show, staged like the lunar landing. The war, it hasn’t ended. It never will.

The guidebook advises against visiting the Nha Trang, Vietnam beach at night. It warns of rip-offs instigated by thugs and kamikaze hookers. At midnight I walk across the street. To the beach. I’ve put 200,000 dong in my pocket, about ten dollars.

I’m not traveling to have a good time, although I’ve had nothing but. I’m traveling for experience. Go ahead. Turn me into a victim.

The surf pounds the sand supplying a salty mist, refreshing until it finds the Lang Bian scrapes. The sting heightens the senses.

The only people I encounter are young Vietnamese enjoying their Friday night. They say hello and invite me to sit down for a glass of wine.

No thanks. I’m on a mission.

It doesn’t come to fruition.

I pass more groups of Vietnamese, they’re having late night picnics or pow-wows or bonfires, mingling with the ultimate in late-night atmosphere; a near full moon wavering with the waves as the ocean’s pulse smoothes sand, shell and soul.

The moonlight fails to illuminate any Caucasoids. Strict adherents of their guidebooks, I’m the only Anglo on the Nha Trang beach tonight. I’m thinking maybe these young Vietnamese, maybe they supply the information that goes into the books. Maybe they want the beach to themselves after the sun goes down and damn, I can’t blame them. In the moonlight I’m phosphorescent, a hundred watt bulb, a total buzz-kill. A blight to the otherwise sensually dim setting.

Real-Time Travel Tip #5: The world is much safer than the media makes it out to be. You never know who’s interests your source serves.

Hoi An, Vietnam is home to a historical district deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with 19th century architecture lucky enough to have survived the war. The city is famous for it’s tailoring and art, but it’s the river splitting the town in two that provides the ambiance. A twelve kilometer bike ride north brings one to the Marble Mountains, the source of stone used for sculptures ranging from two centimeters to ten meters tall, from Buddhas to dragons to Ho Chi Minhs. In Vietnam the latter is far more revered.

Biking back to Hoi An I cross children cycling in the other direction. They say hello and smile, one sticks his hand out. We high-five on the passing. For all the temples and beaches it’s these brief human connections that make traveling well worth the effort.

Take note, I’m not a delusional idealist. The boy and I, we aren’t alike. We’re not members of some sort of global family. There is an unbridgeable cultural gap between us, the length of which is more 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than a measly Green Mile.

He likes rice, he can’t get enough of it. I regurgitate at the thought of forcing down another grain.

Keep drifting.

A Sihanoukville, Cambodia sunset.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

The War Remnants Museum, Saigon, Vietnam, where Yanks turn Canucks.

Reunification Palace, Saigon, Vietnam, the symbol of Communist conquest.

Big, laughing Buddha in the Mekong Delta, south of Saigon.

Time to cross the street in Saigon, Vietnam.

Going up Lang Bian, outside Dalat, Vietnam.

Looking down from Lang Bian, outside Dalat, Vietnam.


A wandering zebra in Dalat, Vietnam.

Dalat's 'Crazy House', an Alice in Wonderland like guesthouse in the off-beat city.

The $10 a day view from the hotel in Nha Trang, Vietnam; I've seen worse.

A pagoda at the Marble Mountains, outside Hoi An, Vietnam.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

When you wash your clothes in the toilet I’m not sure if it makes a difference.

“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”

-Ben Franklin


When you wash your clothes in the toilet I’m not sure if it makes a difference.

A cramped, three-quarters of my ass suspended in the aisle affair, the bus ride from Phnom Penh to the beaches of Sihanoukville, Cambodia turns altogether unpleasant when the young girl sitting across from me begins vomiting. Four spewings in five hours. Resting on her brother’s lap, ski pole skinny, her right eye aligned awry, forever skewed to stare at her right ear. The heaving anticipated, she’s changed out of her clothing each time by the ten year-old she rests on, a boy whose patience is all man.

The final outburst catches the smartly dressed Cambodian sitting next to the siblings and his reaction, it’s so odd. So peculiarly un-American. He simply registers his shirt, his pants, the rice-mango-unidentifiable-meat steaming stew that now covers them, gets up, and walks to the rear of the bus. No outburst, not even calm disgust. Just acceptance and rational reaction.

In Southeast Asia social harmony is ensured by the concept of ‘face’; avoiding embarrassment of yourself and others. Anger, frustration, and offending speech are avoided. Losing one’s temper brings unacceptable ‘loss of face’, shame to the individual and, even more unforgivable, to his or her family. Which is why when the bus breaks down—and it almost always breaks down—passengers, at least the Asian variety, calmly file out and wait. When a young girl with apparent epilepsy who has no business riding the bus vomits all over your shirt and slacks, you calmly move out of the spray zone.

Sihanoukville sunsets are sublime. The moto-taxi mafia isn’t. I quickly discover they’re all drug-dealers on the side. After refusing a fare with the requisite seven ‘no thank yous’ their solicitation turns illicit.

“Marijuana? Got good weed, my friend.”

No thank you.

“Opium?”

Hell no.

“Yama?” (Known as ‘yaba’ in Thailand, methamphetamine often laced with heroin and toxic substances like mercury and lithium, sharing its name with the Hindu god of death.)

No. I’d like to live to see tomorrow. I’m pretty sure there’s one of those killer sunsets scheduled. As Salvador Dali said, “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.” Nothing brings ecstasy like the natural world.

“You want boom-boom?”

Hmm?

“Happy time with girl?”

Not unless the service comes with a nuclear contamination suit.

Drugs are always dangerous, but much more so in Southeast Asia, home of the Golden Triangle. Because opium is so abundant it’s cheap and comes in a far more pure, more mind-altering form than most foreigners are used to. Unsurprisingly, several backpackers die of overdose every year. Prostitution, again always dangerous, is much more so in a place where if protection is used, it is often of inferior quality. Many Cambodians suffer from AIDS. Many are unaware.

The Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) moto-taxi mafia operates similarly. Declining a ride leads to an offering of any sort of vice the mind can devise, some of which I didn’t know were in existence.

Don’t ask. You’re much more attractive with that na├»ve look about you.

Saigon buzzes, it hums, a city whose energy instantly envelops and pulls and consumes. With eight million people and four million motorbikes crossing the street brings one within ninety-five percent of their maximum heart rate. The pedestrian puts his fate in the Triple Religion, or Tam Giao, a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Then the pedestrian craps his pants. Overwhelmed by the cycles, he can’t see his intended target, can’t catch a glimpse of the other side of the street through the moto-bike bee swarm. Lost at sea in a fog of aluminum and tires and exhaust.

Guess its laundry night.

Saigon’s War Remnants Museum houses a brutal, propagandized perspective of the Vietnam War. With exhibits like ‘Aggressive War Crimes’, ‘The World’s Support of Vietnamese Resistance to the U.S. Imperialist Occupation’, and ‘The Aftermath of Agent Orange’ this is a place where, when asked, you say you’re from Canada. Pictures include a U.S. soldier holding the upper half of a grenade-obliterated Vietnamese carcass and the bullet-ridden bodies of pregnant women from the Mai Lai massacre. Especially atrocious is the defoliant, or Agent Orange, exhibit. The U.S. military used the stuff to incinerate jungles, the chemicals were crop-dusted to eat palm trees and elephant grass to limit the North Vietnamese Army’s field operations. Publicly, the military decreed it safe for humans. The legless-cyclops-three-finger retardation that persists three generations from the infected suggests otherwise. Contaminated American troops and families were awarded a large settlement. Infected Vietnamese and families have a room in the museum. You can shake their three-fingered hands. You can give them donations.

Or you can actively avoid the room and curse the damn Americans, eh.

I always preferred Maple Syrup over Miss Butterworth.

Oops. A glance through the window, a glimpse at an arm-less torso, at a walking face, at ‘Chunk’ from The Goonies. One of those not-really-a-mistake mistakes. Repulsively curious and paying for it with tears in my throat. Choking on snot and saliva, I scuttle off to the ‘Tiger Cages’ where Vietcong were tortured by the removal of fingernails and finger joints and fingers altogether. Their testicles singed, their penises meeting the fate of Mr. Bobbit’s.

Ahh, that’s better.

The War Remnants Museum mesmerized. I transform from a drifter to the most appalling form of tourist; the museum freak.

Next up, the Reunification Palace, built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace and seized on April 30, 1975 by the North Vietnamese Army, about two years after the United States withdrew its combat forces. Still in the same condition as when seized, not a rug removed, the symbol of a country united in communism.

Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

This communism thing, it sure smells a lot like capitalism. Everyone trying to get ahead, everyone out for themselves, everyone endeavoring to extract as much dong (Vietnamese currency) from the Caucasoid tourist as possible. The same touts, the same tricks, exploiting the exchange rate, distance misinformation to conjure a taxi fare, promises of excitement and euphoria that even an oil-sheik billionaire couldn’t deliver on. Ho Chi Minh’s image and his espoused collectivism may grace every dong bill, but it’s the global capitalist system that dominates street life.

The media, that’s a different story. Transparency International ranks Vietnam 121st out of 179 countries surveyed on their corruption index. Right next to Nigeria. Sitting in a park, observing the neon-lit nightlife, I end up talking to a young Vietnamese man for several hours. He addresses a complaint. He’s frustrated with how little he knows of his government’s dealings and operations, particularly with the corporate world. Newspaper, television and internet content are monitored by Big Brother. To publish an article requires the Republic’s approval. This young man, he suspects his government guilty of corruption on various fronts, he just doesn’t know how.

Only a wise man knows the extent of his ignorance.

That’s why I’ve been trying to steady the mind by emptying it. If I can just turn into the imbecile my mother always wanted I’ll gain true insight. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood meditation’s purpose.

Perhaps its purpose is to illuminate a purpose-less path.

Ahh, just another Caucasoid attracted to the simplicity, poverty and purity of Southeast Asian cultures without any genuine push to detach from his own, to unattach from the books and country music and films featuring Angelina Jolie. Sure, I can live well without more than a backpack containing two shirts, a pair of shorts, and a swimsuit, but only so long as you give me books about interstellar space travel or the wizarding world of Harry Potter. 

Vietnam history, with its thousand year struggle for unification, is also sufficiently diverting.

So it’s off to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon’s History Museum, The Fine Arts Museum, and The Museum of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine. Desperate for more input, desperate for a fix, I even go to the zoo. At sunset it turns into a circus. A contortionist balances on her hands while handling a bow with her feet. She shoots an arrow through a balloon twenty meters away. Afterwards she sits on her own head.

For a final act a gymnast balances his skull on another’s. It’s cranium to cranium contact with one gymnast’s feet on the ground and the other’s pointing to the clouds. They run through the crowd, the legs on top flailing, the head on bottom gasping with exertion. The one at higher elevation, somehow he somersaults off, the two flex their biceps, they work the crowd for tips. There it is, right before me: socialism giving way to the almighty dong, twenty thousand of which will fetch a dollar bill.

As Ho Chi Minh’s image is passed from salivating women to the gymnasts I see the man on the money grimace.

Keep drifting.


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