Horror and Hope in Cambodia

On a trip like the Conquest, there are countless moments that take your breath away. Whether a sunset on a deserted Australian beach, a pristine waterfall in the middle of no where in Vietnam, or a 9 year old firebreather on the streets of Saigon, the world has endless wonders with which to surprise and amaze.

Young firebreathers

Young firebreathers

Unfortunately, the cosmic scales don’t tip endlessly to the wonderful. The other, darker side of the coin exists, balancing out the good with the most reprehensible evil imaginable. Here in Cambodia, I saw one of the most horrific atrocities that humanity has ever perpetrated against itself.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

I still remember vividly the day that Pol Pot died. It was my 11th birthday, and I was in the car with my dad who invariably had NPR tuned onto the radio. In the crackling monotone of AM radio, a voice came across and said “Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in history is reported dead in near the Cambodian border with Thailand.”

I had never heard of him, and when I asked Dad who he was, he simply replied, “Crazy bastard in Cambodia who killed almost half the population. Sure as hell didn’t deserve to die of old age.”

It was a sparse but totally accurate depiction. 16 years later, after exiting the boat in Phnom Penh after a 3 day ride up the Mekong from Saigon, I found myself in a position to deepen my understanding of one of the most nightmarish periods in human history.

Pol Pot was born the wealthy scion of an upper class family in Phnom Penh. Educated in traditional French Colonial style, he was sent onto further his education in Paris, where he studied Radio and Electronics. During his time in Paris, he became enamoured with the local Communist group, and took up their ideology.

After his failing his exams 3 consecutive times, he was forced to come back to Cambodia. There he took up teaching, a profession which he would later attempt to exterminate. He kept in contact with a close set of associates that he had come upon in Paris, and worked to further Communist aims back home.

In 1963, the French language and history teacher was voted the head of a Communist organization of less than 200 members. From this humble beginning, he forged the ferocious killing machine known as the Khmer Rouge.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

The aims of the Khmer Rouge were to throw off the yoke of colonialism/monarchy that they felt through King Norodom Sihanouk. They held the peasant farming class as the ideal of a Communist society, and actively fought against modernization of any kind, which they felt only exacerbated class distinctions.

After waging guerilla warfare against the monarchy and subsequent democratic government, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. An estimated 3 million Cambodians would be killed over the next four years.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Cambodia’s total population was approximately 8 million when Pol Pot seized power.

Choeung Ek was merely one of many “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge disposed of “enemies of the regime.” Enemies of the regime included urbanites, the upper and middle classes, the educated, anyone with glasses, and towards the end, those whose hands were not “hardened from honest labor.” As a part of the Khmer Rouge’s rural utopian plan, the cities were totally depopulated, and citizens of every stripe were forced into near slavery conditions, laboring unproductively in the countryside.

In 1990, Choeung Ek was designated as the primary memorial site for those lost in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Now a “stuka,” with the bones of the dead stacked in 17 levels, stands in the center of the now peaceful countryside which saw so many horrors a mere 35 years ago.

Sunset near the Killing Fields

Sunset near the Killing Fields

This was not merely men, but women and babies as well. A popular propaganda phrase among the Khmer Rouge was “to destroy the grass one must dig the roots.” Tactically this translated into bashing the heads of babies against a tree before throwing them into a mass grave.

The tree where they dashed babies

The tree where they dashed babies

The horror of that can’t be overstated. To stand next to a tree where men held babies by their feet and smashed them head first was one of the most guttural and brutal feelings I have ever received.

This was pure, unadulterated evil on the most base level.

The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown after 4 years of genocide by the Vietnamese, however the rest of the world still treated the Khmer Rouge as the government in exile until 1990. The perpetrators of this horror were granted a seat at the UN, strolling the streets of NYC with diplomatic immunity.

Justice apparently only has a place in the world of international politics when it is convenient.

Cambodia has largely recovered after losing 2 generations to the nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh is the most modern city I’ve seen since leaving Singapore, and the unfailingly positive attitudes of the Cambodian people is a big reason why. Like Vietnam, they refuse to let the past define them, but they demand acknowledgement of the horrors that happened in this beautiful country.

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

The day after I went to the Killing Fields, I took a sunset 4-wheeler ride around the area. The peaceful serenity was punctuated with the smiling faces of little Cambodian children, waving and screaming hello as if I were some movie star. There were women in brightly colored headscarves driving cattle, and groups of men huddled around laughing at the Cambodian dubbed version of Baby Got Back.

As we neared the end of the trip, I noticed a large group of kids playing soccer with some homemade goals. I pulled off the road to stop and watch, and snap a few pictures. Within a few minutes, one boy, named Chanra, came over and asked if we’d like to play. I’m certainly not my brother’s equal with a soccer ball, but I figured what the hell.

Damn it was hot

Damn it was hot


We played with the kids for about a half an hour, sweating our brains out in the slowly dropping sun. I looked over, and saw the stuka at Choeung Ek looking back at me.

Of all the moments I’ve had on the Conquest this far, this was the most powerful.

Literally in the shadow of a place which saw some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity a mere 8 years before I was born, we played soccer together. Khmer, American and British Indian, laughing and horsing around.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

It was yet another lesson in not letting the past define the present.

There is only one day that we have control of, and that day is today.

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Leaving Vietnam

3 days on a boat in the Mekong Delta and a whirlwind 2 days in Saigon have conspired to keep me from updating, but fear not, we’re back in business here in Cambodia.

Since my last post,
I’ve spent another full day on a motorcycle

Look Ma! No hands!

Look Ma! No hands!

Had a successful encounter with a waterfall

Making friends...with sign language

Making friends…with sign language

Survived a hostel flooding
Narrowly avoided a panic attack in the Cu Chi tunnels

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Spent 3 days in the MEKONG Delta

Walked across the Cambodian border

Finally landed back in a real bed in Phnom Penh

After a successful day biking around Da Lat, I decided that I’d rather spend 8 hours on a motorcycle than 12 on a “sleeper” bus, so I hired Hero Hung again to take me down to Saigon. It was a bit more business than the last trip, with us needing to make some serious time, but I did spend some time in the gorgeous Elephant Falls.

No near drownings to report this time thankfully.

After getting to Saigon, it was obvious that the end of Vietnam was going to be very different than the beginning. Saigon had all the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, but there was a distinctly Western feel to it. There were wide treelined boulevards, and while Notre Dame Cathedral wasn’t rivaling much in Europe, it was beating the pants off of the seats of several American archdiocese.

KFC, Subway, McDonalds and Starbucks were present and plentiful, as were billboards for Heineken and more.

There is a ton of history to be seen in Saigon though, and I got right to it with the War Remembrance Museum.

To call the place gut wrenching really didn’t do it justice. While I haven’t really felt like I’ve been looked at funny as an American in Vietnam, there was definitely a different tone to the War Museum. Downed American aircraft stood next to disabled American tanks, all leading into an open plan museum, the first floor of which was dedicated to the international outcry against the war. Obviously being prior to my lifetime, I’m not sure what tone the protests against the war took either within the US or abroad, but prominently displayed were the letters from Ho to Harry Truman, and that did cause me to hang my head.

The next 3 floors were dedicated to the atrocity that is war. There were large exhibits to the My Lai massacre and others, but the worst was the Agent Orange exhibit. The amount of toxic defoliant that Americans dumped was absolutely astounding. The consequences of that are still being felt today, but for 2 decades after the war, the destruction of fertile land forced Vietnam to import rice until the mid 1990s.

It is now the world’s number two exporter of both rice and coffee.

Even worse was the horrible effects it had on the population, both in terms of immediate and delayed death. Then there were the myriad birth defects that were caused over the next 2 generations of Vietnamese people.

I wondered when we were in the big cities why there seemed to be such a higher prevalence of spina bifida. That is one of the known birth defects caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

Doesn’t matter what side of the political fence a person is on, chemical warfare is as horrific a tactic as humans have ever used on one another. The unintended consequences are far more costly than any strategic gains are worth. In light of chemical weapons being used once again in Syria, I really hope that people take a little time to think about the results of such weapons, and again re-affirm our opposition to chemical warfare of any kind.

Agent Orange also played a role in my history lesson the next day, when I tore off through the jungle to the Cu Chi tunnels.

In response to the aggressive deforestation campaign waged to flush out the Viet Cong, the citizens/fighters of the Cu Chi area dug an impressive network of tunnels in the area connecting with the nearby Mekong River. The Cu Chi tunnel system ran an impressive 150 miles underground, with tunnels reaching as deep as 60 feet.

Seeing these tunnels really put in perspective the lengths that people were willing to go in this war. I cannot imagine spending days underground in tunnels so narrow that I could barely square my shoulders. I’m not normally very claustrophobic, but between the tunnels and the oppressive heat, I was on the verge of a real freak out about 30 meters into the 60 meter stretch that I went through. Took several deep breaths to get me back calm enough to work my way back out.

The traps used by the “rebels” in the Cu Chi area were rudimentary and absolutely vicious. Most were bamboo spike based booby traps and all were unbelievably painful to whomever fell into them. The butchery of war seems endless with the myriad ways that man has come up with to kill his fellow man.

Any country with a history long enough will have dark marks that won’t come off. The stains on the soul of America started with Vietnam. The past can’t be changed, but it can be learned from, and I sincerely hope that those who go into public service in the US take the time to review the failures of past generations. These are mistakes that we can’t afford to replicate generation after generation.

As I write, there are the embers of war being fanned all over SE Asia and indeed the world. From the Sino-Vietnamese conflict brewing, to the military coup in Thailand, and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, the seeds of outright conflict are finding fertile soil. This is to say nothing of the brutal civil war which has been waged in Syria for nearly 3 years. Any of these conflicts can spiral out of control in a matter of days.

The US has found itself either unable or unwilling to put together a cohesive foreign policy, and this has allowed conflict to spring up in places which have long known peace under the US hegemony.

I hope that my country realizes its responsibility to peace, and finds a way to once again deter the aggression of neighbors before the bombs start falling.

I’ve finally seen a war zone up close and it is all the hell that the bards ever claimed.

Up next, Cambodia!

Weasel Shit Coffee and Waterfalls

The best thing about traveling alone is waking up. After a day fraught with a little altitude sickness, (Dalat is placed in the mountains roughly a mile above sea level which conspired with scuba to give me a godawful headache) I slept fitfully, waking up at 5AM. Realizing that I had absolutely nothing on the docket for the day, I figured I had to find something to do. I did a little research on the internet, then consulted my secondhand copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, which strongly suggested taking a Dalat Easyrider trip to see the sites of the surrounding area.

Point to you Lonely Planet.

I went downstairs and He at the front desk called to schedule a driver within 5 minutes. I headed off to go have some breakfast around the corner (2 baguettes, 2 Vietnamese coffees and 3 pork meatballs in a broth. Grand total $1.65.)

Between eating and playing peek-a-boo with the owner’s toddler, I was inspired to sketch out some more of my next fiction project, jotting down my notes in my trusty pocket sized Moleskine (this gets important later.) After about a half hour, I wandered back to my hostel, where my trusty guide Hero Hung (I couldn’t make this up if I tried) was waiting at the front door for me.

We sat down for about 5 minutes, pouring over some maps and pictures, as well as his binder of handwritten recommendations in every language from Mandarin to Spanish. After agreeing upon a course of action and a price ($35 for the day.) We went and grabbed me another moped, this one being a manual…we’ll be generous and say 100CC Honda.

On a moped...again

On a moped…again

I was a little worried about getting up and down the surrounding mountains on this glorified gas powered rollerblade, but Hero assured me that it would move my “big American ass” just fine.

Thanks Hero, you’re a real gent!

Our first stop was a Buddhist temple on the way out of Dalat. Hero explained to me how poor people from all around the area will go without even basic necessities, while giving as much as humanly possible to the temple. His wife and mother were in this demographic, and I could hear the frustration in his voice as he spoke. He told me that Vietnam is about 70% Buddhist, 20% Catholic, and 10% atheist. Hero struck me as an atheist if anything, but he made it very obvious that atheism is quite frowned upon in Vietnam so he was a begrudging Buddhist in his own mind.

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

I thought about the massive cathedrals of both the US and Europe, mostly built from the tithes of the poor, especially St. Patrick’s in NYC. An awful lot of immigrants went without in order to build that house of worship as well.

Apparently that part of religion is quite universal, but as usual, the people with the least are the most likely to share.

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Leaving the temple, we headed out of town and into the mountains. As usual traffic was a barely navigable, schizophrenic mess, but soon we found ourselves going down a muddy dirt road around the side of a mountain. The road was once paved, but it was being widened…largely by hand. There were teams of Vietnamese workers with pickaxes working next to Soviet era excavators on a mountain that would’ve easily been a black diamond in Colorado given some snow.

Well there USED to be a road here

Well there USED to be a road here

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “I’d rather dig ditches.”

We made it through the sloppy mess that was and found ourselves at a flower farm.

Rarely have I seen anything more surreal than these acres and acres of roses and lillies. There were just stacks of long stemmed red roses everywhere, and lilies separated by color for as far as the eye could see. It was truly something to behold, and I’m far from a flower guy.

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

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Jumping back on the bikes, we headed up and down a few mountains before finally being deposited at a beautiful coffee plantation overlooking the surrounding valley. Hero quickly explained to me that this was no ordinary coffee plantation, this one had weasel coffee.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

From this

From this

After he showed me the different coffee plants; Arabica, Robusta and Moka. Hero took me to see the weasels.

Into this

Into this

They were penned into large enclosures, usually 3-4 in a shed sized cage.

Their only job was to eat coffee beans.

And shit them back out.

Resulting in this

Resulting in this

Best job in the animal kingdom.

Apparently these weasels can only partially digest coffee beans, which gives them a remarkably different flavor and consistency than standard roasted beans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak

After defecation, the beans are triple washed and then roasted normally. Since “Weasel Shit Coffee” was available by the cup, I figured I owed it to the little buggers to try their handiwork, which the plantation was charging 4x compared to a normal cup (though still less than $3.)

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

I must say, it definitely has a different taste than standard coffee, with a sweet rotting fruit aroma to it. There was a strong aftertaste, and while I’d never normally put sugar in my coffee, I was forced to with this.

I’m glad I drank a glass for the novelty, but I certainly wouldn’t pay the $30 a glass that some places in the US and Japan charge.

It was solidly worth the $3, nothing more.

While I was enjoying my coffee, Hero and I talked about his family. A native of the Dalat area, he initially drove cabs before realizing 7 years ago that there was much better money in Easyrider guiding. Being from the South, he had no problems of any kinds with Americans, in fact his father had fought and was killed along American GIs in the Vietnam War. Hero never knew his father, but he believed the cause that he died for, because from 1975 to 1989, when the country was reopened to the world, most Vietnamese people were incredibly poor.

As I looked out over the plantations of coffee, flowers and vegetables that the Dalat area had to offer, I was shocked to hear that Vietnam was a net importer of rice from the end of the war until the mid 1990s. Now Vietnam is either #1 or #2 in net coffee exports and has run an agricultural surplus for nearly a generation.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture

Hero talked about the rapid explosion of wealth happening in his country, with mixed emotions. While he was glad that people were no longer living on the meager poverty rations that the Communist government provided before opening the country, he was concerned that capitalism would create an inverted pyramid of wealth, with the poor, huddled masses going hungry once again.

Today, things are better than they’ve ever been and there is work available for nearly anyone in Vietnam. It might be digging ditches by hand, but there is the option of paying work for anyone willing to take it.

I wished that I could’ve been a proper cheerleader for capitalism, but the American system has eliminated much of the lowest skilled work, leaving people without the dignity that an earned paycheck brings. There’s no reason to be hungry in America, but that doesn’t by any means sanctify our breed of capitalism as a perfect system.

Getting back on the bike, all jacked up on Weasel Shit Coffee, we headed over to Elephant Falls for a few pictures. At this point, Hero left me to my own devices to climb down while he chainsmoked Marlboro Reds.

I decided to get real cheeky, climbing over the wet, muddy rocks to get better a better short of the falls. Getting to the shot I wanted was fine…

Elephant Falls

Elephant Falls

It was getting back that was the problem.

Getting a little cocky

Getting a little cocky

With one foot on a muddy rock and the other gently probing to see how deep an eddy was, I fell in, all the way over my head.

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Clothes, keys, notebook, cash and camera. Thankfully I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and managed to get myself back out of the water before I got into any real trouble, but there was a serious ding to my pride, and 6 weeks of jotted notes that I was quite concerned about. (Thank god Moleskine is made with good paper, an hour of drying in the sun, and it was more or less fine.)

Waterfalls 1, Conquest 0.

After I tried out, we grabbed some spring rolls, com ga (chicken and rice) and pho before getting back out on the road, next checking out a silk farm, which was fascinating to see. Still an awful lot of manual labor that goes into the manufacturing of silk goods as these ladies can attest.

Silk production

Silk production

Amazing how little the process has changed since Marco Polo reported on it some thousand years ago.

Our last stop of the day was, Chicken Village. Inhabited by a minority tribe that makes approximately no sense, Chicken Village was a place with strange customs and one giant stone cock.

Not a crude joke...well sorta

Not a crude joke…well sorta

Men are “bought” with a gift from the girl’s family of a cow and a water buffalo. The women then engage in backbreaking labor while the men do largely nothing. Children begin working with their mothers around the age of 7, until the boys turn 16 and get put on the auction block.

Like the weasels, great work if you can get it.

We headed back around the lake in Dalat and Hero dropped me off at home, all the while trying to convince me to let him guide me all the way to Saigon over the next 3 days. I’ve got to say, motorbiking around here is a ton of fun, and unequivocally the best way to see Vietnam, but I wanted to give my “big American ass” a shower and a few hours before I committed to anything.

As much fun as I had today though, 20 hours over 3 days on a moped is a long time.

I am seriously considering it. It would keep me off of another “sleeper bus.”

Sleeper bus of DOOM!

Sleeper bus of DOOM!

Sleeper Buses and Hooker Swarms

And I’ve gotten behind in my blogging since we got to Nha Trang. No worries, plenty to write about.

We got to Nha Trang Saturday morning via a “sleeper bus.” This was my first foray into this…economical means of transportation. Ben and I, along with our friends Claire, Lydia and Josh, all piled into the back of a 40 person sleeper bus for the 14 hour drive from Hoi An to Nha Trang. We managed to get the back, which was basically a 5 coffin cave with about 2.5 feet of headroom for each of us. To say we were close was a slight understatement. I didn’t exactly inherit my mother’s claustrophobia, but I was pretty close.

We did plan ahead though, as Claire had taken this means of transportation before. Since prescription drugs are more of a do-it-yourself free for all here in Vietnam, we got ourselves some Valium all had a modified “desperate housewife.” We joked and horsed around in the back of the bus for the first 2 hours, but by the end of my whiskey and coke, I was down for the count, and managed to wake up just about a half hour north of Nha Trang.

Thank god, because it would’ve been a tense 14 hours otherwise.

Upon arriving in Nha Trang, I thought that the Valium had put me down for far longer than 14 hours. It appeared to be as Russian as anything. Apparently there are direct flights from several locations in Russia, including Siberia and Irkutsk. Russians, being the warm cuddly types, tend to flock to vacation spots together, so someone after the Vietnam War realized that Nha Trang was a beautiful place to escape a Siberian winter, and there have been massive flocks ever since.

Ben and I tried to check into our hostel, Mojzo Inn at 7AM, only to be told by the most delightful trio of Vietnamese women you could ever hope to meet that our room wouldn’t be ready until 2. So we dropped our bags and went in search of breakfast.

Just around the corner from Mojzo Inn we found a large bar which was playing the NBA playoffs and the Bruins-Canadiens game. They had large English breakfasts on the menu so we decided to go grab a seat. We were basically the only fools around, other than an older gentleman at the end of the bar. He saw that I was trying to watch both games and asked if I wanted the TVs turned. I noticed his Minnesota Twins polo, and away the conversation went.

Turns out that he was the proprietor of this bar, known as “Booze Cruise.” A process engineer by trade, he was sent by his employer to Saigon 7 years ago. After spending 6 months, he flew back to Minneapolis and told them he quit. He then moved back over to Saigon, married his Vietnamese girlfriend, and went about trying to start a business.

They started out in Saigon, where his wife was finishing her masters, but came up to Nha Trang for a weekend getaway. After 3 days, John looked at his wife and told her to head home and finish her degree, but he was going to start a business in Nha Trang. He started networking, and combing the beach for backpackers to talk to, and realized that there was a seriously underserved need in this town full of tourists and backpackers. So he rented a boat for $25, filled it full of booze, charged $10 a head and the “Booze Cruise” was born. He made $500 on his first cruise, and has been building an empire ever since.

Those humble beginnings are now the root of a 5 bar empire, completely with several apartment buildings. He goes “home” to Minnesota once a year for about a month, but he said that when he is there, he starts getting the itch to get back to Vietnam. John and the bar are the center of the Nha Trang expat community (at least the Western delegation) as he has every Western sporting event you can imagine, from Aussie Rules, to soccer, to NBA to tennis.

I’ve taken my breakfast over there every morning since we got here, blissfully able to watch the Pacers (until this morning) and watch my Blackhawks advance against John’s Minnesota Wild.

Getting to talk to John every morning has really opened my eyes to a few more issues in Vietnam that I was unaware of. I can now identify the classic Vietnamese “hooker swarm” pickpocket method, as well as which Nha Trang bars are most likely to serve the old “roofie-colada.” Beyond helping me safely navigate a city which certainly has a seedy underside, we broached more serious issues of geopolitics.

John told me that he hasn’t been able to have a booze cruise in over a year since the Chinese started encroaching upon Vietnamese maritime rights. He’s got the bars, so he’s fine financially, but it is just another case of foreign aggression against this land. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also been a big issue here given the large Russian expat community.

John was able to put me onto Ocean’s 5, a dive shop here in town run by Westerners where I decided to get my SSI Open Water certification. I figure since my brother is a Navy diver, it couldn’t hurt to be able to have another activity to share if we ever get on vacation together.

Today was my first day of open water diving, and again I was shown the real world ramifications of the Chinese aggression. Our boat, along with a few fishing boats, were escorted from the Nha Trang harbor out the 8 km to the diving locations. China has declared all water further from 10 km from shore to be theirs, mostly for the oil and gas rights, but they are encroaching on the traditional fishermen of Vietnam as well.

My dive instructor Will, had been working out of Nha Trang for 2 years, and had never seen destroyers be dispatched to escort boats like ours. He was amazed, but at the same time I could see the worry etched on his face. Events like this are most certainly not good for business.

This is yet another instance where Vietnam is realizing that the lack of American influence in the Far East is making a place where the rule of law counts for less and less. America has made commitments to many countries in this part of the world, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines coming to mind first, and if we don’t peacefully project influence through both diplomatic and naval power, China will continue to run roughshod over its less powerful neighbors.

Unlikeliest of Friends

In the last 6 weeks on the road, I’ve made more than my fair share of friends. One friendship that I will truly treasure as highly as any will be with Man from Hoi An.

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A university student, studying of all things, Banking and Finance, Man was our tour guide with Hoi An Kids, a group which puts Western tourists with local university students to develop student’s English and foster a positive tourism experience within Vietnam.

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Man took us to a local island where we got to see and participate in a variety of traditional local activities, from rice noodle making, boat making, mat weaving and an understanding of a local family temple.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

After spending 5 hours sweating and smiling along with us, Man suggested hitting up a bahn mi spot in Hoi An, which to my delighted surprise was once visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations.

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The sandwich really was a symphony on a baguette, with beef, chili, fresh cucumber, fried egg, chili sauce and a host of other lightly pickled vegetables that almost made me cry knowing I’d probably never have another again. He dropped us into another local coffee shop where we talked about the economics of his family’s farm and his ambitions after finishing university.

I asked him if he had any suggestions on how best to get up to Hill 55, a place where my Uncle Denis had fought during the Vietnam War.

Normally, I would’ve been a touch nervous about bringing the war up, but Vietnam is a place that is largely at peace with its past. One of the youngest populations in the world, Vietnam doesn’t bother with the problem of trying to explain away its history. The Vietnamese ethos is firmly in the present, with a solid lean forward.

There is something to be learned from that, both as a nation and as an individual.

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Man said that he’d be more than happy to take me up to Hill 55, and that he’d see me bright and early in the morning. 8 AM rolled around and he was at the gate, smiling as I choked through a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee.

We took off on his moped, to go grab one for me. We pulled into an alley off the main drag, (ironically only a few doors down from Cafe 43, where we’ve been taking our cooking classes) and he smiled and said, ‘There’s yours.” I jumped on my bike and away we went, about 20 miles outside of Hoi An to the site.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Vietnamese traffic, let me tell you, this was an adventure. I’m pretty well fearless where motor vehicles are concerned (thank you again Uncle Andrew) but this was just insane.

Imagine an Indianapolis 500 with 200 cars in the field, except with mopeds, cars, touring buses, and bikes. All vehicles go approximately the same speed, no two horns sound alike (though all are constantly being used) and no one has a rear view mirror.

The only rule is to not kill another driver.

I still have yet to see a stop sign since we left Hanoi, and I’ve only seen a handful of stop lights, all of which were treated as flippant suggestions more than the law. There is no such thing as a Vietnamese traffic cop, other than the guy with a scoop shovel who cleans up the inevitable accidents.

I was excited, but my ass still hurts from the constant clenching as I weaved in and out of mopeds carrying families, 16 foot long PVC pipes, 5 100 lb bags of rice, and a massive pile of rice sheaves reminiscent of a certain Monet series.

Then there were the middle of the road cattle drives.

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But we got there, and that’s what’s important.

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Once we got there, Man showed me the still flattened remnants of the old American Marine Bases, while showing me the panoramic geography of the area. Even to a total military novice like myself, it was very obvious to see the military value of such a hill, which is why it has been fought over between the Vietnamese and their various foreign invaders for the past 1100 years.

Once we got to the top of the hill, Man and I talked about his thoughts on the wars. We talked about the long history of Vietnamese occupation. His reverence for “Uncle Ho” was obvious, but so too was his understanding that the past does not dictate the present.

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Only in the past 39 years has Vietnam been a country allowed to operate on its own.

I want to be clear that I’m not about to embark on an American apology tour, a la President Obama 2008. Nor am I about to engage in re-fighting a war which cost both sides entirely too many fathers, brothers and sons.

There is a lesson to be learned from all things if one is willing to stop trying to justify the actions taken, and look at a situation holistically. Too often, we constantly try to paint history to put ourselves in a better light, at the cost of real growth.

The Vietnam War was an absolute tragedy. Americans have for 40 years tried their hardest to ignore it, and in doing so we have failed to learn the lessons it offered.

In 12 years of school, I never once was taught anything about the Vietnam War aside from the fact that it happened. A war that cost nearly 60,000 American lives wasn’t considered important enough to teach to our students from 1993-2005.

That is absolutely criminal. Having lived half of my life in a world shaped by the post 9/11 wars, I find it absolutely asinine that we aren’t teaching our students about a war that so brutally divided a country we still haven’t completely healed.

How can we ask the next generation of leaders to be better than the last if they aren’t expected to consider the historical situations that got us to where we are today?

The lessons offered by the Vietnam War were paid for with the blood of 58,220 men. It is a callous offense to their memories if we don’t learn from it.

Since landing in this country, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of Vietnamese history. Desire for self governance remains the prevailing theme regardless of what I read.

A day many thought would never come

A day many thought would never come

An excerpt of this unanswered letter, from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman in 1946 was particularly powerful to me.

“These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates (sic) as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”

As Man and I stood on that hillside, opposing heirs to a legacy of bloodshed, he looked at me and said.

“I do not hate America, I don’t understand why they fought my people, but that is in the past. The duplicitous Chinese are the enemy of the future, and Vietnam must stand with America against them.”

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As we spoke, there has been diplomatic saber rattling about China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s maritime rights. I hope that America lives up to its once sterling reputation as “guardians and champions of world justice.”

For all of our diplomatic blunders, we are still the preeminent guarantors of freedom against those nations which would look to subjugate their neighbors.

I hope that we realize the responsibility of that preeminence. The world depends on it.

Suburban Nightmares

I always told myself that if I wanted a tattoo, I should write it down, put it in a drawer, and pull it out a year later to see if I still wanted it. That saved me a lot of unnecessary laser removal bills when I was younger.

Still tattoo free

Still tattoo free

The same is true in life. When I was younger, I really thought I had THE plan. Get a good job, move to a big city, marry a pretty girl (whose mom still looked good, this is chess not checkers) and raise some cool kids in a nice suburb. I’d seen it work for other people, or at least thought I had, and I wanted that American dream for myself. I was getting the hell out of the podunk town where I grew up and goddamnit I was going to drive a nice Lexus crossover SUV to get there, and I’d park it in a garage with real wood garage doors.

Someone else got that life, and I hope he’s happy with it.

Mostly for her sake.

I got this, and I’m thrilled.

Giving rice noodles a shot

Giving rice noodles a shot

Then life happened. I watched my model for this lifestyle completely blow up. I watched what a lifetime of “doing the right thing” and “playing it safe” had done to a couple who I considered an absolute example in this life.

I saw the suburbs be a defective competition of people who had tried to eliminate all risk from this life, and in doing so had manufactured a game of “keeping up with the Joneses” to stay engaged at all. The delusion that fulfillment can be achieved through the high regard of others is dangerously fragile.

One day they woke up and neither one felt fulfilled. The only way to get out of the trap was to blow it up completely.

The collateral damage of that is staggering. Kids, spouses and extended family all feel the repercussions of a life that just couldn’t bottle up the pressure anymore. It is no one’s fault, just the consequences of taking the safe road one time too many.

We’re meant to throw off the bowlines, test the high seas, and fail occasionally. America’s suburban class has made failure an outcome that must be avoided at all costs, with the victim being greatness. We tell 14 year olds to do 3 hours of homework a night so that they can get into a “good school” and do the same for another 4 years. Then we immediately go to work and work as hard as humanly possible to “get ahead.” Eventually there will be a payoff, some magical Kathmandu which will make it all worth it.

Making woven sleeping mats

Making woven sleeping mats

Then we see the All-American Dad die one Thursday night on the treadmill. We stand around a casket and wonder how life is so unfair that he never got to reach that magical “retirement” so that he could see the world and finally enjoy himself.

That really throws some people for a loop. Now we want fairness, we want to know why, and we want to protect ourselves from a premature end like that.

Life isn’t meant to be lived at the end. It isn’t supposed to be safe and riskless either.

Life’s goal should not be a destination, it is the journey that should be enjoyed.

That isn’t found in a Lexus SUV behind a wooden garage door beside a perfectly manicured lawn. It isn’t an Instagram picture with 112 likes of a $15 cocktail from an urban rooftop. It isn’t having your kid go to an Ivy League school, or having the prettiest wife at your 25 year class reunion.

It is appreciating a laugh with your best friends.

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Laying under the stars and pondering your own insignificance.

Put down the iPhone

Put down the iPhone

It is sitting across from an Argentinian girl and temporarily forgetting the names of every girl you ever thought you loved in this life.

Eating a meal on a 12 inch tall plastic stool in a dark alley where no one speaks English, and not pulling out your phone to check your text messages.

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It is sweating your ass off in 95 degree heat in a concrete shell of a house making rice noodles with a mother and son who don’t speak English, and understanding why they smile so much.

83 and happy, in a house with dirt floors

83 and happy, in a house with dirt floors

It is going to a beach without a single tourist, and watching four generations of a dirt poor family play in the waves and sand while eating dinner, smiling like a staged picture at Disneyland.

4 generations eating together nightly

4 generations eating together nightly

Life is meant to be enjoyed everyday. Not at some point in the mythical “future.” If your life isn’t fulfilling, don’t wait for the next pay raise or girl in the bar to make you happy. Go find a way to do it.

A wise man with an uncanny resemblance to a former American Vice President once told me that he’d promised himself two things when he was younger. That he wouldn’t sell things for a living, and he wouldn’t live in a suburb of Chicago. At the time he told me that, he was doing both.

I always wondered if he ever thought about the road not taken.

We rush and we rush, and we tell ourselves it’s worth it. We consume heaps of nonsense that we don’t really need, in order to save face with our neighbors.

Not beating the Joneses

Not beating the Joneses

We sacrifice our dreams on the altar of safety and get nightmares for our trouble. We work ourselves ragged 50 weeks a year, so that we can go “enjoy” ourselves the other 2.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

The finished product

The finished product

As scared as I was to start the Conquest, the factor that pushed me to buy that first plane ticket was the fear of ending up like that All-American Dad in the casket, who had done everything right, but always put the rewards off until tomorrow. He was one of the best men I ever knew, and he deserved better than that.

I hope when they put me in the ground someone doesn’t cry for the things I didn’t get to do, but quietly appreciates the things I did.

I’m trying to live life in a way which makes each day a reward unto itself. Just because it doesn’t work everyday doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

Naperville please don’t be expecting me anytime soon.

“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.” Albert Camus

Lessons Learned

So when I started on this journey, I threw up the obligatory WordPress site and decided to be a diligent blogger of the trip. So far I’ve had 19 posts in 40 days, and while that isn’t amazing, I’m not totally ashamed at my laziness either.

However, I’d never really been a blogger before this, so it has been interesting to see what works and what doesn’t.

Lesson 1: People go goddamned bananas for any post involving food.

I started to notice this early, when I was posting pictures of the seafood feasts from Hamilton Island. Quite frankly yes, it was one of the more unbelievable meals I’d ever had both in terms of Nick’s cooking ability and the preposterous freshness of the food.

Mudcrab in Shanghai Sauce

The scenery didn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth either.

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People went bonkers over the food. I got more comments and emails about that that just about anything else I’d posted about from Australia. People wanting recipes, more pictures, the whole 9 yards, so I decided to be a little more accommodating here in Hoi An, by taking several cooking classes at local restaurants.

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I was pretty excited to expand my cooking horizon, but Lord, people love reading blog posts about food they aren’t eating. Crazy to me but there’s something about food porn that reminds me of crack fiends. Guess I need to sprinkle a little more around.

Lesson 2: If there is water in a picture, everyone likes it better.

The whole time we were in Australia, I think that we were a maximum of 5km from a beach of some sort. Good country Australia, but they don’t get off the coasts much.

The Lookout

The Lookout

People seem to love the pictures of water, wherever it is. Murky river in a rice paddy outside of Hanoi? Yep, I’ll like that. I don’t get it, but give the people what they want. The Conquest hasn’t been properly dry since I landed here in Vietnam anyway.

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Lesson 3: If it ain’t on the front page, people aren’t fooling with it.

The blog posts on a daily basis are half me getting things down so that I remember them, and half so that other people can take 10 minutes at their computer to zone out and imagine being somewhere else. I’m glad that it is a symbiotic relationship from that perspective.

However, the whole point of the life transition was to work into more serious writing. The short stories on the site are really what I’m trying to develop more of (my current effort on one about the Alligator Man is coming…someday…I think.) People don’t tend to wander around on the ancillary pages though.

I guess that is my shameless plug to get people to read some of the short stories. There’s the link. Click it. I dare you.

Hopefully more will be coming soon.

Until then, food porn and water shots. The bread and circuses of the blogosphere.

Hoi An Cooking Classes

In an effort to both take in the local culture as well as learn how to replicate some of the phenomenal cuisine that we’ve been eating since arriving in Vietnam, Ben and I took a cooking class at our favorite Hoi An eatery, Cafe 43.

We were taught by the lovely Hien, who was as patient a teacher as we could as for. After 3 hours, (and some very stained hands from dicing Indian saffron) we produced 4 dishes with a pretty high level of success.

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I know great picture of me right?

I know great picture of me right?

The cost for this gourmet lesson. $5.

It is good to be in Vietnam.

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Below are the recipes for the things we made.

Grilled Seafish in Banana Leaf

Ingredients:
6 Banana Leaves
Whole Seafish- preboiled for 5 minutes
20 Grams Fresh Ginger
50 Grams Indian Saffron
4 Lemon Leaves
5 Stalks Lemongrass
8 Shallots
2 tsp smashed garlic
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Directions:
Finely chop lemongrass
Dice ginger
Dice saffron
Thinly slice shallots
Roll lemon leaves and slice
-Mash above ingredients in mortar until paste

Add garlic, pepper, salt and vegetable oil. Mix with paste

Place 3 banana leaves on each side of aluminum foil for a pouch
Place ⅓ of paste as a base on banana leaves
Place ⅓ of paste inside fish
Place remaining paste over top of fish
Fold uptight and clamp aluminum foil pouch over low heat for 30 minutes, turning once

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Dipping Sauce for Seafish
½ tsp peper
1 tsp salt
4 tsp lime juice with seeds

Chicken Spring Rolls
100 grams minced chicken
Soft rice paper
200 grams of boiled chickpeas diced
½ tsp 5 Spice
30 grams carrot
30 gram sweet potato (boiled until soft)
1 taro (50 Grams) (boiled until soft)
Bunch of spring onions
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp 5 spice

Grate carrot
Mash chickpeas, carrot, sweet potato, and taro

Heat 10 inch skillet over low heat with 1.5 Tbsp of vegetable oil
Add 1 tsp garlic wait 1 minute and add spring onion, cook one more minute
Add skillet contents to mash
Add salt, pepper, sugar and 5 spice
Hand mix throroughly with paste

Spoon about a tbsp onto rice paper
Roll tightly, folding in ends once wrapped around once

Cook in ½ pan of vegetable oil to deep fry over low heat
5-7 minutes until golden brown
Roll spring rolls 1x to get both sides
Do not overcook

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Sauteed Spinach and Garlic
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp pepper
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp vegetarian seasoning
1 tbsp dried garlic

Cooking:
Saute all ingredients covered over low heat for 5 minutes

Squid and Sour Fish Sauce
1 small red chile chopped diagonally with scissors
½ tsp garlic
½ tsp sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp fish sauce
Mix together until sugar dissolves

Stuffed Squid
1 8 inch squid tube of medium diameter
100 grams minced pork
1 tsp mashed garlic
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
½ white onion
25 grams carrot
Bunch of spring onion

Mix all ingredients besides squid, and leave for 3 minutes.

Dice onion, carrot.
Chop spring onion and leave separate

Place 2 tbsp vegetable oil in 10 in skilled, throw in pork mix.
After 1 minute add carrot
After 1 minute add onion
Saute until carrot is soft

Remove mix from heat, stuff inside squid tube, packing hard.
Affix toothpick across top of squid

Place 2 more tbsp vegetable oil into pan over low heat
turn squid on all 4 sides until golden brown
Use scissors to cut ⅔ down the squid tube after removing from heat
Remove toothpick
Eat with tomato and pepper sauce

Dipping Sauce for Seafish
½ tsp peper
1 tsp salt
4 tsp lime juice with seeds

Old Friends in New Places

A lack of internet, power, and time has conspired to get me way behind on my blogging. There is a heap of activity to recount.

Last week we went out to Halong Bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the more awe inspiring places I’ve ever been. Imagine Norwegian fjords surrounded by crystalline blue waters. It is the cliff of every Bedford limestone quarry chopped into 1969 islands and speckled with jungles. It was both home and a surreal land wrapped into one place.

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"This is where the dragon lay"

“This is where the dragon lay”

We took a 4 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay, which was…intriguing to say the least. The theme of Vietnam being a hodgepodge of old/new, rich/poor, Eastern/Western continued. Most of the drive was a trek through vivid green rice paddies. Upon close examination though, one sees graves interspersed throughout the watery fields. When I say graves, I’m not talking a mere headstone, I’m talking full up marble sarcophagi sporadically placed throughout otherwise virgin fields. I haven’t pinned any locals down on the “Why?” yet, but it is a fascinating wrinkle in a place wrinkly as a slept-upon bedsheet.

Upon arriving in Halong Bay, we stood at the quai for about 15 minutes before embarking on the boat. Much to my delight and surprise, I started hearing my name be called out through the din of the crowd. Suddenly Mark Schneider, a giant of a friend from home started wading through the masses to where I stood. Mark and I knew that we were going to both be in Halong Bay, but the fact that I was getting on a boat, and would only be on the mainland for a few minutes, coupled with the lack of cell phones for either of us made meeting up an improbability to say the least.

Bedford Boys in Vietnam

Bedford Boys in Vietnam

Apparently Vonnegut was correct in his description of the Indiana accent when he said

“where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.”

Ah, we lucky Hoosiers. An accent recognizable anywhere.

I figured the chances of two native Bedfordians being in the same spot in Vietnam independently of one another were far less than one in a million. It was a poignant moment for me, to see a guy I’d grown up with for years and years in a place so far from home. Standing next to 3 Australians diminished it somewhat, as those people travel like mad and run across one another in countries both near and far, but to understand where Mark and I came from, a place where Vietnam is a nightmare to be forgotten, not a sliver of earth to be seen, really put the whole trip into a more focused perspective.

It was a meaningful hug between two men an awfully long way from home.

Upon embarking on the boat, we quickly realized that we were in for a treat. Our Kiwi guide Jack was “on” from the moment the tinder pulled away. The junk was owned by a woman affectionately known as “Mama” who lives and operates the boat 19 out of every 21 days. She has an incredibly profitable enterprise, between renting rooms on the boat and selling what we’ll politely call “liquor of dubious strength.” She plays her part to a T though, smiling and laughing through whatever nonsense this crew of backpackers gets themselves into. She employs 7 family members, all of whom sleep on mattresses on the back of the junk including Mama’s 7 year old granddaughter Hai, who looked at our crew suspiciously through her cutting dark eyes.

Many Westerners would consider this living arrangement barbaric, but as is always the theme in Vietnam, everyone seems quite happy with their lot in life. Again, it puts into perspective what one really needs in life. This is a family that eats every meal together in a place as majestic as I have ever encountered. Sleeping nightly under the stars seems a small price to pay.

Once we arrived on Castaway Island, we were greeted to “rustic” living facilities. Our huts were placed mere meters from the beach, and as I woke up, huddled under my mosquito net with the sun glaring off the white sands I considered how far I’d come. Gone was the 5:15 wakeup in a -15 degree Chicago. I was seeing the world and taking what it had to give.

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That’s what I came for.

We climbed and kayaked, ate and drank, and shared stories under the stars on the edge of the beach. Our crew of about 20 was made up of Scottish, German, English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Australian, Vietnamese and 2 Americans besides myself. With a group that diverse, there are constantly new viewpoints and experiences to be discussed.

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Through my travels, I’ve gotten a chance to discuss Scottish independence, the situation with Ukraine, German thoughts on the Euro, the impending World Cup disaster (the Braziallian’s words), and the viticulture of New Zealand. These weren’t articles read on an iPad on the way to work. They were real conversations with people who LIVE the realities of different situations. Boots on the ground, no profit motive or pretensions, timely and candid.

Being the former trader, I always want to put a price on this kind of interaction but it isn’t possible. These are experiences that can’t be bought and sold like a newspaper at the bodega. The world becomes smaller but more intricate with each passing day on the road.

And so the conquest continues.

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It was great to have a run-in with a friend as old as Mark bookended by an experience like Halong Bay. It puts into clearer perspective how unique it is for the two of us to have interactions with people from all across the world. It makes me appreciate the Conquest even more.

And so it goes.

Good Morning Vietnam

From the first mile in the cab, pulling away from the Hanoi airport, I knew that this place was different. The highway was a veritable river of Vietnamese “mini-vans” or what Americans would call a moped. Some mopeds had full families of 4, while others hauled bushels and bushels of perilously stacked rice at high speeds.

Hustling on Boats

Hustling on Boats

The red and yellow hammer and sickle flag waved next to the simplistic yellow star flag of Vietnam. Uncle Ho, (Ho Chi Minh) looked down from billboards, flags and tee-shirts. Verdant rice paddies specked periodically with the same cone shaped straw hats, unchanged for a thousand years. Massive smoke billowing Foxconn plants which make most of the iPhone sitting in your pocket. Women burning stacks of “$5,000 US Bills” in the middle of the street. Vietnam is a schizophrenic story told in a thousand colors.

Vietnam was one of the first cultures to practice agriculture some 20,000 years ago, but its history is written largely in the blood of its people, shed by colonial overlords for most of the past 1100 years. Whether the Chinese, French, Mongol, Japanese, or American, foreigners have had a near constant hand in this land. Until 1651, they didn’t even have a written script for Vietnamese language. This too was haphazardly grafted onto a Chinese script.

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The Vietnamese people are largely a happy bunch. There is a frenetic energy, especially in Hanoi, where everyone seems to be in a mad rush to nowhere. People are laughing, families are eating on the street around tables made for 3 year olds, and everyone wants to talk.

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For a “communist” society, this place is as capitalistic as I’ve seen.

Everybody is hustling.

From the woman with 50 lbs of vegetables on two plates slung over her shoulder

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To the multitude of impromptu restaurants on every street corner

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To every Vietnamese with a moped being a “taxi driver”

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This is a place scraping and clawing its way to a better life. GDP growth is among the highest in the world, and there are cranes in the sky in a way that reminded me of Dubai in 2008.

More will come but it is breakfast time. Thank God the Pacers remembered to play basketball for Game 7.