An American Abroad

Archives for July 2014

Vietnam: Hanoi, Part 2

Hanoi’s history as a French colonial capital is still very much in evidence. There are gracious tree-lined boulevards fronted by beautiful old mansions.

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There are still some colonial commercial buildings, now sandwiched in between more modern structures, and even some Art Deco touches.

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Near a striking mustard-colored church, various sidewalk vendors congregate and sit calmly waiting for customers.

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There are all kinds of cages, too.

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On our last night in Hanoi, we went to a bar noted for making pho cocktails. The production of this drink is quite elaborately pyrotechnical.

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My overall impression of Hanoi was of an artful, elegant, somewhat formal city. I loved the French/Vietnamese aesthetic. And I was struck — both in Hanoi and Hoi An — by the friendliness of the people and the high level of personal service provided by hoteliers, waiters, and other employees of the tourism industry. Given how much carnage we Americans visited on this country, such attitudes were especially surprising and inspirational to me.

Vietnam: The Hanoi Hilton

The Hoả Lò prison, better known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, was built by the French in the late 19th century to house anti-colonial Vietnamese for political crimes. Many of the leaders of the successful fight against French colonial rule were imprisoned there. The complex was used to imprison American POWs from 1964 to 1973. Large portions of the prison were demolished in the 1990s. Spencer and I visited what remains of the site, which is now a museum.

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Most of the museum focuses on the incarceration and barbarous treatment of Vietnamese freedom fighters. This makes sense from a historical and nationalistic perspective, particularly since the complex’s use as a place to imprison American soldiers was comparatively short.

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Only one room is devoted to the prison’s days as the Hanoi Hilton POW camp. The flight suit and parachute John McCain was wearing when he was shot down are part of the exhibit, as are the personal effects of other American POWs. One of the most interesting of these was a little pamphlet that fliers carried with them which was written in Vietnamese and English and which was intended to be used by airmen who crashed to attempt to persuade the people they’d just been bombing to help them. “I am obliged to ask you for assistance,” it read. “You will be compensated by my government for your aid.” Right.

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The bulk of the exhibit, however, stressed how “humanely” American POWs were treated. This was obviously done in part to contrast with the brutal treatment Vietnamese prisoners received at the hands of the French during the prison’s first 65 years of operation. There were photos of “happy” Americans playing volleyball, putting up Christmas decorations, enjoying packages from home, smoking American cigarettes, receiving medical care, attending midnight mass on Christmas eve, and even singing along while one US soldier played a guitar (which instrument is also part of the exhibit). There is no mention whatsoever of the mistreatment and torture suffered by the Americans at the hands of the Vietnamese.

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I left the complex thinking that while many American POWs — including John McCain — appear to have made some kind of peace with their jailers and torturers, the Vietnamese government has failed to confront the horrendous abuses of human rights that occurred at the Hanoi Hilton. It’s still pushing the crude propaganda about guitar singalongs and volleyball games. Perhaps when the last of the victorious Vietnamese war leadership dies off and the Vietnam War ceases to be part of living history, the Vietnamese will be able to more honestly confront what their ancestors did at the Hanoi Hilton.

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Vietnam: Hanoi, Part 1

For people of my age, the idea of visiting Hanoi is very strange. As Bruce Springsteen says in the intro to his cover of “War,” “If you grew up in the sixties, you grew up with war on TV every night.” That was my first experience of Vietnam. So if someone had told me in 1970 that 44 years hence I would be relaxing in a little restaurant in the old quarter of Hanoi, drinking a beer, listening to American blues and country music, and being warmly welcomed by the Vietnamese, I would have have said, “You’re dreaming.” But I suppose the Vietnamese can afford to be gracious. After all, they won.

Spencer and I stayed in the old quarter of Hanoi on a street that is all of about 12 feet wide. On our first night we didn’t do anything except share a dinner at a local restaurant and walk around the neighborhood a little. The next day we went out to explore.

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While we were searching for the Museum of the Revolution, we were approached by an older fellow who asked if we wanted to see “the wreckage of John McCain.” Spencer muttered, “I think the wreckage of John McCain is still in the Senate.” Nevertheless, we agreed and were taken on a wild motorcycle ride through the streets of Hanoi to a handsome square, at the center of which was a brackish pond from which the twisted wreckage of an American B-52 bomber protruded.

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Spencer and I knew enough history to know that this was NOT the wreckage of John McCain’s plane. The dates were wrong, and furthermore McCain went down in a A-4E Skyhawk, not a B-52. Still, as the plaques and posters around the square demonstrated, the Vietnamese were proud of bringing down a big American bomber. And one of the eateries on the square was called The Cafe B-52.

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That evening was Spencer’s birthday. The incredible staff at the Hanoi Serene Hotel where we were staying knocked at our door, sang Happy Birthday to Spencer, and gave us a cake (with candles!) to share. Later, at Spencer’s request, we had dinner at Le Beaulieu in the storied Metropole Hotel, a place that has hosted Joan Baez, Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Putin, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Jane Fonda, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. There, too, the waiters surprised Spencer with a small birthday dessert. And just outside the window by our table, a saxaphone player serenaded us with jazz standards.

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Vietnam: Hoi An Motorcycles & Beaches

We hired Hoi An Motorbike Adventures to lead us on a five-hour ride through the countryside surrounding Hoi An. They provided us with Tony the tour guide and an 80’s-vintage Minsk motorcycle.

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The mighty Minsk has an interesting history. It began as a German design and was produced during the Nazi period. Then, as Wikipedia describes it,

[a]fter World War II the documentation and equipment of the German DKW factory in Zschopau were taken to the USSR as war reparations. Production of the RT 125 model began in Moscow under the M1A brand.

By the Order No.494 of the Ministry of automotive industry of the USSR dated July 12, 1951 the production of M1A was transferred from Moscow to the Minsk Motorcycle and Bicycle Plant (MMVZ, then Motovelo).

M1A became the basis of simple and reliable classic Minsk models, the history of which continues to this day.

This is every motorcycle you’ve ever seen in a World War II movie. It’s similar to the bikes used in the motorcycle chase sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (though those were actually Dneprs, I think). It’s powered by a small two-stroke engine and sounds like a chain saw. One of its quirks is that the kick starter is on the left side, which prompts many (including me) to start it before mounting so the engine can be kicked to life with the right foot as god himself intended. It was a blast to ride.

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One of the most fun parts of the trip was riding across a floating bridge. I was determined not to go over the side and into the drink. With Spencer on the seat behind me, I rode out onto the bridge and felt it bob beneath my weight. I made a conscious effort to keep a steady speed and stay off the brakes and made it across without incident.

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Back at The Saltwater Hostel, I was caught admiring the motorcycles parked by the pool. One was a Minsk, though much older than the one I’d just ridden.

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There was also a 1967 Honda that belonged to the bartender. He saw me admiring it and offered to let me ride it. I jumped at the chance. It has a tiny 50 cc engine that sounded like a model airplane motor. My trip down the road and back felt like riding atop a steel rail with a seat and two wheels. I loved it.

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On my last morning in Hoi An, I went to the beach. The ocean there was warm and clean. When I reluctantly headed for the airport later that day, I thought to myself that this is a place I could have spent much more time in.

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Vietnam: Hoi An by Night, Part 2

These photos will look a lot better if you click on each one and view it without the white borders of my blog.

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I think now that I’m going to have to write a book, because Spencer took the perfect dust jacket photo of me:

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Vietnam: Hoi An by Night, Part 1

I rendezvoused with Spencer in Ho Chi Minh City and together we flew directly to Hoi An, a charming town midway up the Vietnamese coast. The oldest part of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a beautifully preserved mix of French, Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese architecture. We spent our days exploring the newer parts of town, shopping, going to the beach, and motorcycling. At night, we went to the old town.

These night shots look much better if you click on each one and view it without the white borders on my blog.

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We were here:

Goodbye Yuxi

Goodbyes are hard. I tend to make them brief and not to linger.

In the last week of June, I said farewell to many good people. I can’t list them all here, but I do have photos to remember some of them by.

I’ll miss Rachel for her spirit, her generosity, her insight into culture and psyche, and her family which she so generously shared with me in Xishuangbanna.

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I’ll miss Xulu for being my tattoo angel and friend, for playing frisbee on the beach, and for all the help she gave me as I tried to navigate in an unfamiliar culture.


I’ll miss Sunny for being so much like her name: someone who is always cheerful, who puts a smile on my face every time I see her, and who’s a terrific TA as well.

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My student Anne was the sweetest six year old imaginable. It was lovely coming into class and seeing her so obviously glad to see me.

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Paul is a fearlessly verbal student, a young man who constantly brought new words and phrases to class to try out. At his suggestion, I took the whole class to see Godzilla before I left town. And as a parting gift, I gave him a book about the Marvel Comics universe, something he knows a great deal about already.

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My colleagues at Shane English Yuxi held my goodbye banquet on my second-to-last day of teaching. It all happened so quickly — it seems like only a couple months ago I was attending my own welcome banquet. I will very much miss my teaching colleagues, who were my friends, mentors and teachers.

Paul, my boss, taught me how to teach and the connection between instruction and performance.

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Matt taught me to love Swansea soccer.

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JJ showed me that music is an international connector; some of my happiest evenings in Yuxi were spent listening to him sing and play guitar at a local music bar. Luciana taught me to understand her strange Yorkshire dialect (which apparently has a critical shortage of consonants) and how to make a comfortable home wherever you are.

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David was a terrific friend who regularly reminded me that the world is full of the bizarre, the wonderful and the fascinating.

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I didn’t get good banquet photos of Daniel and Silas, but the former renewed my own idealism while the latter taught me how important it is to have a quest.

24 hours after my farewell banquet ended, I was on a plane bound for Vietnam thinking of all the good people I’d left behind. I hope very much to see them again.