I’m in Udon Thani, Thailand, the first city in Isaan you get to heading east from Chiang Mai. It would have been a twelve hour drive, but we flew for exactly an hour. Udon is oddly prosperous, and belies the general attitude toward Isaan one find in the rest of Thailand, which portrays Isaan as Dogpatch, the place where nothing happens more exciting than rice farming, and all the young women take the bus to the resort cities of Pattaya and Phuket in order to snag aging foreign husbands.
From the few hours I’ve spent on the streets and the gleaming new mall, there does indeed seem to be a surfeit of old Caucasian men being led around by much younger Thai women. The girls sitting in front of massage shops are not the least bit shy about grabbing a tottering geezer has he hobbles down the uneven sidewalk and steering him towards a massage with a happy ending. But Udon is also where a man who was already hooked in Pattaya goes with her back home to be near her family. Maybe that partly explains much of the apparent prosperity of this city, which only twenty years ago was quite a backwards place. As we flew in I saw many subdivisions with American-style newer homes, perfect for a retired foreign husband and his young Thai wife.
But there must be more to this place than simply that, because there are huge, modern condos springing up. I smell industry and private enterprise, those two paths to real prosperity that Vietnam seems so comfortable with and which Thailand has just started to embrace.
We rented a motor scooter and took off looking for something that would be different than the downtown, with its many massage parlors and bars. After driving into the setting sun for about twenty minutes we saw a sign “Ho Chi Minh historical site, 6 kilometers.” Ho Chi Minh? As in Uncle Ho? As in “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win!” which we chanted as we Vietnam war protesters circled the White House in 1969 to yell the name of a dead serviceman at Nixon, who had wisely decided to not be at home.
Sure enough, they had built some old-timey buildings on a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, and even though we arrived after the place was officially closed, we were able to enter through the closed but not yet locked gate and look around. Apparently Ho had found the time to spend a year or two in northeastern Thailand with a young Thai wife, in between his travels to more spectacular locations, like New York, Boston, Moscow, London, Paris and China. Born in 1890 to a family of school teachers, he traveled the world first as a cook’s assistant on ships, and then as a rising star in the Communist party. He spoke six languages fluently, and some Thai.
By the time the United States got our boots on the ground stuck in the quagmire, Ho had already defeated the French and was ready to retire, but he had to stay on a bit longer, although in a more symbolic role than training troops for battle. Heck, he was my age in 1955, and still terribly active, whereas I am most definitely out to pasture. You’re a better man that I am, Ho Chi Minh.
A couple of years ago when we toured Vietnam, we stopped at a marble factory in Danang, and I got dangerously close to buying a life-sized marble statue of Uncle Ho. They promised to ship it to Thailand for no extra charge. I thought “where else could I buy such a thing? And what a conversation piece!”
My little journeys have impressed upon me that Indochina really is a place of its own, sort of like the American Midwest is neither the East nor West Coast, and even though the countries of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia don’t share a common language, nor do the citizens of those countries resemble or trust each other much, Indochina is not China and it’s not India. To strain my metaphor a bit farther, the distance from Udon Thani to Hanoi is about the same as from Chicago to Memphis. Even a hundred years ago a determined traveler could make the journey in two or three weeks. And Ho did just that.
a recording of the author reading this essay can be found by clicking the link below