Phong Nha Park

I’m referring to Phong Nha Park which is 30 miles from Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

I rode around the park for four hours, and it didn’t cost me even one cent in fees, because I never stopped to pay for an “attraction.” The road and the scenery was attractive enough. These place that charge admission are mostly caves, and at the age of 67, I’m not interested in touring any more caves. Nor did I want to go to a kiddie water park. There are few places to eat in this enormous park, and when I saw a restaurant at the water park I pulled over, where I was promptly charged fifty cents U.S. by a sad man who seemed apologetic about his job. Fortunately, I had recently found some Vietnamese bills by the side of the road. These added up to fifty cents. They don’t use coins in Vietnam, and their money was at first confusing to this foreigner. 100,000 dong roughly equals five dollars.


But the restaurant I inquired at evidenced the most outlandish price gouging I’d ever seen. Chicken and rice, 300,000 dong. That’s five times what it would cost in a normal restaurant. There were few patrons even at lunch hour, and I can see why. All I had to do was drive a few more minutes and I found a family restaurant by the side of the road where the proprietress called out to me. Mom, Dad, and all the kids in were in attendance. I had a delicious meal for two dollars, and that included a coke. The kids found me quite interesting and stared at me while I ate. Then they forgot about me. I took their picture.


The park was even more impressive than all the hype I’d read about it online. The caves are supposed to be amazing too, but I’m more into the Tarzan/Lost World thing. If Vietnam wants to get into the movie business, they should promote this place for Jurassic Park V. But if they want to curry favor with foreigners, they should watch the price gouging thing. There were no other Americans to be seen. French, Germans, British, but no Americans. Maybe the Europeans expect to spend more on vacation.


The next day I decided to walk around until I had to take a cab to the airport. It was pretty warm and sunny, and got more so as the morning morphed into afternoon. I got over-tired, because when I’m home in Chiang Mai I’m either on a motor scooter or a bicycle. I forgot how hard walking is.

After an hour I realized I was lost yet again, but because I’m sometimes good at reckoning my position, I took an audacious shortcut through a neighborhood that looked a lot of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. When it was foggy in the Haight and Sunset, it could be sunny in the Mission and Potrero Hill. And this was not in the least bit yuppified, which is how I remember a lot of San Francisco from forty years ago.


DSC06272At the airport they had trouble finding my visa for Thailand. They assigned a polite man to come talk to me and ask me questions. How long had I been living in Thailand? Did I work there? I thought it odd that the Vietnamese would show such concern for Thai Immigration. Then he asked me to find my current visa. After half a minute I did and showed it to him. “Ah, so there it is.” Looking back on it, I think he just wanted to practice his English.

I was impressed by the courtesy and dignity of every man I met there. Dong Hoi is pleasant enough, not crowded or crazy, and with a fresh breeze from the ocean. That counts for a lot. A lot of Southeast Asia suffers from air pollution.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam also reminds me a lot of Encarnacion, Paraguay, where I lived for six months. Unlike Dong Hoi, it hadn’t been bombed to rubble by the Americans forty-five years ago. It had simple languished under a stupefying dictatorship. But both places will probably become touristic hotbeds in the future.


Day One in Dong Hoi


Ate breakfast, talked to the hotel owners who spoke very good English, then took them up on their offer of a bicycle and rode to the beach. Beaches are pretty much the same the world over, so that was a bore. It’s a cloudy day. Walked into the water up to my knees and felt the temperature. It was pretty much as I expected. Think a reservoir in mid-summer. Got lost, went the wrong way for about an hour, went down a tiny lane and met some ten year old boys. They all loudly said hello. One asked my name. I told him. Then they followed me yelling “Why the fuck?” as loudly as they could. Must be a line from a popular Hollywood action film. I looked back and they were smiling. One said “good-bye.”

Went to a coffee shop to rest and ask directions. There are a way too many coffee shops, just like it Thailand. Maybe one for every ten residents. This shop had roosters tethered to perches, and they crowed loudly. Now that I was in the city, I changed out of my swimming suit and back into my Thai fisherman pants. Even though this is a beach city, I don’t think anyone wants to see a 67 year old man riding a bicycle in his underwear.

Came across what must the old part of the city. Since the entire city was obliterated back in 1971 by U.S. bombs, I was surprised to find a building that seemed older than that. As I took a picture of it, some men were walking by and they expressed disapproval vocally. I speak no Vietnamese, but they showed me through gestures that this house had been destroyed by bombs from the air. I pretended I didn’t understand them, smiled, waved and rode away.

It probably wasn’t a very big town back in 1971, but still we erased everything but three buildings and a palm tree. And this little ruin that didn’t get mentioned.

Dong Hoi is a nice place. It has some of the charm of Hanoi, the French colonial capital of the north, though in a minimal way. Like Thailand, most everything here was built in the last twenty years, and with black mold helping the somewhat French architecture, it looks older. Most of the people are very friendly and it’s even more affordable than Thailand, if such a thing were possible. Here are some pictures from the roof of my hotel. To think they built all this in just the last twenty or thirty years.





An Unearned Gift


I’m flying direct from Chiang Mai to Dong Hoi, Vietnam. This is remarkable. I had imagined this trip and even written it into a book I was writing, only I thought I would have to travel overland to Ubon Ratchatanni, then mosey through Laos and the Vietnam highlands, finally arriving at the China sea coast of North Vietnam. The roads on the map looked less than promising. The trip might have easily taken five days. Now, for the same price as flying to Ubon, I’m flying all the way to the coast, to Dong Hoi, a city I’ve never heard of. Sure seems to me like Fate and maybe even Fortune are working in my favor.

I’ve been to Vietnam three times already, but this time I wanted to see the relatively unpopulated parts of the country, for Hanoi and Saigon are mega-cities. If you’ve ever visited an Asian mega city, you might understand why I don’t want to return. Asians have accustomed themselves to chaotic traffic and what we in the west would call “dangerous overcrowding.” But I wanted to see this part of Vietnam’s north, where our bombing missions were most aggressive. Apparently there is unexploded ordinance all over the place. This was the area where Curtis LeMay vowed to “bomb them back into the stone age.” We did that so successfully in North Korea that even in the golden years of his retirement he hankered for a repeat performance.

When the pilots of bombing missions asked what was the target, they were told “anything that moves.” We also dumped plenty of napalm and agent orange on anything we deemed “The Ho Chine Min Trail” which was an area of amorphous proportions. It was a trail as long as Vietnam, a considerable distance, and then it snaked through the forested mountains of Laos. Poor Laos suffered more bombing than even Vietnam. We dropped what amounted to a B-52 plane load of bombs on that country every eight minutes for ten years. For most of that time they didn’t have a military to decimate. Again, the targets  were “anything that moved.” Water buffalo, farmers, children carrying water.

Dong Hoi was bombed so heavily in 1971 that only three buildings and a palm tree remained. Today it’s a city of 160,000 residents, a tiny hamlet by Indochinese standards is best known as the jumping off point to a marvelous national park with a system of caves that attracts spelunkers from all over the world.

As I write this we’re flying over thickly forested land. Below I saw a big river which may or may not have been the Mekong. There are no cities in sight. We’ve been flying for about fifty minutes, which means we might have already crossed into Laos. Both Laos and Vietnam are very thin at this point, and we’ll land within thirty minutes.

Without a map of GPS, it makes me wonder about the courage of all the people who came this way before me. How did they think it might be reasonable to set off without any guarantees and still assume they could wind up at their imagined destination? How did Magellan circumnavigate the globe? What audacity! He simply set sail and reckoned he’d figure it out along the way.

I take for granted that things will work out on this trip. I assume my ATM card will work in Dong Hoi, that my cellphone will tell me the name of the hotel I booked on, that the cab driver will not overcharge me as he takes me fro the airport to this hotel, on the beach, where rooms rent for twelve dollars a night!

But I have no backup. I am, however, supported by a vast web of effort and expertise by others that I assume will work in my favor. I am well aware that this very evening of black men from Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia will climb aboard rafts in the hope of being taken to Europe, where no one will welcome their arrival. They don’t have ATM cards. There’s a good chance some of them will drown or be abandoned by the people who took their life savings to provide passage.

The person enjoying entitlement is usually unaware of its existence. Pretty girls are used to the attention of men. Doors open for them, seemingly automatically. White men with passports and visas aren’t as afraid of traveling as are impoverished boat people when they cast their fate to the winds.

Grace is another name for an unearned gift. I’m writing this on a machine that cost me $400 two years ago. Today a similar machine can be bought for half the price. To do the research and development to create such a machine from scratch would cost an incalculable sum. We are all riding on the shoulders of others.

By the way, I forgot to write down on a piece of paper the hotel which I had booked on Agoda, and forgot that my phone would not work here in a different country. So I let the cab driver take me another hotel, which turns out to be around the corner from the hotel I had already booked. I mis-remembered the details of that Agoda transaction, and it turns out that I paid in advance. So tonight I’m paying for two places at once.  Oh well.

We impulsive vagabonds can’t do everything perfectly all the time, can we?

I’se Regusted with Ambien



As I’ve aged, I’ve found it harder to fall and stay asleep. Every night I was waking up after only a few hours, checking Facebook, browsing Amazon, and generally wasting time until I could drop off again. Somewhere along the line I found an online pharmacy that sold me Ambien, a newer drug that helps one fall asleep.

Even though I didn’t need a prescription to buy it online, I read the label and it warned against resisting the initial drowsiness. So of course after a couple of nights of using it as prescribed, I forced myself to stay awake. I remember staring at my laptop screen from an odd angle, talking to myself and drooling. Then I must have gone to bed, even though I don’t remember doing so.

The next day at worked I discovered a video on Facebook where I was wearing my underpants on my head, and giving a free-associative rant about politics while talking in the voice of the Kingfisher from Amos and Andy. I knew  something was seriously wrong. In disbelief, I watched myself roar “I’se Regusted” while stomping on my desk. By the time I deleted the video it had been shared 250 times.

I had recently accepted an offer from Amazon to try out it’s Prime status for a free thirty-day trial, and to my knowledge I had yet to order anything, but for the next two days I came home from work to find my front porch littered with boxes bearing the Amazon label. In them I found costume jewelry, sex toys, a metal detector, the entire set of Gene Autrey films on DVD, and some very expensive oatmeal/raisin cookies from a cottage bakery in Vermont.

That evening I decided to forego the Ambien, and as I tossed and turned I heard a strange buzzing sound over the house. Turns out these were drones delivering even more packages which contained various herbal remedies, sex lubricants and cheap reproductions of expensive vintage watches.

That evening, just after dinner, there was a knock on the door. As I opened the door a cab drove away, and I saw a middle-aged woman dressed in a polyester pants suit in clashing floral patterns.

I invited her in and found that her name was Ludmilla, and even though she spoke very little English, learned that she had taken up my offer of free room and board in addition to a small salary to serve as my housekeeper. In spite of the fact that she had a doctorate in physics and had once been the director of a Research Institute, now it was impossible for her to find work in her native Latvia. I couldn’t very well go back on my word and send her on her way, so I invited her in.

We are still together six months later. She’s a delightful woman who seems happy to read quietly when she’s finished with her chores. Since we can’t communicate we can’t argue. We like to take walks together around sunset. Since she’s arrived my sleep problems have disappeared and I gave the rest of the Ambien to one of my co-workers, who claims to have a hard time falling asleep.

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