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?


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