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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.
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 Agoda.com, 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?
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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ANOTHER IMPROMPTU TRIP
It’s all the fault of these damn maps. They make it seem so easy. I bought the latest update of the Mae Hong Son loop motorcycle map they’ve been selling in Chiang Mai for quite a few years. It’s invaluable. These mountains are rugged and they seem to go on forever. It’s a wonder there are any roads through them at all! Without a good map, a nearly senile motorcyclist would be a goner.
My plan was a simple day trip and we’d spend the night in Mae Chaem. Figured it would be an easy two hour ride. I forgot that maps don’t show elevation. The wiggly red line that was our intended road was only a few inches long on this detailed map of the area due west of Chiang Mai. How long could a few inches take?
Three hours later, after climbing Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, and back down again, we arrived in rustic hamlet of Mae Chaem. My brakes had given out three times on the way down the mountain. I thought it was a lack of brake fluid, but the guy in the shop said no, it was my brake pads. He asked if I wanted original Honda pads or cheap Chinese imitations. The difference in cost was $5 vs $12. I played the big shot and went VIP.
Amazing that you can find a guy who will not only sell you such an important item so cheaply, but install them for you. When you’re in middle of nowhere, any service at all seems an act of Mercy.
We spent the night there, in a resort with a swimming pool. Our own bungalow. Only one other guest in the whole place. It’s low season here, but not for long. In a couple of months, the hoards will arrive. The Chinese are always here, but they don’t venture far away from the beaten path.
From there, it would have been a simple matter to retrace our steps. We had only brought one change of clothes, I had only brought one days worth of pills that I take for my many afflictions.
A rational man would have headed back up Doi Inthanon the way he came. But I had always wanted to take the road to Khum Yuan. I’d seen it on maps and tried to find it twice before, each time getting hopelessly lost and after three hours or so and finding myself arriving back to Samoeng, the wrong way entirely! But that was when I was coming at Khun Yuam from due east, whereas now I was arriving up the main road from the south. Should be a no-brainer.
It was, but an exhausting one. Three hours later we arrived in Khum Yuan. This was on a road built by the Japanese army back during WWII, when they occupied Thailand. A regiment had been abandoned here with instructions to build a road to the Burma border. This they did, hacking away at some of the most impenetrable vegetation, and building bridges across river and stream. Then they died of starvation. Survivors said the road was lined for miles with bodies. Within a few months, skeletons. Those who didn’t starve to death were picked off by Karen tribesmen who came over from Burma. They had been fighting on the side of the British.
The Japanese soldier ghosts urged us to keep moving, so we drove two hours south to Mae Sariang. By now my first job was to find Sinemet, my Parkinson’s medicine. The first two pharmacies didn’t have it, but they recommended we visit the government hospital. They fixed me up, though only after I registered as a patient and met with a doctor. The cost for the was three dollars. I bought two months worth of the drug for eighteen dollars. That’s pricey for Thailand, but here it’s a specialty drugs, as most people don’t live long enough to get Parkinson’s.
Our room in this town was six dollars. Again, not a tourist in sight. My co-dependent self wanted to rush down the street checking into every hotel that lined the river. Some were really nice places. We got the cheapest room on the block, because I let her choose and that’s the way she is. If I suggest we splurge because it’s her birthday she says “save money for the future.”
The next morning we headed home. A four and a half-hour ride, broken up by three stops. I can’t handle driving more than ninety minutes on winding mountain roads. The amazing scenery taunts me to slow down and take more pictures, but my camera battery ran out that morning (a blessing, probably) and that kept me going.