Phong Nha Park near Dong Hoi, Vietnam


It straddles the mountains between the China Sea and the Laos border. It has the biggest caves in the world, and the massive limestone hills are covered with vegetation so that it looks like the set for a King Kong movie.

DSC_0566 (2)DSC_0577 (2)DSC_0581 (2)DSC_0634 (2)DSC_0639 (2)DSC_0641 (2)DSC_0645 (2)DSC_0602 (2)DSC_0627

The road south to Khe Sanh was suitable only for walking until lately when they paved it. It was nicknamed the Ho Chi Minh Trail West and is now considered one of the best motorcycle rides in Vietnam.

View original post


Progress is Our Most Important Product




Nothing much stands still for very long. Constant care must be taken to slow the effects of entropy, the gradual decline that is built into all structures. Even then, the good often become overwhelmed by the bad. Corruption rears its ugly head. For example, the laptop on which I am typing this essay has developed a problem with the letter “h” which now sticks and requires extra effort. Sometimes, the cursor randomly hops around the page while I write. Four years ago this was a high-end laptop. In four more years it will be sitting in landfill.

Even rarer is when things get actually better. Progress is an elusive butterfly, and rare because there are illusions of progress which when examined closely and over time prove not to be progress at all. False progress is even worse than entropy!

In Saint Louis, Missouri, the city fathers had come up with what they thought was a progressive idea. They tore down miles of old Victorian brick homes lived in by poor people and built a complex of eleven-story apartment towers to house those displaced by Progress. The Japanese architect who also designed the World Trade Center in New York City designed this complex, which was named Pruitt-Igoe. Despite the architect’s drawings, which showed happy families relaxing on the common lawns, it rapidly became a war zone of sorts.

Gangs occupied the elevators, extorting money and sex from occupants who could not easily use the stairs to reach their homes on the upper floors. Drug dealing went on night and day. Within a decade those city fathers had to admit defeat and the entire complex was razed through the same sort of controlled demolition that brought down the World Trade Center thirty years later.

How did they get it so wrong? This debacle was a terribly expensive boondoggle, a black eye in urban renewal that proved myriad experts to be dead wrong every step of the way. At one point the United States army had secretly installed blowers on the roofs of the Pruitt-Igoe towers to disperse radioactive zinc cadmium sulphide into the air in order to test rates of possible mass poisoning by an enemy. The inhabitants of this failed social experiment must have felt like laboratory rats in more ways that one.

Rarely do we get things so wrong on such a grand scale. But when we do, we do it with great verve. The Vietnam war lasted for a more than a decade, as did our secret invasions of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. We’re still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, seventeen years after invading those countries. Looking back, it’s hard to remember why anyone thought these military actions were a good idea. But someone did, and the rest of us are still paying for it.

Compared to amount of our planet’s surface taken up by oceans and deserts, there really isn’t that much fertile land on the planet, but the Russians managed to remove millions of acres of some of the best of it when they contaminated Chernobyl. In ten thousand years or so it may be useful again. Meanwhile, Fukushima continues to pour radioactivity into the ocean at a steadily increasing rate.

When you’re headed down the wrong trail, there comes a time when you have to stop and admit to yourself that this is the wrong path. You’re not getting any closer to where you wanted to go. With each step, you’re making it harder to fix this problem. Walking faster won’t help. Wishful thinking won’t make it magically become the right trail. You’ll have to retrace your steps and start over again. This is a painful choice, but the only choice that has any chance of success.

Nobody said finding Progress would be easy, but it does help to remember that there are good choices as well as bad, that sometimes Entropy can be forestalled, that things can get better and stay that way for a considerable amount of time. Becoming teachable and staying flexible are more important than saving face and defending yourself against criticism.


when it’s time to find a new line of work:


Be Yourself Because There’s Really No Alternative



If you’re not at least attempting to please yourself, whom do you intend to please? You probably won’t be very good at pretending to accomplish another person’s will for you. You will do better dropping the pretense and simply intending to please yourself.

If you’re trying to be what other people want you to be, then who will be you?

People who are truly themselves ring true and are often a delight to watch and be around. Jimmy Cagney was an actor as well as a real character. Even when pretending to be somebody else he was enjoying himself. We only know of his acting in movies where he pretended to inhabit character parts written and directed by others, but he brought so much of himself along for the ride that he retained ownership of the performance. In doing so, he inspired and pleased others. From all accounts, he lived…

View original post 228 more words

Chiang Dao Mountain

It rises out of flat farm country and juts up to a spectacular height. It’s enormous! There are other mountains nearby but they are part of a line of mountains, and this one is all alone. I found a place along a dirt road where I can get the whole mountain in one shot. There is a natural hot springs nearby, where we relaxed along with other Thai people. Families arriving on one motor scooter. Wipa made sure I was properly dressed. No public nudity for Thais!

It’s about fifty miles north of Chiang Mai. A long haul for a scooter, but worth it. We spent the night and came back after I got some morning light shots.



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?