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To go home, I had to take a taxi to Saigon’s airport, fly to Hanoi, then on to Hong Kong, where during a 5 ½ hour layover I’d take a train to Central to hang out a bit, then back to the airport to fly to JFK, then hop on two trains just to get to Manhattan, then two more to reach Philly’s 30th Street Station, from where I could, finally, take two subways to my South Philadelphia neighborhood. With so many legs to a trip, a thousand things could go wrong.

Tan Son Nhat Airport, Saigon
Tan Son Nhat Airport, Saigon

Riding through Saigon at 3:30AM, I noticed a bunch of restaurants were already open, with people sitting at sidewalk tables, eating noodles or drinking coffee. Tired, I said nothing to the driver. No jokes about a national homosexual policy, strictly enforced for half a century, to reverse the runaway population growth.

Before taking off from Saigon, the Vietnam Airlines stewardess warned us that to open any aircraft door during flight would result in a $880 fine.

A sign at Hanoi’s airport, “NO MOTORBIKES, BICYCLES OR PRIMITIVE MEANS.” During a month of hectic travel through urban and rural Vietnam, I saw just one ox-drawn cart and maybe a dozen pedicabs. SUV sales are surging, however, and there’s also a growing market for Harley Davidsons. They cost $16,000 to $52,000, twice as much as in the US. In Phan Thiet, I spotted a US Army jeep, meticulously restored, parked outside the ultra-trendy Ocean Coffee.

The express train from the airport to Central Hong Kong runs every 10 minutes from 5:54AM to 12:48AM, and takes but 24 minutes to cover 23 miles. Nearly every world-class city has a direct train to connect its international airport to downtown, but Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC simply don’t, and Americans just don’t give a flying, exploding cockpit! We’re number one!

Since the Washington Metro opened in 1976, politicians have talked about extending it to Dulles. Forty-one years later, it has crept within seven miles of the badly designed, unfriendly and decrepit airport, opened in 1962. It may even get there before the much welcome controlled demolition. In 2014, news.com.au asked of Dulles, “Is this the world’s worst airport?”

Year after year, East Asian top airports rank as the planet’s best, with Seoul’s, Singapore’s, Tokyo’s and Hong Kong’s nearly always in the top five. In Europe, London’s, Amsterdam’s, Frankfurt’s and Zurich’s are also first-rate.

With twice the population density of Saigon’s, Hong Kong’s streets are nowhere nearly as clogged, thanks to its excellent subway system and a vast fleet of private buses. Like Singapore, Hong Kong is also a hundred times cleaner and more orderly than my native city. Most impressively, Hong Kong’s murder rate per 100,000 people was only 0.4 for 2016. With 7.347 million people, it had 28 murders. By contrast, Philadelphia tallied 278 homicides for a population of 1.568 million.

Year after year, American blacks commit murders at roughly seven times the rate of whites, a fact that’s blamed by many on socioeconomic factors, historical resentment and/or ongoing racism, while others attribute it to a low IQ, innate lack of impulse control and/or propensity for violence. A century from now, will blacks still be an underclass in any multicultural societies still existing? How about in five hundred years?

Without a significant black population, East Asian societies don’t have to deal with this debate or problem. I’ve wandered unfamiliar Saigon, Hanoi and Singapore streets in the middle of the night without any fear of being shot or stabbed, and I’ve done the same in many European cities, including Istanbul and war-time Kiev.

In recent years, Africans have started to emigrate to Vietnam, and in Saigon’s Gò Vấp District and on Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, there are even black male prostitutes, a phenomenon that’s particularly pleasing to certain middle-aged Vietnamese women. The Africans’ prices are high for local standards, around $25 for a quickie, $50 for an overnight. A recent police raid brought in 50 Africans for questioning.

Wandering around Hong Kong’s Central, I spotted a graffiti, “DESTROY RACISM.” Nearby, there’s a pretty, young, blonde model on an ad for a high-end real estate firm, Man Hing Hong. A few steps away was another blonde, this one merely a teenager, on an ad for an ordinary hair salon, mina dev’ wil. Noticing racial differences means having racial preferences. We will never be color-blind.

As an adult, I’ve had two 2-year stints away from the US. Living in Saigon from 1999-2001, I missed Mexican food, Seahawks games on TV and some jazz, so I asked a friend, traveling to Saigon with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to bring me Django Reinhardt, and Lester Young accompanying Billie Holliday. Returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, I asked my brother to drive me straight to a Mexican joint. Now, there are good Mexican restaurants in Vietnam, and you can listen to anything on YouTube.

Living in Italy from 2002-2004, I missed decent fried chicken, tolerable Chinese food, bullshitting in bars and watching the Seahawks on TV. The Italian ways were so wonderful, the people so hospitable and sweet, I had several nightmares in which I suddenly found myself back in Philly. Opening my eyes, I discovered, with tremendous relief, that I was still in Italy.

Flying into Dulles, I noticed how wide the freeway medians were. So much space wasted, I thought. The currency exchange girl gave me several hundred dollars too much. Catching her mistake, I returned the cash. “Whoa!” She laughed.

During my month in Vietnam, I checked Seahawks games in progress, answered a few emails from Philly buddies and knew I would be back to eating canned chili, baked beans and clam chowder soon enough.

The flight from Hong Kong to JFK took 15 hours 45 minutes. Most of the passengers were Chinese-Americans, a fact I discovered when all these Cantonese speaking folks took out their blue passports at immigration. On the plane, the stewardess kept speaking Cantonese to me, even though I had answered her in English the last time around. Vietnam’s eternal fear is to be blended into China. Two seats away from me was a young man in a yarmulke. Since he had his earphones on during each waking moment, we never chattered.

Recently in Spain, I met a Norwegian who swore he would never return to the US, “The immigration at JFK was so long, and the agents so unfriendly! After such a long flight, we had to stand in line forever, and there were children and old people. We were all trapped!”

Without a direct train to Manhattan, I took the AirTrain to Howard Beach, then waited at least 20 minutes in the cold for the sluggish A Train. Descending the stairs, I passed a portly black man in a burgundy suit. Staring hard at me, he made a sibilant fart with his mouth. “How are you doing, man?” I answered.

“Get on the A Train,” Ella sang. “Soon, you’ll be on Sugar Hill in Harlem!” Yeah, right. All around me were exhausted passengers with their luggage. After flying for countless eons from Dar es Salaam, Ulaanbaatar or wherever, they stood, shivering.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: American Media, Political Correctness, Poverty 
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It was a 200-mile journey from Saigon to Dak Lak, a highlands province that saw much fighting during the Vietnam War. Just north of Saigon, I passed quite a few grand villas, with two dog statues on gate columns, though some owners outdid their neighbors by having lions instead.

The further north I went, the smaller the houses became, and the more churches I saw, some brand new. The government states that only 8% of Vietnamese are Christians, but the true percentage must be twice that, at least. I saw many graves with crosses.

As I climbed higher, the rubber trees gave way to coffee and pepper plants. Here and there, an avocado orchard or corn field. Noticing people on motorbikes with a windbreaker or hoodie, I suddenly became alarmed at not having brought a coat, but the temperature never dipped below pleasantly cool.

One recent summer evening in Catalan, a man I was chatting with at an outdoor cafe shudderingly said he had to rush home because it was getting too cold, and I thought he had to be joking or a wimp. “You live in the US. This is nothing for you. I’m freezing!” It’s all relative.

Serpentining upward, dragonlike, I skirted the Cambodian border. The Ho Chi Minh trail was once just on the other side. At a dusty intersection, an old bicyclist had on gray pajamas and a black combat helmet. Though with a face like a squashed prune and toothless, he can still aim straight, I’d bet. A propaganda billboard advised, “FIRM WITH THE RIFLE, STEADY WITH THE STEERING WHEEL.”

M’Drak Street Scene
M’Drak Street Scene

In Dak Lak Province, most of the place names aren’t Vietnamese, but even in strange-sounding Ea Kly, Ea Kar or M’Drak, all I saw on the streets were Vietnamese, for they have taken over. A century ago, there were 151 Rade villages in the area, so where were the Rades?

A Vietnamese, Quan, informed me, “As we move in, they retreat further into the forest. Plus, they dress just like us now, so if you see them in town, you may not notice. They are darker, though.”

Smiling, Quan added, “And their women are rather disgusting, when you look at them. There’s something not quite right about them!” Like a tolerance for heat or cold, it’s mostly what you’re used to, I suppose, though novelty, for some, can be intriguing.

Born in harsh Binh Dinh, Quan moved to Saigon as a teen. In college, he often couldn’t afford more than a plate of rice with pig liver and bean sprouts for lunch, for it only cost 9 cents. He rode a cheap Chinese bike that often broke down. Now, Quan owns several businesses and was in Dak Lak to buy land for a recycling plant. Looking into exporting organic Vietnamese vegetables to India, he visited that country recently. His wife went to Dubai for fun.

With Quan, I visited a business associate of his, also a Vietnamese. Everything inside Truong’s house was tired looking. The front room was decorated with a large picture of fruits and vegetables, something you’d find in a barrio grocery store. The backroom had two wooden beds and a beat-up glass cabinet, containing faded, threadbare and long-outdated clothing. His parents came out to greet us. The old man wore a white and baby blue golf shirt that featured this stitched on tag, “THTP Buôn Ma Thuột” [“Buon Ma Thuot High School”]. After four decades, maybe he’s still enrolled.

Truong, “Yes, this area is changing very fast. More and more people are coming in, and the trees are being cut down. You hardly see elephants anymore. The elephant is very important to the Rades. It’s their spiritual core. Plus, elephants hauled timber. Now, elephants are only used to give rides to tourists.”

“So they’re being bred just for that?”

“It’s not easy for elephants to breed, big brother! You don’t know. They’re very picky, and can only mate in the forest. Once they’ve paired up, you have to let them wander into the forest. They can only have intercourse there.”

“If you let them go, how can you find them later?”

“They’ll come back by themselves!”

“Strange.”

“Oh, the Rades love their elephants! They even stage weddings for them! With less forest every day, it’s harder for the elephants to breed, however, so there are fewer and fewer elephants.”

With corrupt officials looking the other way, illegal logging is rampant in Dak Lak, and the Rades themselves participate, since it’s a great source of cash, and they’re developing a taste for the accoutrements of modern life, such as blue jeans, cable TV, beer and the smart phone. The ones who are raking in the most money are the Vietnamese, of course. Many of them had descended from the North, after the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

One evening, I visited a man from Bac Ninh, a province just outside Hanoi. Twenty-four years ago, he moved to Ea Kly, a dusty, miserable village of 10,000. Now up to 20,000, it has little to recommend it. There’s a restaurant selling rice gruel with eel for breakfast, a homely elementary school with a drum to call students to class, and a Buddhist temple with a tin roof and walls of faded, corrugated plexiglass.

Entering Săm’s living room, I was immediately blown away by his huge, sumptuously carved cabinet/altar piece, however. Made from jackfruit wood, it had lacquer inlaids. At the top, two-tiered pagodas flanked a framed portrait of Săm’s deceased father. Inside a lit, glass enclosure was a circular portrait of General Giap, a rather surprising feature since Săm is my age, thus too young to serve in the War. Beneath General Giap were three wooden statues symbolizing prosperity, status and longevity. A gigantic wooden vase stood on each side of the cabinet/altar piece.

As we sat on ornately carved wooden furniture, I blathered to my host, “I’ve never seen such a beautiful altar piece! It belongs in a museum!”

“It’s modeled after the one in Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng’s house! I saw it once.”

“Your house must be the most beautiful in this village!”

“It can’t be! It’s all right. My brother’s is also nice.”

And it was, with a similarly spectacular cabinet/altar piece. Outdoing his brother, he even had a coffered wooden ceiling.

A small, dark man with brown or missing teeth, Săm had clearly been knocked about a bit. He seemed ten years older. His brother, Thắng, had a brighter, smoother complexion, more gleam in his eyes and more cockiness in his voice. When I told him I was simply a writer, and my wife a mere sales clerk, Thắng beamed a thousand watts as if he had just knocked me out in a cage fighting match. Traveling across this turbulent, blighted earth, I had accomplished next to nothing, while he became a veritable king in But Phuc Yu.

“In every society, there are winners and losers,” Thắng actually declared. Very vô duyên, indeed.

The brothers’ first contact in the area was an aunt who had gone South in 1954. During the War, she made a small fortune selling opium to American soldiers. “My aunt was a legendary beauty,” Thắng exuded. “But after 1975, she was broken.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Vietnam 
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And so we’re in Vung Tau, a sleepy, seaside city at the mouth of the Saigon River. I’m staying in a hotel owned by an Army unit. My room is quiet, cheap and has an ample balcony with an ocean view. I’ve only stumbled onto two other guests, each sitting on a massage chair.

The beaches here are named Front, Back, Pineapple and Strawberry, with the last two the ugliest, despite their pretty names. I was at all four as a child. Each time I traveled to Vung Tau, I would pass a cemetery with hundreds of French graves. It was razed in 1983. Like all conquerers, the French never thought they would be expelled. Grabbing this land from the Cambodians in 1658, the Vietnamese established three villages named Thắng Nhất [First Victory], Thắng Nhị [Second Victory] and Thắng Tam [Third Victory].

Malay pirates established a stronghold here in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1960’s, Yankee and Aussie grunts relaxed on its beaches, then entered bars with names like Olympia, Flower, US Moon or Milano to pick up prostitutes. In the 1980’s, thousands of Russians and Azerbaijanis came to work for Vietsovpetro, a Vietnamese/Russian oil and gas exploration company. Now, there are around 600 Russians here, but most are walled off inside their own compound. Those who’ve ventured out have opened at least three restaurants, so don’t despair if you must have some decent borscht while in Vung Tau.

Near Front Beach, I saw a billboard advertising Paramount, a cable channel showing Hollywood flicks. I recognized Tom Cruise, Marlon Brando in the Godfather and some GI in a Vietnam War film. While the Pentagon can’t seem to beat anybody, Hollywood has colonized hearts and minds for decades, with Americans among its billions of abject victims.

The adjacent billboard pitched Imperial Plaza, a shopping mall. Nearly all the faces on it were white. Vietnamese billboards for upscale private schools also feature mostly white kids. Though they are gross distortions of their student bodies, they reel in Vietnamese parents who want their kids to mix with whites. It’s the way forward, upward and, hopefully, even out.

Two trustworthy Russian spies have relayed to me that all signs at the Moscow train station are in Russian and Chinese only. No English. It’s certainly a political statement. Constantly seduced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, most Vietnamese are not buying it.

On my next to last legs, I’ve come to Vung Tau not to swim, shop or eat Russian but to hang out with my close friend, poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh. Before this Vietnam trip, I last saw Chanh in 2005 in Berlin.

Yesterday, Chanh, Vietnamese-American poet Hai-Dang Phan and I went up Núi Lớn [Big Mountain] to have some wonderful boiled chicken, rice gruel, gỏi and beer. We talked about mutual friends, societial trends, literary strategies, my Guam experiences, 1975, interesting locals and Chanh’s girlfriend in California, which he hasn’t visited, and may never, for he’s not all that interested. Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo is a professor at UCLA.

In a dirt yard were dozens of empty beer cans and water bottles, ready to be recycled. Scrawny chickens scrutinized the dirt, pecked, reflected, moved on. Half a dozen hammocks beckoned. We laughed quite a bit, read a few poems. It was sweltering under the tin roof.

“Big brother,” Chanh said to the owner, “you should put some palm leaves over this roof, make it less hot! They don’t cost anything!”

“Yes, yes, I’ll get to it.”

The wiry, dark man and his wife have six children, three grown and moved out. They came to this mountain from Bến Tre, in the Mekong Delta. Hearing me and Chanh spew poems, his remaining kids ran out from the house to watch. One documented the odd happening with his cellphone.

Café owner, “Last year, some poets also came by. I’m always happy to see poets here.”

“Just by opening a café at the top of this forlorn mountain, you too are a poet!” I said.

Unable to publish freely in Vietnam and ignored by just about every critic, Chanh has turned to making pottery sculptures. Increasingly complex, elegant and fascinating psychologically, they’re approaching his poems in accomplishment. He will be heard from internationally as a visual artist, I’m convinced. Chanh’s dealer is Dinh Q. Lê, whose works have been collected by MOMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There’s a lot happening on this side of the globe.

Chanh’s grandfather, a nationalist, was jailed by the French at Hỏa Lò [Hanoi Hilton]. His dad was also locked up by the French, but on Côn Sơn Island, now a popular resort. Laughing, Chanh said, “When they brought me in for questioning a few times, I wondered if I, too, would be jailed on Côn Sơn Island!” For noticing and saying the obvious, many Vietnamese have paid a very high price.

Through Chanh, I found out the owner of The Sausage Factory is an Australian who drove a tank during the Vietnam War, that there’s an old lady who won’t charge more than 9 cents for her bánh tiêu, although it’s the best and most popular in town, with each one made only by her. There’s a sidewalk café that opens at 2AM to serve late night carousers, prostitutes and early risers, with each cup costing but 22 cents, “You’ll even see rich guys in suits sitting in the dark, nursing their cheap coffee. I told the lady she should charge more, but she said 22 cents were enough.”

The cup I’m drinking right now costs four times that, just slightly more than normal. Arriving this morning, I found the café’s doors wide open but no one around, so I simply sat down in the thin demilitarized zone between business and street, then shouted towards the back several times, “Selling coffee yet?!” No one answered. Suddenly emerging from an alley, a woman informed me, “She’s sleeping.” Fair enough. Making odd, touching noises, a deaf-mute looked at me with concern and pointed to a café across the street. Declining to move, I began this article.

Noticing a crucifix and a Madonna holding Child on the wall, I asked the owner about the clear Catholic presence in the neighborhood. Down the street, I had noticed a monastery, plus a humongous statue of the Virgin Mary holding a Baby Jesus. White, it poked out from the verdant hillside. “Our priest encouraged all of the Catholic families in this area to move here, so we could be closer together and establish a parish.”

“When did this happen?”

“Around 1960.”

Remarkably, this parish has survived everything.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Vietnam, Vietnam War 
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With only a week and a half in Hanoi, I’ve been out and about almost nonstop. This article, then, is being jotted down at 5:11AM, as I’m lying in bed on my stomach at the Letters Home guesthouse. Stuck in a grim alley in an unfashionable neighborhood, it’s not exactly popular, so about the only noises I’ve heard in Letters Home came from my air conditioner or fan. Only rarely does a motorbike beeping, car honking or dog barking reach me.

Generally speaking, overseas Vietnamese are not allowed to publish in Vietnam. About ten years ago, however, an underground publisher, Giấy Vụn [Scrap Paper], did release a collection of my Vietnamese poems. Since only one critic, Inrasara, had dared to discuss it, I simply assumed my book had been flushed down the memory hole, but since arriving in Hanoi, I’ve been told by several young poets that they value my Lĩnh Linh Chích Khoái very highly. Of course, this gladdens me.

Three days ago, I ran into the young critic, translator and professor Trần Ngọc Hiếu, as he sat at a café near the Lake of the Returned Sword. (Its long-suffering giant turtle has finally died, by the way. He lived alone for decades.) It was clear that Hiếu knew my Viet poems quite well. Though it was our first meeting, we chattered like old friends. Leaving the café, we had goose noodles at some sidewalk stall, then moved to another café, for they’re everywhere in Vietnam.

Facing the street, a Vietnamese coffee house or restaurant displays its patrons to passersby while is itself a grandstand from which you can observe Vietnam’s frantic stream of humanity. Distressingly, some venues are installing plate-glass windows, thus segregating exhilarating, chaotic life from mere commerce.

Poet Bỉm owns a coffee house, Reng Reng. At his suggestion, I showed up one morning to read a short set of my Viet poems, two of which I’ve written since arriving here. “I will chase away your customers,” I said to Bỉm before beginning. “We’re very lucky to have the poet Đinh Linh here,” he announced to his clientele, all of whom were young, with most fashionably dressed. Two, though, were in factory uniforms. “Thank you, uncle,” a woman said to me afterwards. Shaking my hand, a man said the same.

Bỉm took me to an intimate brew pub, Beer Temple, where we had an excellent house-made stout, then a Dutch beer. We snacked on some excellent ham, served with dill pickles, honey and a mournful, defiant mustard. I’ve walked past Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, German, Russian and Czech restaurants. Doner Kebab stands are all over. In 1995, one could hardly find cheese in Hanoi, and I remember wandering into its most sophisticated café to find a peasant sip spilled coffee from his saucer. On the walls were photos of Catherine Deneuve.

Yesterday, I walked into a small, elegant bookstore at the end of a thin, short alley. To my astonishment, the owner immediately recognized my name. After we had chatted a bit, he stated with amusement that he had once been fined for selling my anthology of new Vietnamese fiction, Night, Again. Still grinning, he then asked if I had been dragged in to be questioned by the authorities. “Not yet,” I chuckled. When the Vietnamese-Australian writer, musician and literary webzine editor Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn returned to Vietnam several years ago, the cops interrogated him for hours. Back Down Under, Tuấn emailed me, “They mentioned your name.”

Writer Nguyễn Đình Chính joined the North Vietnamese Army at age 18, fought in the war. He tracked me down to give me a book of his. I’m supposed to come to his house later. It’s nothing for a Vietnamese to welcome you into his home.

As in the US, I’m most interested in how ordinary people are getting by. Yesterday, I talked to a waiter who had spent 13 years altogether in Germany, first as a contract laborer. Sent back to Vietnam after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he sneaked back into Germany several years later and found work in Vietnamese restaurants. Caught in a raid, the man was deported, so Europe was like a sweat-drenched dream. He won’t likely see it again.

Though not making very much in Hanoi, he has managed to send three kids to college, with two aspiring to become doctors, and the third, a computer programmer. “Germany is closer to Socialism because the rich are willing to share some of their wealth with the poor. Here, the rich just grab and grab. They suck the blood of the poor.” The richest Vietnamese are the top members of the Communist Party, of course.

On a grand, Colonial-era building, there are signs for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, Thai Village, Coffee Club, HSBC Bank and, incomprehensible to the foreign tourists, “ĐẢNG CỘNG SẢN VIỆT NAM QUANG VINH MUÔN NĂM” [“GLORIES TO THE VIETNAMESE COMMUNIST PARTY FOR TEN THOUSAND YEARS”] They come to dine lavishly in hermetically sealed restaurants. Some buy a Ho Chi Minh photograph, woodblock print or even oil painting. I know a strident, self-proclaimed Communist who flew here to sample opium and a few whores.

Outside the North Korean embassy, there’s a wall-mounted glass case featuring three photos of “Comrade Kim Jong Un, beloved Supreme Leader.” Below him are images of missiles being launched with much white smoke and/or fearful red flame. Watch out, Juneau and perhaps even my Philadelphia hovel! No one but me paid the least attention to this display.

About the only sign of war in central Hanoi is a large hole on the massive North Gate, built in 1805. It was caused by a canon ball fired in 1882 from either the Surprise or Fanfare, two French ships.

Much of Hanoi Hilton has been knocked down to make room for a real, high class hotel, the Somerset Grand. I received an email from Dominic DiTullio, the owner of the Friendly Lounge, my local dive in Philly, “Hello Linh, Hope all is well. I know you are enjoying your trip. As long as the authorities are letting you keep your fingernails. Looking forward to see you again. With stories and pictures. Stay well Dom.”

I replied, “Yo Dom, I’m in the John McCain suite at the Hanoi Hilton. It’s very sparsely furbished, with just a plastic bucket in a corner, and the food is a bit plain. When I begged for a glass of beer, the warden said I was welcome to drink my own piss.”

Always angry and humorless, totalitarianism doesn’t tolerate word plays or any sort of verbal ambiguities. Outlawing witticisms, it insists on righteous bombast. Since Vietnamese must constantly amuse each other with words, they chafed under such an inhuman regime. With Communism’s slackening, the Viet tongue is regaining its playfulness and vitality, and you can see this even on shop signs. There is a Bác Tôm [Uncle Shrimp] natural food store. It’s a play on the English “Uncle Tom,” of course, but a slippery, what-are-you-talking-about? dig at the country’s most famous uncle, for no Vietnamese is ever called Tôm [Shrimp].

In this very polluted city, there’s a guesthouse named Thở [Breathe].

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Vietnam 
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I’m back in Hanoi. Noi Bai Airport was sparkling after its recent upgrade, and I rode into town on a wide, well-landscaped freeway named after general Vo Nguyen Giap. On both sides were shops and restaurants.

“I don’t recognize any of this, brother,” I said to the taxi driver, a man in his mid 40’s.

“When was the last time you were here, uncle?” North Vietnamese routinely call each other “bác,” or “greater uncle.”

“2000.”

“Ah! Hanoi is much different now.” He laughed.

As the Hanoi skyline finally came into view, I blurted, “I hardly know I’m in Vietnam!” Every lit sign on the highrises was in English. We crossed the Nhật Tân Bridge, built with a loan from Japan and designed by a Japanese firm. My driver slowed down so I could admire its five towers, illuminated in shifting colors. A native Hanoian, he’d been driving for eight years, with his finances tolerable and improving. “There are still plenty of poor people,” he reminded me, “especially in far off places.”

“Do you have any relatives overseas?” I asked.

“I have an aunt in Holland. She had gone to Bulgaria to work in a factory.”

“And she’s doing OK?”

“She’s doing fine. Every two years, she comes home for a visit.”

We passed two preposterous pseudo-classical gates, crowned by galloping horses. Behind them were swanky houses for the nouveau riche. All the street names in this gated community, Ciputra, sound enticingly exotic, Main, Lake, Park, Central Park, Singapore, Pegasus, Atlas and Academy, etc. On the flight in, I had sat next to a man returning from Fiji, where his wife’s posted to the Vietnamese embassy. He had three kids at American universities, in Minnesota, Ohio and New York State. “I’ve been to a bunch of countries, uncle. Each place is interesting for 8, 10 days, then I want to go home.”

Leaving the freeway, a more familiar Hanoi, and Vietnam, came into view. A typical Vietnamese street is lined with shops and restaurants, with commerce often spilling onto the sidewalk, and until very recently, there were no Vietnamese neighborhoods that were strictly residential.

On my second day, I got up just before sunrise to wander around Vinh Phuc, my neighborhood. The restaurants were just opening up. Exercising, a man in a tank top walked backward past me. Sitting on a plastic stool across the street from a funeral home, a woman worked on a red, yellow, white and crimson wreath. I noticed a Japanese language school, a fishing gear shop and the Trang Bella hair salon. At a corner, a man lounged on his motorbike, waiting for his first customer. Unlike pedicabs, motorbike taxis haven’t been banned. Though it is a wonderfully cheap way to get around, its slow pace clogs traffic, so the pedicab, a major icon of Vietnam, has been killed off everywhere except in a handful of tourist areas. The North Vietnamese Army pith helmet, worn by most men during my first visit to Hanoi in 1995, is also mostly gone.

I believe that the pedicab will not only make a comeback, but spread to other countries. It’s not only cheap, but green, and takes very little to start up as a business. With just a few bucks and minimal training, you too can become a pedicab driver.

In 2001, one couldn’t sit in a restaurant without being hounded, repeatedly, by lottery ticker sellers, wandering in off the street, but now, there are many fewer of them, and the beggars have nearly all disappeared.

Hà, a 55-year-old domestic servant, informed me, “ There are more jobs now, so people don’t have to do that. There were also too many imposters, beggars who would sell the charity rice, then eat comfortably in a restaurant. They ate better than normal people!”

With a rising middle class, there is a rapidly increase demand for domestic servants, so many companies have sprung up to provide this service. You pay $53 for up to three referrals. Hà, “A servant makes $176 to $198 a month, but if you can speak some English, it’s double! You work 28 days a month, and get ten days off at Tet, at which time most Vietnamese employers will give you a bonus, plus bus fares to your home village.”

Gone are the days when an employer can scream at a domestic servant, hit her or lock her inside all week long. When not busy, Hà lounges on a leather couch to watch a Chinese, Korean, Indian or Vietnamese drama. A remake of an Israeli film, about a young man who found out his dad was actually a mafia boss, proved particularly popular.

Men at the economic bottom can work in factories or use their motorbikes as taxis. Hà’s son is a long distance truck driver who earns $440 a month. His wife farms a bit and does odd jobs. They have four kids. Hà’s two daughters are divorced.

“If you want work, you can find work. Of course, there are these drug addicts who rob and steal, but most of them die off by the time they’re 30-something.”

Since you don’t need to pay for rent and food as a live-in domestic servant, you can actually save from your $200 salary. Hà, “Housing in Hanoi has become very expensive. To get just a small room, with a shared bathroom, you must pay $66 a month.” At the end of the spectrum, people are paying $1,320 a month to send their kid to an English-language elementary school. As in the USA, the wealth gap here is staggering.

Since they’re exposed to the intimate lives of both the rich and poor, domestic servants are the best source of information. Leery of this dirt dishing abilities, some wealthy Vietnamese are starting to hire Filipina servants, I kid you not, since they can’t gossip to the neighbors.

Hungry, I stopped into an eatery for a plate of bánh cuốn, a sort of ravioli, then a bowl of bún chả, rice vermicelli with pork. The food culture of Northern Vietnam suffered so terribly during those decades of hard-core Communism, it still hasn’t quite recovered. In Saigon, you can’t eat badly, no matter how humble the venue, but in Hanoi, a knowing eater will often be disappointed. My bánh cuốn and bún chả, two Hanoi specialties, were fine, however, and my bill came to all of $1.98. I found myself sharing a table with several strangers, with one man not even bothering to finish most of his meat, a sure sign that those harsh, near starvation years are long gone.

Since the food joint was near the lung hospital, a white haired patient ambled over in his blue and white hospital pyjamas, complete with a red cross over his heart. This sort of casualness is typical of Vietnam. On another day, I walked into a restaurant to find no one present, for the proprietor was taking her siesta in a little mezzanine. After coming down to make me an awful bowl of chicken phở, she went back to sleep, and I paid her by handing money between two balustrades on the mezzanine’s balcony. Though a crack in the strung up blanket, she reached out a hand, with her eyes still closed, I’m sure.

Like the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, Vietnamese consider their compatriots as not just belonging to the same race, but family, and in the most literal sense, too, for they call other Vietnamese, “đồng bào” [“same womb”], which is derived from the Chinese, 同胞. This notion is obviously more myth than science, for the Vietnamese nation has absorbed plenty of foreign blood through the millennia, via the usual channels of conquest and immigration. Without the bonding concept of đồng bào, however, Vietnam would have disappeared eons ago.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Nationalism, Vietnam 
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In Catalonia, there’s a summer drink that combines beer with lemon soda. In Barcelona, it’s called “clara.” Further South, it’s dubbed, most charmingly, a “champu,” as in Head and Shoulders. Champu is quite good at eliminating the dandruff inside your skull.

It is late summer, and I’m in Cambrils, drinking my second champu in Hawaii, a beach bar. The tables around me are mostly empty. I face the ocean. There are few bodies on the sand, and fewer in the water. It is peaceful here.

In 2001, Mohammed Atta and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, of 9/11 fame, were in Cambrils, however, and just 2 1/2 weeks ago, five Muslim “terrorists” were killed by police a few hundred feet from where I’m sitting.

It is said that at 1:15AM on August 18th, these Muslims drove their car through a police checkpoint outside the yacht club, then ran over six people, three of whom were cops. The three civilians were an old couple, and the woman’s sister. The wife, 61-year-old Ana Maria Suarez, died.

Exiting their car with knives and an ax, four Muslims were killed immediately by police, while the fifth was gunned down 270 meters away, but not before he had stabbed a civilian and taunted the cops, it is claimed.

A cellphone video shows an unarmed Moussa Oukabir, 17-years-old, acting rather hysterical, but you would be too if you had just witnessed four of your friends murdered. Shooting him many times, a cop executed Moussa.

Interestingly, Moussa was located by a helicopter. El Pais, “El quinto terrorista ha sido abatido poco después cuando ha sido localizado desde un helicóptero por los policías.” It was already in the air, get it? It seems they had tracked these five Muslim youths to Cambrils and killed them. That evening, these kids were caught on a service station’s camera. Buying snacks and sodas, they appeared quite relaxed because they had no idea what awaited them.

After Trotsky’s skull was cracked by an ice pick, the 60-year-old still had enough sense to order his bodyguards to not silence his assassin, “No, he must not be killed. He must talk.” When it comes to Muslims these days, the running order seems to be, “Kill them all so they can’t talk and contradict our bullshit charges against them.”

How many Muslims are needed to drive one suicide car? Five, of course. What’s the best, most lethal vehicle for the purpose? The compact Audi A3, naturally. What’s the best time to stage such an attack? 1:15AM, grasshopper, when there are almost nobody on the Paseo Maritimo. Finally, what should you wear for such a momentous and self-defining occasion? Fake suicide vests, stupid, because they serve no purpose besides giving cops an excuse to perforate you immediately.

I go to the spot where Moussa Oukabir was murdered to find women pushing strollers and kids on bikes. Life is back to normal. Outside the yacht club, there’s a cop with a submachine gun, however, with two toddlers within four feet of him. Seeing the armed man, the girl points. They create a false problem, then bring the solution, which you welcome because you don’t realize that it will be used to solve you.

Astonishingly moronic, the five Muslims in Cambrils made all the worst choices possible, but the rest of their “terrorist cell” weren’t any smarter, it is said.

Eight hours earlier, a van had killed 14 people and injured 130+ more in Barcelona, and the purported driver of that van, 22-year-old Younes Aboyaaqoub, had rented the vehicle with his own credit card. Very stupid. He also left his IDs in a second van, meant as a get-away car.

From 9/11, Charlie Hebdo, Paris’ Bataclan Concert Hall, Berlin’s Christmas Market to Barcelona, etc., Muslim mass murderers seem expert at leaving behind their identity papers. Otherwise, the official narrative can’t be broadcast immediately. Wait a week or a month for a proper investigation, and the public won’t have any idea what you’re talking about, fixated as they are on a Kardashian pumped up buttocks or Messi goal.

In the Catalan incidents, a Muslim who was neither in Barcelona nor Cambrils still managed to leave his identity papers in an incriminating van, it is said. Driss Ukabir had the wits to turn himself in, however, before he was gunned down in the street. Similarly framed, could you be that decisive?

Roberto, a 42-year-old Cambrils resident, reflected, “People are saying how stupid these guys are, because once you drive onto the Paseo Maritimo, you can’t get out! It’s also strange how all five of them were killed, because Spanish cops aren’t like that. You almost never hear about a cop killing anyone here.”

He paused to sip from his glass of Rioja Reserva, pronounced it excellent, leaned back, “All along that street, people were kept inside restaurants and stores until five in the morning.”

“On Las Ramblas in Barcelona, people were kept inside until nearly midnight,” I added.

Jonathan Revusky, “That’s probably because they need all that time to clean up the moulage. Imagine someone tripping over some moulage kit, from the Acme Corporation. That would be some major fuckup, wouldn’t it?”

Trained as an engineer, Roberto has traveled to Iraq and Cuba on business, and now makes most of his money as a musician and singer of bolero classics. “People talk of Europe being overrun by Muslims, but Europe has always been multicultural. Look at the Austro-Hungarian Empire and how many nationalities it had. What Merkel has done in Germany is incredible. She took in a million, a million and a half refugees, and there has been no major problem. It has been a great success, a miracle.”

Roberto’s father is Castillian and his mother, German, so he grew up speaking German also. His maternal grandfather, a Nazi, was killed during the last days of World War II.

On another night, I talked to Francisco, a 69-year-old retired professor of philosophy and English. The Padres resident said, “The new slogan is ‘no tengo miedo,’ but of course, I’m afraid, and many of ex-students are also afraid. When I was teaching, I could see the anger in my Arabic students’ eyes. Feeling socially excluded, of course they’re angry. To tell you the truth, I don’t much like Arab culture, how they treat their women. There are too many psychopaths among them, but of course, there are Spanish psychopaths also.”

Francisco’s favorite country is the United States, “When I came to New York the first time, I was jumping up and down, out of joy! I went to Florida, California. I overstayed my visa, got a job everywhere I went. I was a waiter at a Jewish fraternity. I did drugs with them. It was the 60’s, man. We need another counterculture revolution! There is too much corruption these days. Your average Spanish politician makes 7,000 Euros a month. That should be the minimum income, for everybody!”

Every so often, Francisco would grab his right side, “Oh, it’s my liver,” or his left knee. Two chicas at the next table drew his too naked glances. The restaurant owners are a couple whose husband is Spanish, and the wife, Chinese. One of the waiters is from Venezuela.

 
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The Arabic version is here. Below is the unedited, English version:

Firstly, how do like to introduce yourself. Are you a Vietnamese or an American writer?

-Since I write in both English and Vietnamese, I can rightly claim to be an American writer, and a Vietnamese one. Having published ten books in English, however, I’m primarily an American author. As a racial minority, I must be careful to not be marginalized. My latest book, Postcards from the End of America, is an insider’s account of a collapsing United States. Here, I speak as an American, for all Americans.

Your art encompasses many different mediums–at one point you did paintings, you’ve done poetry, fiction, photography, and not to mention your political essays and translation work. How did you get involved with so many different art forms? Which art form is your favorite to work in?

-I wish I could have one more life, so I could have another chance at painting. As a young man, I was consumed by poetry, and though I still believe in it, it is with a much cooler, and perhaps sadder, emotion. I have a new book of poems, A Mere Rica, a wordplay that means, To the Rich Mother. I’m finishing a novel, Trace Vapour. Except when I’m home writing, I’m always photographing. I just returned from eight days in Mexico City, observing and photographing. Street photography makes me more socially adventurous, an antidote to the isolation of writing. I work from an inner compulsion, and my favorite art form is whatever I’m currently engaged with.

You have translated many works (for you and for others). How does the process differ between translating someone else’s work and translating your own?

-I’ve published one anthology of new Vietnamese fiction, and one on poetry. I have also translated international authors into Vietnamese. My one collection of poems in Vietnamese includes works written directly in Vietnamese, as well as variations from my English poems. Translating other people, I’m very strict, conscientious and a willing, self-effacing slave. As a translator also, surely you’re aware of its many pitfalls. Unlike a writer, a translator can flaunt his incompetence in two languages!

Could you talk us about Vietnamese literature and its main issues?

-Vietnamese literature is quite diverse, but if one must generalize, one can say that there’s a deep awareness of history and the more tragic aspects of life. Being born into a small country that’s nearly always threatened by outside forces shapes the collective psychology. The national epic poem, Tale of Kieu, is about a prostitute. Vietnamese know full well that life is a series of often bitter compromises. In Hanoi twenty years ago, I often heard, “Biết rồi, khổ lắm, nói mãi!” It’s from a 1936 novel by Vu Trong Phung. Loosely translated, it means, “I know already, I suffer much, you talk too much!” The Vietnamese ability to laugh in just about any situation can baffle foreigners.

You worked in many jobs and moved to many countries. Could you tell us about the impact of all that on your literary experience?

-As an adult, I’ve lived in the US, Vietnam, Italy, England and Germany, and I’ve visited many more countries. Every society has evolved from an utterly unique set of beliefs and experiences. In the West, the idea that borders don’t really matter has infected many minds, especially those that are relatively untouched by experiences, books or travels, but this madness shall soon pass. Crossing many borders, I know that they are sacred. Much blood has been spilled over every inch.

Is there an influence of the Vietnam War on your writing experience?

-The Vietnam War has taught me that history must be contested, geography is fate, courage is often wasted, cowardice and perfidy are often rewarded, giving birth to a child may be the ultimate cruelty and mass violence is a spectator sport.

By reminding the Vietnam War. Are you now fighting another war against American capitalism?

-The United States has a frightful record of sowing chaos and destruction in countless places, and though it has routinely failed to win wars, its military contractors always make tons of money, so all is well, according to the American ruling elite. War is America’s main business.

Could you tell us about your photography experience that you wandered through the streets of America to portray the displaced and the angry people, what were you aiming for?

-Starting my project in 2009, I already knew the US was in irrevocable decline economically, socially and politically, and this is confirmed with each visit to a new neighborhood, town or city. Everywhere, Americans tell me they’re making less money and struggling more, and this shouldn’t surprise, since most of American manufacturing has been moved overseas, for the cheaper labor. In any American home, there’s hardly anything that’s still made in the USA. With my political writing and photography, I’m documenting this societal unraveling with images and stories from actual people. Talking to them, I learn of their worries, frustrations and dependence on alcohol or drugs to get through a day. Last year, 900 people died of drug overdoses in Philadelphia, my home city of 1.5 million. That’s an insane number.

You are a political writer and you have many political essays. Do not you think that politics can spoil literature?

-Absolutely not. I fully believe that writers should be public intellectuals, and it’s unfortunate that they’ve become increasingly marginalized in all societies. Walt Whitman, George Orwell, Czeslaw Milosz, Milan Kundera, Mahmoud Darwish and Michel Houellebecq, etc., are great primarily because they’re political writers. Now, it’s not a question of being “correct” politically with every issue, but a writer should grapple with the gravest crises afflicting his society. If he doesn’t, who will?

You are a rebel writer and often uncommitted with the protocols that your fellow writers are keen on, why?

-Most American writers are employed by universities, so they have to watch what they say. Even as a student three decades ago, I learnt that American universities were very conformist, and the situation has gotten much, much worse. Since I’m not a professor, I can speak my mind without fear of reprisals or losing my job. I publish all of my articles for free, and am dependent on monetary contributions from ordinary readers. I don’t write for my fellow writers but taxi drivers, housewives, bartenders and plumbers.

The US media is controlled by just a handful of corporations, so opinions are actually very tightly controlled, despite the existence of many television stations, magazines and newspapers. The better I become as a writer and thinker, the fewer mainstream venues are available to me, but my readership has actually increased, thanks to the alternative media online.

In one of your stories, you used to point out that books protect their reader from the destruction of wars. How does that happen?

-In this story, I depict an illiterate who carries many books around as status symbols and talismans. At the end, his entire village is destroyed, but this fool is saved, literally, by “at least ten thousand books.” Beyond the joke is my acknowledgment that words can dignify, if not quite redeem, even the most horrific experiences. Though mostly impotent to alter events or even our own puny fate, we can at least convey, if only fleetingly, our struggles and horrors.

Do you know a lot about Arabic literature? How did you find it?

 
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Born in Nghe An, he quit school after the 9th grade to start working full time at 15-years-old. He got a job in Saigon, then Phu Quoc Island, the southernmost part of Vietnam. He visited Hanoi and remote Dien Bien Phu, right on the Laotian border.

At 18, he agreed to pay $15,000 to be smuggled into the European Union. The first installment was only $500, however, for which he was flown to Moscow, where he stayed in a house for a month, seeing nothing of Russia, until he and other illegal immigrants were driven to Lithuania, with the intention of entering Poland.

Driving down the road quite openly, they were pulled over by cops, thus he ended up spending a month in a Lithuanian prison, then deported to Vietnam.

Thuy, “Western jails are fantastic. I had my own room, three meals a day, delivered right to my door, and I didn’t even have to do my own dishes. The food was great. I gained ten kilograms [22 pounds]. We had exercise equipment, time to play soccer. I’d gladly have stayed in that jail for an entire year.”

The smugglers refunded his $500, so it was like a vacation of sort, a three-country adventure, counting Belarus, “If they had taken our money without bringing us to Europe, who would use their service again?”

Next, he bought someone’s identity for $20,000. Using this man’s scholastic credentials, he enrolled in a Spanish university then flew to Barcelona with the man’s doctored passport. There, he stayed but a week, seeing nada, before flying to Paris.

In the French capital, he does construction work on an all-Vietnamese crew, for which he’s paid 90 Euros a day, under the table. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment with three other Vietnamese, one woman and two men. Sharing one bedroom, they sleep on two beds, with the three males arrayed on one, “We’re all related, with the same last name and from the same district even, Dien Chau.”

Central Vietnam is known for its poor soil and people, but Dien Chau, with its dusty, potholed streets and spartan stores, is particularly dismal. In Paris, he lives in the 13th Arrondissement, among many Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodians, Laotians and Thais. I remember some hideous high-rises there, but also one of my best Vietnamese meals ever. Ah, the caramelized pork and eggs!

Each Sunday, a hundred Vietnamese, easy, hang out in a 13th arrondissement park, where they drink beer, sing karaoke and buy food from ambulant peddlers, all illegal, of course, though reasonably discreet. There are similar food purveyors in ethnic neighborhoods across the USA.

“Everyone has a good time. Even some Frenchmen join us. Many of the Vietnamese also speak French. Sometimes, we get carried away and sing too late into the evening, so somebody will have to call the police. That rarely happens, though.”

Working his tail off, he paid off his smuggling fee four months ago, and even bought a 790 Euro cellphone. He wears Adidas, sports a quiff haircut. Life’s good, “The best thing about living here is that you don’t have to worry about anyone harassing you. In Vietnam, when you see a cop, you get very nervous, but the French police are here to protect you. All you have to do is work hard. No one will bother you.”

He has never encountered any prejudice, “Everyone is very nice. Two doors from us, there’s a Muslim family who often bring us food. If they make something nice, they’ll share it with us, and we also bring them food. If we go to the beach, we’ll buy some shrimps or lobsters for them.”

This, despite any of the Vietnamese being able to carry on a conversation with their Muslim neighbors, “Next month, I will start my French lessons. It’s in the evening, three times a week, and costs 200 Euros a month.”

When he gets a chance, he roams around by train or bus. His housemates are not so adventurous. “They just stay around Paris. They think I’m wasting my money, running around, but why not see everything? I have even gone to Berlin, where I have a cousin. I stayed there a week.”

With the global economy still levitating preternaturally and visa-free crossing of many borders, particularly in Europe, we’re living through peak travel. The globe will never be so accessible again.

This week, he asked for five days off, so he could visit Toulouse, Marseille and Cannes, “I’ve been to Marseille twice, but I want to see it again. Last night, my train arrived from Toulouse, but my cousin wasn’t there to pick me up, so I decided to sleep at the station. Around four in the morning, I got robbed by two Arab guys. One guy grabbed my throat, roughed me up a bit, so I gave him my phone and wallet. I’d rather lose my stuff than my life. What I lost, I can make back in a week, but if I had resisted, they might have really hurt me. This is the first time I’ve ever been mugged, but it’s no big deal. You can’t just sit home.”

A few hours later, he met me and Jonathan Revusky on the Place d’Huiles by the Marseilles Old Port. The 21-year-old was sitting outside a closed Le Ginseng, where his cousin’s a waitress.

Staring at a menu on the wall behind him, I made small talk, asked how long he had been in France. Just a year and a half, he said. We moved to nearby Le Cigalon, had a cutthroat beer, chatted.

Enjoying our conversation so much, he accompanied Jonathan Revusky and me to Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, just half a mile away, though steeply uphill. In that 87 degree weather, I was huffing and had to park my lardy ass a couple of times. My new young friend didn’t break a sweat.

Looking at my slumped form, Jon said, “Is this the same Vietnamese that defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu?”

Inside the church, he knelt down and prayed, then bought a crucifix and a Virgin Mary statue for 13 Euros from the gift shop. His cousin had apparently lent him some money. It’s good to belong to a network. He has relatives in England and Poland also. He dreams of going to England, “I hear that life there is really great.”

His name is Thủy, which means water. “You’re meant to flow everywhere,” I said.

“Yes, that’s me,” he laughed.

Devout, he goes to mass every week, at a Vietnamese church in the 17th arrondissement, two metro lines away. He’s planning a Vatican trip. “Many people dream of seeing it at least once in their lifetime. I will actually see it.”

The best view of Marseille is from the northern end of Le Pharo, a park. From that vantage point, you’ll have at your feet the 17th century Fort St Jean, the 19th century cathedral, with its domes, twin spires and banded marble design, and the Old Port with all of its fishing boats and yachts.

“What more do you want?” I marveled. “I can sit here for hours and just look at this.”

Thủy, “And it’s even better when you have a good conversation!”

Deeming the Old Port a terrorist nest, the Germans and their French collaborators raided it in January of 1943, arrested roughly 6,000 individuals, then deported 1,642, 782 of whom were Jews. All the remaining residents of the Old Port, around 30,000 people, were cleared out so it could be dynamited, then rebuilt. In May of 1944, English and American planes bombed the Old Port and killed 1,752 people.

Thủy has no fear of being deported, “I know a guy who’s been here ten years, illegally. As long as I don’t rob or kill anyone, the police won’t bother me, and if I get sent back, I get sent back.”

After we had parted ways with Thủy, Jon observed, “That kid is like the protagonist of a picaresque novel. He’s a contemporary Huckleberry Finn! I can certainly understand the restrictionist point of view on immigration, that people like this should be sent back, but when you meet a kid like this, you really have to be inhuman, to turn off a certain human side of one’s being, in order not to feel some empathy with him.”

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: France, Immigration 
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For the price of a Motel 6, Jonathan Revusky and I have three floors in Florensac, a village of 5,000 in southern France. This house is older than the USA, for sure, with raw wooden beams in the ceilings, stone floors, twisting stairs, odd angled walls, and an entrance to the bathroom so low, the owner had to pad the top casing, lest her guests be knocked out cold.

A small couch has a café crème floral design on a faded indigo background. Plopped on top are three cushions of red, red and Prussian blue. A tall casement window stares down at it. Matisse’s ghost must be here. Hi, Henri.

We arrived just in time to catch the Pat Cryspol band performing outdoors for free. Trumpet, trombone, saxophone, bass and drums. In the night, dozens of people, mostly old, were dancing. Dozens more sat at long tables to watch and, when the mood struck, sing along. Près de la grève, souvenez-vous / Des voix de rêve chantaient pour nous / Minute brève du cher passé / Pas encore efface, etc.

After two plastic cups of sangria, bought for two Euros each, we tried a pitcher of rosé for five. Though terrible, it couldn’t ruin our mood, for it was wonderful to see a community enjoying itself. An old lady encouraged Jon to sing, too. For one number, all the dancers formed a large circle, held raised hands and turned clockwise, then vice versa. A boy and a girl, no older than ten, asked if they could clear our table.

Next to the concert area, there was an inflatable slide, shooting gallery, bumper car rinks, merry-go-round and other rides. Cotton candies, churros, hot dogs, pizzas and fries were being sold.

Two police cars, four cops and a bomb sniffing dog guarded one entrance to the amusement area, but real terrorists would have had no problem causing havoc there, not to mention so many other targets, just in Florensac itself. It’s merely theater and social conditioning, my dear chumps, from the same people who brought us 9/11 and the endless War on Terror.

We met a Poland-born retired professor who’s living in Germany, “I had a house here for twenty years. I come back often. Florensac is wonderful. It is peaceful, and there is never any problem.”

We were sitting at a round wooden table under a maple tree. His wife and daughter were also present. College professors are conditioned to pontificate because, well, they’re always surrounded by blank slates. I addressed him, “In the US, many people think that Europe is being overrun by immigrants. Do you think that’s the case? Are people grumbling here?”

“Here, we think the US is being overrun by immigrants! We keep hearing all this talk about Mexicans this, Mexicans that.” The man laughed and grabbed the stem of his Bordeaux glass.

“Are there many Muslims in this town?”

“Maybe 7%, but they’ve been here a long time and very well integrated. If you go to the main square in the evening, you will see about 20 Muslim men, sitting on benches and talking. They don’t drink alcohol. It’s their way.”

“So there is no tension here?”

“No, not at all, although about 50% voted for the National Front during the last election. They don’t like the news coming out of Germany. Merkel has caused a lot of problems by inviting the immigrants.”

In Florensac, there are two kebab joints. At the weekly farmer’s market, there’s a very popular truck that sells Vietnamese spring rolls, rice noodles, Chinese dim sums, Thai curried chicken and other Asian dishes. Its proprietor is a 25-year-old born in France. His parents immigrated here from Nha Trang.

At Bistro d’Alex, the waiter is from Coventry, England. He’s been in France for nine years. When told that I was from Philly, the man shouted, “I must go there some day, to try the famous sandwich!”

“Oh man,” I laughed, “it’s seriously overrated.”

Later, I remarked to Jon, “Most Americans don’t even have access to a decent loaf of bread, man. This is basic stuff. They hardly know what cheese is. How did that happen? In the ‘greatest country on earth,’ people are fed fake bread, cheese and news!”

Each day at dawn, the church bell peals in Florensac, then tolls again an hour later. The boulangeries open at six, for bread should be bought daily, and eaten the same day. Seeing your baker each morning, he becomes practically a part of your family.

Since this is Occitan country, the street signs are in French and Occitan. The Occitan cross shows up in shops and even cars. Regionalism rules, as it should. Famous Occitans include Petronius, Balzac, Ingres, Lautreamont, Valery, Artaud, Ponge and Duras.

In nearby Olargues, I saw a graffiti, “C’EST LA TERRE, NOTRE RELIGION” [“IT’S THE LAND, OUR RELIGION”]. A small museum displayed mostly daily objects donated from the locals. The man at the desk, though, was a Brit. A baker for 20 years in Tavistock, near Plymouth, Bill moved to Olargues 15 years ago, “We decided we wanted something in the 34th département, so we drove around. We saw this real estate agent. He showed us a few things. We saw the house and liked it so much, we put a deposit on it the same day. It’s as simple as that. The house we bought was in fairly good condition, it didn’t need any work on it, and it was about half the price of places in England. When we sold our place in England, the extra half gave us the money to live on.”

“Buying a place here allowed you to retire early!” I said.

“Exactly! Moving to France allowed me to retire at 52. I have my pension now. I have no regrets.”

“How much French did you have when you first came?”

“Oh, just schoolboy French, not very good, but my wife’s French was very, very good. All the legal papers, all the dealings with the real estate agent, I just pushed it in front of her and said, ‘You sort it out!’ Since I’ve been here, my French has improved by leaps and bounds, because you use it all the time, you know, and I’m on the council now, so my French has definitely improved.”

“The council?”

“The town council. There are 15 of us. We meet every week. Old guys, mostly. The town is getting older, but there are still young people here. Some of them work in the city. It’s an hour away.”

By city, Bill meant Béziers, population 76,000. Despite its modest size, it has a huge and lively downtown. In 1209, Catholics troops besieged a Carthar-occupied Béziers, which prompted the papal legate to famously advise, “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” Bastardized, it’s best known in English as, “Kill them all. Let God sort them out.”

Bill, “Some of the people here may work in Montpelier, they may have a flat there, but they come back here on the weekend.”

“So they’re still very attached to this place.”

“Oh, yes. A lot of these old places that don’t look inhabited, the people may work in the north of France or wherever, but all the family come back during the Summer. They still keep their family homes. These may look pretty tatty on the outside, but on the inside, they’re fine.”

“Do you go back to England often?”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: France, Immigration, Muslims 
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The Muslim conquest of Hispania began in 711 and ended in 1492. In Catalonia, they were expelled by 1154, with their last stronghold the mountainous village of Siurana, which today has but 39 residents, though with several restaurants for tourists.

Walking through it, I almost felt like I was in a theme park or movie set, for everything was overly determined, with few loose ends that are inevitable in a more natural, thus more chaotic, environment. Though with almost no child residents, there were a dozen kids’ drawings strung up along an ancient stone wall, as if to suggest there was still a school in this lonely outpost. Speaking half a dozen languages, two hundred or so tourists wandered about to stare at everything. Unlike in other Spanish villages, there were no old people conversing in the shade. A few Muslims have returned to toil in kitchens.

Going to Siurana in a rented Fiat, Jonathan Revusky and I stopped at a handful of other villages in various states of decline, with one, La Mussara, completely abandoned since 1959. It’s home to about 50 sheep, however, and we chatted briefly with their owner, a smiling, middle-aged fellow who lived two villages away. Reduced to a wrecked church and seven other ruins, La Mussara also lingers on through a Catalan phrase, “baixar de la Mussara,” which means being so ignorant of something the rest of the world is aware of.

On August 12th, news came that a man had plowed into a crowd in Charlottesville, and even the sheep of La Mussara must know about it by now, for what happens in the US reverberates around the world. Sitting beneath the awning of a beachside café in Tarragona, I opened El Diari to find a cartoon mocking Trump’s inadequate response. Next to it was an editorial, “Teaching Hate” [“Enseñar a odiar”] Though brief, it assumes many of the prescribed postures that deform our reality:

What is the difference between an Islamic terrorist who drives a vehicle against a crowd and a racist who attacks people with his car? None, although the President of the United States, with an attitude that denotes a certain complicity—to minimize such an act is to become an accomplice—treats them in a very different way. From where rises so much hate? Why does hate spread so much faster than any other sentiment? What kind of world will we leave our children? Thinking about all this, I came across an Obama tweet that quotes a reflection Nelson Mandela wrote while in the Roben Island Jail: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Yes, one learns how to hate. And I wonder, then, why so many people are interested in learning how to hate? What benefits do they gain? And, even more gravely, why do so many people follow them?

So hate is taught and inexplicable, and no one hates more than racists, with Trump egging them on, according to this editorialist and thousands of others just like him. The battle, then, is between love and hate, but this dichotomy is false because hate flows from love, for to love anything is to hate what may threaten it.

Differences breed conflicts. Spouses, neighbors, tribes and nations argue and sometimes kill each other. As some old Jew once opined, “To everything there is a season […] A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” More recently, Elie Wiesel wrote, “Every Jew, somewhere in his being, should set apart a zone of hate—healthy, virile hate—for what the German personifies and for what persists in the German. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of the dead.”

In 1988, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish penned:

It is time for you to be gone

Live wherever you like, but do not live among us

It is time for you to be gone

Die wherever you like, but do not die among us

For we have work to do in our land

We have the past here

We have the first cry of life

We have the present, the present and the future

We have this world here, and the hereafter

So leave our country

Our land, our sea

Our wheat, our salt, our wounds

Depending on your politics, ethnicity or religion, you might view Wiesel or Darwish as a hate monger, but what’s so unreasonable about asking invaders to leave?

Accepting his Nobel Prize in 1986, Wiesel declared, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Agreeing completely, I think Israel, that alpha terror state, should be dismantled tomorrow, but just for saying that, I will be tagged as a hater or anti-Semite, all for thinking that Arabs shouldn’t be evicted from their homes, shot at, bombed, wrongly imprisoned, economically crippled, daily humiliated and demonized.

As for Charlottesville, of course it’s way too simplistic to brand all those who object to the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue as “racists,” but the entire South has been stigmatized as such since the run-up to the Civil War. Further, all whites are now deemed guilty for just being born white, for whether a blue blood, recent Albanian immigrant or trailer park dwelling grandson of a coal miner, they all benefit from “white privilege,” whereas all “people of colors,” including a Saudi Prince or Silicon Valley Chinese tycoon, belong to the victim class.

Such idiotic and insulting bifurcation is meant to generate civil conflict, and we’re only at the beginning stages of that, with much worse to come, so it’s all going according to their script. Slitting each other’s throat, we can’t even see that our common enemy is the American Israel Empire, or what the Saker calls the AngloZionists.

This week, I met a British expat who’s been in Tarragona seven years. Michael had to leave England because it’s “an extension of America,” and though Spain is still within the American orbit, clearly, it’s not as suffocating. In 2004, Spain had the sense to withdraw all of its troops from Iraq, though not before it had lost, quite senselessly, 11 soldiers.

The best private school in Tarragona has English and Chinese as requirements, so they’re already thinking beyond the collapse of the American Israel Empire. As the Chinese and Russians work tirelessly to integrate Eurasia, our rulers can only stage wars and false flags.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Conspiracy Theories, Terrorism 
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Linh Dinh
About Linh Dinh

Born in Vietnam in 1963, Linh Dinh came to the US in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). He has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, among other places. He is also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (2006). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. His writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and he has been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Reykjavik, Toronto and all over the US, and has also published widely in Vietnamese.