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Home cooking in Hanoi, 2017

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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.”


“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.


Vietnamese citizenship, then, is much more than a legality, but established through the age-old recognition that people who appear similar and, even more importantly, speak the same language naturally belong together. Often, they must also fight together to resist being swallowed up or destroyed by another race. Race consciousness is at the heart of racial survival.

Infused with this knowledge, Vietnamese have never taken any internationalist ideology seriously, especially Communism, a nightmare dreamt up by rootless minds. Protective of family and race, of all those who came from the same womb, they’ve fought against the Chinese, Mongolians, French, Americans and even against each other, because, well, their foes were deemed as fraudulent Vietnamese. During the Vietnam War, no common North or South Vietnamese soldier was a traitor, however, because each believed he was fighting for Vietnam.

Though you’ll find images of the hammer and sickle, Marx, Lenin and, of course, Ho Chi Minh throughout this country, there is nothing Communist or internationalist about Vietnam. As my Saigon-based American friend, Alec, points out, “The US is more Socialist! At least the public schools there are free. Here, the government does nothing for the people!” What sustain Vietnamese, then, are family and friends, and, in time of war, a fierce recognition that their own survival is bound up with race.

Finishing this piece, I hear funeral music rising from the street, so I go onto the balcony to see two men, wearing white, walking backward in front of their mother’s hearse. In the light rain, three young musicians play the rice drum, oboe and the two-stringed đàn cò. Repeatedly assaulted by alien insanities, most Vietnamese haven’t forgotten what’s behind, under or inside them.

Linh Dinh’s latest books are Postcards from the End of America (non-fiction) and A Mere Rica (poetry). He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.

• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Nationalism, Vietnam 
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  1. some wealthy Vietnamese are starting to hire Filipina servants, I kid you not, since they can’t gossip to the neighbors.

    The Philippines was once the second-richest country in Asia, with Japan number one. According to The Economist, over half of the Filipina maids in Hong Kong have college degrees and most speak reasonable Cantonese. I would imagine that a Filipina maid could pick up a decent amount of Vietnamese in a couple of years.

  2. Wow! After a pretty long dry spell, Linh Dinh is back with a wonderful article on his “old country.”

    I always like to say to Linh Dinh to hurry back to the USA … “we need you home” … but maybe not so much now … maybe there are better places … maybe I should be thinking about moving to Vietnam?

  3. As my Saigon-based American friend, Alec, points out, “The US is more Socialist! At least the public schools there are free. Here, the government does nothing for the people!”

    Vietnam’s constitution pledges, “Primary education is compulsory and tuition-free.” But other costs, such as for textbooks and uniforms, keep poor children out. The cost is higher in secondary school and beyond, where institutions can and nearly always do charge tuition.

    This socialist country has yet to socialise education entirely, as the wide range of fees means school is already out of reach for many.

    Public schools can’t charge tuition until the secondary level, so they require students to pay fees for sanitation, traffic guards, gardeners, pens, notebooks, and even to have the buildings repainted. The practise was seen as so abusive that in 2011, the Ministry of Education and Training ordered schools to stop overcharging parents.

  4. TheJester says:

    “Race consciousness is at the heart of racial survival.”

    Linh, well said. I guess that that means the Caucasians in Western Europe and the Americas are doomed. The cause? Imperialism, ructious individuality, Christianity, capitalism, feminism … maybe all of them.

    • Replies: @jacques sheete
  5. There is a palpable optimism about the future in East Asia that you no longer feel in Europe or the US.

    • Agree: TomSchmidt
    • Replies: @nebulafox

    It’s not an LGBT issue but a male homo issue. Highly doubt this affects lesbians. It’s worse now becuz so many white homos are addicted to bigger black dongs that have been everywhere. Milo is going to experience the Bunghole Apocalypse like Andrew Sullivan.

    • Replies: @Che Guava
    , @Wally
  7. Dan Hayes says:


    Instead of your title Wombward how about Back to Blood, although in retrospect not that much different.

  8. Anonymous [AKA "Sharkskipper"] says:

    I just finished watching the old movie Jump Into Hell.

    Too much.

  9. JackOH says:

    Linh, FWIW, I just received a few days ago two books from Vietnam’s embassy with a cover letter from Dao Le Phuong, press and cultural attache. One book is Vietnam’s Sovereignty Over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa Archipelagoes. The other is The Ho Chi Minh Campaign, a book of reminiscences by commanders and commissars. I’ve scanned a few essays in the latter book, and they make for jarring reading, that’s for sure.

    Is there anything good at all to say about America’s military intervention in your home country? (Not a snarky, rhetorical question. I actually don’t know.)

    • Replies: @jacques sheete
  10. Oh! It seems the cable between Hanoi and has a problem.

  11. @TheJester


    Awesome word! New one to me. Cảm ơn (ong or anh? or ?)

  12. @JackOH

    The other is The Ho Chi Minh Campaign,

    I Googled that and can’t tell which one it would be. Who’re the authors, good Sir?

    BTW, your question at the end is good one. I’m sure the answer will be insightful as well.

    • Replies: @JackOH
  13. LD, another very interesting and well written read.

    • Agree: Talha
  14. Che Guava says:


    So happy to hear that you can now visiting there without trouble (think you would recall my asking early or mid-last year, maybe late 2015, you were saying you were unable to, you were briefly recounting expulsion last time).

    Things change, not always for the worse, at least, not everywhere and not all of the time.

    Also, interesting details. Thanks, although I am of course knowing the word 同胞、but the words for aunt and uncle tend to delivery in mainly as impolite anywhere near Tokyo, also in some (not all) regional towns now.

  15. JackOH says:
    @jacques sheete

    The Gioi Publisher, Hanoi, 2012. Multiple authors, although not listed on cover page. Vo Nguyen Giap is the first contributor. Does that help any?

    • Replies: @jacques sheete
  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I’m not so sure Linh actually left the US and flew to Vietnam: gaudy real estate, filipino hired help, jacked up rents, bad Pho from the natives. Sounds like ‘Murica to me.

    • Replies: @Che Guava
  17. Joe Hide says:

    Another great article!

  18. Che Guava says:
    @Priss Factor


    Why are you choosing to tacking that on this thread? It would going better and more suitable if you were to using Basevich’s article as hook.

    What is it having to do with Linh’s long-delayed visit to the land of his birth?

    Most of regular posters here are, I would think, enjoying your posts and ranting, sometimes to learning, but why you were picking this thread, poor choice!

  19. Biff says:

    I made the same trip two years ago(that bridge is pretty cool). Very nice place, and the hospitality was second to none. The Vietnamise airline, ground transport, hotel, and dining were extraordinary. Definitely going back.

  20. nebulafox says:
    @Peter Akuleyev

    I agree. When I was in China last year, people had that sort of *hunger* to forge the future that you don’t see in the West anymore. It’s pretty sad.

    I’m planning on going to Vietnam in a month or so, perhaps for a while if things turn out well. I’ve heard that it is in the same hot-house stage of development that China was in about a decade ago. Plenty of Japanese and Korean investment cash floating around and an interesting tech scene in HCMC, in particular. I’m looking forward to it!

    Irony, irony, now that we seek good relations with Vietnam for the purposes of countering China…

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  21. republic says:

    Interesting article, apparently ethnic Vietnamese living abroad are treated very well when they go back to visit. Foreign tourists very rarely return for a second time, the rate is around 6%, unlike Thailand which gets a return rate of around 50%.
    Price gouging seems to be very common.

  22. Wally says:
    @Priss Factor

    The irrelevance of your post makes it appear that you are a projecting “white homo”.

    You simply ‘protest too much’.

    • Replies: @nebulafox
    , @Anon
  23. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Good relations re-started officially in 1995 under neoliberal authoritarian Bill Clinton. Notice how the narcisstic parent accused its damaged adopted child of the ‘-ism’, and pointed to the starvation years to vindicate itself. Now they have Oracle, Burger King and Lockheed Martin – the international ideology they’ll take seriously all the way to the bank. A casino for Phu Quoc Island with commie approval.

  24. nebulafox says:

    Whereas the current second richest nation in the region, South Korea, was poorer than much of sub-Saharan Africa in the comparable time period. Marcos really hosed the PI.

    Hong Kong is considered to be a pretty plush destination for Filipina maids for many reasons, especially compared to the horrors of working in the Gulf States. Obvious or otherwise: when I was staying in the Chungking Mansions, you could see plenty of lesbian Filipina couples renting rooms on Sunday for some private time. Try that in Dubai or Saudi, and…

    So they get to pick and choose the best of the potential maids. Which is a pretty sad statement considering that the city still has plenty of abusive employers.

    • Replies: @republic
    , @Che Guava
  25. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    Speaking of projection…

  26. republic says:

    re: Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong

    Chungking Mansions: Inside Hong Kong’s favourite ‘ghetto’

    Eyesore, ghetto, jungle, goldmine, little United Nations. These are all words that have been used to describe Chungking Mansions, a building complex that is seen as both a foreign island in Hong Kong and an important part of the Chinese city’s identity.

    • Replies: @Chrisnonymous
  27. Wally says:

    I doubt you know the meaning of the term.

    Anon … all dressed up, doing his thing, & praying to his mythical 6,000,000:

  28. “Race consciousness is at the heart of race survival.”

    A great article, Linh. Had Charles Darwin social science expertise, he may have offered the profound quote, above.

    Thank you for another learning experience!

  29. @JackOH

    Does that help any?

    Yes and thanks.

    Bless you.

  30. Is there anything good at all to say about America’s military intervention in your home country? (Not a snarky, rhetorical question. I actually don’t know.)

    From my point of view, the only thing I can think of is that because of my experience there, I learned that our system is not as advertised. It’s corrupt and immoral to the core, our “leaders” are the scum of the Earth and I learned that I need to question everything. The more I study, the more I see how true those claims are.

    Had I not gone, I may still be one of the faithful, one of the true believers. I think those things are good and I’ve been trying to leverage it all by writing and speaking stuff like this whenever I can. I know I’m mostly pissing into the wind, but at least I’m not supporting the stinking system as I would have. I’m hoping that’s at least a little bit of good.

    • Replies: @JackOH
  31. Anonymous [AKA "Les Visible"] says: • Website

    The lyrical, poetic nature of your article had me enthralled. You’ve a natural gift that comes across in an almost laconic manner. There was something so casual and intimate about it. I felt like I was there. Thank you so much. These days tepid and indigestible garbage is the rule; often, fatuous, arrogant and self serving, all at the same time. This was a breath of fresh air.

    Les Visible

    • Agree: jacques sheete
  32. JackOH says:
    @jacques sheete

    I don’t want to prejudice Linh’s response if he wants to offer an answer to my question. But, I’ll say the perseverance of the Vietnamese victors against the Japanese, the French, the Americans and their allies, the South Vietnam government, and, I think, even the Cambodians, is astounding. Plus, God bless George Ball and Bernard Fall.

    ” . . . [O]ur system is not as advertised. It’s corrupt and immoral to the core . . .”. I can’t disagree, that’s for sure.

    • Replies: @jacques sheete
  33. @JackOH

    I’ve been thinking about your question.

    Another benefit of the war is that not only I, but thousands of others saw first hand what a filthy, criminal, soulless system we were living under and this had to have been a good thing, I think.

    After I was in country a few days, one of the other kids in the squad, a pothead draftee from LA and I were having a discussion and I’ll never forget the way he said, in the typical Jane induced drawl, “it (the war) don’ matter, Sawge, ” meaning that there was no purpose to our presence there, and even though he was forced to be physically present, he wasn’t about to fight some stupid war for “the man”. He and about 3/4 of the platoon spent their days in an almost continuous drug induced haze even on patrol and during fire missions. He was right and I was wrong, and it only took me a few more days to “get it.” No one who was there could possibly have missed the lie that the Vietnamese people were in any way our enemies or any threat to the USA by any stretch of the imagination.

    In a way, if there has to be a purpose, maybe that was one of them.

    However, I’m still not convinced that those dirt poor, terrified peasant martyrs, may their poor mothers and souls rest in eternal peace, will ever be sufficiently compensated for the vile evils unjustly inflicted upon them by us.

    • Agree: Che Guava
    • Replies: @JackOH
  34. Che Guava says:

    Even if you are posting as cheap ‘Anonymous’, that is a good point.

    However, I have not seen Linh doing such meta-fiction, tone of the article is seeming sincere, it is seeming real to me.

    Knowing that the Japanese companies’ connections are real.

  35. Che Guava says:

    Ahh, the Chunking Mansions!

    Are they still existing?

    Only place to ever staying in HK, staying there once when the old airport was still going, that was one of the most dramatic landings and take-offs in the world, pilots having to tilting the wings to not hitting the buildings, at least that was making them concentrate, also, I would guessing, some fun for them, actually having to really controlling the flight.

    Real thrill. My big regret was not to visiting the small part that the Manchu were excluding from the lease, and the British were excluding the Nationalists and Communists from controlling.

    So, it was a lawless zone. Wish I had been visiting there … but very young, and HK Chinese friends later were telling me ‘you were best not to going there, you were to need a guide.’

    Next two times, at the new airport, a dull cavernous hall, and no interest in the landing, excepting that, not a frequent flyer, i am always to finding air travel fun.

    After the so-called ‘handover’ from UK, (really expiry of a lease), I was staying there twice.

    The second time, PRC uniformed people were invading my room, they had violent expressing, but alright after I was showing my passport and visa. Not well at the time, it was irritating. Still, the place is full of illegals, so am thinking they were right.

    Also, that illegals or the ‘guest-house’ operators were pointing to my room.

    I am by no means to promoting the recent sequel, but Chung-Kin Mansions is part of the movie Bladerunner, sure, not a set, but part of the visual inspiration for it. Just looking out of the window, easy to seeing, also, a crew-member was saying it in Cine-FX. Can’t looking it up, but am seeming to recall Ridley Scott to saying the same at the time.

  36. @republic

    I stayed in Chungking mansions for a month at USD \$7 per night, in a dormitory, with about 7 other guys. While I was there, the Chinese owners of the block of rooms sold them to a subcontinental who, reportedly, was going to renovate them and turn them into single-bed rooms. I was told this was the last block of dormitory-style rooms in Chungking.

    This “guest house” was on, maybe, the 15th floor. It was high enough to be insulated from the street noise. However, there was a giant video billboard or something that repeated the same tune over and over, day and night, the whole time I was there, and that you could really hear in the dorm. If I hadn’t been drinking myself to sleep every night, I don’t know how I would’ve slept. It was kind of surreal.

    There was a Brit who had been living there, using the same dorm bunk for years. There was an old Australian physician who had fried his brain on LSD and lived off Ozzy disability payments, and another Brit who was translating something (Iliad? Old Testament?) and wouldn’t talk to anyone else. Also, an Egyptian Copt scared to return home and a bunch of younger guys who bounced around Asia teaching English and spending their money on cheap whores. And who can forget the Arab who stayed up all night every night and slept during the day on Mid-East time and prayed in his bunk. What was he doing collecting hundreds of business cards and boxes of informational pamphlets? It was quite a ragtag group of guys.

    I used to swim at the pool a few blocks north of Chungking every morning, then sightsee in the afternoon. In the late afternoon, I would buy a loaf of bread, a bottle of cheap red, and a pack of beef jerkey, and go back to the dorm to chat with my dorm mates.

    That Christmas, I ate dinner in a Russian restaurant on the island and bought a Cuban cigar.

    Interesting times. I was happy I could experience the end of Chungking’s male dormitory culture.

    • Replies: @Triumph104
  37. @Chrisnonymous

    Thanks for the enjoyable post. Chunking Mansions are still there. A lot of South Asians and Africans stay there. A YouTube couple from Canada named Samuel and Audrey ate at an Indian restaurant somewhere inside Chunking Mansion. It was an unpleasant experience. They were the only whites in the place with Audrey the only woman and the other patrons stared at them the whole time.

    I believe private hotel rooms in the building start around US\$25 a night. I wouldn’t recommend a woman stay there unless she has someone sleeping in the room with her, preferably a man that she trusts.

  38. Jon Orton says:

    On the flight in, I had sat next to a man returning from Fiji, where his wife’s posted to the Vietnamese embassy.

    Linh, there’s no Vietnamese embassy in Fiji. Have I misunderstood what you wrote or were you misinformed by the man sitting next to you?

    • Replies: @Linh Dinh
  39. JackOH says:
    @jacques sheete

    Yeah, I’m only seeing “negative good”—a sock to America’s jaw that ought to have given everyone in the States the opportunity for moral adjustment. With Iraq II though, I guess, we’ve learned the lessons of Vietnam so well about mucking about other people’s business that we’ve gone and done it again. (I usually dislike sarcasm, but I can’t think this early.)

    The indictment of Iraq II’s perpetrators seems to me very important, but, with the exception of the late Vincent Bugliosi, I’m seeing only the occasional scattered voice. Not sure where Phil Giraldi stands on prosecutions for the Iraq II kingpins.

  40. Linh Dinh says:
    @Jon Orton

    Hi Jon,

    He said his wife had a government post in Fiji, so I simply assumed it was the embassy. Thanks for the correction. Must run. Last night, I did a bilingual poetry reading at Tadioto, Nguyen Qui Duc’s famous bar. I’m super busy, as you can imagine. I have many friends here. Will fly to Saigon on Sunday.


  41. observer4 says:

    Linh, I really enjoyed this, thank you. A question: Vietnamese people tell me that when they go home for a visit they are asked for all sorts of things by their families and neighbors, ie, they are assumed to be rich and expected to produce new washing machines and other appliances, etc. Has this been your experience?

    • Replies: @Triumph104
  42. @observer4

    The documentary Daughter from Danang is about a woman who was the offspring of a married Vietnamese woman and a white American serviceman. She was given up for adoption at the age of six and sent to the US. Her adoptive mother was abusive and kicked her out of the house permanently for missing curfew by 10 minutes.

    Here is a powerful three minute scene that shows her in Vietnam for the first time in 22 years with her Vietnamese mother and half siblings.

    • Replies: @daniel le mouche
  43. @Triumph104

    What a sad movie. What is wrong with her that she won’t accept her mother’s love? Or give them anything, these very poor people who are her family? I can understand at that moment, but two years later? She should be ashamed, she obviously has a decent amount of money. But she just wants to forget that they exist.

  44. another good job linh,come back to philly soon..we need to go to the kensington walking dead area again…..but if you stay there any longer you might get too happy..kensington would cure that..

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