hustled & hassled in hanoi
june 10, 2000
hail, hail, my stalwart cadres,
i'm emerging from a cave…
as i celebrate my one month travel anniversary -
- out on catba island, one of the three thousand spawn of vietnam's great protective mother dragon, who has populated emerald green halong bay, in the extreme northeast of this reverse-of-california-shaped country, with a marvel of mineral-rich and spirit-carved islands whose caves and grottoes, swooped and tunneled by the sea and the wind, give the misty boat tour here a feeling of other-worldly magic - when you're not being over-powered by the pungent smell of bat guano deep in the bowels of one of the priceless bird nesting caves.
- out in LBJ's gulf of tonkin, into which the red, red river delta flows - like sweltering syrup, like the sweet-smelling congealed blood of a millennium of war and struggle - against bigger and stronger, interfering enemies like chinks and frogs and norte americanos - who all have been repelled by history and destiny and this strong-willed, cleverly-tenacious, fiercely-independent people who call themselves vietnamese.
- out in the mosquito-infested green green catba jungle with abandoned IV syringes on the side of the mountainous roads, abused by desperately-addicted vietnamese teenagers, also casualties of history, war, absentee fathers, the mafia, and a simple, basically good-hearted agrarian culture corrupted by the multi-national, exploitive west. – turning a youth culture now gone mad, gangsta, and hungry into an mtv aspiring beast ravenously sucking and feeding on us tourist backpackers and fat cats like the afore-mentioned mosquitoes - and other nameless and unknown, dark and scary creatures of the night.
- get me out of 'nam!!
tomorrow i leave for laos. mercifully. by plane. from modern hanoi to ancient luang phrabang. my first such extravagance off the kim café tour. still – i've been living like the university-endowed king that i am in this poor poor country, as i continue to splurge on air con, CNN, and vestiges of french provincialism - all for eight bucks a night - in uncle ho's still-communist, je ne sais pas quoi, hanoi. shipped home another 12 kilos of collectables yesterday - mostly wooden water puppets, hand-crafted national treasures in my opinion, that you can still readily see dipping and diving in the national theater in downtown hanoi. you'll have to come over and see them hanging and swinging in their new home at lucretia gardens in LA. hope they adapt well. gold painted turtles. pointy-spined, red crawling dragons – one each of the holy vietnamese quadragon of animal deities: dragon, tortoise, unicorn, and phoenix. me - the dragon/phoenix trying to arise from the deathtrap of automated, communist-cum-capitalist bus tours and the parasitic feeding of we human water buffalos-led-to-slaughter like gulliver guests having to endure the antipathy, poverty, and condescension of the warrior host lilliputians.
art by Do Xoan Doan
no, i'm not on drugs. but sooooon. going into the "golden triangle" of opium in laos, myanmar, & and northern thailand. red, red poppy fields. long two hour slow ferries up the mighty mekong into - the dark asiatic fantasies of western cowboys long long out of dodge. maybe never to return - like chris walken in deerhunter or brando-kurtz in apocalypse now. i've already bought my revolver... and single golden bullet.
only the lakers seeming ultimate destiny keeps me here in waking reality. praised be you worthy and loyal LA b-ball enthusiasts who keep the life and information cyber line alive. the mere mortals of the great bird's indiana don't seem much a match for our glorious jackson boys of summer. sing the big fella's praises, oh ye laker faithful. praiiiiiise gawd and kobe bryant! hallelujah!!!
high or not, the insistent natural beauty here continues to dwarf the small-minded politics and ungracious economics of this insect-like and beautifully nationalistic culture. no, i'm not a racist. just come here yourselves and see how you're besieged: cyclo drivers. motorbike drivers. bread, mango, papaya, dragon fruit sellers. in your face. 50 every block. "hello, hello! where you from? where you going?" subtext: "buy my shit!" the answer "no thank you" means nothing. acting insane means nothing. cocking your fist and yelling in the middle of the street means nothing. just dollars. just dollars.
talking about cylco drivers – the modern day rickshaw peddlers – who fill the streets of hanoi day and night – amongst the cacophony of pedestrians and moto-bikers – all trying to cross each and every intersection at the same time – without traffic lights, without police traffic directors. hundreds of vehicles and pedestrians simultaneously converging on two, three, or four road intersections like grown up kamikaze james deans playing the game "chicken" - seeing whose piss and vinegar will slow or swerve first. where caution is useless, and not aggressively going with the inter-weaving flow will probably get you killed, or at least run over or hit, faster than any caution, logic or restraint. i swear, all you can do, is walk into this impossible-to-cross maze, keep moving, side-stepping, and improvising – until you find yourself on the other side.
so… one of these kamikaze cyclo drivers is peddling me around late night-early morning hanoi. i've interviewed a few and chosen this one who at least can speak a little english and seems to have a seasoned face of experience. i tell him to take me on the scenic route home from an after hours club back to my hotel on hang ma street. of course, hanoi's streets change names every block. hang ga. hang ma. hang duong. each for a different trade. clever. efficient. but impossible not to get lost. like an ant colony/maze where only the ants know. only the ants know.
so the dude is peddling and the streets are getting darker and emptier. i tell him to take me near some of the big hotels where there are street lights, bars, and people. he smiles and keeps peddling. it's still dark, but there are now quite a few people walking the streets – but they're women in short skirts, leopard skin halter tops, and high heels. professional street walkers. they smile and call out, "mr. hey, mr..." in their harsh sing-song voices, propositioning me as my cyclo dude smiles suggestively. i shake my head "no", tell the driver and the girls i'm not interested tonight, as mr. cyclo keeps smiling and peddling. he takes something out of his pocket and offers it to me. marijuana. i take it from him and smell the joint he already has rolled. whew! not good. i give it back to him with a definitive "no thanks". he gives it back to me and says, "free. you try." he keeps peddling, working up an impressive sweat in the early morning humidity. what am i thinking? i'm a single man, a western tourist, out by myself after hours in late night-early morning hanoi, and this driver has certainly seen enough of us. he's simply making the most of the situation – like any good street hustler would. how can i expect him to understand i only want a scenic ride home?
the next thing i know, there's a moto buzzing along next to us. the driver starts pointing at me and yelling at my driver in vietnamese. my cyclo driver starts gesticulating to me wildly and seems to be telling me the guy is a cop. i realize i still have the joint in my yellow and blue hawaiian shirt pocket, and i panic. i start screaming back at my driver and tell him to keep going, definitely not to stop, as the moto driver is now insisting we do. i figure the best defense is a good offense. i take the joint out of my pocket and swallow it whole. the moto driver takes out a very, wrinkled and suspect-looking "badge" and starts waving it at me and my driver. i scream at my driver to keep peddling. he does, now dripping with sweat… fear – or a well-acted facsimile – all over his eye-bulging face. he tells me i have to go to the police station to settle this. i scream at him again, "i'm NOT going to the fucking police station", having just heard a story in the war remnants museum of a dutch guy being held at ransom in a police station jail for three weeks on just such a sting.
art by Do Xoan Doan
"here," i say, pulling twenty thousand dong out of my pocket, "give him this." the driver takes it and hands the money to the "cop", who, looks at it - and gives it back with contempt. i start to see myself in some horribly dirty communist cell, convulsing in pain with electrodes all over my body, cockroaches and cadres laughing at me in sadistic pleasure. i pull out another fifty thousand dong and make the pass thru my cyclo driver. the two drivers are driving at a perfectly coordinated speed together. the moto cop looks at the cash and gives it back again. a little less contempt. what the fuck am i doing here in the back streets of hanoi, having swallowed who knows what and now bargaining for my life? i take out another fifty thousand and make the pass. the moto driver takes it, pauses… looks it over carefully, screams at me, then -- smiles, and zips off. my cyclo driver also smiles – with great feigned or genuine relief – and five minutes later, drops me off at my hotel.
i ring the after hours bell and walk up the red carpeted stairs to my third floor eight dollar room -- shaking. what the fuck was that? i have no idea whether i'd been set up like a puffed gringo pidgin, or if i'd narrowly escaped three weeks of hell in a vietnamese jail. my feeling is distinctly the former, and i'm pretty sure the two pals are now splitting my hundred and twenty thousand dong and already working on their next mark. but hell, at least i'm safe. it could have been worse, right? and what the hell, it makes a good story. and only cost about fifty bucks.
the next day, as a little cosmic compensation, i actually get invited over to a real vietnamese home. my first. a well-dressed, english speaking, hanoi-born, singapore-trained, thirty something professional, has politely answered some questions of mine at the local bank, and perhaps sensing my growing anti-vietnamese hospitality convictions, has surprisingly offered me an invitation for dinner. driver and all. he has me picked up at my hotel, taken to his home, and we spend a pleasant, albeit stiff, evening chez hanoi. his wife seems a bit uncomfortable, the two young boys gawk at me like i'm from another planet – which perhaps i am -- but hey, it's a lot better than last night. sure – my host is a banker educated in the west. and he probably has one of the few homes in hanoi that isn't populated and cramped by eighteen i-wanna-tv-too relatives; still, it is a relief from the siege….
yes, i have empathy for the war and the poverty here, but i also think there's something still to be learned in vietnam – if the wicked combination of global economy, communist government, and privatized tourist industry - is to survive.
i'm coming out of the cave. catba. hanoi. vietnam. like indiana jones – from the temples of doom, joy, pleasure, and greed. purple and gold lit stalactites and stalagmites are hanging, arching, and plunging into halong bay in a natural wonder that vietnam seems only vaguely to appreciate. requiring flaccid UNESCO's official recognition to put it on the hungry lonely planet map -- much to the horror and disgrace of the mother dragon, who, indomitably, remains proudly unscathed by the scourge of viet tourism….
she and i…
send our regards,