I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

January 25, 2012

The last few letters home from Vietnam. (Previously, and also, and as well.)

Long Hung Hotel, Hanoi

Really crappy start to Hanoi, unfortunately. I got off the bus and pushed past the hotel touts, set off walking to find a hotel from a list of guidebook recommendations. Like anything, though, when you're actually looking for them, you can't find one. Hanoi doesn't have a backpacker ghetto like Bangkok, Saigon, and many other cities do. After a long time - it was about 6am, and I hadn't had anything to eat or drink since the afternoon before - I found a hotel, but it was booked full. It was a really nice street, though, and although the hotel next door wasn't listed in any of the guidebooks, it looked okay. So I went in, checked the price, and went up to have a look at the room. $10, included hot water and a/c. Seemed fine, so I handed over my passport (that's the check-in procedure in Vietnam) and agreed to stay.

Ugh. Mistake. There was no remote for the a/c, so I called the front desk. The creep explained that there was an extra charge if I wanted to use the a/c. (He suddenly had this smarmy "I gotcha" thing going on.) I told him we agreed on $10 and I'd pay $10 or I was leaving. He brought up his register book and was pointing to lists of people who'd paid the extra charge, as if that meant something. I told him to give me my passport. Finally, he backed down and said he'd waive the a/c fee. He handed over the remote to the a/c (and the television). I went back up.

So, of course, the a/c didn't actually work, and for good measure, the television was making a loud buzzing sound on every channel, and there was grime all over the bathroom, table, and chair, which in my sleepy state I'd failed to investigate. I flipped out, went downstairs and told him to give me my passport. He said I had to pay for half a day's use of the room. I refused, and we argued. But he had my passport locked in a safe, so there was nothing I could do. That handing over the passport thing sucks, because it eliminates all leverage that you, the guest, have. I knew from walking around that there weren't any police in the neighborhood, and unlike Thailand, where the Tourist Police are the toughest cops in the country and all of the hotels are terrified of them, the police in Vietnam don't care about tourists. I told him he had to give me working a/c and television or it was in legal violation of our agreement, and the police would pay attention to that. (Bluff on my part, but it basically worked.) It took that loser more than half an hour to go from room to room in that dump to find a working television, to find a room with (barely) working a/c, and to bring the television in there. I went to sleep, furious, and made a reservation for tomorrow at the recommended hotel down the street. When I left for the day, I did have the good fortune to run into five backpackers who were about to walk in there, and told them to stay away. So that helped my mood.

(ED: In retrospect, I should have just given him the $5. I had lost perspective by then.)

Old Quarter traffic

The other hotel is very nice, though. I think tomorrow will be a better day. I'll go see the embalmed Ho Chi Minh in a glass case, making the second Communist leader-in-a-box I've seen (after Lenin in Moscow), and in the afternoon, I have a ticket to Water Puppet theater, which everyone loves. The day after that is kayaking and sleeping on a boat in Ha Long Bay, supposedly the natural wonder of Vietnam, and then back to Hanoi for a night before the flight to Bangkok on Thursday.

(This internet cafe is a dirty hole in the wall and reeks of cigarettes, but it's like 20 cents an hour!)

Stamped walls in Hanoi

I had a random brief conversation with a Vietnamese guy who said he was from Wisconsin a few days ago. I like how, in America, nobody is necessarily a foreigner - anybody can be from anywhere.

(You know what else is awesome about America? Everybody gets charged the same price for things. Even though the "foreigner price" is rarely very expensive here, it's usually double or triple the "local price", for everything from food to tickets to museums and historical monuments. We'd never do that at home.)

Communist mosaic

I'm at the nicer hotel now. Check-out from the dump was easy enough. They wanted to pull a trick with the minibar (e.g. charge me for drinks that were supposedly missing), but I saw it coming and told them I'd taken photos of the minibar right after I checked in and right after I checked out, so they let that one lie. (Kind of funny, though - drinks in minibars in Vietnam are cheaper than they are on the street. I think they're unfamiliar with the concept.) I'm paying way more for this hotel than any other on the trip - $17 - but that does include a good buffet breakfast, a palatial room, and open-the-front-door-for-you service. (Also laundry. I was at the end of my shirts.)

Couldn't get in to see the Ho Chi Minh Box, though, as the mausoleum is apparently closed on Mondays. (Lonely Planet = wrong on this one.) So I'll have to check that out early Thursday morning before I fly back to Bangkok. The water puppet theater was dope, as I'd thought it would be. I have a couple of good videos. I couldn't follow the story, but I doubt anyone in the audience could. (Seemed to be about how some fish are hard to catch, and dragons spit water at each other except for times when they spit fireworks instead, and there were some boats, and a giant turtle.)

Water puppeteers take a bow

Tomorrow night, I'm sleeping on a boat on Ha Long Bay, so I don't think I'll be able to check in.

Boarding the junk

I'm back in Hanoi, catching the flight back to Bangkok this afternoon. It was a beautiful old wooden junk, very comfortable - we sailed for a few hours, and then set anchor at sea, surrounded by small islands, like the scales on the back of a dragon ("long" means "dragon"), and slept.

Ha Long Bay (5)

Morning on Ha Long Bay (2)

(ED: more news from the Western world: a friend wrote to me about the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, which had just happened.)

I hadn't heard about the college shooting - I was away from television and the internet for a few days. There are a couple of Asian English-language news channels at my current hotel, though, and they're covering it extensively. A lot of the coverage seems to be about whether Asian students in the US are going to suffer some kind of backlash as a result. Personally, I'm more concerned about what this will mean for creative writing students. They have it hard enough already.

I'm off to see the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh this morning, allowing me to check off the #3 spot on the Dead Communist Leaders In Boxes list. (I can't say when I'll be able to get to China for #2, though.)

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

You raise a great point about Kim Il-Sung. I did some research, and he is apparently on view in Pyongyang; also, there are apparently only four Dead-Leaders-in-Boxes in total. (I read a great book by the son of the guy who came up with the process to embalm Lenin. I think he said that a lot of those Eastern Bloc dictator fuck-heads went for the embalming, too, but as the upkeep was expensive and everyone hates those guys now, they were allowed to rot. Stalin got the leader-in-a-box treatment too - Google around and you can find a supremely creepy spy photo of him lying next to Lenin. But then they buried his ass in concrete.)

So Lenin is tops-in-a-box, and Mao is second, but there's room for debate about who's third. The personality cult around Kim Il-Sung is more intense than Ho Chi Minh's, who is beloved but is portrayed as a folksy grandfather in his own country, not a living god. And Kim gets extra points because his country is still communist, whereas Vietnam has quietly gone proto-capitalist like China. But Ho has the iconography of the war behind him, which is of incalculable value, and he gets more visitors because he's not in fucking Pyongyang. So I'd give the third spot to Ho, but I'd be interested in your opinion.

Ho's tomb, by the way, was nearly identical to Lenin's. It's grey on the outside and doesn't have the same pyramid shape, but inside, the design is exactly the same, and they're both bathed in this eerie rose-colored light. Russians still handle the corpse-maintenance for them, so maybe they did the design, too. Both men are short, kind of waxy, and appear to be sleeping with a mild discomfort.

Conflating War with Industrialization in that Distinctive Way Only Communists Can

Western Imperialism in South America Is What's For Dinner (and Dinner is Falling)

You're right about the way history plays out, and how plans at the time don't necessarily account for it. In all of the talk about the domino effect, nobody seems to have considered that communism simply doesn't work as an economic philosophy, and that - much moreso than a war - would be what kept it from taking over the world. Vietnam and Laos were among the poorest countries in the world (Laos still is) until they started moving back toward capitalism. North Korea probably spends 25% of its GDP on the Kim Il Sung box. Obviously, there are other reasons for Cambodia's ongoing struggles, but their economy was completely erased by communism. Nobody embraces that which does not work. And that which is simple and obvious now completely escaped the grand theorists of the past.

Not that anyone told Natan Sharansky and his book club.

December 31, 2011

Filing this away for later:

Orangutans go ape for iPads, gorillas not so much

"The orangutan iPad program, known as Apps for Apes, was started after the gorilla keeper at the zoo mentioned on her Facebook page that she'd like to get some iPads for her gorillas to play with, Rafert explained. It was kind of a joke, but a zoo volunteer took it seriously and donated a used iPad to the zoo. It turned out that the gorillas didn't really enjoy the iPad — "they are more stoic," said Rafert — but the orangutans went wild.

Now the orangutans' keeper, Trish Khan, lets the orangutans play with the iPad about twice a week. The orangutans are not allowed to hold it because they are so strong that they would probably wind up cracking it in half. Khan holds it up to their cages and allows them to interact with it."

I think it is absolutely critical that we learn how every kind of ape feels about the iPad.

Also, in case anybody was concerned, the elderly chimpanzee named Cheeta who starred in the Tarzan movies and died last week was not the elderly chimpanzee named Cheeta who starred in the Tarzan movies and became the world's greatest living painter. That was a different elderly chimpanzee named Cheeta who starred in the Tarzan movies. (In a sense, if we can indulge in some post-modernism here, it seems that every elderly chimpanzee named Cheeta starred in the Tarzan movies.)

Instead of painting, this particular chimpanzee seems to have dedicated his retirement to throwing poop, and far be it from me to suggest that is anything other than a totally worthwhile pursuit. Certainly more useful than anything I've been up to lately.

Happy New Year!

January 26, 2011

More letters home from Vietnam, mostly bitching about bus rides. (Previously, and also.)

Crappy bus ride last night. They subsidize the cost of these (cheap) tickets, as I think I mentioned, by getting kick-backs from restaurant stops along the way and the hotel they drop you off at. (You don't have to stay there, but since it's 5:30am and you want to stumble into a real bed, you tend to be amenable to the first decent room on offer.) Last night, they did a 45 minute restaurant stop at 11:30pm. Everyone had been asleep by then, and falling asleep had taken a lot of work in those chairs. So, having to wake up for a "break" put the mood of a mute riot in the air. Everyone ignored the restaurant, of course. There was a ferocious mutual sulk between the passengers and the restauranteurs.

I Am Taunted for Choosing Unwisely

I'm in Hue now, about four hours north of Hoi An, still around the center of Vietnam. I didn't have internet access last night. The hotel shut everything off at 10:30pm. I was cranky as hell this morning, because the girls at the hotel offered to call the bus company and arrange for a pickup at the hotel, which was nice - but they screwed up the time. It was an 8:00am bus, and they told me the bus would pick me up at the hotel at 7:50am. Fair enough. But they actually meant 7:15am, so I couldn't shower or get dressed or eat or pack properly (because I didn't know about the error until 7:10am). And I was annoyed, because the bus station was five minutes away - why in the hell would I want to be picked up 45 minutes early for a bus station that I could walk to within five minutes? They didn't even manage to properly confirm the seat - me and the other two travelers from the hotel had to take the hotel's van to the bus station anyway, where we were the last people on the bus, and I squeezed in next to a laser-printer box in the only seat that was left. (Seats are supposed to be assigned.)

Not a fascinating story, I admit, but I had to tell it because it irritated me. All things considered, though, that's about the worst travel problem I've had in my month-plus trip, so I'm doing fine. The bus ride was two hours quicker than expected, even with an unnecessary 15 minute stop and a stop to change a tire (!) after about an hour.

Motorcycle kamikaze

I need to find a hotel in Hue. It's raining, which is revolutionary. Part of the reason I'm ahead of schedule on this trip is that I haven't lost any time to weather - it rained the very first morning I was in Bangkok, while I was sleeping, and nothing but sun ever since. It's nice to see the rain.

I'll be here for a couple of days, and then a fourteen hour bus ride to Hanoi. (Oh, my poor, poor ass.)

View from a bunker

You're my only email tonight; I'm exhausted, and I'll probably fall asleep right after I write this. Today was sort of emblematic of the whole trip through Vietnam: hours of annoyance with a handful of moments that made it all worthwhile (mostly).

I did a tour of the former DMZ (demilitarized zone), the area that was supposed to be a buffer between North and South Vietnam, and which inevitably wound up having the most fighting.

Again with the bombed-out tanks

Unfortunately, it's one of those places that you can't really go by yourself - you have to go with a tour group - and there were 34 people (not including the driver) in 30 seats, so you can imagine how comfortable that was. The bus was a rattle-trap. (It finally broke down about a mile away from our hotel at the end of the day, so I walked the rest of the way back.) And when you get that many strangers crushed in so closely together, inevitably, tempers flare. My temper was fine - I spaced out with my iPod most of the time - but there were a bunch of Israelis who were really, really loud and kept ignoring requests from the rest of the bus to keep their voices down, so there wound up being a shouting match over it. (One of the Israelis compared the bus to Nazi Germany, which is how you know things have gotten weird.)


But in the midst of all that ass-pain, sweat (barely functional a/c, of course) and ill will, there were acres of achingly gorgeous rice paddies - you've never seen such green - and another trip through man-made tunnels, these ones big enough to walk through without squatting, and unlike the first set of tunnels, near Saigon, when we visited these ones, we skipped the "museum" and spent the whole time clambering through the tunnels. It was claustrophobic as hell and totally cool. Finally emerging into overcast daylight to see the South China Sea was a beautiful sight.

Jungle to tunnels

(ED: A friend in the U.S. emailed to let me know that Kurt Vonnegut had died.)

I'm glad I heard it from you. I'm at a hotel in Vietnam, near the former DMZ, and there is a maniacal Vietnamese four-year old running around behind me. I don't think he was going to bring it up.

Yeah, I miss the man, and I can feel the shape of his absence from the world.

We'll hold a memorial ceremony on the site of the old Evanston Barnes and Noble at the end of the month. I'll bring the mustard gas; please bring the roses.


Tomorrow, I'll check out the Imperial Citadel (this was the old capital of Vietnam) and then catch the 5pm bus to Hanoi.

Paths come together

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.