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03/11/2003 - TRAVEL JOURNALS, 3 OF 5


Dear Friends,

Vietnam brought me some of the most adventurous moments of my whole time in Southeast Asia - moments I'm sure will lead to some scenes and stories down the road. Of course, that's the ulterior point to including these travel journals in the column anyway - to point out how valuable travel is in recharging your creative side.

Of course, given that this describes how I fired AK-47s and M-16s, and visited restaurants that served sparrows, you'll have to judge for yourself how exactly it all translates.

Anyway, the following was first written the day before my birthday: november 29th, 2002.


My dear friends,

As we approach the holidays (and, ahem, my birthday), I'm still making my way northward in Vietnam. Just a quick recap:

Saigon was wonderful. Probably even more wonderful for deaf people, who wouldn't have to listen to the 6:00 a.m. - 2:00 a.m. honking of horns.

My introduction to Saigon came in the form of, well, the Devil, which is the only name I can think of to apply to a young motorcycle taxi driver my hotel assigned to take me to their "other" branch. The five-block ride would turn out to be the longest of my life. For the Devil, at the tender age of maybe 15, was simultaneously suicidal and homicidal. Yet, lacking any
constructive way to off himself, expressed this inner rage by constantly staging impromptu games of chicken, and weaving through gridlock at 50 miles per hour.

In my life, I've skydived, skied down runs named "Oh My God," whitewater rafted, spelunked, scuba dived in the dark, and numerous other extreme activities, but nothing was quite as exhilarating as navigating Saigon traffic with the Dark One Himself. Bad enough that the traffic in Saigon is based not on something as quaint as traffic lights, lane lines, or "sides" of the street, but rather in the rule of "He Who Honks Most Has Honorable Right-Of-Way." Add in a few roundabouts, buses, bicycles, and about a million Kias dropping off spare parts with every bump in the road, and you
can see why I figured I would soon be a statistic. The only positive thing I can say about the ride is that the Most Vile Underlord went so fast that it was over quickly.

I saw everything one is supposed to see in Saigon, including a few war museums and the Reunification Palace, where the last Americans were airlifted out of the city in 1975. One of the most interesting sites I visited was the Cu Chi tunnels, a 250 km network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong guerillas during the way. Aside from the fact that the site's documentary was from the height of the war (so that it refers to the Americans as "crazy little devils"), it proved to be a fascinating look at the daily life of the VC. I am about the largest person who can fit in the
tunnels, as the opening was about 8 inches by 14 inches -- or like squeezing yourself through a shoebox.

The site also included models of booby traps, a 100m section of tunnel to crawl through (yes, of course I went through), and gave visitors the opportunity to fire the weapons of the war. Charlton Heston would certainly be proud that I took the opportunity to fire both the AK-47 and the M-16 rifles, though aiming at the plywood cutouts of smiling cartoon characters did feel a bit strange. For research purposes, I pumped a few rounds into a camel wearing a tu tu.

As a side note, someone told me of a site in Cambodia where one could fire a rocket launcher. For $75, you can fire this rocket launcher at a cow. Think that over a second. Now, before my Hindu friends become too outraged, let me assure you that I'm almost certain that this story is a fake. In fact, there's no way that the price would be higher than $50.

Before I sign off, let me just add that, the Vietnamese eat anything that moves. The first restaurant I visited had fox (which can't be all that different from dog), stewed goat penis (the other, other white meat), sparrow (!), and a dish lovingly translated as "the part of the pig intestine closest to the anus." I'm sure it would have sounded better in French. Oh, on top of this, whatever they eat, they leave the head on --
I'm presuming so that they can have a staring contest with their meal. (Incidentally, when I asked a Vietnamese person about this tendency to eat, well, anything, she said that 'no, it's the Chinese who eat everything.' So I'm guessing that the Chinese eat people and rocks, because that's all that's left.)

And today, just to prove that everything comes around, I spent the day exploring ancient ruins around the city of Hue via motorbike. I drove it myself this time, using the lessons I learned during my time with the Dark Master in Saigon.

Tomorrow, I'll continue northward by going to Hanoi, and will probably make my way to the hill tribes in Sapa, which is in Vietnam's northernmost region.

Despite cultural differences and death-defying motorcycle rides, I can't help but really like Vietnam. The people are quick with a smile, and they generally seem to face life with optimism and perseverance, even when faced with grim circumstances. I'd recommend it to anyone. Well, anyone with the patience of Gandhi, the hearing of Beethoven, and the piloted helicopter of Bill Gates. (Kidding. I've loved it.)

That's all for now. Love and good thoughts to everyone.


P.S. Is it red wine or white wine with cobra meat?


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