Uncle Ho and the Scam Boys

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

On the sleeper train to Hanoi, foreigners were grouped together: "Here's your friend," the ticket collector said as he pointed Michael, from the US, to the bunk above mine. Of course we didn't know each other, but shared a common language and a common situation: we were both working in China and traveling in Vietnam.

We talked about China and how the country, with its unruly peasants, internet censorship, and environmental disaters is facing extremely large and complicated problems. As I write this, I am back in China in an internet cafe with the distinct smell of Chinese urinals wafting from around the corner. One woman is loudly practicing her out-of-key karaoke over the internet while others stick out their tongues in disgust.

After a long train ride through the night, we arrived early in the morning in Hanoi to begin a long day of dealing with getting a Chinese visa, visiting all the Ho Chi Minh attractions, and having some interesting interactions with a couple of locals.

I had my letter of invitation, penned at the last minute by Xiaolin, filled in the application form, and asked if everything was ok. "Ok," they said and I left relieved after months of trying to get a simple business visa or work permit.

In the neighborhood, I went to visit Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. Uncle Ho really wanted to be cremated, saying it saved farmland and was more sanitary, but here he was, against his wishes, with his annual makover in a glass case surrounded by guards. Understandably, he is highly revered, but for the government to deny his last wishes just to put him on show seems irreverent at the same time.

At least seeing him dead made me abandon my Colonel Sanders Theory. KFC is popular throughout Vietnam and Colonel Sanders seemed to look strikingly like Ho Chi Minh after eating baskets of fried chicken. But it wasn't true: he didn't flee to America to start a fast food chain--He was dead.

On the way to lunch, I met a young, pencil-necked man on a motorcycle. He was studying English and wanted to practice so that he could work at a five star hotel as a receptionist. He took me to purchase train tickets to Haiphong then I took him to lunch at Koto, a charity restaurant where former street children are now learning how to run a restaurant. He drank milk because he: "wanted to get fat." The young man invited me to a free student music event that night and agreed to pick me up at the hotel and I gave him a little money to buy gas.

Back to Uncle Ho, born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890, I visited his museum and home, a farily humble place tucked behind the Presidential Palace. A man greeted me, also trying to improve his English: "Ho Chi Minh learned eight languages," he said. That alone is an achievement, but to get an idea of Ho's resolve, listen to him:

"You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, yet even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."

"Twenty years, maybe 100 years - as long as it took to win, regardless of cost."

He was the master of disguise, taking on many aliases and living abroad in China, the USSR, France, Hong Kong, and the United States, escaping most of the time from death sentences and prison. For two years, however, he waxed poetically in a Hong Kong prison:

Before the gate, a guard
with a rifle on his shoulder.
In the sky, the moon flees
through clouds.
Swarming bed bugs,
like black army tanks in the night.
Squadrons of mosquitoes,
like waves of attacking places.
I think of my homeland.
I dream I can fly far away.
I dream I wonder trapped
in webs of sorrow.
A year has come to an end here.
What crime did I commit?
In tears I write
another prison poem.

At the same time Ho founded the Indochinese Communist Party. Next, he unified his cadre and defeated the French. Popular throughout Vietnam, Ho easily became the leader of North Vietnam and was expected to win elections in South Vietnam, but elections were never held. Instead, a fake referendum was held in which Prime Minister Diem won 98.2 percent of the vote. This led to a downward spiral to war with the U.S. and South Vietnam.

The Ho Chi Minh Museum, amidst modern new exhibits and halogen mood lighting, was full of poems, newspaper clippings, photographs, poetry, and Ho Chi Minh's old typewriter and gear. Somehow, there's a Ho walking cane and Ho typewriter at each of the Ho Chi Minh Museums throughout Vietnam.

After all the propaganda, I wondered what Uncle Ho would think about the Vietnam he saw today. Part of me thought he would like it: Vietnam was beginning to prosper and its people were getting new opportunities each day. Another part of me though he would turn over in his, ahem, mausoleum: his people were not free like his Declaration of Independence stated. Sure they were free of the yoke of colonial rule, but a Vietnamese citizen could not dream of traveling or expressing themselves as Ho once did.

Perhaps it's all a matter of time, as Lenin seems to have reversed the short-term trajectory of revolutions. In Asia, land scarcity and peasant oppression made communism a favorite method for removing landlords and colonial rulers. Ho understood this an embraced it as a way to free his country. Once everyone realized that communism was leading to starvation and poverty, the next step was necessarily a transition to capitalism, while still maintaining socialism as a base.

With this in mind, Ho probably sees a bright future for Vietnam.

For hours, I also walked the bustling streets of Hanoi with its decrepit beauty, frenetic order, and moments of peace along the West Lake.

After dinner, I met the young student again. He was a Hmong tribesman who moved to the city. It was Valentine's Day, and he said: "the women like to talk to me, but once they find out that I'm from a minority tribe they lose interest." He was with another tribal friend and we headed by moto to the student music event.

On the way, passing neon lit stalls and love birds riding double on their Valentine's motos, I kept plan "B" and "C" in mind. This is just self-preservation to avoid dozens of scams and rip-offs that could potentially occur. That way, if someone is honest, you're both on the same page. In this case, I felt like I wanted to give them a chance: "they were harmless," my intuition said, "but watch out--see what happens."

We arrived at the place. "There's an entrance fee now," the student said, "and you pay 100,000 dong. Give me your money."

"No, I'm not paying any entrance fee--you said it was free--and I'm not paying a higher rate for being a foreigner either."

We entered: no entrance fee. My guard went up. No students either and the band hadn't started--high-priced drinks, too.

"Let's go next door where we can get cheap beers," I said.

We got a round of beers and some peanuts then the Scam Boys ordered some expensive food: "Don't think that I'm going to pay for your dinners," which happened to be more expensive than my dinner that night. They ate, we drank, they wanted to go next door again: "no, I'm not interested."

They didn't have enough money to pay for their dinners (big surprise): "I guess you'll be doing dishes," I said. Actually, I laid into them without remorse for about an hour until they were squirming in their seats, apologizing.

After a while, Scam Boy 2 left to get some money: "I don't like him anymore," Scam Boy 1 (the student) said, "it's his fault, now please pay, I'm sorry." Some loyalty they have! At this point, I was ready to go, and Scam Boy 2 paid their fair share, and I covered the beer, peanuts, and some gas then left, taking the next taxi.

To Uncle Ho: I hope someday you are cremated according to your wishes.
To the Scam Boys: I pity you, I really do.
To Vietnam: A bright future.
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but on

they just wanted to eat.

jack on

just wanted to eat....right. Man, you've gotta live here for a bit to understand the way it works: you pay, they don't. Happens with the very rich to the poor. I hung out with some high ranking types once, they ordered up some crazy expensive stuff, then looked at me to pay. I said no thanks, didn't partake, and split. That's just the way it is in Nam. And you don't get loyalty or friendship for any of that. Just another scam, another bill, another sucker foreigner.

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