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Friday, March 11, 2011

Mike-diary: Cold Beer with The General

I just read Nhân Dân newspaper and Vietnamnet, and Hanoi seems to be fine--I was a bit concerned on waking to the fearsome earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The world is stirring again, and nature is not our friend, alas, but a force that destroys and breaks the heart.

Here's another peek at Mike's adventures in Viet Nam. I am wishing that I had kept on an online travelogue when we were in Cambodia and Thailand. I don't even know where my journal is...

* * *

Dispatches from IndoChine
Cold Beer with The General

Last night I ate at the Café de Paris for the second time. Since the P-- V--folks seem a little scattered I have been on my own several nights. The Hotel keeps one's passport, and the police check a couple times a week to keep track of foreigners, but I am otherwise unwatched except for the Spotkovs, P-- V-- volunteers who have been here 6-7 times. Without a Vietnamese speaking person to come along, I am less eager to eat Vietnamese food, and I was glad to have a chance to eat French food. It was grilled homemade sausages, perfectly spiced and served with a mustard sauce. The texture of the sausages was unusual and I asked what the casing was filled with. Tripe! Very tasty.

Also, the hospital (St. Paul's) was undergoing a surprise accreditation inspection and did not need me, so instead I went to The Tropical Diseases Hospital and Ban Kea My hospital. Both very modern and up to date.

Today I was free and walked around the old quarter. The streets are very confusing and often change name right in the middle. If you stop to look at a map you are immediately overrun by touts of all kinds, so to study a map requires going into a café, having a beer and proceeding along, which can leave one very tipsy after a few course corrections.

I was sitting in the Café So 5 in Hang Vai. It was a seedy, very cheap place with just two tables and a dozen chairs spread on the sidewalk. A Toyota Land Cruiser pulls up to the curb. There is a uniformed driver and body guard in the front and a Generalish looking guy and a girl, maybe 12, in the back. The driver and guard get out and clear some motos to make room to park, and the General (for want of a correct term) and the girl get out and sit at the other table. The girl immediately notices me and says "Hello" in almost accentless English. Another car pulls up and 4 other officers get out and sit with the general and his daughter and start drinking iced coffee and smoking cigarettes. The girl has something that looks like a NY egg cream.

The men are apparently not interesting to her, so the girl turns around and starts talking with me. She speaks good enough English, maybe a little weak in vocabulary. She asks if I would like to see the music list on her Ipod. My daughter will be glad to know there are Arcade Fire fans in Hanoi. She tells me she is taking English in school, from which her father picks her up everyday, but likes to practice.

At this point her father asks her some questions. I am in a sports coat and tie, so I am clearly not a backpacker. With the daughter as interpreter he asks me where I am from and what I am doing in Hanoi. I tell him what I do and who I have met. Apparently he knows, or has heard of, the head of the peds hospital who I met yesterday and he nods his head in recognition. He asks my opinion about the quality of care and I answer, quite honestly, that I thought it was good.

I ask about him, and the daughter translates his rank as "a little General." I notice he has 4 stars on his epaulets, and I notice the name on his ID is Ngyeng, which is more common than Smith in the US. After they finish their ice coffee, I propose to buy a round of beer, which for the 8 men would run about $4. They look surprised and readily accept. Beer bottles here are big, 450 ml, so we each have a tall pint, and the men all ask me questions about the US, what it is like there. They have a good idea from television but seem to want to know if it is an accurate depiction. The General seems especially proud of his SUV and I tell him anyone in the US would like a Land Cruiser too. He seems pleased with this.

When the beer is done they feel a need to offer me something, but I need to get back to the hotel. As a face saving compromise I take a couple of cigarettes. We part on good terms. I give the cigarettes to some moto drivers at the next corner.

Photograph courtesy of and Hoang Anh Vu of Caen, Normandie, France.


  1. I thought I commented on this yesterday! Sounds fascinating. I'm glad this wasn't another matchmaker story!

  2. Me too! One extra woman is enough!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.