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Vietnam

Sunrise over Phu Yen

A lovely time-lapse video of the sunrise over the ocean in the town of Tuy Hoa in Phu Yen province.  About 5:00 am, April 23, 2019.

Overly Suggestive Description?

My favorite coffee roastery’s attempt at describing their Ethiopian roast makes me smile.

Maybe it’s just me, but “Juicy Mouthfeel” would be a great name for an adult film actress.

This can’t be good

Saw this car parked outside my building today. Should I be worried?

I feel very lucky that we’ve had almost no problems with pests in my apartment since I’ve lived in the building (knock on wood). That fact is especially remarkable, considering that this is a tropical country, with all of the little nasties that you usually find in tropical climates.

Reason #428 why I love my job

It’s been a stressful couple of weeks. We hosted the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, who visited Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My team organized a press conference for the Admiral. I’ve been working with many of the journalists for nearly a year now. I encourage them to be more assertive and ask follow-up questions. To my delight, many of them did so.

The next day we hosted a CODEL (Congressional Delegation). Nine senior senators came to Vietnam for several days. They were mainly discussion “war legacy” issues like dioxin (“agent orange”) remediation. Again I was the press officer. There was a big ceremony to mark a cleanup project at a nearby air base.

For security reasons, everyone at the airbase had to have a badge. The Defense Ministry didn’t know what to do with me, so I was a “reporter” for the day.
April is the hottest month in Vietnam, and the airbase is a huge area of concrete runways. Tents could shield the CODEL from the sun, but we couldn’t keep them out of the heat.

The Bien Hoa airbase is the biggest remaining “hotspot” of dioxin contamination. It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time for us to clean up our mess. But I’m proud that our country is fulfilling our moral responsibility.

You don’t need to read Vietnamese to know that this sign is a warning that the entire area is contaminated. If this were in the U.S., we would be wearing hazmat suits.

This isn’t my first trip to the airbase, but I hope it’s my last. I later heard that just being there is dangerous exposure to Agent Orange.

You’d look angry, too, if your job was guarding a field of poisonous dirt.
A symbolic ribbon-cutting ceremony. That’s Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow second from the right!

When we were planning the events, I pushed for as much press access as possible. The local reporters really stepped during the interviews. The lead question was about the next generation of U.S. advocates for Vietnam war legacies. After the death of John McCain, we don’t have any more Vietnam vets in Congress. However, there is a Vietnamese-American congreswoman. Could that be the new direction in U.S.-Vietnam relations? From war legacies to people-to-people? The Ambassador and Senator Leahy were great on camera, and had a good rapport with the reporters. During the interviews, I had a nice chat with Mrs. Leahy, she is sharp-minded, strong, and pleasant.

How funny is it that I felt proud of the reporters for asking good questions? I guess I’ll always have the teacher mentality.

There was a short unstructured time period when reporters could do pull-aside interviews. I advised reporters about which Senators are on which committees, and told them to go hunting. Many of them got good one-on-one interviews, and they were thrilled. Vietnamese politicians don’t like to talk to reporters, whereas American politicians love it. So the reporters had a nice cultural experience as well as getting good stories.

I orchestrated a pull-aside interview with Debbie Stabenow for a local reporter. Stabenow is on the Agriculture Committee in the Senate, so she is influential in policies that directly affect Vietnam. But mainly because, you know, Debbie Stabenow. She made a great impression on several female reporters.

We were out in the heat all morning, and my the time I got home, I was beat. I wanted to take a shower and go to bed. But that wasn’t the end of my day. I decontaminated my clothes as best as I could, then I had to go on a field trip. But this field trip was not just work, it was a pleasure, too.

I’m on the program and entertainment committee for this year’s July 4 event. The theme is “Jazz in the Park.” My job is to find suitable jazz entertainment. Lucky for us, we have a connection with the best jazz musician in Vietnam. I went to his club to meet with him, and ask him to perform for us.

Yes, he’s playing two saxophones at the same time, and yes, that’s his daughter playing next to him. They put on a great show.

As luck would have it, I recently helped his daughter with some student visa advice, so we already had a good relationship. We came up with a great idea to have an interactive jazz performance. I was so excited that I got goosebumps. It’s going to be a really great event.

This job is never the same two days in a row. It’s usually exhausting, sometimes exasperating, occasionally baffling, but never, ever, boring. I can’t believe that I have to leave this country in only a few months. Just when I’m starting to feel like I’m not completely incompetent, that I understand more about the culture and society, I have to prepare to pack up and say good-bye.

Hanoi Old Quarter

Vietnam has a long weekend to celebrate the Hung Kings. All I really know about the holiday is that celebrates in ancient dynasty in Vietnam. The dynasty supposedly created the first nation-state in Vietnam 3,000 years ago. So I guess this holiday celebrates Vietnam’s creation myth.

I took advantage of a calm before the storm next week at work, to get away and see a part of Vietnam that has become the newest hot tourist destination: Ninh Binh. It became famous a few years ago because it was one of the filming locations for a King Kong movie.

Ninh Binh really is this pretty, and it isn’t overly touristy (yet).

I flew to Hanoi then connected with a tour service to drive two hours to Ninh Binh. While in Hanoi, I stayed in an Airbnb in Hanoi’s famous “Old Quarter.”

That’s where I stayed

Old wooden staircase dating from the French colonial period. Please don’t say the phrase “fire trap.”

The apartment is tiny. It felt like a trip back in time.

Unfortunately I did not go back in time. I was in a small old apartment made out of wood, in the middle of 21st-century Vietnam. The ground floor is a nightclub that booms music until 1:00 am. The building is on the pedestrian street. At 6:00 am, the middle-aged ladies start their line dancing, playing their music on a big speaker on the street.

I like the Old Quarter. It’s lively and interesting. But now I know that although it’s a nice place to visit, until I can turn off my sense of hearing, I wouldn’t want to live there.

This Guy is Braver than Me

I often saw the “Beijing Bikini” when I was working in China. I don’t know if it has spread to Vietnam, or it originated here. Either way, this guy is rocking the look with confidence.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it!

Speedy Delivery

You never know what you’ll see when out and about in Vietnam.  This looks like a pretty efficient way to deliver a bicycle, even though it doesn’t look completely safe…

 

Positive Peer Pressure

This sign is posted in a bathroom stall at work, encouraging people to sit on the toilet, and not treat it like a “squaty potty.”

I’ve seen it before in Asia; it appears often in China, for example, where many bathrooms have stalls with squat toilets as well as stalls with “foreign” toilets. I guess some “country people” (their words, not mine) have never seen a western style toilet, and so treat it like a squat toilet.

That behavior apparently rubs some people the wrong way here in Vietnam. The sign in the bathroom stall was annotated with some additional information:

“Human don’t do this”

What kind of day has it been?

That’s the name every Season One finale episode of every Aaron Sorkin television show.

Just now, at the evening “snack” event at my hotel, which was relocated from the lounge level to the first-floor restaurant that seems to have gone out of business, at least temporarily, a hotel employee asked me: “how was your day?”

I really had to think about that question for a minute.

At that point, I was on my third glass of wine. Wine is very expensive in Vietnam, import duties raise the price. So when I get to enjoy a glass of wine that I don’t have to pay for, I take advantage of the chance. In addition, my day had been stressful enough that I really enjoyed taking advantage of the open bottle of wine.

How was my day?

When I was eating breakfast this morning, I was about to leave and go to work. A hotel employee told me that if I didn’t leave right now, I would have to wait another 30 minutes, because of a “security event.” They were going to lock down the restaurant, and prevent anybody from walking into the hotel lobby. The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, happens to be staying in the same hotel as I am. I have been reminded of that fact every time I enter the hotel, when I have to pass through security.

I get a second reminder of that when I return to the hotel every evening, and passed by the armed guards.

I was hoping to surreptitiously film Mr. Kim as he walked through the lobby, so I decided to wait in the restaurant. I even got a nice point of view from the hotel’s restaurant’s entrance. I very stealthily put my cell phone in my suit jacket front pocket, facing out, sort of stealth cam like. I thought I was being pretty clever, but apparently not clever enough for the North Korean security services. I was apparently not stealthy enough. The security guys were on to me, and so they posted a person to stand right in my line of sight, effectively blocking my view. So I got a view of exactly nothing. Oh well.

So after of the drama of waiting around and looking at nothing, I was finally able to leave the hotel, go to the embassy, and start working. During this “VVIP visit,” my job has been to monitor the media coverage of the summit, and compile a daily press summary.

As you can imagine, the press coverage has been pretty chaotic.

How was my day?

I finished my report early this evening, and I emailed it out to people who had already taken off in Air Force One three hours before, meaning that they would not be able to even receive my email until they land in Washington DC in about 12 hours’ time. Nevertheless, it was necessary that I get this report out as soon as possible. To people who will not be able to read that email for 12 hours. If you’re confused by that requirement, welcome to my world.

I was not able to go directly to the hotel after work, because the hotel is still fenced off due to the very special guest who is still checked into the hotel, apparently. All I could say to the taxi driver was: “get as close as you can get.” I walked the rest of the way.

How was my day?

I had to show the guards my hotel room key before they would let me through the gate and into the hotel. Walked past Lea very heavily armed guards, who looked at me with an expression that told me they would be very happy to shoot me, given half a chance.

So after I had managed to get into the hotel, and was past my second glass of wine, well into my third, when the hotel employee asked me: “how was your day?,” it was hard to encapsulate my feelings into a very simple answer. How was my day, indeed? Good question.

So I answered in what I thought was the most direct and honest way. “Strange,” I replied.

To my surprise, the employee seemed to be on the same page. Our respective days, indeed, the last several days, were probably equally indescribable by him, and by all of the people who work in the hotel as well. I have heard that they have been subjected to a lot of very unreasonable and outrageous demands by my temporary roommate. So he seem to understand exactly what I meant. He half-smiled, nodded knowingly, and simply said:

“Embassy?”

That guy totally gets me. Here he is:

My wife commented to me the other day that I was getting exactly what I wanted. I’ve always had a fascination with North Korea. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted my prior post: proximity to North Korea. To my surprise, I’m getting a lot more interaction with North Koreans here in Vietnam than I ever did in China. But now, I think I’m over it. I think I’ve had enough. Beam me up Scotty. This place is weird.

Love is love

Even this kind, I guess…

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