Readers' Submissions

Stay Or Go Home?

  • Written by Lewis
  • October 26th, 2004
  • 17 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

The recent Weekly of our beloved and earnest Mr Stick where he was at a crossroads of whether to stay in Bangkok or return home placed him in a similar mode as myself. My Hanoian wife and I spent six weeks in Honolulu this summer so she could attend a University of Hawaii summer session. She’d been able to pursue that university’s Executive MBA in Hanoi thanks to their flying one professor out here at a time for each course. Attending the summer session in Honolulu was optional and would place some (to put it mildly) financial strain on us (impossibly so she thought), but I reasoned like this: Can you imagine her going through life saying she was a University of Hawaii graduate and having people say, “So you’ve been to the University of Hawaii?” No. “So you’ve been to Hawaii?” No. So I searched out my two credit cards, and we went to Bangkok to procure our usual cheap discount consolidator tickets that city has in abundance. (Hanoi-Bangkok thru Laos by bus is as low as $21 plus the cost of a Lao visa. I go by bus because I’m cheap in some ways and enjoy the scenery, and the wife flies because she can’t handle travel by bus or car.) (Actually I’m also tangentially touching on another recent Weekly where Mr Stick discussed how much one needs to retire on out here, and let me digress a moment. I hosted out here (in Hanoi in my case) an Asia-travel newsletter editor, and he was asking me about how much income a fellow would need to live on out here. “Can one make it on $2,000/month?” Yes. “$1,000?” Yes. “$500?” Yes. “$200?” Yes, and I added and I should add here that it just never enters a guy’s mind, nor did it his, nor did it Stick’s, that the local national female mate could earn significant income. I mean the way I think is when I see my wife working with a Vietnamese man earning $52,000/year, even with him under the local salary scale with their UNDP-Swiss project, because of his having an MBA, and with their (him and wife’s French boss) saying she could do it too if she had an MBA, then I’ll invest the $16,000 less 10% scholarship for her to be able to or have the chance to bring us in the big money forever. When she started on the MBA, I could barely imagine the thing ever getting over with, particularly with my being her tutor and having to do all the readings along with her – in effect pursuing the MBA myself too (no problem; I’ve learned a lot) – but she starts her last course next week and graduates in December.)

Now let me get on track to why I’m writing this. After coming back to Hanoi from Honolulu, I had the blahs big time – so terribly so I within several days took a trip away from Hanoi way up north to the wild country. I needed a break from this place almost as soon as I’d gotten back to it!

Honolulu and Hawaii is such a paradise that it was making me think just like Stick was or is – should I stay in this place (Hanoi in my case)? My wife’s French boss who had visited and loved Hawaii described it as a paradise of an ideal combination of the ambiance of Polynesia and US livability. There in Hawaii you have that delightful weather with the trade winds, and the clean beaches are nearby. All the people are so polite in their driving, just real sweet. I mean they stop and let you into traffic, and buses don't barge and force their way through. There is none of that incessant and obnoxious horn honking that’s resulted in my wearing earplugs in Hanoi a lot of times. (One thing nice, I note, in Bangkok is that the Thais don’t use their horns, and how I notice that after Vietnam.) In Hawaii, if you want to walk across the street, a driver will stop and give you a break. I have yet in over 6 years in Hanoi to see a single random act of kindness on the road. Right away in Kuala Lumpur (the best city I’ve ever seen, but that’s another story) and right away in Bangkok I was a recipient of kindness out on the streets. In Bangkok, it was a block off Khao San Road where I was walking down a narrow little street to my guesthouse and was unknowingly blocking a Thai taxi driver. He just patiently waited me out. In Kuala Lumpur on my first morning after arriving, I wasn't accustomed to their driving on the left side of the road, stepped out in front of a motorbike, and the Malaysian young man stopped and smiled at me. Right, I am focusing on the street aspect of Hawaii a lot; after all, Hanoi is known as the brain-injury capitol of the world, and Vietnam has a road death rate 77 times high than that in the US.

You'd never see such cases in Hanoi as I just gave for Honolulu, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur, this bunch of rude, vacant minded examples of ignorance or whatever it is – where there is no sense of responsibility to other people. What that guy did (reference: a reader's submission) when a Thai motorbike taxi (or whatever contraption it was) driver tried doubling the price from 10 to 20 baht was small potatoes to what I've wrought on them in Hanoi – because they deserve it. I call it corrective action! I thought about making such a reader’s submission, one that would definitely get them off him and over to me. Right now I’m on the verge of an anecdote or a half dozen and advice on dealing with the locals, but I’ve created enough, in effect, sidebars already, and besides I wouldn’t know where to start, what with my having had to perform corrective action a number of times. Yes, although I’m tempted now, all that’s a whole story in itself, and a quite good one, I believe. I will say that my internal, undocumented after-action report to myself for each case always concluded that I should have no regrets re the corrective action I’d performed. My internal computer that causes a physical reaction (or non-reaction) before I myself even know I’m going to do it always has exercised splendid judgment. The speed it happens often even impresses me. It wasn’t me; it was that internal computer that is programmed to have me react, if it decides I should react, with as much speed as possible – it wants me to survive by winning and getting it over with quickly. It has my body react without delay for one of two reasons: (i) it perceives I’m threatened and wants to protect me, or (ii) a Vietnamese thinks hassling a foreigner is sport and by doing so he can impress his friends. As my old inner-city boxing trainer, Don Stewart (an Italian but had to change his name to get fights and years ago was paid $1,000 to teach Sonny Liston how to jab), and I still to this day hear him say it, would incessantly say, “Put some snap on it (the punch).” Even my wife and a self-described politically correct and self-described intellectual friend, re a couple of my little beyond-altercations, supported me in spirit – “Good – you gave him what he deserved.” But not always: Wife said, “If you get in one more (altercation) (while on her scooter with her), I’ll never ride with you again.” (Well I’m just being protective of her – I mean about the third time a guy impatiently tries dangerously cutting in on us, it’s time for me to reach over and snap a good back-fist or back-slap into him.) And I have minded her; there have been no more altercations while with her on her scooter. And rather than locals coming to their partner’s assistance (an apparent fear or deep concern of some in Bangkok), I find they often laugh at him after I’ve performed my corrective action – which may be a stretching and twisting of an ear or which may be…)

I remember swimming laps off Waikiki, and what an unbelievable workout environment. At the end of every lap, I'd be at the free hula show. While I was swimming, I could look up and see a rainbow; but there, as usual, was no rain in Waikiki.

Expensive? Well I don't know about that if you look at it with some mental nimbleness. For example, I went in to the Social Services (Welfare) Department, trying to pull off getting food stamps for the poor, because technically we weren't working and had expenses, and they told me they’d like to hire my wife, what with her languages' ability in French, English, and Vietnamese. They said they needed multi-lingual personnel to be able to communicate with their multi-ethnic clients, and not having such personnel was a problem. What would this pay? I'd estimate at around $40,000.

The air is clean, the people live longer than about any place in the world, and I wonder and worry whether my lungs will hold out long-term in a place like Hanoi where WHO lists the particulate level of the air 24 times or so, if I’m remembering correctly, greater than what's acceptable.

While we were out there, I received an email from a friend who formerly taught English in Bangkok (left for more money in Korea). “Oh you went to that tourist trap of Waikiki – you should have gone to Thailand’s Koh (something or other) Beach.” Christ – Thailand – That’s the type of place I was thoroughly enjoying being away from – no more of that sewage smell…Man, I was enjoying Hawaii so much my wife could hardly get me away from it. Last place I wanted to be was a place like I’d just come from. Glad to be away from Pleistocene Man. Wife somehow felt it would be her last chance to visit mainland US, and her and the Vietnamese MBA-candidate delegation wanted to go to Los Angeles for five days. She had a heck of a time prying me away from the paradise of Hawaii for the mainland – I mean I had it all – just loved it. Additionally, why leave when I’d bought a 92 Subaru for $1,000 reasoning that when I sold it for $1,000 just before our leaving, I’d had an expense of zero for a car (unfortunately I didn’t disable the “check engine” light and the senior sailor at Pearl Harbor I was selling it to went out of his mind when it popped on, lighting up to the max because it had just turned dark – that indiscretion cost me $100); and why leave when we’d already paid rent for her lady professor’s apartment condo of which she’d made v affordable for us. (Eventually we all went to Las Vegas – Her boss and I convinced her that Los Angeles is just a big spread-out bedroom community.)
I took the wife to a skin show in Honolulu, and then all the Vietnamese with us, after hearing about it, just had to go. It’s funny; the first one we went to was a small neighborhood one not far from the campus in a Japanese-American neighborhood, and when we walk in, the Vietnamese gals were petrified at what they saw and I think actually wanted to bail. There was a blond completely nude on the stage – She had the best-looking butt I’ve ever seen. They’d never seen anything like it; I mean they were from Hanoi. I did get them to settle in, but everyplace we went they had a problem of management thinking they were teenagers – underage. They look so young. So at this place management and the exotic dancer were trying to recruit my wife and the gals with us to be exotic dancers, saying that’s what the guys liked – young and innocent – and that they could make up to $500/night. The gals settled down and enjoyed the skin shows. They’d sit there wide-eyed and smiling, flabbergasted at what they were seeing. The exotic dancers showed it all to the max, even giving gynecological and anus views.
One night we decided to go to a dollar movie, but a half block off Waikiki the gals hear disco music and searched it out – So on the second floor of a hotel we’re in a gay bar overlooking the zoo, Kapiolani Park, and Waikiki Beach to the south. Robert, the bartender, didn’t know what to make of facing a line of young Viet gals perched up in front of him at his place crowded 90% with gay guys and 10% lesbians. A male exotic dancer really had it over all the female exotic dancers we’d seen. He just had this charisma and sensuality. I mean I wasn’t sitting there with a hard on, but he just had it, knew it, had attitude, and we all thoroughly enjoyed watching him. The women exotic dancers at the other places could learn from him. Later I thought I should have cut a deal with him to give the gals a private show in their nearby hotel. Our cutest little gal, Hoa (means flower – damn, why didn’t I get a picture of her in her string bikini? – She was just heavenly), did inadvertently screw up. She told Robert he looked like Elton John, and Robert said such a statement could be grounds for him to have security throw her out and added that she didn’t know how much she’d insulted him, for Elton John had a little dick. You know, I think Robert was serious. So I passed on to the gay guys next to me what he’d said, and they responded that Robert had a little dick too.

Hawaii was like a honeymoon, and with that perfect climate, you could sleep without a fan or air conditioning. Rainbows all over the place and if you were rained on from that mist rain they have, no problem, for the trade winds would dry you out fast. So do I spend some time mulling bailing out of this rat hole of a cesspool for Hawaii? Well, do sheep have pubic hair?

And I mulled making a recommendation for Stick on his decision of whether he should bail (for factors that presumably would include high income in New Zealand, hence high future retirement income for what could be a good life in Thailand) or whether he should stay in Bangkok where he’s fairly well content. But the answer I come up with is…I can’t come up with an answer. I can’t even come up with an answer for myself. A friend here and I both ask ourselves the same question: Why do we stay in this rat hole called Hanoi, and our answer is the same: We just don’t know where else to go. (Amazingly, when we were talking in front of the house where he has a flat, right after I referred to Hanoi as a rat hole, well here comes a rat that then enters the house, and he says, “I hope it doesn’t make its way up to my flat.”) And whether Stick and I would want to bail could be moot and academic. Our wives may have no desire to leave; mine doesn’t. She has absolutely no desire to leave, but finally did say she could consider Ho Chi Minh City. Had I stayed single, excellent chance I wouldn’t be here. Maybe Phnom Penh; maybe the Philippines. Bangkok? A lot of guys live to get back there apparently, but I can hit that place (and it’s so easy, quick and cheap for me to go there), ignore it, and bail within an hour of arriving; do it all the time. But I’ll bet that were I to get settled into Bangkok for more than a year and give it a chance with an employer, I’d be fighting like hell to stay there if the system decided it was time for me to rotate out. Vientiane? Wife’s French boss goes there all the time as part of their trade assistance to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and he advises me that it’s too much of a small town – would be boring.

I read a novel on Thailand by a gay Australian, the novel with the butt view of a naked guy on the cover. I’m not gay but it was a good read. In it, he described how you have these expats in Thailand who are bitter, complain a lot about the country, are fed up with the Thais…but will fight like hell to stay when it looks like they have to leave. And I thought that sounds just like me – except for the last part. If they’d throw me out of Vietnam, no problem – I wouldn’t mind trying Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese, including my wife, however, are scared of Cambodia or at least they were; and in the past, they had reason to be scared of it.

Why is the decision of whether to leave difficult? Of course, the answer is that a place like Hanoi has a number of plus factors. My wife’s French boss, who we go out to eat with at noon every Sunday, says: “There are two reasons to live in Vietnam: #1 the women, and #2 the women.” Yes! And Vietnam can be an absolute paradise, just heaven! (I hope my wife doesn’t see this; I already have this document hidden by means of an innocuous program name.) And I’d add that many aspects of living here are incredibly cheap. And there’s that spectacularly rugged scenery little more than a niche away from Hanoi – full of those gentle ethnic minorities I love. A mixed Vietnamese and ethnic minority Tay (related to the Thai) family to the northwest in Tuyen Quang recently hosted me, and they wouldn’t let me pay for anything and would have given me the shirts off their backs.
Surprisingly, to study the Thai, scholars of Thailand’s universities will often go to Vietnam where there are more than 1,000,000 Thai isolated away in the mountains of northern Vietnam, thereby maintaining their traditions better than those in Thailand. Vietnam has in addition to the White Thai and Black Thai (called that because of the color of their clothing) six other varieties of Thai. The Vietnamese describe the Thai as the most attractive of the ethnic minorities. The Thai are also related (linguistically for example) to these other ethnic minorities in Vietnam: Tay, Nung, San Chay, Giay, Lao, Lu, and Bo Y.
Expat friend was wrong – He advised me that you just have to get away from this place (Hanoi) from time to time. One just needs a break, he advises me. It didn't work for me; it made it worse. Staying here, well it's something like a paramecium in a pile of shit where since that's all they know, it just seems normal.