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Blow job and orgasm? Good morning, Vietnam


I suspect that nobody expected an article from Vietnam to begin with that heading. Hold on before you jump to salacious conclusions. Although that provocative opening is relevant to our Vietnamese proceedings, I’m afraid I’ve set you up for an anti-climax. Those explicit expressions are the names of two alcoholic beverages in a perfectly respectable Vietnam family restaurant in the city of HoiAn. I don’t know if an English speaker was putting the owner of the restaurant on by recommending these names (and others with similar sexual orientation) or whether these drinks are just titillating preludes to the spring rolls and calamari salad. Whatever the case may be, perhaps nothing says, “Good morning, Vietnam” better than a Blow Job and an Orgasm – the kind made from rum, vodka and, of course, bananas.

By the way, the restaurant was very special. We were taken there by our fine Overseas Adventure Travel tour guide, Sunny, to have a cooking lesson and to eat what we cooked. I can honestly say I’ve never made a better meal, and those of you who may know me well recognize it’s because I’ve never really made any other meal. Our hearty little group of ten sat at a long table to observe the chef, a no-nonsense woman who knew her cooking and asked us to participate in innocuous ways just to make sure we didn’t screw up her wonderful meal. The meal was delicious as have so many we have had in Vietnam.

Legacy

We started in the north in Hanoi, spent time in Hue (rhymes with sleigh), and are working our way south to Saigon. (Few call it by its official name, Ho Chi Minh City). We’ve driven through the countryside, visited ruins of Hindu temples at Me Son, spent a night on a junk on the spectacular Halong Bay, and drove past the Hanoi Hilton (the hotel) and visited the Hanoi Hilton (the prison, whose most famous inmate was one John McCain). All of this has been with great pleasure mixed with profound sadness. What we call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War has left permanent scars on this country that cannot be eradicated. We visited a workshop that employs disabled people, some of whom are genetic victims of Agent Orange, the lethal defoliant the US used during the war, whose direct victims have passed toxic genes to their children who are often the victims of birth defects that disable them for life. This resilient nation has survived a thousand years of Chinese domination, defeated the French colonizers in 1954 and the Americans in 1973. It remains a beautiful country with a growing economy and an indomitable spirit.

Hanoi Street Survival

Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital, a city of five million, remarkable for many things. There are historical sites such as Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, a beautiful lake in the center of the city, an old quarter bursting with hundreds of shops, a water puppet theater, and the like. But what overwhelms one in Hanoi is traffic; incessant, unyielding, unavoidable traffic. Motor scooters constitute the vast majority of vehicles on Hanoi’s streets. There are hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of them, speeding and weaving their way through the streets, parked in every available inch on the sidewalk so there is virtually no room for pedestrians. The buzz of their motors is drowned out by the noise of their horns, which are being blown constantly, for what purpose is unknown since no one pays the slightest bit of attention to them, and even if you wanted to, it would be impossible to distinguish one horn from another in the cacophony of bleating, clacking, and blaring that vibrates the very air you breathe.

It appears that anarchy prevails on Hanoi’s streets because there is virtually no control of the traffic, which, in addition to the scooters, includes private cars, city and tourist buses, trucks, and very many bicycles for those who can’t afford scooters. Traffic lights? Obeyed on whims, street decorations like Christmas lights. Crosswalks? Mere street cosmetics. No self-respecting Hanoi driver would think of slowing down – much less stopping – for a pedestrian. Traffic cops? Said to be hiding ready to pounce on unsuspecting miscreants. Don’t believe it. Lanes? Forget it. Stop signs? In your dreams.

So, does blood spill on every corner from the inevitable accidents that must occur every minute? Does the sound of ambulance sirens pierce the air? Remarkably, no. Motor scooters are incredibly maneuverable little machines, able to dart, swerve, and stop on a dime. And the drivers are uncannily skillful. Sometimes you’ll see a whole family on one scooter, the father driving, one infant perched in front of him, one behind, with the mother holding up the rear, all of them wearing colorful surgical masks to prevent them from breathing directly the foul air. And they will be carrying the day’s supply of groceries along with some building supplies.

The streets are always packed with scooters jammed perilously close to each other, but somehow traffic flows, slowly to be sure, but rarely do you see it at a complete stop. Remember, traffic lights are commonly ignored There is an intricate ballet that goes on where scooters, seemingly racing head on into each other, are able to dodge at the last second. Phalanxes of vehicles roar down the street cutting back and forth coming within millimeters of colliding, but miraculously they don’t. Although we were only in Hanoi for three days, we never saw any vehicle hit another one or a pedestrian.

Although the horns blare constantly, no one gets mad. Cut a driver off. That’s ok. Force a near stop. That’s ok. They go merrily on their way sometimes carrying enormous amounts of stuff on the tiny scooter. I saw what looked like a flower garden moving through the street. It was one guy on a scooter carrying huge baskets of flowers that hid the scooter from view, like a float at the Rose Parade. Pipes, lumber, furniture, you name it, you’re likely to see it on a scooter headed directly at another scooter also laden with similar cargo. Amazing.

And how does one cross the street in the midst of this self controlled chaos? We had a lesson from Sunny, our guide. Find the tiniest of openings in traffic and walk slowly across the street. Never run. Once you’ve committed yourself, don’t turn back, don’t stop, just continue steadily to the other side. Traffic will be headed at you from both directions but just persist and the scooters, cars, busses, trucks and bikes whizzing by will manage to miss you, maybe by just a hair, but you’ll get safely to the sidewalk, which will be pointless because you won’t be able to walk on it since it will be crowded with parked scooters. Being a driver or a pedestrian in Hanoi is not a sport for the faint of heart.

Sight for Sore Eyes

We were on an overnight excursion on Halong Bay, one of the amazing geological wonders of the world. Our vessel was a large junk, one of hundreds which ply the bay with tourists. We had a small cabin and the experience was extraordinary. When we awoke in the morning to get ready for breakfast, I made sure to locate my glasses. There they were on the only shelf in the tiny cabin. Having finished my morning ablutions, I began to get dressed. When I looked for my glasses on the shelf, they weren’t there. I started to look everywhere, but the cabin was so minuscule, there weren’t too many places they could have disappeared to. I threw off the bed linens, rifled through the luggage, curled my body into a ball so I could look under the bed. All to no avail. “Bev,” have you seen my glasses?” “No,” came the answer from the bathroom. When she came out I enlisted her aid in the search. Side to side, floor to ceiling, stem to stern. No glasses.

I really did need my glasses, but it looked like they had mysteriously vanished on Halong Bay. “The only thing I can figure,” I said, “is that one of us put them in our luggage or something like that.” “That’s crazy,” Bev replied, “We would have realized it.” I went back into the bathroom to look just one more time. “I found them!” Bev shouted gleefully. “Great! Where were they?” “In my purse.”

Cultural Exchange

Our friend Marty was on the Vietnam tour with us. Though an avowed atheist, Marty nonetheless delights in his knowledge of Jewish heritage, having attended yeshivah through high school. Sunny, our Vietnamese guide, an exemplary young man from the central highlands of the country is – as are many young Vietnamese – enamored of western culture, especially music. The evening of the night we spent on the junk, Sunny found a guitar on the boat, and began to strum it. It was obvious he knew how to play by ear. We asked what songs he knew, and he played and sang – with our vocal accompaniment – a couple of Beatles’ songs. Irrepressible as ever, Marty, just to bring up the subject, said, “I don’t suppose you know any Yiddish songs.” Sunny looked puzzled. Marty explained what Yiddish is and said he would sing a Yiddish song. Maybe Sunny could pick up the tune and play background. Marty began to sing “Tum Balalaika,” a lovely, lilting, Yiddish classic (plenty of versions on You Tube if you don’t know it) and Sunny picked up its rhythm on the guitar while Marty sang and translated. It was a remarkable moment: An old Jewish atheist teaching a Yiddish song to a young Vietnamese man in the middle of Halong Bay. Very cool.

Two days later we were walking through the ruins of Hindu temples at Me Son. Marty was still tutoring Sunny in Yiddish. The word of the moment was “nachas.” As Marty was explaining what it means, a gruff looking man heading toward us bellowed, “Nachas! Must be a lansman.” Turned out that the man and his two companions were originally Americans who settled in Israel. We exchanged greetings and went on our way. If the next bastion of the revival of Yiddish turns out to be Vietnam, you’ll know the reason why, and you won’t have to ask, “What’s up with that?”

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