Tuesday, January 31, 2012

North Vietnam and Summing Up

Friday, January 27, 2012
After becoming thoroughly acquainted with the Hoi An Chapter of the Vendors of Vietnam, we left by bus this morning to the new and smart-looking airport in Danang. There, we took a one-hour flight to Hanoi, only to get on another bus for a 4-hour ride to Ha Long Bay for an overnight stay.

Saturday, January 28, 2012
We did what one does in Ha Long Bay, take a boat ride for several hours in a beautiful natural setting. Ha Long Bay contains 1,960 fascinating limestone rock formations, including caves and grottoes, only otherwise found on the Li River in China. Afterwards, we got back on our bus for the nearly-four hour ride to Hanoi. As Franck, the tour leader, commented, I “meditated” most of the time, so we seemed to arrive in Hanoi fairly quickly. The weather here is murky, cool in the mid-teens (I’ve gone international), with damp skies.

We went to the early evening performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, a show best described as silly – not Monty Python silly, just plain silly. As has happened most evenings, our group chose to stay together for dinner, tonight at the Rainbow Café, 38 Hang Hanh, which offers a large menu despite its small size. I had beef noodle soup (Pho) (45 Dong) and “Singapore soft fried chicken” (165 Dong), which was really a grilled quarter of a chicken with a good sweet and hot dipping sauce. Have I told you about Vietnamese currency? The Dong is worth 1/21,000 of a dollar, or one dollar = 21,000 Dong. This means that you walk away from an ATM, widely available in Vietnam, a millionaire, in Dongs at least. It’s hard not to shake your head in disbelief with each transaction, a cup of tea for 10,000 Dong, a hotel room for 2,650,000 Dong.

Sunday, January 29, 2012
Ba Dinh Square is where Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France in 1945. Now, it is the site of his mausoleum, where visitors are not allowed to hold or carry anything while walking through without stopping. For a 112-year old man, Ho looks pretty good, but his stated desire for privacy in death should have been respected. Adjacent to the square is the formal presidential palace, which he avoided, and the simple living quarters he actually used. The last element of the complex is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which is typically hagiographic, but informative. All of the premises were well-maintained and, during this holiday season, crowded with Vietnamese. An unfortunate element throughout these facilities, to my style-conscious eyes, was the uniforms of the military guards. Unlike the tans and greens that other Vietnamese military seemed to sport, these men (only) wore bright white coats and pants with vivid red and gold trim, braid, ribbons and decorations. It combined the looks of a Good Humor ice cream man and a Mitteleuropan hotel doorman.

We then visited the Temple of Literature, founded in 1070, which now is outside the groves of academe and serves as a Confucian temple. At the end of Tet, the Temple was crowded with last-minute petitioners for ancestral support. We also spent far less time in the Hanoi Hilton than John McCain did, but it took only minutes to appreciate the misery he and fellow-prisoners must have experienced. While his actual flight suit was on display, most of the exhibits pointed to the prison’s role under French colonial rule, including one of only three guillotines France shipped abroad.

Our final group dinner was at Garden Vuon Hanoi, 36 Hang Manh, where we had a private room, which allowed for farewell toasts and tributes. While the restaurant offered interesting set menus, I was more than satisfied with spicy stir-fried beef, Thai style (150,000 Dong), fried chicken with lemon sauce (130,000 Dong), white rice (14,000 Dong), a glass of red wine (90,000 Dong) whose origins I didn’t catch, and a can of club soda (20,000 Dong), for a total of just over $19. Additionally, Steve shared his delicious chicken salad with me and I nibbled on some of his roast duck. Mission accomplished.

Monday, January 30, 2012
Wake-up call at 5:30 AM in Hanoi, that is Sunday 5:30 PM in New York; arrive at Palazzo di Gotthelf 8:30 PM, Monday.

* * * * * *
I have traveled to much of Europe and had briefer exposure to South America, Asia and Israel (which seems to connect to no continent geopolitically or psychologically). As a result, my appreciation of American diversity, political freedoms, hypocrisy, fried food consumption, generosity, all-night subways (New York City-specific) and ability to follow more than one major sport at a time has increased with each venture abroad. I still have not been converted to a believer in American exceptionalism. However, the strength of my cosmopolitan internationalism was sorely tested on this trip to Hong Kong, Cambodia and Vietnam, where we stayed in top-flight, four-star (out of five) hotels every night. Each hotel room had a remote-controlled television set, often with a flat panel screen, showing dozens of stations in a wide array of languages. A constant was BBC World News and CNN. Each of these news outlets had sports reporting at regular intervals and scores on their crawls throughout the hour. Additionally, ESPN, with or without some other international sports channels, was always available.

I will begrudgingly concede that the number one international sports event during our trip was the Australian Tennis Open, one of the Grand Slam events, which we often saw pieces of live. However, we also regularly saw coverage of soccer matches from every corner of the world, cricket, golf, US professional and college basketball. What we did not see anywhere, at anytime day or night, on any outlet, in any language, live or delayed, in full or highlights, in words or pictures, was any mention of the NEW YORK FOOTBALL GIANTS and their heroic run to the Super Bowl. Mind you, the Giants suffered no more than the New England Patriots or any of the teams that fell by the wayside during the playoffs. It seems that the international media alphabet excluded the letters N*F*L*. Steve and I were able to follow the last few minutes of the Green Bay game by latching onto a hotel computer in Hong Kong and connecting to nytimes.com. The results of the Sunday afternoon San Francisco game, on the other hand, were unknown to us until Tuesday morning in Saigon, even though it was the third-most watched conference championship game in 30 years in the US, gaining a 30.6 national rating with a 44 audience share. At its peak, it had 69 million US viewers, but not us.

To sum up our trip to Vietnam, I turn to the acute analytic insights of Ayn Rand, based on her testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on October 20, 1947, when it was investigating Communist influence in Hollywood. Ms. Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and left in 1926 to come to the United States. She worked as a playwright and Hollywood screenwriter before publishing her first blockbuster novel in 1943.

Her HUAC testimony focused on Song of Russia, a 1944 American film made and distributed by MGM Studios, which Bosley Crowther, the New York Times movie critic reviewed as follows: “The story is pure romantic fiction—and a shade forbidding, when suggested in outline—for it is simply the story of a prominent American symphony conductor and a Russian girl who meet, through their mutual zeal for music, in Moscow before the war, fall in love, get married in the girl’s village and depart on a concert tour. Then the war comes. They are rudely separated when the girl returns to her home and the man continues his commitments to give music to the hard-pressed Russian folks. But, in the end, they are reunited in the village, which has been laid waste by war and are sent together to America to state the spirit of Russia through their art.” In case you forgot, in 1944 the Russians were engaged in a massive ground war with certain Germans whom we considered bad guys too. Not surprisingly, the film portrays, in the words of Wikipedia “happy, healthy, smiling, free Soviet citizens, blissfully living the Communist dream.”

Once WWII ended, the movie quickly became an embarrassment for MGM, which was led by the politically-conservative Louis B. Mayer. Ms. Rand, who had apparently never returned to Russian after 1926, was not fooled by the movie, written by Paul Jarrico later blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with HUAC. She testified: “The streets are clean and prosperous-looking. There are no food lines anywhere. You see shots of the marble subway -- the famous Russian subway out of which they make such propaganda capital.” It got worse. “There is a park where you see happy little children in white blouses running around. I don’t know whose children they are, but they are really happy kiddies. They are not homeless children in rags, such as I have seen in Russia. Then you see an excursion boat, on which the Russian people are smiling, sitting around very cheerfully, dressed in some sort of satin blouses such as they only wear in Russian restaurants here.”

With Ms. Rand’s sensibilities as my guide, I decided to judge Vietnam for myself, dispelling the fog of left-wing propaganda generated by Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Good Morning, Vietnam, Forest Gump and The Green Berets. I eliminated from consideration those Vietnamese for whom congeniality is an economic necessity, such as hotel desk clerks, bartenders, and T-shirt retailers. I also factored in the effect of Tet, since we have spent our entire visit to Vietnam immediately before, during and after Tet, when most people operate in a contentment-rich environment. I tried to make my observations peripherally and in mirrors so as not be seen staring at people and invoking the Hawthorne Effect. Here is my conclusion – Better Red than Dead. These folks are in a pretty good mood, whizzing up and down the streets of Saigon and Hanoi on motor bikes (33.4 million motor bikes in a population of around 88 million people), wearing clean, uninteresting clothing. Although I saw no Russian-style satin blouses, silk outfits on women were abundant. Enormous groups of young people jostled and giggled and strutted and teased and gamboled for hours on end in front of our hotel on Nguyen Hue Boulevard in Saigon, open only for pedestrians. I don’t believe that most could spell “gulag.” If these young Vietnamese might be blessed with a magical visitation by anyone, I would bet that Justin Bieber would be far favored over Ho Chi Minh. So, thanks to Ms. Rand, I know how well the Vietnamese are faring, but I am still left wondering why we tried to kill them in the first place.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

South Vietnam

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I must be fickle, but 45 years ago I turned down the opportunity to have an all-expense paid trip to Vietnam. Now, I'm visiting the country entirely on my own dime. While I imagine there would have been some excitement upon my arrival back then, I found thousands of people out on the street in front of my hotel in Saigon yesterday. Vietnam is in the midst of the Tet (New Year) holiday. While Monday is New Year's Day, celebrations began before we even landed. It turns out that Hue Nguyen Road, running directly in front of our hotel, is the functional equivalent of Times Square and is devoted entirely to floral displays and pedestrian traffic. Crowds, hordes, armies, legions of people are moving back forth taking photos every few steps for the half-mile closed to motor vehicles. Our room directly overlooks this scene, but fortunately the amplified music ends hours before the people go away.

Our tour group was slightly reconstituted: our single Bulgarian woman and three Australians left, replaced by another English couple, one Australian woman and a mixed marriage – he Welsh, she Scottish. Except for Jill and Steve, we have not been accompanied by any other Americans so far. We all went off to dinner at the Lemongrass Restaurant, 4 Nguyen Thiep Street. The restaurant is on the eighth floor of a hotel and has an open air terrace one floor above that afforded a fabulous view of the thousands on the street below. While every one else had one main course and maybe shared another, I went for one of the set dinners, in my case consisting of: Lotus stems salad with shrimp and pork; deep fried (crab) claw wrapped in minced pork and crab; roasted chicken with garlic; fried seabass with oyster sauce; sweet and sour shrimp soup with morning glory; shrimp fried rice; and banana fritter (which I donated to America's Favorite Epidemiologist who was eating more modestly). With tax, service charge and a small bottle of Perrier, Franck our guide paid for my beer, this very good meal cost $24.93.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

We drove about 70 km to the Cu Chi tunnels, a Viet Cong stronghold between Saigon and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is now a popular tourist site attracting all sides. There are B-52 bomb craters, exploded US tanks, smokeless Viet Cong kitchens to avoid detection, bomb casings, and an array of simple, but deadly, infernal devices used against hostile (that is, American and South Vietnamese) troops. The high or low spot is the tunnel network itself, with entrances far too small for me, thank goodness. Some were booby-trapped so that a false step would impale the intruder or blow him up. The most perverse element to me was the recent placement of a shooting range on one edge of the complex, so that you heard gunshots, loud or soft, singly or in bursts, as you walked through the grounds. Even at this late date, it was all very scary.

The war theme continued in the afternoon when we visited the War Remnants Museum in the center of Saigon. I found it no more offensive in its propagandizing than a typical evening of Fox News. First of all, they won and they're entitled to tell their story. Second, our story, while full of heroic individual efforts, was ultimately a pointless pursuit that dishonored our past and degraded our future. Pursuing Communists in Vietnam helped their cause and harmed our own far more than benign neglect would have. I was most impressed by the exhibit of photographs by 134photo-journalists from 11 nations killed in Indochina. This was personal not political.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Today is New Year's Day, Tet. Tet combines Christmas, Rosh haShanah, Thanksgiving and New Year's with some Passover thrown in. In other words, it is a time for reunions, eating, drinking, gift-giving, honoring ancestors, and anticipating the future. While huge crowds have been gathering in Saigon since we arrived, last night, at the stroke of midnight, was the culminating event. We joined hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese on the banks of the Saigon River for an enormous fireworks display. We arrived about 90 minutes early and sat on a curb while people of all ages, but mostly young, surged back and forth trying to get into a good viewing position.

We drove about two hours south into the Mekong Delta where we boarded a boat for a ride on the river, rather reminiscent of Apocalypse Now especially when we turned into narrow channels. Fortunately, we were unable to land at the brick factory, so I am not returning home with any building materials. However, the visit to Mr. Tran Van Ha's coconut processing operation was fascinating for several reasons. Coconuts are the source of fiber, liquid, food, and utensils. Mr. Ha and his staff were very generous in handing out samples of several varieties of coconut candy and other treats. The peak moment, which I hope will appear in Steve's portfolio of photographs, was our mirthful handshake when I learned that Mr. Ha was former Viet Cong. Would such tranquility have surrounded an earlier meeting with him, say 45 years ago?

Our dinner was a near disaster after we boated and bussed back to Saigon. The group went to Quan An Ngon, 160 Pasteur Street, for our Tet dinner along with half of Saigon, it seems. This is a very large restaurant with the feel of a colonial mansion. After a long wait, we were taken to a completely empty second floor that was a bit cooler than the crowded downstairs. Then the fun began. Whatever we seemed to order was all gone because of the large numbers of diners preceding us. Eventually, with alternate choices settled on, we drank (an entire journal can be devoted to the drinking habits of our Anglo-Australian companions) and ate as food arrived at random intervals, often not for the person who asked for it in the third place. To the credit of all of us, we enjoyed ourselves and were the last persons to leave the restaurant. On the way back to the hotel, I found an ice cream parlor to help bring the evening to a proper close.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

We flew to Hue, once the Imperial capital of Vietnam. The major site in Hue is the Citadel, the Imperial Palace, where some buildings remain in spite of the efforts of our Air Force.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

We drove down Highway 1 yesterday from Hue to Hoi An, through Danang, a picturesque ride somewhat comparable to US 1 on the Pacific Coast. The United States has been out of Vietnam since 1975 and very little attention has been paid to it by us, or at least me, since then. Yet, as we ramble around on this tour, the past quickly returns. The Rex is an elegant hotel in Saigon which used to be the site of daily American press briefings. We flew into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, a place we saw in countless newsreels as American generals, politicians, celebrities and poor schnooks arrived. We spent overnight in Hue, on the edge of the DMZ. We saw abandoned bunkers and airplane hangars, and other American military installations now used by the Vietnamese for their own not always pacific purposes.
There were few ruins in place; I saw nothing as evocative as the remains of Coventry Cathedral in England, for instance. Our bombing was usually thorough enough to destroy structures and infrastructure, if not ideology. Cynically, I must note that American "aggression" has proven a very effective nation-building tool here. Vietnam without US intervention would have probably remained near the bottom of nations in providing for the needs of its people. Of course, population control by B-52 reduced the number of mouths to feed and bodies to shelter as Vietnam sought to rebuild.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

We are in Hoi An for two days, the only unsripted period during the tour. There's a good reason to spend free time here, because spending is the municipal sport of Hoi An, which must mean Tourist Bargain with Wily Merchant in the native tongue. We managed to convince several vendors to part with T-shirts, scarves, jewelry, and other momentos in exchange for engraved portraits of famous Communists sometimes mixed in with American Presidents.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

At last, Cambodian food. We flew to Phnom Penh today to join our tour group. From the damp 60 degree temperature that hovered over Hong Kong during our stay, we were greeted by humid, high 80s this afternoon. Money in Cambodia is easy, the American dollar is universally accepted, although change of less than one dollar will be given in riels, about 4,100 to the dollar. Phnom Penh traffic, on the other hand, is hard. Every imaginable vehicle is on the road at the same time and the drivers all obey a strict traffic code. However, each is obeying his own traffic code, starting with which side of the street to drive on. It seemed worse than Beijing, the worst I had seen to date, although Beijing has the sheer force of numbers to exaggerate the anarchic driving conditions.

We are under the general direction of Franck, a Frenchman, during our stay in Cambodia. The whole group followed his suggestion tonight and we rode in tuk tuks, wagons attached to motor scooters, holding up to four persons, to Romdeng, #74 Street 174, "a restaurant providing training to former street youth." Even without its charitable nature, Romdeng distinguished itself. Most of us shared a set meal; the vegetarians ordered separately. I ate shredded chicken salad with cilantro and nuts in a thin, mildly sweet dressing, taro-stuffed spring rolls, fish amok (boneless fish sticks in a hot curry-coconut sauce), and eggplant with chopped mushrooms. This was $6 per person. Additionally, I had ice tea with lime and mint ($2), and scoops of coconut and passion fruit gelato ($4.75). No tipping.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

As I'll be the first to admit, I do my best work sitting down. I am a more reliable commentator on place settings than places. This morning, though, I was thrilled by the splendor of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda next door. I was reminded of Beijing's Forbidden City, this combination of royal residences, public and private chambers, and holy sites. Score one for Phnom Penh over Beijing, although the Forbidden City is, not surprisingly for almost anything Chinese, far larger. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to his friends) combined exciting, fanciful architecture with lovely grounds and beautiful plantings. The Forbidden City, by contrast, has almost no green space, just vistas of concrete where buildings do not stand.

I skipped lunch and took a walk, having over-enjoyed the hotel's breakfast buffet. Then the afternoon took a serious turn towards insanity. We went to S. 21, an infamous Khmer Rouge prison in central Phnom Penh. It had been a high school, but became a house of torture and death for anyone and everyone. As a reflection of the Khmer Rouge's maniacal belief system, detainees were forced to confess by the use of cruel and bizarre means before they were murdered. According to the memoirs of two of the seven inmates of S. 21 found alive when the Khmer Rouge fell, the interrogators insisted on confession of ties to both the CIA and KGB. This paranoia manifested itself also in forcing people to implicate others, any one else, when arrested and questioned.

If prisoners survived S. 21, they were sent to a killing field outside of the city. We proceeded about 15 kilometers to a site that has been preserved and the victims memorialized. That in itself is unusual, since discussion of the Khmer Rouge is off-limits in Cambodia today, because former members retain positions of power. Students are not taught about the events of 1975-1979, when it is estimated that 1,700,000 Cambodians, at the very least, were killed, out of a population of about 7 Million. The killing field was terrible/fascinating/extraordinary/compelling/sickening. Basically, prisoners were trucked in, brought to the edge of a pit and usually clubbed, although not necessarily killed by the blows. Bullets were spared because of the expense. When they tumbled into the pit, they were buried often alive. The location of the killing field we visited was right next to a small lake which overflows during the monsoon season, when heavy rains fall directly on the ground as well. The result is, even today, bones, teeth and clothing rise to the surface as the waters recede. We saw bones, teeth and clothing ourselves coming out of the ground where the pits once held bodies.

Dinner tonight was somewhat somber after this afternoon's visits. We made comparisons to Auschwitz and the Nazis, of course. Ranking catastrophes is a sophomoric exercise, but, while Pol Pot's rule over Cambodia lasted only a fraction of the time that Hitler controlled Germany, the rate of decimation of his own population must be record setting. Also, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror over urban Cambodia concluded only in 1979, during the lifetime of anyone 32 years old or older. (The Khmer Rouge continued fighting a war against Vietnam invaders through the mid-1990s, but they did it as a rebel force in rural areas, not the government in power.) Although I only asked a couple of Cambodians about their personal experiences with the Khmer Rouge, I heard stories of the disappearance or murder of a father-in-law, two uncles and other friends and neighbors.

The extent of Hitler's mania regarding the Jews is still somewhat surprising to me after decades of examining the subject, but not the fact of it. In other words, vicious European anti-Semitism wasn't and isn't news, but I cannot fathom why Hitler devoted critical resources, men and material, to the extermination of the Jews in the latter days of the war when his country and its people were in such great jeopardy. Pol Pot and his acolytes did not have or need demonic opponents to eradicate. He killed Cambodians, left and right, literally and figuratively, preferring intellectuals and teachers, but recognizing no limits or loyalties during the rampage of 1975-1979. And it happened during the lifetime of us and our friends and our children, not during the days of our parents and grandparents. Horrendous.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We flew to Siem Reap, the city that serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat and other fabled temples. Siem Reap means Victory of Siam (Thailand), an event almost 700 years in the past. Imagine if the Vietnamese had used the same approach to renaming Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, after the fall of South Vietnam. Might it be now known as LBJ Loserville, or Kissinger Kiss My Ass Town?

Just before the flight to Siem Reap in the early afternoon, I got some good news. Last night, after our contemplative dinner, we went to the Blue Pumpkin Sorbet & Ice Cream parlor, on Sisowath (Avenue/Boulevard/Street) at Street 239 in Phnom Penh. I had scoops of rocky road and rum raisin for $2.75. At the airport, Blue Pumpkin operates a small café with the identical prices for ice cream as its downtown shop; one scoop, $1.50, two scoops, $2.75, three scoops, $3.75, of good ice cream. My pre-flight treat was pineapple and peanut (not butter). Have you ever heard of an airport retail store, duty-free aside, resisting the temptation to mark up goods substantially? I later found out that Blue Pumpkin is a nationwide operation, and long may it prosper.

Once we settled into our Siem Reap hotel, we took off for a boat ride on Lake Tonle Sap, home to more than 100 species of fish and thousands of fishermen and their families, who live in floating villages along the large lakefront. This lake quadruples in size during the monsoon season, which otherwise has to be unbearable in this otherwise hot and humid climate. How hot and humid, Grandpa Alan? We are now in Cambodian winter, the dry season, with temperatures around 90 F and humidity around 60%.

Dinners are not part of our tour package, but most evenings our group has eaten together. Tonight, we had an excellent meal at the Sugar Palm, Ta Phul Road, Siem Reap, where Gordon Ramsay, the peripatetic British chef recently dined (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k8j5VA69HY). I ate Khmer chicken satay ($4.50) and beef with ginger ($6).

Friday, January 20, 2012

We have been away one week and had the busiest day yet. Wake up call at 4 AM, leave the hotel at 5 AM in order to take a 25 minute ride by tuk tuk to Angkor Wat. We weren't alone awaiting the 6:45 AM sunrise; hundreds of people from almost everywhere (except Africa and South America) gathered by a reflecting pond in front of the main temple, built in the 12th Century and reputedly the largest religious structure in the world. Looking around, I felt that only John Lennon was missing. But, just as he was not to appear, the sun was blocked by a cloud cover that arrived at about 6:15 AM.

The temple and its grounds were fascinating, but, for most of us, the day got more interesting as it went along. The temple at Ta Prohm, featured in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie's surgically enhanced lips, is stunning. Discovered after Angkor Wat, it had long been subsumed into the jungle, with trees growing over, under, inside and outside the building. Cameras were wielded with a flurry as we walked around this relatively-small structure.

Our only non-sectarian visit for the day was the Arika Land Mine Museum, which documents the past toll and current threat of land mines throughout the world. Cambodia still has some millions of land mines left over primarily from the war between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam, following the fall of Pol Pot. Most of them now are in agricultural areas which could be put to productive purposes if cleared of land mines, mostly aimed at personnel not military hardware or vehicles. An American volunteer, formerly military, gave a concise and compelling account of the situation, and noted that the USA, China, Israel and Russia are among the very few countries in the world that have not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

Last night, I left off laundry around the corner from our hotel to be ready this evening around dinnertime. Since one of the essential differences between boys and girls is the inability of boys to wash their underwear in the bathroom sink and have it ready to wear the next day, I piled up laundry in this climate at a fast pace. When I went to retrieve my laundry at 6 PM, it wasn't ready, but I wasn't concerned because the establishment stays open until 11 PM. So, when we returned from dinner, I went back to Chez Soap (my appellation) and found all but a pair of linen trousers neatly packed and ready to go. When I explained this deficiency, the proprietor made a couple of telephone calls, and then asked me to come with him. Now, don't tell my wife the rest of this story. I got on the back of his motor scooter without a helmet and rode through several approximately-paved back streets to the actual laundry. The women working there proudly held up my linen trousers, which could have sheltered several natives, and I was driven right to the hotel's front door on the friendly motor scooter. What could have been my last night anywhere, became just an interesting tale of my last night in Cambodia.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hong Kong

Because of my vacation, I have to ignore my usual boundaries, limited to lunches in lower Manhattan's Chinatown on weekdays. Please forgive me.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Our 15 1/4 hour flight was as comfortable as a 15 1/4 hour flight in coach can be. The plane was a 777, with the 270+ seats in coach, formatted 3-3-3, completely full. Passengers in first and business classes had individual pods which appeared able to sustain human life for at least one month. After reading, puzzling and sleeping on and off, I was able to watch Moneyball and three episodes of the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. While I enjoyed Moneyball as a movie, I take issue with some of its baseball ideas. The system that Billy Beane, a/k/a Brad Pitt, general manager of the Oakland A's, promoted only works, if it works, for veteran ballplayers, those who have spent enough time in the major leagues to provide a statistical base with predictive value. Prospects, rookies, young players haven't faced enough situations as batter, pitcher, fielder in the major leagues to assist a general manager in making meaningful decisions. By limiting its applicability to veteran ballplayers, the Moneyballer will build an older team that is likely to have a very short shelf life. While fans would be delighted by their team having success in the playoffs and the World Series, a sharp decline in performance soon thereafter will not be forgiven because of past glories. Also, Beane's own thwarted career, originally with the New York Mets, and some of the moves he made during Oakland's dramatic rag-to-riches season, portrayed in the movie, were rooted, not in statistics, but confidence. What sportswriters and fans usually call "heart." Beane was a high school phenom who busted out of baseball after a short, unproductive career, because, according to his confession in the movie, he lacked confidence, which defies algorithmic analysis. Finally, as many others have noted, Billy Beane is still waiting for a World Series.

We are staying in the Hotel Icon, in an area of countless malls, shopping arcades and plazas. It is architecturally distinguished, with a big square hole right in the middle. Our room is large and comfortable with some stunning design touches, including a deep soaking tub with a flat screen television mounted in front of it.

We went out for dinner around 6 PM, somewhat groggy from the flight and 13-hour time difference. The first two restaurants we entered, large and well-reputed, were entirely booked for wedding parties. This period right before New Year, the Year of the Dragon, is particularly propitious for weddings. We got into the Jade Terrace Restaurant, 67 Mody Road, Kowloon, which that ran about two blocks long, with one line of tables running end-to-end opposite a line of private dining rooms. Soon, the place started filling up with large family parties and groups of friends, or possibly revolutionary cabals. Jade Terrace was heavily staffed with captains, waiters, bus folk, but it lacked two things -- English and napkins. The menus carried straight-forward identification of dishes, but questions about contents, or anything else, seemed to echo hollowly regardless to whom they were directed. Every place setting at every table had those little wrapped, chemical-soaked hand wipes, but no regular napery. It took four requests, to four different waiters to get four napkins. Considering how some food required the legal use of hands, I was surprised that customers weren't hosed down at the end of the meal in the absence of something to clean up with. I later learned that this was customary and knowledgeable Hong Kong dinners brought their own napkins, tissues, wipes to handle the mess.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

We had the services of Ski Yeo, a professional guide, for six hours today. She is a lovely young woman, a graduate accountant from Singapore, who has lived in Hong Kong for four years. In spite of the murky weather, we walked and walked for hours, first taking the ferry over to Hong Kong Island, and then back to dense market-lined streets in Kowloon. We stopped for lunch at Lin Heung Kui, 40-50 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan (a locale on Hong Kong Island), one of the leading dim sum restaurants. It was packed at lunch time entirely with Chinese people except for one black man at a nearby table. Unable to hear his language or accent, I don't know what to put behind the hyphen after African-, if anything. The food was good, but no better than good New York dim sum. We had sticky buns with lotus paste and egg yolk, sticky buns with roast pork, shumai, pan-fried noodles with vegetables, rolled rice noodles with barbecued roast pork, and shrimp dumplings, which wasn't so much for five people, at atotal cost of 205 HKD, that is near $27.

Just a note to offer perspective on some of our meals. We are traveling with our stalwart companions, Jill and Steve, with whom we traveled to Italy in 2003 and China in 2008. Jill and Mayris, friends for 35 years, eat Kosher-style, that is, vegetables, noodles/pasta and fish, but not shellfish. Steve eats most everything, but does not like spicy food. I know no limits.

Being far from home did not dampen my piety, although walking hours through mist and drizzle today dampened almost everything else. We went to temple, Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong's oldest, although only dating back to the 1840s. In fact, very few structures around here evengo back 100 years. The temple was very crowded in this pre-yuntiff period. People were burning bunches of incense, provided free, and messages, express and symbolic, in tribute to their ancestors, seeking their goodwill, if not outright intervention in coming events. Adjoining rooms were covered with memorial plaques, either 2" (for the prosperous) or 4" wide (for the very prosperous), with the names and photos of ancestors who are thus honored and might consider returning the favor in matters of the heart or the wallet. Also, food, often oranges or apples, were brought to temple to capture the good spirits of ancestors and then taken home or work to do their magic. Very interesting.

The most unexpected sight on our tour today was not an artistic or patriotic endeavor, or a natural wonder. It resulted from the widespread use of Filipino domestic workers by well-off Hong Kongers, a surprisingly large segment of the population. These domestic workers get Sundays off; most were raised Roman Catholic. They seem to gather in large numbers on the northern edge of Hong Kong Island, near the ferry terminals to hang out with friends and family. However, they don't have much money and Hong Kong provides very few public spaces for anyone to rest and relax. So, bringing food, blankets, flattened cardboard boxes, computers, cards and games, and small music systems, they plop down on sidewalks, in the middle of streets, in passageways, and are left undisturbed by the authorities. In one area, in front of the headquarters of HSBC Bank, large clusters of Filipino domestics seemed to merge into a gathering of Occupy Hong Kong demonstrators.

Again, the restaurants near the hotel were jammed tonight and our first two choices were unavailable. So, we chanced upon Sze Chuen Lau Restaurant, 75 Mody Road, Kowloon, upstairs, a typical position for local restaurants. While we were the only non-Chinese patrons, several staff members spoke English and understood our need for napkins. We ordered chicken and corn soup (Steve only), eggplant with garlic sauce, sweet and sour boneless fish, prawns with chili sauce (all mine), and paper-wrapped chicken. While Steve preferred last night's crab meat and corn soup at Jade Terrace, all the other dishes were very well received. With one beer, a local favorite, strangely named San Miguel, and one diet Coke, the bill came to 605HKD, about $75. A winner.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jill and Steve visited an old fishing village on Lantau Island, a much less developed part of Hong Kong; imagine Staten Island to New York City, although the airport is on Lantau. Less energetic, my young bride and I visited shopping areas, notably Chinese Arts & Crafts, 3 Salisbury Road, Kowloon, a beautiful store with museum-quality antiques, jewelry, paintings, scrolls, sculpture and decorative items, very similar to Gump’s San Francisco, although I don’t recall Gump’s displaying a statue retailing for near $1 million, 7,000,000 HKD. We admired, but kept our hands in our pockets.

We made sure to make dinner reservations earlier in the day, before setting out on our separate paths. The concierge recommended Xiao Nan Guo Premier, One Peking Place, when we asked for a harbor view spot. It is on the 10th floor of a posh office building, about one block from the waterfront. It features six banquet dinners consisting of a dozen or so courses each, ranging from about $65 to $105 per person. We ordered à la carte, which seemed to present a problem to the staff, after a long initial delay in even getting their attention. We ordered among us, on a basic he-she divide, vegetable dumplings, special braised noodles, poached filet of grouper, tofu with vegetables, and a whole chicken stuffed with sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf. This meal would have been a failure without a 1068 HKD price tag. However, 44 or so high-rise buildings on both sides of the harbor are covered with light displays at night and, at 8 PM, they wink and blink and shoot off laser beams. Our table at the window at least provided an excellent view.

Hong Kong appears to have three significant socio-economic strata. Their top 1% amounts to 7%, the private automobile-owning population. Not just automobiles, but overwhelmingly BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis. On the low end, I saw some VW Jettas, but brand spanking new; at the other end of the bell curve were some Bentleys and Ferraris. These cars belonged to bankers, lawyers, industrialists, criminals (if you can distinguish them), and tutors. Yes, there is an elite corps of tutors, primarily for English language and British-style comprehensive exams, who advertise in the subways like rock stars.

Speaking of subways, which only means underground pedestrian passageways in any former British colony, the whole system is quite new, clean, comfortable and well-fitted out in equipment and amenities. Stations go on for blocks, filled with shopping arcades. Actually, I seemed to walk through the system as much as ride in it, especially when there was an interchange of lines. Switching trains made Fulton Street/Broadway-Nassau seem like a piece of cake, at least measured by distance, although Hong Kong presented fewer staircases to go up and down on your search for the connecting line.

Hong Kong's middle strata consists of merchants and their employees, civil servants, hotel operators and their managers, and other owners and managers in service industries. The third layer, invisible in the areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island that we visited, are farmers, mostly located in the New Territories, a large area between Kowloon and the Chinese border. The neighborhoods and habits of the first and second strata were easily identified by their archetypical retail establishments. The have-mosts were in and out of scores of jewelery stores featuring very expensive watches. The hangers-on support myriad sneaker stores, and I can only assume that the farmers try to buy time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

200 and Counting

Monday, January 9, 2012

Vivi Bubble Tea, 49 Bayard Street, is still another beverage shop that offers a small snack menu. It claims to have the best popcorn chicken around, available in five flavors, one portion for $3, two for $5. I had one portion of pepper salt popcorn chicken and a green tea slushie ($3). I enjoyed both for a modest lunch, although I am not prepared to elevate it above all others. Regardless of its culinary standing, Vivi is easily spotted on this very busy stretch of Bayard Street because of the slightly-larger-than-life fiberglass figure of Homer Simpson sitting in front.

Vivi also stands out as the 200th Asian restaurant/eating establishment that I have patronized in Chinatown over the last two years and one week, since I shifted to the New York County mother ship at 60 Centre Street. While I agree that that is cause for celebration, I must defer for now because of the busyness of this week as I prepare for our trip to Asia at the end of the week. In early February, after our return, I plan at least a moderate hoo-hah to mark this Bi-Centennial.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

With Hong Kong itself only days away, I thought it appropriate to go to Hong Kong Station, 45 Division Street, sister to the joint at 45 Bayard Street (August 10, 2010). Going further I ordered Hong Kong tea ($2) to go with my satay beef and egg rice ($3.95). The tea had milk, the way the Brits (former Imperial masters of Hong Kong) like it. I’m not going to say that it wasn’t my cup of tea. The rice dish was, although two or three bowls would be needed to make a Grandpa Alan-sized portion. The beef was spicy, sitting on top of a small mound of rice, crowned with a fried egg. You may also pick among the “tasty toppings,” such as beef pancreas, beef tripe, beef stomach, chicken gizzard, pig’s blood and pork intestines, to add to your choice of noodles (10 varieties). The toppings, including an array of familiar vegetables, cost $1.65 each, while the noodles average $2.50. Sauces are at no extra charge. I wonder if I’ll find good bagels in Hong Kong?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I returned to Bún Soho, 143 Grand Street (October 20, 2011) for two reasons. It is a Vietnamese restaurant. Bún means rice vermicelli in Vietnamese; there is no connection to the word bun, common at a dim sum joint. This lunch was part of my training for our trip to Asia. Also, I had a Restaurant.com $10 certificate for Bún Soho, costing $1. It had to be applied to a $20 minimum purchase, which I misread as $25. Therefore, I ordered Soho wings ($10), Bún Nem Lamb ($10) and Lucky Beer on draft ($5), a rare indulgence at lunch. The wings were deep-fried without breading, and bathed in a sticky sauce that felt and tasted like hot orange marmalade. I’ll pass on them next time. The lamb dish, by contrast, was quite good; it had lamb meatballs and fried spring rolls cut in half longitudinally on top of cold rice vermicelli. This should have been lunch by itself, although the beer was a pleasant addition and contributed to a benign afternoon.

Restaurant.com requires a 20% tip on the pre-discount amount, so my net cost was just over $22, plus the $1 certificate. A deal, but not a great deal.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

According to today’s New York Times, a special review board of the University of Connecticut has now produced a 60,000-page report about research irregularities in the laboratory of one of its researchers, whose work reported health benefits in red wine. The report’s allegations do not question the ultimate health benefits of red wine (mirabile dictu), but deal with certain peripheral issues. However, what drew my excited attention is the length of the report. 60,000 pages! “The complete Internal Revenue Code is more than 24 megabytes in length, and contains more than 3.4 million words; printed 60 lines to the page, it would fill more than 7500 letter-size pages.” http://www.fourmilab.ch/uscode/26usc/. Let’s not crowd things so much and assume 20 lines to a page, what a double-spaced word-processed document using a 12 point font would produce. That still takes up 22,500 pages, just over 1/3 of UConn’s report. Another standard for comparison is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest_novels, where we learn that War and Peace, in English translation has 561,093 words, lagging far behind Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, in seven volumes using about 1,500,000 words, and it ain’t even at the top of the list.

And, on a personal note, when my lovely bride and I drove back from visiting the next two generations in Massachusetts the time before last, we decided to stop for lunch along the way in Storrs, Connecticut, the home of the University of Connecticut, which enrolls over 17,000 undergraduates at that main campus. After driving down one woeful block finding only a slight cluster of unattractive fast food joints, we were quickly out of alternatives, so we pressed on to a wretched pizzeria 20 miles closer to Hartford. As the ever astute Dean Alfange later commented, "there are no stores in Storrs."

NYTimes.com posted the following headline at 11:51 AM which stumped Grandpa Alan:
"Injured Wales Hooker Burns to Miss Six Nations"

To prepare for our trip this weekend, I've eaten Hong Kong food (sort of) and Vietnamese food. However, it seems that there are only two Cambodian restaurants on the isle of Manhattan, the nearest one to the courthouse, Num Pang Sandwich Shop at 21 East 12th Street, would be right around the corner from Cardozo Law School. The lunch hour is not elastic enough to permit me to go there, and it is unarguably a Greenwich Village location, a designation that is not likely to be rebranded as Chinatown. So, I settled for one of the tried and true, Wo Hop downstairs at 17 Mott Street, and a plate of beef chow fun. A very satisfying experience.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Up, up and away, Cathay Pacific Airlines to Hong Kong.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What a Year Already

Monday, January 2, 2012

Well, well, well, what a weekend. The New York Giants defeated Texas’ eighth favorite team, after the basketball Mavericks, the baseball Rangers, the football Texans, the baseball Astros, the hockey Stars, the basketball Spurs, and the execution squad at the Huntsville Texas State Penitentiary, to get into the playoffs. Then, today, the New York Rangers, coming from 2 goals behind, beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the Winter Classic, the outdoor game played before about 46,000 fans in Philadelphia. I am euphoric, but I must regard the possibility that this is as good as it gets.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I intended to start this third year in the courthouse at 60 Centre Street and in the heart of my readers at a new restaurant; I actually spotted at least two options last week. However, David Brodie, the distinguished London solicitor, is in New York for a brief stopover. He is traveling with the lovely Katherine Walker Brodie, who was always too energetic to be merely a lady-in-waiting. When visiting the Brodies in London, I have had the pleasure of escorting them to Soho, London’s Chinatown, for good eats. Growing up Gentile, they were denied the pleasure of dining on Chinese food for several decades, an unfortunate lapse that I hope to help them overcome in the days remaining to me.

David and I went to Dim Sum Go Go, 5 East Broadway, a necessary stop on any visit to Chinatown. It eschews carts, because of the limited space it occupies, but whatever you order from its dim sum list (I’ve had less success with its regular dishes) is superb. I could only indulge myself to a point, though, because the upper West Side’s Power Couple are dining with the Brothers Poloner and companions tonight, about which more tomorrow. We ordered the assorted dim sum platter, 11 different sizes, shapes, colors and contents, and three-piece plates of duck dumplings, spinach dumplings, crab meat dumplings and baked roast pork buns. This amounted to about $25, before tax and tip, for excellent food. The company was, of course, priceless.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Iowa Republican caucus results are in with My Man Mitt soaring to an 8 vote victory over Rick Santorum. MMM’s vote total of 30,015 showed a vast improvement over the 29,949 votes that he won in the 2008 Iowa Republican caucus. Statistically, and you know how much I love percentages, he actually declined as the People’s Choice from 25.2 % in 2008 to 24.6 % in 2012. My favorite quote, however, did not come from any of the closely-bunched leading candidates, but from straight shootin’ Rick Perry, who came in fifth with 10.3 % of the vote. Rick said afterwards, "This campaign has never been about me." Certainly, the Iowa Republican caucusoids agreed.

The Brothers Poloner, their vivacious sister, Aunt Judi, friend Pearl and your humble scrivener dined at Etc Steakhouse, 1409 Palisade Avenue, Teaneck, New Jersey, last night, a Kosher restaurant that is not a sorry after-thought compared to its non-sectarian competitors. Mind you, if you are not concerned about the response of a wrathful deity, I would not forgo a visit to the Palm or Smith & Wollensky in order to head out to Etc, but if Kosher is important to you or your dining companions, and you have the papers that allow you into New Jersey, I would recommend a visit. Given the pricing at most (all) New York steakhouses, the economic premium usually associated with Kosher dining really seemed to disappear. Of course, the off-off-off-off Broadway location has a lot to do with it. Another significant cost factor was Etc’s BYOB policy, restricted to Kosher wine. Each couple brought one bottle last night, a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon blanc and a Cabernet Sauvignon, retailing at about $20 per bottle. Since restaurants mark up wines at two to three times retail, we probably saved about $90 for a particularly good selection of wines.

The food itself was good, with some imaginative menu items. I had goose-stuffed tacos as an appetizer; other choices included sweetbreads, risotto with duck, and BBQ oxtail (averaging $15). We all ordered steak, rib steak and rib eye predominating ($37 and $36 respectively). So, my Kosher friends, get out your GPS and head to Etc if you have fleishigs on your mind.

Oh Two Five, 43 Bayard Street, is one of several small beverage shops which have added snacks, called nibblers at Oh Two Five. It has two small round tables and four large black, hard plastic chairs shaped like a human hand. It offers 11 items on a skewer, including cuttlefish balls, beef balls and mini hot dogs, for $1. It also offers cups of noodles for $2 and has a special of $3 for any 2 skewers and a cup of noodles. A sauce comes with any skewer, choice of soy, oyster, peanut, ketchup, spicy mayo and the provocatively-named kRAC sauce. I had fish balls and shrimp balls, five each on a skewer, no more than 1" in diameter, with soy sauce and peanut sauce that I dipped into randomly. In addition, I drank a champagne grape slushie ($2.75), even though it was bone-chilling cold outside. How cold was it? It was so cold that there were only 4 card games and one Xiangqi game going on in Columbus Park, a low attendance mark usually resulting from a hurricane or blizzard. Today, it was 15° temperatures that depopulated the Park.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

I have passed Sun Café, 67 Reade Street, countless times because it is on the direct route from the courthouse to the Chambers Street subway station. However, I have never entered until today, mainly because that section of Reade Street has been undergoing construction of new residential buildings for years and scaffolding and building supplies piled on the sidewalk have pushed me to the other side of the street or a rapid pace going by. Inside, there is no suggestion of a construction site, although the lighting is unnecessarily dim at lunch time when my typical companion is a crossword puzzle. The room is long and narrow, about 1/3 taken by the sushi bar (without seating), other prep space and the cash register along one wall. The remaining space contains about 30 square tables for two, pushed together in places for larger groups.

The menu has a list of luncheon specials, hot food and sushi. I ordered three rolls, spicy tuna, salmon skin and yellowtail, with miso soup ($12). Everything was better than good. The rolls were each between 6" and 8" long, cut into eight pieces. Service was very quick, considering the near-full occupancy of the restaurant. Hot tea was poured efficiently when I ran low. I can only speculate what impact the eventual return of daylight and clear sidewalks will have on Sun, since it draws crowds now as a result of the good food alone.

On the subway ride home, I saw the Wall Street Journal’s election headline: “A Big Win for Romney in Iowa.” It gave me pause. 8 votes out of 120,000 cast = A Big Win. This presents a calibration problem. If 8 is Big, what’s 11? What if My Man Mitt won by 10,935, the number of votes that Mike Huckabee beat him by in 2008? Would the Wall Street Journal have an adjective for that? Then, I realized that the Wall Street Journal, the voice of the 1%, has moved into the realm of StarbuckSpeak that allows for nothing small or insignificant. Can we expect an op-ed explaining Newt Gingrich’s decline from “venti” to “grande”? Is Rick Santorum on the way to “trenta,” only recently stuck on “tall”? Is this a great country or what?

Friday, January 6, 2012

We’re off to spend the weekend with our little frappucinni, Boaz and Noam. It’s a great way to end the first week of the year.