Thought you might appreciate this man's stories.
He has many stories about present day Vietnam and events that take place in Vietnam.
This story is true, long and only Part 1.
I've noticed over the many years of moving around that you hit a psychological wall after making a major change in latitude and longitude. Just about the time the new and the fascinating has taken on a degree of normalcy some event happens that changes your attitude. I usually transition from being enamored about the new and the interesting to wondering what the hell I'm doing here after around three months. It never fails. I hit my wall as predicted a little over two weeks ago as I knew I would. I didn't know the wall was going to pop up so suddenly and be so costly.
My wife's mother has been flirting with death from cirrhosis of the liver for over six months. The Vietnamese doctors wrote her off then and sent her home to die. A Western style clinic run by an Aussie outfit gave her an examination and informed us her condition could be managed, somewhat. Within a few days of making my permanent move to Da Nang she started bleeding internally and was in the hospital when I arrived. After the bleeding was stopped the hospital staff told us of a specialist in the city of Hue who performed endoscopic surgery on aneurisms. My wife took her to Hue, had the surgery and came home but within two weeks had a recurrence. After another round in the Da Nang Hospital Number 2 we decided to take her back to Hue for a warranty repair.
The night of the day my wife and her mother returned to Hue, I decided to open the second floor of our house to catch the cooling breeze. I wanted to sleep without the droning air conditioner to which my wife has become addicted. I opened the door to the balcony facing the street and leaned the 5 foot long folded step ladder against it. The balcony is only as wide as the doorway. I pushed open three small bedroom windows that opened to the central stairway in the interior of the house to create some kind of air flow. The door at the back of the house was always open because it had a chain link fence across the whole opening to the alley below.
My dog settled into her spot on the cool tile floor of the bedroom as I turned the pedestal fan on low. In case someone comes to the door in the morning and I have to dash, I placed some shorts I could jump into next to the pillow on the edge of the mattress. In truth, I was really expecting to sleep-in, so I took the portable phone and placed it on the shorts. I distinctly remember placing my keys and wallet next to the phone.
I can't say I had a good night's sleep but it wasn't bad either. I do remember waking up a few times and rolling over but this is nothing out of the ordinary. In the morning I got up and went downstairs to boot up my laptop to check email. At the bottom of the stairs I placed the phone back in its cradle and then turned left into the hall and left again into the first floor bedroom now used as an office. There on the desk where my laptop was placed was now an empty space. The USB cable to my DSL modem and the connector on the end of the power cord hung in space where they had been connected. I stared at the desk surface for a full second. The cognitive dissonance plunged me into confusion. I looked around the room quickly for the computer also knowing I hadn't moved it in weeks.
I realized it had been stolen but also couldn't believe it. I stepped out of the room and looked to the front door expecting it to be ajar. I could see both the latch and the lock bolts through the space between the doors. Then the phone rang.
Thu An was checking in. She asked me if everything was ok and if I had eaten. I could only say no, not OK. She asked me something in response to my, no, not ok, but I could only ask her to wait a second. I went for my dictionary that was on the kitchen table and quickly looked up 'robbery'. I tried to speak a coherent Vietnamese sentence with the important word robbery in the best place. I'm pretty sure she asked me what I was talking about so I said the computer was gone. This set her off and she started talking pretty fast and asking me a lot of questions. The only one I could understand was whether she should come back from Hue. I told her I was going to the police to report it but I didn't need her to do this for me. I told her she should stay with her mother. After a few more exchanges we were done and I hung up the phone.
I realized I really did have to go to the police so I had better get dressed and presentable. I went back upstairs. At the top of the stairs I noticed the open balcony door down the end of the hall. The ladder was still propped against it holding it open. The sensation of being really stupid swept over me. Back in the bedroom, I couldn't find my wallet. I looked around the base of the bed, between the mattress and the headboard and between the mattress and the side board. I was sure I had placed the wallet on the bed with the phone and the keys. I looked again. I picked up the corner of the mattress and peered down through the wooden slats to the bare floor.
I now doubted what I had really done. My actions of the previous night started to blur into all the other times I had ever gotten ready for bed. I went downstairs to check all the other places I had ever placed my wallet. The kitchen table only had my dictionary on it but I went to it anyway and looked over the whole surface as if the wallet may have shrunk or fallen into some hole and was somehow overlooked. My dog came downstairs and settled down on the floor next to the wall. I looked at my dog and wondered why she didn't wake up to the intruder. Tips, my old Lab, who barks at every outside noise just stretched her forelegs out, set her head on them, gave a little snort and closed her eyes.
I sometimes placed my wallet on my desk. I went back into the office and confronted the empty space on my desk again. I felt sick. There was no wallet on my desk. My passport was still there but I now noticed my camera was also gone. The room had in it a number of partially emptied shipping boxes and the desk drawers were unlocked. I looked through all the top boxes and my desk drawers and realized everything else was undisturbed.
Faced with the reality my wallet was ripped I quickly did a mental inventory. The images of one million Vietnamese Dong in 100,000 Dong notes, three credit cards, a Vietcombank ATM card, my California drivers license, a bank business card with all my bank account numbers, a photocopy of Thu An's ID card and a bunch of notes quickly flipped through my mind like a deck of cards being shuffled upside down. Now I was filled with a sense of urgency to take action. I had no money and no way of accessing money until the bank was open. I had to block the ATM card immediately and then get the telephone numbers for the credit cards companies. I picked up my passport which had a copy of my marriage certificate and my arrival departure document in it. I at least had some ID and could prove that I wasn't just a hapless tourist. I placed it quickly in my pants pocket as if it would disappear if I turned my back on it one more time. I found a recent withdrawal statement which had my new address and account number that was stamped off by a bank official. Now I could prove where I lived. With these, I felt comfortable about leaving the house and headed for the bank. By the time I would arrive there it would be 7:30 AM and opening for business.
On the way to the bank my mind flipped between trying to understand what had happened with what I needed to do. I couldn't believe someone had climbed up to the second floor balcony, silently went downstairs, took my computer and camera, snagged my wallet from wherever I had placed it and then left without waking the dog. I then realized this person may have come into my bedroom for the wallet. I just couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe how he would know where to look. I couldn't believe how he could see a wallet in the dark bedroom, next to my head and then come in and take it. I couldn't believe Tips slept through all this. I couldn't believe the audacity of the guy. I couldn't believe he was that good. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to have slept through it. I could have woken up dead.
At the bank we found there was no activity with the ATM card. I withdrew some cash and headed back to the house. Back in the neighborhood, I stopped at the internet cafe to open the websites of my credit card companies. With their phone numbers I went home to make calls. I made one more pass around the house just in case in my confusion I missed the wallet. I went to the balcony. The balcony floor had a layer of dust on it. There in the dust were two fresh small footprints. One coming in and one going out. I put my foot next to the one going out and made a third impression. Mine was bigger and the toe pattern more squared off. I still couldn't believe it but it was certainly starting to become real. The intruder's foot prints were just as fresh as mine. I knew they were his and not Thu An's. I had taken her to the bus station 24 hours earlier.
While calling the last credit card provider, Thu An's young cousin Thang and his friend Viet showed up. At first I thought it a coincidence but then realized Thu An probably rousted them up to see what was going on. A made a quick reference to Thu An and pointed to the telephone. Their smiles and nods confirmed they were here to investigate and, if necessary, help. I told them I needed to go to the Cong An, the police.
We three got on Thang's motorbike and rode the block and a half to the Cong An shop. I was happy the guys were with me because I really had no idea how I was going to do this alone. Thu An and I had been there only a couple of days ago during the driver's license application process. We had spent a couple of hours there while she schmoozed the district police into testifying on paper I was a bona fide resident of the ward. We sat down at the table and the boys started talking to the duty officer. Then I felt this presence to my left and behind. I turned and there to my astonishment was Thu An.
part 2 to follow.
Thu An stood there to my left and looked down at me. It wasn't that "Hi Honey, I'm home" look. It was more of an examination of my face. It was that damage assessment look. The one an insurance adjuster makes when he's trying to find the damage you are claiming. I gave her a weak half smile and a wink. Thu An was supposed to be in Hue with her mother but she obviously decided sitting on her fists in a hosptial far from home wasn't going to work for her. She seemed satisfied with what she saw and then took over for the boys. By now, we had three police officers in the room. Thu An started by making sure the Cong An, the district police, new exactly what our status was, where we lived and that my presence at the place of the crime was legitimate. I gave her as much information in whatever you want to call the language we normally converse in and she filled in the blanks. I told her the computer was worth two grand and not available in Vietnam. Two grand is more than the average citizen makes in a year. When the Cong An heard that they realized they had a real capital crime on their hands and went to look for paper.
With a piece of folded paper which had staple holes in the center fold and a pen, the lead guy started making a report. Thu An talked and he wrote. From time to time she would ask me a question or I would understand what she was talking about and give her a quick comment. After a half an hour or so, it was time to visit the crime scene.
Thu An stepped into the house for the first time since leaving for Hue. She looked into the office and at the empty desk top and saw the wires hanging in space. I watched the realization of the fact sweep across her face. I gave her a quick run down of what I had done the night before and as best as possible, retraced my steps for her. We went upstairs to the balcony. The ladder was just where I left it. We kneeled down and looked at the footprints. I explained to her which one was mine.
Within a few minutes two motorbikes with the three police arrived. We met them outside and pointed up to the balcony. The police wear a bright green uniform that easily attracts your eye. They immediately drew the attention of our neighbors and random passers-by who normally wouldn't see Cong An walking on these streets. The neighbors quickly learned about the robbery and started muttering and looking over their own houses. The police walked into the house and got the tour from Thu An, office to footprints. The footprints were still clear but were already getting covered with the new day's dust.
We sat down at the dinning room table. The police officer in charge of the investigation took a few more notes between tugs on a cigarrete. Someone served cold water and Coca Colas. I watched them go over the story with Thu An. They seemed to be interested and being kind of diligent. I was hoping these guys could get the computer back for me. That's all I wanted.
With the cigarettes smoked and the Cokes drunk they all got up, shook my hand and headed on out the door. Thu An closed the door behind them, locked it and settled into one of the dinning room chairs. She and Thang and then Viet talked for some time. I asked her how she got back to Da Nang so fast. She told me the new Hai Van Tunnel cut almost an hour off the bus route. She also told me her mother had told her her duty was to be with her husband in this situation, to get her little butt down here and make sure everything was alright. Or someting to that affect.
Around 11AM the phone rang. The Cong An named Vinh, the investigator assigned to me, said he would be back at 2PM. I went upstairs and made a little canopy over the footprints with the ladder and a blanket. For some reason I thought those footprints were important. It was the only evidence I had that someone came into the house. After that, with nothing left to do, it was nap time.
Around 3PM, Cong An Vinh, another policeman and a guy in civies showed up. The guy in civies had a black, high-impact plastic, equipment case. It was big enough to hold three of my 17" laptops stacked one on top of the other. They went into the office and he openned the case on the chair. In it was a small bottle of fingerprint powder, a small brush and a few other little things that looked like crime scene aids. Mostly though, the case only contained empty space. He dusted the USB and power plug connectors. He looked them over and then dusted the desk around the area where the laptop used to live.
He took my flashlight and shined it around, seeking the best angle. If there were prints, I couldn't tell and he had nothing to lift them with anyway. I showed them a small plastic credit card sized Reference Card from the US Office of Personnel Mangement. I explained to Thu An that this card had been leaning against the laptop screen and that I had found it outside on the fence when I had returned from the bank. I told her that it appeared to have been purposefully placed across the square tube bar because of the way it was exactly centered. I assumed it was placed there by the thief and it probably had usable prints on it. Thu An acknowledged seeing this card on my computer as I described it and rattled something quickly to the police. I picked it up by the edges and handed it to the crime scene guy. He took it by the edges and looked it over. He tilted it to get a little reflection off it and then put it back down on the desk. He didn't try to resolve a print from it.
Upstairs on the balcony, the crime scene guy pulled a couple of little paper measuring scales out of his box and laid them on the deck next to the footprints. He laid one horizontally and the other vertically near the footprints. Then he asked us for a camera. I went to my electric motor scooter and pulled my old 35MM snap shooter from under the seat. I had already taken a few shots of the footprints with it. He took a couple more and then asked Thu An if we would get them developed for him. I was not impressed by this but went along with the program. I said sure.
The police all sat down at the dinning room table again. Everyone started smoking. The crime scene guy pulled the foil paper liner from out of his cigarette box. He turned the foil side around and put it on the table and pressed it flat with the paper side up. He picked up a pen, said a few things to his colleagues and made a few notes on it. He appeared to think of something and made a few more notes. Then he folded it up and stuck it in his shirt pocket. With this, I was no longer amused. I was getting the feeling these guys had no idea what they were doing, were not in any way prepared or, more cynically, that this was all for show. These guys were not going to solve anything. They had no intention of solving anything. They might know who the neighborhood thieves were but the weren't going to solve anything. They came over to the house because we expected them to do something. This was an exercise, something to do to save face.
They continued to smoke in silence. They never looked up or engaged any of us. They never said another word. We stood around them in a circle and watched them do nothing at the dining room table. The silence was getting to the crime scene guy who was becoming a little antsy. He started making little twitching motions with his face at the policeman sitting across the table from him. He looked like a kid that needed to go to the bathroom. Vinh tried to ingore him for a few more seconds. Then with a nod from Vinh, they stood up, said their goodbyes to Thu An and me and somberly walked on out the door.
I was really disappointed but I have to give them some credit. They gave me a whole lot more face time than the Moraga Police. They came to my house to investigate some vandalism performed on my BMW. They admitted to me they were there only to provide a police report for my insurance company. These guys were probably going through the same ritual.
After a week of feeling victimized, moping around the house and watching too much TV, I realized I was getting way behind on things I needed to do. I went out and started shopping for a locally assembled computer and a cheap printer. I figured no-one in their right mind would waltz into a house for a Vietnamese computer, especially a desk top. I found the best one for my purposes and plopped down the money.
Then I waited a few days, as patiently as possible, for delivery. Two young guys who seemed overjoyed to be let out of the shop, came over with it and set it up. They were all over it, unfolding the monitor, setting up the speakers, hooking up the cables and then proudly printed up a test page. I nodded, made them accept a small tip and then quickly walked them out to the door. I didn't want anyone else pausing to look around the house.
Within half an hour, I noticed it was running real slow and getting pop-ups for anti-spyware programs. Then it locked up. I tried to run Task Manager to no avail. I rebooted it, did the scandisk routine and tried to figure out what was going on with it. There was a huge amount of stuff installed and it was all in the start menu. For example there were three audio programs loading at the same time on start up. I cleared out as much as I could and maxed out the virtual memory. It continued to crash. I was fuming but it had a one year warranty. I showed Thu An how it would lock up. Then, I thrust the computer company's paperwork in front of her, pointed to their telephone number and said, call these guys. Now. Please.
The go fetch it / warranty repair kid came over. Thu An gave him a stream of observations and walked him onto the office. I left him alone with it for about fifteen minutes. With an expression of victory on his young face, he looked up at me and reported he had found and removed a virus. A vi-rut. It sounded plausable to me. Then he told me the virus software hadn't been updated for a long time but he had fixed that too. I reminded him the computer was only one day old. He nodded his head still grinning. He watched me open and close a few things and we agreed it appeared to be running like it should. With a smile and a tip, Thu An escorted him to the door.
I immediately got a pop-up ad for spyware again. Within an hour, it crashed. It would run a few minutes, start getting doggy and then freeze. I tried to get a few things accomplished with it between shutting it off and rebooting it but eventually, I ground to a halt. I was soooo pissed. I couldn't believe these guys would sell me a computer with a corrupted version of Windows XP, viruses and spyware in it. Then again, I couldn't believe someone would sneak into my house in the middle of the night and steal my laptop. I just couldn't believe any of it. They advertised themselves as an ISO 9001:2001 company. I didn't believe that crap either. I wanted to talk to their lead auditor. No, I wanted to find the lead auditor and put my hands around his throat. I knew no-one that had a clue had tested this machine. I realized no-one had tested it except to boot it up and shut it down. They had only given it a smoke test.
I sat there, in my hot office and stared at the frozen mouse arrow in the click box. My thoughts turned away from the screen before me. I needed something dramatic to break this spell of powerlessness. I visualized myself taking the computer back to the company. I saw myself throwing it down on the showroom floor in front of the sales girls. I smashed it into a million pieces with a sledge hammer.
Chips and bits and bytes and whatever else was inside that terrible machine flew all over the room after each sickening smash of the hammer. I knew they were terrified by the crazy foreigner and horrified by the violence but I needed to show them what can happen when they sell a piece of shit to someone who wont just sit there and take it. I wanted to let them know I wasn't going to take it; not any of it. I wanted to let them all know I wasn't going to accept being a vicitm. I also knew, after all the tiny pieces finally came to rest on the showroom floor, and the sounds of smashed sheetmetal and electronic cards were finally absorbed by the cement and brick walls, they would only blame me for losing my temper. They would only blame me for shattering the lazy tranquility of the hot Vietnamese morning. There would be no understanding or sympathy for these crimes. I brought down the box.
Thu An popped her head into the office to see if I was still happy. I told her gently that the computer was still bad and to please call the guy again, in the morning. He came over the next day. I told him I thought Windows was corrupted and I wanted him to reload it. He looked painfully at the monitor, rubbing the tiny stubble on his narrow chin. I picked up an old battered envelope I was now using as a storage place for cash, slowly folded it and put it in my pants pocket and left him alone in my office.
I went back in after 15 minutes or so. He was scanning the drives with a Kaspersky Virus Program. Lo and behold, there in the growing directory were viruses all over everything. I laughed and pointed out to him that these were the programs his company had installed. He said he needed to take it back with him overnight. I said "No shit, Sherlock!" and pointed to the box. I'm sure he didn't know who Sherlock was but he knew what I meant. The next day, yesterday actually, he returned. I could tell by the loss of My Favorites and everything gone from the My Documents Folder, it had a fresh Windows installation. I ran a scan with an updated Nortons.
So far so good.
Greetings from Vietnam. This past week I visited some old and historic locations near the old Demilitarized Zone. First by going to Dong Ha by train, an adventure in itself, and then to Lao Bao by rented vehicle.
We were doing 60 miles an hour in the 97 Mazda 626. That doesn't mean much except for the fact this was on Route 9, within artillery range of the misnamed Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ. Cam Lo, The Rockpile and Dong Ha were falling fast behind. Ahead was the Khe Sanh Combat Base, Lang Vei Special Forces Camp and Lao Bao on the Loatian border. We were doing 60 and it was getting late and raining. I was told the road between the old Lang Vei Special Forces Camp and the border could still be under reconstruction and uncertain so we needed to make tracks before nightfall. Even so, at this speed we would cross the 40 kilometers to the border in less than an hour.
Although this new Route 9 was wide and smooth, doing 60 around the hills was a little unnerving. There was bicycle and motorbike traffic as well as ancient Mitsubishi busses running down the middle of the road. These were loaded to the gunwales with hills tribes people and freight. There were also lazy dogs taking their sweet time crossing the road and when near Bru settlements, goats, little goats. The road wasn't striped yet and these different hazards were around every turn. Stripes in Vietnam don't mean much anyway. To our driver, it was just another day at the office. For me, it was intermittent searching for the under utilized seatbelts between gazing at the spectacular scenery of the Central Vietnamese mountains.
The names of the places on this road were locations of life and death struggles for some of the members of my generation of American youth. They were the mysterious names of the nightly news that became synonymous with vicious death. They were also the grave yards for some of the 300,000 Vietnamese Missing In Action, MIAs. As I looked around, I came away with the sense that whoever sent us to places like this, had obviously never been here before either.
My friend Dale Lewis was in the back seat with his Vietnamese wife Huong. He was nursing an injured knee from a motorbike accident of the previous week. He has been to these hills many times before looking for MIA sites and was calling out the notorious locations to me as we sped by. I was excited to be finally on my way to visit Khe Sanh. First though, we had to get to the town of Lao Bao, the border crossing into Laos and find a place to spend the night.
The road quickly turned to dirt or pot holes in old asphalt, it was impossible to know which. The new but not quite finished bridge over the Thach Han River created more problems. We were forced to go around the bridge pilings to get to the old bridge. Next to these were hungry looking pools of water that seemed to be waiting for a Mazda meal. We wallowed through them, crossed the old bridge and then began the climb up to the village of Khe Sanh.
Not far after blowing through the site of the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp was Co Roc. Co Roc is a rock wall ridge on the Laotian side of the border. I had never seen it before but recognized it immediately by its verticle wall that disappeared into the rainy mist above. On or behind this mountain the NVA postioned artillery to pound Khe Sanh during the seige. In the middle of the road that led into the center of Lao Bao was a stuck logging truck. The ancient Russian tractor and its load of Laotian teak logs, some of them at least four feet in diameter, blocked our way. It was stuck on a short incline just within inches of its goal of the level surface of Highway 9. The truck driver was burning his clutch trying to inch the massive load over the threshold to the level part of the highway. He was running out of clutch faster than inches. A number of curious bystanders all giving suggestions to the hapless driver also cluttered the street. Our driver sized up the situation on either side and made his move to the right and then on into Lao bao.
Lao Bao seems to be under construction. Streets are in the process of being built and there are a few new hotels near a Khmer decorated shopping mall. There were also a lot of empty lots on new side streets. The hotel we stopped at first, the best place in town, wanted $55 a night. Although it was too much for our tastes it told us one important fact; the MIA Task Force was in town. Their presence was inflating the room rates to the US per diem rate. It was a lot of money for spending the night in a place with no other obvious attributes.
Across the narrow town was the sign of the Thien Nga Hotel. We decided to give it a try. The folks inside jumped up out of their slumber and acted like they hadn't had a guest in this decade. Huong said it was $10 a night. I realized at this rate I wouldn't have to share my room with the driver. We closed the deal and signed the small guest info cards. The manager and his son took our passports and filled in the blanks. The rooms were the typical basic with hot water and TV.
After a dinner of pho nearby we settled back into the hotel for the night. There was an internet cafe 300 meters down the street they said but it was a street of mud. I briefly studied the cow sitting in the middle of the street and declined. The TV in the room had four channels, two Vietnamese, one Thai and the fourth Indonesian. The Thai had movies but the Indonesian had a series of really weird game shows. I needed to tell my wife I was alive and dry but there was no phone in the room. I went back down to the reception desk and tried to call home with the fax machine. It was 830PM and with no answer at home, I decided to hang around in the reception room with the hotel owner's wife and two other women watching TV until I could get through.
A limited conversation started with me answering all the standard questions. Then the wife pointed to the youngest woman who was watching TV. She must have been in her early 20's but it's always hard to tell here. The wife put her hands up to the right side of her head and tilted her head over to pantomime going to sleep. She silently made the word NGU which means sleep and pointed to me and then back to the girl. It took her a couple more tries before I realized what she was driving at. I just shook my head no and pointed to my wedding ring. The wife did it again and I laughed and said no.
I tried calling home again with no success. The wife went through the 'sleep with my young sister' routine again. I told the wife no one more time and pointed with a jabbing motion to her friend sitting next to her. Her friend must have been in her late forties and was clearly enjoying me squirm out of this. Her friend started laughing and said she was DAU for ugly. I said no DEP, beautiful. The wife pointed to the girl one more time and I pointed to her friend one more time. Everyone except the girl was giggling and laughing.