Mai Chau And The Noodle Bowl Of Goodness

IMG_3817After walking through the Arts Festival yesterday, the Bus-Riding Conservative, the Unkempt Guy and I decided to hoof it over to the nearby Dinin’ Hall for lunch.  The UG had never been there, and the BRC and I decided it was high time to introduce him to the wonders of this cool Franklinton dining option.

I’m glad we stopped by, because I discovered a new and terrific Columbus food truck — Mai Chau – Eat Viet.  I decided to try the Noodle Bowl, and for $8 I was treated to a heaping bowl of vermicelli noodles, pulled pork, bean sprouts, cucumber slices, pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, crushed peanuts, and fish sauce.  It was succulent — crunchy, delicately flavored, and filling, to boot — and I ate every bit of it.

I thought Mai Chau might be a bit of Vietnamese wordplay — a food truck with a name pronounced “my chow”? — but a little research shows that there is a region of north Vietnam called the Mai Chau Valley.  I don’t know if the proprietor of the food truck hails from there, but I hope he sticks around Columbus and becomes a regular part of the Dinin’ Hall rotation.

The Web’s “Bad Neighborhoods”

Every city has a “bad neighborhood” — a squalid, dark, depressed area where sullen people are roaming the streets and the unwary stranger can easily be the victim of crime.  It turns out that the internet is the same way.

A Dutch researcher tried to determine if there are patterns to the generation of malicious email used in spam, phishing, and other fraudulent scams.  It was a huge task, because there are more than 42,000 internet service providers worldwide.  The researcher found, surprisingly, that about half of the malicious email that is the bane of modern electronic communications comes from just 20 of the 42,201 internet service providers.  The worst “bad neighborhood” was in Nigeria, where 62 percent of the addresses controlled by one network were found to be sending out spam.  Other cyberspace skid rows were found in India, Brazil, and Vietnam.

The hope is that the study will allow internet security providers to better understand the sources of malicious email and further refine filters to try to block the efforts of spammers and fraudsters.  It’s a worthy goal, but I’m not holding my breath.  There have always been people who would rather hoodwink people than earn an honest living, and the internet has provided them with a vast new arena in which to ply their criminal trade.  If they can’t use that “bad neighborhood” in Africa, they’ll just find another “bad neighborhood” somewhere else.

Back In The U.S.A.

I’m pleased to report that Russell has returned to the United States from his trip to Vietnam, safe and sound and no doubt enriched — personally, culturally, and artistically — by the experience.  For now, however, he may be mostly glad to get back to the land of serious air conditioning.  In recognition of that likely fact, I offer Russell the following amazing performance of Back In The U.S.A. by Chuck Berry and Linda Ronstadt, with a wicked guitar solo from Keith Richards tossed in:

Last Stop, Hanoi

Russell’s time in Vietnam (on this trip, at least) is rapidly drawing to a close.  Tomorrow he flies from Hanoi back to the States.

Hanoi conjures up interesting images for people who are in the 50-something age range.  We think of Jane Fonda, the “Hanoi Hilton,” and other Vietnam War images that are decades out of date.  Now, there is an honest-to-God Hanoi Hilton — that is, a hotel operated in Hanoi by the Hilton Corporation.  It is called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel and boasts of being designated Vietnam’s top hotel for five years running.

The current Hanoi Hilton

The meaning of “Hanoi Hilton” is not the only thing that has changed in the 30-plus years since the pointless Vietnam War drew to a close.  The United States now has an embassy in Vietnam, and the embassy website speaks to how much the relationship has changed since the depressing images of overloaded helicopters taking off from the United States Embassy were seared into the American consciousness.  Today, the United States is Vietnam’s largest export market and third-largest overall trading partner;  in 2009 trade between the two countries exceeded $15 billion.  13,000 Vietnamese citizens study in the United States, and the U.S. recently commemorated 15 years of “normalized” relations with Vietnam.

What does this mean?  I think it means that Russell made a very good choice in his decision to select Vietnam as a place to visit, thanks to the generous Weitzel-Barber grant program.  It is a country in transition, where the “War Remnants Museum” in Ho Chi Minh City stands cheek-by-jowl with beachfront resorts and tailor shops creating handmade suits.  It is a land rapidly emerging from the shadow of a terrible war that will always evoke disturbing images among Vietnamese and Americans of a certain age — but it also is a testament to how time and effort can change strongly rooted perception.  For Russell, who never watched the flickering images of bloody combat on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, Vietnam will always be a place defined, for good or ill, largely by his weeks of travel during the summer of 2010.  He bears an accurate, first-hand perception of this exotic country half a world away; my understanding, on the other hand, is warped by out-of-date perceptions that no more reflect current reality than Laugh-In reflects current television programming.

This is why travel, and having the essential first-hand experiences, is so important.  I am eager to see Russell and hear what he has to say about his weeks of travel in a foreign land.

Hotter Than Hue

Russell’s Vietnam expedition is winding down.  After leaving Hoi An — where he indeed bought one of the hand-tailored suits for which that town is well-known — he traveled to Hue.  He reports that Hue is an attractive city, but that the temperature seems to increase as he travels north.  The air is wet and humid and it is already brutally hot, so every degree of increased temperature makes the travel less pleasant.

Hue has an interesting history.  Centuries ago, it was the capital of a feudal dynasty, and the architecture from that period located within the city’s Citadel has made Hue a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Hue also features pagodas, mausoleums, and buildings from the French colonial period.  The city was located close to the border of North and South Vietnam and was the scene of intense fighting during the Vietnam War, including battles during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  Hue occupies both banks of the Perfume River (and you wonder whether that name is appropriate) and is one of the wettest cities in Vietnam, with average annual rainfall of 120 inches. July tends to be the driest, but hottest, month of the year.

Russell is now on his way to Hanoi, which will be his last stop on the trip.

North To Danang (Or Hoi An)

Russell has left Ho Chi Minh City for the last time and headed north, to Danang.  Danang is located about halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.  It is a major port and industrial city and the largest city in central Vietnam.

China Beach

Danang also is a familiar name to those who grew up during the Vietnam War.  The United States had a major air base there, and the last United States ground combat operations in the Vietnam War happened in the Danang area.  The beach American soldiers called “China Beach” is on the outskirts of Danang and was a popular spot for American troops on leave.  According to a 2003 Time magazine article, the beach was home to aggressive beggars that local officials believed caused the tourist trade to bypass Danang for other nearby Vietnamese cities where the begging was a bit less persistent.  It will be interesting to see whether Russell encounters any well-tanned panhandlers during his stay in Danang.

Edited to add:  Russell has just reported by e-mail that he has stopped in Hoi An, a neighboring city that is smaller and less industrial than Danang, close by China Beach, and known for making “made to measure” clothing.  I’d say its about time for Russell to get a tailor-made suit.

My Tho

Russell is slowly working his way back to Ho Chi Minh City, where he will stay for a day or two and then head north.  One of his recent stops was in My Tho, a Mekong Delta town not far from Ho Chi Minh City.

My Tho played a strategic role in the Vietnam War.  The town was situated at the intersection of Route 4 and the My Tho River and served as the base for several U.S. Navy patrol boat squadrons.  The Navy installations were the target of regular rocket and mortar attacks, and My Tho was the subject of a major assault by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  The town took a pounding during the fighting, and apparently signs of the fighting are still visible.

Now, My Tho is known mostly for its noodle soup, which includes pork, shrimp, quail egg, and noodles and in pork broth.

At The Floating Markets of Can Tho, With The Durian Fruit

Russell’s Vietnam journey continues.  He has left the pristine beaches of Phu Quoc behind and moved on to Can Tho, a city of more than a million people in the middle of the Mekong Delta region in the south of the country.

Can Tho is famous for its floating markets, and when we last heard from Russell he was just getting ready to check them out.  The Mekong Delta region is Vietnam’s breadbasket (rice bowl would be more accurate, actually) and the floating markets offer all manner of food, from vegetables to insects to snakes, as well as flowers and other goods.

The market apparently is a good place to get the fabled Durian fruit, a fruit that is so foul smelling and distasteful that even Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame couldn’t choke it down.  When Russell gets back home, I want to know whether he outdid his fellow Vassarite and savored the piquant flavor of the Durian.

Off To Phu Quoc

Russell has been on the move and has left the friendly, if sweaty, environs of Ho Chi Minh City.  Rather than heading east to Mui Ne, however, he has gone south to Phu Quoc.

Phu Quoc is an island in the Gulf of Siam that is south and east of mainland Vietnam, near the coast of Cambodia.  The island features wooded mountains to the north and fine, unspoiled beaches to the south.  It is remote, largely undeveloped, and largely unknown. From the pictures on the internet it looks like a fabulous spot.

Russell plans on staying their for a few days, then taking a boat back to the mainland to explore the Mekong Delta region.

Next Stop: Mui Ne?

Russell reports that he is enjoying Ho Chi Minh City.  He has visited the War Remnants Museum mentioned in my post on Monday, met up with a Vassar classmate who is in the city teaching English, and has found the cost of living to be quite manageable.  He says that his efforts at painting outdoors never fail to attract a crowd.  He also is sweating his brains out due to the hot, muggy weather.

When you are hot and uncomfortable, you naturally think of . . . water.  In this instance, Russell is considering whether to head to the Mekong delta or to Mui Ne.

Mui Ne is a beach town in southern Vietnam.  It is about 140 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, reachable by train or bus. Mue Ne’s climate is hot and dry for most of the year, and it advertises itself as “the sunniest place in Vietnam” as well as the kiteboarding and windsurfing capital of Vietnam.  It features a series of beautiful beaches on the South China Sea, fresh seafood, sand dunes, the Red Canyon, a host of resorts, and some interesting historical sites related to the Cham culture.  It also is described as having a chilled out feel that is a good respite for the weary traveler.

Sounds like a good getaway destination during the rainy season.

Hangin’ In Ho Chi Minh City

Russell made it to Vietnam earlier today, our time.  After more than 24 hours of travel he landed in Ho Chi Minh City, where he will be spending his first few days in the country and undoubtedly will create his first bits of Vietnam-influenced artwork.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam.  That is saying something, because Vietnam — to my surprise at least — is the 13th most populous country in the world, with more citizens than any country in Europe.  More than 9 million Vietnamese live in the Ho Chi Minh City metropolitan area.

Americans of a certain age think of Saigon and think of the Vietnam War and the chaotic scenes of the fall of Saigon.  The Vietnam War, and the prior French war, also apparently are not far from the consciousness of the Vietnamese or the visitors to Vietnam; the Ho Chi Minh City travel guide indicates that the most popular attraction in the city is the “War Remnants Museum,” which features “shocking evidences of the atrocity committed by foreign aggressors during Vietnam’s two national liberation wars.”   Other popular attractions include the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Reunification Palace, and the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were used during the Tet Offensive and during the attacks that led to the fall of Saigon.  A less war-oriented attraction is the Giac Lam Pagoda, pictured at right, which was built in 1744 and is considered the oldest pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City.

It looks like Russell will be in for a wet stay in Ho Chi Minh City.  The 10-day forecast shows rain every day, which is no shock:  It is the rainy season there.  It also is inexpensive.  Russell was able to book a good hotel for about $20 a day, and his brief report on his arrival this morning suggests that the American dollar still has some significant purchasing power there.

The Grand Adventure Begins

Russell has left on this summer’s grand art/travel adventure.

He is starting his journey in San Francisco, Oakland, and the Bay area, where he is visiting friends.  In a day or so he will head down to southern California to hang with other friends and family.  Then, he will board a jet for a very long trip that will take him to Ho Chi Minh City after a brief stop in Taiwan.  Once he gets to Vietnam his itinerary will be largely dependent on his whim; he plans on going wherever his artistic muse and natural curiosity may take him.  Other likely destinations include Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, and the Mekong Delta region.

I have no doubt that Russell’s trip will be an enormously enriching experience for him — and I want to make it a positive experience for me, too.  I know very little about Vietnam; it is like a forbidden topic or an embarrassing family story that no one wants to think about.  It is time to change that, and therefore I plan on doing a bit of research and writing this summer on the country, its people, its culture, and its cities.

The Allure Of Vietnam

The Webner family will be learning about Vietnam this year.  Russell has received a Weitzel-Barber grant that will allow him to travel to Vietnam this summer, where he will experience Vietnamese society, visit museums and cultural sites . . . and paint.  His current plans include spending time in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Hue, Hanoi, and locations along the Mekong River.

I don’t know much about Vietnam, but that will change as the summer progresses.  According to the indispensable CIA World Factbook website information on Vietnam, Russell will be there during the hot, rainy season and may encounter a monsoon or typhoon.  Vietnam is a long, narrow country with a lengthy coastline that stretches from the South China Sea in the south, where the Mekong River flows into the ocean, to the Gulf of Tonkin in the north — a body of water that has its own separate meaning for Americans of a certain age.

That will be one of the interesting things about a trip to Vietnam — the extent to which there are still ties to America and reminders of America’s long, costly, and I think ultimately pointless involvement there.  The clash of cultures, the nature of the American experiment in that country, and the reactions of the current generations of Vietnamese to the United States and its citizens are some of the reasons why Russell chose Vietnam for his Weitzel-Barber grant proposal in the first place.  I have a feeling he will find many subjects to paint on his journey.

Obama: Be More Like LBJ

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an interesting piece comparing President Obama to Lyndon Johnson (“Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?”). The article speculated that Obama’s ambitious domestic programs could end up being derailed by an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, just as LBJ’s Great Society was by the Vietnam War. According to the article, President Obama himself has compared his situation to LBJ’s.



I doubt Afghanistan will ever become as big a pain in the ass for Obama as Vietnam was for LBJ, but the article made me think. I just read an excellent presidential biography of Lyndon Johnson by Doris Kearns Goodwin that led me to reconsider the former president. Despite his horrible handling of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was a brilliant, good-hearted man whom Obama could take a few lessons from.

Everyone’s talking about how Obama’s poll numbers are slipping as a result of the current Healthcare debate. What’s really hurting him, however, isn’t the debate itself but his mismanagement of it. President Obama has lost control over the national dialogue over healthcare reforms, despite calling numerous town halls and press conferences to dispel rumors and clarify his goals. He seems to have even less control over Congress, as Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats, and left-wing Democrats seek out their own policy goals, showing little willingness to compromise.

President Obama should consult the playbook of LBJ, perhaps the most skillful manipulator of Congress in American history. In her biography of LBJ, Goodwin notes that, contrary to popular belief,  his handling of Congress consisted of more than strong-arming. LBJ had a genius for reading people, discovering in the course of a conversation their fears and desires, and responding to them. To reward members of Congress for “good behavior” he promised them positions of importance, mustered up the support they felt they needed to vote a certain way (from newspaper editors, organizations, other members of Congress, etc.), or allowed them access to his personal popularity as president (which was, like Obama’s, originally quite considerable). To punish them, LBJ would withdraw his affection to make them feel isolated from his circle of power. Of course, strong-arming could be a component of LBJ’s “treatment”, but only when it was the most effective way, which LBJ somehow knew instinctively.

Instead of giving control of healthcare reform to Congress, I wish Obama would put himself in a position like LBJ. While LBJ’s legislation responded to the needs of Congress, it was always under his ultimate control. Like LBJ, Obama should also set clear objectives for his domestic programs, instead of adding or removing vital parts of legislation when passage appears uncertain, such as in the case of the public policy option in the current healthcare bill. Most of all, Obama should use his personal popularity to manipulate congressmen, while it still lasts.

Also like LBJ, President Obama should never forget the human element of his programs. While in action on the floor of Congress, LBJ might have seemed like a political machine, but behind all his machinations was a desire to spread the American dream to as many as possible. I’m sure Obama has the same desire, but he hasn’t been talking much about it lately. Obama needs to remind the American people that healthcare reform isn’t about politics or socialism or health insurance companies – it’s about spreading happiness, health and opportunity to as many Americans as possible.