A Letter from Hanoi


Let me tell you about Ms Nugyen, aka Zoe Lu.


This young woman was my consolation prize for getting kicked out of my hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter . . . when my $32 room was sold out from under me to someone else for $100. I got moved to an $85 hotel which is OK. But I lost a day of my trip in the hotel shuffle. And my budget for hotels was wrecked.


So, Zoe was assigned by her boss to spend a couple of hours walking me through Hanoi’s famous night market . . .  on the clock . . . to keep me from complaining too much to Booking.com.


Zoe and I took a creaky elevator and then stairs to the new Hanoi Skyline roof garden, on top of a twelve-story-high hotel in the Old Quarter. The view was great: the Old Quarter spread out below us and Hoan Kien Lake in the early evening with lights and the promenade and leafy trees all around. I thought I was supposed to be helping Zoe with her English, so I started talking slowly about my business as we slurped our smoothies. 

I was giving Zoe a generic lesson in conversational English . . . when she broke in and started telling me all the weird stuff she was doing with her boyfriends (in particular, boyfriend A) that her parents could not know about in this traditional society. Top secret.

"My boyfriend and I played a game," she said. "The game was called 'The Seven Days of Love.'"
"I met him on FaceBook. We chatted for day after day, but never met, never exchanged pics, never saw one another from a distance. Nothing visual or tangible. Then, we decided that it was time."
"Time for what?"
"Time to meet," she replied. "We got together in a coffee house in the Old Quarter, not far from here. We were talking and it seemed to be going well. Then he suggested that we play this game that he had thought up, a game called 'The Seven Days of Love.'"
"I have never heard of this game," I said. "How does it work."
"Well," said Zoe, "he proposed that we live together as man and wife for seven days in a row, as an experiment."
"So, you went from chatting online to a week of mad sex with this guy in a single one hour meeting?"
"Right," said Zoe.
"So, what happened after seven days."
"After seven days," Zoe explained, "he wanted to have an eighth day, then a ninth day, then . . ."
"What did you want?"
"I don't know what I want," Zoe said.

Zoe could not ask her parents for advice and seemed to be asking me for guidance. So I weighed in with some gently phrased cautionary tales. Ultimately we ended up on the age-old topic: Was boyfriend A (Mr. Eight Days of Love) or boyfriend B (The young French guy with long blond hair) the better choice. I gave her some thoughts, largely coming down in favor of boyfriend B, but ultimately I tossed the question back to her.

I am happily married, so Zoe was not a romantic interest.

A short digression: Yes, what you have read about aggressive Vn women who identify older American men as their ticket to riches is true. But there are nuances. Young, never married Vn women without children, especially those under thirty (ie. in Zoe's age bracket), might mob a man in his twenties, thirties, or early forties who is dashing, confident, and seems to have money. They tend to stay away from the older foreign men.

On the other hand, women who are thirty-five to forty years old, divorced, with two kids are a lot more interested. Thanks to the divorce laws in Vietnam, they receive no alimony and bear the entire cost of raising their children. If a foreign man is old, fat, and living on a pension . . . but is a "nice guy" . . . he can still be perceived as a prize catch among this latter group of women. And often these women will not insist on marriage and relocation, either her coming to the US or his coming to Vn. Many times these women will settle for a daily or weekly Skype / Viber / Zalo / Whatsapp, as long as he comes to Vietnam and takes her on vacation once or twice a year.

On the other hand, generalizations fail. When an 18 yo Vn woman advertises on a dating site that her preference is for a man from the US or Europe from 30 to 99 years of age, it gives you the idea that any Western man in Vn who who has a pulse and wants to get married and move her back to the US has a good chance of doing so. Just don’t think a Vn wife will be cheap to maintain. Remember, when you support her, you support her family as well. 

So, Zoe had zero romantic interest in me.

By the time we had finished our smoothies, Zoe decided that I was a good guy. Back at her work place, we looked up my websites and googled one of my rock climbing excursions from many years ago, when I was just a bit younger than her. Then, she got started on YouTube.

Turns out, Zoe is rather interested in western music. Not so much, 1960s stuff. But she inspired me to later look up things on YouTube so I could counter her soft-rock groups with my more romping rock ‘n roll groups. Santana! Most of my music was Vietnam War era, whether or not it was explicitly anti-war.

Zoe did not ask about the war and had no idea that, in the geography of my mind, her youth and freshness was a striking counterpoint to the images of war I had internalized decades earlier as the carrier of a draft card at the height of the conflict.

As a rule, young Vietnamese have little or no consciousness of the US war. For one thing, the French were fighting in Vn continuously from 1850. They constructed a prison from a pottery yard and kept their captives at this "Hanoi Hilton" for decades before John McCain arrived. The French kept two very sharp guillotines in this prison. They chopped off the heads of prisoners, put the heads in small wicker baskets that were perfectly sized to hold one head each. Then, they displayed two severed heads-in-baskets side-by-side and photographed them as trophies. If you visit Hanoi, you can see the black-and-white photos in the museum display at the Hoa Lo prison, just to the right of the guillotine.

Funny thing: young Vietnamese in Hanoi give tourists directions saying things like, “It’s near the New Hilton” (referring to the hotel) or, “It’s near the Old Hilton” (referring to the prison).


During WWII, the Japanese interned the French and occupied the country themselves. So, for a time, there were two layers of occupiers. Four years after the US left Vn, the Chinese invaded and briefly occupied land in the Ha Giang district. And then, there was a major war with Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, as I recall. The Vietnamese view the American war as just one of ten decades of war.

In any case, after smoothies, boyfriends, rock climbing, and YouTube, Zoe decided that she was willing to listen to me on a lot of topics. I am a talker and ultimately a writer. Many words have already been said in the world. But Zoe hadn’t heard them. At least, not from me. An audience is a totally rare thing! Her receptivity . . . plus my aversion to doing boring computer work when on vacation . . . combined to elicit the following letter.


Dear Zoe Lu:

You are only 23 and are climbing aggressively into adulthood, working two jobs in Hanoi, Vietnam, getting to know men, listening to popular music from Hong Kong, Britain, the US . . . making plans to break out to a larger world.


Before you take flight, you need a certain amount of grounding. You have been to university and your major in business/tourism is a practical one in this town flooded with tourists . . . where bright red flags with yellow stars (emblems of communist glory) are sold to tourists on tee shirts and where Europeans and Americans stock up on “period” propaganda posters from a bygone regime, very red and very hard core.


My wife and I have no children, and so I feel the impulse to adopt a lot of younger folks. Your life is none of my business. Still, at this moment, I feel that it's my job to help you get a Classic education. By this, I mean, of course, an education in Classic Rock ‘n Roll. 

I will send you the Woodstock clip of Santana later tonight when you are restoring your energy after a long and draining day in the work place tussling with tourists . . . and can use a shot of inspiration from a young crew of musicians, your age or younger, who are utterly lost in the moment, utterly alive . . . especially the drummer, really! For now, something more meditative: I am thinking of Fire and Rain, a James Taylor song that carried me through my twenty-third year, my first year after college. Find it via google. It's on Youtube.


The American War in Vietnam was going on . . . there was a military draft . . . and I did not want to travel to Vn to "kill women and children."  So I declared that I was a person of conscience and, after three months of struggle with my heart and my draft board, I was accepted as a conscientious objector or CO.


I was required to work for low pay in the "public interest" for two years. I ended up in an African-American community in Richmond, Virginia. A small settlement on the banks of the James River called Fulton. This is the place where the children of freed slaves came to the oldest part of the city. Here there were aging detached houses and duplexes available for purchase on contract. Property ownership suited their upward-looking mentality. Credit suited their empty pockets. 


Virginia is on the East Coast of the US . . . a long way from my home in Seattle, on the West Coast. It would be like you moving to Japan for two years.


I was alone, no friends, a “lost puppy” as they say, learning lessons from the overwhelmingly kind African-Americans who took me in as one of their own. I was a low paid community worker (similar to an un-credentialed social worker). And then someone played Fire and Rain for me.


In this song, James Taylor is singing about a friend who killed herself. Also, about his own struggle with drug addiction. Also, about his hard time dealing with fame.


The composer Carol King played the piano on this recording. She later wrote, You've Got a Friend as a response to the line in Taylor's song:


 "I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend."


I was a young soul with great ideas, great hope, great longing . . . but limited training, skill, and ability. Could I engage in a course of action over time? Could I define an objective and rework my circumstances to conquer that peak? To me, James Taylor was singing about what I could be, the transcendent promise, elegance, and beauty of my personal future, a reality rising above my loneliness, doubt, hesitation. James Taylor told me that I could teach myself the technical skills I needed to bring my dreams to life.


Now, many years later, I have traveled to Vietnam. I have staff here for my businesses. I like to visit local beauty spots. I love the people. It is good to see urban Vietnamese growing into the middle class . . . especially in the years since the US liberalized its trade policies.


Still, I am overcome with guilt for the pointless violence and death perpetrated by my country from 1963 to 1973, during that now forgotten war.


This morning when I should have been working at my laptop, I was, instead, listening to Fire and Rain. The song made me think about myself. Now, I am a stereotypical retirement age tourist, an old guy sitting in a hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. My transcendent future never did unfold . . . or maybe it blossomed and the petals fell and I never noticed, walked right over them.


I now have talent, training, and skill. I can understand things. I can count things. My frame of mind is more technical, more “how do things work.” I am nothing like a brilliant man, I have never made money, and my accomplishments, if you want to call them that, are minor. I promise you, I am not TED material.


But the point I am making is that the creative impulse of my youth, my ability to dream great dreams and to believe in these dreams . . . is just gone . . . and I am left, as they say, staring into the abyss, and the whispers that echo in these depths are saying, "The technical is nothing at all without a dream."

So, my advice to you is to nurture and protect your great vision. Take time to be your flaming zany self. Stay in touch with the you of this moment. Then, as years go past and you become more adept, more knowledgeable, more technically gifted . . . there will still be a point to your expertise, your unflagging effort, your fierce commercial edge.

Anything else? No, that's about it.


This morning, I occasionally glance through the window at the prosperous smoggy skies of this international city. Now, as I listen to an early recording of Fire and Rain, it does not bring to mind the dreams and aspirations of my youth.

As I listen, the words “fire and rain” flash in my mind an image of children in the Vietnam war who are running down a rain-soaked road and screaming and one of them is a naked girl and they are running from a black cloud, a dirty cloud of fire and smoke filling the sky: napalm.


Now, as I listen to James Taylor, I see the lost children of Vietnam, consumed in the pounding seething furnace of war . . . and everything, every trace, every memory washed away in the long jungle rains of summer.


Zoe, you are a quirky, inspiring, instructive, compelling woman who knows more than I do about basically everything. What happened to the Zoe Lus of two generations past, of your grandmother's generation?


Your future is ripe, ready to blossom. Mine, well it’s been lost from timidity and neglect. And what of the children of years gone by, the children of Vietnam, running and screaming on that road? Their goodness, their heart, their transcendence—their lives . . . were sacrificed. For what? 


Your pal,





The image of “the napalm girl” I refer to is a Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Nic Ut, an AP photographer. It recorded the napalm and white phosphorus jelly dropped by South Vietnamese AF Skyraider bombers on Route 1, in a residential area beside the Cao Dai temple, Trang Bang, June 8, 1972, 6:16:34 am. The nine-year-old girl running naked on the street was burned on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. She survived and now lives in Canada. (AP and Wikipedia)


The number of Vietnamese civilians, militia, and soldiers killed in the war is now estimated at 3.3 million people. (2017. Britannica)