To go home, I had to take a taxi to Saigon’s airport, fly to Hanoi, then on to Hong Kong, where during a 5½ hour layover I’d take a train to Central to hang out a bit, then back to the airport to fly to JFK, then hop on two trains just to get to Manhattan, then two more to reach Philly’s 30th Street Station, from where I could, finally, take two subways to my South Philadelphia neighborhood. With so many legs to a trip, a thousand things could go wrong.
Riding through Saigon at 3:30 AM, I noticed a bunch of restaurants were already open, with people sitting at sidewalk tables, eating noodles or drinking coffee. Tired, I said nothing to the driver. No jokes about a national homosexual policy, strictly enforced for half a century, to reverse the runaway population growth.
Before taking off from Saigon, the Vietnam Airlines stewardess warned us that to open any aircraft door during flight would result in a $880 fine.
A sign at Hanoi’s airport, “NO MOTORBIKES, BICYCLES OR PRIMITIVE MEANS.” During a month of hectic travel through urban and rural Vietnam, I saw just one ox-drawn cart and maybe a dozen pedicabs. SUV sales are surging, however, and there’s also a growing market for Harley Davidsons. They cost $16,000 to $52,000, twice as much as in the US. In Phan Thiet, I spotted a US Army jeep, meticulously restored, parked outside the ultra-trendy Ocean Coffee.
The express train from the airport to Central Hong Kong runs every 10 minutes from 5:54 AM to 12:48 AM, and takes but 24 minutes to cover 23 miles. Nearly every world-class city has a direct train to connect its international airport to downtown, but Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC, simply don’t, and Americans just don’t give a flying, exploding cockpit! We’re number one!
Since the Washington Metro opened in 1976, politicians have talked about extending it to Dulles. Forty-one years later, it has crept within seven miles of the badly designed, unfriendly and decrepit airport, opened in 1962. It may even get there before the much welcome controlled demolition. In 2014, news.com.au asked of Dulles, “Is this the world’s worst airport?”
Year after year, East Asian top airports rank as the planet’s best, with Seoul’s, Singapore’s, Tokyo’s and Hong Kong’s nearly always in the top five. In Europe, London’s, Amsterdam’s, Frankfurt’s and Zurich’s are also first-rate.
With twice the population density of Saigon’s, Hong Kong’s streets are nowhere nearly as clogged, thanks to its excellent subway system and a vast fleet of private buses. Like Singapore, Hong Kong is also a hundred times cleaner and more orderly than my native city. Most impressively, Hong Kong’s murder rate per 100,000 people was only 0.4 for 2016. With 7.347 million people, it had 28 murders. By contrast, Philadelphia tallied 278 homicides for a population of 1.568 million.
Year after year, American blacks commit murders at roughly seven times the rate of whites, a fact that’s blamed by many on socioeconomic factors, historical resentment and/or ongoing racism, while others attribute it to a low IQ, innate lack of impulse control and/or propensity for violence. A century from now, will blacks still be an underclass in any multicultural societies still existing? How about in five hundred years?
Without a significant black population, East Asian societies don’t have to deal with this debate or problem. I’ve wandered unfamiliar Saigon, Hanoi and Singapore streets in the middle of the night without any fear of being shot or stabbed, and I’ve done the same in many European cities, including Istanbul and war-time Kiev.
In recent years, Africans have started to emigrate to Vietnam, and in Saigon’s Gò Vấp District and on Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, there are even black male prostitutes, a phenomenon that’s particularly pleasing to certain middle-aged Vietnamese women. The Africans’ prices are high for local standards, around $25 for a quickie, $50 for an overnight. A recent police raid brought in 50 Africans for questioning.
Wandering around Hong Kong’s Central, I spotted a graffiti, “DESTROY RACISM.” Nearby, there’s a pretty, young, blonde model on an ad for a high-end real estate firm, Man Hing Hong. A few steps away was another blonde, this one merely a teenager, on an ad for an ordinary hair salon, mina dev’ wil. Noticing racial differences means having racial preferences. We will never be color-blind.
As an adult, I’ve had two 2-year stints away from the US. Living in Saigon from 1999–2001, I missed Mexican food, Seahawks games on TV and some jazz, so I asked a friend, traveling to Saigon with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to bring me Django Reinhardt, and Lester Young accompanying Billie Holliday. Returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, I asked my brother to drive me straight to a Mexican joint. Now, there are good Mexican restaurants in Vietnam, and you can listen to anything on YouTube.
Living in Italy from 2002–2004, I missed decent fried chicken, tolerable Chinese food, bullshitting in bars and watching the Seahawks on TV. The Italian ways were so wonderful, the people so hospitable and sweet, I had several nightmares in which I suddenly found myself back in Philly. Opening my eyes, I discovered, with tremendous relief, that I was still in Italy.
Flying into Dulles, I noticed how wide the freeway medians were. So much space wasted, I thought. The currency exchange girl gave me several hundred dollars too much. Catching her mistake, I returned the cash. “Whoa!” She laughed.
During my month in Vietnam, I checked Seahawks games in progress, answered a few emails from Philly buddies and knew I would be back to eating canned chili, baked beans and clam chowder soon enough.
The flight from Hong Kong to JFK took 15 hours 45 minutes. Most of the passengers were Chinese-Americans, a fact I discovered when all these Cantonese speaking folks took out their blue passports at immigration. On the plane, the stewardess kept speaking Cantonese to me, even though I had answered her in English the last time around. Vietnam’s eternal fear is to be blended into China. Two seats away from me was a young man in a yarmulke. Since he had his earphones on during each waking moment, we never chattered.
Recently in Spain, I met a Norwegian who swore he would never return to the US, “The immigration at JFK was so long, and the agents so unfriendly! After such a long flight, we had to stand in line forever, and there were children and old people. We were all trapped!”
Without a direct train to Manhattan, I took the AirTrain to Howard Beach, then waited at least 20 minutes in the cold for the sluggish A Train. Descending the stairs, I passed a portly black man in a burgundy suit. Staring hard at me, he made a sibilant fart with his mouth. “How are you doing, man?” I answered.
“Get on the A Train,” Ella sang. “Soon, you’ll be on Sugar Hill in Harlem!” Yeah, right. All around me were exhausted passengers with their luggage. After flying for countless eons from Dar es Salaam, Ulaanbaatar or wherever, they stood, shivering.
Unique in the world, the entire New York subway system runs 24/7 all year long, so at night, its stations and trains shelter hundreds of homeless. Well bundled and surrounded by bags, they slump on seats. The average rent for a New York one-bedroom is $2,895. If you think that’s astronomical, it’s $3,500 for San Francisco, thanks to a massive influx of Chinese money. Keep those borders open! No human being is illegal!
Since 9/11, American airports, train stations, bus terminals, buses and subway cars have been plastered with signs advising a cowed populace to report on their fellow citizens. In Cambridge, MA, I saw a 10-foot-tall backpack with this tag, “IT’S NEVER THIS OBVIOUS. Suspicious, unattended items don’t always stand out like this.” A new sign in NYC shows a well-armed, battle ready cop next to an ordinary schmuck, “Officer Greg Elkin is well equipped to keep our region safe. And so is Jason.” Arrows point to Jason’s eyes, ears and cell phone. “Your eyes and ears are some of our most important safety tools. So if you see, hear, or notice something suspicious, speak up.”
It was past 1 AM when I finally arrived at Penn Station. Inside were several homeless people who slept while standing up. Had they sat or lay down, they would have been kicked out. I shoved $20 into a ticket machine, but nothing happened, and there was no one at the information desk to complain to. Like a Diebold voting machine, it did what it wanted and could not be held accountable. I had no choice but to try again with plastic and, miracle of miracles, it granted me a passage home.
An electronic ad showed a middle-aged woman sitting on stage, “New 3D holographic technology preserves Holocaust survivor stories in Illinois museum.” Then appeared a South Asian man at a podium, “Google CEO Sundar Pichai makes fixing hamburger emoji to have cheese on top a ‘priority.’” Just about everything an American hears, sees or notices is bullshit or propaganda.
With time to kill, I wandered outside to find a three-story-tall electronic ad for Justice League, a movie featuring a team of American super heroes, “NO ONE CAN SAVE THE WORLD ALONE.” Across the street was a young woman sleeping inside a Bank of America ATM terminal. Seeing several food trucks selling Middle Eastern food, I bought a plate of rice with lamb for only $7. Thank God for Muslims, I thought as I took my food inside to chow down.
Passing a convenience store run by Indians, I noticed the New York Times had a new, unintentionally ironic slogan, “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.” Hellish Rihanna was on the cover of Elle. In Vietnam, I had shown her extremely sadistic “Bitch Better Have My Money” video to a friend. Aghast, he asked, “Why do Americans put up with this?!”
The train ride from Trenton to Philly was so bumpy, I could have sworn I was on an ox cart, but as the familiar skyline came into view in the pale, morning sunlight, I happily reflected that I was only hours away from my Friendly Lounge booze mates. I was home.