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Dear Friends,

Internet access has been very poor! More updates from Hong Kong.

… Sorry for the brevity and typos: Sent from remote on the phone.

Thank you!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant, Member and Customer Services

The Heart of Darkness

JOSEPH CONRAD, Sydney Harbour

JOSEPH CONRAD, Sydney Harbour (Photo credit: Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons)

Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City

Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A former U.S. Air Force Cessna A-37B Dragonfly...

A former U.S. Air Force Cessna A-37B Dragonfly (s/n 70-1285, c/n 43300), used in the Vietnam War. It was passed on to the South Vietnamese Air Force as “287”. In 1975 it was taken over by the Vietnam People’s Air Force “09”. It is today on display at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (the markings do not represent any USAF markings). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "Heart of Darkness (Broadview Li...

Cover via Amazon

English: Busy street market on Chau Van Diep s...

English: Busy street market on Chau Van Diep street, Binh Thanh district, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Lëtzebuergesch: Stroossenszene zu Ho Chi Minh City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ho Chi Minh City's Downtown at night

Ho Chi Minh City’s Downtown at night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City...

English: War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City...

English: War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)





























Dear Faithful Correspondents,

The Heart of Darkness is the Joseph Conrad novel about a colonialist gone native in Africa, which was the inspiration for its adaptation into the Vietnam War Film, Apocalypse Now. I used these two to keep my High School Senior English students occupied during the last two weeks of their Senior years, 1981-1984, and so I know them well.

I had some trepidation coming to this City, and this Country, given our shared history. I was sobered and surprised.

Today we went to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). So many years ago I almost came here in a very different capacity, but my number was never called. I registered as a non-combatant: I was ready to serve my Country, but only as a chaplain’s aid or a medic.

Thank God I was not called!

Before discussing my experiences of the day, let me lay out clearly my positions.

— I honor without any qualification the brave men and women who served our Nation in Vietnam, and those of our allies, South Vietnam, Australia, et al. With the exception of those who committed atrocities such as My Lai, they did the best they could.

— I honor the men and women of the North who served their country, again, except for those who violated the “Rules of War” (a pretty sick concept, overall, but it is what it is).

— That being said, I believe the US was horribly wrong to prosecute the Vietnam War.

OK, it is good to get that out on the table.

His rebus dictis, Saigon in 2013 is an incredible place!  We have to thank our lucky stars that Vietnam is overwhelmingly Buddhist and Catholic Christian. Both spiritualities emphasize compassion, forgiveness and acceptance (yes, Victoria, that is what Christianity is REALLY about, not exclusion and prejudice… hmmmm!).

We came ashore about 2.25 hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City, and took a comfortable bus ride into the city. Along the way, we saw an immense path of industrial sites, Buddhist Temples, Christian Churches, store-fronts, and above all, restaurants serving Pho (the unique Vietnamese soup) and Com (rice dishes).

The first thing I noticed was that, although English signs on businesses did occur, the street signs, and most business signage were solely in Vietnamese.

Let me take as moment to talk about Vietnamese.

Vietnamese is a South Asian language, with relationships and cognates with its neighboring Thai, Burmese, Laotian, and Chinese languages. Prior to the 17th century, it was written in Chinese characters and  also a modified Chinese script, but the Jesuit 17th century French missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660), perfected a script using the Latin alphabet plus unique diacritical markings based on works of earlier Portuguese missionaries (Gaspar do Amaral and António Barbosa).

Thanks to this, we can actually sound out much of Vietnamese, which I see regularly on VTA Buses in San Jose!

We arrived in the center of the city, and began our perambulations. First stop: changing money. Today, about 20,000 Dong = US$1.00, so we got millions of Dong. It is kind of cumbersome, similar to the first time I visited Italy (1972), and we paid in hundreds of thousands of Lira.

Saigon is a bustling, large city. Typical of what I am experiencing, on the road here, and in the city, relative poverty lives cheek-by-jowl with wealth.

Everything seems to be negotiable. Before you get in a taxi, you should bargain with the driver for the flat fee for your trip. Failure to do so could turn a 15 minute ride into about 750,000 Dong (= $40). Negotiated, the ride would probably be about 50,000 Dong (= $2.50).

We first went to our prime objective: the War Remnants Museum. This is a large collection of photos and artifacts from, as it is called “The American War of Aggression.”

The battlefield photos are bad, but the whole room full of the children’s photos who were and are the victims of Agent Orange is enough to make the strongest person weep. What were we thinking?

Along with the photos, there is running commentary with quotes from the U.S. and International opposition to the War, as well as quotes from U.S. figures such as General Curtis Lemay saying  “…the North must pull in its horns, or we will bomb them back into the Stone Age.”

There is also a gallery of support posters for the North from many nations around the world.

All in all, it is a fair presentation, and devastating. Possibly the most surprising is a large gallery dedicated to the international photojournalists who lost their lives in the War, giving their most vivid pictures of the War, which I remember from Life, and CBS News each night.

This exhibit was created in Kentucky about 23 years after the War, and after being exhibited there, it was donated by  the people of Kentucky to this museum. A remarkable gesture of the healing which is taking place.

Former American servicemen have also donated parts of their uniforms, and even their medals, to the museum, in protest of the War.

From there we went to see Notre Dame Cathedral, the Main Post Office, and then had a good Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwich in a central HCMC Mall.

We headed back to the ship, and enjoyed a recreation of Disco by the ship’s singers and dancers!

Tomorrow is a Ship Day, and I will use the time to talk about today’s visit to Nha Trang and to reflect on the difference of the feel of this Communist country, and those I visited in the 1970s (Czechoslovakia and East Germany), the incredible traffic, as well as general thoughts on our ongoing topics.

Until then, be at Peace!

… Sorry for the brevity and typos: Sent from remote on the phone.

Thank you!

Steven A. Armstrong

Tutor, Editor, Consultant, Member and Customer Services


Neither Children of Alexander nor Heirs of Rome


Dear and Faithful Readers,

My apologies for the lack of a blog for a day. If you have seen The Hangover 2, you will know the effect that Bangkok has on its visitors!

Bangkok is such a sensory overload that I know I will never do it justice. We stayed at the Malaysia Hotel near a lot of the very active areas of the city, and just across from Lumphini Park and Muay-Thai stadium. The staff all know Chris, and so it was like Old Home Week! We had several delicious meals in the hotel’s 24 hour cafe, and the cuisine really is hot! Even for me.

The food in the restaurants we ate in was often a mixture of Thai and Western offerings, with both very well prepared. Our last lunch with our driver and Chris’ old friend Tony was in his favorite steak house. Tony had steak, Chris has a triple grill including broiled ostrich, and I had a delightful dish of prawns in a peanutty Thai sauce.

Unlike Australia, where the export beer Fosters is nowhere to be seen, the familiar Thai beers Singha and Chang are ever-present in bars and restaurants. A cold beer tastes very gook in the 90+ F degree heat and humidity.

During the day and a half, we moved slowly, got massages, and visited a magnificent Chinese-style Buddhist Temple, Wat Traimit in the heart of the city. On the second floor, a museum of the history of Chinese immigration and settlement in Thailand is very well presented in sight, sound and signage.

Heading up to the 4th floor, we reached the sanctuary of this Temple of the Golden Buddha. The central figure is a 10 foot tall, 5.5 ton solid gold image of the Buddha sitting. Both tourists and the faithful were in quiet peace in this holy place.

From there, we took a hour+ boat ride up and down the Chao Phraya River through central Bangkok. This was the best and most refreshing way to see the innumerable Temples, Churches and Mosques, along with government and military installations, and a strange juxtaposition of mansions, middle class homes and corrugated tin shanties.

We had a short stop at MBK Mall, an 8-floor gigantic shopping mall in a modern building that also houses a bowling alley, a hotel and across the street, a Muay-Thai stadium. It is like about 5 Gallerias all in one.

On the night we stayed over in Bangkok, Chris took me to the Night Market, a bustling area with hawker stalls, stores, restaurants and clubs. It is wall-to-wall people, in the sultry heat and humidity in the area defined by Silom Road.

Since this is a family-friendly blog, I will not go into detail about the nature of the entertainment venues along this district’s streets. Suffice it to say that in many of the world’s religions, I would be struck blind for what I saw when peeking in the crowded doorways. If you can imagine SF’s Broadway joints mixed with New Orlleans’ Bourbon Street, and all on steroids, you might get close to the energy and feel of the place. The Thais do like to party.

Luckily, he knows some calmer venues in the area, and we were able to have a beer with more of his friends made over the years, sitting in the narrow, neon-lit lanes.

Traffic is unrelenting at almost all hours, and there are few stop lights or pedestrian crossings. You just have to dodge across the street and avoid getting hit by cars, scooters and Took-Tooks.

We had one wild ride in a Took-Took, a three-wheeled motorized contraption. The usual ones are very clean, but this was an exception, and the elderly driver a mad-man. He wove through traffic, wormed his was between cars, but delivered us safely to the hotel, and then hugged both of us. He, like so many people here, called me “Papa,” Ah well, once the Paterfamilias, always the Paterfamilias!

My reflection after a day is that the Thais obviously love life, enjoy their fun, and are very, very religious. Religion, especially Buddhism is inextricably woven into the fabric of society. They are also held together by their sincere and obvious devotion to their Constitutional Monarch, King Rama IX, who, having reigned since 1950, is the world’s longest ruling monarch.

The King’s portrait is everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, in front of practically every institution. The reverence in which the people hold the King is deep and clearly genuine. From everything I can tell, he has been a good and fair King, and helped his nation come into the 21st century, benefitting Thais of every ethnicity and religion.

Thailand (“Land of the Free”) has been guided by this dynasty since its foundation in 1782 and the establishment of Bangkok as the capital. Humans have inhabited the area for some 20,000 years, and in the 10th Century CE, there are records of migrations from South China, and the union of the two Thai Kingdoms into one. Beginning in the 16th Century, the Burmese occupied Thailand briefly twice, and were permanently expelled by Rama I by 1769. Since then Thailand has never been colonized, and only occupied briefly by the Japanese in WWII.

Beginning with Rama IV in the mid 19th Century and continuing ever since, Thailand has progressively transformed itself into a modern state, taking what it deemed useful from the West. Today it is a functioning democracy–with tensions between social classes inflamed by a previous PM who is now, luckily, in exile, but who continues to foment problems from abroad. The King keeps it all together and moving forward.

Thailand joined the Allies in WWI and is strongly identified with the Free World. It has good relations with China, and a firm friendship and relationship with the United States.

So here we have a nation with plenty of Western influence. What makes it different from Singapore?

I suspect the answer is stated in the title of this blog posting. The Thais are neither Children of Alexander, nor Heirs of Rome. Here’s what I mean:

Arguably, much of the word west of the Ganges to the Pacific Coast of North America is in one way or another either a descendent of, or (Persia and Northern India) deeply affected changed by Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic Empire (as later extended westward by Rome, and then Western Europe). Exceptions can be found, but I am generalizing (Egypt, of course is always the exception. Although deeply hellenized, it also maintains its Pharaonic legacy.)

Secondly, most of the areas that were part of the Roman Empire see themselves as Heirs of the Roman Empire. Why else would nation after nation have the Eagle–in one form or another–as its symbol, use the Fasces as a symbol of strength through unity, and construct their government buildings in the Roman style?

The other parts of the British Empire–former or current–such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore (which was founded as a British Trading Colony) also inherited this legacy, and embraced it.

Thailand is not part of this. It is its own nation, adopting what it wishes from the heirs of Alexander and Rome, but remaining itself. I sense that here. It is different. In the common SE Asian saying “Same, same…but different!”

I will be fascinated to see how the French colonial period affected Vietnam. We know all too well the tragic 20th Century history of the USA’s involvement here, and we’ll talk about that during our time in Vietnam.

So see what you think about this thesis.

Briefly, today was a Sea Day, with relaxation as the by-word. There was another round of Bingo, and a very wet Songkran party in the afternoon.

Songkran is the Thai New Year and Water Festival held in mid-April. For several days, the entire country shoots one another with water-pistols, and otherwise soaks everyone else. We held our (early) version of this poolside, and good fun was had by all. Chris had picked up some high-powered water shooters and the ceremonial clay for our faces, and so we took part in the soaking and being soaked.

The evening concluded with a classic meal at The Olympic Restaurant, a faithful re-creation of a dining room from The Olympic Liner (and its sister ship, The Titanic).

Tomorrow, we venture further into unknown territory, as we explore Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Until then….

… Sorry for the brevity and typos: Sent from remote on the phone.

Thank you!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant, Member and Customer Services

I Never Met a Staircase I Didn’t Like

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Faithful Readers,

We are now in Bangkok, at the small and charming Malaysia Hotel near Rama IV Street. I have a few minutes between activities to share some reflections.

Yesterday in Ko Samui (or Koh Samui) was very pleasant, and quite interesting for our themes.

We took a Tender to shore, and emerged to a welter of taxi drivers competing for our business. Negotiating with one, we got an air conditioned car to go around the island for the day.

Koh Samui is fairly small, and you can drive all the way around the island in about 45 minutes. Ten years ago it was an unknown, unspoiled paradise. Today it is still quite beautiful, but a decade of tourist development has taken its toll.

We began the drive through the port town of Na Thon. The narrow streets and crowded shops and business lining them, reminded me that I was getting further and further away from the Western world. English was present on some signage, but not all, by any means.

We drove on, and in due course, fed some elephants (they are smart) and saw monkeys. We climbed huge staircase to visit the Temple of the Buddha’s footprint high above Chaweng Beach, which is now the epicenter of the new resorts and tourist areas.

The temple, high above it all, was serene and peaceful. On the outside, in Thai and English was the maxim: Do Good, receive Good. Do Evil, receive Evil, a fairly succinct expression of The Two Ways common to most world spiritualities.

Descending, we headed off for a delicious lunch at a roadside restaurant with a spectacular view of the ocean.

The Temple steps were my first of many (and ongoing) stairs, hence the title of this installment. It seems that stairs, and split levels are key elements in this architecture. Our hotel room in Singapore even had three steps up from the bed area to the bathroom.

I realize that in pre-modern buildings, stairs were a necessity, and also a way of evening out uneven walkways. It is just a bit unusual though. If someone in a wheelchair needs to move about, the solution is…people help them. I sometimes use a cane when walking on uneven surfaces, and everywhere I go hands are extended to help me. There are no worries about lawsuits. It’s just people helping their brothers and sisters.

My reflection on Koh Samui is that western influence is her (7-11 is ubiquitous), but it is not the dominant influence.

Part of this is because Thailand is the only SE Asian country, and one of few countries in the world, not to be colonized by Western Powers (I include Russia as one of the Western colonial Powers). Although the British were on the scene, the Kingdom of Siam remained its own. The story of the encounter of British and Thai cultures is most popularly told in the Book Anna and the King of Siam, and then in the musical The King and I, based on the book. I encourage you to read the one and see the other. The street our hotel is on is Rama IV, the King in that story.

We are staying overnight in town because the ship is docked about 2.5 hours away, and to absorb as much of the local culture as possible.

As we drove into Bangkok today, again, I saw a country very much in possession of itself, while using whatever it needs from the West. One of the most obvious keynotes is Buddhism. The influence of Buddhism is all-pervasive. There are magnificent temples everywhere, and it the rare business that does not have a votive altar at its entrance.

The Thai people are famously welcoming and friendly, even if their nation has seen its share of strife.

Bangkok itself is an amazing mix of its past and high-rises and industry. Coming off the freeway, we descended to city streets packed with cars, motorcycles, and every kind of conveyance you can imagine. People dodge in and out of traffic to cross the street. There’s an exciting vibrancy about the city that I am only glimpsing.

We had a simple but delicious lunch at the hotel (I had scallops stir-fried with Asparagus), and then got a massage. I am resting up now, and we’ll be hitting the night-life.

I am now in a very different world, but it’s still on the same planet, and part of the modern world-wide Atlantis that is being built. I’ll report more as we go, But now…more stairs!

… Sorry for the brevity and typos: Sent from remote on the phone.

Thank you!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant, Member and Customer Services

Arrival in Thailand

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Dear and Faithful Readers,

We are moored off Ko Samui, or Samui island, off the coast of Thailand. I will have a lot to report about this world-renowned country, but the Tenders are getting ready to ferry us to the island, so I will write more either this evening or tomorrow morning before heading into Bangkok. We’ll stay overnight in Bangkok, and I will resume blogging after that.

Briefly, it will be interesting to see how the tourist boom has affected this paradisiacal island. Chris was here 10 years ago when it was very rustic and unspoiled. Let’s see what a decade of tourism has done.

It is HOT… 91 F so far. Moving slowly….

… Sorry for the brevity and typos: Sent from remote on the phone.

Thank you!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant, Member and Customer Services