Battle of Two Kafka Adaptions: Welles vs. Scorsese

Do you like to read?  Do you like to watch films?  Are you unsure of which novel adaptations and/or remakes you should be watching?  If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of the above questions, then read on!

This week we’ll decide which novel adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is better: Orson Welles 1962 version, titled The Trial, or Martin Scorsese’s cult film from the ’80s, After Hours.

The Trial, Franz Kafka

Most Famous Adaptation: The Trial, Orson Welles

Lesser Known Adaptation: After Hours, Martin Scorsese

In 1914-1915 Franz Kafka, a little known office clerk who wrote short stories on the side, decided to write something big and huge: The Trial, his epic novel masterpiece, which was never finished and wasn’t even published until 1925, 11 years after he started writing it and 1 year after he died.

Such wa5223s the case with Franz Kafka.  Kafka was sort of like Vincent Van Gogh: an artist of amazing uniqueness and vision, who lived in relative obscurity despite his amazing gifts.  Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the two; Kafka, after all, did manage to publish some of his most well-known short stories during his lifetime, even if they weren’t appreciated and didn’t make him much money.  Van Gogh, on the other hand, only managed to sell two paintings in his entire life, one to his neighbor and another to his brother.  (Then again, Van Gogh was much more prolific than Kafka…he painted many more pictures than Kafka ever wrote stories).

Either way, this was Kafka’s life…mundaneness during the day at his office job followed by the writing of strange and dark stories at night.  The Trial is truly Kafka’s masterpiece…even unfinished, it shines from the pages like a dark and beautiful flower that smells of toxic pollen.  Toxic because nothing positive comes out of it…all we see is a nightmare vision of society, where no one is trusted, where everyone is against one man.

I first gained interest in The Trial while living in Southeast Asia.  While living there I frequented the country of Cambodia often, and visited sites where terrible events occurred in the not too distant past: S-21 prison, The Killing Fields, even the temples of Angkor Wat, where machine gun craters scar the front entrance.  While living in Vietnam and traveling around Cambodia, I read as many books about Cambodian history as possible, simply to try and get a hold of what had happened.  One such book was Voices from S-21, an academic study done by David Chandler, an expert on Cambodian history at Monash University in Australia.  Chandler has written numerous books on different aspects of Cambodian, or rather Khmer, history.  Voices from S-21 focuses exclusively on the former prison which sits near the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, where 17,000 people, all deemed enemies of the state, were systematically processed, photographed, tortured, and murdered (no murders actually took place at the prison…all murders were done a half hour’s ride outside of town, in the Killing Fields).

Chandler did a marvelous job examining what took place behind the walls of the prison…it’s tough to really know when there are virtually no survivors (in actuality, there were seven survivors).  He pulled on numerous sources to explain what happened, most of them historic.  But two literary sources kept popping up during his work: 1984, by George Orwell, and The Trial, written by Kafka.  At the time, I had read neither.  When I read 1984, I became convinced that Pol Pot and some of the other monsters whom he worked with probably garnered inspiration from the pages of Orwell’s masterpiece.  But when I read The Trial, I kne18557_lgw that none of them could ever have read it, or appreciated it.  Orwell’s 1984 provides a recipe book on how to use terror and torture to keep an entire population under control, which would be useful to the Khmer Rouge; The Trial does not provide any of this.  The Trial lacked the side plots, characters, and intricacies that Orwell deployed so masterfully in 1984; instead, there was simply a man walking through a never-ending nightmare, accused by everyone of committing a crime unknown only to him.

Chandler referenced The Trial mainly to emphasize that when the Khmer Rouge were in power in Cambodia (1975-1979), the authorities didn’t need a reason to arrest you.  What happened to Josef K. in The Trial happened to real people, everyday, in 1970s Cambodia.  Josef K. is the protagonist of The Trial, a relatively ordinary guy with an office job (presumably not much different from Kafka).  He’s arrested in the opening pages at his home, on his birthday no less, and the trouble goes from there; as the novel continues K. finds himself wrapped deeper and deeper into a terrifying narrative starring himself, accused of a crime he doesn’t know or understand.  Throughout the novel he never stops trying to figure out his dilemma, and he remains ever positive that he will get to the bottom of things by means of communication with other residents of the city he lives.  But no one ever helps him; in fact, everyone seems to be against him.  The normalcy of K. as a human being, as well as the characters he meets, is terrifying: can people really act this way?  The sad answer is that all too often, people do act this way.

K.’s character is trusting and positive, despite his problems.  This is in stark contrast to 1984, where the protagonist, Winston, is very much aware from the beginning that he lives in a terrible, terrible world.  By talking to as few people as possible, Winston plans to outsmart Big Brother, the government that watches his every move.  K., on the other hand, leads a normal life until the police come to the door of his small, normal apartment.  And even then, for awhile, things seem normal, until the paranoia starts to seep through the cracks of reality.  Most noticeably in contrast to 1984 is the agreeableness of K.; though at times he becomes indignant, and he never stops questioning what his crime is, he is always willing to talk it over with authorities.  This never helps the situation; in actuality it seems to make things worse, which of course was also true of Cambodia in the mid-1970s: if you were accused of a crime by the Khmer Rouge, you probably ended up being tortured and murdered, and you probably never committed a crime in the first place.

Perhaps this is why I’ve never been a huge fan of the adaptation done by Orson Welles in 1962, also titled The Trial.  Welles was working in Europe at the time, banished from Hollywood once again, and he used the locations available to his advantage to set up a dark, foreboding atmosphere that would be appropriate for Kafka’s nightmare vision.  And, indeed, the lighting and effects produced by Welles were not of this world.  Once again, Orson Welles had proved himself to be the Great Auteur of film.Orson Welles Shooting Ro.Go.Pa.G. In Rome, 1962

But despite the dark shadows and ominous lighting, Kafka never comes to mind for me when watching Welles’ take on The Trial.  Instead, Welles does.  Orson Welles and Franz Kafka, of course, are two giants of their respective worlds, literature and film.  It’s difficult for one unique master to represent another unique master in this sense; I’m not sure if Michelangelo would have done well copying down The Mona Lisa.  It seemed somehow inevitable that Welles would put his own unique footprint on Kafka’s work.

One major problem for me was Anthony Perkins, who was cast to play K.  Perkins was an amazing actor who was most famous for playing Norman Bates, the innkeeper of Psycho fame.  If anyone could nail the feeling of paranoia, it was Perkins (the guy seemed like every weird, neurotic neighbor you’ve ever met).  But for me Perkins dialed it up too high: this may have been due to Welles direction, and what he wanted from his actor.  In the opening scene, when the police come to arrest him, Perkins jumps around his room indignantly, crying bloody murder and demanding to know what the problem is.  But the K. in Kafka’s novel gave off a feeling of quiet indignation before succumbing to authorities; sure, he was indignant, but he wasn’t dramatic.  Kafka’s K. was always willing to go along with the charade, and always seemed slightly unaware (though not stupid).  Perkins, on the other hand, seems to be ahead of the authorities at times; it’s almost as if he expected the police to show up at his door, and was waiting to go crazy with rage.  He’s defiant and extremely untrusting, as if he knows the world is against him and he’s ready to fight.  Kafka’s K. never wanted to fight, never wanted to be a hero: he just wanted to get to the bottom of whatever crime he was accused of.  1-The-Trial

What we’re left with is still a treasure: it is one of the few films that Orson Welles, the greatest director of our time, ever directed.  It’s perhaps the most wildly dramatic performance that Anthony Perkins ever game us, including Pyscho.  The lighting, on location filming, and overall atmosphere of the film are incredibly unique, and provide us with another example of why Orson Welles was the Great Auteur, the Master of Atmosphere.

But it’s not really Kafka; what it is, more or less, is Welles doing Welles, pretending to do Kafka.

For those of you who really want to watch a movie that evokes the feeling of Kafka, in particular The Trial, you need to try an often overlooked film made by an immensely popular director: After Hours, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1986.  In 1985, while he was trying to get funding to make The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese got his hands on a script that had been written years earlier by a film student in his twenties.  Scorsese decided to direct it in his spare time.Depois-de-horas-poster01

After Hours isn’t a real adaptation; it’s more of what you’d call a “loose adaptation”, taking plot elements instead of the entire plot.  It follows the misadventures of an office worker named Paul (Griffin Dunne) in Lower Manhattan.  It starts innocently enough, with Paul meeting a girl named Marcy at a coffee shop one evening; she gives him her phone number, and from there all Hell breaks loose.  But the entire storyline fits nicely with The Trial; as ominous as authorities at your home are, the opening scene to The Trial seems somewhat innocent: just head to the courthouse and see what the problem is, yuck yuck yuck.

Paul spends the entire evening going from one place to another, meaning well the entire time, and yet making everyone angry as he goes.  It starts when his cab fare inadvertently blows out the cab window, infuriating the driver, and it never stops.  Everywhere he goes he is considered an asshole, though he isn’t; everywhere Charles K. went he was considered a criminal, though I think it’s safe to assume he wasn’t one.

As Scorsese’s film moves along, it gets darker and darker; the plot is not important, but the mood is.  What starts as funny becomes terrifying: we see two thieves, played by Cheech and Chong, stealing a piece of art: Oh, that’s funny, it’s Cheech and Chong.  But soon thereafter we discover a woman has committed suicide, and things become decidedly darker and scarier: they become Kafka-esque.  The outcome of the film isn’t quite as dreary as Kafka’s novel (or what passes for the ending today), but it’s still a nonsensical nightmare vision, a normal world turned completely mad and hostile for no reason whatsoever.  The contrasting humor and darkness are important: anyone who has read The Trial knows that despite its overall darkness, it is a very funny read at times, particularly the dialogue between characters.  This is one area where Welles version of the film is different: it is devoid of any humor that may have been found in Kafka’s story.

Scorsese’s film nailed everything Kakfa did perfectly: the comedy of a completely absurd situation, the darkness of a world gone completely mad, and the feeling that everyone is out to get you for reasons unknown.  It’s unclear why After Hours has fallen through the cracks the way it has.  Scorsese was fairly well established by this point: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, among others, had garnered him international fame and respect.  It did well with critics, even if audiences weren’t crazy about it.  It even won Scorsese the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, so it certainly wasn’t ignored.  But in the years that followed Scorsese became a mega-director: The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino: these films, which resonated with critics and audiences alike, probably helped to push After Hours to the back of our unconscious.  After Hours didn’t have any stars (besides Cheech and Chong); it was quirky and artsy; it was small.  Why watch After Hours when one can watch Goodfellas, a film directed by Scorsese, that, it must be said, is much better than After Hours?  

And so it is: there is a little known film out there by the name of After Hours, directed by mega-director Martin Scorsese, and it just might be the best Kafka interpretation we have on film.  If there were still video rental stores out there, it would probably be sitting on a shelf in the corner, the dust collecting on its edges, just waiting to be picked up by some unsuspecting movie renter a Friday night.  It’s a film that deserves to be watched, and if he was alive in our time, it’s probably a film that Kafka would have enjoyed.


Samurai Champloo: Music Videos? TV Series?



I don’t have much anime experience.  Maybe that’s a bad thing.  I don’t know.

I’ve only watched three anime series in their entireties: Cowboy Bebop, the popular in America, not so popular in Japan, Japanese anime that has been played on Adult Swim off and on for the last 15 years or so; Trigunthe renowned series that may just be one of the best TV shows I have ever seen; and Samurai Champloo, which I just finished a few nights ago.  The fourth anime series I’ve been intimately involved with, Sword Art Online, is currently half eaten.  Maybe I’ll throw it in the microwave and try and finish it someday.

Because my experience is so limited (there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and HUNDREDS of anime shows and anime enthusiasts out there) I feel like maybe I’m not the right person to critique an anime.  But maybe that makes it more REAL.  More GRITTY.  Because I’m A NOVICE.  Because I DON’T KNOW SHIT.


Samurai Champloo was conceived and created by Shinichiro Watanabe in 2004.  Watanabe was previously known for creating Cowboy Bebop, a 1998 anime that fell flat in Japan but became a cult favorite in the U.S., due largely to late night airings on Adult Swim.  Samurai Champloo follows three characters as they travel across feudal Japan.  Two of them are fierce samurai warriors: Jin, the strong, silent one, and Mugen, the loud, crass and wild one.  They serve as bodyguards for a 16 year old girl, Fuu, as she travels towards Nagasaki in search of a mysterious “samurai who smells like sunflowers.”  As is typical of many animes, each episode has the characters facing different challenges and adventures, while a larger, more important theme/storyline is always visible in the background.  In this case, the large storyline is simply that they are taking a long trip across Japan.

The show mixes genres, old and new, together.  Hip-hop and jazz play a large part in the feel and mood of each episode, and the animation is startlingly beautiful.  Dark, vibrant colors mix with the music to create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere; in some ways, each episode is like an extended music video.  But this also detracts from what it actually is: a TV show with characters and plots.  Sadly, what Samurai Champloo has in aesthetic beauty, it lacks in story and depth.  It doesn’t take long for the stories and characters to become very predictable; in the end, these really are glorified music videos, as harsh as this may sound.

Watanabe’s previous show, Cowboy Beboy, was similar in layout: three characters, two male and one female, went on a series of adventures over a period of 26 episodes.  Much like Samurai Champloo, the show was never really interested in the deeper, more philosophical theme or storyline behind the series; it was a very much an episode to episode, story to story existence.  But Cowboy Bebop, despite having a lack of depth, was fun.  There was a sense of wild creativity and freshness with each episode; there were numerous nods to famous movies and cultural occurrences.  It never took itself seriously, but it could be dark and dreary if it wanted to be.  The viewer never knew where a certain episode might go.

But Samurai Champloo lacked any sense of story, freshness or creativity.  After episode 16 or so, watching the show became a chore, because it was pretty clear what would happen: the trio would meet some dark and evil characters on the road, Mugen and Jin would have to fight and probably kill some bad guys, and in the end the characters would probably learn some sort of lesson.  Even the comedic side plots became predictable; they liked to gouge themselves on food to the point of sickness; Mugen was always trying to get laid and steal stuff; and Jin had some vaguely philosophical things to say about the journey.  None of the bad guys were memorable; there was none of the awesomeness of the villains that we saw in Trigun, or even Sword Art Online, a show that I stopped watching midway through.

To sum everything up, this was a show that was afraid to take any chances with its characters, and suffered because of it.  In the second season of The Sopranos (SPOILER ALERT!) the writers decided to kill of Big Pussy, one of the most memorable and likable characters from Season 1.  While Big Pussy was missed, it made the show stronger overall; it made it seem real.  Anyone could die.  At anytime.  Even Tony.  There was no inkling ever that anything could ever happen to the characters in Samurai Champloo.  When you already know what’s going to happen or not happen to the characters in a TV show, it gets pretty boring pretty fast.

Chuck Klosterman, a writer for Esquire and, once wrote an interesting article about the television series Lost, and how the island where the survivors were stranded was filled with abnormally strong characters: Locke, Jack, Sawyer, Sayid, etc, etc…It was something that as viewers we wanted to pretend was normal: it was normal that this many mentally, physically strong leaders would somehow be on this plane.  Of course it wasn’t normal; of course Lord of the Flies, with its long list of weak followers, was a more realistic look at humankind.  But we liked watching Lost.  We like strong characters.  The characters in Samurai Champloo became too strong, to the point that they were robots.  None of the bad guys or women they met were nearly as interesting or strong as they were; there was never any doubt that they would survive their battles.  There was never any intrigue.  There were never any real pots, never any real danger.  All we were left with as viewers were glorified hip-hop music videos with beautiful, amazing artwork.  Which is fantastic, if you’re into that.  But I like my stories to actually be stories.  I like to feel something about the characters I’m watching.  I like to watch plots unfold.  I like to be surprised once in awhile.  In 26 episodes, Samurai Champloo never once gave me the satisfaction I need as a fan of TV shows.


Badlands: Peering into the mind of Terence Malick


Terence Malick has become something of a lightning rod among film fans over the last few years.

It all started in 2011 when the highly-reclusive Malick directed The Tree of Life, and then won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for it. The Tree of Life was vintage Malick: a slow, meandering journey across a landscape of existentialist, quasi-religious, ‘what-is-the meaning-of-life’ themes. There were farm landscapes. There was family strife. There were beautiful, mesmerizing shots of waterfalls. There were dinosaurs.

I hated it.

I wasn’t alone. When The Tree of Life was announced as the winner at Cannes, there were boos and cheers from the crowd in about equal proportion. It’s very rare that a film is able to split lots of like-minded film lovers in this way. It’s like turning a bunch of relaxed, non-political friends into a bunch of frothing Democrats and Republicans in the blink of an eye, complete with inane arguments and highly-convincing propaganda. If nothing else, Malick had accomplished something unique: he created emotion where few filmmakers can. Perhaps he deserved the Palme d’Or for that alone.

I didn’t enjoy The Tree of Life at all. I felt like it was a filmmaker taking a pee on the idea of being a filmmaker. To me, it was a man making a film about nothing, and then silently laughing to himself when people actually liked it. It seemed like film critic’s bait: a delicious looking worm sitting on a hook, waiting to be eaten by some unsuspecting bass. Now I’ve got them.

But perhaps my problem was that this was my first Malick film. His more recent films, namely The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), received similar analysis to The Tree of Life: slow, existentialist, deep in meaning. But his two earlier films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) have been analyzed differently: more easy to comprehend, more down to Earth. And so it was that I found myself at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA a few weeks ago, watching Badlands.

Badlands has always been a film I’ve wanted to see. It was Malick’s film debut, and it starred a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as two lovers traveling across the country in the 1950s, murdering people as they went. Quentin Tarantino has cited it as one of his all-time favorite films, and even if Tarantino isn’t my favorite director (though I like him), I try to watch all the films he recommends. Cause Dude loves movies.

Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen), a fired trash collector, and Holly (Sissy Spacek), a fifteen year old girl, as they travel the countryside on the run from the law. Things start out innocently enough; they fall in love. But as often happens in life, shit gets in the way. When Holly’s overprotective father (Warren Oates) confronts Kit, Kit buys a gun. Again, it is an innocent start; the violence is initiated by the father, who murders Holly’s dog in response to her relationship. But things spiral to tragedy; the gun is fired; the bullet does its damage; and Kit and Holly have no choice but to go on the run.

There are many themes visited during Kit’s and Holly’s journey from both the law and society. Love, hatred, the law, and fear are some of the obvious ones. But nothing with Malick is ever obvious. One needs to look beyond the murders and mayhem to see the real themes to think about: Life; Death; Society; Human Nature; The Difference Between Good and Evil.

Malick, reclusive as he may be, has talked about this film a little bit. He stated that we’re supposed to note how the power of a gun changes Kit; how the ease of killing someone with a gun can sometimes fix a problem more effectively than simply fixing it. These are important issues that humans should take note of; they are the roots of genocide. Just a few years after this film was released, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, and they would follow a philosophy similar to what we can assume Kit was thinking: you might not hurt me alive, but you definitely won’t hurt me dead, so it’s time for you to die.

This film is a poignant and fulfilling look into the human psyche. It shows us how good intentions can be manipulated by weapons and human laziness; how even if we’re good, we’re really actually bad. Everything comes full circle when Kit is captured; he’s suddenly a good ole’ boy, getting slaps on the back from the country cops as he heads to the electric chair.

I think it’s safe to say that this was Terence Malick on a leash. People have described Malick as a secretive genius who is difficult to understand; I would agree. In some ways, Malick is not of this world. But in Badlands we see a restrained Malick: the themes that he loves to play with are there, and his movie is deep. But it is also grounded. There is a story to watch and follow, and not only that, but it is enjoyable to watch. Perhaps Malick doesn’t really want us to enjoy his films; he wants us to digest them, think about them, watch them over and over again and obsess about them. But as a young director in 1973, he was forced to give us something more easy to digest. And the result is quite possibly the best film he ever directed.

Of course, I can’t know for sure. It’s time for me to eat my vegetables.

It’s impossible to say how many directors have been influenced by Badlands, as the examples are probably countless, but there are a few examples that are impossible to ignore. Most prominent and obvious is True Romance, a film that Quentin Tarantino wrote, but did not direct, in 1993. In typical Tarantino style, the structure and plot of his screenplay follows the storyline of Badlands almost to a tee. A man and a woman fall in love, get in trouble with gangsters, and go on a similar romp across America. True Romance can be interpreted as a pretty straight forward re-make of Badlands.

The Coen Brothers directed Fargo (1996) a few years later and also paid homage in a heavy way to Badlands. But instead of resurrecting the skin and bones of the plot and putting them back together, as Tarantino did, they focused on smaller themes and scenes. Some scenes are re-shot in Fargo in almost the same exact way that Malick shot them in Badlands. One scene in particular is seemingly plucked from Badlands and incorporated into Fargo over twenty years later. The plot, motives and characters are very different in each film, but the feel and intensity of the films are almost identical. In a completely different way, the Coen Brothers also constructed a re-make of Badlands.

Finally, we come to Natural Born Killers, the dark comedy directed by Oliver Stone in 1994. The original story was written by Tarantino (hmmm…), but heavily re-written by Stone and Dave Veloz. It is an absurdist, surreal and grotesque look at American society, and perhaps human society in general. This film, unlike the two already mentioned, focuses on the celebrity aspect of serial killers, which Malick addresses at the end of Badlands. Make no mistake; Badlands is also a surreal, absurdist film, following the lives of people living in some deranged fairy tale. But we don’t find that out until the end. We don’t find out until suddenly an arrested Kit is transformed into some kind of hero to be celebrated; it’s then that the movie officially becomes a work of Postmodernist Art.

Natural Born Killers basically makes a two hour movie out of the ideas that Malick presents for us in the last 15 minutes of his film. It’s an acquired taste; I find Natural Born Killers to be un-enjoyable and revolting. But it’s a film of note, and it’s another big one that is obviously and heavily influenced by Badlands.

An Ex-Expat’s Take on the Crazy Buffalo Burning


I logged into Facebook the other day, scrolled down the page absent-mindedly, and froze in my tracks. I was staring at an image that brought up a strange sensation of feelings from deep inside me: shock, disbelief, amusement, and sadness.

The Crazy Buffalo was on fire.

The Crazy Buffalo is a bar in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. It’s actually not located on Pham Ngu Lao street; it sits on the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham. It’s not really a good bar; in fact, it’s pretty terrible. The one time I ventured into the Buffalo, nearly four years ago, the only people inside seemed to be the staff, and they were insisting we party with them. When we went into the bathroom there were video screens at the bottom of the urinals so you could watch the news and pee on it at the same time. My friend inadvertently peed on an image of Ho Chi Minh, which was being displayed in the urinal at the time he was relieving himself. This prompted him to move to Ha Noi; “There’s no f**king way I can live in a city where it’s cool to piss on Ho Chi Minh.” I sort of nodded, sort of agreeing, staring into my beer.

That’s the only time I went to the Buffalo during my time in Vietnam.

But the Buffalo wasn’t really a bar; not really. No one who lived in Vietnam ever, EVER, went to the Buffalo. GO2, across the street, was a better place to get drunk and dance around like an idiot. And Lily’s, 185, Lily’s 2, and all the other seedy little places that line De Tham were the real hotspots, a never-ending mixture of expats, backpackers, bar girls, shady guys parking bikes, children selling things, and book girls. De Tham is the real city that never sleeps; forget New York.

The Buffalo wasn’t really the place to be: it was the symbol of everything crazy going on around it.  It was always there, a giant, obnoxious beacon overlooking everything: all the madness, all the drunken craziness, all the illicit behavior.  In that sense it was similar to the famous Citgo sign overlooking Fenway Park in Kenmore Square, Boston.  There’s not much history surrounding the Citgo sign, and there hasn’t been a gas station there for over 30 years.  It’s simply a hollow symbol: a mirage, the gold at the end of the leprechaun’s rainbow, a non-existent entity that lights up bright at night.  When people see the Citgo sign they think of the Red Sox, Fenway Park, guys selling programs and peanuts, traffic on the Pike, Boston.  But there’s nothing there; you can’t buy any gas there if you’ve happen to run out.

The Buffalo was the same.  I wasn’t looking to get a beer there, but sometimes, if I was out with friends and we’d end up at 185 or some such place, I’d glance up at the big giant electric buffalo above and smile.  That giant, obnoxious monstrosity looking down at us from above always reminded me that I was somewhere unique, somewhere that in my opinion is like nowhere else on the planet.

Pham Ngu Lao.



Maybe that’s why my shock and amusement at seeing the Buffalo burning was mixed with a deep sense of sadness.  After living in Vietnam for nearly four years, soaking in everything that I possibly could, I’m back living in my hometown: Boston, or more specifically, Somerville. Being back in Boston is great, but it can be a difficult transition at times. It’s just so entirely different from the place where I was living for the last four years that it’s impossible not to miss things here and there.  The other night, I opened my fridge and realized I was out of beer.  So I walked down the street to Downtown Liquor and Spirits to grab a six-pack.  When I got there the lights were on but the doors were locked.  I glanced at my cellphone: 11:16pm.  No beer for me.  I turned around to walk home without any beer and thought to myself, “In Vietnam I could buy a beer any goddamned time of the night.”

Being able to buy a beer whenever I want is just one of the little things from Vietnam that I miss.  They mix together to make a collage of stuff that has become my memory of Saigon.


The Pham Ngu Lao/Bui Vien/De Tham area is another one of the little things from Vietnam that I miss, although in a more abstract way.  When living in Ho Chi Minh City I would always tell visitors the same things: that Pham Ngu Lao is not the typical Vietnamese experience; that it’s important to leave Pham Ngu Lao if you’re staying in that area, because otherwise you won’t see ‘the real Vietnam.’ And that if you want real Vietnamese food, you MUST venture away from the restaurants of the Pham, if only for a few blocks.


But as atypical an experience as the Pham is for most of Vietnam, (and it is very ‘atypical Vietnam’), it has also become something unique to Ho Chi Minh City, making it a non-typical, yet uniquely Vietnamese experience.

What I mean by that is that there is probably no other place on Earth quite like Pham Ngu Lao.

Khaosan Road, in Bangkok, is the original backpacker’s area: it’s larger than the Pham, and on the surface it’s wilder. But when you start investigating Khaosan Road, you find that it’s inherently different than the Pham. It’s bigger, sure, and there’s more people walking around drinking beers on the street…but it’s also a little bit tamer. The Thai police make sure to instill the fear of God into everyone (you WILL go to prison if you are caught with drugs in Bangkok), and the other seedy activities that people associate with Bangkok are contained in other neighborhoods. Khaosan Road is like the PG-13 version of the Pham: you can get a suit tailor made from the Indian dudes yelling at you from their shops, or you can get a tattoo applied to your forearm as you sit on a dirty sidewalk, or you can drink beer until you pass out unnoticed at your table, but you can’t get away with anything. There’s a limit to what’s allowed.

In the Pham there’s not much limit to what goes on.  I once saw a drunk British guy headbutt a police officer in GO2, and nothing happened. Motorbike thieves prowl the outskirts of the neighborhood once the sun goes down, waiting for some unsuspecting woman with a bag over her shoulders to leave on a motorbike. It’s an inherently ugly place with ugly things happening: children walk around selling gum and flowers, serving as slaves for their unseen pimps. When a child was severely beaten earlier this year, expats responded with anger and indignation that such a terrible thing could happen. But everyone knew the situation before that child showed up on the street with black eyes. No one who lives in Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t know that the kids who are selling gum at all hours of the day live terrible lives. And no one in their right mind could possibly think that some low-life pimp could ever be a nice person, even if they don’t beat the children that work for them.

In a lot of ways, the Pham is like the Wild West packed into a five block radius.  It’s an area of concentrated madness, the utmost wickedness in condensed form.  Spending too much time in the Pham is like drinking the lemonade mix without the water: it’s tasty but sour, thick enough to stick in your throat and make you choke.  In that sense it’s different than Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a place with an equally crazy reputation spread out across an entire city, or the Old Quarter, Ha Noi, a much less wild, more spread out and more typically Vietnamese backpacker’s area.

Anything goes for the most part in the Pham, and you tend to see the lesser qualities of humanity on display when you walk around, especially at night. But like anything else you get used to it after awhile and it becomes normal. It became normal to me that there was a part of town that essentially has no laws; it was normal to me because for almost four years I was never more than a ten minute motorbike drive away it. Now that I’m back in Boston, I’m beginning to realize that it wasn’t normal at all; it was f**king crazy.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I stared at an image of the Crazy Buffalo engulfed in flames.

Coming back home to Boston, I’ve noticed more changes than I thought I would.

Some changes are minor; walking through Harvard Square a few days ago, I was planning on buying a drink at the Tedeschi’s on the corner of JFK and Mt. Auburn Street. But the Tedeschi’s isn’t there anymore; now it’s a Tasty Burger. I’ve never even heard of Tasty Burger, although I think it’s the name of the fake burger chain in Pulp Fiction. My initial emotions upon seeing a Tasty Burger was annoyance: Why the Hell is there a stupid burger place here now?  Why isn’t there a convenience store here anymore?  But then I came to my senses and realized that I’ve been gone for four years.  Things change.  If you live with a puppy you see it grow gradually over a period of time, and it’s not too shocking when it becomes a full grown dog; but if you’re a friend who sees the puppy once when it’s little, and comes back a few months later to find it’s full grown, it’s a little bit shocking.  I had a normal reaction to the Tedeschi’s being gone.  I was surprised and annoyed.  But some changes are more unexpected.

I’ve never owned a smartphone.  For that matter, I’ve never even really used a smartphone.  When I left Boston to live in Vietnam four years ago, smartphones were sort of a novelty: some people had them, but for the most part people still had flip phones.  When I got to Vietnam, pretty much no one had smart phones, and I did what most everyone did: bought a pre-paid Nokia for 20 bucks.  There are many more smartphones in Vietnam now, and you can buy cheap iPhones on Nguyen Trai, but as far as I can tell old school phones still outnumber smartphones.

Now I’m back in Boston and everyone has a smartphone.  Except me.  I knew this was going to happen; but what I didn’t realize was how far behind the times I was going to feel.  My parents have officially passed me in the technology game.  I don’t know what an app really is or how to use it.  I have trouble sending emails on a tablet.  I’m not familiar with the green and white bubble text messages that show up on people’s phones now.

Ofcourse I’ll buy a smartphone soon and learn how to use it. But the point is that Boston, and America, has changed.  I jumped on the T the other night to head to Cleveland Circle, and 90% of the people were on smartphones or tablets.  In my eyes, that’s f**king crazy. When I left a few years ago, the idea of there being wifi on a train was unheard of.  Now we’re living in an ocean of wifi with wifi devices everywhere.  The internet is never more than a button’s hit away.  And that shit is scary to me.  It’s scary to me cause I’m not used to it and I didn’t expect it.

I guess that makes me feel just a tiny bit sad.  Shit went and changed when I wasn’t looking.


I’m sure the Pham won’t be changing much anytime soon.  I messaged a friend who’s still living there to get the scoop on the Buffalo fire; he said he drove by the next day and they have a big sign over the charred buffalo face advertising drink specials.  Apparently the party hasn’t slowed down much.

If I was to return to Vietnam several years from now, a lot of things would be about the same.  The food would be about the same, the weather would still be hot.  I’d still be able to go to a cafe and drink a fruit juice while listening to terrible music, there’d still be geckos running around the walls at nice restaurants, and Hai Ba Trung would still be a long line of lights at night, leading down to the river.  I’d still be able to get a good meal at a restaurant with metal tables and plastic chairs, and people would still be smoking cigarettes, clanging their beer glasses together and yelling “Mot Hai Ba Yo!”

But things will change, and I now I’m beginning to wonder how much.  Will the arrival of McDonald’s be a bad thing for the city?  Will there be a lot more cars on the road in a couple years?  Will everyone be on smartphones within three years?  If I go back and visit a restaurant some night in the future and see a group of guys drinking beers and smoking cigarettes together, clanging their glasses together and yelling “Mot Hai Ba Yo!”, will there be couple of guys who don’t join in because they’re distracted by something on the internet?

I don’t know.  But I know one thing that will be different: the Crazy Buffalo.  Because the face of the Beast that overlooks Pham Ngu Lao went up in flames and got blasted with a fire house.  The overseer of the madness of the craziest street on the planet is no longer what it once was.

And maybe that’s why the whole thing makes me a little bit sad.  Some things change over time.  They have to.  But I don’t want too many things to change while I’m looking the other way.  And if there was one thing that I always thought would be in Ho Chi Minh City, greeting the overwhelmed backpackers stepping off their buses and being swarmed by xe oms whispering things about marijuana and massages, it was the Crazy Buffalo.

I didn’t think that motherf**ker would ever come down.


A Little Fear and a Lot of Loathing in Bavet, Cambodia


I’ve been having deodorant problems.

They’ve only been going on for a couple days or so. I’ve been sweating more than usual, and well, I’ve been smelling a little funky at times. It’s not that I’m not wearing deodorant, it’s just that it’s not working out with my deodorant. But like a relationship gone wrong in which neither person can break up with the other, I keep sticking that deodorant under my arms. And I keep stinking.

I’ve been meaning to go to COOP Mart and buy new deodorant (Black Rexona for Men, not Yellow Rexona for Men, the one I’m wearing now). But I haven’t gone. Every morning I wake up, look at my yellow container of deodorant, and think, “Damn, I forgot to buy deodorant again.” And then I stick that deodorant back under my arms. And I walk around town stinking like a pig.

As I sat in a bus driving through Tay Ninh Province, on the way to the Cambodian border, I wondered why I hadn’t bought new deodorant the day before. Why did I stick that yellow deodorant under my arms yet again, when I knew full well it was making me stink like Hell? I looked out the window at the endless rice paddies with buffalo and farmers walking through them. I took a whiff of my underarms. I closed my eyes and shook my head.

Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.


I should have known my trip was destined to failure the night before. After working till 4:45pm, I had three things to do: buy a bus ticket to Cambodia; pick up some U.S. cash (US cash is the unofficial currency in parts of Cambodia); and pick up a disposable camera.

I wanted the camera because I wanted to take pictures of all the silly looking Cambodian casinos that cluster at the border.  I wanted to include them with a story like this. And I didn’t want to deal with my point and shoot…especially since I lost my USB cord, and the new one I bought doesn’t work (the problem has since been fixed). Disposable cameras are easy enough to find for a savy Ho Chi Minh City-dweller like myself: just roll on down to Nguyen Hue, stop in at one of the main film shops (where you go to get passport photos), and buy one of the many disposables they have on sale.

But when I rolled up to 70B Nguyen Hue, there were none to be found. Plenty of rolls of film….just no disposables. I left the shop. It was raining. It had been raining all day. I was tired. I was wet. I had been working all day. My work bag was getting wet. I went to another shop. No disposables. My mind started to ask sarcastic questions to the unhearing shopkeepers: “Do people still even buy film?!?! Who??? Who buys film??? If people buy film, WHY WOULDN’T AN OCCASIONAL PERSON WANT A DISPOSABLE!?!?!”  I got angry and started acting irrational, confusing everyone. I started driving in circles. Did I mention it was raining, and I had been working all day, and my work bag was getting wet?

Finally, I came to shop where the guy said he could make a phone call and get a disposable. Twenty minutes later, a woman walked in with a plastic, camouflage film camera. It wasn’t what I asked for….but it was camouflage.  That almost swayed me. But I ended up leaving without a disposable.

The troubles had begun….



I made some friends on the bus. They were two girls from Germany who spoke English really well. They were traveling around Southeast Asia for 7 weeks…they had a week and a half left. They seemed excited for me. “Good luck!” they shouted as I walked away from the bus. (There were also some British brahs with tribal tats on the bus…but we didn’t talk much).

As I walked down the road, I couldn’t hide my excitement…I was smiling my way down the road. I was in the town of Bavet, a border town only two hours away from Ho Chi Minh City, a place known almost entirely for its casinos.

I’ve been to Foxwoods in Connecticut; I’ve been to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut; I’ve even been to the casino in Montreal. But I’ve never been to Vegas since turning 21 (I was there when I was 9 or 10…but that doesn’t count). When you go to Foxwoods, or Mohegan, or the one in Montreal, there’s one and only one. As you drive you see the giant building sparkling in the distance.  But then you get there, park in the parking garage, and head inside…and that’s it, you don’t leave until you’re done.

I’ve never been to a place where casinos are all concentrated together…like Vegas or Macau or Atlantic City. So as I stood at the end of the road in Bavet…that was all I saw.  I didn’t see anything else. I breathed in. I breathed out. I felt like a pilgrim who had finally made it to the end of the dusty road, looking out in the distance towards the glittering towers of Mecca. I felt like a cactus feeling its first drops of rain after years of staring at nothing but sun, clouds, and blue sky. I felt like Balboa when he spotted the Pacific through the trees, sparkling blue and green in the midday sun. I felt like I was making a discovery, experiencing something for the first time. I felt good. I took a picture of myself.


There were casinos standing in front of me. And they were there for me. And that’s all I could see.



I took out my camera and started taking pictures. Good Luck Casino. Las Vegas Sun. Emperor Casino. Casino Royale. I remembered reading an old Bill Simmons column years ago, when he talked about how walking down the strip was a highlight of any Vegas trip. I thought of that, as I walked through the puddles, plastic bottles, condom wrappers and chom chom skins that littered the side of the road; I thought of that as buses, trucks, cars and motorbikes whizzed dangerously close to me; I thought of that as thunderclouds built in the distance, and the smell of dogshit stung my nostrils.


“THINK OF YOUR SAFETY” a sign told me as I walked. A truck flew by too close to me.

Up ahead I saw the Winn. Steve Wynn owns one of the most luxurious casinos in Las Vegas. Man, I thought, Steve Wynn built a casino here? Then I realized it was spelled Winn, not Wynn. But everything else looked the same…they got the signature down perfectly.


Asia….land of the bootlegs. They even have bootleg casinos.

I’d been walking for ten minutes. The thunderclouds were growing…it was only a matter of time before the rain would start falling on me. This is what happens during the rainy season in Southeast Asia. It rains a lot. The Winn was about 100 yards ahead. I started getting hit with raindrops. I started to run towards the Winn, my sanctuary.

But the Winn would not be my sanctuary on this day. When I got to the Winn, it was chained off. Closed.


Maybe Steve Wynn had gotten wind of the Winn’s scheme and wrote them a cease and desist letter. Maybe they murdered someone over a debt and got caught (these are stories that the Vietnamese tell you about Bavet…that people are murdered there over debts and buried in the nearby swamps. Good reason to bring your own cash). Maybe the Winn just wasn’t a good casino.  Whatever the case, it was closed, decrepit, dark, fenced off. It looked like the kind of place that might be haunted. I wondered if the kids of Bavet dare each other to spend a night in the Winn, where the ghosts of lost savings and fortunes still haunt the hallways.  Or if maybe they just break into the Winn to do teenager things.  The raindrops started getting bigger. Arriving at the Winn right as it started raining was no longer perfect timing. I was going to get rained on.


I turned around. On the nice brick sidewalk in front of the Winn a dog was taking a shit.

I crossed the road and walked back up from where I came, through the giant, muddy puddles in the rain on a dangerous embankment, towards The Titan. The Titan looked like the only actual legit casino in town, with the possible exception of Le Macau. Which is what I wanted. In America, I would maybe choose a low-key casino, where there wouldn’t be too much pressure on me. But here in Asia, I didn’t want low-key. I wanted something legit, because that would mean more games. Asians love to gamble, but it’s usually baccarat or sic bo, two very, very simple games that have decent odds, but just seem boring to me. Plus, I’ve never played either. I wanted to play blackjack or craps.

A big, legit casino is more likely to have Western games. That’s what I wanted. Western Games.


It was pouring rain. I ran through the entrance. Bavet: the only place where you gamble in order to stay out of monsoons. I arrived at the glamorous front entrance soaking wet. Some people were walking around in suits. I walked inside.

The freezing cold air conditioning hit me like a wall; rainwater and AC don’t mix well. The first thing I noticed was that it was very dark inside. And quiet. Some people were mingling around. On one side of the lobby there was a Chinese Restaurant; on the other side, a Western Restaurant.

It’s not like when you walk into an American casino and you’re immediately blasted with light, colors and noise: electronic music coming from one-armed bandits, coins hitting metal, more electronic noise. There was none of that. I was definitely in a casino…but it was cold, dark and silent. It felt more dangerous than a Western casino…more ominous.

I started walking.  I didn’t know what I was looking for. I passed some electronic games. I passed a disco room (the doors were locked). I passed a VIP room. I passed some slot machines. I paused at one called ‘Monkey Express.’ No one was playing them. No one was even in the room. There were signs on the wall for a baccarat tournament that was two months finished.

I came into another room. There a few desks with girls behind them. Chinese lettering on the wall. And then, another door…

…and it opened into the table room. And my oh my, there were the tables. For the first time I felt like I was in a casino. The room was humming with the sounds of people playing table games. Suddenly I felt happy…it felt good to be in a casino. I hadn’t been in one for over five years.

I walked around, trying to take it all in. There were card games, but I didn’t seem to know any of them. A smiling female dealer tried calling me to a busy table. I kept walking. I saw Pai Gow Poker…a game I don’t know. And then I came to the baccarat tables: hundreds of tables, just for baccarat. It was crazy…tables were absolutely packed with people playing baccarat.

The room was smoky. A guy noticed me and approached me. “Hey Man!” He had a fannie pack on. Oh shit, I thought.  I don’t know who this guy is but I don’t want to talk to him. That’s an instinctive thought when you’ve lived in Asia for awhile…you don’t want to get ripped off by some stranger. Usually, the friendlier they seem, the more likely they are to try and rip you off.

I avoided him, doubled back around some tables, and kept walking fast. There was cigarette smoke everywhere. All I could see were baccarat tables, and all I wanted was a blackjack table. Suddenly I wished I had a friend with me. I wished I had someone to gauge the situation with me.

I found an employee walking around in a suit and tie.

“Blackjack?” I asked.

“Oh yes sir, right over here,” he replied. And sure enough, he brought me to a perfectly empty blackjack table. I think there were only two in the whole room, right next to each other. Both completely empty. Empty blackjack tables…an endangered species in America, but thriving in Southeast Asia.

They had to scramble to get the dealer. Apparently there’s only one blackjack dealer in the whole casino. I waited. A very friendly looking young man appeared, with a very friendly looking pit boss in a red sport jacket.

“Hello sir!” he said, all smiles. “How are you today?”

“Suseday,” I replied. “I’m fine, akun.”

He and the pit boss started laughing. “Oh! You speak Khmer!”

“Not really…Suseday, Akun, Ok Benya…that’s all I know.”  They nodded and smiled. “I speak a little Vietnamese. Anh noi Tieng Viet?” I asked. They shrugged their shoulders and smiled a little. Ok, I thought, stick to the three phrases you know how to say in Khmer. Or English.

“Ok…we play blackjack?” the dealer asked.

“Yeah, let’s do it,” I said. I put my cash on the table, but they kind of started to freak out. Apparently you don’t do that here. They called the cash boy, the same guy with the fanny pack I had seen earlier. I gave him the cash, and he gave me chips. In the States they keep the money inside the table…in Cambodia they keep the cash in fannie packs carried by 18 year olds. Whatever works.

As I collected my chips, the dealer began to shuffle the decks.


I’ve only played blackjack a few times at casinos: 2 times in Montreal, 3 times at Mohegan Sun, and one time while nearly blackout drunk at a bachelor’s party at Foxwoods ( I don’t count that time because I was almost blackout drunk, and it was 5am).

I’ve always done okay. When I was living in Vermont way back when, I taught myself the basic strategy: when to hit, when to stand, when to double down, when to split, and when to surrender if allowed.  Also never to take insurance.

I’d play with a deck of cards in my living room. I’m not good at math, but I am good at memorizing pointless things, and that’s basically blackjack: when we finally made the trip up to Montreal, I cleared $120 if my memory serves me right. We went back later and I won again, about $100.

I didn’t play again until about two years later, at the aforementioned bachelor’s party, when in a state of inebriation and exhaustion I managed to lose about $150 at 5am.  Like I said…..I don’t count that. Call me a cheater if you must.

Then I took another break and came back about a year later, this time to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. This was far and away my best encounter: I won over $350 in one night. The great part was that it was at a $25 a bet table: it was Friday night, and on Friday night at Mohegan the blackjack seats are expensive property. It took me about 20 minutes to get a seat. When the bets are $25 a pop, that’s borderline not fun. But I started winning right off the bat, got close to $500, took some bad hits, and ended up walking away with about $350. Both of my buddies had lost. That’s a good feeling: when you’re the only winner. You feel special.  You can’t gloat, but it’s cool. The next time I went a won about $100, the last time I went I lost about $100…and that’s my blackjack experience in a nutshell.


And now I was back. It was my first time in a casino since those times at Mohegan. I was feeling it. I’d been gone for so long…I’d been practicing playing, getting the moves right in my head…I was ready.

But it’s weird when it’s just you and the dealer at a blackjack table. I’m used to being around at least a couple degenerates. When it’s just you and the dealer…it feels weird.

It doesn’t feel right.

But at the same time, I was sitting a $5 blackjack table by myself. $5!  And there was no pressure…if I screwed up a move, I wouldn’t have some degenerate saying things like, “Jeeeeeeeuz Christ!”

So I stayed.

He dealt the cards. I got a pair of sixes. He was showing a three.

Bam. Right off the top, an interesting hand. A pair. And not just a pair, but a pair that should be split: sixes against a three.

I doubled my bet, pointed my index and middle finger in the peace sign to signify that I wanted to split. He split me. He dealt himself 21. And so it went.

“So sorry!” he said, smiling. And I felt it was sincere.

I shrugged. What can you do, I thought. Bad break.

But it didn’t stop. Every hand went his way. EVERY F**KING HAND. I’d get 20, he’d get 21. I’d get 21, he’d get 21. I’d stand on 16 against a 2, he’d get a 17. I’d double down on 11 and get dealt a three. I started with $40. Reasonable enough. That’s enough for 8 losing bets. For the next twenty minutes, I DID NOT WIN ONE HAND. Each time he dealt me decent hands, we’d push. It was either push or lose, never win. And all the way he kept smiling and saying, “So sorry.”

$40 later, I was dumbstruck. What the Hell just happened?!?! Blackjack is a game where you hang around, treading water, waiting for a big double down or split to go the right way or the wrong way. You win some, you lose some. The house wins more on average, because the house always wins (Remember that kiddies!), but you win some. It’s the nature of blackjack. Even when you lose, you win a couple.

I didn’t know what to do. I had the perfect situation…a $5 blackjack table all to myself, a seemingly friendly dealer, free waters provided by a pretty girl in a white dress. But I felt like I had just been smashed in the face with a big plastic mallet. Repeatedly.

I reached in my pocket and took out $30. I gave it to the cash boy. And we continued.

The scene became downright bloody. The mallet that was originally plastic was now metal. And it was still smashing my face. I won a couple hands here and there, and the dealer would applaud me. “Winner!” he would say. But I could barely see the chips on the table through the blood in my eyes. Even when I won, I was hit in the face with a mallet.

At one point I got 21. The dealer looked at the cards and said, “Oh, so sorry, 22.” The electrical circuits in my brain were flickering. My brain was asking me questions like, “Are you sure you’re making the right moves out there? Are you sure the basic blackjack strategy is the correct strategy?” In the bedlam I looked at the cards and said, “Yes, that’s right, a 22.”

But it wasn’t a 22. It was a 21.

He took my money. Then he paused. “Oh my, oh no, you have 21!” I looked again. 21. “Oh,” I said, feeling stupid.

Since he had already taken my chip, the pit boss had to check with the bosses upstairs to see if I could get my chip back. I sat staring at the table as they talked on the phone. The pit boss hung up and the dealer put the chip back on the table. We continued to play the hand. He had a 15.

He hit. He busted. I won money. But it was a demoralizing victory…I won because the dealer made a mistake and corrected himself, something I didn’t even realize.

At some point during all of this, cash boy came back, smiling and laughing, with a glass mug filled with iced tea. He started to say something to me, put his iced tea on the table, and caused great chaos when suddenly glass, ice and tea were all over the table.  Something happened which I had never seen in my lifetime: when cash boy put his mug on the table, it simply split in half. It looked like a samurai sword had sliced through the middle of it. Calling it a bizarre occurrence doesn’t even give it justice. There were only two pieces of broken glass, split perfectly. There were no little shards. Anyway, the game stopped for a little bit as the pit boss and a bunch of waitresses came over to clean the mess. Cash boy threw the broken glass into a flower pot. Hey, why not?

When the mess was cleaned, I took out more cash. Hey, why not? Shit, I’d hadn’t even been in Cambodia for an hour. The dealer looked slightly embarrassed. The cash boy was jolly.

As I continued to lose, cash boy started to laugh and call out things. “Tiger Beer! Tiger Beer!” I became furious. Maybe he was implying that I needed to get drunk to play better, or to deal with my losses, or just to party hardy. But it infuriated me. It’s one thing if some jerk at a casino is making fun of you at a casino when you’re losing…it’s a whole ‘nother thing when the casino employees start ragging on you. Even if it was only cash boy.

I was dealt an 18. “Surrender?” the dealer asked. I understood that it was only him screwing up the English; he meant to say ‘Stand.’ That was obvious. But perhaps I should have taken his advice when he asked me to surrender on 18. Perhaps I should have surrendered.

It was time to re-shuffle. I watched the dealer shuffle the cards. No funny business was going on. I was sitting at a normal blackjack table, as far as I could tell.

He finished shuffling. I immediately lost my chips. My head was on fire; I stood up and backed away from the table.

“I have to leave now…my head is on fire,” I told them.  I smelled smoke in my brain.

Cash boy, the dealer, and the pit boss watched me leave, smiling.

As I walked away I heard the dealer say “Sorry Sir!” I walked past all the people playing baccarat. Straight ahead was a sign on the wall that said “Texas Hold ‘Em.” Hold ‘Em, I thought. Now there’s a game I can play. I’ll just switch to Hold ‘Em. All the tables were empty.  Not a soul to be found playing Hold ‘Em.

Would they let me play Hold ‘Em against myself? I wondered. Would I win against myself?


It was lunchtime. There’s no better way to work up an appetite then to get completely bludgeoned at a blackjack table in the span of forty minutes.

I decided to try the Chinese restaurant in the lobby. Upon entering the glass doors, I realized that it was a stale, depressing place that smelled like cigarettes. I picked up a plastic, brightly colored menu. Inside there were pictures of sushi. Isn’t this place Chinese?

“Hello Sir.” I turned. A waiter was standing by in a formal outfit. “That is our Japanese menu.  There is our Chinese menu.”

I put down the Japanese menu and took a look at the Chinese one. The first page I turned to offered pig’s ear soup. This was real Chinese food. No Kung Pao Chicken here.

“Ummm…I might come back,” I lied to the waiter. I left and crossed the darkened lobby to the Western restaurant. The Western restaurant was boarded up with a padlock and chain. Inside looked dark, dirty, and not open for business. Next to the door was a menu with pictures of a bunch of odd looking drinks that were definitely not Western.

Suddenly I felt like I was suffocating. I need air, my brain told me.

I left the darkened lobby to re-enter the humidity of Cambodia in the rainy season. It wasn’t raining, but there were rain clouds in the sky.


Lunch options were limited. Upon leaving the premises of the Titan, I saw a place called Flowery Restaurant. It was sleepy looking inside; the lights were off. That place has promise, I thought. I’m being serious. It was a promising looking place.

But I headed off the down the road instead. You see, I’ve been to Bavet several times before; anyone making the bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh stops here for lunch after crossing the border. The people that run these “bus lunch places” serve a mix of Khmer and Vietnamese street food. The prices are fair, and the food is usually good. And they always have beer. And at this point in time, I wanted a beer. Badly.

But I didn’t realize how far down the road the restaurants were. I kept walking and walking. Gas stations, a gym, a bike mechanic, barber shops, crappy cafes, broken down little buildings, vacant fields filled with trash, rice paddies. I passed all of these things without seeing a single decent looking place to eat. I saw guesthouses, but no lunch places.


I finally came to one of the bus restaurants. They have huge parking spots out front built specially for buses; I think they’re the only bus specific restaurants I’ve ever seen. By the time I got down there I was sweaty and discouraged. By all means, I should have gone in and eaten. But for some reason, I didn’t.

I stood in the middle of a bus parking spot, looking into the cavernous restaurant with giant ceilings and sparkling clean floors.  They had a side area that sold chips, fruit, and bathroom stuff. I could have bought deodorant.

But for some reason that I can’t explain, I suddenly felt revolted by the thought of eating at the bus restaurant. Maybe it was because it was empty. Not a soul was eating in there. There were no buses out front. Maybe I just couldn’t picture myself eating inside such a large building all by myself, after so recently sitting all alone at a blackjack table and squandering my money. So for no good reason at all, as more rain clouds built up above me, I turned around, tired, sweaty, and hungry, and began to trudge back up the road. I didn’t buy deodorant.


It took me ten minutes or so to make it back to Flowery Restaurant. By this time, it was about 1:20pm. That’s a dangerous time to eat lunch in a restaurant in Asia. Asians eat lunch early; if you go to a local lunch place in Ho Chi Minh City, the good stuff is usually gone shortly after 1pm. I hoped that Flowery would provide me with something good.

I walked into the darkened, completely empty restaurant. It was kind of nice; it looked like the kind of place that would cater to tourists in Siam Reap. It looked out of place.

The menu was written on the wall in Khmer, Vietnamese and English. There were several dishes advertised. Chicken Curry, for $1.75, looked promising. No one came to help me. I left my table and walked up to the middle aged woman eating a bowl of food behind the counter.

“Chicken curry,” I said.

“No,” she said.

OK, Plan B, I thought.

I had no Plan B. I threw the idea of there being a menu out the window. “What do you have?” I asked in English.

She opened a metal pot. Inside was a green curry. It looked cold. “Chicken?” I asked, knowing the answer would be no. “No,” she said. She moved her spoon around the curry, displaying nothing but curry. No veggies, no meat, no fruit, no nothing, just sauce.  “Noodles,” she said. She pointed to a pile of cold white noodles sitting next to the pot. Cold green curry with no meat, no veggies, and cold noodles. The one and only dish on the menu of Flowery Restaurant on this fine, rainy day.

I left without saying bye.



I continued walking up the road, back towards the border with Vietnam. I passed the Titan, that terrible place with that terrible blackjack table and that terrible cash boy yelling his terrible things as I flushed my money down a toilet.

I saw a red and white sign ahead. It said ‘Pho Paris Restaurant and Hotel.’ Beneath that was a smaller sign that said ‘Angkor Beer,’ the official beer of Cambodia. Pho sounded nice. Anything to take my mind off the fact that I was in Bavet, Cambodia.

I entered and immediately realized that it wasn’t going to be very good. I don’t know how I knew this, I just knew. The Khmer waiter gave me a hot pot menu; it said ‘Lau’ on the front, the Vietnamese word for hot pot. He realized that I probably wasn’t about to eat an entire hot pot by myself, hungry as I might look, and he brought me a normal menu.

I ordered beef luc lac and an Angkor Beer. Luc lac is a pretty easy dish to make; it’s basically chunks of grilled beef with rice. It’s very popular in Cambodia, quick to make, cheap, and hard to screw up. It was an obvious choice. The waiter brought me my beer, a teapot filled with hot tea, and a glass mug half filled with hot water, into which a fork and spoon were put.

I was surrounded by Vietnamese men smoking, drinking, eating, and talking loudly. Turns out I didn’t need to bring US cash out here…there’s almost as much Vietnam Dong floating around as there is USD.

A couple tables away there was a group of Vietnamese guys at a table with a big steaming hot pot in the middle. They were yelling in Vietnamese at the waitresses and taking shots of whiskey. It was about 1:40pm.

Damn fellas. Take it easy.

I finished my beer and got the attention of the waiter. I felt a little bit loose from the beer, but now I needed sustenance: sugar and caffeine. Coke. Or as it’s usually known out here, ‘Coca.’ Of course, I don’t live in Cambodia, but I assumed he would understand what a Coca was. He certainly had experience waiting on Vietnamese people.

“Coca,” I said.

Blank stare.

“Coca,” I said.

Blank stare.

Jesus Christ. I tried a new approach.

“Coca, Coke, Coca-Cola! Coca, Coke, Coca-Cola!” Then I made a drinking motion.

The drinking motion made his eyes light up. “Aaaah, Angkor Beer,” he said.


“NO, COCA, COCA, COCA-COLA, COKE, NO ANGKOR BEER, NO!” I ran over to pile of menus. I grabbed a hot pot menu by accident; no drinks in there. I grabbed the real menu; flipped to the drink page; found the word ‘Coke,’ written under ‘Soft Drinks’.

I pointed. “Coke,” I said. His eyes lit up again. “Aaaaaahh…..Coca,” he said.

I closed my eyes. It’s all I could think to do.


As I ate my luc lac and drank my Coke, it started to rain outside. And I’m not talking about any little rainstorm. I’m talking about a mutherf**king monsoon.

Sometimes when it rains really hard in Southeast Asia during the rainy season, it comes down in sheets. You can see the sheets moving around through the rain. But when it’s really, really, REALLY raining, it doesn’t come down in sheets. It comes down in walls.

There were walls and walls and walls of rain falling from the sky. Just knocking into each other, blowing around, bouncing off the ground back up into the sky. Walls. Walls and walls of rain.

The walls of rain kept falling for about 30 minutes. That’s unusual in the city; maybe out here in the countryside it happens more often. I sat at my table watching the rain for about ten minutes after I finished eating, and then I ventured out the front door.

I chatted with a Cambodian tour bus worker for a few minutes. His job was crossing and re-crossing the border between Vietnam and Cambodia on tour buses.  He spoke English really well. We talked about Cambodia and Vietnam, Cambodian girls vs. Vietnamese girls, Cambodian food vs. Vietnamese food. I always played it safe. “Ohhhh….well you know, Cambodian girls are very beautiful, and Vietnamese girls are very beautiful!” “Ahahaha….YES YES YES!” he would yell in response.

Finally the walls stopped crashing around the parking lot in front of us. When it merely became a torrential downpour, I said goodbye and ran 100 yards through the rain to my next destination: Las Vegas Sun.



I needed a change of scenery. I had no desire to go back to the Titan, where I was hacked to pieces in a matter of minutes. But I wasn’t done gambling. I hadn’t even been in Cambodia for two hours. And so it was decided that I would enter the smaller Las Vegas Sun. Across the road was Le Macau. Being an American, I decided to stick to my roots.

I had to walk through a metal detector to get into the Sun. I liked it better immediately: instead of dark and quiet, it was light and vibrant. The lighting made a huge difference; when I walked into the table room, I didn’t feel like I was in a cave.

I made my way to the cashier’s desk. I realized I only had $20 USD left (I stupidly left 500,000 VND back at my apartment because I didn’t think they would take it. But Dong is almost a second currency in Bavet). With a combo of Dong and USD, I collected 18 dollars in chips. I began searching for a blackjack table.

It never occurred to me to try baccarat. I know how to play. It’s easy. The odds are better than blackjack. I could have blended in better. But I was being stubborn: I wanted blackjack.

I found the blackjack table. It was a $10 table. No biggie. Still cheap where I came from. The rules seemed about the same as I took a quick glance at the rule placard: splitting Aces was only allowed once, same as the Titan. Fair enough, though really not that fair.

The cards were shuffled. I put ten dollars down. The pit boss leaned over the dealer’s shoulder. “Sir, you have to play two hands,” he said.

What he said didn’t register in my brain. “Huh?”

“You must play two hands,” he said.

“But it’s a $10 table,” I said. I was starting to get angry. I don’t get angry easily.

He continued. “Yes, but this is a ten dollar table, so you must play two hands. We only have one other blackjack table, and that one is $20.”

Confusion, anger and disbelief mixed together to form some unknown emotion that I had never encountered until that point. So really, it’s a $20 table. F**king liars.

That’s what my brain said. All I said was, “Jesus Christ.” I’m pretty sure my eyes were flinging eff bombs at them. Either way, I walked back to the cashier’s desk, and asked for 2 more dollars in chips. I gave them some Dong.

It was at this point that I should have run like Hell. I should have fled to Le Macau. But some disgusting little voice in my head told me to go to the blackjack table and place two ten dollar bets. I was becoming pathetic. I was beginning to loathe who I was and what I was doing.

I walked back. The emotionless dealer and pit boss looked at me. I sat down. I put out two ten dollar bets. I was dealt a 13 and a 16. The dealer had dealt himself a 5. And then he didn’t even deal himself his other card for me to see, unturned on the table….he left it in the deck. WHICH I DID NOT LIKE AT ALL.

I should have called him out. But he was showing a 5.

F**k it, I thought. I didn’t say anything.

I don’t remember what he ended up dealing himself, but whatever it was caused me to get up from the table and walk away in utter disgust.



I was back in the rain. It wasn’t raining hard…but it was raining.

I was out of cash. I wanted an ATM.  I knew my limit…I was close. But I wasn’t there yet. I had three hours left to cross the border. It wasn’t last call yet. The lights were still off. People were still dancing.

So I crossed the road to Le Macau. I walked into the lobby. And I uttered a word that, much like Coca, never causes a problem when used in Vietnam.


Blank stares.

Here we go.  “ATM.” I said it more firmly this time, more sure of myself. More blank stares.

“F**k it,” I said out loud. I walked into the game room. There were two girls seated at a desk. Computers were in front of them.  Promising.

“Do you have ATM?” I asked. More blank stares.

I whipped out my Vietcombank card. “Credit card? Money? ATM???”

They smiled. “No, no!”

Again, the answer didn’t register. I tried again. I waved my credit card around like a lunatic.

“I want money! I have credit card! Money??”

“No, no!” They were laughing, like, “Why the Hell is this guy trying to get more money at a casino???”

“Ok,” I said. “Then…ATM. WHERE?!?”

“Outside,” they said.


Being self-destructive to yourself is always a little depressing. But it becomes more so when you try and try and try to self-destruct, and you can’t succeed. You fail at self-destruction. And everyone laughs at you. That’s a bad feeling.

I got back to the lobby. “ATM?” I asked the fellas out front again. I didn’t even wait for the blank stares…I started doing my whole “Guy walks into an ATM booth charades-routine,” complete with the actual ATM card in my hand. Finally, knowing nods.

“Yeah, yeah…Acleda.” And they pointed up the road. And it didn’t make any sense to me.

I walked back out to the road. It was raining hard. I considered just re-crossing the border, back to the sanity of Vietnam. But I had hardly any cash on me at all….questionably not enough to make it back home. I needed cash, not only for self-destruction, but for self-preservation. I NEEDED CASH.

There were some motorbike drivers and randoms hanging out by the road where the big Le Macau sign is. “Motorbike?” one of them asked.

“No,” I said. “ATM.”

“Yeah, yeah, I drive you.” They all started jockeying to drive me. Jesus, I thought, this town is tiny. Is the closest ATM not in walking distance?

Just then a guy driving some weird looking golf cart thing with the words Le Macau written on the side pulled up. Everyone started yelling for me to get in, and they were yelling at him “Acleda, Acleda!”  I got in. We pulled a u-turn and drove back up the road.

It would have taken me 15 minutes to walk to the ATM in rain. I didn’t even question why a town full of casinos would only have one ATM. By this point that seemed perfectly logical.

I got out, ran through the rain, and made it into the ATM machine with the word Acleda printed across the front. I took out my US card; it seems to work in any country without a problem. I asked for $60. I was informed that I’d be charged $4 for the withdrawal. Whatever. And then I got a blank receipt and no money. Was there an error? I hate it when you don’t know if the ATM machine has screwed you or not; did it keep my money?

I tried my Vietcombank card. No dice. This time I saw the reason: illegal transaction. Not allowed. Curse words flashed across my mind. Lots of them.

I took my US card back out. I tried it again. And again….This Transaction is Not Allowed. I lay my head on the ATM machine. I could hear the machinery laughing at me from beneath its plastic skin.

I walked back into the rain and got back into the golf cart. On the way back he asked, “Money?” I only had Dong on me. At the front door of Le Macau, I gave him 100,000 VND. He seemed pretty pissed. He gave me my change in Dong.


I walked back across the road to Las Vegas Sun. Why, you ask? Well, because I knew I could get money there…before I lost my money to the shady blackjack table, I had chatted with the friendly ladies at the cashier’s desk, who informed me I could take out money with a credit card. It wasn’t preferred….but I needed money to get home. It would have to do.

I walked back to the cashier’s desk. I asked for $80. $20 of that was strictly for getting home, not for gambling.

“Okay, we charge three person.”

Again, my mind tried to comprehend what I was hearing and failed.

“Three person?” I asked.

“No, no….three person.”

“Three…person? Three people? One Two Three?” I was losing my ability to communicate in a sane manner. Bavet was slowly driving me insane. Were they going to charge me three times?

The guy next to me tried to help. “No, no” he said, “only three person.”

It was going to happen…I was going to faint. For the first time in my life. And then the woman wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. It said, “3%.”

I started to laugh and shake at the same time. “Oh, yes, hahahhhaha, three percent, yes, yes, no problem….”


I don’t know why I did it. I should have played baccarat. People were winning at baccarat. I know how to play baccarat. It’s probably the easiest goddamned game to play on the planet, which is why in Vegas it’s often stuck in high-stakes only rooms with ropes around the edge: good odds, easy to play.

But I was being grossly stubborn. I walked back to the infamous fake $10 blackjack table: the one where it’s actually $20, because you have to have two bets on the table at one time in order to play.

I sat down. The same dealer and pit boss were there. They dealt the cards. The dealer kept pulling that same BS, where he wouldn’t bring out his second card unturned, but leave it in the deck. But the thing is…I started winning a little. At one point I even won three straight bets. So I stuck around.

And then it happened: the dealer dealt himself a 5, and dealt me Ace/3. I know what to do on an Ace/3 against a 5…I double my bet. And so I did. And suddenly the pit boss was waving his hands with a sour look on his face.  “No no no no no no, not allowed,” he said.

I was dumbstruck. “No double downs?!” I almost shouted. I grabbed the little rule placard to look at the rules. He pointed at my ace.  “Ace on the table…no double down allowed on an ace.” I almost puked. “No double down on an ace?” I couldn’t hide my contempt. My astonishment. My absolute bewilderment. “No double down on an ace?” I repeated.  “Not allowed,” he said.

In disgust I took my chip away. I hit. One card. That’s all I needed. He busted. I won. But I was frothing mad, and I realized that there was no way I could win at this table. I wanted to jump up and down on the table and scream at them, “CHEATERS, CHEATERS, YOU’RE A BUNCH OF CHEATERS!” But instead of walking away like I should have, RIGHT THEN AND THERE, I proceeded to play. Out of spite. I wanted to win out of spite. That’s never a good thing. I lost all my chips within in ten minutes. Disgusted, I left without making eye contact with anyone.


Back in the rain. 2:45pm. I looked over to the border. It was very close. All I wanted to do was walk back across the border and end this travesty. I had no desire to be in Bavet any longer. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just been cheated. Forced to play two bets at a time, at a table where the dealer wouldn’t even take his second card out of the deck until after I made my moves…and where double downs weren’t allowed on any hand containing an ace. I felt cheated. I didn’t want to leave feeling that I had been cheated. If I was going to lose money, I wanted it to at least seem fair.

I looked back across the road at the Titan. It stood there, taunting me. We play fair, it seemed to say to me. It’s not our fault we absolutely murdered you this morning. It was just a bad break. At least we play fair.

I looked in my wallet. I had enough cash to get home, plus an extra $30. I closed my wallet. Put it in my pocket. And started walking back towards the Titan.



I felt like I was re-entering the scene of a crime. The dark, freezing cold lobby. The closed Western restaurant and the Chinese restaurant with Japanese menus. The signs on the wall for the baccarat tournament that happened two months ago. It felt terrible being there. It felt lonely.

I re-entered the game room, with it’s terrible, dark lighting. I walked to the cashier desk (screw cash boy). I got $30 in chips. I walked back to the blackjack table.

The pit boss seemed surprised to see me. “Blackjack?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. I sat down with my chips. The sign was still there: $5 minimum bet, $100 maximum bet. No splitting Aces more than once. Fair enough, fair enough.

It took about eight minutes for the dealer to show up. The lone blackjack dealer employed by the Titan. He came back to the table, his face showing a little surprise and what seemed to be genuine friendliness.

“Hello Sir!” he said.

“Hey, Suseday,” I said.

“Suseday,” he said. He began to shuffle the decks. Cash boy came back. He also seemed surprised to see me. I’m not sure, but there may have been pity in all of their eyes. Or maybe it was me feeling miserable about myself, and misinterpreting something else in their eyes that I couldn’t make out.

“Where you go?” the dealer asked as he shuffled. “Oh…all over,” I said.  I waved my arms. He smiled and said “Aaaaah.”

I watched him carefully. No funny business. Just slowly shuffling the cards.

Finally, we were ready to play. I put a $5 chip out on the table. He dealt me the cards. We played.


As I walked back across the border, in the rain, I was serenaded by frogs. I was nowhere; literally, I was between Cambodia and Vietnam, walking, but the frogs didn’t seem to mind. They kept singing. They don’t realize that they live between two countries, I thought.

My $30 was back at the Titan. It didn’t last long. Maybe ten minutes. That’s all it took for me to give away the last of my money.  But this time around I didn’t feel the mallet hit my face. I didn’t feel stunned. I was numb. I was happy. At least they weren’t cheaters, like those terrible cretins at the Las Vegas Sun. At least they played fair.


I walked into complete chaos in the Vietnamese immigration office. Some guy came up to me. “Passport,” he said. I gave him my passport. “Money,” he said. “Money for stamp.” For a second I reached for my wallet, and then I thought: I already have a visa. I just paid $100 for it three months ago.

“No, no, I have visa.” I showed it to him.

He stared at it. He looked at me. “Pay money,” he said. I grabbed my passport back.


It wasn’t so much a line of people to get back into Vietnam; it was more of a blob. Oh, Asia, I thought. When will you learn how to form a line?

I joined the blob. It was stupid. I stood around for awhile.I was pushed by an old man. I stepped in gum (who spits gum out on the floor of the immigration office?!?!?!) Finally, I escaped the insanity.

I was back in Vietnam, back in the rain. Being the only foreigner around (fresh meat!), I was bombarded by guys yelling at me to get a taxi back to Ho Chi Minh City. “Taxi! Taxi! You go Ho Chi Minh City!? Taxi! Taxi!”

No, no, no, no thank you boys, I’ve wasted enough money today. I kept walking, hoping to find a local bus.

There were more guys with sketchy cabs ahead of me. A guy in a raincoat came up to me. “Hey you….you go Ho Chi Minh City?”  I waved him away without saying anything. And then, in a moment of insanity, I looked up into the rain, smiling. “Nah,” I said loudly to myself, “I’m just out here CHILLIN’!” Then I started laughing uncontrollably into the rain. Suddenly I heard someone else laughing too. I looked and saw his buddy leaning out of the window of a minivan. He was watching me and smiling. We exchanged smiles and I kept walking.

But the problem was, I didn’t really know where I was going. Now I was past all the taxis. Up ahead in the distance I saw a flashing green light at an intersection, but no town to speak of. I didn’t know where the town was. I didn’t know where the bus station was.

And then I saw it, directly in front of me by about 200 yards, blocking my path: a giant male water buffalo.

I stopped in my tracks. This I did not foresee. There were people driving around the buffalo on motorbikes…but being on a motorbike is different than being on foot. Much different. I don’t have experience with water buffaloes. Can I safely walk around a male water buffalo without getting murdered?

I stood there in the rain for a moment or two, staring down the road at the massive, horned beast who was blocking my way.

I crossed the road. It was all I could think to do. I was adventured out. I figured losing $200 was bad enough…I didn’t need to get gored by a buffalo to make it more interesting.

But it’s funny…that buffalo was there for a reason. Because as I crossed the median, I saw buses and people: a bus station. And indeed, I found a bus going to Ho Chi Minh City for only 40,000 VND (about $2). And on that bus I found a nice window seat. And that comfortable bus only dropped me two blocks from my house. And I was home in time to eat a nice, cheap Vietnamese meal of grilled pork and rice, and then play soccer later on that night and win a tight game, 7-6. And then I got a good night sleep.

Hey….sometimes you get lucky.


A Short Story about Hockey and Cock-Fighting

Between the 2nd and 3rd period of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup, I left my apartment in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to get some breakfast. It was about 9:00am.

I walked down the road and picked up some com suon: grilled pork, broken rice, vegetable soup, with some fish sauce and chillies on the side. And a banana.

I began walking back up the narrow alleys that led back to my apartment. And there in front of me, blocking my way back, was a cockfight.

There are lots of cockfights in my neighborhood. Dudes are always grooming their roosters, prepping them, carrying them around like children, getting them ready for the next fight. Sometimes you’ll catch a fight as you’re walking around: two birds frantically jumping around at each other, and a bunch of dudes sitting around watching silently, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. And always, at the end, the exchange of money.

I wasn’t about to walk through some damn cockfight. There was money on the line….I didn’t want to have my head smashed with a coffee mug for disturbing an important event. So I watched. It only lasted about a minute or so.

The men picked up their respective roosters. Someone brought some rubber things over to put on their feet. The men were exchanging money with each other: I saw a few 500,000 Dong notes floating around.

I walked through the fighting area to get past them. And suddenly one of the men with a rooster in his hands grabbed my arm forcefully. I looked at him. Grasping my arm forcefully, smiling an evil looking smile, he began to rub his cock’s tail feathers against my elbow. He was rubbing his rooster’s ass against my elbow. For good luck I assume.

It only lasted a few seconds. I was a little stunned. He let me go. All the men with money in their hands were watching me. Was I swaying bets? Had my elbow changed the odds?

I was going to stay and see, but the owner of the other rooster was glaring at me. His eyes were pure evil. And so I left. I didn’t want to be there at the end either way.

I got back to my apartment and started watching the 3rd period of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup on my laptop. The Bruins got close, but not close enough. They lost. Now they go back to Boston for Game 6.

So much for good luck. I hope that rooster got his f**king ass kicked.

Shibuya Starbucks in Vietnam or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the View


A long time ago, my buddy was telling me about Tokyo.  We were sitting on my couch, and he was reminiscing about the ten hour layover he had there during a flight back to the U.S.

“It was cool, man.  I jumped on the train from Narita, and got off an hour later at Shibuya.  I highly recommend Shibuya.  There’s a Starbucks there where you can just watch all the people crossing the street from the front windows.  They walk in all these crazy angles!  It’s really famous, and it’s pretty awesome to just watch the people walk.  I posted up there for a couple hours, and then I checked out a temple that was nearby.”

Several months later, when I had a similar layover in Tokyo, I didn’t go to Shibuya: I got off at the previous stop, Shinjuku.  I ate some of the best fried chicken of my life, some grilled fish, and some rice.  I walked around and watched people walk.  I got lost in the Shinjuku train station on my way back, which is officially the busiest train station in the world.  There I was, surrounded by hundreds (no, thousands) of people, trying to find the Express Train back to Narita…and I couldn’t find it.  AND NO ONE SEEMED TO BE ABLE TO SPEAK ENGLISH.  Beyond that, no one seemed interested in stopping to help me out.  Everyone just walked by me like robots, as it dawned on me that I might miss my flight back to Boston.  But then a young woman did help me, and she showed me the way to the correct track, and I thanked her profusely and complimented her English, and we parted ways as I got onto my high speed train back to the airport.

But I don’t want to get off track…

During my time at Shinjuku, I kind of kept thinking about Shibuya and Starbucks: should I have gone on one more stop?  I kept hearing my buddy’s voice in my head: “you just watch all the people walking, it’s amazing, you should go there, go to Starbucks, it’s not for the coffee, it’s for the view.”

I came back to Ho Chi Minh City five weeks later and informed him that I didn’t go to Shibuya or Starbucks.  But I silently vowed to return, and to see Starbucks in Shibuya.

About a year later, I made it to the Shibuya Starbucks.  I was visiting a friend from home, who was in Tokyo for work.  We did a number of interesting things: walked around Ginza, played video games in Akihabara, ate street sushi near Ueno Station.  But I was adamant that we do one thing: go to Starbucks in Shibuya.  My friend and his wife were a little confused.

“What, do you like Starbucks?  I thought you like Vietnamese coffee.”

“No, I don’t like Starbucks, but I’ve been told by a reliable source that we need to go.  You watch the people cross the street.  It’s famous.”

“Wait…we watch people walk.  Dude, what the f**k?!”

“Well, I think it’s cool.  Here, even this Lonely Planet wrote about it.”  That was true.  Lonely Planet wrote about the “Shibuya Starbucks” as a place to see.  If it’s being mentioned in LP, it must be important, right??

“Alright, well….I can always use some coffee.”

And that’s how I convinced my friends to go to Shibuya Starbucks.

It was not easy finding Shibuya Starbucks.  We got off at the massive Shibuya Metro station (almost as intimidating as it’s neighbor, Shinjuku), and walked out expecting to just see Starbucks sitting there, sparkling.  But it wasn’t.  We had to walk for awhile, crossing crazy intersections, and walking under long, dark passages beneath bridges where people were sleeping on the sidewalk.  But lo and behold, after emerging back into the sunlight, there was Shibuya Starbucks.

We went in.  We ordered drinks and snacks.  We went up stairs.  The apprehension was high.  It was mid-morning…walking-time.  What would it be like?  Would it be life changing?  Would the people be out there, walking?

The people were out there, walking.  But it was somewhat underwhelming.  Lots of the curtains were closed to protect the customers from the sun, and where there were no curtains…well, the sun was sort of blinding and hot.  Hot and uncomfortable.  Lots of seats were taken (because this is not your ordinary Starbucks), so we had to settle for uncomfortable seats with curtain views, blocked additionally by a pole.  To view the street, we had to get up out of seats, pull back the curtain, and watch while standing.  It was okay.  But after awhile we stopped watching the walkers, and just chatted while eating our snacks and drinking our drinks.  And after an hour or so, we left.

And that was it.

But the Shibuya Starbucks is something.  It is a landmark.  A landmark signifying the victory of multinational, culture-murdering, mass-consumerism loving conglomerates….but a landmark nonetheless.  That’s good enough for me.

And while it’s maybe not quite as comfortable as most Starbucks, and maybe it’s a bit contrived at this point (people come to watch the walkers, not to drink coffee)…it’s important, dammit.  It’s the most important Starbucks in the world.

Fast-forward to now.  The multinational fast food chains continue to work their way into Vietnam.  KFC has been here for over a decade now, but just a few months ago a new player arrived on the scene: Burger King.  Starting small at first (only at the airport), it has since popped up all over the city.  McDonald’s can’t be far behind.  There are shirts that say “I lived in Vietnam before McDonald’s got here.”  Maybe I should buy one.

But when I heard that a certain coffee chain was opening it’s first store in Ho Chi Minh City, I couldn’t be more sickened.  My skin began to crawl.  Vietnam has great coffee.  Check that….Vietnam has OUTSTANDING coffee.  It is known to be some of the world’s best, up there with all the major coffee players.  So why in the world, WHY WHY WHY IN THE F**KING WORLD WOULD VIETNAM NEED OR WANT STARBUCKS?!?!?!

The simple answer is they don’t need it (ofcourse!), but they do want it.  It’s something the whole world (bar a few countries) knows besides them….why wouldn’t they want it?  And on the surface, it’s not so different from some the other coffee chains floating around town…Trung Nguyen, Highlands (rumored to be in the process of being bought out by Starbucks), Angel-In-Us (Korean).  But of course it is different.  It’s Starbucks.  It’s EVIL.

I’ve never understood when some Westerners bitch about how they can’t get a good cup of Western coffee here…first of all, you can, but second of all….YOU’RE IN VIETNAM!  DRINK THE VIETNAMESE COFFEE!  Now they have Starbucks, and some wild, animal part of me is terrified…terrified that Starbucks will swallow all of the small cafes in town, killing everything in it’s path, ruining a perfect coffee heaven.  Ofcourse, this won’t happen.  But it’s a fear.  It’s a fear inside me.


I kept hearing about Starbucks being built.  I never saw it.  I kept missing it every time I drove by.  And then one day, I saw it.  And everything changed.

Because what I was looking at wasn’t Starbucks at all.  It was something bigger.  Something more grand.  Special.

It was Shibuya Starbucks.  Here in Vietnam.  And oh my God, how brilliant it was!

All of my hatred of the idea of Starbucks being in Vietnam dissipated.  For that minute when I first laid eyes on Starbucks, I was in awe.  I was won over by the brilliant example of international branding that stood before me.

I’ll tell you a story.  Don’t worry, it’s quick.  A long time ago, when I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, I was excited and overwhelmed.  It was a fast, noisy, big, bustling city…and I wanted to see it.  I set out walking one evening from my hotel room down in Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker’s area), just looking to see what I could find.

But it wasn’t an easy city to navigate on foot.  It was hot, dirty, and sweaty.  I bought a banh mi (my first ever….I was so excited!), but almost threw up when I realized it was almost entirely made from processed fish.  Disgusted and repulsed, I left it on the ground, so as to not waste it.  I had a guide book with me, which said something along the lines of this: go to the traffic circle, and relax while you watch the mesmerizing traffic.  But I couldn’t relax: I was being swallowed by the mesmerizing traffic.  There was no where to sit.  It was hot.  It was uncomfortable.  It was getting dark.  I didn’t know what to do.  Still excited, yet slightly dazed and overwhelmed, I made my way back to my hotel room, where I watched The Usual Suspects on my computer.

The story above took place at the very circle where Starbucks now sits, open to the public.  That same traffic circle where once there was nowhere to sit now has a place to sit.  It’s called Starbucks.  Or maybe someday it will be the Trung Hung Dao Circle Starbucks.  And maybe someday this Starbucks will aid weary foreign travelers in search of a something to drink, a place to sit, and a chance to watch the traffic.  And maybe that’s a good thing.

As much as I still despise the idea of Starbucks being in Vietnam, I can’t help but appreciate brilliant marketing when I see it.  Starbucks created something unique when they built their now world-famous Shibuya Starbucks: they created not just a coffee shop but a landmark, a place that people like me seek out, if only to drink one drink and watch some people.  And they are now attempting to do that here Ho Chi Minh City as well.

It’s inevitable that globalization will continue to change the face of the world that we live in, for good and for bad.  The fact that I am living in Vietnam and blogging about Starbucks is a case in point.  But I will be interested to see how the new Ho Chi Minh City Starbucks fares.  Will she live up to her older sister’s fame in Tokyo?  Will people seek her out?  Will she make it into Lonely Planet, as a good place to watch the mesmerizing traffic while drinking a Western coffee?

Or will she just blend in with everything else, becoming just another Western business in an Asian world?

I don’t know.  I just don’t know.

I’m thinking about going to Starbucks, to watch some traffic and post up on the internet for a little while.  But I don’t know if I’ll make it.  I may need some time.


-Greg Hovanesian