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Sapa Tale


Before shifting my fluid base to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) this weekend I will post more Sapa material lest it become lost in the dusty archive of a Moleskine. Besides the words, here are three images to share with you. The Nikon and Leica galleries hold extensive Sapa visual stories if you have time.

Sapa is a remote mountain city in the Northwest and a favorite among tourists and travelers. I blogged and linked to Sapa earlier. Fresh air, amazing friendly local people, the H'mong, Red Dzao and Tay. 


All night a heavy rain decorated the lake. Ripples from the center. Water echoes.

My room is on the 4th floor of a cheap local hotel overlooking the lake, away from the typical tourist backpacker joints.

Above the lake are heavily forested eastern mountains with high granite ridges running north. Fog and water and low clouds rumble over the peaks, down the valleys bringing rain, fog and mist. It’s a perfect environment. 

The moving, falling water creates whirlpools on the lake with a steady falling mist.

The air is clean and pure. It feels marvelous. 

At 7:30 a.m. I jump in a van for a three hour trip to the Sunday Bac Ha market south of Sapa. It is “famous” for the Flower H’mong women’s elaborate colorful clothing. In the van are four Australian girls completing their nutritional studies program in Ha Noi.

It’s a splendid wild nature ride up, down and through narrow mountain passes, often with zero visibility as we are surrounded by thick cold fog. It is pouring in Bac Ha and the market is flooded with locals huddled under blue tarps buying and selling. There are lots of foreign tourists. It’s the Sunday “happening.”

We drop the girls off in Lao Cai so they can catch the night train to their dietary studies I and return to Sapa through the clouds as twilight sweeps over peaks into deep valleys where roaring rivers sing.

One Morning.

I rescued a brown moth from room #402 so it could fly into the sky.

At dawn I saw a bright white, yellow sunrise over the eastern mountains. Behind me was a brilliant rainbow arching over the high green western hills. Perfect natural equilibrium. 

I met Sa, a H’mong woman and we walked around the cloth market discussing the finer points of fabric quality. She told me a story about a H’mong woman in the far north mountains who was kidnapped by Chinese men from Yunnan, taken over the border and forced into prostitution. When she became pregnant she was taken to a remote cabin in the Yunnan mountains and kept there as a prisoner. One day she escaped and returned to Vietnam. Human trafficking is a growing problem in the world.

Sa also talked about how there is a lack of minority owned shops in Sapa.

By now most, if not all the H’mong women and kids know me. I’ve been here longer than the average tourist who does 2-3 days; takes a trek, explores the area, maybe really gets to know the local people and then they vanish, back on the train southbound.

I smile and speak with everyone along the path. In-out, up-down the steep sunrise street, past tourist shops and restaurants. “Same-same, but different,” goes the t-shirt proverb.

I am just sitting with the mountains, sky, clouds, kids and dancing stories.

How to travel inside the market. How to carry fresh meat in a box on your motorcycle so you can stop, chop, weigh and sell to the people on the street. 

The village of Sa. Small steps going down, Steep trails, dirt, plants. She identifies wild plants on the hillside used to create the indigo colors in their clothing.

The wild terrain. Rising rice terraces where people harvest. People cut, thresh, stack of stalks and burn them. Isolated puffs of smoke dot the valley below rising green forests and mountains.

It’s a long simple home with a dirt floor and bamboo walls. There are also some wooden walls but wood is expensive. The home is divided into a kitchen on the left, main room and bedroom. The main room has a TV and DVD machine. Under the roof is a storage area.

Outside is a faucet for water, water buffalo pen, pig pen and writing pen. Actually there’s no writing pen. 

Indigo cloth that has been repeatedly dyed in a large vat hangs to dry along a wooden wall. Stacks of straw for winter feeding are stacked. Twenty-five kilogram bags of rice in blue, white and orange plastic bags made in Indonesia are piled in a corner.

Sa's husband returns with the water buffalo and we share a simple lunch prepared by one of Sa’s three daughters. She is 19, a mother, a trek leader and speaks excellent English. Many girls marry at 16. They begin families. We share rice, tofu, and greens.




Sa's husband. One harvest per year.


Nuclear Waste 



The New York Times ran a piece on the toxic cleanup at Los Alamos, New Mexico garbage site. It's costing a cool $212 million. Los Alamos was part of the Manhattan-Project in 1945 where they tested the Trinity atomic bomb.  Read more...

The article is linked to the Hanford, Washington nuclear site where the Department of Energy is working on a glassification project to store radioactive waste. It will cost $1.9 billion. It will take forever. Environmentalists say that Hanford may be the most polluted nuclear site in the country. 

I lived in Richland, Washington for a year paying the bills as a tennis professional at a club and writing. An engineer friend worked at Hanford. In June 2001, when the reactor was down for maintenance we went there on a tour. Surreal, educational and scary.

I wore a dose-o-meter badge to register the levels of radiation as we moved through various levels at the site. As I remember there were at least six deep levels underground; labs, control rooms, offices, machines, lower halls with 55-gallon drums destined to be placed in huge earth excavation pits, the core reactor area and a room with giant turbines. I stepped outside to see the giant electricity grid feeding the Seattle area.

Here is a brief excerpt from my novel, A Century is Nothing and images I took on the tour. 

...My team dived into, under and through massive Columbia waterfalls near tributaries where the confluence of Northwest rivers gnashed their teeth, snaked, roaring past abandoned Hanford nuclear plants where 55 million gallons of radioactive waste in decaying drums left over from W.W.II slowly seeped 130 feet down into the ground toward water tables. 

Tribal survivors ate roots and plants garnished with entropy. 


He turned another fragile yellow page marked Top Secret Evidence.

“It’s called Technicium, TC-99,” said an Indian scientist on a shuttle between reactors. “This is the new death and we know it’s there and there is nothing we can do to prevent it spreading.” 

“The waste approached 250 feet as multinational laboratories, corporations and D.O.E. think tanks vying for projects and energy contract extensions discussed glassification options and emergency evacuation procedures according to regulations. Scientists read Robert’s Rules Of Order inside the organized chaos of their well order communities. 

“Hanford scientists, wives and their children suffering terminal thyroid disease ate roots and plants sprinkled with entropy.    

“The postal worker and the nomad talked over a counter while a frantic mother yelled at her daughter, “DON’T touch the stamps,” because at her precocious age curiosity about colors blended itself toward planetary exploration developing her active imagination. 

“Holding a nebula in his hand he told the woman how, up in the invisible sky, are all these really cool galaxies which means we are a third the life of a 3.5 billion year old universe and she said, ‘That’s interesting. I never looked at the stamps before,’ handing him change.” 

He returned Omar’s papers to the folder and traveled beyond the forest on comet star tails.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, after seeing the atomic test said, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

I suggest you see Hanford Watch for additional information and images.


Fast Flux Reactor, Hanford, Washington.

The control room at Hanford.

Cooling rods being removed from reactor.


Ghost Stories


In today's New York Times I found my comments included in a section called "Ghost Stories." I would like to thank the editors for selecting my piece.

On October 22, I posted an entry called BEDLAM AND HEALING. It was about the NYT and their "Home Fires," opinion section where Brian Turner, a Vietnam veteran posted his essay and poem. I'd read this and entered a comment and later read all of the postings, numbering 163 at that point.

Here is the entire piece and a link to the site. Read more...


Hello Brian and Travelers,

I am a Vietnam veteran, author, English teacher and photographer living in Ha Noi after completing a teaching job in Indonesia. I felt it was time to “return” to a place where, as a green 19 year old, I was really on the ground.

I served with the 101st at Camp Eagle near Hue. I needed to get a sense of place and perspective. Nature has reclaimed all the land. Only the spirits and ghosts and memories remain.

I went to the Phu Bai airport. The yellow and green small simple cement building sits next to an “International” box. On the ground I found a discarded paper baggage handling tag. On one side in all caps it said, "EMPTY." I put it in my pocket.

‘Yes, ‘ I realized, ‘this completes the picture of my returning.’

As I wrote in my novel, “A Century Is Nothing” when I returned to San Francisco from Saigon heading to Denver they gave us a new green uniform.

It was a strange flight to Colorado. I grasped the significance of being a ghost. No one spoke to me. They averted their eyes. Maybe I smelled like death, evil incarnate, a green silent demon. Maybe all the passengers were afraid because I represented their worst nightmare. I was invisible, just like now.

Fortunately my “homecoming” was brief, then I continued to Germany where I finished my military time. Two years later while attending the University of Northern Colorado insensitive students, knowing my history, called me a “baby killer.” They had no idea. I didn’t absorb their sense of anger, frustration and illusionary ignorance.

Brian’s poem is a truthful insight how it feels to be invisible after a war. How leaves and rain and medicine birds are all. A cleansing and healing ceremony indeed. 



Sappho the Poet


This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Ha Noi, Vietnam or Southeast Asia. 

I was reading about Alexander the Great, then wandered into central Turkey, remembering the amazing Museum of Archeology in Istanbul where I met Sappho. She whispered, "I am this or am I dreaming?"

Sappho the poet. (ca. 625-570 BC) 

Born on the island of Lesbos. Known as a lyrical poet who developed poetry away from classical adoration of the gods into expression of individual human experience. She wrote mainly love poems with themes addressed to women. The Christian church was not pleased with her erotic verse. Plato referred to Sappho as the "tenth muse."

By Tony Harrison, winner of PEN/Pinter prize.

...Yiannis Ritsos, the great Greek poet whose books were burned before the temple of Zeus in Athens by the Greek colonels, has a poem about the eye of Geo Milev (1895–1925), the Bulgarian poet. Milev had a blue glass eye, and when he was arrested and burned alive by the police, all that was left of him in the crematorium was the blue glass eye. This is from the poem of Ritsos:

His eye is being kept in the Museum

of Revolution

like a seeing stone of the struggle. I

saw his eye.

In his pupil there was the full story

of the Revolution,

blue scenes of blood-stained years

blue scenes with red flags

with dead who carry in their raised

hands a blue day.

His eye never closes,

this eye keeps vigil over Sofia.

This eye is a blue star in the nights.

This eye sees and illuminates and


Whoever looks at this eye wins back

his eyes.

Whoever looks at this eye sees the


(Translated by Ninetta Makrinikola)

For the moment, while Burma, Iran, China and many other countries monitored by PEN put their poets in prison cells, we put ours in Poets' Corner. I sincerely hope to be spared both."




Nik Bartsch - Ronin


Nik Bartsch is a Swiss pianist, composer and producer. His group, Ronin, doesn't fit into a category or style. They play a mixture of minimalist Steve Reich, James Brown and Japanese ritual music. Bartsch calls it "zen-funk."

He titles his works "Moduls." Check out Holon and Stoa. Modul 42. Modul 36.


“There are two paths a samurai can walk: that of a clan member, and that of a ronin, a lonely warrior. The former is highly esteemed in Japan, the latter is bitterly detested.

The despised warrior without a clan is viewed by clan people as a hungry wolf, roaming through the country, with no ties or obligations, no duties or support, no protection, no respect for people’s material well-being. Despite his virtuosity as a swordsman, a lone fighter is unable to withstand gangs or clansmen eager to fight. His readiness to die could be tested any time: not in a great battle between two mighty clans where he might die a famous hero but in trifling rows over a mouthful of rice or a sip of sake. If a ronin wants to survive, he must, wherever he goes, remain extremely careful. He has no social status whatsoever and is not respected by anybody. People treat him with the same level of caution as they would a wild animal that attacks whenever frightened.

Most of these ronin aren’t happy with their destiny. They spend most of their time struggling to ingratiate themselves with anybody who would accept them, hoping for a clan in need of warriors. They are cursed with shabby clothes and inadequate food, longing for the honour and security of a clan member.

If only those destitute samurai could view their situation without prejudice! They might see that, at the cost of tolerable poverty, they have acquired a rare treasure: freedom.

They are free to cognise the world, free to discover and fulfil the true purpose of man. They can toughen themselves in the wilderness; they can study budo wherever a master is available; they can visit monasteries and practice meditation.

The price they pay for liberty is the occasional empty stomach, a little poverty and loneliness. But it is not easy to rid yourself from the henchman’s crushing burden.”

[Translated from: Thomas Preston, Samurai-Geist - Der Weg eines Kriegers in den japanischen Kampfkünsten, Leimen/Heidelberg 1991, Kristkeitz Verlag]


Read, see, and hear more...


At Ba Da temple, Ha Noi, Vietnam.