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Monday, June 5, 2023

Beachhead to Paradise

As published at SubStack, 6/5/23:

[Pakse, 6/4/23]

Pakse has three Indian restaurants. Of these, Hasan is the best, Jasmin the most popular and Yummy not recommended by anybody. That’s why it’s often empty. Its owner, though, still makes money from a fleabag he barely operates. For less than $3, you can spend a night with bed bugs, mosquitoes and odors from many guests past, and you’ll even get a breakfast of toast, jam and coffee.

There is a rising market for this, so invest in fleabags or, better yet, launch fleabag.com for international long- and short-term rentals. The worse a room sounds, the more popular, for price will be the only consideration, just like with airline flights today.

No bed, just a 30-inch-wide slot, clearly marked on concrete. No toilet, just shrubs within walking distance. It’s best, though, to just hold it in until brightness, for those inky streets are deadly. No running water or light, but night is supposed to be dark, no?

Twice this week, I ate at Hasan. Decent food feeds your soul. Sweating out all my toxins and sins, I inhaled mutton biryani, chicken tikka, saffron rice and curried potato with tomato. As I’ve noted, if you’ve enjoyed anything, even just once and to the slightest degree, you’ll miss it at some point. Knowing this, ascetics abstain from nearly all of life. Lowering their eyes, they say no thanks to the gods’ bounty.

At Hasan, I talked to his wife as their 17-month-old daughter stared at me with fascination, suspicion and a touch of fear. Knowing what’s alien is the first rule of survival.

“How long has your husband been in Laos?”

“Forty year.”



“Four, zero?”


Later, I found out she had meant 14. Her English is very poor.

Seeing me speaking to her mom, the baby relaxed a bit, so I put my hands out. Surprisingly, she walked over to be picked up. Holding her, I spoke in Vietnamese, but my strange words only confirmed I was definitely an alien, up to no good. Seeing terror returned to her eyes, I handed the baby over.

Walking back from Hasan one evening, I saw my friend Ian at Sabaidee, a brightly lit Vietnamese-run restaurant serving just about everything, including vegan options. Although it’s hugely popular, I’m skeptical of such range, so haven’t tried it.

“Guess what? Yummy talked to me today,” Ian announced after I had sat down.

“So you guys are cool.”

“I was sitting at Lankham. He came over and talked to me. I couldn’t believe it. He told me he’s going to Europe!”

“Wow!” Settling in Europe is Yummy’s big dream. He had asked Ian to help him enter Sweden. We had joked about this. With no marketable skills, Yummy’s best shot at snatching a European residency permit is to shack up with some aging widow. He’s good looking enough, I had said. Laughing, Ian disagreed.

“Yummy got a visa, so he’ll fly to Frankfurt, then go to Paris.”

“He won’t come back.”

“Yes, he will!” Ian snarled with surprising ferocity. I could tell Ian had had at least five large bottles of Beerlao.

“You told me yourself it’s his big dream.”

“But he hasn’t been to Europe. He’ll be shocked. He can’t afford it!”

“I’ll go and talk to Yummy tomorrow.”


“Why not? I want to hear his plans.”

“He’s my mate, and he fuckin’ told me everything!”

Ian is best in the morning. He’s a good man. We enjoy each other’s company.

“Is Yummy taking his girlfriend?” I asked.

“No, he said I could have her!” Ian wasn’t laughing.

“He’s just joking with you, man.”

“No, he’s not. This is Asia! When I was married to that Vietnamese woman, I fucked her sister more than I fucked her!”

At Yummy, I found him alone. Since he didn’t even have Beerlao, which is like water here, I had to get a bottle from across the street.

“So Yummy, Ian told me you’re going to Europe!”

“Tomorrow!” he smiled, flashing teeth so yellow, they were nearly orange.

“Wow, I didn’t know you were leaving so soon! You’re flying from Pakse to Bangkok?”

“No, Ubon, then from Bangkok to Frankfurt.”

“Ian told me you’ll stay in Paris.”

“No, no, I’m going to Portugal.”

“Portugal?! You know someone there?”


“Why Portugal?”

“What I’m telling! I can get a residency permit there. It’s easiest in Portugal and Malta.”

“You sure?”

“I know. People tell me.”

“Who told you?”

“Online, they tell me.”


“Yes, so I bought a ticket to Malta, but Portugal is better.”

“Portugal is better. Malta is tiny. If you go there, you’ll be stuck. From Portugal, you can take a bus or train to Spain, then France, then wherever. So you’ll fly from Frankfurt to Lisbon?”


“Why Faro?”

“Cheaper, then I take a train to Lisbon.”

“Listen, man, you don’t want to make this overly complicated! You’ll be so exhausted, and you’ll have to get from the airport to the train station. That’s too many fuckin’ steps, man! You don’t know the country, don’t know anyone there, can’t speak the language, you’ll be so confused, you won’t save any money. Trust me, just fly to Lisbon!”

To let this sink in, I had to repeat myself several times before Yummy agreed it wasn’t such a great idea to fly to Faro.

“How long will you stay in Lisbon?” I asked.

“What I’m telling! I stay there until December, maybe, then I come back here for busy season.”

“You can come back here, then go back to Portugal?”

“Yes, it takes six months to get residency permit. I come back for busy season, then return to Portugal.”

“Then what?”

“I open restaurant in Portugal!”

I’m sure Lisbon already has many fine Indian restaurants, I thought, and no business is harder to establish than an eatery. It takes a while to build your reputation. One bad meal and the customer won’t come back. You must be consistently good. My father ran several restaurants in California. I worked in them.

“Europe is expensive. How will you survive until December?”

“I can work.”

“Yes, I know. Maybe some Indian will hire you, but listen, here you’re a boss.” I paused and furrowed my brows for emphasis. “There, you’ll have to work in the kitchen!”

“I can work, sir. I’ve worked for twelve years. I work like a dog!”

Actually, all the work at Yummy is done by a Lao employee. Showing up late, she goes to the market to buy chicken and vegetables. Nearly everything she makes is eaten by her and her extended family, there are so few customers. That food would go bad otherwise. Yummy doesn’t serve pork, Laos’ favorite meat, or beef, mutton, duck or seafood. Tasting more or less the same, it’s chicken six different ways at Yummy!

Having only been to Thailand and Laos, Yummy has no idea what he’s diving into, but the sexed up West is an irresistible lure to millions. Like aging virgins, they just want to get in! By tomorrow night, Yummy will be inside, so at least he will have gotten that out of the way.

When his money runs out in two or three weeks, Yummy will return in relief, his fantasy punctured. I look forward to hearing his stories.

There’s an outside chance his family will send Yummy money to keep him in Europe. He’s their beachhead to paradise.

As for Ian, he’s returning to Sweden after a decade. Summer is very pleasant there. By December, he’ll probably be back in Pakse. Most of his waking hours, he’ll drink Beerlao alone outside Lankham Hotel. Then as now, he’ll have voices and laughter from long dead actors to keep him company in his air-conditioned room. That’s his Asia.

“I’m thinking of getting a room near the hospital, so if anything happens, I won’t have far to go.”

“In Pakse?”

“Pakse, Bangkok, wherever. I must get a room near the hospital.”

He had an echo in one ear, he told me.

“It’s your conscience, man,” I joked. “Maybe it’s God trying to call you!”

“I don’t know what it is. I don’t think it’s serious, but I should see a doctor.”

“Do it here, where it’s cheaper.”

“It’s actually free in Sweden, but you must wait forever. They make you wait so long, you just give up! They want you to fuckin’ die!”

“Everything falls apart.”

“Like an old car,” Ian chuckled.

Finding a bargain ticket to Stockholm, Ian was delighted, “I was sitting right here yesterday when I found a ticket for just $400, so fuck me, I said. That’s my flight!”

“Which airlines?”

“Thai Airways. I always fly Thai Airways.”

“You should check on booking.com or something. They may have even cheaper flights.”

“But if it’s canceled, you’re fucked. At Thai Airways, they’ll rebook you right away. Even if a bomb has gone off, they’ll rebook you!”

“Even if Stockholm is nuked? Even if there’s no more Stockholm or Sweden?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’ll rebook you! They’ll get you there!”

Worn out by so much traveling and long-sick of airports, I’m not fantasizing about going anywhere. In Pakse for eight weeks, I’ve figured out where to get decent cheeseburgers, spaghetti carbonara, pizze, bánh cuốn, fish larb and even quesadillas, etc. I have three favorite cafes. At a table outside Lankham, I’ve gotten much writing done. At the bank, pharmacy and even immigration office, I can speak Vietnamese. I know where to get haircuts.

[Pakse, 5/22/23]

All these simple tasks are performed habitually, almost unthinkingly, by the homebound. In an alien environment, everything must be sorted out, deciphered and mapped. Having done it over and over, I’ve gotten fairly good at it. Still, I’m tired.

Vietnam may issue three-month visas again in November. If so, I will return to Vũng Tàu, where I used to have ten-hour-long conversations with friends. Those, I miss.

Until then, I will keep bobbing along, for Linh Dinh sounds almost like lênh đênh, meaning adrift.

With each passing day, your chance of seeing or doing anything again diminishes. Nearing 60, I won't likely experience Tirana, Budapest, Prague, Naples or Norwich again. I may have seen the last of Europe. Despite everything, what a resplendent continent, still.

Tonight, I’ll treat myself to a nice dinner at SéSé, where you can get a French main course for less than $6! Though the sauce au poivre, andouillette sausages or parmentier de canard isn’t quite kosher, some France or Europe is better than none.

It’s 91 degrees today. Looking up from my ThinkPad, I see, again, Amor Fati Café across the street. Even from this distance, I can read its slogan in gold, “LOVE ONE’S FATE.”

Certainly, but it’s far from passive, and that applies also to nations.

[Pakse, 5/29/23]
[Pakse, 6/5/23]
[Pakse, 5/3/23]


Anonymous said...

Anh Linh, looks like you are settled for the end/game. Hope you don't have to deal with the pride month in Laos. We will see how and where the world will end up.


Anonymous said...

France is toasted bread. Portugal was obscure, now overrun with NorthFaced hipsters.
Europe is over. Your friend will return home days following the first week of 33F rain and wind and sunsets at 4pm

xlarry said...

hi linh,

must say i agree with the above. i don't find it resplendent here. brighton's pleasant enough, but barcelona for example is ridiculous, so overladen with tourists, prices through the roof, just pretty ugly and unpleasant. well, at least it's not the lunatic usa. cheers,