Da Nang, Vietnam, 27 November 2013
… My laptop screensaver has a similar view of Ha Long Bay, from my last visit to Vietnam in 2007.
Years, locations and career transitions have flown by, and this image has reminded me to keep a worldly perspective on whatever I do — and wherever I go.
Whether as a memory of a visit to my origins — like this moment in writing from a cafe at my birthplace in Da Nang — or as I renew my ventures abroad after six rather domestic years as an entrepreneur in my Western home in Los Angeles.
I must sail on like these ships in the South China Sea. We are restless, driven by the rising Sun in the East, and in pursuit of the setting sun out West. MDN”
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Da Nang, Vietnam, November 26, 2013
“Peeezzzz….” Swat! Within a minute of laying my head down on the lumpy yellow pillow, a mosquito flew directly within striking distance of my left ear. I knew more were en route as I used a thin worn sheet as a barrier – which barely covered my feet to neck and left my head exposed to their nightly feeding rituals.
Prior to arriving in Vietnam, I had spent two weeks as part of the UCLA-NUS Executive MBA program in the luxurious confines of the Royal Le Meridien in Shanghai. The hotel upgraded me to a deluxe room on the 40th floor as a lifetime Starwood Gold Member, a status earned from 384 nights with that chain alone since my globetrotting began after receiving my first degree from UCLA in 1994.
But, every time I’ve returned to my birthplace in Da Nang (also known as “China Beach” the infamous military retreat and setting for the TV show from the 1990s) since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations about two decades ago – I have always stayed with my relatives in the center of the bustling city. No screened windows to keep out the thirsty bugs, few creature comforts in the bathless bathroom and the communal bedrooms, and the occasional rat scurrying across the kitchen floor. On the faded walls, they displayed pictures of me and my younger brother, cousins and family – and most prominently our graduation pictures which they are especially proud.
My aunts cooked the same meal this evening to welcome me, as they did the first time the saw me since my family and I left the country in 1975 at the end of the war – marinated beef with lemongrass, fried potato wedges, salad and tomatoes. On the first visit back in 1995, accompanied by two fellow Americans and Fulbright Fellows who traveled with me during our year abroad in Singapore – we chuckled as we were served the same meal every night, but politely ate as they insisted we were all too thin, and were quite pleased to offer us meat and potatoes given the hardships they’ve faced.
… Earlier in the day, I had an appointment at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Da Nang Beach, one of the newest and most posh seaside resorts in the country, if not all of Asia. It has an enviable location along a stretch of white sand, and reminded me of beachfront properties I’ve stayed in from Bali to Maui, the Mayan Riviera and the Venetian Lido.
There I had an appointment with an American businessman who my long-time friend the Deputy U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) thought I should meet while visiting Da Nang. This admirable gentleman served during the War, then returned to Vietnam a decade ago to help train entrepreneurs on modern management techniques. We spoke of how local businesses were transforming their communities with innovative tapioca farms and sustainable fishing, while multinational companies continued to expand their presence by mining for gold and growing lumber for wood chips.
As we were leaving, we met the Director of Rooms who was previously at the Hyatt’s notorious property on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where I have been for entertainment industry events.
“You went from Guns ‘N Roses throwing TVs out their windows to this…” I remarked with subtle surprise.
“Yeah, no rock stars riding Harleys down the hallways here!” he smiled, as we breezed through the pristine marble lobby. “Let me know next time you visit. We would love to have you stay with us.”
Actually, I had checked the Hyatt’s rates the week prior and was quite tempted to book a room there – which was under $200/night given the off season – a steal for such a gorgeous property (and cheaper than the nightly rate I paid in Shanghai), but extravagant in the eyes of my relatives and most locals. Moreover, staying there or anywhere but their place would probably have offended their sensibilities.
… The smell of the menthol-infused Tiger Balm wafted in the air; my aunt handed it to me with a reminder it would alleviate mosquito bites. I looked more closely at the opaque little hexagon canister, which dated back to the mid-1990s when I first visited my relatives, and brought a box as a gift from Singapore. Amazing they have kept these remedies for so long and perhaps held on to some for safekeeping for my future stays – since they knew I would return and stay at “home” – and therefore would be in greater need of it.
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