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Vietnam, after a brief stay in Thailand

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Greetings from Hanoi. We've arrived as the city prepares for Tet, the celebration of the lunar new year.

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There's much to catch up on since our last entry.

On January 14, we left Siem Reap and journeyed overland to the border crossing with Thailand at Poipet.  I had met a bar owner in Siem Reap who recommended one of his employees as a taxi driver and assured us that this would be a pleasant ride. This was not always the case: until a couple of years ago, the Siem Reap-Poipet road was a mess, a dirt track frequently washed out during rainy seasons. The road is now completely paved, however, and makes for a pleasant drive through Cambodian countryside.

The border crossing itself was like a dirty echo of our experience in West Wendover. Like Utah, Thailand forbids most gambling, but Cambodia permits it in a "special zone" between the countries. For this reason a complex of casinos exists between the Khmer immigration checkpoint on the east and the Thai checkpoint on the west. I'd fancied taking this crossing because, despite several warnings regarding Poipet's sketchy reputation in the guidebook, I am in general intrigued by casino towns like Las Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City and Macau. These are cities whose lifeblood flows because visitors' spirited hopefulness triumphs over a knowledge of probability. At their best, they are populated with glittering lights and colorful buildings designed to foster such illusions.

Poipet, however, is more depressing even than Reno. Perhaps my impression is colored by arriving at midday: most gambling cities are better at night. But the buildings lacked flair and color, and the one casino that we wandered into seeking food was distinctly unwelcoming. Such a welcome is important for a casino: patrons need to feel that the dice are not (too) loaded against them, and that winning is possible. While there were a few table games, much of the floor space was given up to slot machines of dubious vintage and manufacture. We spent only long enough to get some coffee and juice and then made our way to the Thai border.

We didn't really think about how to get to Bangkok until after we'd gotten through the border formalities. My research suggested that the shared buses were somewhat dubious: every guidebook recommends that one be careful of touts and their scams. We finally decided to spend a little more and take a taxi. This was a mistake.

Thai taxi drivers are famously averse to risk aversion, but our driver was reckless even for his breed. Ours was a pink LPG taxi which had to stop for fuel twice on the four hour drive. Worse, however, the driver was forced to pull over and raise the hood every hour or so, and twice he stopped at a service station so that he and a bemused attendant could attempt to tune the transmission. At least, I think that's what he was doing. There was an awful lot of revving the engine with the gas and fiddling with things under the hood until the driver was satisfied with the motor hum.

These diversions stopped when we neared Bangkok and I began to understand why, as the driver had several times sort-of explained, "Motor make car shudder." I'd make the car shudder too, if the driver treated me like he did the engine. As the empty rural roads gave way to city traffic, he jerked the car from dead stops with lightning-fast releases of the clutch. Indeed, when shifting in traffic his attitude towards the clutch was like Churchill's attitude towards vermouth in a martini [1]: something whose existence the user should recognize, but never respect.

The driver bore positively worshipful regard for the clutch, however, in comparison with his disdain for traffic laws. Pallavi thankfully slept through many of the initial terrors, including a jump onto the shoulder of the road in order to pass a dozen cars and speed through a red light. In Bangkok, he managed to exceed even this. Coming upon a motorway traffic jam, he decided that he really should have exited onto a side road half a mile back. This decision was followed by a slide across four lanes to get to the left shoulder, whereupon he drove the wrong way back for half a mile and played chicken with another taxi that was using the shoulder as a passing lane. At the end of this diversion, he blocked traffic while making a three-point turn onto the exit road. By the way, many Thai taxis do not have belts in the back seat.

Needless to say, he did not get a tip.

We then spent a week in Thailand, mostly hanging around Sukhamvit Road and catching up on work that we'd needed to do. We'll revisit Thailand after we leave Vietnam, but for the most part our initial Thai excursion was downtime. Which doesn't mean that we won't have a few good stories.

[1] Possibly apocryphal, but Churchill's martini recipe was reputedly: Pour gin in glass. Look at vermouth. Drink martini.

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Guys, it looks like you may have just missed or were in Bangkok the same time as Melody who has been there since 1/22. She comes back to Korea on 1/30 and will update her blog with photos and commentary. We wish DE had the warm weather of Thailand. Gayle and Bill

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