I knew I wanted to take a long journey, write a book, and immerse myself in another culture. The question was, where? I pored over atlases and history books, guides and travel magazines and photo journals. I found plenty of exciting tourist spots but no place that needed yet another travel book written from a Western point of view.
Then one day I got a flat tire on Route 128 outside of Boston. I put on the spare and went in search of a replacement. The shop's mechanic turned out to be an ex-marine, a rugged fellow, 6'4" with tattoos on both biceps. We got to talking about Asia, and I mentioned that I had always wanted to go to Vietnam. He stiffened.
"You'll be raped," he hissed. He started jerking at a spare tire with his crowbar, his arm muscles twitching in time with his words. "The place's still littered with bombs. Malaria'll eat your guts." He hoisted the tire free. "Snakes and Commies, snakes and Commies in the grass. You'll disappear and no one'll ever find you."
"It's a Buddhist country," I said carefully, "a gentle people. The war is over."
He stopped abruptly and leveled his crowbar at me like a machine gun. For the first time there was real anger in his voice. "How the F... do YOU know?"
I went to Vietnam to find out which one of us was right.
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