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Saturday, December 29, 2012

My Life in Vietnam part 5: Making Friends

With each day that I don't write or that I try to adjust to being back in the USA, the memories of my exodus from Vietnam seem to feel further and further away from reality. I know that what I experienced was nothing short of real, but as I think about it, it seems so implausable that quickly try and search for something physical as a reminder of the events of recent weeks. The one thing that remains true is that my story can only exist in the context of Vietnam. So I have to provide more context. In order for you to understand HOW I was thinking, you really need to suspend disbelief for a bit and consider the context. By the way, I will do my best to label facts, conjecture, speculation, my reasoning, and the unknown whenever possible.

I am a nice guy, but I could not always say this. Some years ago I worked in a call center for an online brokerage company and dealing with other people's problems all day made me cold, detached, and removed from human suffering - or perceived suffering. Then I quit that job after 5 years and started working as a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch. Working in retail advisory services is souless and cuthroat. It was just the wake up call that I needed to find my way.  

Meeting the right people during that time of my life led me to the Law of Attraction. I began to realize that chasing paper was not any way to live. Sure money is nice when you have it. It is important when you don't have it, and it is evil when you are always basing your decisions on trying to get it. I started to realize that my happy life (and I say that with some serious sarcasm) was not so happy.  Eventually I found a simple way to bring some joy back into my life. I started living by an idea. I call the idea Plus One.

Whenever I meet someone new, I want to be genuinely nice to them. If they are also nice, then we end up with a friendship that can last a life time. But this new person is not nice and is not genuine with me, then I lose all obligations to be nice to them. I can still be friendly, but if I am not I still sleep at night. The math is simple. I was nice (1), they were not (0), then I was not (0). And the other way around - I was nice (1), they were nice (1), etc.  At the end of each day, I had a tally - no, I don't write this down.  But the basic idea is that even if I only meet the most ridiculous and phoney people, I have a +1 score at the end of each day.  So I call it plus one.

Back to Vietnam. 

I met some interesting people in Vietnam.  And just like everywhere I have been since I started living by Plus One, I was open to the idea that I can be friends with any and everyone. There was T. Again, I am talking about real people and don't want to call anyone out and cause them drama with their friends. But if T reads this, he will know that I have not exaggerated or misrepresented him.

T has an addiction. I am no stranger to addictions and probably will have to write about that soon. But for now, it is not important. T's problem and joy is heroin. In Vietnam, especially Saigon, it is apparently easy to acquire and cheap. T was one of the first friends I made in Saigon. He and his girlfriend lived a floor above me in the first room I rented. He is a brilliant writer and writes with the kind of thick verbose language that makes you just want to keep reading or listening to him read. His life mate, K, is a photographer and has an eye that captures the very essence of life in the most dingy of places. The three of us all were making a living as English teachers in Saigon. Proximity and art, and the ability to talk in English made us fast friends. Although I am a bit of a loner and feel a little out of place being too tight with a couple. Don't need any perceived drama.

That being said, I thought T and I were becoming good friends. In fact, when I first moved to the building they lived in, I was often short on cash because I had been traveling for several months and spent my last bits of cash to get a room, a motorbike, clothes for work, etc. He would often just hand me a few hundred thousand VND - $5 to $15 dollars. In Saigon, I could live for a week on $15 if I really stuck to the basic needs. After the first couple of paychecks came in, this situation quickly reversed. This was when I learned about T's affinity for heroin.

Kicking habits is not easy. I cannot count the number of times I have wanted to quit smoking and failed miserably. T had mentioned that he was trying to break his habit and this was percipitated by the fact that K had vowed to end their relationship if he did not. He started asking if he could keep things in my room for a few hours here or there. I said yes because I have never used heroin. 

This was probably not the best idea. If I had known then that my room was not secure and that all of my activites were monitored, I would have probably said no, I can't let you keep things here. Some one might think it belongs to me.

More to come . . .
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My Life in Vietnam part 4: Am I a spy?

Every time I think I am ready to retell the exodus story, I am reminded of other things that add context to exactly why I was afraid for my life at the end of my time in Vietnam. Here is another of those reasons.

I had many jobs at the same time while living in Vietnam. At American Academy/CleverLearn I taught kids and teens on the weekends and adults during my first 6 months. At EIV I used to design powerpoint lessons for other teachers to use until my first laptop became inoperable. I also taught adult English classes at EIV centers in District 3 and Binh Thanh District. By the way, if any of my students from District 3 read this, do you remember how I would joke that my phone was tapped?  Whenever I got a text or a call during class in District 3, the speaker system would start buzzing about 5 or 8 seconds before my phone did. I have watched enough CSI to know that this was a sign of a wire tap. True or not, it only happened with my phone and not the phones of my students.

Anyway, I am calling this part Am I a spy?  During the second half of my time in Vietnam, EIV arranged for me to do a lot of onsite education. I had a class in the Accounting department of Sacoumb Bank. I taught in an international trading company. I had a class in the headquarters of Vietnam's largest internet content provider. And I also had one on one classes with some very successful and influential people in Saigon. I don't want to use names at this point, but this part of my life there gave me access to some important people.

Not only were they important, but they were good people. Mr. M. had a similar outlook as mine. The son of a business owner who is poised to take over the company business in 2013. Mrs. N., who I think of as more than a student, but also a friend. She was so kind and generous to me. Her mother often made me lunch (we met 5 times a week for 2 hours each time). This list goes on. But one thing that each student had in common was that we got along well, I was open and honest with them, and I used my laptop as part of the English process.

Yes, the laptop that was ultimately hacked to high hell. In hindsight, I realize that I had no expectation of privacy regarding my laptop. But maybe I was too careless in bringing it into the homes and businesses of my students. I always connected to the internet wherever I was. And with a corrupt laptop, anyone who could remotely access it could also remotely access the networks of my students. Students with business secrets, plans, finances, etc. I really hope that none of them were compromised by my laptop. 

This is pure speculation on my part, but what better way to access restricted data than to corrupt the laptop of an English teacher who can freely come and go without inspection?  Did I mention that I found several encrypted RAID drives on the harddrive of my laptop? Did I mention that the firewall platform of my laptop was rewritten to include inherent inbound and outbound exceptions for programs that I never used? Simple programs like msn messenger, windows mail, notepad, and I.E. 4.0. Internet Explorer is up to version 9, which I had installed on my laptop. But there was another version of IE that was located in the AllUsers folder system. And the help section of this other IE gave me all the information I needed to find the various hacks. This UserAgent IE was nothing short of everything a spy needed to operate without notice on my laptop. 

Also, using a plug and play monitor system, I could be working on my computer but someone else could also be working on it without having anything appear on my monitor. I installed a network sniffing program to track data in and out of my laptop and found gigabites of information moving back and forth using UDP.

So was I a spy in Vietnam? I really don't know. But if the answer is yes, I know how it was done.
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My Life in Vietnam part 3: Imagine this.

Imagine if your every move was monitored. Imagine if you went out with a mixed group of friends and was out late partying. Imagine if you had to work the next day but you reallly did not get much sleep. Imagine ifyou were tired and driving a motorbike in a city with 4 million motorbikes.

Now imagine if one of your friends really wasn't a friend. And she asked "when do you work tomorrow? Where?"
 Now imagine if on the way to work, people on motorbikes suddenly turned in front of you or made sudden and unnatural stops. Tired foreigner who was out all night gets into an accident. Foreigners have lots of money and will be forced to give it to you rather than deal with the police.

Now stop imagining and let me say that this happened to me on more than one occasion. Except rather than get in an accident I quickly squeezed the brakes on my motorbike and slid to the ground. Better to scratch myself up than to hurt someone else. 
 When that didn't work; arranged accidents, the stakes got higher. Not just a person on a motorbike, but a family with kids. Eventually I began driving so slowly that it was impossible to be in an incident.

I am skipping some details now, because I want to get to my leaving vietnam. But one incident you should know about.  I was aware that this was happening because I am good at remembering faces, especially eyes, shoes, ankles, and body types. When on a motorbike in vietnam, this is all that is really distinguishable anyway.

I took a taxi to work about a week before I left VIetnam. On the ride back, the taxi driver - while driving - pulled out a map and turned around to ask me where to go. Yes, he was still moving, yes a motorbike pulled in front of him with a family on it. I yelled "turn the fuck around. Look where you are going."
My heart was racing. We came to a stop, I reached in my wallet and paid the fare on the meter and got out. i walked the last 2 km home.  
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  • Danielle Fitzpatrick Marcus, I am intrigued and speechless and feeling very naive. It honestly sounds like something from a movie. Can't wait til you are home safe and sound. 
  • Marcus L. Williams I am writing this in parts because each piece is a little different and the layers are what led me to the situation I found myself in last week. Also, while I am leaving out some detail, I plan to write it all again when I am back in the states. I think anyone traveling should be aware of some of the mistakes I made so they don't make the same.
  • Marcus L. Williams I know. I keep wanting to call bullshit on myself. But I cannot be any more serious.
  • Danielle Fitzpatrick Marcus I've known you since I was about 16. I know you're not a bullshitter. You're probably one of the most easy-going folks I've ever met, so it's insane to me that this happened to you.
  • Kelly Reddecliff Be careful. I didn't feel very good about some of the people I met in Bangkok. Will feel better once you are on the plane. Stay safe.
  • Randy Kim Oh my goodness....I am left very speechless...just stunned. Thanks for sharing your story. I've ALWAYS admired the way you can make us visualize your story. I am glad that there are other people who are not hurt as a result, especially kids.
  • Marcus L. Williams That's the saddest part. Putting kids in harms way in order to extract money from foreigners. Maybe people need money for a cause : there are still two vietnams. Politicallyi side with so many of the ones who want a fair chance at life. The see the tou...See More
  • Marcus L. Williams If someone would have said "help me teach these people because they can bring about an end to the corruption, bribery, and poverty, I would have taken the risk.
  • Sean Doyle I feel as if I have been traumatized reading your storiesMarcus L. Williams so I can only imagine how you must feel. I have no idea how you ended up in this situation but am glad you have survived your struggles. Stay safe old friend and things will improve.
  • Marcus L. Williams I am about to go write the next chapter. Unlike what I have shared so far, I will speculate as to why me.
  • Brett Biondi crazy that you are about to leave SE asia now, it's exactly a year ago today when I left my travels and vietnam. a whole year later and you're about to go, too bad you had to leave on a sour note but it must have been an incredible time all in all. coming home is quite a transition which is surprising. might be quite a cultural shock for you after 3 years. enjoy the rest of your time and good luck at home.
  • Randy Kim Marcus, you should also getting your stories published too, if you haven't done so already. You really bring such an intimate, informative way of introducing something taht no one would not have imagined. I think many people really deserve to know the experience you had.