Our world tour of exotic cities is almost at an end.  I’m sure you’ll agree it’s been great fun and extremely enlightening.  Don’t complain that you’re maxed out on all your credit cards after all this globetrotting.  You’ve still got that Christmas bonus to spend, don’t you?  And we’ve got one more place left to visit: Vinh, Vietnam.

    Vinh is an enchantress among cities, but without the Circean evil that turns men into swine (as in Ottawa, for example).  Vinh is eager for tourism after being overlooked for so many years.  They want to catch up.  And seven out of ten travelers agree: a vacation in Vinh is more delightful than a root canal.

    Vinh is located on Vietnam’s “Gold Coast,” so named because of the anthills containing gold.  In fact, Vinh is the Anthill Capital of the World.  It is home to the Asian tiger ant (Solenopsis mendacis), the same variety that attacked Joan Collins in Empire of the Ants.  Early Spanish explorers noticed the grains of gold in the anthills and took them as a sign that they were close to the Golden Grail, also known as El Dorado.  But they got lost in the Forest of Blinh and were eaten by the monster Smatma.  After this disaster, King Charles II forbade all further exploration in the area, so the French were able to move in uncontested.

    There are no good travel deals to Vinh, unfortunately, because there isn’t a whole lot of tourism yet.  (The round trip from Toronto cost me about $3,700, and Air Canada’s nuts were stale.)  But once you get there, you can load up on counterfeit designer goods that you can resell back home.

    The best hotel in town is the Ramada Vinh, which is surprisingly affordable for all its luxury, with an average room rate of about $150 per night.  In the lobby, gilded domes frescoed with sweeping clouds and hanging gardens frame chandeliers of 24-karat gold and  crystal.  The marble floors are polished to mirror perfection.  A broad arch opens to a garden with a pool.  Goldfish cruise lazily in a rock-rimmed pond.  In the suites, painted cherubs smile down on a massive raised bed, and a 60-channel projection TV screen drops from the ceiling.  The bathrooms of Italian marble and French onyx are stocked with Egyptian-cotton towels, robes, and slippers.  Press a button, and the red satin drapes part, giving a view of the rolling hills and a new housing development.  A masseuse is available 24 hours a day, and she will massage you with her well-oiled naked body.

    General Manager Freddie Ho greeted me personally.  He said he was my biggest fan in all of Vietnam, although my books are officially banned.  I said I was surprised to find such opulence in a  Communist country.  “This is the new Vietnam,” he explained.  “It’s Communist in theory, but it’s becoming more capitalist in practice.  Just get the tourists in and get them to spend their money.  And Ramada wants a piece of the action.”

    Freddie was too busy to show me around town, so he put me in the able hands of his good friend Dan Van Nguyen.  Dan was evasive about his occupation, saying only that he was well-connected and did things for people.  “Sort of a fixer,” he said.  “I help people with their problems and needs.”  He offered to fix me up with hookers, but I declined.

    The first thing every visitor wants to see is the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh, which is in the village of Kim Lien, about 14 kms northwest of Vinh.  There you will find multicolored dancing fountains surrounding Ho’s statue.  He is holding two children by the hand, and a cocker spaniel sits beside his feet.  The gift shop sells every sort of Ho souvenir, and all the employees are amputees, so if you’re a liberal, you just load up with all you can carry.

    On the outskirts of the Forest of Blinh, where nobody goes for obvious reasons, you will find the villages of the Dogon people.  The Dogon are ethnically unrelated to the Vietnamese, and nobody knows their true origins.  They are a pacifist people who have an ingenious method of preventing fighting.  All their dwellings have such low roofs that you can’t stand up straight.  The idea is that if somebody gets mad at somebody else and tries to stand up, he can’t, so there’s no way they can fight without looking stupid.  Predictably, all the Dogon have a stooped posture.  They worship the ant, and they leave scraps of food at a giant anthill for “protection.”  They also practice a dance on hot coals as a puberty rite.  Boys and girls must dance on the hot coals to become adults.  It’s part of a religious belief system, so you can’t criticize it.

    Quyet Mountain is on the outskirts of Vinh.  It’s the home base of the Vinh Paragliding Club.  Paragliders launch themselves from the summit and glide over the Lam River, which skirts the city.  The Lam has a lot of crocodiles, and the paragliders compete to see who can traverse the river the most times without falling in.  You should check out some of this action on YouTube.

    There is a muscular exuberance in the Lam’s rapids, danger in its floods.  But on most days the river welcomes the adventurer with lyric grace — except in typhoons, when everything up to the size of a water buffalo is swept away and killed.

    Go east to the coast about 10 kms and enjoy the pristine white beach at Cua Lo.  Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart were seen there recently, and according to observers, they were getting pretty romantic.  It’s easy to understand why.  Cua Lo is a romantic dream, with its blue water, palm trees, and strolling troubadours singing Vietnamese love songs and playing the mandolin, while flocks of pink flamingoes circle overhead in search of fiddler crabs, their favorite food.

    Speaking of food, try the seafood at Em Ghet Anh, a popular seaside restaurant.  Their specialty is boiled moray eel served on a bed of seaweed.

    Downtown Vinh is an artful example of East German social realist architecture, with its gray, cube-shaped public buildings flanking its wide streets.  Luxury Soviet-made limos blend in with smoky little Trabants and a few odd rickshaws.  Smartly dressed traffic cops keep everything moving efficiently as they blow their whistles and bark repeatedly “Mu cac tao!…Mu cac tao!…”

    At the top of Quang Trung Street you will find Vinh’s most famous landmark, “Uncle Vinnie” — a 60-foot-high neon ant.  He’s the city’s unofficial mascot.  (What else would you expect in the Anthill Capital of the World?)  The Vinh High School athletic teams are called the Tiger Ants and they wear a logo like Uncle Vinnie.  The cheerleaders do this cute little “Ant Dance,” and if you’re sitting in the right place, you can see the cracks of their asses.

    While on that subject, there is a strip club on Le Mao Street called Thang Nguc Lon, which is always busy, although it is pretty tame by Western standards.  They feature a lot of B-list American strippers who have gotten too old or too fat to work in good clubs in the U.S.  SaRenna Lee headlined there for a month, and the audience loved her.  They thought she had the biggest tits in the world.  But what do the Vietnamese know about big tits?  Their women are all flat-chested.

    That could change, however.  Two enterprising brothers, Sy Ba Tran and Van Quyen Tran, have gone into business as breast implant specialists.  The former auto mechanics don’t have medical degrees, and even in Vietnam they wouldn’t normally be allowed to do any sort of medical work, but Dan Van Nguyen said this was something he was able to “fix.”  The brothers only accept out-of-town patients, by the way, so nobody in Vinh ever gets to see the results of their handiwork.

    The Buddhist monastery is a minor attraction.  The monks are renowned for their extremely long toenails, which are supposed to demonstrate inner peace.  You can make a donation and light a candle and sit with them while they chant, but these guys never bathe, and all that incense isn’t enough to conceal the fact, so pretty soon you want to get up and leave.  However, the Jonas Brothers spent a whole day in there and said it was the most spiritually uplifting experience of their lives.

    Vinh is the home of the Vietnam Museum of Human Rights, but blacks and Jews are not allowed in.  The museum has a big display devoted to Jane Fonda.  What Jane Fonda has to do with human rights is beyond me, but the Vietnamese love her and worked her in somehow.

    The best attraction if you’re looking for something really edgy is the Vinh Arena, which stages matches of an extremely violent form of martial arts cage fighting.  The contestants wear spikes and fight with sticks.  Dan Van Nguyen told me there’s always blood, and they average three or four deaths a year.  He also said that World Wrestling Entertainment had been to Vinh to check it out and were interested in doing some kind of business deal, and he was trying to help them with that. 

    For shopping, you have a lot of street vendors and little shops selling counterfeit goods, which I referred to earlier.  Dan said the authorities don’t mind because the designers and brands are exploiters of Third World labor, so it’s okay to rip them off.  The People’s Committee that administers Vinh calls this “social justice.”  And they collect big licensing fees from the vendors, so it’s a lot of revenue. 

    If you want more sophisticated shopping, you want to go to the Roman Mall, which is designed to look like ancient Rome.  There is a daily royal procession led by a centurion.  Moving sidewalks from the street whisk shoppers into the mall.  But to get out, they must pass through a door that will not open unless they are laden with a certain minimum weight of merchandise.  (So put a brick in your counterfeit Gucci bag before you go in!  Oh, and another thing: don’t use your credit cards, or you will get a rude surprise in a month or so.  Use the local currency.)

    The Ramada Vinh has a very nice French restaurant.  Head Chef Thi Hai Dinh serves up an elegant kea parrot Michels.  Here’s the recipe:

    Season one large kea parrot with salt, pepper, garlic, and sage.  Place in casserole with three ounces of palm oil, two cups of  chopped kale, and two cups of chopped rhubarb.  Put in oven at 350 degrees and baste frequently.  After 20 minutes, transfer to stove top, add six ounces of malt vinegar, cover pot, and simmer for 10 minutes.  Then add one cup of water, once ounce of anchovy paste, and a cup of finely chopped pickled beets.  Bring to a boil and cook for 5 more minutes.  Serve with rice.  (Heston Blumenthal does this with gold leaf on top, but I think that spoils it.)

    Dan and I had a late evening drink with Freddie Ho, and we talked about the “new” Vietnam.  Freddie said the Vietnamese people were no longer anti-American.  In fact, hundreds of them sent cards of condolence to Jennifer Aniston after the death of her dog, Norman.

    Freddie surprised me by producing two of my books, Junior Brain Tumors In Action and Malignant Humors, which he asked me to inscribe personally.  (You can try searching for these books, as well as my others, at www.abebooks.com, but I have no control over prices on the collector’s market.)

    I asked Freddie and Dan if Vinh had a “sister city,” and they said no.  I offered to find one if Dan could fix it with the People’s Committee.  “Easy as one, two, three!” said Dan with a big smile.  So I found a suitable city the next day.

    I’m happy to report that Vinh’s sister city is Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.  Mayor John Ruttan liked the idea because Nanaimo didn’t have a sister city and deserved one.  And although he knew nothing about Vinh, he said, “We’re ‘Left Coast,’ as they say, and I guess the Veet-namese are, too, seeing as how they’re Communists, ha, ha!  And if there are any more of those boat people who want to come over, tell ’em we have a real nice harbour where they can tie their yachts.”  The Mayor and his wife will be visiting Vinh sometime in 2010 (and this is a heads-up to Air Canada to make sure their nuts are fresh this time!).  Mrs. Ruttan is keen to pick up a few Gucci knock-offs.

    Recommended vaccinations: retroperitoneal fibrosis, Camurah-Engelmann Disease, parrot fever.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com

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    Have I got a scoop for you!   There will be big news coming out of Albania, but you’re getting it from me first!  You already know that Cher Bono’s daughter, Chastity, who now calls herself Chaz, intends to get a sex change and marry her girlfriend.  And they intend to have a baby with the help of a sperm donor.  Who will that sperm donor be?  Well, here’s the scoop: the sperm donor will be Edison Begaj, of Elbasan, Albania!

    The world’s entertainment media will be crushing into the airport at Tirana, the capital of Albania, and they’ll be stampeding over each other to be the first to shove a mike into the bushy moustache of the handsome gym teacher at Elbasan High School.  In a matter of weeks, you’ll be reading all about sperm donor Edison Begaj in your favorite gossip magazines, including such need-to-know tidbits as:

    * how he got chosen over 47 other candidates!

    * who found him!

    * what Cher really thinks of him!

    * his secret affairs with Britney Spears and Kourtney Kardashian!

    * his links to the Albanian monarchy!

    * his favorite hang-outs and getaways!

    * how he crossed the Sahara Desert on foot — and why!

    * his kinky sex life and secret vices!

    * how to make him love you!

    All that and more is coming to your local newsstand!

    But for now, let’s learn all about the exotic city of Elbasan, which is located about 25 miles southeast of Tirana, along the banks of the romantic Shkumbin River.  It was here, in fact (right beside the river), that Regis Philbin was conceived during a night of poetic and breathless love.  Today, artisanal gold miners pan the river for nuggets of gold, which are then sold to buy guns.  After all, what is an Albanian without a gun?  Preferably two guns.  For, just like the two-headed eagle on the Albanian flag, the traditional Albanian wants to look in two directions at once, thereby ensuring that he will never be caught off guard.  And his moustache must be big and bushy, for Albanians are proud of having the most masculine moustaches in the world.  King Zog, the last ruling king, had a fine moustache, which was copied by aristocrats around the world.  (The moustache was stolen from his grave in 1975, and its present whereabouts are unknown.)

    The area around Elbasan was fought over many times in Albania’s illustrious history (although no one is sure why), and control was finally wrested by ethnic Albanians from the Uzghurs in the 1780’s.  Today it is rich in Turkish, Italian, and Greek influences, along with a less desirable gypsy influence.

    My host in Elbasan was Hotel Manager Gregory Lehman of the Renaissance Elbasan.  He has an Albanian mother and returned to his roots after growing up in the U.S.  The Renaissance is the only good hotel in Elbasan by American standards, although Lehman admits it’s long overdue for a “refreshing.”  Security costs have been high, owing to occasional political unrest.  All the staff are armed, and the front is reinforced to withstand a good-sized bomb.  But there have been no incidents in well over a year.

    Albanians are a friendly people, but in some ways odd.  Here’s how you shake hands in Albania: bow at the waist while sticking your forefinger up your nose.  Then straighten up and shake forefingers.  Ignore any snot.  Don’t be a wimp.  Be a man.  Snot never killed anyone.  This is how we bond in Albania.  Unfortunately, the World Health Organization has condemned this practice,which is the reason why Albania was for many years an isolated country with a suspicion of foreigners.

    But that’s changing fast.  Now they want everyone to come on over and eat some kebabs, and dance to the music of the cuica (a stringed instrument), and buy souvenirs.

    Tourists are really starting to dig Elbasan, according to Greg Lehman.  The only negative is the gypsies.  They’re all pickpockets and scam artists.  And they use their kids.  One kid will go up to a tourist and distract him with some simple object, and another kid will come up from behind and lift the wallet, and then they’ll run like hell.  What can you do, put them in jail?  Lehman’s advice is to pick up the first kid immediately and throw him against anything hard or in front of a truck.  “The worst punishment that can possibly happen is that you’ll be told to pack up and go home.  But usually the police don’t do anything.  They’re on our side.”

    Elbasan is noteworthy for its donkey monorail, a transport system that is unique in the world.  It was supposed to be a proper electric monorail, but because of political troubles, it ended up as a patchy network of unpowered rails with junked cars hanging underneath.  There are ladders and platforms along the way, and you go up and climb into this car body (such as an East German Trabant), and it gets towed by a donkey on the ground wearing a big harness.  The donkey is guided by a “transport worker,” who wears a pale blue skirt, baggy white shirt, a fez, and soft white shoes with tassels.  This uniform is called a kefte and dates back centuries, and to wear one is a mark of manliness and honor.  The rail lines are mostly in the bombed-out sections of the city and basically go from nowhere to nowhere.  Pay the transport worker whatever you like.  Just remember that he gets no salary and has to feed his family, as well as the donkey.

    Elbasan has lots of cheap little restaurants with garbled American names like Mcdoonald, Bulgar King, Windys, Techo Bell, and Kintky Fry Chiken.  But all the food is the same — goat or lamb kebabs, rice, and lentil soup.  The local brewery, Hoxha (pronounced HO-jah), was blown up five years ago, so you have to take your chances with whatever unlabeled stuff the proprietor puts in front of you.  It could be home-made or bootlegged.  Hey, don’t be a wimp.  Just drink it like a man!  (The Renaissance serves proper beverages, depending on what the manager can get that day from his contacts.)

    Shopping is limited to a few blocks on the main street.  You can buy clothing, ice cream, cigarettes, and guns.  Femi’s, a large store of general merchandise, owned by Femi Rabi, resembles a 1960’s Kresge, except for the anti-aircraft gun on the roof.  Street vendors are everywhere with their bootlegged goods and local “arts and crafts,” such as wallets that are the wrong size for your money.

    Nostalgic pictures of King Zog and dictator Enver Hoxha can still be seen on the sides of buildings, marred by bullet holes.  Politically, Albanians can’t decide what they are any more.  There is a small, die-hard Royalist faction that wants to put King Leka (Zog’s son) on the throne, but he shaved his moustache during his years in exile and became too Western.  Leka is 7 feet tall, lives in Tirana, and trades commodities.

    Elbasan’s most influential citizen is Agim Sufa, an aging cantaloupe mogul, who is occasionally seen riding through town in his armored limousine, shooting at gypsies from the back seat.  The city’s  Mayor, Midat Canaj, is never around.  He spends all his time on a yacht and shows up briefly when it’s time to get re-elected — just like Adam Clayton Powell.

    Elbasan’s most noteworthy geographical feature is the large area of peat bogs east of the city.  For centuries nobody knew what they really were — only that they weren’t safe to walk on, and lots of drunks would wander out on them at night and sink in and die.  But more recently, a proper scientific study was carried out by Prof. Erion Dulaj, of the Albanian Institute of Advanced Studies, in Tirana, who determined that they were, in fact, peat bogs.  An archeological team did excavations and found well-preserved specimens of early man dating back to the Bronze Age, which they named “Elbasan Man.”  According to Prof. Dulaj, Elbasan Man was a hunter and gatherer, enjoyed sports, got along well with people, stayed up late, was kind to children, believed in family values, saved his money, and had a good sense of humor.  One of these specimens of Elbasan Man now stands in the corner of a barber shop owned by Milan Mitic.  He thinks of it as the son he never had.

    Peat from the bogs is now used as fuel by the Chinese steel mills that impart a lovely brown color to the sky and add their fragrances to the fields of daffodils and petunias nearby.  And a Chinese company is now processing vegetation from the bog for a new breakfast cereal called Weedies.

    The unregulated development of Elbasan has taken its toll on the endangered Albanian marmoset, which has seen its habitat diminished relentlessly by deforestation and the building of a never-completed shopping mall.  The mall’s only tenant is the Albanian Army, which uses it as an armory and for training.

    But the Shkumbin River is still clean enough for fishing.  The river is home to the rare, delectable jaraqui fish, found nowhere else in the world.  Elbasaners eat it fried, with salt and malt vinegar, out of large cone-shaped containers of stiff paper. (Gordon Ramsay gets $40 for one in London.)  The fish is rich in selenium and chromates, which may explain why the average life span in Elbasan is 85 years (not including victims of crime, accidents, genocide, or suicide).

    The river also has many  large black slugs, which are said to cure cancer.  Dr. Mjallaq Pergjika, one of Elbasan’s outstanding physicians, has opened a clinic and now treats people from all over the world.  He also sells his black slug cancer cure over the Internet.

    Ask a taxi driver to take you to see the crop circles.  Three circles about 30 feet in diameter appeared mysteriously one night in 2006 and still remain.  They have never been explained.  Did alien spacecraft land there?  Did they abduct young women to serve as sex slaves?  Hell, I would have.

    Humpbacked zebu cattle graze around the charred stumps of new pastures, boys wearing team uniforms play soccer on an emerald field, and small but proud farmhouses nestle among fruit trees and flowers. A sign on a gas station reads, “Hier Sprechts Deutsch.” 

    Summer is the time for the Elbasan Goat Festival.  Farmers bring their goats in and show them off in a big corral to the admiring public before trucking them over to the slaughterhouse.  The goats are slaughtered in the traditional Albanian way — a bullet in the head.

    The ugliest goat, however, gets special treatment.  Townsfolk decide which is the ugliest goat of them all, and this one is given the name of a hated person.  (This year it was Ed Swiderski.)  The goat is strangled by several strong boys, and then its head is smashed several times with a rock.  To Elbasaners, the Ugly Goat is a symbol of everything bad, so killing it is supposed to bring good luck for the coming year.

    Elbasan now has a sister city in the U.S. — Glencoe, California.  Formerly known as Mosquito Gulch, Glencoe was a mining town long ago and is now an unincorporated town.  Arrangements at their end were handled by State Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, who told me, “Make sure I get full credit for this.”  Okay, I just licked the stamp.  Elbasan is happy about it, and Ahab Books, in Glencoe, is especially happy.  Their manager told me, “Maybe now we can get rid of your books.”

    Before I left Elbasan, I had a farewell drink with Greg Lehman at the Renaissance.  We watched a clique of transvestites in lingerie and fishnet hose making merry.  “We’re getting everything from the West now,” said Greg.  “This is the new Albania.  Like the man says, ‘Get used to it.'”  I asked him what the local people thought about Chaz Bono getting a sperm donor from Elbasan.  “Oh, it’s the talk of the town!  Funny thing is, everyone always assumed Edison Begaj was queer.  And there are a few other things about him you ought to know….”  But this is where I have to cut it short.  I don’t want to spoil things for all those entertainment journalists who have to make a living.

    Recommended vaccinations: Dercum’s Disease, toxoplasmosis, megaloblastic anemia.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com