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My Asian Adventure
Vietnam Dinner with the Ambassador
The last time I saw Ray Burghardt, we were ducking into a taxi after a show at the Apollo Theater in New York in the summer of 1965. It was a tense time in New York and the nation, with racial tension and black power exponents/revolutionaries reigning supreme. It was not a time for five white preppy-type kids to be loitering in Harlem.
We were rescued by two things: First, inside, Smokey Robinson gave a “we are all Americans together” speech, which settled down the crowd, and second, a black cabdriver crossed three lanes of traffic to hustle us into his taxi, telling the woman in the front seat to duck her head because by law he was only allowed to pick up four passengers.
More than 30 years later, the Hon. Raymond Burghardt, a ’67 Columbia graduate in international affairs, was retiring from the foreign service as American ambassador to Vietnam after a long and admirable career, having also served in an ambassador-level position in Taiwan and as the consul general to Shanghai.
His wife, Susan, who has sturdy New England roots and dancing eyes, was looking forward to a more stable retirement in Hawaii. Her life and their two daughters’ lives were subject to frequent moves and many challenges.
Burghardt’s kindness in extending an invitation to me to join him and his wife in the embassy for dinner was too spectacular to turn down, especially since I wheedled it as best I could.
Ray and I had enjoyable reminiscences. He recalled my pretending to be his lawyer in a beef he had with a restaurant over being fired. Unfortunately, I failed to bring that event to a satisfactory conclusion, which may be why I don’t remember it.
He had done well since then. As an ambassador, one of his finest moments was giving sanctuary to a Chinese dissident during the uprising at Tiananmen Square. That dissident was taken to the embassy in a van driving through gunfire and turbulence. Burghardt visited him daily for more than a year.
The dissident, his wife and two children eventually settled in the United States. Now Dr. Fang Lizhi teaches at the University of Arizona. Burghardt told me that his daily chats with Lizhi may have been the most complete experience of his life, like speaking with Einstein.
I asked Burghardt how he received his appointment to the embassy – I didn’t think he made a $100,000-plus contribution to anyone’s campaign – and he told me career foreign-service workers receive ambassadorships at a three-to-one ratio to political appointments.
The embassy in Hanoi at 18 Tong Dan used to be a French finance minister’s residence, and it is truly impressive with gates, a circular drive and a stately stone edifice with beautifully manicured grounds. Inside, a Vietnamese beauty was setting the table and a polite major-domo brought me the first of many gin and tonics.
I kept sneaking napkins with the seal of the United States for souvenirs. I threatened to swipe a couple of plates, but Susan told me they were all inventoried. We ate salad, shrimp and a beautiful fish, as fine as any New Orleans restaurant could provide.
The ambassador reflected that he had had only two bad experiences in Vietnam. One time, when he was part of a 1982 commission looking for MIAs, one Vietnamese soldier said, “Didn’t you kill enough of us already?” The other bad experience was at a party recently when he was approached by someone who said, “Why did you abandon us? Look at the mess we are in now.” Two worlds. Two opposite points of view.
Thailand Bangkok’s Bourbon Street
Doug Harrison is an affable 52-year-old guy realizing his dream of a lifetime: to run a successful food-and-beverage operation. He is certainly successful, enjoying an eight-year run as the best foreign, or farang, restaurant in Bangkok. The Bourbon Street Bar and Restaurant, with its accompanying boutique hotel, is a true slice of New Orleans 12,000 miles from home.
Spending a night in Harrison’s friendly, atmospheric hotel and getting up for breakfast – topped off with a beignet – is pretty extraordinary. Recently two women from Covington thanked him profusely for having “a place that serves our food so far from home.”
Harrison spent 10 years in overseas oilfield work as a pipe welder. In 1986 he waited out his oilfield contract in Thailand to take advantage of a tax exemption, which created a chance for him to lease some property in Bangkok.
Harrison would like to extend that lease; he now has real ties to the Thai community. He has a Thai-Chinese wife and three sons. He also organizes charity projects in Bangkok. In 2004, his charity golf tournament raised $25,000 for Rev. Joe Maier, an American-born priest who is Thailand’s version of Father Flanagan, who founded Girls and Boys Town in this country.
The Courtyard, another of Harrison’s restaurant ventures, is Bangkok’s answer to Commander’s Palace, bringing New Orleans-style fine dining to Thailand. The décor of the Courtyard has so many New Orleans posters and LSU memorabilia that if you went to sleep and opened your eyes there, you would be convinced you were on Royal Street.
Harrison’s three sons attend an American International School. When the boys become eligible for college, and it seems that a U.S. college might be the answer, then that may call Harrison and his family back to the states.
Harrison still has family and close friends in New Orleans, so he travels home once or twice a year to see his folks, stay in touch with friends and give his boys a taste of their roots.
For now and in the near future, though, Harrison’s New Orleans dream, realized in Bangkok, is there for him – and you, if you find yourself in Thailand, the land of smiles.