Seeking the Soul of Houston in Saigon

A journey to Vietnam reveals a fuller understanding of Houston’s relationship with the Southeast Asian country

By Claudia Kolker October 24, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Possibly it wasn’t a choice I would make back in Houston. Climbing onto a scooter behind a college girl I’d just met, I pulled on a helmet, grabbed the chrome bar at my spine, and shot into rush-hour Saigon. No: I definitely wouldn’t have done this at home. But the requirements of daily life differ in Vietnam. And to see what I’d come to see, I’d have to go along for the ride.

I was in south Vietnam for 10 days to better understand my hometown of Houston. Ever since I moved here 20 years ago, the city's Vietnamese immigrants have been among the biggest influences on my life, and one of the main reasons I love the city today.

Forty-one years ago, the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam’s Communists sent Houston the biggest refugee migration in its history. Tens of thousands flooded the city, which before 1975 housed fewer than 100 Vietnamese.

The immigrants came in waves. First came military officers, embassy workers and other elites linked with Americans. Three years later, in 1978, a second wave, known as “boat people,” arrived; poorer and less educated in Vietnam, most had survived harrowing journeys to get away. A decade later, the last large group made it here, a combination of Amerasians and re-education camp survivors freed after diplomatic intervention from the U.S. government.

While refugees from all three waves often arrived at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, many were guided to Houston by the U.S. government because of the climate, shrimping industry and booming economy. For the newcomers, the move at first meant more trauma: poverty, bewilderment and, in the Gulf Coast shrimp fisheries, torment by the KKK. But by 1996, when I moved to Houston as a newspaper reporter, the refugees were adapting with extraordinary industry.

By 2012, according to the U.S. Census, the area encompassing Houston, The Woodlands and Sugar Land was home to 78,000 Vietnamese-born immigrants—the third-largest concentration in the country after Los Angeles/Long Beach and San Jose/Santa Clara.

Over my 20 years as a reporter, I became fascinated by the immigrants’ complex stories. I made close Vietnamese friends. And when, inevitably, I acquired some losses of my own—a newspaper in turmoil, an end to a marriage—I began to see the refugees in a new way: as models for resourcefulness under incredible duress. Soon after, I decided it finally was time to see the country that had so influenced my life.

Which is how I came to be on the back of that scooter.

The brisk young woman driving it was An, a guide with Back of the Bike food tours. Brainchild of an American chef and his Vietnamese wife, the business ferries tourists to the best food and cultural sites in HChí Minh City—or, as most of its residents still call it, Saigon.

Darting around by scooter is more than a Back of the Bike gimmick. It’s how almost everyone in this metropolis of more than 8 million gets around: students like An, husbands with wives and babies wedged snugly behind them, working women wearing surgical masks and cotton aprons to ward off smog and sun.

While large swaths of Saigon are gray and battered, its big avenues are built for speed. They have to be. Hundreds of thousands of scooters torpedo down these streets every hour, oblivious to lane markers and lights. Yet I wasn’t scared. An had the nerve of a Formula 1 racer: all focus, reflex, micro-decisions. Around us, the other drivers were similarly revved. It was as if we were all kayaking the same adrenaline river, with no time to think, no space to err. Thousands of people, all within touching distance, in an elevated state of alertness.

“Want a mask?” An asked. She was surprisingly easy to hear. Since I didn’t spend every day in this open-air speedway, I didn’t mind a bit of exhaust. But I’d rarely gone wrong taking advice from a Vietnamese friend.

“Sure,” I said, looping the paper mask on my ears, just like the thousands of women speeding all around me.

From the moment I moved to Houston, Vietnam simply was part of the city. Like Mexico, it had infused its faces, shops, flavors and sounds into Houston life. I never knew it otherwise.

Two decades after Saigon’s fall, convenience-store cashiers were sending their children to UH; more Vietnamese were moving from California, fleeing not Communism this time but high real-estate prices. Hole-in-the-wall noodle shops founded for immigrants had been discovered by African-American cops, Latino couples, suburbanites. A few younger Vietnamese were even venturing back to the country they’d left as toddlers. In 1995, when the Houston Chronicle illustrated a piece about Kim Son restaurant with Communist Vietnam’s flag, outraged refugees barraged the restaurant with protests and threatened a boycott. 

My first day at the newspaper, my deskmate took me for ph, the aromatic beef-noodle soup simmered with cinnamon, cilantro and star anise. After we ate, he ordered café sa đá, which seemed impossibly exotic at the time: espresso you brew yourself using a metal contraption poised on a glass, in which your coffee drips like IV serum onto condensed milk and ice.

Thus began my fascination with Houston’s Vietnamese community. There had been a Vietnamese enclave in Virginia during my school years in Washington, D.C., but I’d just glimpsed it once, when I got lost. In Houston, you couldn’t go a week without someone proposing lunch at a ph shop. Each time, I would stare at the men ferrying soup and the women cashiers exchanging words from the other side of the globe. And there were hints, too—a waitress’s mention of her house in Saigon, a man roaming the place in an army shirt—hints of tales that were different from those that I’d learned, with Walter Cronkite and a green map and big, weary U.S. soldiers.

The Houston Chronicle, meanwhile, was a freewheeling place. If you found a story, you usually got to write it, and the ones I chased became a new immigrant-life beat. Ideas mushroomed everywhere, from the newspaper run by a U.S. vet and his wife, to the gleaming temple, to Quan Yin, goddess of mercy, tucked on the second floor of a noodle shop. I began to hear stories from friends like Dai Huynh and Judi Le, who both came here as toddlers and talked like Texans, but recalled every detail of their passage from one world to another.

I fell in love with the symbiosis of the giant, oblivious city and the survivors making a life there. Then I made a life, too. Houston turned into home, and the stories, a book, The Immigrant Advantage, about traditions learned from Nigerian, Mexican, Jamaican and Vietnamese friends. 

Today Vietnamese food, to me, is Texas food. I always drink water without ice (better for digestion) and throw fresh greens on my soup. That’s not all I learned from my Vietnamese friends over the years. After one, a mother, told me about the Asian tradition of hiring inexpensive tutors to acquaint kids with tough subjects before they face them in school, I followed her example, finding a tutor to help my then-kindergartener daughters feel confident learning math.

From a poet, I learned about tiny local businesses that deliver home-cooked Vietnamese dinners for the price of a Happy Meal. I even tried to study the language, though the most lasting thing I gleaned from my lessons was how to start a savings club, in which 12 friends gather for a monthly party where each puts $200 into a pot. Once a year, each member gets his or her turn to collect $2,400 at the evening’s end. My friends and I still meet monthly to pool cash a decade later.

Over time, I realized that the polite dry cleaner’s attendant and the cheery graphic artist at work had lived through enormities. Some mourned grandmothers who raised them but had to be left behind. Others were haunted by the memory of little sisters or brothers swept into the sea as families escaped. Elderly men worked in factories after years in reeducation camps, where they ate lizards and rats and saw less lucky companions starve. Throughout Houston, men and women ached for lost homes, gardens, cafés and city boulevards.

The refugees brought with them a certain aesthetic about life. I first saw it in their ardent commitment to food: Every meal, in Vietnamese tradition, must be savory, a little sweet, and a little acidic, as well as fresh, chewy and full of crunch. I thought I saw it, too, in the traditional áo dài (pronounced “ah-o yai”), a pants-and-tunic combo that’s seductive, yet comfortable enough to wear on a bike. 

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Clockwise from left: Saigon traffic is not for the faint-hearted; wandering Saigon's lantern street; a street vendor selling vegetables

Most people meet new cultures through food. In Texas, the state with the largest Vietnamese population after California, the gateway dish to Vietnamese food is ph. While Northern Vietnam has its own signature version—more austere, fewer ingredients—the ph style served in Houston mainly comes from Saigon, where most refugees lived at least briefly before fleeing the country.

Years ago, the most celebrated ph shop in all of Houston was located in an undecorated trailer on the outskirts of town. At the time, PhBinh—or Trailer Ph, as we called it—was unknown to non-Vietnamese. But its owner and cook had run a ph stall at the Saigon airport, and to anyone who’d lived in south Vietnam, it carried the aromas of joy, relaxation and home. To many Vietnamese immigrants, scent determines a ph restaurant’s merit as much as taste does. They’ve been known to walk into a Houston ph joint, sniff the air and, if the aroma isn’t just right, turn on their heels and leave.

The same standards apply in Saigon. It’s common for all but the poorest of the poor to eat one meal out every day, and taxi drivers and schoolgirls follow food apps as if they’re telenovelas. Capitalizing on the city’s amazing variety of street food, as well as residents’ demand for excellence, Back of the Bike gives four-hour tours of the locals’ favorite purveyors of noodles, grilled pork, rice crackers and hundreds of other delicacies. 

As I climbed off An’s scooter at our first stop, she cautioned me about the hot gas tank. She hiked up her pant leg to display a small scar. “It’s called a Saigon kiss,” she said. “Everyone gets one.”

We were here for green papaya salad, to be consumed in a park, but sold across the boulevard by an unregulated vendor who’s not supposed to be there. The papaya, which Vietnamese use like lettuce, was sprightly and crunchy, dressed in an intoxicating salty sauce of garlic, palm sugar and vinegar (“with something else,” An said, “but the cook won’t tell us”). Threaded throughout were strips of dried liver—chewy, substantial, faintly sweet.

At the next stop, An ordered something I found astounding. She showed me how to assemble it: start with a square of homemade rice cracker, balance a grilled shrimp on top, then wrap both like a burrito with fresh mustard, shiso, lettuce, Asian basil and mint. The resulting creation, called bánh khọt Vũng Tàu, was like nothing I’d ever eaten: crisp, juicy and salty, enveloped in a garden of wildly varied flavors of green.

Most of the vendors we visited operated on nothing more than illegally rented squares of pavement, equipped with just a gas burner or glass case. Pieces of cardboard, neatly spaced on the curb, served as seats. Minute footstools, no bigger than a placemat, served as tables. The efficiency was impressive, but there was another purpose to the setup, An told me. If a police officer approaches, vendor, clients, cardboard, tables and food can all vanish like vapor.


A few days later, a colleague of An’s took me touring again, this time to teach me about ph. One place differed from all the rest: bright-colored, immaculate, with beauty shots of noodles lining the walls. “This is the opposite of what Vietnamese people look for in a phrestaurant,” she said. “If there’s trash on the floor and the tables aren’t cleared, that means it’s so busy there’s no time to clean. So the food is good and it’s never just sitting out.”

Pho Hai Thien, though, was a new breed: a restaurant catering to Westerners who’d fallen in love with the soup but retained their U.S. and European sensibilities. In Vietnam, chefs fine-tune classic dishes, but unlike Western chefs, they rarely tinker with the basic ingredients. Here, however, while the noodles in each bowl were old-school, crafted by hand, diners could choose from all kinds of exotic ingredients. The orange noodles featured on the poster were made of yam; the green ones from spinach; the scarlet ones from beets.

The greatest innovation appeared in the two bowls that a smartly-uniformed waiter placed in front of us. I immediately leaned forward and inhaled. The soup was clean, fresh, perfumed with star anise, and streaked with lean, dark shreds of chicken. Then I inspected the next bowl. It held the same golden broth, the same noodles. But the chicken, instead of floating in dusky shards, bobbed in a single puffy hunk, four times the size of the meat in the first bowl and as round and white as a Parker House roll.

“Factory chicken,” my guide said. “They don’t ask, but they serve it when they see foreigners. The Westerners like it more. Vietnamese people like free-range chicken, the kind that run around the farmer’s yard. It’s darker, but it’s much more flavorful. The other kind looks nice, but Vietnamese wouldn’t eat it.”

For a split second, I pondered if I was witnessing a cultural loss in the making. Could the introduction of Vietnamese food to the U.S., such a gift to us, actually result in worse cuisine for Vietnam? And then I dismissed the worry. In this city of hardcore foodies, it would be a while, I thought, before locals deigned to line up on cardboard squares to eat something mediocre.

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Clockwise from top left: a street market in the ancient town of Hôi An; wooden boats on the town’s Thu Bôn River; deep-red,  fragrant, thirst-quenching rambutans

“You’ll need to go to Hi An,” my paralegal friend Lana Khuong told me before I left. The cell connection from Houston to Lana’s new apartment in Los Angeles was patchy, and after 20 years in the United States—15 of them of them in Houston—Lana spoke first-rate English but was hard to follow on the phone. So I didn’t ask questions.

My Lonely Planet guidebook made Hi An, a preserved 15th-century port near the coastal town of Đà Nng, sound charming enough. But I probably wouldn’t have sprung for the $100 plane trip from Saigon without Lana’s goading.

I’d met her when I tutored her teenaged sons in literature—not because they needed it, since they were honor roll students, but because Lana, during her lunch hour, had looked up a local creative writing program so her boys could fine-tune their writing skills. I didn’t have children of my own back then, but I was already making note of Lana’s style. She understood how developing a love for literature could spark success in test-happy U.S. schools.

She introduced me to treats like nubby jackfruit, carved open on her kitchen table, and even joined my money club, noting that Vietnamese clubs tend to demand more than the paltry $200 my friends and I scratched together each month.

While much that she taught me was pure Lana, I thought I saw a commonality among my Vietnamese friends. It was a certain brio, a confidence about their culture you wouldn’t necessarily expect after the calamity of the war and the ordeal of starting over in a sometimes-unfriendly land. It took a visit to Hi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, to grasp where this confidence came from.

In Houston, the Vietnamese culture I knew was defined by trauma. The community’s identity revolves around the United States: the aftermath of the war we waged in Vietnam, and the imperative to adapt to the culture we offered in their country’s stead. But when I walked off a city bus into the Ancient Town of Hi An, I instantly stepped into a bigger, older and far more complete Vietnam. It’s stood for millennia, brimming with riches from a dozen cultures that were splendid before the United States ever existed.

What survives today is a city designed for pleasure, one that’s beguiled foreigners pretty much nonstop since the second century. Its square, solid buildings reflect the taste of generations of Chinese traders who sailed in to do business in spring, then savored the city’s breezy waterfront over the summers as they waited for the right winds to head home.

Ships also came and went here from Japan, Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, the Philippines and the Americas, each leaving its imprint on the city. It was the place to buy beeswax and tea, sugar and Chinese medicine, pepper, fine silk, lacquer and lead. Markets filled with spices and fresh fish sparked a connoisseur’s food culture that still exists today.

Then, at the end of the 19th century, Hi An’s port silted over. The city dwindled to stillness. All that remained were Hi An’s cosmopolitan flair and those gorgeous buildings, temples and houses. But they were enough to save it. During the Vietnam War, both sides agreed to keep the city intact. 

The Hi An I entered was once again thronged with foreigners. Thanks in part to a national marketing campaign, the number of tourists leaped more than 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, and more than 800 of its buildings are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

There was something dreamlike about wandering the city’s streets. Round red lanterns swung overhead, mingling with yellow blossoms cascading from trees. A few blocks from a bus stop, cars and scooters all but vanished from the warren-like roads, and visitors drifted near a river spanned by a Japanese footbridge. Smaller alleys hid noodle houses and cafés, while the bigger boulevards were lined with boutiques built into the ground floors of old homes, jammed with mannequins wearing handmade suits and dresses of local silk. Tailors could recreate these garments for you in a day.

The streets here were much older than in Saigon, but vivid with people, flavors, things to touch. There was even, I realized, classical music everywhere, floating from hidden speakers. Above a storefront slipper shop, a sign in English read, “Hotel.” I peered inside at a gray-haired woman dozing on a chair.

“My family has lived in this house for 400 years,” she said in painstaking English. Trailing behind her, I walked into a square anteroom with a giant Chinese vase on a table and an outsized photo hanging on the wall, of an ancient man from what must have been the first years of the twentieth century.

She led me to a great wooden door fastened with a padlock. Unlatching it, she showed me a room unlike any I’d seen before. It held a small table and a curtained window crossed with wooden dowels instead of glass. The rest of the space was occupied by a huge platform bed, as high as my waist, covered with a thin cushion instead of a mattress, and spread with a freshly washed cotton sheet. Every inch of wall, ceiling, floor and doorjamb was heavy, dark wood.

“Twelve dollars,” my hostess said.

My eyes had to adjust to a past century. Clearly, these were not luxury accommodations. Yet they were clean and pleasing, and the building was magnificent in its oldness. Hi An, it struck me, was a Vietnam to which I had been oblivious. It had nothing to do with the Vietnam War, or the refugee struggle, or America, for that matter. Hi An had existed, gorgeous and bustling and Vietnamese, for almost 2,000 years.

I sat on the padded bed. It was oddly bracing.

“Thank you, I’d love it,” I said, and the old woman smiled and gave me the key.


The week after my sojourn in Hi An, I headed to the province of C Chi to meet some of Lana’s relatives: another directive called in from Los Angeles with scant explanation. The house was about 150 miles northwest of Saigon, an airy, low concrete building with a tiled veranda.

Rising all around it, from the dry earth, were fruit trees. Half a dozen school-age children amused themselves chasing each other and an old, patient dog. Ba Bay Boi, the family matriarch, strolled out to meet me, wearing flowered pajamas, her gray hair smoothed into a bun. Without a word, she gave me a hug and led me to a chair on the veranda.

A stream of children and adults started bringing me bowls of fruit: plum-colored mangosteens, whose skin you crack with your teeth, a dragon fruit held by the stalk like a Christmas bulb, and, most fabulous of all, dozens of rosy rambutans. A rambutan is a lovely thing, about the size of a walnut and covered with rubbery tendrils like a sea anemone. Slicing the leathery husk with my thumbnail, I found a melon-pink, translucent fruit that you grab with your teeth. It’s pure juice—tart, fragrant and thirst-quenching. I took another at once.

With the fruit trees, the kids romping and chatting, and the scent of frying spring rolls from the kitchen, I thought this was the most abundant, peaceful place I’d visited in Vietnam. It was hard to fathom that, 40 years ago, C Chi had been the most poisoned, bombed-out region on the planet. It was also home to one of the world’s most stunning feats of ingenuity: a vast network of tunnels, hand-carved into the earth and reaching as far as Saigon.

Three stories downward, in soil that can be dug with a dinner spoon but hardens to a concrete-like strength that can support the weight of a tank, CChi hid a stronghold that changed the course of the Vietnam War.

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Tourists descend into the tunnels of C Chi

First carved during the 1940s, as part of the country’s resistance against France, C Chi’s tunnels were reopened, and hugely expanded, by Communist cadres during the 1960s.

At first, the tunnels were a refuge for South Vietnamese guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies. Later, as the destruction intensified, peasant civilians who had tilled the fields and supported the fighters began to hide there as well. By the mid-1960s, C Chi province housed the most intricate stretch of an incredible underground maze that reached from Saigon to present-day Cambodia. Covering more than 140 square miles, it’s honeycombed with tiny doors, water traps for blocking invaders and poisonous gas, and subterranean chimneys. Inside its recesses, guerrillas rested, planned, assembled weapons, launched raids, treated the wounded and, finally, prepared the Tet Offensive.

To combatants on both sides, tunnel warfare inspired grim respect for their counterparts’ courage. From the U.S. emerged daring soldiers called tunnel rats, who crawled into the tomblike space in search of the enemy. In 1966, meanwhile, after U.S. Lt. Colonel George S. Eyster was shot by the CChi sniper whose bullet would ultimately kill him, he said, “Before I go, I’d like to talk to the guy who controls those incredible tunnels.”

The system was the work of tens of thousands of rural people with little technology but the will to survive in claustrophobic spaces for as long as five years at a time below the jungle floor. The target of ground invasions, aircrafts, bombs, chemicals, defoliants and relentless explosive dumps, the tunnels were nevertheless virtually impossible to destroy. And their impact was extraordinary, enabling the Communists to prolong the war until the United States deemed it unwinnable.

I was surprised, to say the least, when, after a lunch on the veranda floor and as many rambutans as I could eat, half a dozen family members piled into the oldest son’s car for a tour of this site of violence and suffering. The mood was not unlike that of my family, when I was little, visiting the Smithsonian. I was especially struck by the grandmother, who had changed from her pajama set and strode toward the car in a chic, mango-colored suit.

Earlier, a granddaughter who spoke English had told me that the elderly woman had lived in this house, just a few minutes from one of the main tunnel bases, for 80 years. I wanted desperately to know how she had fared during those years. What did she know or experience of the tunnels? “Has she ever told you what she went through?” I asked.

“No, we never talk about it,” the girl answered. “It would be too sad.”

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Like Houston, Saigon is a port city

The C Chi memorial at Ben Dinh looked like a national forest. I kept wondering, at first, where the tunnels were. We followed a guide down a cordoned path into the trees, where a faux village had been set up, complete with a rice paddy and model ox, knee-deep in water.

The guide gestured toward the ground. “What do you see?” he asked. I peered at the mat of dead leaves but saw nothing. Finally, telling us to look closer, the guide pointed to an almost imperceptible mist dissolving over the jungle floor. It was a recreation of CChi’s hidden chimneys, yards away from the underground kitchen sending the smoke. The sight was almost magical, like something from The Wind in the Willows.

But the reality of those fires, and almost every other detail of tunnel existence, was hellish. The hand-dug passageways could barely fit humans. The kitchens, ingenious as they were, sucked up almost all the air in the already suffocating underground chambers. One hundred percent of tunnel users, one doctor found, were riddled with serious parasites. The peasants who hid there died by the thousands; of 16,000 guerrillas who entered, only 6,000 came out alive.

Inside, according to The Tunnels of CChi by journalists John Penycate and Tom Mangold, fighters took apart heavy weaponry, cleaned it, then spirited it above ground for battle. Surgeons improvised brain surgery in underground rooms; trapdoors released scorpions onto intruders. German shepherds sent underground by the U.S. couldn’t find trails because the guerillas had bathed with American soap. Overhead, once-verdant CChi’was a moonscape littered with metal.

We reached the end of the path. Recorded explosions boomed relentlessly. The ground was bare, exposing a small trench and an aperture the size of a knapsack. It was a short stretch of tunnel, widened and restored for visitors. As Lana’s relatives watched, I crouched down and gingerly four-pawed toward the opening. Ahead of me, the space was entirely dark. Inching in, I felt the walls touch my shoulders. I could hear another tourist scrunching down to follow me in.

“Wait!” I yelled from inside. “I need to get out.” And without a moment’s pause, I wiggled backward and away, one breath away from hysterics.

Driving back to Saigon with Lana’s city cousins, I was quiet. I sat between two grandchildren, holding a bag of rambutans. The grandmother had pressed them on me as we left, along with another embrace. That hugginess, I reflected, was one of many things that made Vietnam feel, in some ways, familiar. It was a certain physical ease—lots of hugging, arm caresses, cheek kisses—that Latinos would call calór humano, or human warmth.

Approaching the cheap, touristy district where I was staying, I saw the bánh mì stand where I’d eaten the day before. It sold the same grilled tofu I order at Cali Sandwich in Houston. In Houston, it’s delicious. At this anonymous stand in the door of a building, it was exquisite, all the flavors I savored at home somehow amplified, extended into a fourth dimension.

Yet even more than the hustle and tastes of Saigon, or the dreamy streets of Hi An, what sunk most into my bones was what I had just seen in C Chi. “I wonder,” a Vietnamese woman I’d met in Saigon mused to me, “if I could have lived underground like that—sacrificed like that—in the situation.”

Oddly, I knew that question well. I’d asked myself something similar a hundred times after talking to Vietnamese exiles in Houston. You can’t listen to their stories without wondering what you would have done in the same situation. Could I have pulled it together, made a whole life from scratch, after such losses? Could I have started a business? Cared about my kids’ schooling? Enjoyed the taste of food?

The premise of my question was never quite right, though. In all those years learning about Vietnamese in Houston, I’d seen the qualities I so admired—resourcefulness, attachment to place, relish for traditional pleasures—as refugee traits, the result of the alchemy when newcomers fleeing disaster plunged headlong into American culture. I saw now that those traits were simply Vietnamese, their basis much deeper than 20th-century war or migration.

I pulled a rambutan from my bag. I couldn’t stop eating them. I’d seen imported rambutans at Hong Kong Market in Houston, and even there, the fruits were as pretty as starfish in an anime film. But far from the United States, in the place where they’re grown, I could taste their full richness, nourished with Vietnamese air, sunlight and earth.

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