86. On the Street Where I Live

It’s not Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, but the author reflects on the personality of his home turf in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Binh district.

Van Anh and Thanh welcome guests to Coffee 47 during the Mid-Autumn Festival. (JGA photo)

Today’s blog is a simple one: My purpose is to introduce my immediate Ho Chi Minh City neighborhood. Although there’s nothing really special about it, It is typical of hundreds, and probably thousands, of other blocks in the city.

I have a humble apartment is in the Tan Binh district, about a 10-minute walk from the domestic terminal at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport, a 20- to 30-minute drive from the center of the metropolis.

Because of the proximity, many residents of my neighborhood are affiliated with airlines or the aircraft industry. A fair number of pilots, recruited especially from European countries, live in the Blue Sky residential towers, just down the road. Several of the 10 flats in my building are rented to VietAir flight attendants, who like me cannot afford more lofty lodging.

My street is an offshoot of busy Bach Dang street, named to honor a famous naval battle of ancient Vietnamese history. But there’s no river here, except after an occasional torrential rain. Instead, there are business offices, a university branch where I have taught, government buildings, a few retail shops, a holistic spa, a barber shop and a pair of boutique hotels

Baristas prepare cappuccinos and lattes at Ca Phe May. (JGA photo)

My friend Tom lives in the latter, in a tidy little inn called the Hotel Mi Linh. Tom is what the Vietnamese call a Viet Kieu, born in this country but for decades a resident of California. He wears the “Cali” flag proudly in an endless wardrobe of T-shirts. Presently, he’s back in Saigon for a long visit; in another month or two, he told me, he’ll be joined by a North American friend, and together they will fly off to explore Iceland. There can’t be many places in the world further from Vietnam, or more culturally and geographically different, than Iceland.

A 300-meter (about a quarter-mile) stretch of road is what I consider my home turf. As a coffee lover, I’m grateful for the numerous choices it offers me for caffeination.

My usual stop is Coffee 47, my next-door neighbor. It was recently purchased by a delightful 22-year-old woman named Van Anh, assisted by her equally lovely sisters and several friends. Iced coffee and tea, fruit juices and fresh coconut (served in the shell) are the primary fare. My only regret is that, with the change of ownership, the cafe no longer serves hot, traditional Vietnamese coffee, strained through a metal sieve, or phin.

For a hot cappuccino, though, I don’t have far to walk — about two minutes, in fact, to Câ Phé May. The friendly and progressive team here can even spin out a large caramel macchiato for 34,000 Viet Nam Dong (a buck and a half U.S.).

Neighborhood men enjoy morning and smokes at Milano Coffee. (JGA photo)

Down the way is Milano Coffee, a favorite of working-class men. I see them crowded around their motorbikes every morning, cigarettes in hand, getting their caffeine and nicotine fixes before they begin their days.

And there are plenty of other coffee shops, as well. Westerners are often surprised to find that they rarely serve food, although a few of them offer beer. An exception is Coté de la Rue Café, perhaps because its space in the luxury Blue Sky complex is so popular with pilots and airline execs.

The couple who own Giao Hang Tan Noi get help from their daughters during university breaks. (JGA photo)

But finding food in my block is never a problem, so long as I ignore rats and cockroaches — which, if not ubiquitous, are always hiding somewhere. And I’ve come to create casual friendships with several of the owners.

At Giao Hang Tan Noi, I can get phở tai nam or bún bò Huế from sunrise to sunset, and at midday the com tam options always number 15 to 20 meats, fishes and vegetables with a mountain of rice. A typical meal costs 40 VND (US $1.75).

The brother and sister to the bride keep the bun rieu business afloat at Quan Chun Beo. (JGA photo)

At Quán Chun Béo, the specialty is bún riêu. A thick rice-noodle soup made with a tomato broth, minced freshwater crab, fried tofu and tamarind pâté, it is considered rich in calcium and iron, and at a price of 55 VND (US $2.40) it is something I enjoy at least once a week.

Tràm, the woman who owns this shop, has recently married a Viet Kieu and moved to Los Angeles, but her sister and other family continue to run it successfully.

The proprietress of Bap Nha Huong Bac is never without her pearl necklace. (JGA photo)

A tasty breakfast at Bep Nha Huong Bac is bánh cuô’n, steamed rice batter filled with minced pork, mushrooms and shallots. The proprietress speaks little or no English, but encouraged by her 20-something daughter — whose English is very good — she tries to flirt with me and sometimes offers gifts of fresh fruit.

Also on this block is Kodomo Sushi, for casual Japanese; The Kitchen, for pizza and pasta; and a kebab shop, open intermittently. Opposite Swinburne University are a couple of open-air restaurants that specialize in in ôc, or marine snails. Although I love clams and oysters, I’m not a fan of these mollusks, the larger of which are far too chewy for my taste.

You can get anything you want (more or less) at the Mini Stop. And the clerk speaks perfect English. (JGA photo)

Thankfully, for those wee hours when I find myself craving a snack, there are three separate 24-hour convenience stores within my 300 meters.

My usual late-night destination is the Mini Stop, where my favorite clerk is a thoroughly bilingual Vietnamese-American man. Like me, he’s a writer who is supplementing his income as he pursues his passion. We often have a lot to talk about.

My favorite banh mi kitchen is assailed by a reflection of a taxi driving through the bread rolls. (JGA photo)

Down the block, in both directions, are bánh mì stands. Vietnam’s favorite sandwich is most typically prepared at mobile kitchens such as these. A crisp-crusted baguette roll is sliced lengthwise to reveal its soft interior.

In the morning, I order it with a couple of fried eggs; later, I might choose a pâté or sliced roasted pork. Spicy and savory spreads and a selection of vegetables from carrots and radishes to cilantro and chile peppers, fill it out.

Taxis queue morning and night for their chance to scoop up arriving passengers at the nearby airport. (JGA photo)

On Bach Dang, it seems, I often must wait for my order behind taxi drivers. This urban lane is a gathering place for cabs queueing to pick up passengers at the nearby airport. Some mornings and evenings (but rarely midday), they line up for nearly a full kilometer, blocking the entire right-hand side of the street.

With no electronic signal to monitor their movement, a controller with a headphone sits at a small table at the end of Bach Dang nearest the airport, raising cards to alert the first in line when to move ahead.

Vietnam Post drivers are handicapped by heavy and awkward loads on their motorbikes. (JGA photo)

Nearby, a Vietnam Post substation serves the neighborhood, although I use the word “serves” loosely. More than once, I have had mail from the United States remain undelivered, even though the address was written properly and I live just steps away.

The unwieldly mail-carry bins on the backs of official motorbikes can’t make them easy to control. I guess that could be an excuse … or not.

In the driveway of the Hotel Mi Linh, my friend Tom has found his smoker’s sanctuary. (JGA photo)

85. The Elephants Are Fighting Back

Even in the same rural precincts where a park promotes elephant conservation, local “sanctuaries” are encouraging visitors to go for rides.

A tethered elephant eyes an intruder with suspicion. (JGA photo)

I can’t even say it was a sucker punch.

Like a prize fighter, my unintended opponent had connected solidly with a roundhouse hook to my jaw.

I was staggered. I stumbled backward. I lost my footing and I found myself launched into a muddy, well trodden bed of elephant shit.

It was later suggested to me that my red T-shirt may have inspired the elephant’s response, much as a tortured toro reacts to a crimson cape in a bullfight arena. I think otherwise.

I think the bedeviled pachyderm, tethered as it was to a tree, and with a howdah (a riding platform) strapped to its back, was mad as hell at the human race and simply wasn’t going to take it any more. Its muscular trunk took a swing and didn’t miss.

Soon thereafter, the shit hit the fan … or, rather, the photographer. (JGA photo)

Hey, I get it

I forgive the beast for its reaction, as my intrusion into its terribly restricted territory had been naive. Without asking first, I had approached for photographs, and my advance had been no secret. I marched through a pasture shared with sheep and miniature horses, lifted my iPhone and shot.

The creature appeared nonplussed. In its eyes I saw only a dull awareness, not the bright gleam of a happy elephant. I told it I felt sorry for its predicament. I slowly reached out my hand for its trunk. Its answer was not what I expected.

In fact, the Anh Duong nature park was a general disappointment. I had gone there with my close friend Lan Hà, her sister Thu’ and nephew Gia, hoping to do some walking in the scrub-jungle environment of Vietnam’s rural Đắk Lắk province. We paid 280,000 dong (about US$12) for the privilege of parking beside a reservoir, crossing a boardwalk to a simple floating marina, and clambering up a primitive pair of raised bridges for views across the water.

Lan Ha poses on a bridge at Cau Treo. (JGA photo)

Where’s the wildlife?

I listened for the sounds of birds, the chatter of monkeys. There was none. I asked a caretaker where we might wander to see some wildlife. He motioned to the two constrained elephants in the pasture area and laughed. For 200,000 dong, he said, we could go for a ride on their backs. Indeed, they could carry two people.

I objected. Conservationist groups the world over have called upon tourists to not ride elephants for a variety or reasons. Foremost are the cruel manner in which wild elephants are broken for riding; the conditions to which they are subjected in captivity; and the vertebral damage they experience in repeatedly toting heavy human loads.

I had thought we were going to Yok Đôn National Park, which has an official animal-welfare agreement with Animals Asia. The covenant was signed in 2018, three years after several of Vietnam’s domestic elephants died from exhaustion. As recently as the 1980s, the country’s wild elephant population was estimated at 2,000; today is is said to be as few as 100.

An elephant munches bamboo while carrying two passengers and its mahout (elephant driver). (JGA photo)

At the headwaters

But neither Anh Duong nor the next “sanctuary” we visited, Cầu Treo, are in Yok Đôn National Park — although we couldn’t have missed it by much. Directions to all three had us traveling 40 km (25 miles) west from Buôn Ma Thuột city to Krông Na commune near the village of Buôn Đôn. We just missed the turnoff.

Founded in 1992 and the second largest national park in Vietnam, Yok Đôn covers 446 square miles (1,155 sq km) of mixed deciduous and evergreen forest on hills and lowlands bordering Cambodia. The park surrounds the headwaters of the Srepok River, which flows westerly into Cambodia to feed the mighty Mekong, later doubling back to enter the South China (East) Sea southwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Jungle dendrils tickle the Srepok river at Cau Treo. (JGA photo)

Naturalists have documented more than 850 species of trees and other vegetation in Yok Đôn, as well as 300 types of birds, a great many reptiles and insects, and 89 mammals — various monkeys, red wolves and muntjac deer among them. Other severely endangered species, elephants, tigers, leopards and bison-like gaur persist in small numbers, victims of hunting, deforestation and illegal wildlife trade.

“There are no wild animals here,” insisted Lan Hà, who was born and raised in Buôn Ma Thuột. “The Vietnamese people, they just eat them.”

I shed another tear. Indeed, although dogs are a popular pet in this nation, Vietnam is notorious for eating dog meat, especially in rural areas. I have seen no evidence of that in Đắk Lắk, although I’m sure it still occurs. Indeed, I have been offered dog meat on more than one occasion in working-class (but not tourist) neighborhoods of Saigon.

A brilliant butterfly visits a flower garden beside the Srepok River. (JGA photo)

And bamboo to eat

Our second conservation park (Cầu Treo) visit on this day was more satisfying than our first, although elephants were still being offered for rides. At least this park’s trio of elephants had more freedom of movement in their pen, along with lots of fresh bamboo to eat.

Significantly better maintained than the first park we had visited, Cầu Treo was also more reasonably priced: 160,000 dong (US$7) for our quartet. A handful of tour buses had delivered a pack of friendly schoolchildren, drawn to swaying rope bridges that crossed Srepok tributaries, as a dozen-odd Chinese adults scoured a gauntlet of souvenir shops selling elephant woodcarvings in all sizes and a flamboyant selection of brilliant fabrics woven by the resident minority cultures, Ede and M’nong and Lao.

The bridges delivered the curious and intrepid to a broad riparian island. Wildflowers — golden, purple, magenta — blossomed furiously along its banks. Colorful butterflies were drawn to their sepals like moths blinded by lights. In the trees, a handful of birds made their presence known: The collared laughingthrush offered a high-pitched whistle, the vernal parrotlet a muted rasp, the white-rumped shama an astounding multi-octave melody that challenged mimics.

Gia, Thu’ and Ha enjoy an Ede-Lao feast in Dak Lak province. (JGA photo)

An Ede-Lao feast

Next to a traditional family longhouse in the Ede village outside the entrance, a Lao family served us an unforgettable feast. The chicken was freshly plucked and barbecued, the cabbage and other vegetables tossed with crispy pork rind, the soup delivered from a stock of locally caught Srepok carp, the sticky rice stuffed into a tube of bamboo.

I even tried Rượu Ama Công, a strong but sweet alcoholic beverage said to have been a vital tonic for the late, legendary Ama Công. When he died in 2012 at the age of 102, this Ede elephant hunter had 21 children and 118 grandchildren. It is said the booze contributed to his virility. For my part, it’s too early to post results.

A family of dogs (forget about sterilization) surrounded our table as we ate, glad for whatever morsels fell, or were tossed, in their direction.

Meanwhile, I was still massaging my bruises, ego as well as jaw. I was grateful to find no elephant on the menu.

An Ede longhouse of traditional style was built of bamboo. (JGA photo)


The bridge led to the jungle … but where was the wildlife? (JGA photo)

84. Notes on 10 Days in Thailand

On a brief trip to Bangkok and Pattaya, the author is reminded of many things he loves about Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbor.

A lotus flower, symbol of Buddhism, blossoms brilliantly at Bangkok’s sacred Wat Pho temple. (JGA photo)

I’ve been living in Vietnam now for nearly three years. I embrace the time I spend in Thailand.

Thailand is a kinder, gentler country, and its teeming capital, Bangkok, is a much more liveable metropolis than Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It takes only a few minutes on busy Sukhumvit Road to sense the greater respect for human beings.

Traffic actually stops at red lights to allow pedestrians to cross. Sidewalks (or footpaths, if you prefer) are maintained and kept free of parked motorbikes. A modern overhead railway system provides rapid and low-cost transportation from one end of the city to the other.

Thai food has more flavor and variety than Vietnamese, where noodles and rice are the everyday staples. In Bangkok in particular, the choice of international options is mind-boggling.

A Spanish chef slices pork Iberico from the bone at Bangkok’s “Jamon Jamon” restaurant. (JGA photo)

Bangkok’s appeal may be partially due to its much-longer exposure to tourism from abroad. As far back as the 1960s, American troops in Vietnam were taking rest-and-recuperation leaves in Thailand; unlike Vietnam, the Thais have not in recent generations been embroiled in wars that closed their borders to foreign visitors.

In some regards, Vietnam is still the Wild West. Especially in Ho Chi Minh City, traffic is out of control and pedestrians are non-persons. “Please” and “thank you,” even in translation, are not words often expressed. One can never be sure if one is being told the truth, or just some face-saving version thereof. Secrets hide deeper secrets. Government observers are well-placed.

The most memorable tourist attractions in Vietnamese cities are war remnants: armaments, prisons, battle sites. In Thailand, they are Buddhist temples.

A resident cat nestles into the lap of a Buddha image at Wat Pho. (JGA photo)

Thai Buddhism honors the faith’s founder, the historical Buddha, as a teacher rather than a god. Vietnamese Buddhism, heavily influenced by centuries of Chinese influence, kowtows to Quan Am, the mythological goddess of mercy, often called the “Lady Buddha.” Like Vietnamese history, the scriptures have been rewritten.

For all my frustrations, I am employed in Vietnam now and for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, I will continue to make the occasional short, inexpensive flight west from Saigon.

A Return to Bangkok

My overriding reason to visit the Thai capital on this occasion — my first international trip since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020 — was to extend my business visa to continue teaching in Vietnam. Corporate misinformation and bungling have snarled the renewal of my working documents for months, and a letter of sponsorship enabled me to right things (at least through October) with a stop at the Embassy of Vietnam in Thailand.

Keith Nolan, JGA and Joe Cummings relax at the bar at the 29 Jazz Club. (Photo courtesy of Keith Nolan)

I took full advantage. I’ve been visiting the city since 1976. I have a few friends here — people like Joe Cummings, who achieved almost legendary status during his many years as a Lonely Planet author. We go back over 30 years. These days he’s still writing for books and magazines, as well as being a CNN correspondent; but he’s become at least as well known as an actor (three features last year, one in the title role), composer and musician.

A couple of decades back, as a rock guitarist himself, Joe was the designated Thailand tour guide for the most famous Stone of them all, Mick Jagger. They have remained friends and confidants. I’ve been entrusted with a few stories. I am not privileged to share them.

Keith Nolan performs with vocalist May Damapong and her combo at the 29 Jazz Club. (JGA photo)

But some were leaked during rounds of whiskey cocktails at the 29 Jazz Club, an outstanding jazz-and-blues bar that Keith Nolan manages in Sukhumvit Road’s Mermaid Hotel. I wish there were venues like this in Ho Chi Minh City, but my current city has precious few. When Keith, an Irish keyboardist who once had an enthusiastic following in Saigon, left Vietnam for Thailand some years ago, he left an empty space that longtime HCM expatriates still mourn.

29 Jazz has live music nightly, often headlining female vocalists. I caught two shows there, and another with Joe at Smalls, an aptly named Rive Gauche-style lounge in the Sathorn Road neighborhood. On the night of our visit, the music was innovative and avant-garde, but this is a venue where the Midnight Ramblers— Cummings’ popular Rolling Stones cover band — also performs.

At more than 150 feet in length, Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha is the largest in Thailand. (JGA photo)

An Afternoon at Wat Pho

This visit to Bangkok may have been my first in which I didn’t spend hours at the Grand Palace, one of the most iconic and spectacularly picturesque structures on the planet, dating from 1782. Its numerous buildings and carefully tended grounds cover 54 acres on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, and include Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Thailand’s most sacred place of worship.

Instead, I invested an afternoon just down the road from the Palace at the 17th-century Wat Pho. Famous for its great Reclining Buddha — 46 meters (151 feet) long, the gold-plated statue barely fits in its sheltering pavilion — Wat Pho also contains the country’s largest collection of Buddha images, more than 1,000 in all.

The gilded Buddha image at Phra Ubosot is sheltered by a golden umbrella of nine tiers. (JGA photo)

Covering nearly 20 acres, the temple grounds are a relaxing place for a contemplative stroll. Within its walls are scores of building, including more than 100 finely carved chedis (shrines), the four most monumental (Phra Maha Chedi) containing particularly precious spiritual relics of Kings Rama I through IV.

Most memorable to me, besides the Reclining Buddha, is the ordination hall (Phra Ubosot) where Buddhist rituals are performed. Dedicated in 1791, it has at its heart a three-part pedestal of gold and crystal, topped with a gilded Buddha beneath a nine-tier umbrella. Removing my shoes outside the hall, I joined several dozen other visitors in offering well-wishes to the Buddha and to 18th-century King Rama I, whose ashes are beneath the pedestal.

A statue to yogic massage underscore Wat Pho’s fame as a center for traditional medicine. (JGA photo)

Besides being a place of worship, Wat Pho is also the oldest center for public education in Thailand, teaching history, literature, religion and especially traditional medicine. The temple is also the birthplace of Thai massage, and students at its school of massage welcome patrons at very reasonable rates. In one of Wat Pho’s many small, whimsical rock gardens, I even discovered statues depicting yoga and massage.

Meanwhile, on the ‘Dark Side’

Temple massage, of course, is nonsexual. The same cannot be said about the bodywork offered at a majority of “spas” in Bangkok’s numerous bar districts, notably those off Sukhumvit Road.

As it happened, I had booked a hotel on Soi 20 Sukhumvit — the comfortable and contemporary Thee Hotel (US $44/night). I chose the location as close to Keith’s jazz club. But I did not linger in any of Bangkok’s so-called spas, despite my fascination with the “dark side” of a city.

Bar girls solicit patrons for drinks, and perhaps more, on Soi Cowboy 2. (JGA photo)

There is plenty of wicked activity in the various side streets off Sukhumvit Road. Lanes like Soi Cowboy and Patpong Road offer temptations galore, but at a price not as innocent as first presented. Scantily clad women invite men to enjoy a beer for 80 to 100 Thai baht (that’s about US$2.50 to $3); but make no mistake, their job is selling drinks. Around the world, that’s where a bar’s profit margin lies.

The girls’ own watered-down “lady drinks” cost two to three times yours, and when other women join the conversation, your bill can quickly add up. Should you want to purchase your companion’s charms away from her bar, you’ll pay a little more. The going rate is now about 3,000 baht (US $80) for a “short time” (two hours or less), 5,000 baht (US $135) for a “long time,” which might mean all night. Streetwalkers are cheap (often only 1,000 baht) but dangerous; unlike the bar girls, they are not subject to weekly health checks nor to upholding the honor of their employer.

Perhaps hoping for a generous suitor, a Thai woman enjoys a meal on Sukhumvit Road. (JGA photo)

Freelance escorts — professional girlfriends, if you will — are often the best choice for a man who wants a female friend in Bangkok but doesn’t want a revolving door of partners. Many of these women are attractive, intelligent, and speak good English. As often as not, they are single mothers marketing their best assets to support families in country regions of Thailand. Indeed, some may be looking for a “golden ticket” (i.e., a husband with money). A weekly gift of 5,000 baht, plus meals and pocket money, is much less than the cost of a week of carousing.

Jomtien Beach

I didn’t spend my entire Thai retreat in Bangkok. Three days in the Pattaya suburb of Jomtien Beach, 2½ hours by bus south of Sukhumvit Road’s Ekkamai station, landed me a one-bedroom suite in a time-share condo for only US$12 a night. Granted, the screams of young children in the Atlantis Resort’s central waterpark weren’t exactly what I had in mind, but at least the beach itself was only a short walk away.

Blue skies and golden sands are never far away at Pattaya’s Jomtien Beach. (JGA photo)

I came to Jomtien to visit two more old friends, one male, one female. The woman, Opor, was my friend in the northern city of Chiang Mai on my last visit to Thailand, in late 2019. She now rolls sushi (and probably weed) at an open-air, off-the-beaten-track Japanese restaurant, Wazab. Its larger claim to fame is open sale of Rasta-brand Thai stick, “100% organic.” Indeed, I found cannabis widely available for sale throughout the beach area.

My other friend in Jomtien is John Faux, a retired British-American engineer of similar age to myself. We took daily Western-style breakfasts at Cheap Charlie’s and talked about John’s inclination to split his year between Thailand and central Mexico, as a vagabond on a monthly pension income. The cost of a comfortable US$300-a-month apartment here, 200 meters from a beach where vendors hawk spicy curries for $1 and fresh fruit juice for 50 cents, has a lot of appeal.

Hmm. Maybe I should just go back and move in next door to John.

The two Johns await their breakfast coffee at Cheap Charlie’s in Jomtien. (Photo courtesy of John Faux)
The four great Phra Maha Chedi at Wat Pho honor the memories of Kings Rama I through IV. (JGA photo)

83. Cát Bà Island Escapades

Cát Bà may be the best destination in northern Vietnam for exploring the unique seascapes of Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO-acclaimed world heritage site.

The author poses in front of a tidal arch near Lan Ha Bay. (Pham Duc Canh photo)

There’s something at once mystical and magical about a karst landscape — even moreso when it becomes a seascape.

Karst, for the uninitiated, is a natural topographical feature formed when water-soluble rocks like limestone (calcium carbonate) are dissolved by rain or flowing water. Beneath the surface, subterranean streams may create a labyrinth of caves and sinkholes, as erosion fails to penetrate more weather-resistant core rocks, such as quartzite.

Fantastic landscapes are often the result. The region around Guilin, China, is renowned for its narrow, steeply rising crags, often capped by remote temples, as depicted in centuries-old scroll paintings. The cenote of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, an element of Mayan myth, were created by these same natural forces.

A panoramic view of Lan Ha Bay. (JGA photo)

In northeastern Vietnam, limestone karst is a leading element of the geography. It is responsible for a great many unique features, including the stunning peaks of Ninh Binh and the 400 million-year-old caves of Phong Nha, said to be the world’s largest but discovered and explored only in recent decades.

Cerulean waters                                    

But neither of these grand sites carries the cachet of Ha Long Bay, the single leading tourist attraction in all of Vietnam. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, the bay teases tourists with more than 2,000 lofty islands, many of them no larger than the cruise ships that ride the tides here. Spread through the cerulean waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, the islets shelter scores of isolated floating villages and countless grottoes beloved by awestruck kayakers.

Karst rock strata are constantly eroded by rain and tides. (JGA photo)

From my hotel room in Hanoi, where I had been laid up for two weeks with the flu (yes, that flu), I could only yearn to continue my travels with a trip to Ha Long. As soon as I was once again able expose myself to the world, I found enthusiastic and able assistance in the Old Quarter at Ethnic Travel. Its marvelous owners, Khanh and Mai Thú, both fluent in English, not only head up a team of guides; they also operate a traditional craft market and bookstore from their shop, and Khanh is more than happy to suggest reading material.

The quiet resort town of Cát Bà nestles on the south shore of its namesake island. (JGA photo)

With my travel time curtailed by illness, they recommended that I focus on Cát Bà island, a far less congested destination than the usual gateway of Ha Long City. On Cát Bà, they told me, I wouldn’t contend with a waterfront lined with high-rise hotels nor a scramble for luxury cruises. Cát Bà, they said, was much more laid back, and, bonus!, it was much closer to pristine Lan Ha Bay, a body of water they consider the best of the entire Gulf of Tonkin.

Getting there

My three-day, two-night visit to Cát Bà Island began with a two-hour early-morning charter-bus ride from Hanoi. The modern highway skirted the industrial city of Haiphong, a not-quite-suburb of Hanoi with a million people, standing on its own at the mouth of the broad Red River. A transit of a new suspension bridge and a short car ferry took us to Cát Bà, largest of a string of islands surrounding Ha Long Bay.

The anchorage at Cát Bà town has a colorful collection of vessels. (JGA photo)

The island’s only true town is eponymously named Cát Bà. Wrapped around a horseshoe-shaped harbor near the south end of the island, it features a number of modest low-rise hotels and a seemingly equal number of floating seafood restaurants.

I was dropped at LePont Cát Bà Bungalow. Apart from an awesome view over the busy anchorage, it was little more than a glorified hostel: Its restaurant didn’t serve dinners, its bar didn’t have beer. But it served its purpose for an inexpensive two-night stay.

Cat Co 3 is a tiny strand just below the LePont Cat Bay Bungalow. (JGA photo)

A six-hour tour

I spent the next full day on the water. Captain Phạm Duc Canh met me at the tiny Ben Beo harbor, on the back side of the town amidst karst hills shrouded in thick foliage and morning mist. For the next six hours, I had a private tour in his utilitarian boat, built to accommodate about a dozen but today hosting only myself.

Captain Pham Duc Canh is always happy to be on the water. (JGA photo)

At least a couple of hundred houseboats — primitive shacks on hand-built rafts — crowded both sides of the waterway as we eased away from Ben Beo. I felt that I was intruding on the residents’ home lives, as I looked to and through one-room abodes where couples cooked, cleaned and prepared for their days ahead.

Fishing boats and houseboats pack the banks of Ben Beo Harbor. (JGA photo)

Always, it seemed, there were dogs on these buoyant perches, challenging all who could hear their defiant barks to stay far away. In a neighborhood with no gates, locks, alarm systems or any other form of security, the canines are indeed their owners’ best friends.

A boatowner’s dog remains on alert day and night. (JGA photo)

Fjord-like environs

But neither woofs nor words could begin to describe the grandeur of the natural environment here. As we sputtered along at a speed of around 20 knots, I was reminded of passage through a Norwegian fjord. A very few buoys and posted signs directed us through the channel; but so steep were the surrounding mounts, I doubt if there was any danger of reefs or sandbars.

A marine petrol station is an isolated but essential outpost. (JGA photo)

Then suddenly the close geological environs vanished. We turned one rocky corner and found ourselves staring at a stunning panorama of miniature alps, each capped with tussocks of gnarled native vegetation with roots strong enough to pierce limestone rock. Some of the larger islands were named for animals they were thought to resemble: Monkey Island, Turtle Island. Here and there, remote and rustic resorts nestle against rocks and palms facing small sandy beaches.

I suspect the owner of a marine petrol station must feel a little like a lighthouse keeper in his isolation. He provides an essential service, but unless he has an associate to give him backup relief, it’s got to be kind of like Hotel California: He can check out any time he likes, but he can never leave. At least he has a dog, too.

A remote “homestay” welcomes guests … and serves lunch to day visitors. (JGA photo)

Time for lunch

Captain Canh steered us to a lunch stop at a “homestay” on another floating outpost. We were served fish from the property’s own farmed enclosures, after which we were invited to share a peace pipe of robust tobacco from a homemade bong: I suspect it was not pure tobacco. On a muddy beach nearby, a simple shellfish farm boosted the culinary bounty. This small oasis also catered a handful of overnight guests, with post-pandemic tourism on the upswing, so a small fleet of kayaks and paddle boards were stowed at the ready.

A deckhand enjoys a smoke after lunch. (JGA photo)

The captain and I spent our afternoon hours further exploring the broad bay. Small boats skittled along the shoreline, their pilots slapping the surf with long poles to chum fish by stirring up nutrients, or scavenging rocky outcrops for tiny shellfish known as óc, much loved by diners at seafood restaurants throughout Vietnam.

A villager forages for small shellfish on the rocky shore of Lan Ha Bay. (JGA photo)

I had snapped a couple of hundred photos by the time Canh suggested a short detour to a maritime zone of natural bridges and grottoes. It was enchanting. And the captain himself took perhaps my favorite photograph from the day’s excursion, a shot of me (in University of Oregon garb: Go Ducks!) semi-crouched beside one arch as the tide rushes through. Magical. You can see that photo at the top of this story.

A national park

With a few free hours the next day, before I caught the bus back to Hanoi and a return flight to Ho Chi Minh City, I borrowed a motorbike to explore a small part of the interior of this island — the jungle precinct known as Cát Bà National Park.

A rustic resort is nestled in jungle outside Cát Bà National Park. (JGA photo)

It’s not exactly what a North American expects to see in a national park, but the grounds were readily accessible via the main cross-island highway. Beyond a ticket gate, a simple headquarters building and an open-air pavilion featured interpretive signs describing the park’s flora and fauna. The animals include the rare golden-headed langur, a severely endanged species that I did not have the fortune of seeing.

A lightly tarred one-lane road, lined with derelict wartime barracks and other structures, heads directly east for several kilometers from the entrance area. A small drive accesses a rustic backpackers’ resort, with a large swimming pond, in the middle of the forest. Trees are simply labeled with Vietnamese and Latin names, a generous gesture, perhaps, although it did nothing for this English speaker. There are several natural caves in the area, including the 17-room Hospital Cave, a hospital and safe house during the American War.

Had I continued on this route, I would eventually have reached a trail head to a mountain summit. But 18 kilometers (11 miles) was a longer hike than I was prepared for on this day.

A phallic rock stands as a prominent landmark off Cát Bà Island. (JGA photo)
Karst hills create an alien landscape in Lan Ha Bay. (JGA photo)

82. Discovering Vietnam’s Art

Through periods of freedom and suppression, Vietnamese art continues to make an impression as it reveals culture and history to a curious world.

“Flying a Kite in a Rice Field” (2022) by 8-year-old Mina Anh Tri.

If art is too tightly controlled, it is not art. Like music or literature, the fine arts of painting and sculpture must be creatively manifested or their meaning is lost. Individual expression is paramount; inspiration is essential.

There is no greater indicator of a culture’s freedom — political freedom, religious freedom, socioeconomic freedom — than in the works that its artists generate. One can perhaps suggest a theme to a painter, but one cannot direct how the work should be done.

The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi (JGA photo)

I thought about this as I looked at many of the modern works in The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. With very little guesswork, I could extrapolate the main bullet points (no pun intended) of the past 150-odd years of the country’s turbulent history: The French colonial influence was succeeded by the redirection of the revolutionary north, the tightly controlled autocracy since reunification, and finally, the slow reemergence of more liberated art under Western economic stimulus, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon).

There were artists in what is now Vietnam as long ago as 10,000 years, as indicated by clay pottery unearthed in prehistoric digs in the far north. By about 3,000 years ago, decorative touches could be seen in Neolithic pottery and ceramics. Elaborate bronze drums from the Đông Sơn Culture were elaborately decorated with geometric patterns and depictions of lifestyle scenes, from wardrobe to farming practices.

Dong Son drum, 1st millenium BC, Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi (JGA photo)

Even during long periods of Chinese dominance and the absorption of a Confucian-Taoist ethic, Vietnamese art retained many distinctive characteristics. These were best seen in ceramic art, where traditional styles melded with those of China’s Tang and Song dynasties. Ceramics of the 11th- and 12th-century Lý Dynasty became famous across Asia. The 19th-century Nguyen Dynasty, the last imperial rulers of Vietnam, saw a renewed interest in ceramics and porcelain art.

“18th Patriarch: The Venerable Gayashata” (1794), lacquer on wood, from Tay Phu’ong Pagoda. (JGA photo)

Before French colonization, Vietnamese art was mostly religious, ranging from paintings and ceramics to lacquered furniture that adorned pagodas and temples. European influence arrived in the 1860s. In establishing the Ecole de Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (School of Fine Arts of Indochina) in 1925, the French began teaching Western art history and aesthetic techniques such as linear perspective, modeling in the round, and plein air — that is, moving the canvas outdoors where students could incorporate landscapes and the cultural environment.  

“A Wharf at the Foot of Mount Bai Tho” (1958) by Le Thanh Duc. Plein air realism at Ha Long Bay.

A leading artist of this period was To Ngoc Van, who became known for a “poetic reality” style that idealized femininity, sometimes merging religion and mythology with nostalgic romanticism. But he abandoned this style with Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 declaration of Vietnamese independence from both the French and their Second World War Japanese overlords. To immersed himself in revolutionary rhetoric, leading resistance artists to the Viet Minh encampment in the hills of Tay Bac, where they built a new art school.

“Vinh Linh Youth Setting Off to Fight Against the American Invaders” (1975) by Nguyen Van Cu. Revolutionary fervor.

To Ngoc Van now embraced modern realism. Art, he said, must inspire the revolution, appealing to — and educating — the Vietnamese people. Artists under his tutelage created images of heroic battle scenes, portraits of peasants supporting the soldiers, pictures of the glorious countryside. To himself died in 1954 of injuries he suffered during the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu.

“Carrying an Anti-Tank Mine in a Death-Braving Spirit” (1960) by Tran Van Hoe. Homage to heroism. (JGA photo)

Now rid of the French, the Vietnamese Communist party was able to solidify its control of the north before having to counter the American threat beginning in the mid-1960s. That meant restricting the freedom of expression. Although many writers and artists demanded more liberty, at least two art and literary journals were banned for supporting this viewpoint in the 1950s.

“In the Mangrove” (1974) by Trong Rung Duoc. Soldiers and peasants interact amid dense foliage.

After the National Arts Association was established in 1956, only its 108 members could exhibit or sell their works, mainly propaganda poster designs and illustrations. Private galleries were banned, preventing any non-members from displaying their work.

Strict guidelines declared that subject matter should have a “national character,” which usually meant the countryside, a battle scene, or a portrait of Uncle Ho. Nonetheless, most work continued to rely upon detachment and a classic realist perspective, while like oil painting itself had been introduced by the Europeans — even as all works were now renamed “national.”

“Central Vietnam” (1981) by Le Huy Tiep. Amid the sand dunes near Mui Ne.

Unsurprisingly, individualism and freedom of expression persisted much longer in the republican south than in the north. After Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel by the Geneva Conference of 1954, many northern artists fled to Saigon. Until the fall of the city in 1975 — and many artists were sent for “re-education” — they experimented with abstraction and other contemporary expressions.

An economic reform in 1986 claimed to allow artists a greater outlet for creative expressions, even as the government censured a workshop: “The retreat not only promoted individual expression and art for art’s sake,” a government-controlled newspaper explained. “It also went against what the state had instituted over the past three decades in that it allowed artists to explore their individuality rather than represent collective sentiments of their community.”

“Young Girl and Lotus Flowers” (1972) by Nguyen Sang. Nguyen’s southern style recalled French romanticism.

Today, due in part to the purchasing power of foreign tourists, the pendulum shows signs of reversing its direction, especially in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). Public galleries exhibit works in oil, acrylic and lacquer (on wood) — many of them expert copies of older paintings, but featuring a significant number of originals. As well, a younger generation of Vietnamese artists is active in more contemporary styles, including installation art, video art and performance art.

“At the Age of Twenty” (1980), bronze sculpture by Vuong Hoc Bao, The Vietnam Fine Arrs Museum. (JGA photo)

Prestigious RMIT University Vietnam, an affiliate of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, is a leader in modern Vietnamese art. Its collection, exhibited in HCMC District 7, is considered among the finest in the world, including both established and mid-career artists along with emerging talents. Indeed, RMIT has become a shining light for creative expression among young Vietnamese.

I hope it’s a place where young Mina Anh Tri might someplace dream of going. This young girl, only 8 years old, nervously opened her artist’s notebook to me in an English-language class that I teach — and I was flabbergasted. With no formal art training, she has captured both rural and urban visions of a modern child’s life in vibrant color, even if her figures are imperfect.

Treats on a Hot Day (2022) by 8-year-old Mina Anh Tri

Or perhaps they are perfect. It is individual expression, of course, and as Westerners have long opined, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I think it’s beautiful.

Where to find art: In Hanoi, The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum is located at 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc in the Ba Dinh district. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Fine Arts Museum is at 97A Pho Duc Chinh, not far from Bến Thành market in District 1.  The RMIT University collection may be visited at 702 Nguyễn Văn Linh, Tân Hưng, District 7, Ho Chi Minh City.

“Source of Water” (1982) by Nguyen Trong Kiem. Founding father Ho Chi Minh in the hills of Tay Bac.

81. A Spirited Stroll in Central Hanoi

                                                                 

Vietnam’s capital city serves up history and religion on a walk past West Lake to the Ba Dinh district.

Lakeside pagodas extend off the causeway that separates placid lakes in the heart of Hanoi. (JGA photo)

The southerly view from the rooftop lounge at the Pan Pacific Hanoi hotel is enough to take one’s breath away — even under an overcast sky.

Despite a subtropical winter chill outside, the causeway separating Hồ Tây (West Lake) and Hồ Trúc Bạch appeared from my 20th-story perch to be buzzing with life. The verdure that framed the boulevard called Thanh Niên, partially obscuring a bumper-to-bumper line of cars and motorbikes, gave way to colorful bridges and pagodas on tiny islets, waterfront seafood restaurants and ice-cream shops.

At the heart of my panorama was a broad pedestrian promenade that extended from Hanoi’s expatriate-friendly Tay Ho district to the colonial-era Presidential Palace, a prominent burnt-yellow landmark of the Ba Đình precinct. And in the further distance, somewhat more to the west, rose the skyscrapers of the city’s modern financial center.

Seventeen kilometers (over 10 miles) around, West Lake is the largest of many lakes in Vietnam’s capital. Indeed, the abundance of freshwater tarns might remind a visitor of Minneapolis. A paved pathway that circles Hồ Tây makes it especially popular with joggers and bicyclists, some of whom pause at the lovely Tay Ho Pagoda (about 1 km northwest of the Pan Pacific Hanoi) to request favors from Buddhism’s “mother goddess,” Quan Am.

Worshippers cross a bridge that links the Trấn Quốc Pagoda to the Thanh Niên causeway. (JGA photo)

The noble path

Opened in 2006, the Pan Pacific Hanoi is one of the capital’s luxury bargains with surprisingly moderate (albeit pandemic-influenced) room rates. The tab includes not only immaculate guest rooms, fine restaurants, indulgent amenities and state-of-the-art facilities, but also the best breakfast I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Vietnam: a gourmet buffet with meal selections ranging from American to Korean, French to Japanese, and traditional Vietnamese. Learn more about the Pan Pacific Hanoi here.

I set out one morning to conquer the causeway, its charms beckoning me from The Summit lounge to the pavement far below. Thanh Niên boulevard led me past one picturesque pilgrimage possibility (a bridge to a tiny temple on an islet in Trúc Bạch) to another — the Trấn Quốc Pagoda, oldest in this ancient city.

Aromatic incense wafts skyward amid flowers and bonsai in the courtyard of the Trấn Quốc Pagoda. (JGA photo)

Built in the 6th Century on the periphery of the city, on the Red River, the pagoda and its multiple shrines (containing the ashes of prominent Buddhist monks) was relocated in 1615 to Kim Ngu (Golden Fish) Island. It hasn’t undergone a major renovation for more than two centuries, but a veneer of orange paint on its brick structures gives it a modern appearance.

I approached via a broad bridge that took me directly to the sacred grounds. As a student of Buddhism, I immediately recognized the eight-spoked wheel, a symbol of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhist doctrine with its emphasis on proper perspective, resolve, speech, conduct, livehihood, effort, mìndfulness and awareness.

Widely visible were statues and stone engravings of lotus flowers, emblematic of enlightenment, achievement, and purity of mind, body and speech. Throngs of worshippers crowded the site, pausing at altars bedecked with flowers and fruit, lighting aromatic incense sticks that sent their smoke heavenward from giant urns.

The Quán Thánh Temple is a Taoist shrine near the south shore of Trúc Bạch lake. (JGA photo)

Of turtles and snakes

At the south end of Than Niên boulevard, a popular riverboat coffee shop floats on Trúc Bạch lake near the spot where a young U.S. naval officer named John McCain was pulled from his crashed bomber in 1967. (Read about that here.) Two centuries earlier, there had been an imperial palace on the lakeshore; it later became a reform school, of sorts, for royal concubines who sought amusement beyond the king’s bedroom and were thereafter condemned to a life weaving white silk.

The monks of the Taoist temple of Quán Thánh might have commiserated. They offered their prayers just across the lake from the palace. Built during the reign of Emperor Lý Thái Tổ (1010–1028) and dedicated to Trấn Vũ, the God of the North, the temple was strategically located to defend the ancient city against evil spirits.

As Trấn Vũ’s symbols of power are the tortoise, for protection, and serpent, for wealth, I found numerous images of both animals throughout this temple … as well as a bronze bell and statue of Trấn Vũ dating from 1677. Hanoians come here under the full and new moon to pray for health and happiness.

Hanoi’s grand Presidential Palace was built in 1906 for the French governor-general. (JGA photo)

Where the dead tread

Crossing Quán Thánh street, I found myself in Hanoi’s Ba Đình neighborhood, dominated by the green expanse of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Free of vehicular traffic, cloaked with botanical gardens, it can easily take a full day of exploration in its own right. Apart from the mausoleum itself, structures include a museum, a historic pagoda, multiple memorials and monuments, and a small village where Uncle Ho lived from 1954 until his death in 1969.

The first building I encountered on my walk from the Pan Pacific, before even crossing onto the campus, was the Presidential Palace. Built by the French for the governor-general of Indochina in 1906, the opulent Beaux-Arts edifice was restored and painted yellow under the Communist administration. It isn’t open to the public but is used for official receptions.

The austere mausoleum of Hồ Chí Minh is a marble monument to the father of modern Vietnam. (JGA photo)

It’s the mausoleum, though, that people come to see. Groups of patriotic Vietnamese venture from all over the country to honor Hồ Chí Minh (1890-1969), the political mind behind modern Vietnam, known to many merely as Bác Hồ (“Uncle Ho”). Although the man himself had requested a simple cremation and a scattering of his ashes, he has been embalmed here in this grand marble tomb, his glass sarcophagus set deep within a maze of well-guarded stairways and corridors.

Those who dare to enter — and, yes, this included me (more about it here) — are subjected to a security screening followed by a long stroll across the grounds of the complex, where patriotic music is played on oversized video screens to those who queue for entrance. At the entrance to the mausoleum, white-uniformed militia make it clear that cameras and cell phones are not tolerated within the building.

A timeline of the travels of young Hồ Chí Minh, as he became known, is a highlight of the eponymous museum. (JGA photo)

They are, however, welcomed in the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a fine survey of the man’s life for anyone who may not be thoroughly acquainted. Exhibits in the three-story concrete structure are not consistently translated, however, and admission for foreigners is notably higher than for Vietnamese nationals. Of most interest to me were a timeline of Ho’s life, including his early travels in Europe and America, and photographs and documents that shed light on the seeds of Marxist philosophy in Southeast Asia.

Bác Hồ lived most of his final years in a traditional stilt house, overlooking a fish pond and set in a beloved garden often tended by the leader himself. Special efforts have been made to maintain it as it appeared more than 50 years ago, the garden still productive, the pond still filled with koi fish.

Plexiglas views into Ho’s library and bedroom give an insight into his life. But even a man who chose a humble lifestyle could have his weaknesses. In Ho’s case, it was cars. Three of his favorites are displayed in a “showroom” garage in the adjacent village, where Ho also attended party meetings and took his meals.

The Stilt House where Hồ Chí Minh lived from 1958 to 1969 is fully preserved within the mausoleum complex. (JGA photo)

A single pillar

Predating every other site on the grounds of the mausoleum complex is the One Pillar Pagoda, which stands just below the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It is built of wood on a single stone pillar. The design is said to bring to mind a lotus blossom rising from a sea of sorrow.

The pagoda is ascribed to Emperor Ly Thai Tong (1028-1054), who yearned for an heir decades into his reign. In a dream, he was handed a boy child by Quan Am, the goddess of mercy to whom he had prayed. In 1049, after he had married a young peasant girl who bore him a son, he directed this construction as a way to express his gratitude to the goddess.

The One Pillar Pagoda symbolizes a lotus flower rising from a sea of sorrow. (JGA photo)

This isn’t Ly’s pagoda, however. The vengeful French, as they evacuated Hanoi after their expulsion in 1954, destroyed the original. It was subsequently rebuilt by the new Viet Minh government.

My fondest memory of my One Pillar visit was watching the burning of effigies during the Lunar New Year (Tết) holiday. Devotees of Quan Am streamed into the sanctuary to offer prayers, carrying with them paper effigies representing ancestors. Supplications accomplished, the dolls were then carried to a fiery brick oven in an outer courtyard, where they were burned along with mock money and other joss to assure the welfare in the afterlife of those who came before.

Effigies of ancestors are burned in a brick oven at the One Pillar Pagoda. (JGA photo)

Outside the pagoda and museum, a line of shops offered light meals and souvenirs. In particular, I was drawn to a jolly-faced man whose craft was calligraphy: In broad brush strokes, for a small fee, he would paint mots of wisdom in traditional Chinese characters to hang on walls from Haiphong to Houston.

I was traveling light and didn’t want to crumple his fine artwork in a carry-on bag.

A traditional calligrapher plies his craft at a souvenir stand on the mausoleum campus. (JGA photo)
Hanoi’s Tay Ho district, popular among expatriate residents, occupies the northeast shore of West Lake. (JGA photo)

80. One, Two, Three: Museums of Hanoi

Three institutions in the nation’s capital offer carefully sculpted perspectives on the history of Vietnam.

A macabre sculpture — shackled skin and bone on granite — covers an outer wall of the Hoa Lo prison “relic.” (JGA photo)

They called it the Hanoi Hilton. According to U.S. prisoners of war who experienced its “hospitality,” it was anything but a luxury hotel. But the Americans who suffered its indignities were lucky compared to the Vietnamese revolutionaries who preceded them.

Today, the Hỏa Lò Prison Historical Relic is one of many Hanoi museums that recall a not-too-long-ago era when conflict was a way of life in Vietnam. It was one of several that I visited during my most recent visit to Vietnam’s capital city. Still more museums were closed, leaving me a list of wanna-sees for my next trip north to Hanoi.

In this blog, I talk about three collections: the Hỏa Lò Prison, the Vietnam National Museum of History, and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

The original entrance to the French-built Hoa Lo prison still welcomes visitors. (JGA photo)

Taking prisoners

Hỏa Lò was built by the French in 1896 to incarcerate Asian patriots who challenged their rule. It remained a hell on earth for the Vietnamese until the fall of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954. A blood-stained guillotine that severed more than a few heads remains on display today, a grisly reminder of tortures of the past.

The “relic” standing today is but a fragment of the original Maison Centrale (“Central House”) prison on Hỏa Lò (“Fiery Furnace”) street, so named because stoves were sold here in pre-colonial times. Much of it was razed in 1993 to make room for adjacent high-rise construction, but the core was kept as a museum. The surviving structures include three two-story stone buildings with men’s and women’s sleeping quarters, dungeons and watchtowers, and part of the thick, high stone wall that surrounded the jail.

Revolutionary women, some of whom gave birth in this cell, had private quarters but did not escape torture. (JGA photo)

Constructed to house between 450 and 500 inmates, Hỏa Lò was notoriously overcrowded, as the French sovereigns was quick to squash any signs of dissent among independence-minded Vietnamese. There were as many as 2,000 prisoners here in the 1930s, and most were forced to sleep in ankle chains on hard stone floors. Beatings were frequent and vicious; mental torture included solitary confinement and withholding food. Today the prison’s effectively dim lighting emphasizes the hardships the Viet nationalists endured.

For the decade after the French withdrawal, Hỏa Lò saw smaller numbers of domestic prisoners. But between 1964 and 1973, it was used to hold more than 700 American pilots who had been shot down and captured in the country.

A museum photo shows U.S. pilot John McCain captured in an urban lake in 1967 after his plane was shot down over Hanoi.

Among them were John McCain, who became a U.S. senator and the Republican nominee for American president in 2008, and Douglas “Pete” Peterson, later the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam after the countries reestablished diplomatic relations in 1995. Prison exhibits depict the “humane” treatment afforded these American prisoners, quite in contrast to reports of torture expressed by the inmates. Decades later McCain himself, who was a prisoner for 5½ years after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 (a photo shows him being rescued from Trúc Bạch lake), called the museum an “excellent propaganda establishment” after a visit.

Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating bit of history to glimpse. Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission 30,000 dong (US$1.30). Address: 1 Hỏa Lò at Hai Bà Trung.

The Vietnam National Museum of History was built in the 1920s combining French and Chinese design. (JGA photo)

House of history

The Vietnam National Museum of History was built between 1925 and 1932 as the École Française d’Extrême Orient (French School of the Far East). Architect Ernest Hebrard designed a structure that combined both French and Chinese features, one of the first to do so. Today the collection has outgrown the building, so that elements of more recent history — including the French colonial occupation, the emergence of the Communist party and the American War — have been relocated to an annex across the street. That section was closed during my visit.

A Bronze Age artifact of the Dong Son culture illustrates a reverence for sex and fertility. (JGA photo)

Vietnamese history may be traced back nearly 5,000 years to a Bronze Age culture known as the Dong Son. Its people, rice farmers in the fertile lowlands of the Red River valley of the north, established the first independent state around 2800 B.C. The National Museum displays several examples of the bronze drums and gongs for which it was famed, along with other bronze crafts — several of which demonstrate the Dong Son reverence for sex and fertility. Most of the artifacts presented are from the Third Century B.C. to the Third A.D.

Chinese hegemony imprinted upon Vietnam’s north for the first millennium of what the West knew as the Christian era. A stifling Confucianist philosophy, freely accented by Taoist superstition, may be seen in artifacts from this period. It wasn’t until 938 A.D. that Vietnam’s native Kinh people succeeded in deposing the Han invaders. A warlord named Ngô Quyền led his forces to victory against the Chinese navy in the battle of the Bạch Đằng river; a stirring painting recalls the triumph.

A highlight of the history museum is this commissioned painting of the ancient battle of the Bach Dang river.

A highlight of the history museum is this commissioned painting of the ancient battle of the Bach Dang river.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s central coast, from Huế to Vũng Tàu, was the homeland of the kingdom of Champa from the 2nd to the 15th centuries. Its sandstone icons of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha and other Hindu deities are largely showcased in their own gallery that rings the museum’s second-floor rotunda.

As independent Vietnam matured, it became truly unified for the first time. Ethnic Vietnamese supplanted a Khmer realm in the Mekong Delta region of the south. By the 18th century, the powerful Nguyên family had overrun the international trade port of Faifoo (Hội An) near Đà Nẵng,

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The imperial library of the Nguyen dynasty had scores of hand-written books. (JGA photo)

In 1802, Nguyên Anh established himself as Emperor Gia Long in 1802 and established an imperial capital at Hué. Soon thereafter, he recaptured Hanoi from the Chinese, thus uniting all of Vietnam under the Nguyên dynasty. Priceless jewelry, hand-scribed books and other imperial relics are indicative of this era of Vietnamese history.

Near the ground-floor entrance, a temporary exhibit represents the symbolism of the zodiacal year of the tiger. I imagine it will be replaced by representations of the rabbit by early 2023. Open daily (except Monday) 8 a.m. to noon and 2:30 to 5 p.m.; admission 40,000 dong (US$1.75). Address: 216 Trần Quang Khải at Hang Tiên.

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Nguyen Thi MInh Khai was a Communist party hero of the pre-World War II era. (JGA photo)

In honor of women

Among the leading figures in Vietnam’s folkloric history are two warrior sisters, the Hai Bà Trưng, who about 2,000 years ago led an insurrection against the Chinese and sacrificed their lives to the cause. They set an example for outspoken modern women, who are exalted in exhibits at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

This four-story museum, only a few blocks from Hoàn Kiếm lake, highlights the roles that women play in society and culture — not least of all in their wartime activities.

Indeed, if every city in Vietnam has a street named Hai Bà Trưng, so does it also have an avenue honoring Nguyễn Thi Minh Khai (1910-1941). Her story of fervent nationalistic passion, which led to her execution by the French, is one of many told on interpretive plaques on the museum’s walls.

Nearby are hung dozens of propaganda posters from the American War epoch. Many are blatantly violent, as one promising a “payback in blood” to U.S. President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, the peak years of the conflict.

Other rooms are far less politically motivated. I was impressed by a chamber that displayed beautifully designed costumes and basketry from some of the country’s multitude of ethnic minority groups. Its content, in three languages (including English and French), describes matrilineal societal structures. Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission 30,000 dong (US$1.30). Address: 36 Lý Thường Kiệt.

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In a propaganda poster from the early 1970s, Vietnamese women vowed “payback” upon U.S. President Richard Nixon. (JGA photo)
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Bound together both physically and ideologically, Vietnamese prisoners comfort one another in a modern prison model. (JGA photo)

79. Lake of the Restored Sword

The heart and soul of Hanoi city is Hoàn Kiếm, the “Lake of the Restored Sword.” Stories of its divine nature go back many centuries.

Gardens of colorful flowers add to the attraction of Hoan Kiem Lake under a crisp blue winter sky. (JGA photo)

In long-ago England, mythical Camelot had its legend of King Arthur and “the sword in the stone.” In medieval Vietnam, the sword was in a lake, and it was wielded by a golden turtle god.

Folklore says that a 15th-century emperor, Lê Lợi, was boating on the green waters of Hanoi’s 12-hectare (30-acre) Luc Thuy when the terrapin surfaced and requested his magic sword. At first the monarch was outraged that such a creature would demand “Heaven’s Will,” as he called the weapon. Then he realized this wasn’t just any golden tortoise; it was a divinity, Kim Qui, who had come to reclaim the sword that the Dragon King had lent the emperor to fight and defeat the conquering armies of China’s Ming Dynasty. He returned the rapier and renamed the lake Ho Hoàn Kiếm, “Lake of the Restored Sword.”

A university student poses with the mystical symbol of Hoan Kiem lake at a lakeshore coffee shop. (JGA photo)

Of turtles and kings

Today, Hoàn Kiếm may be the most unforgettable sight in Vietnam’s capital city — if only because it’s at the center of all the action. Immediately south of the Old Quarter, the oblong lake is encircled by a delightful promenade that takes only about 20 minutes to circumambulate if you don’t stop along the way.

But, of course, you will stop. There are fresh fruit vendors and tour-bus stops at its north end, flower gardens and coffee shops around the lakeshore. There are statues and monuments.

You may be temporarily spellbound by the Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) on a small island near the center of the lake. Large soft-shell turtles of an endangered species are still sometimes seen here. There have been towers and temples here over the centuries; the current three-story structure was privately built in 1886 to honor of Lê Lợi.

Ly Thai To founded Hanoi in 1010, naming his capital Thang Long, or “Rising Dragon.” (JGA photo)

A statue of Lý Thái Tổ (974-1028), the king credited with founding Hanoi in 1010, rises just east of the lake, in a handsome park. Lý called his city Thang Long (“Rising Dragon”); its modern name, which means “Between Rivers,” wasn’t adopted until 1831. The bronze sculpture, the largest in Vietnam, was erected in 2004, six years before the city’s millennium celebration and 50 years after its liberation from France. It is 33 feet (10.1 meters) tall and weighs 12 tons.

Just a few blocks north, the Martyrs Monument is a white-marble memorial honoring the men and women who died fighting for Vietnam’s independence. Its three figures — a woman wielding a sword and two men, one with a rifle, the other with a torch — are meant to symbolize the role that all Vietnamese played in their freedom struggle, regardless of gender.

Adjacent to the monument, colorful signs continue to call for Vietnamese vigilance in the fight against the COVID-19 virus.

The Martyrs Monument honors those who died fighting for Vietnam’s independence. (JGA photo)

A visit to Jade Island

Wander around the northeastern lakeshore during the Tét (lunar new year) holidays, as I did, and you will inevitably see scores of women, of all ages, festively dressed for the occasion in traditional áo dài, a signature costume of the Vietnamese people. A long, split tunic that sets the standard for formal dress in this nation, it is especially popular in times of merriment.

In Hanoi, there are few better places for celebration than Jade Island, with its 18th-century Đền Ngọc Sơn (Temple of the Jade Mountain) linked to the lakeshore by a bright red wooden footbridge known as the Cầu Thê Húc — the Bridge of Morning Sunlight. They were erected in the 19th century to honor Trần Hưng Đạo, a 13th-century general who led the Vietnamese Army to victories over Chinese invaders, as well as Văn Xương Đế Quân, the god of prosperity in ancient Chinese culture and Taoist philosophy.

Women dressed in colorful ao dai gather beside Hanoi’s The Huc bridge. (JGA photo)

To visit the temple is to take a journey through an aged architectural complex. On the lakeshore, the Pen Tower (Tháp Bút) resembles a pen with its nib pointing to the sky; it sits on a rock pile representing the earth. Carved on the stone Ink Slab (Dai Nghien) beside it are three words: Ta Thanh Thien, “writing on the blue sky,” an acknowledgement of human dreams. Further on, the Moon Gazing Pavilion (Dac Nguyet Lau) is a temple gate; on its sides are carved a turtle, for longevity and sustainability, and a dragon, symbolizing strength and power. Next is the Tidal Wave Defense Pavilion (Đình Trấn Ba). Though tsunami are unlikely so far inland, this pavilion is a reminder to Vietnamese to defend their cultural identity against the invasion of foreign values.

The visually striking Thê Húc Bridge, its wooden segments painted a vibrant vermillion, lures the sun’s rays. It is believed to attract hope, luck and happiness. 

The highlights of the Ngoc Son Temple are its three statues. Trần Hưng Đạo stands triumphantly on a pedestal with his lieutenants. Văn Xương Đế Quân, the philosopher, peacefully sits contemplating his knowledge of mankind. The Amitabha Buddha of Infinite Life reflects on the nature of what is real — and what is not.

Young people approach the Ngoc Son Temple and the Moon Gazing Pavilion. (JGA photo)

Near the lake

Elsewhere in the Hoàn Kiếm district are many more places of note. Among them is the St. Joseph Cathedral, a couple of streets to the lake’s west. Built by the French in 1886, the Neo-Gothic building towers above a small urban plaza, its twin bell towers illuminated by muted green and blue lights after dark. Within are outstanding stained-glass windows and a beautiful altar.

It may be no accident that Hanoi’s best Italian restaurant is situated in its shadow. Leonardo Fazioli, the owner of Mediterraneo, once offered sailing charters on the Adriatic Sea. He landed in Vietnam more than 25 years ago, and today he offers all manner of cucina Italiana, from roast boar to pannacotta, to an appreciative clientele that (not surprisingly) tends to be European.

St. Joseph Cathedral was built by the French in 1886. (JGA photo)

There are other excellent restaurants nearby, as well, many serving contemporary or gourmet Vietnamese food.  At the Cầu Gỗ bistro, I enjoyed a midday meal of a beef-and-banana flower salad with Hanoi-style spring rolls, with a lake view. Banana flowers? The purple blossoms of the banana tree. And they are delicious.

Coffee and pastry shops abound in the vicinity, reaching out for the pedestrians who enjoy walks around Hoàn Kiếm lake. Hanoi journalist Ollie Nguyen has written extensively about some of the choices; see her recommendations here.

Within a short walk of the cathedral, in the city’s French Quarter, are two extremely worthwhile museums. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, nicknamed “the Hanoi Hilton” during the American War, includes a special acknowledgement of the late U.S. Senator John McCain, a former prisoner who returned here decades later to promote improved American-Vietnamese relations. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum has exhibits telling the powerful role played by women in this country’s wars against the French and Americans. I will write more about each in a later blog.

A beef-and-banana flower salad made a delicious lunch at the Cau Go restaurant. (JGA photo)
The modern, three-story Kafa Cafe is one of many coffee shops in the Hoan Kiem area. (JGA photo)
Located on a small island, the Turtle Tower stands in sharp contrast to modern Hanoi high-rises. (JGA photo)

78. Exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Vietnam’s earliest urban neighborhood reveals some of its secrets to those willing to search … and ask questions.

University students enjoy a late-night dinner of snails and other shellfish near Dong Xuan market. (JGA photo)

For a long time, I was puzzled by the Vietnamese inclination to cluster shops of the same type on a single street. One city block, for instance, can be home to nothing but stores dealing in bamboo furniture. Or stuffed toys. Or shoes, or carpets, or wedding dresses.

It makes little sense to me. Why would you intentionally face off against the competition when you can set up shop in a separate neighborhood with unique cachet? Wouldn’t you want to be the only hardware purveyor on the block?

It took a visit to the Old Quarter of Hanoi before I understood the historical precedent. As long ago as the 1400s, this tightly populated district was the urban core of the royal capital city, then known as Dong Kinh (Tonkin). A medieval center of commerce and manufacturing, its matrix of streets was surrounded by a staunch stone wall with few points of entry.

A shopkeeper checks her display on Pho Dinh Liet, a street lined with toy stores. (JGA photo)

Craftspeople from surrounding villages would come here to sell their wares. They gathered with others of their specialized trades — copper and tin smiths, tailors, sail makers, wood carvers — and organized guilds to promote their skills. Each street (tradition holds there were originally 36) took the name of its trade guild.

Near the Red River, on Phõ Hàng Tre (“Bamboo Products Street”), raft makers worked closely with tradesmen from adjacent Phõ Hàng Buôm (“Sail Makers Street”). Over on Phõ Hàng Mam (“Fish Sauce Street), the most popular ingredient in Vietnamese cooking was stored in containers from Phõ Hàng Thung (“Barrel Makers Street”).

Optical stores stand side by side by side on Pho Luong Van Can. (JGA photo)

The tin crafts guild on Hàng Thiec produced candle sticks, opium boxes and binding tips for conical nón la, traditional hats manufacturered on Hàng Nón. Tradespeople of Hàng Dao, its name (dao) a reference to apricot blossoms used in dying textiles, worked closely with the merchants of Hàng Gai, where silk clothing is still custom produced. Hàng May sold rattan basketry, Hàng Đông copper wares, Lan Ong medicinal herbs. The tradesmen of Hàng Ma specialized in funeral joss, replica money and furniture to make the afterlife more comfortable for the deceased.

Today, while many of the streets’ original devotions are ancient history, their attraction to shopkeepers of similar interests remain. You might, for instance, find a jewelry street. A plumbing fixtures street. A musical instrument street. A religious art street. I even discovered one lane with a half-dozen adjacent shops selling only wire and rope products.

Bread vendors sell banh mi — Vietnamese baguette rolls — in the chilly hours of a winter morning. (JGA photo

Ancient streets

Hanoi (or Hà Nội) is Vietnam’s national capital, its hub of administration and defense services, and its traditional educational and cultural center. It is a much older city than Ho Chi Minh City (Sái Gòn), its southern counterpart; and although the two river cities are similar in size (both claim more than 8 million residents), they are as different as sisters can be.

HCMC is a steamy subtropical metropolis, a bustling and frequently frantic center for business and industry hard by the Mekong Delta. Hanoi is more stately and sedate, reminiscent of historical Europe in a four-seasons climate, its center accented by picturesque lakes and memorable museums.

But the Old Quarter has none of the French flavor seen elsewhere in Hanoi. Its network of ancient streets still crisscross in much the same pattern as they did centuries in the past, and some of the ancient architecture persists — although new buildings are gradually phasing out the old. Many historic homes now have shops or cafes on their ground floors, with laundry hanging from wrought-iron railings outside the landings of residences above.

A legendary white horse is the focus of reverence at the Bach Ma Temple. (JGA photo)

Out and about in this warren of busy streets and alleys, there are plenty of attractions to divert a visitor’s attention for the better part of a day. In an earlier time, each guild had a communal temple dedicated to the legendary founder of its craft. Without showing favor, these often combined elements of Taoist myth and Confucian deference with worship of the historical Buddha.

Few remain today, but I found the Hương Tượng temple on Phõ Mã Mây to be especially worth a visit. It is said to have been built to honor the patron saint of the original city of Thăng Long (“rising dragon”) when it was founded by King Lý Thái Tổ in 1010, and is a Vietnam national heritage site. Reconstruction in the 18th and 19th centuries restored much of its original six-section design, including a sanctuary, incense chamber and ceremonial hall.

Lesser but far more colorful temples and pagodas may be found down small alleys in the same vicinity.

Pedestrians pause to offer prayers outside the Bach Ma Temple. (JGA photo)

But the most popular spot for casual prayers is the Bạch Mã temple, also credited to Lý Thái Tổ, clearly a man who knew how to express his gratitude. At its heart is a statue of a white horse fabled to have directed the monarch to this very spot, around which he erected his original city walls. Today, even when the massive, red wooden doors are closed, supplicants gather on Hàng Buôm to offer devotion.

Getting medieval

Only one of the original city portals — the Quan Chưởng, or east gate — remains standing today. It is a decidedly medieval-looking structure, suitable for a feudal castle, its arched entry framed by grey stone and discolored brick. But the motorbikes that endlessly zoom through the portal, and the colorful apartment houses that rise high above it, make clear that this is the 21st century, not the 15th.

The Quan Chưởng, or east gate, is the only portal still standing of the ancient city wall. (JGA photo)

The gate isn’t far from the Đồng Xuân Market, the largest market under one roof in the north of Vietnam. Its three stories are divided into stalls selling everything from household goods and clothing to fresh farm produce, fish and just-butchered meats. The market was originally built by the French in 1889, combining two earlier neighborhood markets, and has been frequently renovated, notably in 1994 after a disastrous fire.

Inside and outside the market, and along streets leading in all directions, street food vendors set up shop from morning to late night. Seafood — notably, a bewildering range of snails (ốc) and shellfish — is especially popular, served grilled, steamed or simmered in rich noodle soups.

Restaurant owners await a surge in early-evening business along Ta Hien street. (JGA photo)

As the sun sets and day becomes night, attention turns to the central blocks of Phõ Tà Hiên, not far from the Bạch Mã temple. Here and on Phõ Mã Mây are the Old Quarter’s greatest concentration of cheap hotels and hostels, and backpacker-friendly pubs.

Unlike Saigon, Hanoi is not a city noted for its nightlife. Indeed, during the Covid period, most bars have been closing by 9 p.m., if they open at all. But open-air restaurants on both sides of Tà Hiên continue to fill the narrow lane with tables and chairs in the hope that their once-bustling business will soon return to pre-pandemic normal.

Colorful temples are discreetly hidden down narrow alleys off Hang Buom street. (JGA photo)
An artist has added a window to his colorful residential street, even where there wasn’t one. (JGA photo)
A small child studies a mysterious visitor at the doors of the Bach Ma Temple. (JGA photo)
One of scores of ancient streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. (JGA photo)

76. Where Monks and Kings Rest in Peace

From a Zen tribute to tombs of ancient emperors, the countryside beyond Huế shares its memories well.

An abbot greets visitors to the Từ Hiếu Temple for the funeral of renowned Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. (JGA photo)

I had the remarkable opportunity in late January to pay homage at the funeral of Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, one of the most ìnfluential spiritual voices of his generation.

I happened to arrive in Vietnam’s ancient imperial capital of Huế on the eve of his death at the age of 95. An outspoken peace activist who once voiced his opposition to the country’s civil war and the American involvement, Nhất Hạnh was banished from his native land in 1966 and was unable to return before 2005. But during his long exile in France, he wrote more than 100 books and became the leading advocate for a practice of mindfulness called “engaged Buddhism.”

Only a few years before his passing, Nhất Hạnh returned to Huế to live quietly in Từ Hiếu Temple, the sanctuary where he spent his young adulthood.

Monks at the Từ Hiếu Temple walk a path through the peaceful grounds. (JGA photo)

“Birth and death are only notions,” he wrote in his book No Death, No Fear (2002). “They are not real.” When his devoted followers suggested a stupa (a shrine) for his ashes, he suggested a plaque reading: “I am not in here. I am not out there either.”

Từ Hiếu Temple is approached by a winding drive off a suburban street southwest of central Huế, in the Thủy Xuân commune. Low-lying temples and shrines, residences shared by 70 monks, and a tranquil bell tower nestle among rolling hills in a pine forest. Built in 1843 and famed as a meditation center, it was initially supported by eunuchs from the Imperial Citadel; many of their graves are among those in an ancient cemetery beside the complex.

Monks offer final prayers at the coffin of their mentor, Thích Nhất Hạnh. (JGA photo)

I entered the grounds through a gateway of three doors and walked around a half-moon-shaped pond filled with multi-hued lotus flowers and colorful koi fish. From here, it was a short climb through the woods to the central temple where more worshippers than usual were offering prayers. When I expressed a desire to honor the man known as Thầy, or “Master,” I was directed to a courtyard where monks from other Vietnamese centers were gathering with brethren from Từ Hiếu along with dozens of devotees from the local community.

I was warmly if quietly welcomed: This was a time of inner reflection, not loud celebration. Removing my shoes (of course), I fell into a line with other well-wishers who paraded slowly, hands clasped, before a small photograph of Nhất Hạnh and around his coffin. It was draped in flowers and banners, and watched over by a half-dozen Từ Hiếu monks, their heads bowed in silence and prayer.

At the tomb of Tự Đức, a brick pavilion shelters Vietnam’s largest imperial stele, inscribed with the leader’s own words. (JGA photo)

Tự Đức or not Tự Đức

Aside from the Từ Hiếu temple, the countryside south of Huế is renowned today for its cluster of imperial tombs, miles from the royal palace. Indeed, together with the Imperial Citadel, the complex is acclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Complex of Huế Monuments.

Tombs remember seven of the 13 the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, which governed an independent Vietnam between 1802 and 1884, then (as figureheads) a French colonial protectorate until 1945. Of these, the most visited, due to their physical condition and relative accessibility, are the tombs of Minh Mạng (ruled 1820-41), Tự Đức (1847-83) and Khải Định (1916-25).

A moat guards the entrance to the Tomb of Tự Đức, final resting place of the 19th-century emperor. (JGA photo)

Nearest to both Từ Hiếu and central Huế is the Tomb of Tự Đức. Built in the mid-1860s as a place of Buddhist worship, it also became the emperor’s de facto home (Khiêm Palace) following an 1866 assassination plot. He left the Imperial Palace grounds and settled here with his wives and concubines — all 104 of them.

By all accounts, the 32-acre (12-hectare) grounds were a wonderful place to live. At the heart of the property was 4.2-acre Luu Khiêm Lake, where Tự Đức could go boating or hunt small game on a central islet. Afterward, he could relax lakeside in either of two facing pavilions, and return to the palace or the royal theater across any of three bridges.

The Khiem Cung Gate opens to the temple where Tự Đức and his leading empress were worshipped. (JGA photo)

But his life was turbulent and sad. A fierce opponent of the growing French presence during his reign, he actively challenged the Catholic missionary presence, which only served to stoke the Europeans’ invasion plans. A youthful bout of smallpox had rendered him impotent, so he was unable to father an heir to the throne. When he died, nephews and an adopted son filled the nominal leadership role as France took control of the country.

It was traditional for a ruler’s son to write an epitaph saluting the deeds of his predecessor’s reigns. Tự Đức was left to write his own self-critical appraisal. The inscription today fills a two-sided stele in a pavilion just east of the emperor’s tomb. The stele is the largest in Vietnam; it took four years to carry the stone from a quarry 500 kilometers (310 miles) distant.

Emperor Minh Mạng chose a more natural setting for his tomb beside the Perfume River. (JGA photo)

Minh Mạng memorial

Minh Mạng was the second emperor of the Nguyen line, and he ruled in a much more prosperous and tranquil era than Tự Đức. Thus it’s not surprising that this retreat beside the Perfume River, 11 km (7 miles) southwest of the Citadel, is more reflective of its natural setting.

Built between 1840 and 1843 on the lower slopes of Mount Hieu, it was intended as an earthly paradise of flowers and birds, a place speaking to the emperor’s love of art, poetry and philosophy. Around the shore of lotus-perfumed Lake Trung Minh, beneath pine-shaded hills, are pavilions specifically designed for the ruler to read books, contemplate nature, rest with his concubines, fish, feed deer or merely enjoy fresh air.

The roofs of the Dai Hong Mon gate display such ornaments as carps transforming into dragons. (JGA photo)

Today, visitors enter through the Dai Hong Mon gate. Its three entrances and 24 roofs display such ornaments as carp turning into dragons, which roll into clouds. Behind in the salutation court, two lines of carved stone mandarins, elephants and horses offer eternal praise to Minh Mạng and his queen. The stele house shelters the requisite memorial stone inscribed with the emperor’s biography, as written by his successor (Thieu Tri).

The main temple gate is located inside a square wall that symbolizes the earth. Beyond, as the centerpiece of a circular heaven, is Sung An Palace, and beyond it Minh Mạng’s tomb.

The tomb of 20th-century Emperor Khải Định exhibits European elements as well as Asian. (JGA photo)

Tomb wanderings

Khải Định ruled only during and immediately following the First World War, and the design of his tomb — which blends Vietnamese and European architecture —might be seen as a reflection upon his collaboration with the government of France. Indeed, he was not popular in his own country.

Built between 1920 and 1931 on the steep slope of Chau Chu Mountain, the tomb is smaller but more elaborately designed than others. It requires a moderate amount of stair climbing. The largest dragon sculptures in all of Vietnam support the side walls, and more intricately designed dragons adorn the ceiling of the elaborate palace, which stands before the mausoleum. A dozen stone statues representing bodyguards protect a reinforced-concrete stele. At the rear is the emperor’s grave crowned by a statue of the ruler that was cast, not surprisingly, in France.

Huế’s other four imperial tombs — those of Gia Long (1802-20), Thiệu Trị (1841-47), Dục Đức (1883) and Đồng Khánh (1885-89) — can also be visited by tourists. None is said to be especially remarkable. That of Gia Long, the first of the Nguyen dynasty, has been recently restored but is somewhat more distant. At the Citadel, I paid 530,000 Vietnam dong (about US $23) for a combination ticket that admitted me to all three of the tombs that I visited as well as the Imperial City itself.

The highlight of the Thiên Mụ pagoda, which dates from 1601, is the octagonal Phước Duyên tower, built in 1844. (JGA photo)

Historic pagoda

One more site that is easily included in a day’s tour of the imperial tombs is the Thiên Mụ pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. An unofficial symbol of Huế, it overlooks the broad and beautiful Perfume River on a low hill, about 5 km (3 miles) west of the Citadel.

Built in 1601, it has been expanded several times over the centuries. Emperor Thiệu Trị, in 1844, built the iconic and octagonal Phước Duyên tower, each of its seven stories dedicated to a different Buddha. Constructed of brick, it is 21m (69 feet) in height. At the foot of the tower is a large marble turtle, a symbol of longevity, and inscriptions of poems written by the intellectual Thiệu Trị. The knell of a massive bell, cast in 1710, is said to be audible from 10 km (6.2 miles) away.

A bronze statue of Emperor Khải Định stands atop his tomb on a mountainside south of Huế. (JGA photo)

75. The Imperial Citadel of Huế

Surrounded by moats and thick walls, the 19th-century home of Vietnam’s final emperors is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Ngo Mon (Noon Gate) provides the main access to the Imperial City. (JGA photo)

The last emperor of Vietnam died in 1997, long after his realm had lost all right to call itself an empire. Indeed Bao Dai, who lived well into his 80s, had been born (in 1913) into a country that already was firmly controlled by the French. During his lifetime, he observed the overthrow of France, the rise of the Communist party and the reunification of the nation. He never had the opportunity to experience the true imperial splendor that once was Vietnam.

Modern visitors to Huế, on the other hand, can get a small taste of what it must have been like during the glory years of the Nguyen Dynasty, between 1803 and 1883. Its Imperial City, albeit ravaged by 20th-century wars, retains enough of its historical flavor to fascinate even the most jaded tourist. Flamboyant and architecturally spellbinding, massive in extent yet historically sound, the imperial enclosure and its surrounding Citadel are the central sites of the UNESCO-designated Complex of Huế Monuments, one of the most important heritage destinations in all of Asia.

A model of the Imperial City, as it might have appeared in the 1840s, is displayed in the Tru’ong San Residence. (JGA photo)

Moats within moats

Huế (pronounced hway) is a city of about 400,000 people, three hours north of Da Nang by bus or train. It lies on both banks of the picturesque Perfume River (Sông Hương), about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the beaches of the East (South China) Sea. Prominent from the 16th century, it became the imperial capital in 1802, when Nguyen Phuc Anh established his control over the whole of Vietnam.

As Emperor Gia Long, Nguyen began construction of the Citadel complex — with enclosures within moated enclosures, within moated enclosures — in 1803. Work continued for three decades. At the heart was the Forbidden Purple City, home of the emperor. Stone walls over 2 meters (6.5 feet) thick extend 10 km (6.2 miles) within seamless moats 4 meters (13 feet) deep and 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) across.

Tourist-dependent Huế has suffered mightily during the COVID era, but I was selfishly glad for the opportunity to visit when travelers were few in number. Even though a high overcast left skies mostly gray, and I uncharacteristically (for the tropics) donned a jacket for my long day’s walk through the complex, I hardly saw another person during my time in the Imperial City.   

The East Mandarin Hall has exhibits on traditional Vietnamese literature and music. (JGA photo)

Ongoing restoration

I began my visit at the Ngo Mon gate facing the Perfume River. It’s one of 10 access points, but the one most convenient to a majority of visitors. An admission ticket is just 200,000 Vietnam dong, less than US $9.

Of 148 buildings that once comprised the Imperial City, only 20 are standing today. Restoration of several structures is slow but ongoing. An example is the Thai Hoa Palace, directly beyond the Ngo Mon gate. Sitting upon his throne, the emperor greeted official visitors here. When I visited it was undergoing extensive reconstruction, and a Virtual Reality program providing context for a full day’s exploration of the site had been moved to a nearby building. Closed at the time of my visit, it was scheduled to reopen by April.

Beyond the palace are two facing Halls of the Mandarins. The East Hall (on the right as I approached) contains captivating displays on traditional Vietnamese literature and music, pastimes not widely appreciated in contemporary society.

The Royal Theatre is the site of traditional dance performances several times daily. (JGA photo)

A meander to the right (northeast) reveals the Royal Theatre, one of the most active locations on the entire Imperial City campus. Traditional dance performances, 45 minutes in length, are presented here several times most days. Ancient musical instruments and masks are exhibited behind glass at all times. Construction of the original theater began in 1826, and it subsequently became the home of the National Conservatory of Music. It has now been rebuilt on its original foundation.

Reconstructed corridors are all that remains of the Can Chanh Palace. (JGA photo)

Imperial history

The theater is adjacent to the ruins of the grand Can Chanh Palace. Little remains here but a pair of long corridors that flank its remnants on the east and west sides. Reconstructed and painted with a brick-red lacquer, these open hallways are lined with historical photographs and interpretive studies of Nguyen imperial history.

To the right of the corridors are the Emperor’s Reading Room (Thai Binh) and the impressively tidy Thiệu Phương and Cơ Hạ gardens. The two-story reading room was the only part of the Forbidden Purple City — a space reserved specifically for the emperor, his concubines and eunuch servants — that was not destroyed in 1947 when the French reoccupied Huế following the Second World War. (In 1945, Emperor Bao Dai had abdicated and evacuated, putting an end to the Nguyen Dynasty.)

Ostentatious mosaic art decorates the outside of Thai Binh, the Emperor’s Reading Room. (JGA photo)

Thai Binh has a beautiful mosaic exterior and a far more classic, subdued interior. Beyond its walls, the Thiệu Phương Garden is a stylized work of naturally sculpted rocks and bonsai trees, accented by brightly blooming flowers and artistically designed windows. Further east, the Cơ Hạ garden is more free-form, a recreating the original royal botanical gardens with trees, gazebos, ponds and an impressive population of birds.

The Thiệu Phương garden adds flair and beauty to the northeast corner of the IMperial

Forbidden, not forgotten

Walkways lead across the northern portion of the Imperial City complex to the Tru’ong San residence, traditionally home to the emperor’s mother. While the beautiful exterior has been mostly restored, its interior is largely empty, except for a model of the Imperial City as it appeared in the 1840s. (I’ve shown that photo early in this story.) Adjacent is the Dien Tho residence, home to the queen mothers.

Step outside and look back east to where the Forbidden Purple City once stood. It’s easy to see the devastation wrought in both the 1940s (by the French) and the 1960s and ’70s (by the Americans). Crumbling walls and arches, accented by overgrown trees, can only hint at the beauty that must once have existed here.

Arches and demolished walls are all that remains of the Forbidden Purple City. (JGA photo)

A temple complex

The southwestern quadrant of the Imperial City is occupied by the To Mieu Temple Complex, including (on its north side) the Hung To Mieu Temple. Original built in 1804 to honor Emperor Gia Long’s parents, it is still undergoing reconstruction.

The rest of the magnificent complex has already been largely restored.

The Hung To Mieu gate welcomes visitors to a temple that honored Emperor Gia Long’s parents in 1804. (JGA photo)

Visitors enter through the three-story, 1824 Hien Lam Pavilion on the south side of the complex. Just within the gate are a set of nine enormous dynastic urns, cast in bronze in 1835 and 1836. Each is dedicated to a different Nguyen emperor, symbolizing the power and stability of their reign.

Opposite the pavilion is the To Mieu Temple, in which there are shrines to each of the emperors. The largest and most central honors dynasty founder Gia Long.

By the time of his abdication in 1945, at age 32, I’m sure Bao Dai understood that the relentless march of history had passed him by.

The Hien Lam Pavilion allows visitors their first glimpse of the beautiful To Mieu temple. (JGA photo)
A huge urn, cast in 1835, stands at the entrance to the To Mieu temple courtyard. (JGA photo)

74. The Bridges of Da Nang

Even when other attractions are closed, the colorful bridges of the coastal metropolis of Da Nang make it worth a visitor’s time.

Dragon or carp? Da Nang’s signature sculpture spews water into the Han River. (JGA photo)

One of the most frustrating things about travel in the Time of COVID, as it may forever be known, is the number of sites that are supposed to be open, but are not. In Da Nang, the largest city on Vietnam’s central coast and a prominent gateway to the vast region that lies between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, that included many of the local destinations that I had on my list to visit.

The esteemed Museum of Cham Sculpture? Closed until tomorrow, and so it remained with each subsequent tomorrow. The Cao Dai Temple? For more than a year, the fellowship “hereby notifies … we will stop receiving tourist vísit,” said the sign. The impressive new Golden Bridge at the Bà Nà Hills Resort? I had been assured it would be open, but my taxi driver and I were turned away at the gate, 42 kilometers (26 miles) inland from Da Nang.

So it is in this city of over 1 million people, already announced as one of the first five to begin welcoming flights as Vietnam reopens this spring to international tourism.

That’s not to say my journey was without a silver lining. There’s a long, lovely beach here and several outstanding restaurants. In particular, Da Nang is famed for its set of picturesque bridges that span the northward-flowing Hàn River just before it empties into the East (South China) Sea.

Fishing boats rest serenely along the east bank of the Han River. (JGA photo)

River dance

For a river as broad (600 meters, about 2,000 feet) as the Hàn, it is remarkably placid and scenic. On its west side, the concrete towers of Da Nang’s financial center offer a distinctive backdrop. To the east rise several upscale hotels and shopping centers. A promenade extends from bridge to bridge along both embankments. On the west it embraces pavements where choreographed dance troupes practice amid a sculpture garden.

On the east, the path is more shaded and popular with families. It runs past a fishing fleet at anchor, a tour boat converted to a floating restaurant and lounge, a bridge to nowhere where lovers fasten lockets promising to be forever true. In particular, there is a dragon-carp fountain sculpture, reminiscent of Singapore’s Merlion, that spews a stream of water at intervals toward the Dragon Bridge.

Illuminated at night, the Dragon Bridge changes colors with frequency. (JGA photo)

Completed in 2013 after 3½ years of construction (at a cost of about US $88 million), the Dragon Bridge (Cầu Rồng) is already a Vietnam icon. Like an industrial monster from the Transformers, its body writhes in two long and one shorter arch, its head to the east, tail raised to the west. Three lanes of traffic move in each direction, providing a direct link between the city’s international airport and its beaches at Mỹ Khê and Non Nuoc.

Every Saturday and Sunday night at 9 o’clock, the dragon breathes fire. It’s quite a spectacle. On other nights it is lit with colors fluctuating from pink to green, from purple to gold. And up and down the Hàn, four other bridges, each with a distinguishing style of its own, light up as well.

Primitive one-man fishing boats are a common sight on the beach at Mỹ Khê, once known to American troops as “China Beach.” (JGA photo)

On the beach

North Americans of a certain age inevitably associate Da Nang with the Vietnam (“American”) War. Indeed, the first landing of 3,500 Marine troops occurred at Red Beach, 8 km (5 miles) northwest of the city, on March 8, 1965. Within a very few years, Da Nang’s airport became the busiest air strip in the world, with about 2,600 daily departures and arrivals. Mỹ Khê, fewer than 5 km (3 miles) east of the Hàn River, became known as “China Beach” (for its location on the South China Sea) as the No. 1 rest-and-recuperation (“R&R”) hub for American troops in Southeast Asia.

Prominent between Red and China beaches is the Sơn Trà Peninsula, also known as Monkey Mountain. A U.S. military communications facility during the war, it rises to an elevation of 670m (2,200 feet). Today it is a conservation site with some new resort development around its shore. To most visitors, Sơn Trà is best known for its Linh Ung Pagoda, the largest in central Vietnam: The pagoda’s 67m (220-foot) “Lady Buddha” statue (actually Quan Âm, the goddess of mercy), is the largest Buddhist image in all of Vietnam.

Linh Ung pagoda’s giant “Lady Buddha” statue dominates views from all over Da Nang. (JGA photo)

China Beach today has restored its original name, Mỹ Khê. Here are moderately priced resort hotels, beachside restaurants and surfing concessions. Extending many miles to the south, the white sands of Non Nuoc Beach are home to numerous high-end gated resorts, with more in the construction and planning processes — all the way to Hội An, 20-odd km (13 miles) to the south.

Two of my favorite Da Nang restaurants are on or near Mỹ Khê. Nhà hàng Phước Mỹ 2 opens to the sands themselves, its eternally popular seafood pizza served at sunken tables beside the breaking waves. Dirty Fingers has a lively bar scene featuring live music, along with Western-style comfort food such as barbecued ribs that are guaranteed to get your fingers dirty.

Dirty Fingers has a classier counterpart (with the same owners) on the east bank of the Han River, Olivia’s Prime Steakhouse. A couple of blocks north on Trần Hưng Đạo, Fatfish Restaurant serves a more casual and diverse menu of seafood and grilled-meat platters. And across the river, there may be no better restaurant in Da Nang than Le Comptoir Danang, a classic French restaurant with an international wine list.

Da Nang’s beachside hotels rise above the horizon in this panorama from the Sơn Trà Peninsula. (JGA photo)

Heading for the hills

While Da Nang itself is mostly flat, as befits a city on a river delta, some high points (besides Monkey Mountain) are worth noting.

Almost within walking distance to the south are the Marble Mountains, a cluster of steep limestone knobs rising inland from Non Nuoc Beach. Trails wind past ancient caves, inhabited a millennium ago by Cham seafarers, and colorful pagods built by the 19th-century Nguyen Dynasty. Along the Hội An highway at the mountains’ base, artisans’ shops exhibit a range of Buddhist sculpture and artwork for sale.

A modest drive southwest is the forementioned Sun World Bà Nà Hills Resort. Although I am not a fan of contrived amusement parks such as this one — with a recreated French medieval village, a wax museum and a Jurassic Park for children — the former colonial hill station offers a cool respite from the heat of the tropical coast.

The Golden Bridge at Ba Na HIlls Resort was opened to tourists only in 2018. (JGA photo)

Its highlight, the thing I had come to see, is a 5 km-long Doppelmayer cable-car system that carries guests to the Golden Bridge (Cầu Vàng), 1,487m (4,878 feet) above sea level. About 150m (490 ft) long, this pedestrian bridge, which opened in June 2018, connects the cable car with precipitous gardens and provides a scenic overlook that extends all the way to the sea at Da Nang. Two giant hands, made of fiberglass and wire mesh, appear to hold the bridge as it loops back upon itself.

But I was unable to see it. So you’ll have to settle for a photo of a painting that was on the wall of my hotel room.

It’s a bridge I’ll have to cross on my next visit to Da Nang.

The Dragon Bridge crosses the Han River between Da Nang’s airport and its South China Sea beaches. (JGA photo)

73. Mỹ Sơn Is Not My Son

Central Vietnam’s Mỹ Sơn sanctuary recalls a medieval era when the Hindu faith directed the course of the ancient Champa Empire.

Detailed carvings surround the base of the central temple of the G group. (JGA photo)

I will never confuse Mỹ Sơn with My Son, although they do have many traits in common.

My son, the man, was sturdy but not indestructible. He was spiritually robust and true but not without some moral ambiguity. (Nor do I deny numerous flaws in my own fabric.) He lived hard and strong and was gone too soon.

Many of the same things might be said about Mỹ Sơn. Ancient Vietnam’s preeminent archaeological site, pronounced mee suhn, roared for a millennium, from the 4th to the 13th centuries, and grew to symbolize the spiritual strength of the Champa culture of the central Vietnamese coast. Yet too soon its bricks crumbled and were consumed by indomitable jungle, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century — and again destroyed by war in the 20th.

A moss-covered stone stairway inveigles visitors to the G group. (JGA photo)

Mỹ Sơn was a Hindu religious sanctuary in a land traditionally true to Chinese Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianist ethics. The audaciously sexual concept of worshipping a lingam as a phallic representation of the god Shiva, to invite fertility, may well have contributed to the centuries of warfare endured by the Champa Kingdom. Today the site, recognized by UNESCO on ít short list of World Cultural Heritage sites in Vietnam, cries out for several hours’ exploration.

A day’s excursion

From the tourist town of Hội An, it takes about 45 minutes to make the 30-kilometer (19-mile) drive to Mỹ Sơn. I paid about US$20 to hire a taxi for the day, and it was an excellent investment: My driver left me at the monument for three full hours and charged me no extra.

Morning light sheds an eerie glow upon the G group. (JGA photo)

The entrance fee of about US$6.50 (150,000 Vietnam dong) included more than mere access to ruins. With help from the Indian, Chinese and German governments, ongoing restoration work is peeling away layers of abuse, many examples of which are now displayed in an introductory museum. Here, maps and diagrams set the scene for a walk through the heritage site itself.

Mỹ Sơn was forgotten, except perhaps in Cham legend, when it was rediscovered by French colonists in thick jungle in 1885. For all the injustices perpetrated by the French upon the Indochinese, the Europeans did a lot to further archeology. Digs determined the site was consecrated to Shiva, and that symbolically the sacred mountain Mahaparvata, overlooking Mỹ Sơn to the south, gives rise to a holy spring flowing through the narrow valley of the sanctuary. The mountain was seen to represent a lingam (male organ), the valley a yoni (female organ), and the spring a drainage for the yoni.

Fierce mythological monsters, similar to those seen in Javanese architectural, protect a temple base. (JGA photo)

Nine building clusters

Of more than 70 shrines unearthed in nine lettered clusters, only about 20 remain in good condition, some of those after extensive restoration work. There were more here prior to the American War, but the sanctuary was laid to waste by U.S. troops when a secret Viet Cong base was detected among the ruins. Numerous bomb craters, many of them now filled with ground water, are scattered around the site.

A shuttle bus delivers visitors from the museum, up a narrow access road to the  site. My driver let me out at a turnabout, from where I climbed a gentle hill to Group H. This was my first place to take a close look at the Cham building style — red clay bricks carefully smoothed and stacked close to one another without the use of mortar. The technique remains obscure to this day.

Cham architectural techniques, stacking smoothed bricks with no mortar, is evident at the Group H restoration site. (JGA photo)

From that small group, I continued walking to the original main temple (“B1”) of King Bhadravarman, who is credited with establishing the site in the 4th century. (The temple was destroyed in the 6th century, rebuilt in the 7th century, but today, only a base of 11th-century sandstone blocks remains.) The ancient lingam exhibited inside wasn’t discovered until 1985.

Indeed, each of the various temple groups featured several smaller out-structures surrounding a central tower facing east, the direction of sunrise. It was linked to a mandapa, or meditation hall, where pilgrims prepared offerings used in rites and ceremonies, sometimes including animal sacrifices.

Sculptures found on site have been restored in a Group D meditation hall. (JGA photo)

Among the most intact is “B5.” Built in the 10th century, it suggests a strong cross-cultural influence affected by the Chams’ maritime trade, as its distinctive boat shape mimics the Malay-Polynesian architectural style of the time. Nearby, mandapas “D1” and “D2” have been refurbished to present small sculptural exhibits.

Stop the bombs!

The 8th-century central temple of the C group (“C1”) was used to worship Shiva in human form. This shrine’s altar is empty; its image of Shiva was moved to Da Nang’s Museum of Cham Sculpture before it fell victim to American attack.

The great temple at Group A suffered severe damage during the American War. (JGA photo)

It was a well-considered decision. Group A, in particular, was almost completely destroyed by American bombs. Its massive main shrine, the only sanctuary with two doors (one facing east, the other west toward ancestral tombs), survived aerial bombings only to succumb to more directed ground attacks. That was the last U.S. attack on Cham cultural sites, as President Richard Nixon acquiesced to a letter of protest from an art expert who emphasized the lack of any tie between ancient Hindu ruins and 20th-century Marxist politics.

I found the well-preserved G group to be the most intriguing — from the carvings of mythological monster-gods around the base of a massive edifice, to broad moss-covered staircases, to steles relating sanctuary rules and stories of the gods unknown to all but experts in ancient script.

Ancient Champa script remains a mystery to all but a handful of archaeo-linguists. (JGA photo)

This blog will not be an intellectual description of the Mỹ Sơn refuge. I’ll leave that to the experts. I’ll merely share some photographs of a síte that thoroughly enthralled me, and hope they inspire exploration by other visitors.

Medieval carvings address the depth of the Champa Kingdom’s Hindu religious heritage. (JGA photo)

72. Covid Is Not a Walk in Uncle Hô’s Park

“The fog comes on little cat feet,” American poet Carl Sandburg once famously wrote. Covid-19, it seems, has a similar agenda.

An honor guard defends the monumental mausoleum of Vietnamese hero Ho Chi Minh. (JGA photo)

Sunday in Hanoi was a day like many others in this traveler’s lìfe. I awoke with a plan to visit the tomb of Hô Chi Mính, the architect of modern Vietnamese nationhood and the country’s greatest hero. In the afternoon, I would join a raucous party of 20 in the consumption of a weighty boar’s leg at Mediterraneo, my new favorite restaurant in the north of Vietnam. Then I hoped a romantic interlude might await me after the sun went down.

Historical curiosity came first. There would be plenty of time later for gastronomy and passion. Although images of Bac Hô (“Uncle Ho”) are ubiquitous throughout Vietnam in statues and paintings and photographs, there is only one place to get close to the man — literally.

Hô Chi Mính (1890-1969) lived his final years in the Ba Đinh district of the nation’s capital, having led Vietnam through its independence struggle against France and the first part of the American War. Today the Hô Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex embraces a beautiful park and botanical gardens, a vehicle-free acreage that includes the HCM Museum, Hô’s semi-legendary stilt house, Vietnam’s presidential palace and the ỉntriguingly approachable One Pillar Pagoda.

An honor guard division marches through the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. (JGA photo)

Men in White

From my hotel, a small but elegant boutique property at the edge of Hanoi’s Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem lake, it’s a walk of just over 2 kilometers (1.3 miles) to the mausoleum itself. That’s an easy half-hour gallavant, not a distance that normally challenges me. But on this chilly February morning, as a barely visible but lightly piercing drizzle stung my cheeks between my facemask and my Oregon baseball cap, I trod a little more slowly than is my habit. I wished I had worn an extra sweater beneath my rain-repellent jacket.

When I finally reached the imposing marble monument where Hô’s corpse is entombed, I was mildly put out to be redirected, not once but twice, to a gatehouse 500 meters further from my destination — only to join a small procession of other pilgrims in progress. We marched a carefully prescribed path, a covered walkway accented with video screens where performers sang patriotically of the greatness of the socialist republic of Vietnam.

The pedestrian way eventually reached the grand mausoleum, where an honor guard dressed in royal white ushered us inside with a stern “no talking, no photography” warning. They led us up a series of dimly lit stairways to the chamber where Bac Hô himself was laid to rest, under the watch of many more guardsmen.

He was waxen, flaxen, as thoroughly embalmed a cadaver as I’ve ever laid eyes upon. The yellowish-gray hue of his skin looked ungodly for a man who is revered as a god. I was fascinated. I’d like to say he looked pretty good for a guy who’s been dead for more than 50 years, but he really didn’t. I wanted to linger for long minutes staring at a scene befitting of a Guillermo del Toro movie. But the guards were having none of that. Keep moving, they said. Do not stop. I spent no more than 30 seconds with the man, or, rather, the corpse of the man. I think it will haunt me forever.

In a scene from the early 1960s, Ho Chi Minh is modeled in wax, at work in his “stilt house.” (JGA photo)

Whining and dining

It was only about 11 in the morning, and I was tired and cranky. At the Ho Chi Minh Museum, I complained about the 40,000 VND admission charge for foreigners (citizens are free) to visit a score of exhibits with interpretive signs written only in Vietnamese. And then I whined as I waited at a coffee shop for a taxi back to my hotel.

My legs were starting to ache. An hour’s hotel rest would make everything better again. Then the wild boar dinner and the good Italian wine would kick in. And add lively conversation — although I was the only native English speaker invited to the festa, I enjoyed meeting expats from Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium and Brazil.

But I cut the afternoon short and canceled my evening plans. I had developed a slight sore throat, and although I am double-vaccinated against Covid-19 (as my friends assured me they also are), I didn’t want to see anyone get sick on my account. I took a Panadol and went to bed.

I’ve hardly left my fifth-floor hotel room in the past week. (JGA photo)

Covid comes to visit

That was Sunday. I slept restlessly. On Monday morning, I awoke very early with a sketchy throat.  I tried to treat it with a “super pack” of natural remedies that I had been carrying for just such an inevitability. I’ve had sore throats before. Those tonics and some green and herbal teas, provided by the hotel, would knock it out in no time, I told myself.

But when I awoke Tuesday, I was not better. My throat was burning and badly inflamed, with heavy mucus production. I couldn’t swallow; when I tried to drink a little water, it quickly became heavy phlegm. My little trash can was filling quickly with sputum. It wasn’t pretty. And it didn’t smell good.

I hurried to a pharmacy and described my symptoms. Fifteen minutes and US $40 later, I carried off a bag of six medications, including an antibiotic and two other pills to be taken morning and evening, plus throat spray, lozenges and salt solution to replenish lost nutrients.

Now, I had another problem. I couldn’t swallow the meds. I could put a pill on my tongue, but even a tiny sip of water left me gagging. I considered that I might have to admit myself to a hospital to be treated intravenously. At last, I resorted to chewing the pills very finely, crushing them with my teeth, waiting for enough of my own saliva to build and take their bitter taste from my mouth.

And then there was the matter of self-administering a Covid-19 test with a five-part, store-bought kit. Technically inept as I am, I bollixed my first attempt. Then I learned how to insert my nasal swab into a specially treated, miniature test tube and drip three drops onto a test frame. It didn’t take long to indicate a “positive” result.

The longer I stay in my hotel room, the better the view looks. (JGA photo)

Into the Twilight Zone

As Tuesday afternoon became evening and morphed into Wednesday morning, I lost track of time and space and slipped into the Twilight Zone. Sleep as deep as death seduced me into believing I had drifted off for 12 hours, when indeed it could not have been more than 12 minutes. Was it day or night? I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. I tossed and turned endlessly, woke up to pee, or to gag, or to pee and gag, and hoped there would be light at the other end of the tunnel.

There was. At some point, I found that I could drink small sips of water without choking. Soon I was able to eat … not a lot, but a little noodle soup was better than nothing at all. I never lost any sensation of smell or taste, as some Covid sufferers report. I could never not breathe.

By Thursday, although I thought it was Friday, my mind was unmuddled enough that I could write and read, which is far better therapy for me than mindless TV movies. I was regaining my appetite: I had a full bowl of cháo thit heo, a rice porridge with pork.

Friday, I felt a little light-headed (no surprise) and I fell back into occasional coughing spells, which I had not experienced in the previous several days of illness. I was more aware of fatigue and perhaps a little depression. I recall reading that these are not-uncommon side effects of the Covid virus. I only hope they pass soon.

And now it’s Saturday. Last night I ordered an Italian dinner to my room: meatball soup, salmon fettuccine, yogurt dessert, so there’s no doubt my appetite has come back. I’ve taken my morning medicine. I want to take a short walk, but that is ill-advised, as I look out my fifth-floor window and see the steady rain. I’ll re-test on Monday and hope that I’ve put this episode as far behind me as Uncle Hô’s corpse.

Hey, the man didn’t want any of this adulation. He just wanted his body to be cremated.

From the fifth floor, I look down to urban beauty. (JGA photo)
Soon healthy again. (JGA selfie)

71. Eating My Way Through Hội An

Hội An isn’t just another tourist town. Its rich heritage extends to the culinary arts and includes a number of dishes unique to this city and region.

Hà (seated second from right) enjoys a feast with fellow bicycling enthusiasts, complete with live music and karaoke singing. (JGA photo)

Hô Hà is a native of Hội An, born and raised in the colorful and historic coastal city. In the years before tourism boomed, she grew up on the city’s street food, the mì quảng and cao lầu, the bánh xèo and nem nướng. Now her adult son is a chef at one of the finest French restaurants in nearby Da Nang. I could not have found a better person to show me what her city offers a gourmand like myself.

I met Hà on my second day in Hội An. An athletic long-distance bicyclist, she had just parked her wheels at the pedestrian entry point to the Ancient Town and was strolling briskly down Hai Ba Chung street, softly singing to herself. I looked at her and she at me. We laughed.

Coffee with a friend became an invitation to attend her bicycling club’s banquet that evening at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant. It was a family-style feast, with skewers of barbecued pork and shrimp, stir-fried noodles with seafood, fresh leafy greens and so much more, washed down with the local LaRue lager, bottled water and harsher homemade Viet “wine.” (By any Western definition, it’s not. Wine, that is.)

Nem nướng is a pork satay, popular as street food, often served with spicy peanut sauce. (JGAphoto)

It’s the water

But a meal like this didn’t represent the one-bowl meals that are more typical of the everyday diet of a Hội An resident … or visitor. In the days that followed, my new friend gave me a introductory course in some of the best simple meals this historic port city has to offer.

At the Giếng Bá Lễ restaurant, I learned that the secret to fine cuisine may not lie only in the quality of the ingredients nor the skill of the chef. It may also be in the water — in this case, water drawn from the tiny Bá Lễ well, an unremarkable brick cistern that’s just around a corner and down a narrow lane from the eatery. Locals, apparently, have sworn by its excellence for more than 1,000 years.

A woman draws water from the ancient Bá Lễ well, still serving the Hội An community after more than a millennium. (JGA photo)

A combination plate gave me the opportunity to sample several local foods, including pork grilled two ways, nem nướng and thit nướng. The former is a satay served with a peanut sauce, the latter more of a sausage. Deep-fried spring rolls (ram cuón) with meat and vegetables were outstanding.

Best was bánh xèo, sometimes misleadingly labeled a Vietnamese rice pancake. I’ve had this dish elsewhere, but never as good as it was in Hội An. A cross between a folded omelet and a grilled rice-flour crêpe, it is filled with savory slices of pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. Perhaps with a nod to tourist preferences, the shrimp at Giếng Bá Lễ were bite-sized and gratefully shelled. (At some restaurants, the crustaceans are grilled whole.)

Bánh xèo is a rice-flour crepe filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. (JGA photo)

Yellow noodles

Another dish widely available throughout Vietnam, whose origin is often traced to Hội An, is mì quảng. It is served at casual restaurants throughout the city and especially in the Ancient Town, from Phan Chu Trinh street to the riverfront.

Every cook has his or her own recipe for mì quảng. Invariably, however, preparation begins with broad rice noodles prepared in a broth that is seasoned with turmeric, bestowing upon the noodles a yellowish color. Unlike most other Vietnamese noodle dishes, it is served relatively dry — with only a splash of broth, and not as a soup.

Protein comes from meats, typically tender sliced pork belly and whole (sometimes unshelled) shrimp. Chicken, beef or fish may also be used, and boiled quail eggs or pork rinds may be added.

Turmeric lends a yellow color to the noodles in mì quảng. (JGA photo)

Then the dish is served with a variety of herbs (rau, sometimes translated as vegetables), typically green, leafy and uncooked. In addition to lettuce, these often include basil, cilantro (or Vietnamese coriander), onion leaves, sliced banana flower and bean sprouts. Finally, it’s garnished with crushed peanuts and toasted sesame rice crackers, and served with limes and chilies.

The best mì quảng I had in Hội An was at an open-air bistro near the Thanh Hà pottery village, not far from my friend Hà’s childhood home. The secret to its particular flavor, I learned, was that the broth, restrained though it was, had been simmered overnight with pork bones, pepper, garlic and nước mắm, a fermented fish sauce widely used in Vietnamese cooking.

Cao lầu is traditionally made from a unique set of local ingredients. (JGA photo)

Water and lye

If Hội An has a single trademark dísh, it is cao lầu. It seemed to me that every small restaurant along riverfront Bach Dang street posted a sign offering this noodle plate. From the three meals I had here, the taste was universally excellent.

Locals take great care, however, to follow the traditional recipe. That means the water used for soaking the rice must come from the Bá Lễ well, and it must be treated with an alkaline lye made from plants that can be foraged only from the offshore Cham Islands. After hours of soaking, the rice is processed into noodles that have a grayish color and a chewy texture.

Cao lầu is served with thinly sliced pork that is marinated char siu-style in five-spice powder with soy sauce, crushed garlic and other seasonings. Then it is served room-temperature with a similar blend of greens and vegetables as is offered with mì quảng, and presented with lime and chilies.

A food-cart owner prepares a gourmet bánh mì sandwich for a hungry customer. (JGA photo)

More street food

A legacy of French colonialism, the crispy baguette sandwich known as bánh mì — literally, “bread” — is at its zenith in Hội An. Naturally, Hà knew just the place, at a block of mobile kitchens where Trần Cao Vân crosses Thái Phiên street.

Sliced lengthwise, the perfect baguette is freshly baked, with a thin and crispy flame-grilled crust and a soft, fluffy texture inside. Then it is lightly spread with mayonnaise and chile sauce, and filled with meat — an ample quantity of chopped pork: pâté, sausage, pork belly and head cheese. Veges follow: carrot-radish slaw, sliced peppers, cucumber, maybe some cilantro.

A vendor deep-fries fresh banana fritters in a batter of coconut milk and flour. (JGA photo)

After an appetite-sating sandwich, we needed some dessert. Down at the corner of Lê Lợi and Phan Chu Trinh, another vendor had just the solution — deep-fried banana fritters in a coconut-flour batter. What wasn’t to love?

Yet I confess. My Western palate still yearns for other than Asian food from time to time. And Hội An satisfied that craving as well.

From the very modestly priced steaks and nightly specials at Herbal Pizza, to the Greek specialties and imported wines at Mix, to the ample Italian meals at Good Morning Vietnam (which, contrarily, is not open for breakfasts), this tourist town kept me fat and happy.

Hà and John enjoy salads and risotto for dinner at Good Morning Vietnam. (restaurant staff photo)
The grayish color of cao lầu noodles is caused by alkaline lye used in their preparation. (JGA photo)

70. Hội An’s Chinese Flair

Colorful assembly halls and communal houses, the legacy of traders of yore, inject an element of exoticism in modern Hội An.

A multi-headed dragon rises from a pool in the rear garden of the Cantonese Assembly Hall. (JGA photo)

Were it not for the flamboyance of Hội An’s Chinese assembly halls and communal houses, the subdued ochre tones of the hundreds of heritage buildings lining the narrow lanes of the Ancient Town would be lost in a sea of restraint.

Instead, this UNESCO World Heritage Site — a bustling 15th-to-19th-century port of trade known to merchants throughout Eurasia — was reborn in the 1990s as one of Vietnam’s most important tourist destinations. A concerted historic preservation effort has restored its legacy as a cosmopolitan theater on the banks of the Thu Bồn River, a mere shout away from the East (South China) Sea.

Of all its occasional visitors and longer-term residents, none made themselves so much at home as the Chinese. These seafarers came from different cities and shores of the great land to the north, including Fujian, Canton (Guangzhou), Hainan, Teochew (Chaozhou) and Hakka.

In Hội An, as devoted Taoists and Confucianists, they honored their gods, their saints and their ancestors in structures built between the 1650s and 1880s. Variously called assembly halls and communal houses (I’ve been unable to distinguish the difference), they also became places where the communities could gather on any special occasion.

The Fujian Assembly Hall, built in 1757, honors the ancient Chinese goddess of the sea. (JGA photo)

Goddess of the sea

Perhaps the most photogenic of the buildings is the Fujian (Phước Kiển) Assembly Hall, built by traders from Fujian province. Originally constructed of wood in 1697, it was rebuilt in 1757 with brick and tile. That’s what you see today.

Apart from its colorful architectural appeal incorporating sculpture with potted plants, flowers and other garden features, the Fujian Hall is embraced by modern Vietnamese and Chinese alike as a place to pray to Thiên Hậu, goddess of the sea, to protect fishermen and other maritime travelers.

The main (Tam Quan) gate was restored in 1975 and carved with porcelain. Symbols include sun and moon motifs that represent the yin-yang harmony of the universe. Nearby, look for a statue of a mythological dragon carp, and on its reverse side, images of a sacred dragon, phoenix, turtle and unicorn.

Stone tables in the spacious front yard were once used to conduct trade business. At the conclusion of these meetings, merchants burned incense in rings to assure the success of their agreements. Today worshippers light the fragrant offerings for health, prosperity and family.

On the main altar of the Fujian Hall, goddess Thien Hau is flanked by two subservient deities. (JGA photo)

As you enter the ornate main hall, take note of murals on either side of the doorway, including one painting that shows Thiên Hậu responding to a call of distress from a ship tossing in stormy seas.

At the main altar, Chinese businessmen also pray for help in steering through the storms of commerce. Like Guan Yin (Quan Am), the heavenly mother, she is perceived to have the ability to control the rain and wind. Thiên Hậu is flanked by two other gods who assist in nautical rescues: Thiên Lý Nhãn, who can see for 1,000 miles, and Thuận Phong Nhĩ, who has a similar acoustic facility.

To the left of the main altar, other gods respond to entreaties for wealth and fortune. Beware the figure on the right: He punishes people who aren’t wise with their money, especially if they throw it away on immoral vices (like sex, alcohol and rock ’n’ roll, I imagine).

Nearby, look for a model of an 1875 trade ship in distress. It is painted with eyes on either side of its prow to enable it to foresee perils at sea.

The Chinese All-Community Hall, which once also supported a school, honors Confucius and Thien Hau. (JGA photo)

Dialects and deities

It was important for the Chinese traders of different geographic areas to have their own meeting places: Although they shared a common written language, they spoke in different dialects, often mutually unintelligible. But until they could raise funds for their own halls, they all supported the Chinese (Trung Hoa) All-Community Hall, built in 1741.

Like the Fujian building, the all-Chinese hall was dedicated to Thiên Hậu, demonstrating her importance. Confucius is also worshipped here, beside Chinese war heroes. In addition, the all-community hall formerly served as a school for Chinese students.

At the Hainan Hall, a ship with eyes represents the vessel where 108 sailors were massacred in 1851. (JGA photo)

The community from the island province of Hainan, nearest to the coast of Vietnam, didn’t build its Hainan Assembly Hall until 1851. It did so to honor a shipload of 108 sailors and merchants who were killed en route to Hội An after being mistaken for pirates. When Vietnam’s emperor, Tự Đức, became aware of the crime, he funded the Hainanese community to build the hall as a memorial, its gilded carvings designed to lift the sailors’ spirits to the status of deities in the afterlife.

The hall is small but beautifully decorated. Red and gold are the prevailing hues throughout, from the brightly painted altar to the lanterns that extend to the veranda. Outside, a thatched roof covers pink and yellow walls; inside, hand-carved doors and wooden pillars contrast with the brilliant colors.

The Chaozhou Assembly Hall is noted for its ornate designs and interior wood carvings. (JGA photo)

The Chaozhou (Triều Châu) Assembly Hall, built in 1848, is noted for its unique heavy-wood architecture, with a footprint mimicking Chinese characters. Intricate carved panels on its imposing gateway and on the walls, beams and altars of the front house portray fantastic mythological creatures, various plants and landscape features. The carvings continue into the main house, with myriad dragon patterns on its interconnecting pillars and doors whose images depict symbols of good luck and prosperity.

A dragon of a man

Quan Cong, a Chinese general of the Third Century A.D., has a lot of fans. Two structures are dedicated to him: the Cantonese (Quang Triều) Assembly Hall and the Quan Cong Temple. An icon of Han Dynasty China, he is said to have been brave and righteous, steadfast and talented, all honorable virtues to which even modern man might aspire.

An altar at his eponymous temple praises the virtues of ancient General Quan Cong. (JGA photo)

Look for Quan’s red-faced image in the assembly hall, built in 1885. Then slip through the inconspicuous back door to a garden whose centerpiece may be the most unique sculpture in Hội An: a Medusa-like dragon, its multiple heads straining for release from a a tiny pool.

The assembly hall was long predated by the colorful Quan Cong Temple, which dates from 1653. Dragons are present here as well, from the main gate to the rooftops. The sanctuary’s main icon is a statue of General Quan dressed in a suit embellished with dragon images and accompanied by guardian servants and his two faithful battle horses.

The current edition of the Minh Huong Communal House was built in 1820. (JGA photo)

Communal houses

Though not formally an assembly hall, the Minh Hương Communal House falls into the same category of structure. Its initial constuction is instructive of the early days of Chinese settlement in Hội An.

After China’s northern Qing dynasty deposed the southern Ming in 1636, and an attempt by Ming generals to regain power failed, many prominent Chinese were led to flee the new regime and seek asylum in Southeast Asia. These “Minh Hương” people, as they became known, were welcomed in Hội An by Vietnamese rulers who were then expanding into what had been the Cham empire.

Their craftsmanship helped to build Hội An into the thriving international seaport it become. This house, built with wood pillars and covered with traditional tiles, dates from the mid-1600s, although the current structure was raised in 1820.

Like the Minh Huong house, the Cẩm Phô Communal House had an early construction date but was extensively restored in 1817. Built in a U shape, it has one wing devoted to the god of Cẩm Phô village, near Guangzhou, and another where reverence is paid to ancestors.

It was here that I met the models whose photo is below and at the head of this blog. The style of dress, I’m told by the Hội An Office of Tourist Services, is “Hoianian.” But I can’t imagine they would have dressed this way at any but the most formal events of their historical time.

Models in traditional “Hoianian” dress pose for a photo at the Cam Pho Communal House. (JGA photo)

69. Romancing the Past in Hội An

The small city of Hội An has everything a tourist might want. It’s picturesque, historical, romantic, safe and affordable.

A woman in a traditional Hoianian wardrobe crosses narrow Nguyen Thai Hoc street in Hoi An’s Ancient Town. (JGA photo)

What’s not to like about Hội An?

Central Vietnam’s premier tourist destination has it all. It is atmospheric and approachable, with great food, friendly people, and a picturesque riverside location just a short bike ride from a sandy beach.

Its highlight is a marvelously preserved central city, “The Ancient Town,” that is a living relic of the 17th and 18th centuries. In that era, Hội An was an important trading port known throughout the western Pacific, with a significant Chinese and Japanese population.

Honored with UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, it now maintains more than 800 historic buildings, nearly two dozen of which are open to visitors as places of worship, private homes and small museums. Many dozens (perhaps hundreds) of others have ground-floor shops, restaurants and coffee shops.

Hội An is at once safe and affordable, with the entire Ancient Town district off-limits during certain morning and evening hours to all traffic except motorbikes. And even at that, many riders prefer to park outside the restricted area and enter as pedestrians.

The Japanese Covered Bridge, which dates from 1590, stands at the west end of the Ancient Town. (JGA photo)

The past is present

The freeze on Vietnam tourism brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic might actually be a good thing for Hội An. Although businesses are undoubtedly suffering from the economic fallout, resulting in temporary and sometimes permanent restaurant and hotel closures, the dramatic reduction in foreign crowds has enabled preservationists to sigh deeply as they engage in ongoing reconstruction work.

I arrived in the city of 140,000 (it feels much smaller) on a Friday afternoon with a plan to remain just four days. I stayed for a full week, encouraged by new discoveries, new friends and a couple of rainy days when I cut back on exploring. I paid only US $12/night at the May’s House homestay for my private upstairs room (with full bath, flat-screen TV and air conditioning, although I didn’t need the latter two); from there, it was only a 10-minute saunter into the Ancient Town.

At the small Museum of Sa Huyhn Culture, I learned about the earliest peoples who inhabited the coastal plain near the mouth of the Thu Bồn River. Iron implements that predate the Christian era suggest a cultural link to Indonesia rather than to the bronze tools then being shaped in northern Vietnam. And the Museum of Trading Ceramics displayed fragments of Cham Empire pottery more than 1,000 years old.

A boatman awaits passengers for an illuminated cruise on the Thu Bon River. (JGA photo)

Lanterns and silks

Beginning around the 15th century, during a long period of peace between the frequently feuding Chams and the rival Tonkinese to the north, Hội An emerged as a major commercial port city — a place where Asians, including not only Chinese and Japanese but also Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais and Indians — could transact with Western merchants, who knew Hội An as “Faifoo.” Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French, British and later American ships came to call.

Their boats anchored in the gently flowing Thu Bồn. Today three bridges cross the river between the Ancient Town and a pair of islands, An Hội and Cầm Nam. Between them, a flotilla of small boats, strung with colored lanterns, offer short cruises of the old town at night, and longer upriver voyages to the Thanh Hà pottery village (2.5 kilometers).

Among the most cherished trade goods of the historic past were textiles, especially woven cotton fabrics and exquisite silks. They remain so today, as evidenced by the scores of tailors whose shops beckon visitors. I was reclothed practically overnight by one craftswoman, whose careful measurements put me in custom-made shirt and pants at a cost of 1 million Vietnam dong — about US $46, a price that made us both happy.

The Cantonese Assembly Hall, dating from 1786, is one of several in Hoi An built to serve the overseas community. (JGA photo)

End of an era

In the heyday of Hội An, Chinese traders in particular made themselves at home here, following the monsoons south in spring and returning north four months later when the winds turned. They came not only with silk, but also paper, spices Chinese medicines, beeswax and lacquer. Eventually, the foreigners established full-time agents in Hội An. They built assembly halls as places to gather and worship their Taoist and Confucianist deities, each congregation representing their specific home regions of China: Canton, Fujian, Hainan, Chaozhou.

European traders also brought Christianity to Vietnam as early as the 17th century. Among the missionaries was Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit whose Latin-based quoc ngu alphabet eventually replaced Chinese characters in the written application of the Vietnam language. (Author’s note: It’s still not easy.)

The era of peaceful trade ended with the Tay Son Rebellion of 1765-1789. When the populist revolt reached Hội An in the 1770s, the city was almost completely destroyed. Although Hội An rebuilt, the Thu Bồn River silted up within the next century, and Da Nang emerged as the leading port in central Vietnam.

Young shoppers select a paper lantern from a street vendor beside the Thu Bồn River. (JGA photo)

A sense of romance

Perhaps Hội An’s greatest international fame today is to be called “Asia’s most romantic city,” as proclaimed by numerous international outlets including America’s CNN broadcast network. The paper lanterns that adorn the river boats and bridges at night are a big part of that appeal. And local citizens have been quick to enlist in the promotion.

The lanterns aren’t as evident by day as they are by night … until you look up. On many old-town avenues, especially Nguyen Thai Hoc and Tran Phu, you’ll see them strung from shop to shop or across streets. Keep an eye open for a couple of shops where you can learn how to make them yourself.

And don’t be shy about becoming a street walker in Hội An. It’s an easy town to find your way around, despite some nameless narrow alleys; they all lead somewhere, and there are numerous maps and directional signs (most of them in English) to help you out.

One of the town’s highlights is the old Japanese Covered Bridge. I established it as my personal orientation point, at the west end of the Ancient Town beside a curving lane that links to the An Hội foot bridge. Built over a stream in the 1590s by Japanese merchants to link to Hội An’s Chinese quarter, the arched bridge is guarded at either end by paired statues of dogs and monkeys. At its center is a shrine guarded day and night by human security.

Tailors and boutique clothing stores go hand-in-hand in Hoi An, where silk has always been a precious commodity. (JGA photo)

Supporting heritage

To pay for continued maintenance of the Ancient Town’s historic buildings, all visitors are requested to purchase an entrance ticket. A fee of 60,000 Vietnam dong (about US $2.60) entitles admission to five of the 18 heritage buildings. I wound up buying a second ticket, but not every building was open during my pedestrian hours. Still, it was money very well spent.

Apart from seven Chinese assembly halls and communal houses, which I’ll present in a subsequent blog, and five small museums, the ticket enables entrance to a half-dozen traditional family homes. Of these, both the Tấn Ký House and the Quân Thắng House are in their seventh generation of continuous family ownership. Each features beautiful artisan tile and wood work, numerous historic portraits, a central courtyard and an altar beneath the front eaves.

Traditional cultural shows and craft demonstrations are offered at several locations around the Ancient Town, although with tourism at a near-standstill, performances are not as frequent as they may previously have been. Ask for information when you purchase your admission ticket.

Two young women modestly clad in ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional national dress, pose outside a shop in Hoi An’s Ancient Town. (JGA photo)

There’s so much to stay about Hội An, it could fill a book. In decades past, I did my time as a guidebook author and won’t return to that chore. But I do have more stories to tell before I move on from this town. Coming up: #70, the spectacularly colorful Chinese community centers; #71, the wonderful food and local culinary specialties; and #72, the remarkable Hindu religious sanctuary of Mỹ Sơn, an hour’s drive west.

Tiles cover the roofs of historic homes in Hoi An’s Ancient Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. (JGA photo)

68. Culture and History on Vietnam’s Central Coast

A 1,200-year-old Hindu shrine complex, a legacy of the ancient Champa empire, is just one highlight of the heritage of Nha Trang.

Cham dancers pose at Nha Trang’s ancient Po Nagar Towers shrine complex, where a Hindu goddess is the central image. (JGA photo)

Some say that piracy is inherent to Vietnam’s Central Coast region, dating back more than 1,200 years to the era of the ancient Champa empire. This maritime realm, at its peak between the 7th and 10th centuries, once dominated the trade routes of the South China (East) Sea — and its high-seas pirates were feared far and wide by neighboring nations.

The original pirate, and the mythical founder of the Cham state, was a woman.  Lady Po Nagar came from a peasant family in the area of modern Nha Trang. After she drifted to China on an enchanted piece of sandalwood, she was married to a crown prince and declared the Queen of Champa. Her husband tried to block her from returning home with their two children for a visit, but the magic sandalwood allowed her to escape back to Nha Trang. When the prince sent a fleet to retrieve her, she got really, really mad: She turned him and his navy to stone.

Today the Po Nagar Towers (Tháp Bà Po Nagar) are one of the great surviving ruins of the Champa civilization, which once extended about 850 kilometers (530 miles) from Phan Thiêt to Hue. Perched on a bluff overlooking the Cai River on the north side of Nha Trang, the brick-and-stone shrine is a stunning sight.

The pyramidal North Tower dwarfs other structures in the Po Nagar complex. (JGA photo)

Shiva rising

What makes Po Nagar all the more remarkable is that it was built as a place of pilgrimage for the Hindu religion. The Cham race, still a visible minority in modern Vietnam, never embraced the Buddhist-Taoist religion nor the Confucianist ethic that spread south from China into northern Vietnam. Their greater cultural influences came from India, via the Khmer civilizations to their south and west.

In Nha Trang, the 28-meter (92-foot) high North Tower (Thap Chinh) is an unmistakable landmark, rising high above a lush green forest and a flotilla of sky-blue fishing boats. The red-ocher tower dominated my view as my motorbike driver-guide, Minh, carried me across the Xom Bong bridge to the spiritual site.

The original entrance to the imposing Po Nagar Towers was through a meditation hall on íts east-facing side. (JGA photo)

At the entrance gate, I paid a modest admission fee, then climbed a ramp and gentle steps to the top of the hill. To my right was the original entrance, facing east and framed by 10 pillars that once enclosed a meditation hall. A colorful altar, bearing offerings of flowers and incense, stood beneath a steep staircase that was once the primary access to the towers of worship.

Relics suggest this granite bluff was used for worship as early as the 2nd Century A.D. By about 784, the first of its eight original stone towers had been built (four remain), with a lingam (a carved phallus) honoring the Hindu god Shiva at íts heart. Linga are integral to any worship of Shiva, whose divinity at once embraces destruction and new creation; today the South Tower (Mieu Dong Nam) still shelters a carefully tended lingam.

A lingam, or carved phallus honoring the Hindu god Shiva, is worshipped in Po Nagar’s South Tower. (JGA photo)

The group also includes a Northwest Tower (Thap Tay Bac), dedicated to the elephant-headed god Ganesh, and a Central Tower (Thap Nam), a late addition, built of recycled bricks in the 12th Century.

With its terraced, pyramid-shaped roof and the masonry of its vaulted interior, the North Tower, built in 817, is the highlight of the complex. Its central image is that of Po Nagar herself, now conferred a divine status like that of the fierce Hindu goddess Durga. Her black-stone icon is four feet tall, sitting cross-legged in only a skirt, holding symbolic items in each of her 10 hands.

Cham dancers, balancing pottery on their heads, perform with traditional musicians outside the North Tower. (JGA photo)

In an open courtyard behind the North Tower, traditional Cham cultural music and dance programs are often performed. The setting for the show is perfect, as above the tower’s entrance are carvings of two musicians on either side of a dancing, four-armed image of Shiva.

There are a few other nods to tourism here, but not overtly so. Souvenirs such as intricate Cham weavings are sold from the same stalls as mass-produced handicrafts. A small museum exhibits some fine examples of traditional ceramics, while memorable pottery mimics temple carvings in an outdoor sculpture garden.

The Long Son Pagoda has survived wartime bombings to be a Buddhist spiritual center in Nha Trang. (JGA photo)

Buddhist monuments

Down the hill and around the corner from Nha Trang’s Po Nagar Towers is another notable spiritual site, albeit honoring a different faith — Buddhism.

The Long Son Pagoda was built in 1900. Steep steps climb from a garden courtyard area to the main sanctuary entrance, protected by glass-and-ceramic dragon mosaics. Heavily damaged by bombing during the American War in 1968, the red-tile roof was completely rebuilt in 1971.

Behind the pagoda, 152 stone steps climb to the Hai Duc Buddha — a huge white Buddha statue, seated on a lotus blossom, visible from all over Nha Trang. Placed here in 1965, it honors seven Buddhist monks who died in 1963 after setting themselves aflame to protest the repression of their faith by the pro-Catholic government of South Vietnam.

Part way up the steps between the pagoda and the giant Buddha, not as widely publicized, is a handsome reclining Buddha image, his feet etched with symbolic swastikas.

A young family shadows a reclining Buddha at Nha Trang’s Long Son Pagoda. (JGA photo)

Beachside diversions

I suspect the typical beach-hungry Nha Trang tourist has little interest in these cultural sights. Most visitors to the city of half a million people come to enjoy its 6-kilometer (3.8-mile) crescent of sand, framed by a necklace of islands that reach into the East Sea.

In particular, Vietnamese families of moderate means love the offshore VinPearl Nha Trang resort and adjoining VinWonders theme park, a Disneyesque monstrosity on Hon Tre island that holds minimal interest for foreign visitors. Swelling investment in new beachfront hotels by Russian, Chinese and Korean financiers has resulted in massive growth in tourism numbers from those countries — pre-pandemic, at least.

A hub of beachfront activity is the Lotus Tower, located on the seaside promenade just south of the large Sheraton and Inter-Continental hotels. Like a stylized flower with pale pink petals, it is an art gallery that displays the work of artists from throughout Khanh Hoa province.

My favorite Nha Trang restaurants are all south of here. The Sailing Club and the Louisiane Brewhouse are a couple of hundred meters apart on the shoreline. The former is slightly more upscale; it features a cocktail menu and a DJ who creates a nightclub mood most evenings. The brewpub, which welcomes diners to enjoy its swimming pool, specializes in pizza, burgers and outstanding craft beer from Australian brewmaster Sean Symons. (Try the seasonal red ale if it’s available.)  On smaller avenues a couple of blocks west, I enjoyed an excellent German wienerschnitzel at Haus Bremen and a delicious moussaka at MIX, a Greek restaurant.

The Lotus Tower, on Nha Trang’s beachfront, is a gallery designed to resemble a flower with pale pink petals. (JGA photo)
Modern pottery mimics ancient Cham temple carvings at the Po Nagar Towers. (JGA photo)

67. Serendipity on the Beach at Nha Trang

The oceanside beach city of Nha Trang delivers golden sands, thrilling water sports and wonderful new friends.

Danphi paces the shore at Bai Tranh island, searching for shells for her nephew. (JGA photo)

Travel is at its absolute finest when it meshes with serendipity — “the occurrence and development of events by chance, in a happy or beneficial way,” according to my Oxford dictionary. That’s been my life ever since I arrived in Nha Trang, the seaside resort capital of southern Vietnam, early on Saturday morning.

You might not have thought that, had you seen the scowl on my face when I disembarked from an overnight “sleeper” bus after an nine-hour ride from Ho Chi Minh City. “Sleeper”? I should have been so lucky.

As it turned out, my 5 a.m. arrival forced me to take a long midday nap, which led later that same afternoon to an unintended conversation with a driver who was exactly the person I needed to know. Minh took me to the local historical and cultural sites that were at the tơp of my visit list. Better yet, he knew somebody who knew somebody. Isn’t that the way it goes?

On Monday, as a direct result, I got my very first taste of scuba diving, long after some of my best friends had taken up the sport. Although I’ve snorkeled since I was 17, I may never be satisfied with mere snorkeling again.

Serendipity also led me to a gypsy like myself, a beautiful and well-traveled Vietnamese woman who previously lived in the United States. To say we “hit it off” would be an understatement. That first night, after diving with her sister and nephew, we met for dinner along with her mother and young son. The next day, Tuesday, Đanphi took me home to the family farm, where I met other aunts and uncles and cousins. Now I feel as though I’m practically a member of the family.

Beachfront hotels in Nha Trang, many built by Russian and Chinese investors, have suffered during the Covid pandemic. (JGA photo)

A glorious morning

If you know me, you know that I’m not a morning person. Eight a.m. ís an early wakeup call. When I got to my hotel, not even the night watchman was awake. So I left my bags and walked a couple of hundred meters to Nha Trang’s celebrated beach.

The municipal strand at Nha Trang (pronounced nyaa-chang) extends for 6 kilometers (about 3.7 miles) down the shore of the South China Sea, known to Vietnamese as Biển Đông, the East Sea. It’s a golden crescent of gently sculpted coastline, buffered from a hotel strip by a beautifully landscaped promenade. It reminds me of Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki Beach — not today’s boulevard, but the one I experienced when I lived in Honolulu as a young man in the 1970s and Vietnam was not a place I wanted to go.

My initial, pre-dawn impression was necessarily obscure. It was dark, after all. But I wasn’t alone. Dozens of early-morning fitness addicts were already running, doing calisthenics, and practicing yoga or tai chi. A Falun Gong club were synchronizing their steps to martial music. The shadows of stealthy swimmers rippled across the crests of gentle waves lapping the sands. Vietnamese don’t like strong sunlight, but they love the beach.

If there ever was a right time for an interlude of meditation, this was it. And as I sat cross-legged in the sand, mindfully breathing, gazing across the seas to the east, the buttery glow of a glorious sunrise began to present itself. It framed Hôn Tre island like a Creamsicle, banana yellow wrapped in papaya orange. This daybreak I won’t soon forget.

Minh offers a victory salute outside the venerated Long Son pagoda. (JGA photo)

In like Flynn

I had set out at Christmas time to devote a couple of months to exploring the length of Vietnam, armed with several magazine assignments focusing on the nation’s history. After leaving Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Nha Trang was my first stop. In this city of half a million people, my special interest was Po Nagar, a millennium-old Hindu shrine that is a remnant of the ancient Cham empire. It stands atop a low bluff overlooking the Cai River at the north end of the city. I’ll talk about it in my next blog.

That first day in Nha Trang, I struggled from my hotel bed around 2 in the afternoon and found my way to a local noodle shop, where I was revived by a healthy bowl of phở tái nạm. Considering it too late to trek across the city to the Cham ruin, or even to the acclaimed Long Son pagoda, I was headed back to the beach when I struck up a conversation with Vietnam’s answer to Errol Flynn.

Not only was Minh fluent in English; he had swagger, a trait that suited this 57-year-old. With his white hair and pencil-thin mustache, he was dapper even in open-toed sandals. After I told him what I wanted to see in the city, he suggested I climb aboard his motorbike, and off we went. He welcomed the opportunity, he said, to escape his “dragon lady” wife for a few hours. “She was a nice girl when I met her,” he apologized, “but five children later … ”

Over the next two days, Minh took me all over Nha Trang as he described the impact the Covid virus has had upon business here. With international tourism at a standstill, many of the leading hotels — products of Russian, Chinese and Korean investment — are currently closed, marginally open with skeleton staffs, or under suspended construction. There is hope they may be fully reopen again in mid-2022. (As an aside, if you want a tour guide for your visit to Nha Trang, drop me a line and I’ll share Minh’s phone number.)

John, Danphi and Nobito listen to a dive master’s instructions before donning scuba gear. (Cam Quyen photo)

Six hours, four islands

I told Minh that I would like to get out on the water during my Nha Trang visit. The bay was framed with beautiful wooded islands that were calling my name. I wanted to leave the urban jungle for just a few hours. Did he know anyone with a boat?

Of course he did. He knew Tj Lê. Tj owns a tidy tour company that welcomed the opportunity to take me on a six-hour tour (the Minnow times two) for the price of 700,000 Vietnam dong (about US $30). The “Four Islands Tour” was just what I was looking for.

I didn’t know it until I had arrived at Tj’s agency, but he had invited three others to join the trip: his cousins Đanphi, 42, and Quyên, 35, and Quyên’s 8-year-old son Nobito. Within five minutes, we had bonded.

From Nha Trang’s Cau Đa harbor, just around a low headland at the southern end of the city beach, our small motorized launch voyaged past tiny Hôn Môt to Hôn Mun, where we pulled up alongside a fully equipped dive boat. I had anticipated that we might snorkel a bit. Instead my new friends immediately encouraged a new adventure.

Danphi emerges from her first scuba diving experience with a smile on her face. (JGA photo)

Far from the shallow now

I don’t know why I never took up scuba diving as a younger man. Perhaps I was always too busy to invest the time. Now, I had no such excuse. Even before Đanphi, Nobito and I listened to our dive master’s words on procedure and safety, I had already slid into an extra large-sized wetsuit.

I was fitted with a weight belt, a mask and a regulator for breathing, which I clenched between my teeth much like a snorkel. I didn’t need gloves, fins or a depth gauge, as I would be accompanied by a personal instructor, and we wouldn’t be going deeper than 6 meters (20 feet). I backed down a ladder and slipped into a vest with an air tank. (SCUBA is an acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.”) In the buoyant salt-water environment, it wasn’t at all heavy.

We swam together toward a coral bank. A stunning, cobalt-blue sea star briefly stole my attention. Soon, we approached a mantle of lilac-purple coral overlying a rocky reef. Schools of tiny but colorful butterfly fish flitted above staghorn fragments that covered the sea floor.

It was beautiful, to be sure, though not as prolific in sea life as I had experienced when snorkeling in Hawaii or along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But my perspective may have been colored by aural discomfort in deeper water. Although I did as my instructor advised, and held my nose while breathing to relieve pressure, I only got relief when I surfaced. After three or four rounds of this, and perhaps 15 minutes in the water, we returned to the boat. Now I’m ready to try it over again.

We had lunch at a floating fish farm off Hòn Tằm island, choosing a handsome squid from an open tank and having it prepared three ways. Then we cruised to the isolated Bãi Tranh island resort, where Nobito busied himself with shell-collecting and Quyên relaxed in the shade as Đanphi and I swam in the tranquil surf.

Nobito plays on the Bai Tranh beach looking toward Hon Tam island. (JGA photo)

The farmer’s daughter

A couple of hours after our return to Nha Trang, rested and cleaned up, Đanphi called me. “Let’s have pizza,” she said. And we did, with the whole family.

The next morning, a half dozen of us piled into a taxi and drove 30 minutes out of the city to the farm. Bright green carpets, the shoots of young rice, rose above acres of flooded padis as soon as we left the urban grid. Lone farmers wearing nón lá, traditional cone-shaped, palm-leaf hats, trod the dikes between each field, monitoring the crops. Snowy cattle egrets, almost indistinguishable from fluttering white marker flags, searched for their meals of insects, frogs and freshwater crabs in channels that kept the plants nourished.

“This is my family’s rice field,” said Đanphi, who grew up here. She was raised through high school in the farming village of Diên Đồng. Aunts and uncles and cousins live in a string of modern Viet-style houses, surrounded by fruits and vegetables and farm animals.

As soon as we arrived, she introduced me around. One aunt immediately took me by the arm and pointed to a mural of Jesus Christ on the wall of her home. “Do you know him?” she asked with her few words of English. “Of course,” I replied. “I love him so much,” she said. In this heavily Buddhist nation, I had found a family of Christians.

Danphi’s aunt displays pear-sized green guavas, freshly picked in her farm’s orchard. (JGA photo)

Đanphi’s mother asked me to help with the cooking. Quyên would have none of that. So I relaxed until lunch. Our dining table was the kitchen floor. We gathered for a feast of rice, green vegetables from the garden, chicken and eggs from the farm, soup boiled with pork from the market.

In the afternoon, after a short nap, we visited other relatives. I had a Saigon Special Beer with one cousin, a master woodworker, now 33, whom Đanphi told me she had often babysat when he was a child. I met another, a young woman, who asked Đanphi if I could help find a man for her, too.

I drove a cousin’s motorbike to the farm, where we picked fresh guavas (Ổi) and ate them green, sliced and dipped in a mixture of salt and dry ground chilies. Five small dogs gathered at our feet, competing for table scraps. Two haughty white geese kept intruders from the chicken and pigeon coops. One of them waddled boldly up to me, grabbed my T-shirt with its bill, and began yanking. I laughed.

“Please come back for the Tet holiday,” Đanphi said. “The Lunar New Year is the first of February this year.” Perhaps I will.

John squats on the floor with the rest of the family to enjoy a hearty Vietnamese farm lunch. (Danphi’s mom photo)
The sun rises over Nha Trang beach and Hon Tre island. (JGA photo)

66. A Day in the Life: Ho Chi Minh City

A full day on the streets of Saigon doing absolutely nothing, or at least the next best thing: Stop, look and listen.

“Ca Mau Guerillas” by Thai Ha (1922-2005), in the Fine Arts Museum, depicts soldiers traveling past villagers in a mangrove forest.

It’s quite easy to spend a relaxing full day in a major world city doing absolutely nothing of note … yet, somehow, at the end, feeling as though it were a day of observation, a day well lived. It’s even better when you can do that without spending a lot of money.

This was my yesterday in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), or Saigon.

I’ve been wanting to visit the ìnfamous Cu Chi Tunnels, a discreet system of subterranean passages from which the Viet Cong controlled a large section of countryside within 20 miles (32 km) of Saigon during the American War. It’s a popular day-trip destination, especially when a tour guide accompanies to explain the extent of the network.

The day before, I had zoomed to the SkyDeck Observatory of the Landmark 81 tower, the tallest building in Vietnam, 382 meters (a quarter-mile) above the Saigon River. After staggering through and surviving a virtual-reality skydive from its summit, I wanted to say something about the high and low points of a Saigon visit by ìncorporating the tunnels in a story.

At 470 meters (1,542 feet), the Landmark 81 tower is the second tallest building in Southeast Asia. There is ice skating on the ground floor. (JGA photo)

The problem now is that tourism is still on hold in Vietnam due to the Covid pandemic. I tried to book a trip online, but the best I could find was a private trip that would have been way out of my price range. I learned it would be best if I wait until I can share a tour with others — a difference of US$15 to $20 versus US$105.

I discussed these options with a couple of tour operators in HCMC’s Bùi Viện neighborhood, the “Backpacker District.” They would have been glad to set up a private visit and take my money, but they also suggested I might want to take a local bus. As a solo traveler with minimal Vietnamese language at my disposal, however, I would have had little idea of what I was seeing when I got there. I’ll wait.

Redhead Willies

While I was hemming and hawing about my next best choice, I slid into a sidewalk café with a server whose magenta-colored hair matched the table settings. My ham-and-onion omelet was passable at best, but when an Italian man of about 40 took a table next to mine, it gave me an opportunity to do one of the things I do best: talk. An online English teacher, Marco was biding his time waiting for a friend. Like many of us in Vietnam these days, he had plenty of travel stories to share, and we agreed that 11 a.m. was as good a time as any for our coffee hour to slide into beer o’clock.

Lan produces 100% robusta coffee for the Cao Nguyen coffee company, hand-roasting it on hot coals in Cu’mGar village of DakLak province. (JGA photo)

Sometime after noon, I ducked around the corner of Phạm Ngũ Lão and ran head-on into a tall, redheaded backpacker who bore a striking resemblance to Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons. Three minutes of small talk evolved into a slurred panhandling pitch: “I’ve been going through a hard time,” he said. “I could use a drink to take the stress out.” He wanted more than one.

It was still around 1 o’clock, many hours before Bùi Viện would start hopping. That was fine with me. Of three principle entertainment districts within HCMC’s District One, this is the most notorious, its cheap whores and drug dealers on every corner. They are much less visible in broad daylight, although two women did approach and offer me a two-on-one, full-body massage for just 200,000 dong, less than US$9. Had I been shopping (I wasn’t), that is a bargain. Things are desperate here without tourism.

Back alleys and coffee

I was in the mood for walking. Narrow alleys that will never see my presence by night somehow beckoned me to explore. People could live their entire existences avoiding sunlight in these labyrinthine canyons. I would not be surprised if some do. Not wide enough for a pedestrian to pass a motorbike, they are nonetheless like miniature villages, with grocery stores and cafés, nail salons and barber shops. I felt briefly panicked a couple of times when my forays hit dead ends and I had to backtrack. I wouldn’t want to be lost here.

As búsinessmen enjoy nitrous-oxide balloons, dancers take the stage at the Crazy Girls nightclub on Bui Vien street. (JGA photo)

I turned a couple of corners and was back on Bùi Viện street. I passed my buddy’s girlfriend’s (perhaps ex-gỉrlfriend’s) bar, where a “lady boy” on my lap forced a rapid end to my last visit, and the Crazy Girls nightclub, where the girls go wild when they are inhaling nitrous-oxide balloons and feeling no pain.

At the corner of Đỗ Quang Đẩu, Little Cu’mGar Coffee reminded me of my Vietnamese home province. I paused for a cup of rich 100% robusta and struck up a conversation with Lan, the owner of Caffe Cao Nguyên. As I recently wrote about DakLak coffee, I was impressed by the photos she shared of her traditional roasting process — directly upon hot coals. No wonder it is so delicious.

Two blocks east, I pulled up another chair to watch the motorbike traffic pass. Across the street, a woman crouched on a tiny stool and beckoned me to purchase cigarettes or, better yet, Cuban cigars or illegal marijuana. I explained to her that I don’t smoke. She persisted. “These men who smoke, they aren’t strong like me,” I told her. “And with all these women around, I must stay strong.” I extended a straight finger. She laughed.

The Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City comprises three adjacent French colonial-era mansions. (JGA photo)

Urban art reprieve

My mid-afternoon, I needed some real culture. A few blocks away, the Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City was calling. This collection does not appear high on many lists of recommended attractions here, but I found it easily worth 90 minutes of my attention, especially for a cost of 30,000 dong (about a buck 30).

Housed in three adjacent French colonial-era buildings, the museum includes fine collections of paintings and sculpture from ancient to contemporary. I was most interested in the canvases that I don’t see in history museums: the modern art. You can learn a lot about a culture by observing its artists’ choices of subjects. Floating markets. Urban streets. Battle scenes. Expressionless portraits. Much of it is heartbreaking.

I went out the gate and turned the corner to Lê Công Kiều, “Antique Street.” At least two dozen small shops line both sides of a single block, all of them in head-to-head competition for tourist dollars which, at this time, are not exactly pouring in. No doubt some of the bronzes and porcelains are authentic, but I’m no expert on the subject. Many of the less expensive trinkets help pay the overhead costs.

An antiques dealer on Le Cong Kieu exhibits some of her merchandise to a passer-by. (JGA photo)

Mulligans and piggies

Halfway down this street on the right is Mulligan’s Saigon, as authentic an Irish sports pub as one might find this side of Chicago. The TVs were tuned to Fox Sports and the Sunday football roundup. (Vietnam time is 15 hours ahead of the US West Coast, so it was early Monday morning in the States.) What’s a boy to do? It was happy hour.

Light turned to dark and I still was in no hurry. At 7 p.m. I was meeting a friend on Lê Thánh Tôn, an easy kilometer’s saunter from here. I made it there with time to spare. We dined at Play, a whimsical Chinese-style dim sum joint where bite-size dumplings resemble pigs and yellow chicks, and non-latex hand wipes are distributed in foil condom packets.

Eventually I summoned a motorbike cab to return me to my hotel in Thao Dien. Including dinner, I had spent about US $25 on my day of wandering, including food, drink, transportation and museum admission. In my book, that’s a bargain.

Barbecued pork dumplings get an added accent at the Play dim sum restaurant on Le Thanh Ton. (JGA photo)
Love it or hate it, the Bui Vien “pedestrian street” is the heart of Saigon’s “Backpacker District” and a wild nightlife strip after dark. (JGA photo)