98. Catfish and Mandala

Twenty-four years after its publication, a book by a visiting Viet Kieu — an overseas Vietnamese — suggests the culture hasn’t changed much in the subsequent generation.

“Catfish and Mandala” says as much about Vietnam today as it did when it was published.

I have been living in Vietnam for 3½ years now. The cultural challenges that I face on a daily basis haven’t diminished. Those that at first seemed daunting may now appear less so, but others are more evident. And judging from what a Vietnamese American man wrote more than two decades ago, I shouldn’t expect otherwise.

Known as Pham Xuan An when, as a child in the late 1970s, he escaped as a boat person, this author returned in 1997 as Andrew X. Pham. His book — Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam — was published in 1999 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pham was struggling with self-identity, like many Asian Americans of his generation. Armed with a college degree but no real profession, he would often leave his California home on extended solo bicycling trips. His parents struggled unsuccessfully to understand him, and they were even more frustrated and baffled by his gender-challenged siblings.

When Pham returned to the country of his birth, he quickly realized it wasn’t the place he thought he left. To start, he was not accepted as Vietnamese. He was now labeled as a “Viet Kieu,” an overseas Vietnamese, and his Americanized lifestyle — from clothing and diet to accent and simple mannerisms — immediately told Vietnamese that “he’s not one of us.”

Vin Vu, a Vietnam-born American, visited the spot on the Saigon River from which his boat left in 1975. (JGA photo)

Fresh off the boat

I shared Catfish and Mandala with Vin Vu.

Like Pham An, Vin is a Vietnam-born American. Like Pham, he left the country of his birth as a youth, albeit a couple of years earlier. When he was 12, his family of 11 boarded an empty cargo freighter in the Saigon River to flee the “reunification” of Vietnam. It was April 30, 1975, and the passenger load of 2,000 refugees became known as the original “boat people” of the Vietnam War. Eight months later, after stops in Singapore, Subic Bay (Philippines) and Wake Island, they disembarked ion San Diego.

The Vu family never looked back. Vin’s father found a job and a family home in Spokane, Washington, and there Vin has remained for 48 years, never leaving. Until now, that is, in his 60th year.

I was privileged to play a small part in that experience. With a mutual writer friend in America as the go-between, I welcomed Vin to his boyhood domicile on the afternoon of his arrival at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport. We walked to the gates of Independence Palace, which North Vietnamese Army tanks had crashed as his freighter floated down the river, and to the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral, where his parents had often celebrated Catholic Mass. We passed the central statue of Hô Chi Mính, founder of the modern Vietnamese communist state, en route to the precise platform on the Saigon River from which he had departed Vietnam in 1975. After a proper Vietnamese dinner, he called it a night.

Vin was on an independent one-week tour. The following day he went searching for some childhood memories, then continued to Da Nang and Hanoi before returning to Washington state. I wonder if some of his experiences matched those of Andrew Pham.

‘Smile and lie’

What did Pham discover? First and foremost, perhaps, he learned that, in Vietnam, anything goes. “Vietnamese have a saying,” he writes: “‘A thousand years of Chinese rule, a hundred years of French subjugation, and ten years of American domination, but we survived, unified.’ Survive. That’s the word. Survive at any cost.”

I get it. Survival justifies everything — the petty and not-so-petty corruption, the obsession with capital gain at the sacrifice of human dignity, the lack of awareness of basic courtesy, the ability to only hear what they want to hear.

There’s another common saying here: “Smile and lie.” Don’t let the other guy know what you’re thinking. Pham admitted to being awkward with Eastern sensibilities, so: “I lie — the typical (and acceptable) Vietnamese thing to do.”

 “My Saigon was a whore, a saint, an infanticidal maniac,” he confessed. “She sold her body to any taker, dreams of a better future, visions turned inward, eyes to the sky of the skyscrapers foreign to the land, away from the festering sores at her feet. The bastards in her belly — tainted by war, pardoned by need, obscured by time — clamored for food. They laughed, for it is all they know.”

And this: “Sometimes it is as though every Vietnamese is seeking a godfather, a sugar daddy, a saint. In the stark neediness of their lives, dignity doesn’t ride shotgun to opportunism. But again they learned to separate both eons ago.”

A motorbike rider’s shirt encapsulates the attitude of many Vietnamese. (JGA photo)

‘A barbarous joy’

Pham writes about many things with which I easily identify. His family home, in an urban alley, “is narrow and long, … a two-floor cell block, each residence sealed with a massive sliding steel door of mesh wire and bars.” That description could very nearly apply to my last three apartment residences in Ho Chi Minh City.

His description of traffic is as true today as it was 25 years ago: “Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly toward his destination, pretending it ís an all-or-nothing gamble. People glare at one another and fight for manuevering space. All parties are equally determined to get the right-of-way — insist on it. They swerve away at the last possible moment, giving scant inches to spare. The victor goes forward, no time for a victory grin, already engaging in another contest of will. Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity and surrenders.”

Pham’s ultimate description of Saigon sounds like P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell, and I, for the most part, find it hard to disagree: The city “is a collage, a vanishing flavor, a poison, a metallic tinge, a barbarous joy, strange impressions unconvictable in usual ways.”

It’s all true. This is the Saigon where I live today, in 2023. And why do I live here? Because in spite of its severe warts, it is unrelentingly fascinating.

Carl Robinson’s Vietnam War memoir is essential reading for aficionados of the era.

The Bite of the Lotus

I have one other friend who departed Vietnam in 1975, and who also wrote about it.

Carl Robinson was a green-at-the-gills 21-year-old college student when he arrived in Vietnam in 1964 and found work with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). By the time he was ordered to leave (one day before Vin Vu), he was 32, an Associated Press war correspondent and photo editor, a married father of two, and a heroin and opium addict. He shared the sometimes-harrowing details in his memoir The Bite of the Lotus. (First published in 2019 by Wilkinson Publishing in Australia, it is now undergoing revision.)

Robinson’s Saigon experiences were, naturally, very different from those of his younger Vietnamese counterparts. Pham’s and Vu’s memories were those of children; Carl was older, an (arguably) mature adult. Eternally disillusioned with U.S. policy, he shared wartime Vietnam with writers and photojournalists like David Halberstam, Peter Arnett, John Steinbeck IV and Sean Flynn, the estranged son of actor Errol Flynn who disappeared on a motorbike trip in Cambodia in 1970.

Carl did not return to the United States to live; instead, he and his family settled in Australia, where they reside today. He will turn 80 this fall. But he and Kim-Dung, his wife of 54 years, return at least annually to Ho Chi Minh City and the adjacent Mekong Delta region, where she was raised.

Soon to be 80, Carl Robinson lived in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975. (JGA photo)
Vin and John pose for a photo at Ho Chi MInh’s statue. (JGA photo)

97. A Cambodian Feast in Siem Reap

Adventurous Khmer cuisine provides an unexpected introduction to the gateway city of Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor.

Chef Mork Mengly, 33, is the owner and executive chef at POU Restaurant, one of Siem Reap’s finest. (JGA photo)

Savory red ants.  Grilled beehive salad.  Padi crab smashed in coconut broth.  Pork sausage with peanuts and mung beans. What’s not to like when you’re dining with Chef Mengly in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second city?

Mork Mengly, 33, is the owner and executive chef at POU Restaurant, an open-air oasis of casual fine dining on Wat Bo Road, a short tuk tuk ride from the urban center. Together with his wife, who runs the front of the house (sometimes assisted by their two young children), and an enthusiastic team of servers and cooks, the young chef has captured the hearts and palates of tourists and locals alike.

Mengly couples his own creativity with time-tested family recipes and a gentle ambience reflective of Cambodian nature. I found my way here on the recommendation of my friend Jeff Hunt, an American chef who travels the world to find unique dishes worthy of his own kitchen. Here, he found a culinary gold mine.

POU’s Kulen Mountain sausage is made with wild boar and stuffed with mung beans, peanuts and spices. (JGA photo)

Before my visit to POU, I was already impressed by Cambodian cuisine. The flavors of traditional plates like fish amok (a steamed coconut-cream curry) and beef lok lak (“shaking beef,” sauteed with vegetables) are as ubiquitous in this country as are noodle soups in neighboring Vietnam. These of course appear on Mengly’s menu, though disguised as catfish curry with sugar palm and egg, and chunks of beef marinated in a pepper lime sauce.

Following Hunt’s suggestion, I ask Mengly simply to cook for me. This is what he makes:

  • Num kruk dumplings and pomelo salad. Num kruk is a sort of pancake, a rice-flour dumpling that makes a popular street snack. Sweet and spicy, shaped into a plump ball and lightly fried, it’s made with coconut milk and a smidgen of chili paste. Mengly invigorates it with a sauce of beet root and galangal (local ginger). He acccompanies the dumpling with a pomelo salad, garlic-coriander dressing and freshwater shrimp.
Chef Mengly’s jungle sour beef incorporates red tree ants, green peppercorns and sour krasana fruit. (JGA photo)
  • Jungle sour beef with red tree ants. Also known as weaver or fire ants, these tree-nesting insects get large and aggressive as they mature. Mengly uses young ants and larvae for the tangy, mildly sour “pop” they lend to meats, preparing them in a broth or dressing, stir-fried with lemongrass, shallots and chilies. The beef, thinly sliced, is grilled with green peppercorns in prahok, a salted and fermented fish paste, and served with rice and sour krasang fruit.
  • Kulen Mountain sausage. Heavily wooded Phnom Kulen, 20 miles northeast of Siem Reap, is a holy highland for Buddhists and Hindus alike. Although it is a wildlife sanctuary, its resident wild boars remain fair game for hunters. Pork is minced, and before it is stuffed into a casing, Mengly blends it with spices such as galangal and turmeric, peanuts and mung beans. More of his red tree-ant dressing goes into a salad of Cambodian leaves and lettuces.
The languid Tonle Sap River flows southward through Siem Reap, dividing west from east. (JGA photo)

Gateway city

Siem Reap, with a population of around a quarter million, is the gateway city to Cambodia’s internationally renowned tourist attraction, the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. Siem Reap has a sort of fading French colonial-era charm, even as Chinese investment in the hospitality and transportation sectors is steadily on the rise. As a tourism hub, it has scores of comfortable lodgings to complement dining and nightlife options.

I enjoy late afternoons beside the Tonlé Sap River, a sleepy stream not much wider than an irrigation canal. From my sunlit stool at the Scribe Bar on Pokambor Avenue, I gaze at a park strip and watch the human traffic — walkers, joggers, bicyclists, none of the frantic motorists I’ve become accustomed to Ho Chi Minh City — follow the flow of the river southward through the city toward the Great Lake (the Tonlé Sap) and, eventually, the Mekong River.

Street vendors serve dinner every night beside the Tonle Sap River in the heart of Siem Reap. (JGA photo)

I finish my chilled chardonnay, easier to find in this Francophile city than in beer-happy Saigon, and join the promenade. More than a dozen colorfully lit bridges, some for pedestrians only, add personality. I pass a long stretch of street-food stalls along the riverbank, then cross to the Psar Chaa, the Old Market, where a cluster of vendors sell everything from gaudy wardrobe additions to tourist-ready Buddha images, day and night.

Unlike most Asian countries, Cambodia accepts American dollars as readily as it does its own currency, the riel. Indeed, nearly every ATM machine dispenses U.S. cash at a rate of 4,000 riel to the dollar.

Angelina’s shadow

I pass through the Old Market corner to corner and find myself on Pub Street, at the heart of Siem Reap. Only about two blocks long, not counting a matrix of narrow cross-passages linking to The Lane and The Alley, Pub Street is the hub of visitor activity in the twilight and evening hours.

The lights of Pub Street draw diners, drinkers and shoppers to central Siem Reap nightly. (JGA photo)

With its bright lights and colored streamers, Pub Street is impossible to miss. The Red Piano and the Temple Club, which face one another at the intersection of Street 11, are at the center of the action; both start the evening as restaurants but shift their emphasis to alcohol as the night progresses. (Angelina Jolie was said to have been a regular at the Piano when she was filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2000.) Nearby is Angkor WHAT?, a local institution for 25 years.

I see plenty of street food to shock tourists (think scorpions and tarantulas) and more fried ice-cream stalls than I can count. But the restaurant food is good. On different nights, I enjoy freshly grilled seafood at the K.R. Kitchen, Sri Lankan food at Serendib, and enchiladas at Viva! Mexican and Khmer Cuisine (a combination I didn’t believe possible).

At the end of an evening, I can count on finding a tuk tuk driver to return me to my lodging. The motorized three-wheelers are often customized to reflect their owner’s individual exuberance.

The Gallery of One Thousand Buddhas is a highlight of the Angkor National Museum. (JGA photo)

Taking in the sights

Aside from Angkor Wat and the Angkor ruins, which cannot be properly appreciated in fewer than three days, there are at least three other essential sites for visitors to Siem Reap, all of them within the city itself.

First is the elegant Angkor National Museum, north of the gracious Royal Residence and the stately Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. After my first-day survey of the grounds of ancient Angkor, I made a point to stop at the museum before returning for a second and third day. It proved to be an astute choice. The museum lays out the historical arc of the Angkor civilization: its precursors, its demise, the kings who directed its fortunes, including the 12th-century turn from Hinduism to Buddhism. Detailed explanation of inscriptions and bas-relief artworks enhanced my understanding, and the Gallery of One Thousand Buddhas displays more icons of the revered spiritual teacher than I’ve seen in any one place before.

A silk weaver practices her craft at Artisans d’Angkor, a trade school for traditional crafts. (JGA photo)

As a lover of traditional cultural arts and crafts, I also thoroughly appreciated my visit to Artisans d’Angkor. Designed as a school for artisans, Les Chantiers Écoles teaches job skills to young and not-so-young Cambodians. Free guided or self-guided tours lead through a series of workshops where apprentices study wood- and stone-carving, silk weaving and painting, lacquerware production, and other arts that can produce a reasonable profit in today’s tourist economy.

Of several memorable Buddhist pagodas in Siem Reap, my favorite is Wat Preah Prom Rath, which faces the Tonle Sap River a few hundred meters north of the Old Market. Neither as historic nor as elegant as others, it nonetheless has a sort of pop culture appeal. Cartoon-like murals on gallery walls tell the life story of Prince Gautama Siddhartha, who became the Buddha (the “Enlightened One”) in the 6th Century B.C. Outside, life-size replicas depict some of the chapters illustrated inside, such as the young prince’s discovery of human misery outside the palace walls. Another reproduction recalls a 15th-century monk’s frequent travels by boat.

A replica boat honors a 15th-century monk at Wat Preah Prom Rath. (JGA photo)

For anyone coming to Cambodia from Vietnam, the dissimilarities in Buddhist sites cannot be understated. Cambodia, a Theravada Buddhist country, is more like Thailand in its worship and architectural styles, including towering chedi and pavilions covered with gold leaf. Vietnam, a Mahayana Buddhist land with a strong “mother goddess” element in its worship, is more subdued. Indeed Vietnam’s brown-robed monks are seen far less than the saffron-robed adherents I meet in Cambodia. I was grateful for the opportunity at Wat Bo to sit and converse with a young apprentice monk, quietly reading but wanting to practice English.

Getting there

Flights into Siem Reap are expensive — in part, I’m sure, because dollars are helping to pay for a new international airport presently under construction (thank you, China) — so I take the bus, six hours from Phnom Penh, twice that from Ho Chi Minh City, a bit less from Bangkok, including passport controls at the borders. The journey is not unpleasant, and sleeper buses with reclining seats and private cubicles are widely available.

A teenaged monk pauses his reading to chat with a visitor to Wat Bo. (JGA photo)

I stay 10 days in Siem Reap and split my sojourn between two budget hotels. The Okay 1 Villa has spacious rooms and a rooftop pool and restaurant, but it has a dark, outdated feel; I eat breakfast each day at the brighter Bokre Angkor Hostel, just next door. My private quarters are less attractive when I move to the Five Rose Siem Reap Hostel, across the river to the east, but Five Rose has a more upbeat vibe than the Okay 1. And another excellent, low-priced dining spot is nearby at the Brother Bong Café.

Before departing Siem Reap, I return once more to Pou to visit Mengly and dine on green duck curry with num banhchok rice noodles. “When you come back,” says Mengly, who speaks excellent English, “you might like to join one of my cooking classes.”

Wow! Bonus! I don’t know where I’ll find red tree ants at my local market, but I’ll certainly welcome the opportunity to learn how to make fish amok and beef lok lak!

Beef lok lak is a traditional Khmer meal, always served with vegetables and a fried egg. (JGA photo)
Num kruk, a rice dumpling, is served with a pomelo salad by Chef Mengly at POU. (JGA photo)

96. Cambodia’s Killing Fields

Two historical sites in Phnom Penh recall the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Genocide of the late 1970s.

Thousands of skulls, victims of the Cambodian genocide, are displayed in the pagoda at Choeung Ek. (JGA photo)

I find it impossible to fathom the inhumanity of genocide. What can be said about the deliberate killing of an entire group of people simply because they are the “wrong” ethnicity, or the “wrong” religion, or the “wrong” ideology?

The Holocaust is the most widely known example. As many as 7 million European Jews, and a similar number of Slavs, died during Nazi Germany’s World War II-era ethnic purification program as directed by Adolf Hitler. But that wasn’t the first, nor the last. Only a few years earlier, Russia’s Josef Stalin had slaughtered at least 3 million Ukrainians during the forced famine called the Holodomor. The Ottoman Empire decimated Turkey’s population of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks between 1915 and 1920. A century earlier, Tasmanian Aboriginals were slain to extinction in colonial Australia.

Genocides continue today. Consider the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Darfurs in the Sudan, the Uyghurs in Chinese Xinjiang and the Rohingya in Myanmar, to name several recent (and, in the latter two cases, ongoing) examples.

But of all post-Holocaust slaughters, none was as profound as the Cambodian Genocide. Over a period of not many more than 3½ years (1975 to 1979), about 25 percent of Cambodia’s population was systematically massacred. At least 2 million people were tortured and murdered. Entire families, men, women, children, were eliminated. Satan was alive and well in “The Killing Fields.”

Barbed wire draped across prison buildings at Tuol Sleng was intended to thwart suicide attempts. (JGA photo)

Agrarian utopia

During the last days of the Vietnam War in April 1975, Cambodia’s pro-American government was overthrown by the Communist Party of Kampuchea under the leadership of Pol Pot. His ideology deeply rooted in Marxist-Leninist thought, Pol Pot rallied his Khmer Rouge army in support of his vision of a self-sufficient agrarian society, founded on the principles of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China and free of foreign influence.

Pol Pot set out to achieve this goal by forcing citizens out of the cities and into forced labor camps. Of course, urbanites were ill-prepared for 12-hour days of manual labor. Physical abuse, malnutrition and disease were more the rule than the exception. Those who couldn’t keep up were summarily executed.

About 450 execution victims filled a mass grave, 16 feet (5 meters) deep, at Choeung Ek. (JGA photo)

Anyone who might be considered a threat to the new regime, which called itself Democratic Kampuchea, was arrested and killed. Anyone with ties to the former government was dispatched post-haste. The list extended to teachers, students and other intellectuals; doctors, lawyers, journalists and business leaders; even Buddhist monks. If you just looked like you might be smart — wearing glasses, perhaps, or speaking a foreign language — you were in trouble.

Ironically, for the most part, the Khmer Rouge and their victims were all members of the same ethnic group, the Khmer. This gave the Cambodian Genocide a unique and insidious character. Persecutors and victims spoke the same language and had the same (Theravada Buddhist) religious beliefs. Yes, there were ethnic minorities, including Vietnamese and Chinese Cambodians and the Islamic Cham people; but the millions who died were overwhelmingly Khmer.

Mercifully, the bloodshed ended at the start of 1979. On Christmas Day 1978, angered by Khmer Rouge attacks on towns in the lower Mekong Delta, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Within two weeks, the brutal regime had fallen as the Vietnamese took control.

Tuol Sleng was a public high school before it became a high-security prison in the 1970s. (JGA photo)

Confess and die

The horror will not soon be forgotten. In the capital city of Phnom Penh, two somber sites are constant reminders. I visited both of them — the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center — in the same day.

More than 18,000 prisoners passed through the gates of Security Prison 21 (“S-21”), now known as Tuol Sleng. Only seven survived. A public high school in the heart of Phnom Penh before the Pol Pot era, S-21 was one of 196 prisons the Khmer Rouge operated throughout Cambodia. (Admission is $5, or $10 with an audio tour guide.)

In prisons such as this, suspects were tortured and interrogated until their “confessions” pointed to others, and thus arrests multiplied a hundredfold. Separated from their parents, children were often manipulated to invent stories and squeal on their family members.

A tourist studies the ground floor cell doors of Building A at Tuol Sleng prison. (JGA photo)

Four three-story buildings that surround a quadrangle comprise the largest part of the museum. Classrooms, converted to cells, contain solitary metal-frame beds and photos of death. Some of the upper levels have exhibits with mug shots of men, women and children who suffered here, along with clothing and instruments of torture. It is indeed heartbreaking to look at the tattered remnants of boys’ shorts and little girls’ frilly dresses,

The ground level of Building C is wrapped in barbed wire, reportedly a suicide-prevention device. This baffled me: If the prisoners were going to be executed in any event, why try to stop them?

Indeed, when torture and interrogation at S-21 had run their course, the prisoners were loaded into trucks and taken to the Killing Fields for execution.

The gates of Choeung Ek exude a hushed silence befitting a site where thousands were massacred. (JGA photo0

Eliminating enemies

Tuol Sleng displays graphic photographs that illustrate unspeakable horror. Choeung Ek takes it a step further. Here, mass graves and bones leave nothing to the imagination. The memorial pagoda at the heart of the grounds is stacked with skulls — thousands of them. These were, indeed, the Killing Fields.

An audio tour, included in the $6 admission, is absolutely the best way to explore the grounds. (Plan at least 90 minutes.) It guides you past a series of interpretive signs describing buildings and functions that no longer exist, but whose specter lives for all time.

I was led past a truck stop, the final terminal for prisoners from S-21 and other prisons. Blindfolded and no doubt terrified, as many as 300 a day were promptly executed, their bodies tossed into a pit. To save bullets, they were often beaten to death with pick axes, hatchets, shovels or garden hoes. Victims who had to wait for their doom were shackled and held overnight in a pitch-black building. Chemicals such as DDT were stored nearby; immediately upon execution, these substances were spread over dead bodies to mask the stench.

Colored ribbons and tokens recall each child whose head was bashed against this tree by executioners. (JGA photo)

The adjacent grounds had been an orchard and Chinese cemetery before they were taken over by the Pol Pot regime. The earth was receptive to digging. Sunken depressions, only partially redeemed by two generations of rainfall and erosion, still indicate a series of mass graves. One fenced plot has been retained. A sign indicates that 450 bodies were piled here.

In some places, even 45 years later, bone fragments find their way through the soft soil to break ground, where they are collected by caretakers. The walking-tour route winds past deposits of some of these skeletal remains, along with piles of blindfolds and strips of clothing. Two broad-trunked trees are particularly disturbing. One is noted as a place where infants and toddlers had their skulls fractured before they were tossed into a pit; the other was hung with loudspeakers that played martial music to drown out the screams and moans of the dying.

The pagoda at the heart of Choeung Ek harbors thousands of human skulls taen from mass graves. (JGA photo)

The horror culminates at the memorial pagoda at the heart of the complex. It is a repository for thousands of human skulls, a macabre tower of terror. Many of them have been categorized by age and gender, juvenile to elderly. With shoes and hats removed, visitors may reverently squeeze around all four sides of the glass-encased cenotaph.

Nearby is a bronze statue of a mother and child. A plaque, in the Khmer and English languages, reads: “Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime. … 17.04.1975 – 07.01.1979”

The history of the human race is one of continual conquests. As one civilization falters, another rises to take its place. No society, no government, persists for more than a few centuries at best. But that’s a natural progression, and there is nothing natural about bullying and genocide. If we cannot keep our place of power, we can at least maintain our honor, our integrity. Mass murder is never the way.

Choeung Ek’s mother-and-child statue asks that mankind “never forget.” (JGA photo)
The skulls of scores of genocide victims are a sad reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. (JGA photo)

95. Bone Voyage: Rest in Peace, Bob

A fond farewell to a mentor, a friend, a kindred spirit, and one of the most memorable characters this writer ever had the pleasure to know.

A man of leisure, Bob relaxed on a cruise ship in the 1980s.

I have a bone to pick with someone.  Sadly, it won’t be with Robert W. Bone.  Bob, whom I credit with (or blame for?) my decision to become a travel writer, died recently at the age of 90.

I was 20 years old in 1971, just out of university and my first trip to Europe, when I met Bob at The Honolulu Advertiser daily newspaper.  We immediately connected as kindred spirits.  Eighteen years my senior, he was a traveler, a man of the world who had already made a name for himself.

Bob, left, with Hunter S. Thompson on a Puerto Rico beach in the 1950s.

Bob graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio with degrees in journalism and Spanish, did a stint in the Army, then took a newspaper job in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  There he became close friends with another renegade reporter, the infamous Hunter S. Thompson. (Bob and his car were portrayed as Hunter’s sidekicks in the movie The Rum Diary, unfortunately now better known as the set on which Johnny Depp met Amber Heard.)  Chaos ensued.  At some point, Bob fled to Brazil, where he resurfaced as a business editor in Rio de Janeiro.

Eventually Bob returned to the States, enjoying the single life in New York City — as an editor for Time-Life Books — until his bluff was called by a sassy Kiwi nurse named Sara Cameron. When Bob was hired as senior writer for Fielding’s Travel Guide to Europe, the couple headed across the Atlantic, settled in Majorca, Spain, and started a family.

Sara, left, and Bob take a playful photo with a friend in 1960s New York.

At the start of the ‘70s, the Bones set their sights on another tropical archipelago: Hawaii, more-or-less midway between Bob’s parents in Ohio and Sara’s in New Zealand. He became a staff writer for the morning Advertiser. That’s where we met.

I had spent my two previous semester breaks in Honolulu as a summer intern at The Advertiser.  I wrote sports, sitting in the press box with Al Michaels, then 26, and hanging out with baseball legends like Tommy LaSorda and Jimmie Reese, who just happened to have roomed with Babe Ruth when the Yankees were on the road. When I returned full-time a year later, it was as a features and religion writer. My big interview was an hour spent with the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham in his hotel room at the Royal Hawaiian.  But my passion was travel.

During the next 2½ years, I learned from Bob what it meant to be a travel writer. Was it all fun and games?  Hell, yes.  So was sports writing.  (John Henderson understands.)  The transition from one to the other wasn’t a big deal.  (From transcribing televangelists, maybe a bit more so.)  But I also learned that “organization” doesn’t have to be Kondo style. 

Looking dapper, Bob trudges up San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill in the early 1970s.

Bob was one of the most disorganized organized people I ever knew. His family life with two young children (God bless Sara) was pure pandemonium. But his full collection of original “Green Hornet” radio episodes — something he would have grown up with in the ‘30s and ‘40s — were carefully labeled, filed and stacked in shelves next to his home office.  The Green Hornet strikes again!  (My own style of itinerant organization was more along the lines of Blind Faith. When Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton lapsed into 15 minutes of “Do What You Like” at a Honolulu concert, they might have been singing my life story.)

I left Honolulu late in 1974, armed with a multi-stop round-the-world ticket sold to me by Bob and Sara’s personal travel agent. I island-hopped across the Pacific, with stops in Samoa and Fiji before I reached New Zealand. One year later, I was still there. Indeed, after twice renewing my ticket, I didn’t make it back to the USA during nearly three years of vagabonding across Asia and Europe.  I remained in steady contact with Bob, long before cell phones and e-mail, with hand-written correspondence collected at a variety of locations, and contributed to his Maverick Guides to New Zealand and Australia. I was on my way to becoming a bonafide travel writer.

Bob interviewed vice president George H.W. Bush during the Reagan years.

After a spell in Seattle, I made it back to Hawaii in 1980, having been awarded a graduate journalism fellowship to study Asian culture at the university there. This time, I came with a wife, Linda, and she was glad to bond with the Bones. (In fact, other than my immediate family, Bob anđ Sara were among the rare few people who met all three of my long-term partners.) My year’s study included intensive Japanese language, and with Bob’s support, I signed to write a guidebook to Japan … although I was forced to cancel that contract when another opportunity arose.

In early 1982 I went to Southeast Asia, to work for a Singapore-based publisher on a photo-laden travel guide to Sri Lanka. Over the next few years, as chief editor for APA Productions, I created numerous new and revised Insight Guides, editions of then mainly Asia- and Pacific-oriented books. But as the calendar pages flipped, I made fewer and fewer visits to Hawaii, where the Bones continued to reside.

Even in his later years, Bob craved adventure.

In 1988, Bob was my primary sponsor when I joined the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). In 1995, in Honolulu, I was able to introduce the Bones to my son, Erik (born in Singapore in 1984). I worked in travel journalism in Seattle; Los Angeles; Boise, Idaho; Greenville, South Carolina; and finally Bend, Oregon, as a magazine editor and newspaper columnist. But whenever I was in the islands, a visit with the Bones was something I never wanted to miss. And on other occasions, Bob’s hearty belly laugh and trademark gap-toothed smile were a welcome sound and sight at SATW conventions.

One of my favorite memories occurred at California’s Universal Studios in 1992 as the theme park hosted a special evening for travel writers. We were greeted by numerous celebrity impersonators, including Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and “Doc Brown” from the Back to the Future movies. After enjoying visits to the sets of Jaws and King Kong, we retreated to an intimate watering hole, Telly’s, for drinks and story swapping. Bob and I sat together at the bar. Bob was impressed when a debonair, bald-headed man of about 70 offered to top off his drink. “Of all the celebrity impersonators I’ve seen tonight,” he said, “you are the best! You look just like that guy from Kojak!” “Thank you, sir,” said Telly Savalas himself. “That’s very kind of you to say.”

By the time of my last visit to Hawaii in 2016, Bob and Sara had retired to the mainland, where they lived in a retirement community in Walnut Creek, California.  I saw them there once more, too many years ago.

Fire Bone!, Bob’s memoir, was published in 2014.

In 2014, Bob published his autobiography: Fire Bone! A Maverick Guide to a Life in Journalism. I was among the friends he asked to read, review and proof the book before its publication. Soon thereafter, he was encouraging me to write my own memoir. Perhaps I will, someday … and I may not wait until I’m 81, as he did. I only wish Bob were around to read it.

He wrote me this email when he was 85, before I embarked on my latest adventure in Vietnam: “Your career over the years since leaving Hawaii has really been dramatic, John. At some point you, too, should write a memoir.  I’ll give you some ideas if I’m still around. I get exhausted easily these days. I’m in pretty good shape for my age, but I do feel it, to be sure.”

Bob Bone made it another five years. He passed away 10 weeks ago, on February 1, reportedly of complications from a broken femur (hip). I can barely imagine what it must have been like to be a lifelong traveler, deprived of his cherished mobility.

Sail on, dear friend.  Bone voyage.  See you on the flip side.

Bob and Sara at their retirement home in California.
Bob flashed a smile to accompany his beer during a press trip circa 2000. All photos from Bob’s personal collection.

94. Cambodia’s Incomparable Temples of Angkor

Once the largest city in Southeast Asia, Angkor is now a World Heritage Site of more than 1,000 ruins, beginning with Angkor Wat, a religious structure like no other.

The towers of Angkor Wat, like the peaks of mythological Mount Meru, rise above the Cambodian plain at sunrise. (JGA photo)

The towers of Angkor Wat rise from the wooded plain like colossal spearpoints, piercing the Cambodian skies as if borne by Vishnu himself. At sunrise, they appear as giant cornstalks in a field of ultimate dreams, an Oz-like Emerald City at the end of a yellow brick road.

This is one of the great marvels of the medieval world, a bucket-list destination equal in grandeur to Egypt’s pyramids and Peru’s Machu Picchu. It is, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The world’s single largest religious structure, Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu center and soon thereafter became a Buddhist sanctuary that welcomes worshippers respectful of both faiths.

The name Angkor Wat means, literally, “City Temple” — and it is just one building. In fact, this was once the hub of one of the largest cities in the world. More than 1,000 temples spread across 400 square miles of jungle-dominated northwestern Cambodia. Long before Indiana Jones and Lara Croft popularized archaeological adventure, the Khmer Empire battled Chams from coastal Vietnam and their traditional enemies, the Thais, to preserve and sometimes expand their territory.

The view south from an elevated terrace at Angkor Wat reveals 12th-century temple walls and woodland beyond. (JGA photo)

It would be impossible for me to say everything I want in a single blog. Besides, I have way too many great photos for that. This column is a mere sampler of what will come in the next few weeks, as “Travels in Vietnam” focuses on neighboring Cambodia.  

Angkor Wat

With a footprint of 402 acres (more than 1,000 hectares), the main attraction is worthy of adulation. Angkor — if you pronounce it correctly, it sounds more like “uncle” than “anchor” — is indeed majestic. Each early morning, hundreds of international visitors leave their hotels in the gateway city of Siem Reap and travel  by tuktuk or minibus to crowd the banks of a medieval moat that surrounds the great temple. There, they stand and patiently wait for 60, 90, 120 minutes as the pre-dawn sky fades first from black to inky blue, then to a pink blush and red-orange before the golden orb of first sun peeks out from behind a temple spire.

A bodhisattva keeps a cautious eye on 54 deities protecting the southern approach to Angkor Thom. (JGA photo)

Angkor Wat was build on a model of Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu cosmology, with its primary towers symbolizing that massif’s five peaks. It was designed in such a way that viewpoints from temple terraces (the uppermost of which are not accessible to tourists) place these towers directly before the rising sun on solstices. Concentric galleries around the lower levels of the temple are carved with intricate bas-relief story boards that honor Vishnu, the “preserver” in Hinduism’s three-pronged trinity of gods, and his epic battles in shielding good from evil.

Angkor Thom and Bayon

Angkor Thom (“Great City”) succeeded Angkor Wat as the Khmer capital in the late 12th century, after a Cham invasion. Built upon the ruins of an earlier palace, the walled and moated compound embraces grounds of more than 3 square miles, and was home to nearly 1 million people. Contemporary social scientists marvel at its elaborate infrastructure.

A sea battle between Khmers and Chams, and scenes of everyday life, share a bas-relief panel in the Bayon temple. (JGA photo)

Five causeways — one at each of the cardinal points, and an additional Victory Gate reserved for royalty — approach the city from different directions. Each is flanked by rows of 54 statues representing gods (devas) and demons (asuras), under the watchful gaze of a four-faced, 75-foot-tall bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint who has devoted his life to assisting humanity in the physical realm.

At the heart of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, a central temple whose maze of towers and pavilions surmount steep stairways and surround three levels of courtyards. Galleries of bas-relief art occupy large sections of the walls, relating stories not only of historical and mythological battles, but also of daily life for the medieval Khmer, from chess games to childbirth to raucous partying.

The roots of a giant kapok tree find questionable holds in the tile roof and sandstone walls of Ta Prohm. (JGA photo)

Ta Prohm

Local guides call this site the “Tomb Raider” temple because it was heavily featured in the 2001 Angelina Jolie film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. There is indeed something mystical, indefinable, about Ta Prohm. Left to be overgrown by the jungle in which it nestles, absorbed Borg-like into the tendrils of fig and kapok trees, it’s not hard to imagine it as a secret land of Hobbits and Lost Boys.

Built in 1186 as a royal temple-monastery, it was also a repository of gold, diamonds, pearls and other treasures, and was home to 12,000 people — including more than 600 dancers! Many of the walls have carvings representing their fluid movements.

As for Jolie: So moved was the actress by her experience here that she adopted a Cambodian child; established a charity to support peace, health and environment; and produced a 2017 documentary, First They Killed My Father, about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s.

Although carved goddesses may be a temptation, Preah Khan was built as a Buddhist university in 1184. (JGA photo)

Preah Khan

Preah Khan was built in 1184 as a center for education. Although it was modeled after Buddhist universities in India, its carvings depict many Hindu scenes, especially from the great Ramayana epic, along with homage to royal ancestors.

Surrounded, as are so many Angkor structures, by a moat, Preah Khan has three towered entrances with a broad central gateway that welcomed chariots and elephants. They are guarded by menacing images of Garuda, a mythological eagle upon which Vishnu rode, holding snakes in their claws.

The main building is a couple of city blocks from the entry. I took my time to study the fine details of Hindu legends, from the ferocity and empathy of Shiva, to the loyalty of the monkey general Hanuman, to the pleasures and travails of Rama and Krishna, both incarnations of Vishnu.

A bit off the beaten track for the average Angkor tourist, Binteay Srey nevertheless charms with its size and elegance. (JGA photo)

Binteay Srey

It’s a toss-up whether Ta Prohm or Binteay Srey is my favorite temple to visit. This site, about 16 miles (25 km) northeast of Angkor Wat, is well removed from the rest of the Angkor complex. Therein lies much of its charm. Built not by kings but by two wealthy and devout brothers, it is one of the earlier existing temples (completed in AD 967) and the first to be more-or-less fully restored.

Small but elegant, Binteay Srey is known as “the citadel of the women.” That name was conferred by nearby residents impressed by the voluptuous goddesses carved into the red sandstone of temple niches.

The Hindu god Shiva (“the destroyer”) is also more prominent here than at many other Angkor temples. In particular, I was enchanted by images of Shiva Nataraja, the many-armed “dancing Shiva,” and by a frieze of Kama, the god of love, raising his bow and arrow to shoot Shiva for the crime of ignoring his consort, Uma.

A stronghold in the heart of Angkor Thom, Bayon has extensive galleries of bas-relief wall carvings. (JGA photo)

When you visit

Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, is the gateway to Angkor. Located just 4 miles (6.5 km) south of Angkor Wat, it is served by buses and airlines. A new international airport, now under construction, is due for completion in late 2023.

Most sites associated with the ancient city are protected within the Angkor Archaeological Park, open daily from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors must purchase an admission pass (one day $37, three days $62) at the main entrance to the park, on the road north from Siem Reap. The ticket is checked and rechecked at many points throughout the park.

An aside: Although the official currency of Cambodia is the riel, the U.S. dollar is widely accepted and used almost interchangeably. Indeed, dollars are dispensed at ATM machines. The current exchange rate is about 4,000 riel to one dollar.

Transportation from the city is available by tuktuk (an enclosed, three-wheeled taxi) for $15, or by larger vehicles for $35 to $45. Bicycles ($3-$6) and motorbikes ($8-$12) are also available for rent. Several routes of exploration, including a “short circuit” and a “long circuit,” are well marked, and all major roads are paved.

Educator-tour guide Son Sorn rides a tuktuk through the streets of Siem Reap. (JGA photo)

I highly recommend hiring a private guide, at least for the first day. I was very pleased with Son Sorm, who charged $35 for a full day (5 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Son, who is 45 and speaks outstanding English, is a fount of information about Angkor and Cambodian history and spirituality. After his father and older sister were killed by the Khmer Rouge during his infancy, he spent his youth and early adulthood studying in a Buddhist monastery. He now devotes his free time and energy operating a rural school for underprivileged Khmer children, through the Cambodia Organization for Social Development.

I also suggest spending two or three hours at the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, perhaps after your first day’s visit. It will illuminate the historical and religious foundations of the Angkor era, from its rise in the 9th century to its decline in the 14th and 15th. In particular, the nuances of the artistic expression and architectural styles of various eras are brought to life.

As for Siem Reap: I will share much more about this charming city in a subsequent blog.

The Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap has a fine collections of Buddhist and Hindu art. (JGA photo)
The Hindu god Shiva, here accompanied by his consort Uma, is shown in a carving at Binteay Srey. (JGA photo)

93. Year of the Tiger: A Collection

As the lunar calendar turns, I realize that what really matters in my life are the relationships that I create and nurture.

Lan Ha, at left, and I enjoy a hotpot dinner in Ho Chi Minh City with our friends Kurt and Thi Bennett.

Happy Year of the Cat! 

If you think the lunar calendar is about to turn to the Year of the Rabbit, you are clearly in China. Vietnamese are thinking far more feline.

The changing of the almanac is always a time of reflection. When I started out to select two photographs per month to illustrate my past year of life in Vietnam, I expected to post a lot of postcard-worthy photos of beautiful places, as I may have done in past years.

But I discovered something as I went through them: While I have a fair number of pretty pictures, those that I valued far more were shots of people who mattered to me this year. Certainly, the Year of the Tiger — MY YEAR — was about relationships more than it was about destinations.

So, herewith my holiday gift to my readers … and to myself.


I took a 7-week journey around Vietnam at the start of the year, beginning with a Nha Trang sunrise. (JGA photo)
In imperial Hue, I was blessed to attend the funeral of the famous Buddhist monk and writer, Nhat Thich Hahn.. (JGA photo)


A child in classic ao dai dress waits at the door of the 11th-century Bach Ma tample in Hanoi. (JGA photo)
On a private cruise of Ha Long Bay from Cat Ba harbor, I got a close-up glance at the karst topography.


After my travels, I reunited with Lan Ha in Buon Ma Thuot, her home in rural DakLak province. (JGA photo)
DakLak province is widely considered the coffee capital of Vietnam, famed for its robusta berries. (JGA photo)


An afternoon visit to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh city’s preeminent Taoist shrine. (JGA photo)
Even in a Taoist temple, the Buddha lies in repose. (JGA photo)


I enjoyed two months’ teaching at Swinburne University, but they were unable to get me a work permit. (JGA photo)
My Friday expatriate lunch bunch offered a big auf wiedersehen to one of our departing members with a Saigon River cruise.


Enjoying a delicious Korean repast with my best young woman friend in Saigon, Lam Nhi. (JGA photo)
Unseasonal rains made getting around a challenge in Saigon’s Go Vap district. (JGA photo)


In July, Lan Ha and I rendezvoused at the Hang Nga Crazy House in the Central Highlands city of Da Lat.
Vietnam’s 100,000 people drive an estimated 70,000 motorbikes, and traffic is ceaseless. (JGA photo)


Bangkok jazz club owner Keith Nolan, left, set up this photo with me and longtime writer friend Joe Cummings, right, in Thailand.
Breakfast with British-American expat John Faux at Jomtien Beach, Thailand.


There’s a ghostly edge to this image of a Saigon night market meat vendor. (JGA photo)
Beers with American photographer friends Doug Peebles, left, and Len Kaufman, at the Rex Hotel in Saigon.


South African teacher friends Vera Kruger and Kalfie Bredenkamp visited me in Saigon in October. (JGA photo)
David Blair, a good friend from Oregon, traveled with me to the Cu Chi Tunnels in October. (JGA photo)


Young entrepreneur Bao Nguyen, to my right, gathered friends for a November barbecue dinner.
Fellow Oregonian Calvin Mann and I did the floating two-step with Cambodian graduates on a Phnom Penh boulevard in November.


In December, my best friend of more than 50 years, Bruce Legas, made his first visit to Vietnam. (JGA photo)
We spent Christmas Day with Lan Ha and her family. (JGA photo)


My time in Vietnam would have been a lot tougher without my good Burmese-English-Australian friend, Adam Allnutt. (JGA photo)
May the year of the Cat bring you happiness and prosperity! Chuc mung nam moi! (JGA photo)

92. Travels with My Best Friend

Two old pals reunite for three weeks exploring some of Vietnam’s urban and rural environments — big city to beaches, highlands and history.

Bruce Legas studies the urban landscape of Ho Chi Minh City and the Saigon River. (JGA photo)

Bruce Legas strolled slowly and purposefully around the 49th-floor observation deck of the Bitexco Financial Tower and looked out in all directions upon the mushrooming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon.

“Wow!” he exclaimed. “I had no idea it was this big!”

It’s a common reaction among first-time visitors to HCMC, the largest city in Vietnam and second most populous (with 13 million people) in mainland Southeast Asia. So the skyscraper is a place I often take newly arrived friends early on their visits.

Bruce was a special case. He has, after all, been my best friend for 52 years. Our exploits go back to our rebellious college years and a wild-and-woolly road-and-rail trip to Mazatlán, Mexico. We had not seen each other since I left the United States in late 2019.

The owner of a sports bar-and-grill in suburban Seattle, Bruce had taken three weeks to focus his first trip to the Asian continent on my new corner of the world. And I wanted to give him a good, if brief, introduction to some of my favorite places and people.

This is how I organized his private tour.

Eating bun rieu, a crab-and-noodle soup, at the Ben Thanh Market. (JGA photo)

Ho Chi Minh City

In the former Saigon, I placed him in a cozy but comfortable $18-a-night boutique hotel near my own apartment, a short walk from the central Ben Thanh Market. The market is one of the best places to find a broad selection of traditional Vietnamese street food, so I wasted no time in introducing my friend to dishes like bánh mì, bún bò Huế and mì quảng— and, of course, a proper phở.

I showed him some of the city’s leading sights in a short walking tour that included the statue of Ho Chi Minh, father of modern Vietnam, at the head of Nguyen Huế boulevard, and the 19th-century Opera House, among other historic remnants of French colonial rule. One early evening, we plowed through the throngs on Bùi Viện, a so-called pedestrian way that was dangerously packed with motorbikes even as nightclubs turned up their tunes and expanded their seating into the street.

Indeed, motorbikes are at once Saigon’s greatest curse and, perhaps, its biggest blessing for negotiating the many narrow lanes inaccessible by four-wheeled vehicles. It’s hard to imagine traffic without them. But the uncontrolled emissions contribute heavily to nightmarish air pollution. And crossing almost any urban street by foot takes nerve, stealth and bravado, crosswalks and traffic lights be damned.

Fishermen tend to their nets in the river-mouth harbor at Vung Tau. (JGA photo)

By the sea in Vũng Tàu

So I whisked Bruce away to the town of Vũng Tàu, a two-hour boat trip down the wide Saigon River, to where it meets the South China (East) Sea at the edge of the Mekong Delta.

Central Vũng Tàu is wrapped around a prominent headland incongruously topped by a 32-meter (105-foot) statue of Jesus. This rise essentially divides the town in two, with oceanfront resort hotels on Back Beach facing the ocean, and a peaceful green park promenade running along the inner river-mouth Front Beach.

Our plans for a beach getaway were stunted, as the neighborhood of our little Annata Beach Hotel still hasn’t recovered from the Covid pandemic. An adjacent set of resort properties were closed pending renovation by new investors, leaving our only practical access to a broad, flat beach, littered with colorful cone shells, nearly a half-mile away.

Instead, we were quite happy to drink beers at Australian-owned Ned Kelly’s Pub on Front Beach, and to eat an outstanding seafood dinner — river prawns the size of small lobsters, imported Atlantic salmon in a passion-fruit sauce — at the Ganh Hao 1 restaurant beside the harbor. Why import fish? A keen observer of details, Bruce had commented on the small size of the mesh he saw in fishermen’s nets here, likely a reflection of the diminished extent of South China Sea catches.

A young Ede singer performs a Christmas concert at Ca Phe Ako Ea in Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)

Buon Ma Thuot and Da Nang

My girlfriend, the lovely Lan Ha, lives in the Central Highlands town of Buon Ma Thuot (BMT), so it followed that we should spend the holiday there, far from severe traffic and pollution. Together with her younger sister and best friend, Lan Ha ushered us to a Christmas concert at Cà Phê Ako Ea, an open-air café and tourist village hosted by the indigenous Ede minority tribe. The following afternoon, we enjoyed lunch at the new Cốm Camp resort beside a small river in a suburban neighborhood.

Our other meals were highlighted by two bottles of cherished red wine that Bruce had carried all the way from Washington state, one of them a premium 2018 Doubleback cabernet sauvignon from the Walla Walla estate of retired football star Drew Bledsoe, a longtime acquaintance.

From BMT, we boarded a flight to Da Nang, metropolis of Vietnam’s central coastal region. To many Americans, it’s best known as the place where U.S. Marines made their first landfall in the war against the Viet Minh in 1965. Today it is so much more, a city of distinctive bridges and long sandy beaches, with more than a million people. We loved exploring the Museum of Cham Sculpture, which displays many of the finest relics of the ancient Champa Empire, a Hindu-influenced maritime realm.

Our hotel, the Pullman Danang Beach Resort, was lovely. Its relative isolation would have been perfect for a sunny, romantic retreat, but not so much for a pair of aging, straight bachelors stuck in the rain. So after two nights we snared a $10 taxi for a 27-kilometer (17-mile) run down the seacoast to Hội An, eminently walkable and endlessly interesting.

Bruce gets a close look at medieval Hindu carvings at the Museum of Cham Sculpture. (JGA photo)

Historic Hội An

Hội An is my favorite destination in Vietnam, one that I wanted to be certain Bruce didn’t miss. The historic trade port, a city of international renown and intrigue in the 1600s and 1700s when it was known as Faifoo, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No fewer than 800 centuries-old structures in its Ancient Town, the city’s core, have been carefully preserved; they are now home to custom tailors and crafts people, museums and markets, cafes and restaurants.

The Hội An Phố Library Hotel turned out to be a great place to stay. Centrally located, it’s only about a three-block stroll from the traffic-controlled Ancient Town, a couple of steps more from the pedestrian bridge over the Thu Bôn river to An Hội island. This is the hub of tourist activity in Hội An. Colorful handmade lanterns dangle from the frames of simple boats — quite a spectacle after dark — and from the ochre-hued buildings that line both sides of the waterway. On New Year’s Eve, live music burst from behind several facades, and massage spas (all of them monitored by police) did a booming business.

A riverfront restaurant in Hoi An is festooned with colorful lanterns for the New Year holiday. (JGA photo)

A highlight of Hội An is its unique array of Chinese assembly halls, where traders from Canton, Fujian and Hainan could gather and worship their Taoist and Confucianist deities. These colorful and ornate structures of brick and tile are often staggeringly beautiful. They are complemented by a Japanese covered bridge on the west side of the Ancient Town, built over a stream in the 1590s to link a separate Japanese ghetto to the main community.

Traditional crafts are alive and well in Hội An. Bruce and I commandeered bicycles one day and pedaled a couple of miles to the Thanh An pottery village, where we watched as an elderly woman used her foot to turn a primitive wheel as another woman shaped river silt into vases, bowls and other works of art. In the heart of town, a weaver offered a demonstration of silk textile creation by hand and machine. Restaurants in the heart of town offer a very international selection to satisfy an international clientele, but my friend Ho Hà, whom I had met on a previous visit, led us to an off-the-tourist-map Vietnamese restaurant, where we ate our fill of grilled grouper and chicken wings in nuoc cham fish sauce.

Long, flat boats welcome tourists for short tríp on the Thu Bon river in Hoi An. (JGA photo)

After Hội An, it was time to go home. I had to return to work in Ho Chi Minh City; Classics Sports Bar was calling Bruce, physically if not otherwise.

Another friend asked: With so much time, why didn’t I try to show him more places? Travel isn’t always about how many places you can see in how limited a time. I’ve always considered it more fulfilling to see fewer places well than many places fleetingly.

Besides, this was about two lifetime friends reuniting. We’re no longer spry whippersnappers. We’re past the peak of great lives and beginning a downhill slide. Hopefully we’ll both be around for another decade or two, but who really knows? Every opportunity for long conversations with best friends is something we truly cherish.

John and Bruce pose at the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall in Hoi An. (photo by request)
Bruce and John on the 49th floor observation deck of the Bitexco Financial Tower. (JGA photo)

91. Underground at Cu Chi

A tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels gives insight into how the North Vietnamese Army won its war against the South and its American allies.

A large shop markets sun hats and a wide range of other souvenirs at the Cu Chi Tunnels. (JGA photo)

One moment, my friend is standing in front of me. I blink, and he is gone.

I shuffle over to the place I last saw David Blair and find only reddish-gray clay covered by fallen leaves.  It is if the earth has swallowed him up.

Moments later, the ground moves and a trap door springs suddenly open. Like a jack-in-the-box, Blair pops out with a big smile. “It’s dark down there!” he exclaims.

We are in The Twilight Zone, foreign intruders at Vietnam’s notorious Cu Chi Tunnels.

Cu Chi is one of those places where fact dwarfs legend. From the mid-1960s to mid-‘70s — the darkest years of the conflict that Americans call the “Vietnam War” and Vietnamese remember as the “American War” — the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) built a veritable subterranean city from which its troops harassed U.S. forces allied to South Vietnam. Indeed, many historians today credit the impregnability of Cu Chi as the single most important reason why North Vietnam controlled the struggle.

Tour guide Alex, a former history teacher, lectures on the subterranean network. (JGA photo)

Nocturnal lifestyle

The market village of Cu Chi — located about 39 km (24 miles) from the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon — was here long before the tunnels were built. And the tunnels are not only at Cu Chi; a complex labyrinth of interlinked burrows was constructed across the country. But here they were within shouting distance of South Vietnam’s capital city, a mere stone’s throw from an American air base.

The tunnels were much more than hiding places and supply routes. They were also living quarters, with kitchens, hospitals, communications centers and weapons caches. In their nocturnal lifestyle, emerging only at night, communist forces suffered almost unthinkable conditions. Fresh air and water were hard to come by; malaria and dysentery took nearly as many lives as battle wounds. It was taken for granted that they would share the warrens with snakes, spiders, scorpions and rats.

Today the Cu Chi tunnels are one of the most popular attractions for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City. More than 120 km (75 miles) of passages have been preserved by Vietnam’s government as a war memorial park. At two different exhibit sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, tour guides encourage exploration of restored sections of the original tunnel system. The varmints are gone (or so one would hope), but the scale of the excavations remains the same, typically about 2 feet wide and barely 3 feet high. It’s not a place for claustrophobes.

A craft worker fashions pieces of cracked duck eggs into works of art. (JGA photo)

‘Like a Buddha’

David Blair is a friend from my home state of Oregon, a retired Congressional staffer who studied the Vietnam War both as a university student and a professional politico.

He and I pay a modest US $20 apiece to Joyous Travel to join a half-day bus tour to the tunnels, beginning at 7:30 a.m. Our group’s guide, a former high-school history teacher who calls hímelf Alex, tells a few too many bad jokes and repeats them twice too often. At least he speaks good English and makes an effort to be entertaining. Those two qualities are not guaranteed in Vietnamese tour guides.

Alex regularly references the city of Saigon, noting that “Ho Chi Minh City” is preferred only by migrants from the more affirmedly communist north. He speaks in hushed tones about the two postwar decades when Vietnam was closed to outside influence, and raves in glowing terms about former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s role in reestablishing relations between the countries in the ‘90s. “Bill Clinton is like a Buddha to us here!” Alex exclaims.

The drive northwest should require no more than an hour, but rush-hour traffic extends our travel. Then we make a lengthy rest stop at a roadside craft center. We turn blind eyes to giant red ants rallying their forces on a clothesline, instead focusing on artisans who demonstrate skills with broken duck-egg mosaic tiles and mother-of-pearl. David finds a work in lacquer that seems to bring to life the enchanting sway of Vietnamese hips clad in sensual ao dai dresses. It will soon adorn a wall in his Oregon home.

David Blair slides into a woodland trap door that provides a hidden entrance to the tunnels at Cu Chi. (JGA photo)

Deep cover

Arriving at the Ben Duoc tunnel, our tourist brigade — men and women mostly in their 20s and 30s, from Australia and various European countries — is ushered through turnstiles and down a woodland path. Alex shows us charts and maps that describe troop movement during the war, and indicates an underground conference chamber (now a video room) where such campaigns as the 1968 Tết Offensive were planned.

As we hit the trail, he warns us to be cautious around toxic foliage, and points out booby traps that might have been lethal to unsuspecting soldiers. A pit of sharpened bamboo punji sticks is especially chilling. A rusted-out American tank hints at a rapid abandonment.

The highlight is exploring the tunnels themselves. Not as young, as slender nor as athletic as my friend, I merely glimpse into the subterranean realm. He needs no encouragement to proceed through some 100 meters (325 feet) on his own. David describes the tunnel as a one-lane crawl space that, even for him, is a bit daunting.

We hear gunfire, and it’s getting closer. But we’re not in the line of fire: A controlled shooting range enables tourists to fire a variety of automatic weapons. Ammunition is sold by the bullet, and we are both more interested in exploring the merchandise at a large souvenir shop, and in enjoying cold beers as we wait for the rest of our party.

David and John rest upon the gunbarrel of an American tank abandoned at Cu Chi. (JGA photo)

Tunnel rats

Throughout the war, U.S. armed forces made it a priority to seek out and destroy the Viet Cong tunnels, but with only minimal success. An elite squad of volunteer “tunnel rats” — armed only with handguns, knives, flashlights and string — stealthily crept through the catacombs to discover secret caches of weapons and strategic documents. After the Tết Offensive, relentless bombing missions heavily damaged some sections of the tunnels.

But Cu Chi remained a thorn in the Americans’ side until the eventual U.S. withdrawal in 1973. The incredible network of tunnels, intertwined with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, enabled the North Vietnamese Army to discreetly move troops and supplies south from Hanoi, leading to the fall of Saigon in 1975.

David and I are back in Saigon by around 2:30 p.m. It’s a long “half day,” but as we are both history enthusiasts, it’s a worthwhile one. And we are grateful we won’t be sharing our living quarters with snakes and scorpions.

Barely large enough for a frying pan, this tiny hole offers discreet access to a huge tunnel system. (JGA photo)
A Dutch tourist at the Cu Chi Tunnels disappears into a rabbit hole. (JGA photo)

90. Adventures in Phnom Penh

John and Calvin, his buddy from America, take in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Cambodia’s colorful capital city.

The Botum Dhammayuth pagoda and monastery provides an exotic view for guests at the Palace Gate Hotel. (JGA photo)

Calvin Mann is an original, and a good friend. Our acquaintance goes back to my decade and a half in Bend, Oregon, where this erudite noncomformist — a tall man with the broad shoulders and narrow waist of a swimmer — founded a company that manufactures self-contained sound booths for recording artists. We share a love of culture, food and music, whether it’s Calvin’s original guitar riffs, the countrified melodies of Jeff (the Dude) Bridges and the Abiders at the Tower Theater, or Cambodian vocalists backed by traditional tro (two-stringed fiddle), roneat aek (xylophone) and electric organ in Phnom Penh.

This saga begins there, in Cambodia, land of Angkor Wat and “The Killing Fields.” After a seven-hour bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City to renew my business visa, I was left with a long weekend to explore Phnom Penh with my pal.

The swimming pool at the Palace Gate Resort feels as if it’s in another world. (JGA photo)

Having just completed a trade commission visit to Japan and Korea with Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Calvin had chosen to extend his trip to explore new markets in Southeast Asia. He booked a stay at the Palace Gate Hotel and Residence, across a side lane from the Botum Dhammayuth pagoda and monastery. We gazed upon its tiled rooftops from our sixth-floor balcony. We could cross Wat Botum Park to use the large outdoor pool at a sister lodging, the Palace Gate Resort, which my friend made his daily regimen.

Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s national capital, a city of about 2.2 million people — diminutive versus the 13 million of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) but the clear metropolis of its own nation. Beyond astonishing classical architecture, a highlight is the broad palm-lined promenade known as Sisowath Quay. Following the Tonle Sap River upstream for 3 kilometers, from its confluence with the mighty Mekong to the city’s night market, it is a point of urban pride, beautifully maintained as a port of departure for nightly dinner cruises.

We were surprised by the American presence in the Phnom Penh. It was evident in the accents of aging Westerners at the open-air Riverside Bistro (where we succumbed to the temptation of burgers and beers) and in the widespread use of U.S. currency. Unlike neighboring Vietnam or Thailand, where transactions are strictly conducted in local currency (dong or baht), Cambodia seems to treat greenbacks as equal partners to riel, exchanged at a rate of 6,000 to the dollar. Both currencies are available from ATM machines.

Srey Ka & K’n’E perform at The Guitar Man in Phnom Penh. (JGA photo)

The sounds

As in Saigon, casual cocktail lounges explode after dark with bar girls engaging foreign male passers-by in seductive conversations. But it didn’t take long to discover that Phnom Penh has a much more satisfying live-music scene than its Vietnamese counterpart. At Oscar’s on the Corner, also known as The Guitar Man, for example, Srey Ka & K’n’E gave the cultural mixing pot several extra stirs in their haunting performance, noted above.

A few blocks west of the river, on obscure Palace Lane, we found a pub known only as Craft, where the Vagabond blues band was on stage. Its point man, Kevin Sysyn, told Calvin and I of his effort to bring nonsecular education to children in remote jungle villages — much to the chagrin of Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries. The pub’s owner, Patrick Donovan (an Irish name if ever there was one), slotted Calvin in for a performance on the following Tuesday. I wish I had been there to hear it.

A hearty and delicious Cambodian chicken curry was rich in coconut milk. (JGA photo)

Calvin and I quickly got in the habit of breakfasting on street food. At the nearest corner to the Palace Gate, one open-air eatery served rice — with fried eggs, barbecued pork and vegetables — to a bustling clientele that invariably included a battalion of police. (The “bodyguard unit” was just down the block.) When we sought a change of pace, we traveled three steps to an adjacent café for a slow-cooked chicken curry, rich in coconut milk.

As coincidence would have it, we had arrived in the city for the not-so-scary Halloween observance of the birthday of the last king. Dignitaries were arriving from far and wide to pay homage to the late Norodom Sihanouk, and a large tent was erected outside the temple complex adjacent to the restaurants to offer prayers and music. We paused to greet a pair of novice monks in their tawny robes, then set out to explore the city by day.

Novice monks attend a birthday celebration for the late Cambodian king, Norodom Sihanouk. (JGA photo)

The current king and head of state, Norodom Sihamoni, is Sihanouk’s son. His father was renowned for his support of traditional Cambodian culture and the arts, and Sihamoni himself was once a classical dance instructor. So we shouldn’t have found it unusual that no matter which direction we turned, we moved to a soundtrack of percussive melodies and evocative rhythms.

Not only was it the former king’s birthday; it was also Calvin’s. As a performing artist, he is always in the mood for a little lighthearted mischief-making.

The music led us down the broad boulevard that fronted the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace. Opposite the century-old Chanchhaya (“Moonlight”) Pavilion, we encountered dozens of university students in their graduation gowns, taking selfies and other photos. Immediately, Calvin put his soft-shoe on public display. My friend somehow convinced me to join him in a chorus line with two graduate couples — just a step to the left, perhaps, and a jump to the right.

John and Calvin celebrate these university students’ graduation just outside Cambodia’s Royal Palace.

The sights

Cambodia is the home of the Khmer people, whose once-powerful empire extended across the entire Mekong Delta from the 9th to 15th centuries. Its primary capital was at Angkor, the renowned ancient temple complex near the modern city of Siem Reap. Through four centuries of warfare with Thailand, the capital moved several times until it finally landed in Phnom Penh following the French colonization of Cambodia.

The Royal Palace was built in 1866. Contained within a defensive wall, its 43-acre grounds feature traditional Khmer architecture with towering spires, chedis (or stupas), a throne hall, royal residence and murals. In late 2022, however, it was closed for maintenance, and to protect the royal family from the Covid pandemic.

Built in the early 20th century, the Chanchhây (Moonlight) Pavilion is home to the royal dance troupe. (JGA photo)

Adjoining the palace on ít south side is the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo), the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Its national treasures include a small green crystal Buddha image, made in the 17th century, and a life-sized statue of the future Buddha, Maitreya, commissioned by King Sisowath in 1906. It weighs 90 kg (200 pounds) and is set with precisely 9,584 diamonds. At least, that’s what the literature says. We didn’t count.

Indeed, we weren’t able to visit. But our Cambodian friend Malin joined us at the nearby National Museum of Cambodia. Built in the 1920s with a design inspired by Khmer temple architecture, renovated in 1968, it has a collection of more than 14,000 items, including bronzes and ceramics. We were most impressed by the extensive exhibit of early Hindu and Buddhist stone sculptures, many of them dating from the halcyon era of Angkor Wat.

Built in the 1920s, the National Museum of Cambodia was déigned in the likeness of Khmer temples. (JGA photo)

Far too much Cambodian heritage was destroyed during the tyrannous 1975-78 reign of Pol Pot. As leader of the communist Khmer Rouge movement, he perpetrated a ruthless civil war during which more than 1.7 million people (about one-quarter of the population) đied. Today this is mourned as the Cambodian Genocide.

The Toul Sieng Genocide Museum, in a former prison, and the Killing Fields mass gravesite, at the nearby village of Choeung Elk, are popular tourist destinations today. We wanted to keep things joyful on Calvin’s birthday weekend. They’ll still be there on my next visit.

Unlike victims of the Cambodian Genocide, John (at the National Museum) hasn’t really lót hí head. (Calvin Mann photo)

The scents

With celebration in mind, we found our way one night to a restaurant called the Oyster House, where we supped on plump river prawns and Angkor beer. The following evening we found the Kathmandu restaurant, where we followed a meal of tandoori chicken, fish tikka and navaratam korma with Chilean red wine and Calvin’ favorite post-meal treat: good cigars.

The bright-yellow Central Market (Phsa Thum Thmey) didn’t hold a lot of interest, except for its 1930s Art Deco architecture. Four arms, with arched roofs, extend from a central dome that rises 26 meters (85 feet) above the surrounding cityscape. But the myriad vendors’ stalls hold little of interest (food, clothing, jewelry, souvenirs) that isn’t available elsewhere.

Phnom Penh’s Central Market was built in Art Deco style in the 1930s. (JGA photo)

I had arrived in Cambodia on a Thursday afternoon. I left by bus the following Monday morning, a US $24 fare to Ho Chi Minh City. (Calvin was continuing to Siem Reap.) The return trip took only about six hours, despite a delay at the border immigration station that was just long enough for an aging Jehovah’s Witness missionary to warn me of the spiritual evils promoted by Satan himself. We are all doomed, she said. I politely declined her conversational overtures.

No matter where you are in the world, this is how a weekend trip should be: Relaxed and fun, with no particular pressure to see and do new things. Two old friends reconnected, got to know each other even better, ate food never before tasted or shockingly familiar, and crossed paths with new friends. I’m ready to go again tomorrow.

A vendor shoulders his stock of household items down a busy Phnom Penh street. (JGA photo)
John and Calvin ẹnoy the good life at one of Cambodia’s fine Indian rétaurants.

89. Dining at Ănăn, Vietnam’s Finest

An Asian-born, American-raised chef blends two very different culinary cultures in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.

Diners ẹnoy gourmet cuisine in the intimate dining room at Anan. (Photo by Douglas Peebles)

Everyday Vietnam food can be boring. Noodles and rice, rice and noodles. Day in, day out.

Noodles doesn’t mean pasta, not like spaghetti or macaroni. It means soup. Phở bò tai nam (thin rice noodles with beef in a marrow broth), bún bò Huế (another beef-based soup with broader noodles and pork knuckles), bún riêu cua (thin noodles in a tomato-based broth with minced freshwater crab) and hủ tiếu (flat rice noodles in a pork broth with shrimp) are some of the most popular varieties, always offered with “salad” (lettuce and the leaves of various herbs) to mix on top.

Rice (cơm) is an all-encompassing term for whatever you ate for lunch today. There’s “rice and fish” (cơm cá), “rice and chicken” (cơm gà), “rice and pork chop” (cơm suon), rice and whatever else you might have. Granted, there are at least a couple dozen different kinds of rice in Vietnam: fried rice (cơm chiên), sticky rice (cơm xôi), broken rice (cơm tấm), red rice and jasmine rice, to name but a few. But rice is still rice. The meat and rice are most often served with a barely palatable cooked vegetable such as water spinach (mostly stems) or sour melon, frequently stuffed with minced pork.  

Anan cooks prepare to serve a table with caviar banh nhung. (Photo by Douglas Peebles)

There’s no such thing as “slow cooking” here. As opposed to the French style of cooking favored in the West, which favors lower heat to encourage the blending of herbs and spices used in seasoning, Vietnamese meals are cooked quickly (in 15 minutes or less) and consumed even faster.

Were it not for the high carbohydrate content, Vietnamese meals could be considered healthy. Very little salt or butter are used in preparation. Fish oil (nước chấm) is the primary condiment. Every table is stocked with various sauces such as soy, typically served in a dish with sliced red peppers; processed chili sauce, a less savory relative of Western ketchup; and mắm tôm, a foul-smelling purple mash of fermented shrimp paste.

Viet fusion

Peter Cuong Franklin observed a lack of culinary sophistication in his native country. The founder and executive chef at Ho Chi Minh City’s Ănăn restaurant took the lead in combining the subtleties of Vietnamese preparations with techniques from other global cultures. His efforts in fusing Viet and Western cuisines led to Ănăn becoming the first establishment in Ho Chi Minh City, a metropolis of 13 million people, to be named to the esteemed list of “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants” in 2021 and again in 2022.

Chef Peter Cuong Franklin returned to Vietnam after decades abroad and opened the Anan restaurant. (Photo by Douglas Peebles)

Franklin was uniquely suited for this achievement. Now 59, he was born near the hill town of Da Lat. On April 29, 1975, when he was 12, he and other children were airlifted from Saigon the day before North Vietnamese army tanks rumbled through the wrought-iron gates of the South Vietnamese capitol, now known as Independence Palace. Young Peter Cuong didn’t see his home again for decades.

He landed on his feet. Adopted by an American naval family, he had a New England education that climaxed at Yale University. He became an investment banker, first in New York, then in London and Hong Kong. But while he was making money, his dream job was in a kitchen: “I never forgot my mother’s food from those early years,” he told an interviewer in 2021. They were reunited after Vietnam reopened to the West in the mid-1990s. “She remains my true culinary inspiration,” Franklin said.

He launched his second career when he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in 2008, then trained at renowned restaurants in Asia and the United States, including Alinea in Chicago. In 2011, he established his own restaurant, Chôm Chôm, in Hong Kong. Ănăn followed in 2017.

Anan occupies a tall, narrow tube house that rises above a traditional wet market. (Photo by Douglas Peebles)

Eat, eat!

Ănăn — the name translates to “Eat, Eat” — fills the floors of a tall, narrow “tube house” that rises behind the vendors’ stalls on Tôn Thất Đạm, the last remaining wet market in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Three intimate floors of dining find their zenith in the upper-story Nhâu Nhâu (“Drink, Drink”) cocktail lounge, itself capped by a rooftop garden.

I’ve been fortunate to dine here twice in the past couple of months, once with my photographer friends Doug Peebles and Len Kaufman, visiting from the United States; again with my frequent local dining companion, Lâm Nhi. Each time, service was gracious and of an extremely high standard from start to finish. I would have expected no less from a staff trained by an industry veteran like Chef Peter, as he is now widely known.

Franklin describes his style as New Vietnamese Cuisine. His childhood hometown of Da Lat is the incentive for many of his creations. The cooler climate of this former French hill station, at the crown of the Central Highlands 1,500m (5,000 feet) above the Mekong Delta, enables farmers to nurture a wide range of vegetables and fruits not suited for the steamy heat of lower elevations. Huge avocadoes and sweet, rich strawberries stand out in the street markets, but there is so much more.

The smoked caviar egg has fish roe and sea urchin in the egg of a black chicken. (Photo by Douglas Peebles)

Da Lat style

There’s no doubt Chef Peter loves veggies as much as I do. One dish frequently appearing on his Specials Menu is a preparation of artichoke and asparagus, steamed with herbs and served with a dipping sauce of fermented tofu. Another is Da Lat broccolini, served with crispy chorizo sausage and an egg. The herb-rich burrata cheese salad is presented with fresh fennel, watercress, tomato, onion and basil pesto.

Anyone who has ever strolled the winding hillside streets of Da Lat knows the town’s trademark “pizza,” grilled on rice paper atop a hibachi-style grill. Da Lat pizza must have been a beloved childhood snack for Chef Peter, who now offers it with a choice of three toppings: truffle mushroom, pepperoni or roast duck. We enjoyed it with the latter, and would defintely do so again.

Although it is hours from the sea, Da Lat has a sturgeon caviar farm. One of Ănăn’s most unique offerings is the smoked caviar egg, served steaming — a “black chicken” (gà ta) egg afloat in a broth with caviar and Japanese uni, or sea urchin. Gà ta is widely revered for its high protein content and antioxidant properties.

Salmon roe, another sort of caviar, tops bánh nhúng, a dish of smoked salmon, crème fraiche and locally sourced dill.

Banh xeo tacos are inventive take on delicate Vietnamese crepes. (Photo by Douglas Peebles)

Imperial coast

The central coast and ancient imperial capital of Huế are another region from which Chef Peter draws. During the time of French colonization, Vietnamese developed a taste for crêpes, the delicate filled pancakes that can be made either sweet or savory. The Asians made crêpes with rice instead of wheat, filling them with shredded pork, small shelled shrimp and bean sprouts. Ănăn’s bánh xèo tacos follow the same principle, but now the crêpe is seasoned with turmeric, folded and crisped like a Mexican taco — then filled filling with juicy wagyu beef or pork belly, shrimp, fresh herbs and peanut sauce.

Another regional dish is wagyu bò lá lot. Domestic Vietnamese beef is not of high quality, so the finest marbled steaks are imported from Australia or the United States. But in earlier days, Huế’s royal chefs learned to improve the tenderness and flavor of Viet beef by grilling it inside a peppery betel leaf, prized as a medicinal herb. Ănăn has continued the tradition, seasoning it with nước chấm, mild curry, lemongrass and toasted peanuts to give the tender, smoky meat a distinctive aroma.

Duck meat enhances a Hanoi-style banana blossom salad. (Photo by Lam Nhi)

A nod to Hanoi

A northern Vietnamese dish that I enjoyed for the first time early this year in Hanoi, albeit with chicken instead of the Mekong Delta duck offered here, is banana-blossom salad. Bunched in rows at the end of banana clusters, the flowers, ranging in color from purple to gold, are rich in vitamins and nutrients: It’s amazing how many of these “superfoods” have found their ways into Southeast Asian diets! At Ănăn, the flowers and duck are tossed in a ginger nước chấm sauce with cabbage, various herbs, crispy shallots and peanuts.

Also deriving from the north is chả cá Hà Nội, featuring filet of black cod marinated in turmeric, served sizzling with a mound of sticky rice in a pool of dill sauce with fresh lacy dill and scallions. This is one of my favorite Ănăn dishes. As the Vietnamese say, it is ngon. Delicious.

In cha ca Ha Noi, turmeric-marinated black cod is served in a pool of dill sauce. (Photo by Lam Nhi)

Chef Peter has a unique ability to take everyday Vietnamese dishes and turn them into something special. In “one bite phở, the iconic beef-noodle soup known the world over as phở, becomes a star of “molecular” gastronomy. In this food-science art, everyday dishes are transformed (with component properties intact) into largely unrecognizable new forms, disassembled and reassembled. Thus Ănăn diners are presented a ladle that nestles a gelatinous dome of soup, tantalizingly topped with meat, vegetables, herbs, even a flower as a finishing touch.

A similar if not molecular approach is taken with one bite bún chả,a dish traditionally identified with Hanoi. Grilled fatty pork (chả) is served with white rice noodles (bún), crispy spring rolls, herbs and dipping sauce. At Ănăn, they’re all skewered together atop a shiso leaf.

One bite bun cha has pork, noodles and a spring roll atop a shiso leaf. (Photo by Lam Nhi)

Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta is the nation’s primary agricultural region, significantly outpacing the Red River Valley of the north. Its beast of burden, so often seen slogging through the rice fields, is the Mekong water buffalo. This powerful bovine also is raised as a protein-rich source of food, although its meat is tougher than that of its cousins, beef cattle. Indeed, farm workers will often carry a stash of buffalo jerky into the paddies, a perfect snack for long days.

Ănăn’s chefs keep the meat tasty but tender. They slice prime cuts into a buffalo carpaccio, seasoned with lemongrass, salt and green peppercorns. They also raid the barnyard for their beef tongue and pig ear salad. In true Third World style, no part of an animal is wasted when it comes to food sources.

The Mekong region is famous for its seafood. The restaurant’s lightly grilled calamari is seasoned with garlic and herbs, served with two chili sauces (one of black squid ink), and vegetables.

Grilled calamari is served with two sauces, one of black squid ink. (Photo by Lam Nhi)

Sweet farewell

Not to be forgotten are the sweets that finish a meal. Vietnamese love ice cream almost as much as they love fish sauce — and so, Chef Peter reasoned, why not put the two together? In his fish sauce ice cream, vanilla ice cream is topped with a caramel blended with nước chấm, seasoned with pepper grown on Phu Quoc island, and perfumed with more fish-sauce extract.

Lâm Nhi and I preferred the bánh cam dessert — twin balls of Japanese-style rice mochi and dark chocolate ganache, toasted in sesame seeds and a sauce of ginger and calamansi (Philippine lemon). Served with bites of pineapple, strawberry and Phan Thiết dragonfruit, it was a fitting end to a memorable meal.

The banh cam dessert has balls of rice mochi and chocolate ganache with fruit. (Photo by Lam Nhi)


One-bite pho displays the best of molecular gastronomy, a disassembled version of beef-noodle soup. (Photo by Douglas Peebles)

88. Grist for the Vietnam Newcomer

Assorted advice and observations for first-timers venturing to this Southeast Asian country.

A teeming metropolis of 13 million citizens, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) can be intimidating to first-time visitors. (JGA photo)

Now that Covid fears have mostly been alleviated, I’m getting a steady stream of visitors — old friends from the USA — who have promised visits. None of them have visited Vietnam previously. Most of them have never set foot in Asia.

It occurs to me to offer my friends an inventory of essential knowledge they should have before they step off the airplane. So, friends, lend an ear (or an eye). We’ll start by talking about traffic.

  • Pedestrians never have the right of way. Marked crosswalks mean little or nothing. In crossing a street, even with the traffic light and at a corner, you may get a little attention by raising your hand in a stop signal toward oncoming vehicles. It’s best you step boldly (but not brazenly) off the curb and set a slow but steady pace across the pavement. Motorbikes may not slow for you, but they will swerve.
Normal, early evening traffic in downtown Saigon. Crossing a street by foot is always an adventure. (JGA photo)
  • Don’t try to drive yourself, especially in the big city. You’ll understand the moment you experience your first rush hour … today. Taxis are everywhere and are very reasonably priced. Depending upon time of day, you should pay less than 200,000 Viet Nam Dong (about US $9) for the 8-kilometer (5-mile) run to most District 1 hotels from the Saigon airport. If you’re traveling solo, once settled, you can hail a motorbike taxi, which is how I typically get around: It’s about one-third to one-half the cost of a car. If you plan to stay for long, đownload the app for Grab or Gojek taxi services (or both).
  • Physical assaults are very rare but the theft of cellphones is rampant — even more than wallets. There’s a thriving black market in second-hand phones, as they are very expensive when new. Lose your phone, you probably lose your camera along with your means of communication. Keep it close, and be aware that most thefts are committed by pairs of motorbike riders.
The driver of a motorbike taxi takes a break between calls in the Ben Nghe district. (JGA photo)
  • Get used to the local currency. The basic exchange rate is presently about 23,000 Viet Nam Dong to one U.S. dollar. ATM machines spew out 500,000-dong bills like Las Vegas slot machines. If you think of these sky-blue images of Ho Chi Minh as $20 bills (OK, they’re actually about $21.75), you’ll be well on your way to managing your expenditures.
  • English is widely spoken in tourist areas, but perhaps not as widely understood. Vietnamese students’ listening skills are not well developed. Words are often left unfinished. No can mean yes, yes can mean no. In the countryside, English speakers are many fewer in number. It helps to learn a few phrases such as xin chào (hello), cảm ơn (thank you) and một hai ba yo (1, 2, 3, cheers!)
Taxis await passengers on Le Thanh Ton street in central Saigon. (JGA photo)
  • That said, common courtesies are not frequently expressed — again, outside of areas enriched by tourism. Thank yous are often not articulated with more than a grunt. Please? Forget it. Indeed, the apparent lack of awareness can be stunning. You may be walking down a sidewalk, have someone look directly at you, then pull their motorcycle out in front of you as you’re about to pass. It’s the culture. Don’t take it personally.
  • Vietnamese food and drink can be very good, but there’s not a lot of variety by Western gourmet standards. Typical meals can be classified as either rice (accompanied by meats and vegetables) or noodles. Noodles means soup — phở, bún bò Huế, bún riêu and many other varieties, mostly priced under US$2 a bowl. The baguette sandwich called bánh mì (literally, “bread”) is a popular midday meal for less than US$1. Vietnamese chicken and pork are excellent, but the seafood (hải sản) truly shines. Sea snails, in all shapes and sizes, are especially popular at myriad marine-oriented eateries. But check your bill for overcharging.
Street food is good, ubiquitous and cheap throughout Vietnam. (JGA photo)

Evenings, beer is the beverage of choice. Tiger, Saigon and 333 are among the leading local lagers (about US$1 a can or bottle), and numerous outstanding craft brews are now being locally manufactured. Wine is still largely unknown, but spirits are cheap and good, especially Hanoi vodka (made with Russian guidance). By day, look for coconut water and outstanding fruit juices.

  • Vietnamese coffee is outstanding. It is strong and, to some Western tastes, bitter. Other than Brazil, no country exports more coffee than Vietnam. Coffee shops (“cafes”), not pubs, are the social gathering points for young Vietnamese. And while Westerners may argue the merits of a merlot versus cabernet or syrah, here the question is: Robusta or Arabica beans? Egg coffee, cheese coffee or weasel coffee?
The Pasteur Street Brewing tap room is symbolic of a growth in draft beer consumption in Vietnam. (JGA photo)

And a few comments on Vietnamese society:

  • Family is paramount. This is true throughout Asia, but in Vietnam, it seems even moreso. Young Westerners may rebel against parental authority, but in this country, family honor is at stake. There is tremendous pressure on young adult children, especially women, to marry and quickly bear offspring … and to devote their working years to making money to support their parents. Divorce means losing face, so couples may go their separate ways but remain legally married and leave the child-raising to their own grateful parents.
  • The politically communist (but economically progressive) government encourages a lack of critical thinking among the general population. The press, from newspapers to television, is under government control, and independent journalists who report misdoings and name names are quickly muzzled. Petty corruption, also known as “black money,” is simply a way of doing business. Citizens learn to follow orders and not ask questions, lest the consequences for them (and their families) be dire.
On broad Nguyen Hue boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City, choreographed dancers offer a rare glimpse of artistic expression. (JGA photo)

This is reflected in an educational system that does not encourage imagination or creativity. What young people don’t see in their own culture, they find in others, especially Korean music, film and fashion.

  • There is a distinctly laissez-faire attitude toward what Westerners might consider morality. The country is not liberal, but Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in particular is very libertine. Wander Bui Vien street any night of the week, and you’ll encounter sex, drugs and gas balloons openly flaunted. Anything goes behind the closed doors of the Pasteur Street or Thai Van Lung hostess bars. Ironically, although a man can piss in public (when you’ve gotta go …), kissing and other displays of affection are discouraged.

These are just a few observations … my newly arrived friends will soon make many additional discoveries of their own!

Night clubs on the Bui Vien walking street are the most notorious in Saigon. (JGA photo)
Vietnam Airlines brings tourists to this country from an extended international network. (JGA photo)

87. Me and Julio Down by the Ball Yard

The author reflects on his lifelong passion for the sport of baseball, largely unknown in Southeast Asia, as his favorite team finally has a winning season.

Vietnamese football fans in downtown Hanoi celebrate their national team’s victory in a celebration known as đi bão. JGA photo from YouTube feed.

There isn’t much baseball played in Southeast Asia. It’s true, I swung a bat in slow-pitch softball games when I was living in Singapore in the mid-‘80s, but baseball? No way, José.

In Vietnam, the sports of choice are football or soccer (bóng đá), as in much of the world, and badminton. Basketball is far from unknown, and both tennis and volleyball are growing in popularity. In parks, in early mornings and evenings, you may also see young men testing their skills in sepak takraw, the Malaysian national sport, a highbrow version of hacky sack played with a ball made of rattan.

Vietnamese take their soccer seriously — the national team is a perennial championship contender in the ASEAN Football Federation — but fans fortunately do not go as nuts as in some other Third World countries. In case you missed it, just three days ago, on the ridiculously overpopulated Indonesian island of Java, a stadium riot following a tense soccer match took 131 lives. I had thought that sort of thing only happened in South America.

My favorite spectator sport, however, remains baseball. And my favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, have just made the end-of-season Major League playoffs for the first time since 2001, when my son was a high-school senior. They have a chance to play in the World Series for the first time in their 45-year history. Even from my faraway perch here in Vietnam, modern technology enables me to stay in touch. Thanks to live audio and YouTube videos, I have been able to applaud — indeed, to closely monitor — their success.

A lifelong baseball fan, the author sits front and center in the press room at Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park). Photo courtesy Seattle Mariners.

Addicted to the game

My obsession with baseball is hardly new. Sometimes, I think it’s how I measure time. This love affair goes back to my primary school years in the late 1950s, when I sat with my dad in front of our tiny black-and-white TV to cheer for “his” team, the Milwaukee Braves of Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn, in consecutive World Series against the reviled New York Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.

I was never much of an athlete, and my little-league career was destined for failure. But I learned to keep a detailed scorecard at professional games, where I got to know some of the players and was delighted when they sent me to the concession stand to buy hot dogs for them. In tedious moments, I made up card and dice games — Six of Clubs was a groundout to shortstop, Queen of Hearts was a double to center field — and kept careful score. I went to sleep with my transistor radio tucked under my pillow, as I listened to San Francisco Giant games.

At the University of Oregon, I pursued a degree in journalism with an eye on becoming a sportswriter. I attended nearly every Oregon baseball game for four years, home and away, acting as official scorer and covering for The Register-Guard. By my 20th year, I was writing baseball as a summer intern for The Honolulu Advertiser, sitting in the press box with broadcaster Al Michaels, interviewing icons of the sport like Tommy Lasorda. The manager of the Hawaii Islanders, Chuck Tanner, who had been an outfielder on the Milwaukee Braves clubs of my early childhood, took me under his wing and tutored me, one-on-one, in how best to interview young players. He had sons of his own, about my age.

“Baseball is the most perfect of games, solid, true, pure and precious as diamonds.” W.P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, upon which the movie Field of Dreams was based, wrote that. Three strikes, you’re out. Three outs makes an inning and your team is out. Three times three (nine) players are in the field. Three times three times three outs (27, if you’re counting), the game is over. But the game is never over until the last batter is out. The Kabbalah has nothing on baseball. As Annie Savoy said in Bull Durham, “the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the church of baseball.” 

The author, right, and his son Erik attend a Seattle Mariners’ baseball game in May 2015. JGA photo

One foot in the toy store

My future as a baseball writer was all but assured. Then, somewhere between Kalakaua Avenue and Copenhagen, I took a left turn. Instead of accepting a post-graduation offer of a sportswriting career, I chose to spend six months traveling in Europe.

By the time I returned to North America, I had decided that my future would be international. I didn’t want to spend my life in “the toy store,” as one of my colleagues described the sports desk. I went back to Honolulu as a general assignment reporter. I worked for newspapers in Auckland and Sydney, Seattle and Los Angeles, and for publishers in Paris and Munich and Singapore. I made the leap into travel writing and editing. But I never lost my love for baseball.

Some of my greatest memories are the times I spent with my son at Seattle Mariners games. Erik was 5 years old when Ken Griffey, Jr. (“The Kid”) first stepped onto a Major League field in the Emerald City at age 19. For the next 22 years, as my son grew from a child to a fine young man, we closely followed Griffey’s career, defined not only by his immense talent but also by his infectious smile and passion for the game. In so many ways, he embodied what baseball meant to us.

In July 2016, after “The Kid” was inevitably and overwhelmingly voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Mariners planned a weekend-long celebration to honor the greatest player in team history. I was pleased to tell Erik that I had tickets. My son glumly told me that he hoped he’d still be alive. He didn’t make it that far. Stricken with a rare cancer, he passed on Father’s Day in June. Erik watched his beloved Mariners play for the final time, an 8-4 win over the Boston Red Sox, from his hospice bed.

Mariner icons Ken Griffey, Jr., right, and Edgar Martinez, center, congratulate outfielder Ichiro Suzuki as he ends his career in September 2019. JGA photo

Past and future stars

For all the great players who have graced the Seattle roster through the years — Griffey, Edgar Martínez, Randy “Big Unit” Johnson, Ichiro Suzuki — the Mariners had made the playoffs only four times in their 45-year history, and not at all since 2001. To say these were down years would be an understatement. Twice in that span, they lost more than 100 games in a season. Finally, new management began to reverse the team’s fortunes. A year ago, they fell just short of the playoff round. This year the team started slow, but a mid-season winning streak elevated them to lofty heights: a real possibility that the playoffs were within reach.

No team can ever be carried by just one or two players. Sometimes it takes a catalyst. On the 2022 Seattle Mariners, the man who brought it all together is a joyous 21-year-old from the small Dominican Republic town of Loma de Cabrera.

Julio Rodríguez, already known to his legion of fans as “J Rod,” is like a second coming of Griffey. Playing with passion and flair, he took little time to establish himself as the team’s best player. Chosen to play in baseball’s annual All Star Game in July, he introduced himself to a national audience by slugging more home runs in an exhibition Home Run Derby than anyone had done before.

Julio was out of the lineup last week, recovering from a back strain, when the Mariners clinched their playoff berth. In J Rod’s stead, a walk-off home run from slugging catcher Cal Raleigh, himself all of 25, lifted the team over the line. Now, with one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, a solid defense and an offense capable of rising to the occasion, Seattle hopes to extend its season well into October, perhaps even November.

Cal Raleigh homers in the bottom of the ninth inning on September 30 to clinch Seattle’s first playoff berth in 21 years. JGA photo from YouTube feed.

Fighting for a championship

One dozen teams — six each from the American and National Leagues — begin the playoffs on October 7. Over the next three weeks, 12 teams become eight; eight become four. League winners survive best-of-seven series and play for the championship of baseball in the World Series beginning October 28. No Seattle club has ever made it that far. Is this the year?

On June 26, the Mariners’ record was 10 games below .500, at 29-39, when an errant pitch ignited an infield brawl in a game against the Los Angeles Angels in California. When the dust finally cleared, a dozen players from both teams had been ejected. Unlike Java, no one died. No one suffered serious injury.

Something changed in the Seattle psyche on that Sunday. Since then, the team has had a 58-32 record. The Mariners aren’t patsies. They’re fighters. When Seattle opens the playoffs on Friday — in Canada against the Toronto Blue Jays, with J Rod patrolling center field — they will be there not merely to participate, but to try to win a world championship.

And although the Seattle baseball stadium accommodates 48,000 fans, I am secure in the knowledge that a soccer-style riot is highly unlikely.

Mariners and Angels players brawl on June 26 in Los Angeles. JGA photo from YouTube channel.
Julio Rodríguez, a.k.a. “J Rod,” is already a baseball icon in Seattle at the age of 21. JGA photo from YouTube channel.

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.