As the lunar calendar turns, I realize that what really matters in my life are the relationships that I create and nurture.
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.
AND INTO 2023
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
John and Calvin, his buddy from America, take in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Cambodia’s colorful capital city.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An Asian-born, American-raised chef blends two very different culinary cultures in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Assorted advice and observations for first-timers venturing to this Southeast Asian country.
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.
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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.
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?
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.
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!
Sharing a link from the East-West News Service, which has just published my story on the ao dai, iconic fashion of Vietnamese women. (Click on the headline below to retrieve the full story.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Even in the same rural precincts where a park promotes elephant conservation, local “sanctuaries” are encouraging visitors to go for rides.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
On a brief trip to Bangkok and Pattaya, the author is reminded of many things he loves about Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Through periods of freedom and suppression, Vietnamese art continues to make an impression as it reveals culture and history to a curious world.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Vietnam’s capital city serves up history and religion on a walk past West Lake to the Ba Dinh district.
The southerly view from the rooftop lounge at the Pan Pacific Hanoi hotel is enough to take one’s breath away — even under an overcast sky.
Despite a subtropical winter chill outside, the causeway separating Hồ Tây (West Lake) and Hồ Trúc Bạch appeared from my 20th-story perch to be buzzing with life. The verdure that framed the boulevard called Thanh Niên, partially obscuring a bumper-to-bumper line of cars and motorbikes, gave way to colorful bridges and pagodas on tiny islets, waterfront seafood restaurants and ice-cream shops.
At the heart of my panorama was a broad pedestrian promenade that extended from Hanoi’s expatriate-friendly Tay Ho district to the colonial-era Presidential Palace, a prominent burnt-yellow landmark of the Ba Đình precinct. And in the further distance, somewhat more to the west, rose the skyscrapers of the city’s modern financial center.
Seventeen kilometers (over 10 miles) around, West Lake is the largest of many lakes in Vietnam’s capital. Indeed, the abundance of freshwater tarns might remind a visitor of Minneapolis. A paved pathway that circles Hồ Tây makes it especially popular with joggers and bicyclists, some of whom pause at the lovely Tay Ho Pagoda (about 1 km northwest of the Pan Pacific Hanoi) to request favors from Buddhism’s “mother goddess,” Quan Am.
The noble path
Opened in 2006, the Pan Pacific Hanoi is one of the capital’s luxury bargains with surprisingly moderate (albeit pandemic-influenced) room rates. The tab includes not only immaculate guest rooms, fine restaurants, indulgent amenities and state-of-the-art facilities, but also the best breakfast I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Vietnam: a gourmet buffet with meal selections ranging from American to Korean, French to Japanese, and traditional Vietnamese. Learn more about the Pan Pacific Hanoi here.
I set out one morning to conquer the causeway, its charms beckoning me from The Summit lounge to the pavement far below. Thanh Niên boulevard led me past one picturesque pilgrimage possibility (a bridge to a tiny temple on an islet in Trúc Bạch) to another — the Trấn Quốc Pagoda, oldest in this ancient city.
Built in the 6th Century on the periphery of the city, on the Red River, the pagoda and its multiple shrines (containing the ashes of prominent Buddhist monks) was relocated in 1615 to Kim Ngu (Golden Fish) Island. It hasn’t undergone a major renovation for more than two centuries, but a veneer of orange paint on its brick structures gives it a modern appearance.
I approached via a broad bridge that took me directly to the sacred grounds. As a student of Buddhism, I immediately recognized the eight-spoked wheel, a symbol of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhist doctrine with its emphasis on proper perspective, resolve, speech, conduct, livehihood, effort, mìndfulness and awareness.
Widely visible were statues and stone engravings of lotus flowers, emblematic of enlightenment, achievement, and purity of mind, body and speech. Throngs of worshippers crowded the site, pausing at altars bedecked with flowers and fruit, lighting aromatic incense sticks that sent their smoke heavenward from giant urns.
Of turtles and snakes
At the south end of Than Niên boulevard, a popular riverboat coffee shop floats on Trúc Bạch lake near the spot where a young U.S. naval officer named John McCain was pulled from his crashed bomber in 1967. (Read about that here.) Two centuries earlier, there had been an imperial palace on the lakeshore; it later became a reform school, of sorts, for royal concubines who sought amusement beyond the king’s bedroom and were thereafter condemned to a life weaving white silk.
The monks of the Taoist temple of Quán Thánh might have commiserated. They offered their prayers just across the lake from the palace. Built during the reign of Emperor Lý Thái Tổ (1010–1028) and dedicated to Trấn Vũ, the God of the North, the temple was strategically located to defend the ancient city against evil spirits.
As Trấn Vũ’s symbols of power are the tortoise, for protection, and serpent, for wealth, I found numerous images of both animals throughout this temple … as well as a bronze bell and statue of Trấn Vũ dating from 1677. Hanoians come here under the full and new moon to pray for health and happiness.
Where the dead tread
Crossing Quán Thánh street, I found myself in Hanoi’s Ba Đình neighborhood, dominated by the green expanse of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Free of vehicular traffic, cloaked with botanical gardens, it can easily take a full day of exploration in its own right. Apart from the mausoleum itself, structures include a museum, a historic pagoda, multiple memorials and monuments, and a small village where Uncle Ho lived from 1954 until his death in 1969.
The first building I encountered on my walk from the Pan Pacific, before even crossing onto the campus, was the Presidential Palace. Built by the French for the governor-general of Indochina in 1906, the opulent Beaux-Arts edifice was restored and painted yellow under the Communist administration. It isn’t open to the public but is used for official receptions.
It’s the mausoleum, though, that people come to see. Groups of patriotic Vietnamese venture from all over the country to honor Hồ Chí Minh (1890-1969), the political mind behind modern Vietnam, known to many merely as Bác Hồ (“Uncle Ho”). Although the man himself had requested a simple cremation and a scattering of his ashes, he has been embalmed here in this grand marble tomb, his glass sarcophagus set deep within a maze of well-guarded stairways and corridors.
Those who dare to enter — and, yes, this included me (more about it here) — are subjected to a security screening followed by a long stroll across the grounds of the complex, where patriotic music is played on oversized video screens to those who queue for entrance. At the entrance to the mausoleum, white-uniformed militia make it clear that cameras and cell phones are not tolerated within the building.
They are, however, welcomed in the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a fine survey of the man’s life for anyone who may not be thoroughly acquainted. Exhibits in the three-story concrete structure are not consistently translated, however, and admission for foreigners is notably higher than for Vietnamese nationals. Of most interest to me were a timeline of Ho’s life, including his early travels in Europe and America, and photographs and documents that shed light on the seeds of Marxist philosophy in Southeast Asia.
Bác Hồ lived most of his final years in a traditional stilt house, overlooking a fish pond and set in a beloved garden often tended by the leader himself. Special efforts have been made to maintain it as it appeared more than 50 years ago, the garden still productive, the pond still filled with koi fish.
Plexiglas views into Ho’s library and bedroom give an insight into his life. But even a man who chose a humble lifestyle could have his weaknesses. In Ho’s case, it was cars. Three of his favorites are displayed in a “showroom” garage in the adjacent village, where Ho also attended party meetings and took his meals.
A single pillar
Predating every other site on the grounds of the mausoleum complex is the One Pillar Pagoda, which stands just below the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It is built of wood on a single stone pillar. The design is said to bring to mind a lotus blossom rising from a sea of sorrow.
The pagoda is ascribed to Emperor Ly Thai Tong (1028-1054), who yearned for an heir decades into his reign. In a dream, he was handed a boy child by Quan Am, the goddess of mercy to whom he had prayed. In 1049, after he had married a young peasant girl who bore him a son, he directed this construction as a way to express his gratitude to the goddess.
This isn’t Ly’s pagoda, however. The vengeful French, as they evacuated Hanoi after their expulsion in 1954, destroyed the original. It was subsequently rebuilt by the new Viet Minh government.
My fondest memory of my One Pillar visit was watching the burning of effigies during the Lunar New Year (Tết) holiday. Devotees of Quan Am streamed into the sanctuary to offer prayers, carrying with them paper effigies representing ancestors. Supplications accomplished, the dolls were then carried to a fiery brick oven in an outer courtyard, where they were burned along with mock money and other joss to assure the welfare in the afterlife of those who came before.
Outside the pagoda and museum, a line of shops offered light meals and souvenirs. In particular, I was drawn to a jolly-faced man whose craft was calligraphy: In broad brush strokes, for a small fee, he would paint mots of wisdom in traditional Chinese characters to hang on walls from Haiphong to Houston.
I was traveling light and didn’t want to crumple his fine artwork in a carry-on bag.
Three institutions in the nation’s capital offer carefully sculpted perspectives on the history of Vietnam.
They called it the Hanoi Hilton. According to U.S. prisoners of war who experienced its “hospitality,” it was anything but a luxury hotel. But the Americans who suffered its indignities were lucky compared to the Vietnamese revolutionaries who preceded them.
Today, the Hỏa Lò Prison Historical Relic is one of many Hanoi museums that recall a not-too-long-ago era when conflict was a way of life in Vietnam. It was one of several that I visited during my most recent visit to Vietnam’s capital city. Still more museums were closed, leaving me a list of wanna-sees for my next trip north to Hanoi.
In this blog, I talk about three collections: the Hỏa Lò Prison, the Vietnam National Museum of History, and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.
Hỏa Lò was built by the French in 1896 to incarcerate Asian patriots who challenged their rule. It remained a hell on earth for the Vietnamese until the fall of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954. A blood-stained guillotine that severed more than a few heads remains on display today, a grisly reminder of tortures of the past.
The “relic” standing today is but a fragment of the original Maison Centrale (“Central House”) prison on Hỏa Lò (“Fiery Furnace”) street, so named because stoves were sold here in pre-colonial times. Much of it was razed in 1993 to make room for adjacent high-rise construction, but the core was kept as a museum. The surviving structures include three two-story stone buildings with men’s and women’s sleeping quarters, dungeons and watchtowers, and part of the thick, high stone wall that surrounded the jail.
Constructed to house between 450 and 500 inmates, Hỏa Lò was notoriously overcrowded, as the French sovereigns was quick to squash any signs of dissent among independence-minded Vietnamese. There were as many as 2,000 prisoners here in the 1930s, and most were forced to sleep in ankle chains on hard stone floors. Beatings were frequent and vicious; mental torture included solitary confinement and withholding food. Today the prison’s effectively dim lighting emphasizes the hardships the Viet nationalists endured.
For the decade after the French withdrawal, Hỏa Lò saw smaller numbers of domestic prisoners. But between 1964 and 1973, it was used to hold more than 700 American pilots who had been shot down and captured in the country.
Among them were John McCain, who became a U.S. senator and the Republican nominee for American president in 2008, and Douglas “Pete” Peterson, later the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam after the countries reestablished diplomatic relations in 1995. Prison exhibits depict the “humane” treatment afforded these American prisoners, quite in contrast to reports of torture expressed by the inmates. Decades later McCain himself, who was a prisoner for 5½ years after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 (a photo shows him being rescued from Trúc Bạch lake), called the museum an “excellent propaganda establishment” after a visit.
Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating bit of history to glimpse. Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission 30,000 dong (US$1.30). Address: 1 Hỏa Lò at Hai Bà Trung.
House of history
The Vietnam National Museum of History was built between 1925 and 1932 as the École Française d’Extrême Orient (French School of the Far East). Architect Ernest Hebrard designed a structure that combined both French and Chinese features, one of the first to do so. Today the collection has outgrown the building, so that elements of more recent history — including the French colonial occupation, the emergence of the Communist party and the American War — have been relocated to an annex across the street. That section was closed during my visit.
Vietnamese history may be traced back nearly 5,000 years to a Bronze Age culture known as the Dong Son. Its people, rice farmers in the fertile lowlands of the Red River valley of the north, established the first independent state around 2800 B.C. The National Museum displays several examples of the bronze drums and gongs for which it was famed, along with other bronze crafts — several of which demonstrate the Dong Son reverence for sex and fertility. Most of the artifacts presented are from the Third Century B.C. to the Third A.D.
Chinese hegemony imprinted upon Vietnam’s north for the first millennium of what the West knew as the Christian era. A stifling Confucianist philosophy, freely accented by Taoist superstition, may be seen in artifacts from this period. It wasn’t until 938 A.D. that Vietnam’s native Kinh people succeeded in deposing the Han invaders. A warlord named Ngô Quyền led his forces to victory against the Chinese navy in the battle of the Bạch Đằng river; a stirring painting recalls the triumph.
A highlight of the history museum is this commissioned painting of the ancient battle of the Bach Dang river.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s central coast, from Huế to Vũng Tàu, was the homeland of the kingdom of Champa from the 2nd to the 15th centuries. Its sandstone icons of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha and other Hindu deities are largely showcased in their own gallery that rings the museum’s second-floor rotunda.
As independent Vietnam matured, it became truly unified for the first time. Ethnic Vietnamese supplanted a Khmer realm in the Mekong Delta region of the south. By the 18th century, the powerful Nguyên family had overrun the international trade port of Faifoo (Hội An) near Đà Nẵng,
In 1802, Nguyên Anh established himself as Emperor Gia Long in 1802 and established an imperial capital at Hué. Soon thereafter, he recaptured Hanoi from the Chinese, thus uniting all of Vietnam under the Nguyên dynasty. Priceless jewelry, hand-scribed books and other imperial relics are indicative of this era of Vietnamese history.
Near the ground-floor entrance, a temporary exhibit represents the symbolism of the zodiacal year of the tiger. I imagine it will be replaced by representations of the rabbit by early 2023. Open daily (except Monday) 8 a.m. to noon and 2:30 to 5 p.m.; admission 40,000 dong (US$1.75). Address: 216 Trần Quang Khải at Hang Tiên.
In honor of women
Among the leading figures in Vietnam’s folkloric history are two warrior sisters, the Hai Bà Trưng, who about 2,000 years ago led an insurrection against the Chinese and sacrificed their lives to the cause. They set an example for outspoken modern women, who are exalted in exhibits at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.
This four-story museum, only a few blocks from Hoàn Kiếm lake, highlights the roles that women play in society and culture — not least of all in their wartime activities.
Indeed, if every city in Vietnam has a street named Hai Bà Trưng, so does it also have an avenue honoring Nguyễn Thi Minh Khai (1910-1941). Her story of fervent nationalistic passion, which led to her execution by the French, is one of many told on interpretive plaques on the museum’s walls.
Nearby are hung dozens of propaganda posters from the American War epoch. Many are blatantly violent, as one promising a “payback in blood” to U.S. President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, the peak years of the conflict.
Other rooms are far less politically motivated. I was impressed by a chamber that displayed beautifully designed costumes and basketry from some of the country’s multitude of ethnic minority groups. Its content, in three languages (including English and French), describes matrilineal societal structures. Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission 30,000 dong (US$1.30). Address: 36 Lý Thường Kiệt.
The heart and soul of Hanoi city is Hoàn Kiếm, the “Lake of the Restored Sword.” Stories of its divine nature go back many centuries.
In long-ago England, mythical Camelot had its legend of King Arthur and “the sword in the stone.” In medieval Vietnam, the sword was in a lake, and it was wielded by a golden turtle god.
Folklore says that a 15th-century emperor, Lê Lợi, was boating on the green waters of Hanoi’s 12-hectare (30-acre) Luc Thuy when the terrapin surfaced and requested his magic sword. At first the monarch was outraged that such a creature would demand “Heaven’s Will,” as he called the weapon. Then he realized this wasn’t just any golden tortoise; it was a divinity, Kim Qui, who had come to reclaim the sword that the Dragon King had lent the emperor to fight and defeat the conquering armies of China’s Ming Dynasty. He returned the rapier and renamed the lake Ho Hoàn Kiếm, “Lake of the Restored Sword.”
Of turtles and kings
Today, Hoàn Kiếm may be the most unforgettable sight in Vietnam’s capital city — if only because it’s at the center of all the action. Immediately south of the Old Quarter, the oblong lake is encircled by a delightful promenade that takes only about 20 minutes to circumambulate if you don’t stop along the way.
But, of course, you will stop. There are fresh fruit vendors and tour-bus stops at its north end, flower gardens and coffee shops around the lakeshore. There are statues and monuments.
You may be temporarily spellbound by the Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) on a small island near the center of the lake. Large soft-shell turtles of an endangered species are still sometimes seen here. There have been towers and temples here over the centuries; the current three-story structure was privately built in 1886 to honor of Lê Lợi.
A statue of Lý Thái Tổ (974-1028), the king credited with founding Hanoi in 1010, rises just east of the lake, in a handsome park. Lý called his city Thang Long (“Rising Dragon”); its modern name, which means “Between Rivers,” wasn’t adopted until 1831. The bronze sculpture, the largest in Vietnam, was erected in 2004, six years before the city’s millennium celebration and 50 years after its liberation from France. It is 33 feet (10.1 meters) tall and weighs 12 tons.
Just a few blocks north, the Martyrs Monument is a white-marble memorial honoring the men and women who died fighting for Vietnam’s independence. Its three figures — a woman wielding a sword and two men, one with a rifle, the other with a torch — are meant to symbolize the role that all Vietnamese played in their freedom struggle, regardless of gender.
Adjacent to the monument, colorful signs continue to call for Vietnamese vigilance in the fight against the COVID-19 virus.
A visit to Jade Island
Wander around the northeastern lakeshore during the Tét (lunar new year) holidays, as I did, and you will inevitably see scores of women, of all ages, festively dressed for the occasion in traditional áo dài, a signature costume of the Vietnamese people. A long, split tunic that sets the standard for formal dress in this nation, it is especially popular in times of merriment.
In Hanoi, there are few better places for celebration than Jade Island, with its 18th-century Đền Ngọc Sơn (Temple of the Jade Mountain) linked to the lakeshore by a bright red wooden footbridge known as the Cầu Thê Húc — the Bridge of Morning Sunlight. They were erected in the 19th century to honor Trần Hưng Đạo, a 13th-century general who led the Vietnamese Army to victories over Chinese invaders, as well as Văn Xương Đế Quân, the god of prosperity in ancient Chinese culture and Taoist philosophy.
To visit the temple is to take a journey through an aged architectural complex. On the lakeshore, the Pen Tower (Tháp Bút) resembles a pen with its nib pointing to the sky; it sits on a rock pile representing the earth. Carved on the stone Ink Slab (Dai Nghien) beside it are three words: Ta Thanh Thien, “writing on the blue sky,” an acknowledgement of human dreams. Further on, the Moon Gazing Pavilion (Dac Nguyet Lau) is a temple gate; on its sides are carved a turtle, for longevity and sustainability, and a dragon, symbolizing strength and power. Next is the Tidal Wave Defense Pavilion (Đình Trấn Ba). Though tsunami are unlikely so far inland, this pavilion is a reminder to Vietnamese to defend their cultural identity against the invasion of foreign values.
The visually striking Thê Húc Bridge, its wooden segments painted a vibrant vermillion, lures the sun’s rays. It is believed to attract hope, luck and happiness.
The highlights of the Ngoc Son Temple are its three statues. Trần Hưng Đạo stands triumphantly on a pedestal with his lieutenants. Văn Xương Đế Quân, the philosopher, peacefully sits contemplating his knowledge of mankind. The Amitabha Buddha of Infinite Life reflects on the nature of what is real — and what is not.
Near the lake
Elsewhere in the Hoàn Kiếm district are many more places of note. Among them is the St. Joseph Cathedral, a couple of streets to the lake’s west. Built by the French in 1886, the Neo-Gothic building towers above a small urban plaza, its twin bell towers illuminated by muted green and blue lights after dark. Within are outstanding stained-glass windows and a beautiful altar.
It may be no accident that Hanoi’s best Italian restaurant is situated in its shadow. Leonardo Fazioli, the owner of Mediterraneo, once offered sailing charters on the Adriatic Sea. He landed in Vietnam more than 25 years ago, and today he offers all manner of cucina Italiana, from roast boar to pannacotta, to an appreciative clientele that (not surprisingly) tends to be European.
There are other excellent restaurants nearby, as well, many serving contemporary or gourmet Vietnamese food. At the Cầu Gỗ bistro, I enjoyed a midday meal of a beef-and-banana flower salad with Hanoi-style spring rolls, with a lake view. Banana flowers? The purple blossoms of the banana tree. And they are delicious.
Coffee and pastry shops abound in the vicinity, reaching out for the pedestrians who enjoy walks around Hoàn Kiếm lake. Hanoi journalist Ollie Nguyen has written extensively about some of the choices; see her recommendations here.
Within a short walk of the cathedral, in the city’s French Quarter, are two extremely worthwhile museums. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, nicknamed “the Hanoi Hilton” during the American War, includes a special acknowledgement of the late U.S. Senator John McCain, a former prisoner who returned here decades later to promote improved American-Vietnamese relations. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum has exhibits telling the powerful role played by women in this country’s wars against the French and Americans. I will write more about each in a later blog.
Vietnam’s earliest urban neighborhood reveals some of its secrets to those willing to search … and ask questions.
For a long time, I was puzzled by the Vietnamese inclination to cluster shops of the same type on a single street. One city block, for instance, can be home to nothing but stores dealing in bamboo furniture. Or stuffed toys. Or shoes, or carpets, or wedding dresses.
It makes little sense to me. Why would you intentionally face off against the competition when you can set up shop in a separate neighborhood with unique cachet? Wouldn’t you want to be the only hardware purveyor on the block?
It took a visit to the Old Quarter of Hanoi before I understood the historical precedent. As long ago as the 1400s, this tightly populated district was the urban core of the royal capital city, then known as Dong Kinh (Tonkin). A medieval center of commerce and manufacturing, its matrix of streets was surrounded by a staunch stone wall with few points of entry.
Craftspeople from surrounding villages would come here to sell their wares. They gathered with others of their specialized trades — copper and tin smiths, tailors, sail makers, wood carvers — and organized guilds to promote their skills. Each street (tradition holds there were originally 36) took the name of its trade guild.
Near the Red River, on Phõ Hàng Tre (“Bamboo Products Street”), raft makers worked closely with tradesmen from adjacent Phõ Hàng Buôm (“Sail Makers Street”). Over on Phõ Hàng Mam (“Fish Sauce Street), the most popular ingredient in Vietnamese cooking was stored in containers from Phõ Hàng Thung (“Barrel Makers Street”).
The tin crafts guild on Hàng Thiec produced candle sticks, opium boxes and binding tips for conical nón la, traditional hats manufacturered on Hàng Nón. Tradespeople of Hàng Dao, its name (dao) a reference to apricot blossoms used in dying textiles, worked closely with the merchants of Hàng Gai, where silk clothing is still custom produced. Hàng May sold rattan basketry, Hàng Đông copper wares, Lan Ong medicinal herbs. The tradesmen of Hàng Ma specialized in funeral joss, replica money and furniture to make the afterlife more comfortable for the deceased.
Today, while many of the streets’ original devotions are ancient history, their attraction to shopkeepers of similar interests remain. You might, for instance, find a jewelry street. A plumbing fixtures street. A musical instrument street. A religious art street. I even discovered one lane with a half-dozen adjacent shops selling only wire and rope products.
Hanoi (or Hà Nội) is Vietnam’s national capital, its hub of administration and defense services, and its traditional educational and cultural center. It is a much older city than Ho Chi Minh City (Sái Gòn), its southern counterpart; and although the two river cities are similar in size (both claim more than 8 million residents), they are as different as sisters can be.
HCMC is a steamy subtropical metropolis, a bustling and frequently frantic center for business and industry hard by the Mekong Delta. Hanoi is more stately and sedate, reminiscent of historical Europe in a four-seasons climate, its center accented by picturesque lakes and memorable museums.
But the Old Quarter has none of the French flavor seen elsewhere in Hanoi. Its network of ancient streets still crisscross in much the same pattern as they did centuries in the past, and some of the ancient architecture persists — although new buildings are gradually phasing out the old. Many historic homes now have shops or cafes on their ground floors, with laundry hanging from wrought-iron railings outside the landings of residences above.
Out and about in this warren of busy streets and alleys, there are plenty of attractions to divert a visitor’s attention for the better part of a day. In an earlier time, each guild had a communal temple dedicated to the legendary founder of its craft. Without showing favor, these often combined elements of Taoist myth and Confucian deference with worship of the historical Buddha.
Few remain today, but I found the Hương Tượng temple on Phõ Mã Mây to be especially worth a visit. It is said to have been built to honor the patron saint of the original city of Thăng Long (“rising dragon”) when it was founded by King Lý Thái Tổ in 1010, and is a Vietnam national heritage site. Reconstruction in the 18th and 19th centuries restored much of its original six-section design, including a sanctuary, incense chamber and ceremonial hall.
Lesser but far more colorful temples and pagodas may be found down small alleys in the same vicinity.
But the most popular spot for casual prayers is the Bạch Mã temple, also credited to Lý Thái Tổ, clearly a man who knew how to express his gratitude. At its heart is a statue of a white horse fabled to have directed the monarch to this very spot, around which he erected his original city walls. Today, even when the massive, red wooden doors are closed, supplicants gather on Hàng Buôm to offer devotion.
Only one of the original city portals — the Quan Chưởng, or east gate — remains standing today. It is a decidedly medieval-looking structure, suitable for a feudal castle, its arched entry framed by grey stone and discolored brick. But the motorbikes that endlessly zoom through the portal, and the colorful apartment houses that rise high above it, make clear that this is the 21st century, not the 15th.
The gate isn’t far from the Đồng Xuân Market, the largest market under one roof in the north of Vietnam. Its three stories are divided into stalls selling everything from household goods and clothing to fresh farm produce, fish and just-butchered meats. The market was originally built by the French in 1889, combining two earlier neighborhood markets, and has been frequently renovated, notably in 1994 after a disastrous fire.
Inside and outside the market, and along streets leading in all directions, street food vendors set up shop from morning to late night. Seafood — notably, a bewildering range of snails (ốc) and shellfish — is especially popular, served grilled, steamed or simmered in rich noodle soups.
As the sun sets and day becomes night, attention turns to the central blocks of Phõ Tà Hiên, not far from the Bạch Mã temple. Here and on Phõ Mã Mây are the Old Quarter’s greatest concentration of cheap hotels and hostels, and backpacker-friendly pubs.
Unlike Saigon, Hanoi is not a city noted for its nightlife. Indeed, during the Covid period, most bars have been closing by 9 p.m., if they open at all. But open-air restaurants on both sides of Tà Hiên continue to fill the narrow lane with tables and chairs in the hope that their once-bustling business will soon return to pre-pandemic normal.
From a Zen tribute to tombs of ancient emperors, the countryside beyond Huế shares its memories well.
I had the remarkable opportunity in late January to pay homage at the funeral of Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, one of the most ìnfluential spiritual voices of his generation.
I happened to arrive in Vietnam’s ancient imperial capital of Huế on the eve of his death at the age of 95. An outspoken peace activist who once voiced his opposition to the country’s civil war and the American involvement, Nhất Hạnh was banished from his native land in 1966 and was unable to return before 2005. But during his long exile in France, he wrote more than 100 books and became the leading advocate for a practice of mindfulness called “engaged Buddhism.”
Only a few years before his passing, Nhất Hạnh returned to Huế to live quietly in Từ Hiếu Temple, the sanctuary where he spent his young adulthood.
“Birth and death are only notions,” he wrote in his book No Death, No Fear (2002). “They are not real.” When his devoted followers suggested a stupa (a shrine) for his ashes, he suggested a plaque reading: “I am not in here. I am not out there either.”
Từ Hiếu Temple is approached by a winding drive off a suburban street southwest of central Huế, in the Thủy Xuân commune. Low-lying temples and shrines, residences shared by 70 monks, and a tranquil bell tower nestle among rolling hills in a pine forest. Built in 1843 and famed as a meditation center, it was initially supported by eunuchs from the Imperial Citadel; many of their graves are among those in an ancient cemetery beside the complex.
I entered the grounds through a gateway of three doors and walked around a half-moon-shaped pond filled with multi-hued lotus flowers and colorful koi fish. From here, it was a short climb through the woods to the central temple where more worshippers than usual were offering prayers. When I expressed a desire to honor the man known as Thầy, or “Master,” I was directed to a courtyard where monks from other Vietnamese centers were gathering with brethren from Từ Hiếu along with dozens of devotees from the local community.
I was warmly if quietly welcomed: This was a time of inner reflection, not loud celebration. Removing my shoes (of course), I fell into a line with other well-wishers who paraded slowly, hands clasped, before a small photograph of Nhất Hạnh and around his coffin. It was draped in flowers and banners, and watched over by a half-dozen Từ Hiếu monks, their heads bowed in silence and prayer.
Tự Đức or not Tự Đức
Aside from the Từ Hiếu temple, the countryside south of Huế is renowned today for its cluster of imperial tombs, miles from the royal palace. Indeed, together with the Imperial Citadel, the complex is acclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Complex of Huế Monuments.
Tombs remember seven of the 13 the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, which governed an independent Vietnam between 1802 and 1884, then (as figureheads) a French colonial protectorate until 1945. Of these, the most visited, due to their physical condition and relative accessibility, are the tombs of Minh Mạng (ruled 1820-41), Tự Đức (1847-83) and Khải Định (1916-25).
Nearest to both Từ Hiếu and central Huế is the Tomb of Tự Đức. Built in the mid-1860s as a place of Buddhist worship, it also became the emperor’s de facto home (Khiêm Palace) following an 1866 assassination plot. He left the Imperial Palace grounds and settled here with his wives and concubines — all 104 of them.
By all accounts, the 32-acre (12-hectare) grounds were a wonderful place to live. At the heart of the property was 4.2-acre Luu Khiêm Lake, where Tự Đức could go boating or hunt small game on a central islet. Afterward, he could relax lakeside in either of two facing pavilions, and return to the palace or the royal theater across any of three bridges.
But his life was turbulent and sad. A fierce opponent of the growing French presence during his reign, he actively challenged the Catholic missionary presence, which only served to stoke the Europeans’ invasion plans. A youthful bout of smallpox had rendered him impotent, so he was unable to father an heir to the throne. When he died, nephews and an adopted son filled the nominal leadership role as France took control of the country.
It was traditional for a ruler’s son to write an epitaph saluting the deeds of his predecessor’s reigns. Tự Đức was left to write his own self-critical appraisal. The inscription today fills a two-sided stele in a pavilion just east of the emperor’s tomb. The stele is the largest in Vietnam; it took four years to carry the stone from a quarry 500 kilometers (310 miles) distant.
Minh Mạng memorial
Minh Mạng was the second emperor of the Nguyen line, and he ruled in a much more prosperous and tranquil era than Tự Đức. Thus it’s not surprising that this retreat beside the Perfume River, 11 km (7 miles) southwest of the Citadel, is more reflective of its natural setting.
Built between 1840 and 1843 on the lower slopes of Mount Hieu, it was intended as an earthly paradise of flowers and birds, a place speaking to the emperor’s love of art, poetry and philosophy. Around the shore of lotus-perfumed Lake Trung Minh, beneath pine-shaded hills, are pavilions specifically designed for the ruler to read books, contemplate nature, rest with his concubines, fish, feed deer or merely enjoy fresh air.
Today, visitors enter through the Dai Hong Mon gate. Its three entrances and 24 roofs display such ornaments as carp turning into dragons, which roll into clouds. Behind in the salutation court, two lines of carved stone mandarins, elephants and horses offer eternal praise to Minh Mạng and his queen. The stele house shelters the requisite memorial stone inscribed with the emperor’s biography, as written by his successor (Thieu Tri).
The main temple gate is located inside a square wall that symbolizes the earth. Beyond, as the centerpiece of a circular heaven, is Sung An Palace, and beyond it Minh Mạng’s tomb.
Khải Định ruled only during and immediately following the First World War, and the design of his tomb — which blends Vietnamese and European architecture —might be seen as a reflection upon his collaboration with the government of France. Indeed, he was not popular in his own country.
Built between 1920 and 1931 on the steep slope of Chau Chu Mountain, the tomb is smaller but more elaborately designed than others. It requires a moderate amount of stair climbing. The largest dragon sculptures in all of Vietnam support the side walls, and more intricately designed dragons adorn the ceiling of the elaborate palace, which stands before the mausoleum. A dozen stone statues representing bodyguards protect a reinforced-concrete stele. At the rear is the emperor’s grave crowned by a statue of the ruler that was cast, not surprisingly, in France.
Huế’s other four imperial tombs — those of Gia Long (1802-20), Thiệu Trị (1841-47), Dục Đức (1883) and Đồng Khánh (1885-89) — can also be visited by tourists. None is said to be especially remarkable. That of Gia Long, the first of the Nguyen dynasty, has been recently restored but is somewhat more distant. At the Citadel, I paid 530,000 Vietnam dong (about US $23) for a combination ticket that admitted me to all three of the tombs that I visited as well as the Imperial City itself.
One more site that is easily included in a day’s tour of the imperial tombs is the Thiên Mụ pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. An unofficial symbol of Huế, it overlooks the broad and beautiful Perfume River on a low hill, about 5 km (3 miles) west of the Citadel.
Built in 1601, it has been expanded several times over the centuries. Emperor Thiệu Trị, in 1844, built the iconic and octagonal Phước Duyên tower, each of its seven stories dedicated to a different Buddha. Constructed of brick, it is 21m (69 feet) in height. At the foot of the tower is a large marble turtle, a symbol of longevity, and inscriptions of poems written by the intellectual Thiệu Trị. The knell of a massive bell, cast in 1710, is said to be audible from 10 km (6.2 miles) away.
Surrounded by moats and thick walls, the 19th-century home of Vietnam’s final emperors is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The last emperor of Vietnam died in 1997, long after his realm had lost all right to call itself an empire. Indeed Bao Dai, who lived well into his 80s, had been born (in 1913) into a country that already was firmly controlled by the French. During his lifetime, he observed the overthrow of France, the rise of the Communist party and the reunification of the nation. He never had the opportunity to experience the true imperial splendor that once was Vietnam.
Modern visitors to Huế, on the other hand, can get a small taste of what it must have been like during the glory years of the Nguyen Dynasty, between 1803 and 1883. Its Imperial City, albeit ravaged by 20th-century wars, retains enough of its historical flavor to fascinate even the most jaded tourist. Flamboyant and architecturally spellbinding, massive in extent yet historically sound, the imperial enclosure and its surrounding Citadel are the central sites of the UNESCO-designated Complex of Huế Monuments, one of the most important heritage destinations in all of Asia.
Moats within moats
Huế (pronounced hway) is a city of about 400,000 people, three hours north of Da Nang by bus or train. It lies on both banks of the picturesque Perfume River (Sông Hương), about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the beaches of the East (South China) Sea. Prominent from the 16th century, it became the imperial capital in 1802, when Nguyen Phuc Anh established his control over the whole of Vietnam.
As Emperor Gia Long, Nguyen began construction of the Citadel complex — with enclosures within moated enclosures, within moated enclosures — in 1803. Work continued for three decades. At the heart was the Forbidden Purple City, home of the emperor. Stone walls over 2 meters (6.5 feet) thick extend 10 km (6.2 miles) within seamless moats 4 meters (13 feet) deep and 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) across.
Tourist-dependent Huế has suffered mightily during the COVID era, but I was selfishly glad for the opportunity to visit when travelers were few in number. Even though a high overcast left skies mostly gray, and I uncharacteristically (for the tropics) donned a jacket for my long day’s walk through the complex, I hardly saw another person during my time in the Imperial City.
I began my visit at the Ngo Mon gate facing the Perfume River. It’s one of 10 access points, but the one most convenient to a majority of visitors. An admission ticket is just 200,000 Vietnam dong, less than US $9.
Of 148 buildings that once comprised the Imperial City, only 20 are standing today. Restoration of several structures is slow but ongoing. An example is the Thai Hoa Palace, directly beyond the Ngo Mon gate. Sitting upon his throne, the emperor greeted official visitors here. When I visited it was undergoing extensive reconstruction, and a Virtual Reality program providing context for a full day’s exploration of the site had been moved to a nearby building. Closed at the time of my visit, it was scheduled to reopen by April.
Beyond the palace are two facing Halls of the Mandarins. The East Hall (on the right as I approached) contains captivating displays on traditional Vietnamese literature and music, pastimes not widely appreciated in contemporary society.
A meander to the right (northeast) reveals the Royal Theatre, one of the most active locations on the entire Imperial City campus. Traditional dance performances, 45 minutes in length, are presented here several times most days. Ancient musical instruments and masks are exhibited behind glass at all times. Construction of the original theater began in 1826, and it subsequently became the home of the National Conservatory of Music. It has now been rebuilt on its original foundation.
The theater is adjacent to the ruins of the grand Can Chanh Palace. Little remains here but a pair of long corridors that flank its remnants on the east and west sides. Reconstructed and painted with a brick-red lacquer, these open hallways are lined with historical photographs and interpretive studies of Nguyen imperial history.
To the right of the corridors are the Emperor’s Reading Room (Thai Binh) and the impressively tidy Thiệu Phương and Cơ Hạ gardens. The two-story reading room was the only part of the Forbidden Purple City — a space reserved specifically for the emperor, his concubines and eunuch servants — that was not destroyed in 1947 when the French reoccupied Huế following the Second World War. (In 1945, Emperor Bao Dai had abdicated and evacuated, putting an end to the Nguyen Dynasty.)
Thai Binh has a beautiful mosaic exterior and a far more classic, subdued interior. Beyond its walls, the Thiệu Phương Garden is a stylized work of naturally sculpted rocks and bonsai trees, accented by brightly blooming flowers and artistically designed windows. Further east, the Cơ Hạ garden is more free-form, a recreating the original royal botanical gardens with trees, gazebos, ponds and an impressive population of birds.
Forbidden, not forgotten
Walkways lead across the northern portion of the Imperial City complex to the Tru’ong San residence, traditionally home to the emperor’s mother. While the beautiful exterior has been mostly restored, its interior is largely empty, except for a model of the Imperial City as it appeared in the 1840s. (I’ve shown that photo early in this story.) Adjacent is the Dien Tho residence, home to the queen mothers.
Step outside and look back east to where the Forbidden Purple City once stood. It’s easy to see the devastation wrought in both the 1940s (by the French) and the 1960s and ’70s (by the Americans). Crumbling walls and arches, accented by overgrown trees, can only hint at the beauty that must once have existed here.
A temple complex
The southwestern quadrant of the Imperial City is occupied by the To Mieu Temple Complex, including (on its north side) the Hung To Mieu Temple. Original built in 1804 to honor Emperor Gia Long’s parents, it is still undergoing reconstruction.
The rest of the magnificent complex has already been largely restored.
Visitors enter through the three-story, 1824 Hien Lam Pavilion on the south side of the complex. Just within the gate are a set of nine enormous dynastic urns, cast in bronze in 1835 and 1836. Each is dedicated to a different Nguyen emperor, symbolizing the power and stability of their reign.
Opposite the pavilion is the To Mieu Temple, in which there are shrines to each of the emperors. The largest and most central honors dynasty founder Gia Long.
By the time of his abdication in 1945, at age 32, I’m sure Bao Dai understood that the relentless march of history had passed him by.