What in the world might have inspired this stunning, late-in-life adventure? John’s first installment explains what brought him to Vietnam.
My birthday is almost here again. That means I’ve been nearly a year in Vietnam, a tropical Southeast Asian country that, half a century ago, I did everything I could to avoid.
Of course, looking back 50 years, I was of prime military draft age, and Uncle Sam would have loved to cloak me in khaki, hand me an automatic weapon and drop me into a rice padi. Student deferments enabled me to stay in university through the first draft lotteries. Then I drew a very high lottery number and wasn’t called.
The United States withdrew its forces from Sài Gòn in 1975. A year later, I was a backpacker traveling through Bangkok, just a hop, step and jump away from what Vietnamese today call The American War. From 1982 to 1984 I worked elsewhere in Southeast Asia, in Singapore, where my son was born. By that time, Vietnam’s socialist-communist northern province had consumed its once-democratic southern jurisdiction, and Westerners were not roundly welcomed during the national rebuilding process.
Vietnam is different now. If some Americans of my generation continue to hold resentment against the Vietnamese, that grudge is not reciprocated. The people are almost universally warm and gracious. Although the country has a one-party communist government, it has an unabashedly capitalist economy. And tourism — not so long ago nonexistent — is now a stanchion of Vietnam’s booming success. At least it was so prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m sure it will bounce back.
With its millennia-old history and great natural beauty, Vietnam has become one of the most popular travel destinations on earth. In fact, this seahorse-shaped country has no fewer than eight UNESCO world heritage sites.
An Asian attraction
Early on, I was smitten by Southeast Asia. I had traveled through western Europe, parts of Latin America and across the South Pacific, but it was this corner of the world that most enchanted me. As a meeting place between the cultures of India to the west and China to the north, the region hosted a singular blend of world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and more) and history, from the Mongol hordes to European colonization.
Several years after earning my journalism degree from the University of Oregon, I did graduate work in Asian cultures and history. I focused my learning on Southeast Asia, accompanied by coursework in basic Japanese language. (My brother, Fred, by this time had become a resident of Japan.) In my subsequent career as a travel and food writer and editor, however, I returned to this area only twice after leaving Singapore in 1984. Once was in 1996 with my son, Erik, when he was 12. The other was in 2004 as a guest on a clipper cruise line operating out of Phuket, Thailand.
I had always planned to return for longer stays. But LIFE happened. (As John Lennon famously said, LIFE is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.) Between 1980 and 2019 there was marriage. Childbirth. Divorce. Child support. Attractive new job opportunities. Book contracts. Two more major relationships. Dad’s death to heart disease at age 70. Mom’s declining health and, finally, her passing at the age of 89 in early 2015.
Between it all, my life was uniquely fantastic. I wrote 19 first-edition books and hundreds of feature articles for major magazines and newspapers. I was an editor for The Los Angeles Times and France’s renowned Michelin Guides. I worked not only as a journalist, but also as a cook, a musician, a carpenter, a salesman, a university professor, a bartender, even a sheep shearer. As a ski champion and instructor, I waxed my planks on four continents. I rode the Hawaiian surf, paraglided from the heights of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, rafted the whitewater of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, backpacked large portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, and bicycled the length of New Zealand and the Oregon coast. I played ice hockey in Sweden and roller hockey on Venice Beach, mushed sled dogs in Alaska, studied tango dancing in Buenos Aires, created batik art in Java, tickled the honky-tonk piano keys in New Zealand, and fished for tuna from a dugout canoe in the Solomon Islands.
Through all these adventures, nothing and no one in my life meant more to me than my son. Erik lived in Seattle, a half day’s drive from my Oregon home. He was only 4 years old when his mother and I split, but he and I always remained the best of friends. We skied together, rafted together, shared a love of dogs, dining and professional sports. He found a career in information technology, but his passion was music. He was a popular DJ and producer of EDM (electronic dance music) shows in his home city of Seattle. I attended as often as possible.
Inevitably, a part of DJ’ing was hard partying. The lifestyle took its toll. When Erik told me in October 2015, not long after Mom’s death, that he had been diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer, I was devastated. Eight months later, in June 2016, he was dead at the age of 32, victim of a particularly aggressive form of hepatobiliary carcinoma.
Had he and his wife, Kim, his high-school sweetheart, succeeded in starting the family they so badly wanted, I doubt that I would have left the Pacific Northwest for the long term. My travels would not have been open-ended. I would have enjoyed being a grandfather. Now that would not happen.
Next: Making the move