92. Travels with My Best Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how I organized his private tour.

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

Ho Chi Minh City

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

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

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

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

By the sea in Vũng Tàu

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

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

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

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

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

Buon Ma Thuot and Da Nang

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

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

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

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

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

Historic Hội An

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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