74. The Bridges of Da Nang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading for the hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

73. Mỹ Sơn Is Not My Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A day’s excursion

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

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

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

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

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

Nine building clusters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop the bombs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men in White

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

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

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

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

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

Whining and dining

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

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

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

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

Covid comes to visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Twilight Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

71. Eating My Way Through Hội An

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the water

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow noodles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water and lye

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

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

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

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

More street food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

70. Hội An’s Chinese Flair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goddess of the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dialects and deities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dragon of a man

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

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

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

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

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

Communal houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

69. Romancing the Past in Hội An

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

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

What’s not to like about Hội An?

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

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

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

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

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

The past is present

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

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

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

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

Lanterns and silks

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

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

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

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

End of an era

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

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

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

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

A sense of romance

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

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

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

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

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

Supporting heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

68. Culture and History on Vietnam’s Central Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiva rising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddhist monuments

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

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

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

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

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

Beachside diversions

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

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

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

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

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

67. Serendipity on the Beach at Nha Trang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A glorious morning

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

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

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

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

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

In like Flynn

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

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

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

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

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

Six hours, four islands

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

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

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

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

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

Far from the shallow now

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

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

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

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

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

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

The farmer’s daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redhead Willies

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

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

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

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

Back alleys and coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban art reprieve

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

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

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

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

Mulligans and piggies

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

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

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

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

65. Christmas in Thao Dien

Even for an expatriate who has strained to distance himself from Western culture: Sometimes, you’ve just got to have a hamburger.

Apartment blocks and businesses in the Thao Dien ward of Saigon’s District 2 flag a neighborhood filled with foreigners. (JGA photo)

What’s the point of travel, if you choose to live in a community parallel to the one you left back home? Every major international city has at least one quarter that ís dominated by its expatriate residents. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is no different. Here, there are two: The Phú Mỹ Hưng ward of Dístrict 7 has a large population of overseas Koreans and Chinese (mainly from Taiwan). And the Thảo Điền neighborhood of Dístrict 2 is the community of choice for an outsized number of English-speaking Europeans, North Americans, Australians and more.

When I came to Vietnam 26 months ago, I made a conscious decision to reside away from Western culture. It has long been my mantra to live outside of my comfort zone. I immersed myself in an unfamiliar language and culture, far from Caucasian enclaves, surrounded by open-air eateries serving phở tài nam and bún bò Hué with Tiger lagers. I took that a step further early this year, when I moved from metropolitan Saigon to Đắk Lắk province and the big country town (for that’s what it is) of Buôn Ma Thuột. You don’t go there looking to speak English and eat hamburgers.

At Marcel’s Gourmet Burger, you can get a juicy combo plate with housemade sauces. (JGA photo)

You are what you eat

Vietnamese cuisine is delicious, don’t get me wrong. But do you know what? After 9½ months in a place with all the dining sophistication of Burns, Oregon (and I apologize to any readers whom that may offend) — made doubly difficult by zealous Covid restrictions — I found myself ready to reenter Western culture. I’m not a backpacker watching every penny, as I was in my twenties. Indeed, when I left the States I was a James Beard Foundation-accredited restaurant critic.

I’m a gourmet. And a gourmand. (If you don’t know the difference, look it up.) And you can only keep an omnivore down for so long. I craved a good Wagyu steak, magret de canard, tagliatelle carbonara, fresh oysters on the half shell.  I yearned for unagi sushi from Japan, tandoori chicken from India, larb gai from Thailand.

So when the time came for a Christmas holiday escape from the Central Highlands, I headed back to the big smoke, where the air is typically as polluted as that statement implies. I found a lovely small hotel in Thảo Điền, among all those Westerners whom I had previously chosen to avoid. (I highly recommend the Mecozy Apartel, where I’m paying less than US$20/night for a studio suite with kitchen facilities.) And — no surprise! — I’m been eating like a king, and enjoying all those wonderful wines I’ve been missing.

Artist Rick Reid unveils his painting “The Friday Lunch” to friends who might recognize themselves. (JGA photo)

The Friday Lunch

During my previous time in Saigon, I became friends with a pride of expatriate residents, lion-hearted men (and a few women) with mostly (but not solely) Australian passports, who have gathered for no-host lunches at different restaurants every Friday for nearly 10 years. The membership has ebbed and flowed, and gatherings have become less regular (again, Covid) over the past two years, but I was delighted to be able to break bread with the boys on Christmas Eve.

Nine of us met at the bar of La Plancha, a French institution in Thảo Điền. The beers flowed. The wines flowed. (There was no ebb to either.) We finally got around to ordering food sometime after 2 p.m. I was rewarded with a roast duck breast that I had been dreaming about for months.

Rick Reid, a tall young (well, younger than me by a few months) Aussie artist and musician, used the opportunity to unveil a painting he’s had in the works for several months. “The Friday Lunch,” it’s called, and it features caricatures of the regular and occasional members of the group. I was honored to make a cameo appearance on the canvas, to be remembered despite my disappearance last winter into Vietnam’s hinterlands.

Nutcrackers, candy candes, wreaths and other holiday images adorn a store window on Thao Dien Streeet. (JGA photo)

Where English is king

Surrounded on three sides by a large loop in the Saigon River, on the fourth by a multi-lane highway, Thảo Điền is probably the most thoroughly bilingual community in Vietnam. In this enclave, signs written in the local language are not as evident as those in English. Especially in this holiday season, window dísplays in shops and businesses often speak to those longing for colder winter climes, with Santas, nussknacker (nutcrackers), Christmas trees and reindeer in the snow. There’s “All Day Dining” at An Saigon Kitchen & Grill. Uncle Bill’s is “Surprisingly Useful.” Le Flâneur promises to be “Really Warm Inside.” And you can “Consider IT Solved” when you visit New.It. No details. Nothing written in Vietnamese.

The urban infrastructure does not carry the Western tradition, however. As elsewhere in Ho Chi Minh City, sidewalks (a term to be used loosely) are often crumbling concrete, better used as places to park motorbikes beneath bundles of exposed overhead electrical wires than to actually stroll. Crossing streets remains an adventure, even on the narrower lanes of Thảo Điền; crosswalks are a joke, as no individual pedestrian is ever conceded right of way by motorized vehicles.

But that just adds to the adventure of life in a foreign culture, even if it seems thoroughly Westernized on its manufactured surface. At least there are places like the MAD Wine Bar, where I can enjoy a crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc or a fruity Italian sangiovese on almost any day of the year. Or the German Beer Hall, offering European lagers just one step from Deutschland itself. Or Twist, a self-proclaimed “refill station” that serves coffee and cigarettes by day, stiff drinks after dark.

European residents relax at a table outside the Twist Refill Station. (JGA photo)

Too much food

My short-term residence in Thảo Điền, I fear, has been notable primarily for my gluttonous eating habits. I could say I’m sorry … but I’m not!

On Christmas Day, my Aussie mate Adam grabbed a motorbike taxi from his dwelling in the Tan Binh district and joined me at Jaspa’s for a proper holiday dinner — roast turkey with a chopped salad, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes and all the trimmings.

The following morning, Boxing Day, you would have found me at Eddie’s Diner, a classic ’50s soda fountain with a jukebox and mounds of food, like my cast-iron skillet meal, “The Barnyard,” with two eggs atop fried chicken cutlets and hash browns, covered in mushroom gravy.

My only foray beyond District 2 was that night, when I introduced a small group of friends to my favorite Saigon restaurant, Quince in District 1. The holiday menu included oysters with a basil and kiwi salsa, scallop tartare with black truffle, barbecued pigeon with figs, and a champagne-poached pear. Wow!

December 26 dinner at Quince with Vera, Kalfie, David, myself and Nhi. (Kim Nguyen photo)

But then it was back to Thảo Điền. The Gate opened only in November, but the concept is a winner: smoked meats, including pork knuckle, goat, lamb, salmon, duck and chicken, in an indoor-outdoor garden setting. Mekong Merchant is a local institution that serves three meals daily with international flair capturing the long-gone era of the East India Company; I’m all over their shakshouka, Moroccan baked eggs, in the morning. Pendolasco is a go-to for modestly priced Italian pastas and Tuscan delicacies.

El Gaucho has, quite simply, the best steaks in the city; they are not inexpensive, but then the best beef here must be imported from Australia and the United States. There’s surprisingly authentic Mexican food (and margaritas!) at District Federal. And the gourmet burgers at Café Marcel almost make me forget I am in Vietnam.

Eddie’s Diner recreates a ’50s soda fountain with shakes, malts and all-day breakfasts. (JGA photo)
“The Friday Lunch,” 2021, by Rick Reid, holding guitar. (Image courtesy of the artist)

64.  The Soul of Colonial Saigon

Modern Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, is the sum of its historical parts. Many of the city’s most memorable buildings reflect the French colonial era.

Frangipani trees planted in 1880 continue to shade the open-air Patio of the Hotel Continental, Vietnam’s oldest hotel. (JGA photo)

When English author Graham Greene wrote his melancholic, opium-tainted novel The Quiet American in the early 1950s, he sat at a desk that I suspect was very much like the one I am at now, tapping away at an Underwood or another ancient typewriter. His workplace was in corner Room 214 of Saigon’s Hotel Continental, about six meters beneath my own room and 15 meters to the west.

I am in Room 311, not far from the apartment where “Perfect Spy” Pham Xuan An hosted fellow journalists and political leaders in the 1970s before passing their secrets to the Viet Cong. I am just down the hall from Room 301, where beautiful H’Hen Niê, a recent Miss Universe finalist, is at this very moment changing from pink chiffon to an elegant white gown for a modeling shoot.

A fashion model poses for Christmas phótos in the Hotel Continental lobby. (JGA photo)

Since it opened for business in 1880 as Vietnam’s oldest hotel, the Continental has always been at the center of the action. It predates (by 10 years) even the grand Municipal Opera House, a classic of French Third Republic style at the heart of modern Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Just as Greene or Pham might have done, I pull a lace curtain aside and gaze through my window at this neighboring building. Bare-breasted marble maidens train the eye upward to unclothed angels whose wings frame a harp, a promise of heavenly music within.

It seems the Opera House hosts few events these days. Even before a dread of the Covid virus hammered Vietnam as it did the rest of the world, crowded productions were few and far between. But the Opera House is quite an attraction among models, brides and social media-conscious young people who make its concrete steps one of the city’s most popular locations for fashion shoots and “selfies.”

The 500-seat Municipal Opera House, built in 1890, is at the heart of Saigon’s colonial district. (JGA photo)

Urban evolution

That would not have been so, of course, in Greene’s time. Even “Ho Chi Minh City” was a name he could not have known. To Greene, the city was Saigon. Hô Chí Minh was a person, not a place. And the street was Rue Catinat.

Changes in politics are often reflected in street names. By the time Pham was living in Room 307, his job as a trusted Time magazine correspondent having given him the ideal cover for his double-dealing, the French were gone and the street had been renamed Tu Do. American GIs knew it as such when they patronized its bars and nightclubs. That monicker lasted for only two decades. With the fall of Saigon to the communist government of the north in 1975, Tu Do became Đồng Khởi.

Đồng Khởi had been a mud track, “Road 16,” when the French arrived in 1860. Even now it is only about seven blocks long, with the Opera as its hub, 3½ blocks from the Saigon River to the south, 3½ blocks from the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral Basilica at its north end.

Scaffolding envelops the twin bell towers of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica de Saigon, a landmark since 1880. (JGA photo)

The cathedral is the most prominent souvenir of the era of French occupation. Built between 1863 and 1880, currently undergoing an extensive restoration, it has twin bell towers that rise 58 meters (190 feet) into the equatorial atmosphere. Roman Catholicism was practically synonymous with French colonization, but even now Vietnam has a substantial Catholic population.

The interior of the Central Post Office was based upon an 1863 design by architect Gustave Eiffel. (JGA photo)

Just across Công xã Paris is another colonial-era landmark, the Central Post Office. Originally based upon an 1863 design by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), the bright yellow building was reconstructed in the late 1880s with a vaulted wrought-iron roof supported by pillars. Visitors are welcome, and although the international telephone booths don’t get much business these days, the souvenir stands do.

Young women celebrate a special occasion outside the Central Post Office. (JGA photo)

Decades of change

Heading southward along Đồng Khởi from the cathedral to the river, one begins to get a sense of the city’s decades of change. The second cross street, Le Thanh Ton, runs between the modern Vincom Centre shopping and residential complex, on the left, and Saigon’s old Hôtel de Ville, another elegant French-era building from the start of the 20th Century. Since 1975 the home of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, it remains a major landmark. Though closed to the general public, its main entrance, one block to the right of Đồng Khởi at the head of broad Nguyen Hue, is a backdrop to a famous statue of Hô Chí Minh, his hand raised in a pledge of loyalty to the people of Vietnam.

Built in the early years of the 20th century, the Hotel de Ville is now Ho Chi Minh City’s administrative hub. (JGA photo)

Some of HCMC’s finest stores and restaurants may be found along lower Đồng Khởi, especially near the intersection of Le Loi, terminal of a long-awaited underground rail system that is approaching completion. It’s hard to miss the invitation to drop into Louis Vuitton in the Opera View building. Nearby shops market Christian Dior fragrances and accessories, Godiva Chocolates and “ultra light down” parkas to get well-to-do city folk through cold spells like the one that has dropped overnight temperatures to 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit).

From a third-floor window at the Hotel Continental, the Bitexco Tower is seen rising behind Louis Vuitton on Dong Khoi. (JGA photo)

Yet it’s not all upscale. Indeed, the culture on lower Đồng Khởi is a real mix of old and new. For every historic hotel, such as the imposing Grand or the riverside Majestic, there is a street-corner busker playing his guitar and singing Beatles riffs, a familiar melody accompanying incomprehensible lyrics. Perhaps Pham would have recognized some of those. For every shop selling aó dài dresses, bánh xèo crêpes or bò kho stew, there is a fashion-conscious bulldog waiting to go for a ride in its owner’s hot pink BMW.

Looking north on Dong Khoi from two blocks south of the Opera House. (JGA photo)
An identical view of the same street, then known as Rue Catinat, circa 1920. (Photo courtesy of Hotel Continental Saigon)

Where tradition prevails

It’s hard to say just how much the Hotel Continental has itself been transformed in the seven decades since Greene wrote his famous novel. I’m led to believe the hotel has changed not much, although the city has grown from about 1.2 million people to an estimated 9 million, and the government has gone from colonial to republican to communist.

Initially built to accommodate French cruise-ship passengers, the Continental didn’t undergo a major refurbishment until 1986, under the direction of the state-owned Saigontourist Holding Company group. Today the original tile roof, over 140 years old, still slants gently toward the Opera House, and the frangipani trees planted in 1880 continue to offer color and shade in the open-air inner courtyard known as the Patio, where a breakfast buffet is served daily. If the polished rosewood furnishings in my guest room were not part of the hotel in its early years, they should have been.

Room 311 has rosewood furnishings, a hardwood floor, and drapes that open to a view of the Opera House. (JGA photo)

Le Bourgeois, a sidewalk café that serves as the hotel’s principal restaurant, was a favorite gathering place for foreign journalists in the American War era. The tables from which I now view Porsches and Rolls-Royces parked bumper-to-bumper was the unofficial headquarters of “Radio Catinat,” and especially in the early ’70s, its tables were set up as miniature broadcast stations.

I wonder how autobiographical The Quiet American might have been. Greene was a correspondent in French Indochina between 1951 and 1954. He certainly knew the people of whom he wrote — ìf not personally, at least the types. I have no doubt that he was well acquainted with the cynical Fowler, a British journalist like himself, and with the idealistic Pyle, the novel’s title character and a young CIA operative. And even in modern HCMC, there remain many women like Fowler’s 20-year-old consort Phuong, who knows to serve her lover but to stay silent.

Outside the room where “The Quiet American” lived and died. (JGA photo)
Holiday lights illuminate the Hotel Continental Saigon. The blog writer’s room was just behind the upper star. (JGA photo)

63. A Brief History of Vietnam

A review of the nation’s long and varied history takes center stage in this report, as the author prepares to hit the road with a pocketful of magazine assignments.

Vietnam’s Museum of History in Ho Chi Minh City was built in 1929 during the French colonial era. (JGA photo)

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships, and sealing wax; of cabbages and kings.” Thank you, Lewis Carroll.

For me, the time has come to truly explore Vietnam, a country that has been my provisional home for the past two years and counting. COVID regulations permitting, I will be on the road through February, and I intend to share stories from those months of wandering for many weeks thereafter.

In addition to this weekly blog, I shall write on assignment for several other publications. Among them is the East-West News Service, for which I wrote two previous stories in 2021, and Stellar World Hotels, to showcase some intriguing accommodations.

I’m especially excited about working with Archaeology Travel magazine. As it revamps its website for relaunch at the start of 2022, this online publication, based in Germany, has asked me to join them as a contributing writer focusing on destinations in Asia. My first extended series of articles will range across Vietnam, exploring sites both ancient and historically modern. To that end, I want to share with my readers a little of what I know about Vietnam’s history.

A painting in the Museum of History depicts the famous battle of the Bach Dang River in 938 A.D. (JGA photo)

Three kingdoms

For a very long time, there were three nations where today there is just one.

The first independent Vietnamese state was established about 2800 B.C. by a Bronze Age culture known as the Dong Son. Best remembered for the bronze drums and gongs it produced, its people cultivated rice in the lowlands of the north. Eventually, distinct highland and valley cultures emerged.

In 111 B.C., China’s Han emperors annexed the Red River Delta. The Chinese held it for more than 1,000 years, ruling with a strict Confucianist philosophy and squashing periodic rebellions. In 938 A.D., they were defeated by the Vietnamese warlord Ngo Quyen, who led his troops against the Chinese in the first battle of the Bach Dang River near Haiphong.

The south was a feudal Khmer kingdom, known first as Funan and later Chenla. It prospered throughout the Mekong Delta from the 2nd Century B.C. into the 12th Century A.D. The citizens built an elaborate system of canals (for rice cultivation and transportation) that extended from its main port city of Oc-Eo to the Gulf of Thailand, and traded with merchants from China to the Mediterranean.

Not to be outdone by Buddhists to the south or Confucianists to the north, Vietnam’s central coastal region spawned the Hindu kingdom of Champa in the late 2nd Century A.D. Semi-piratical by nature, it extended for hundreds of miles south from Da Nang to Phan Thiet, and lasted for more than a millennium.

Friction between these three regional rivals was frequent and ongoing, and always beneath the long shadow cast by the Chinese to the north. Before the end of the 15th Century, the Chams had been squeezed out.

In Hoi An, hundreds of carefully preserved buildings recall an era when the city was a thriving port of world trade. (JGA photo)

International trade

The void was filled by merchants from many lands. Portuguese sailors and Dominican missionaries landed in Da Nang in 1516, to be followed by Chinese and Japanese. They established a trade port called Faifoo near the mouth of the Thu Bon River, just south of Da Nang. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, it was well known to traders from across Asia, maritime Europe and even, eventually, the Americas. The port was rebuilt after the Tay Son Rebellion of 1765 and today is known as Hoi An. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has been preserved and restored to much of its original charm.

With southern Vietnam having slowly been infiltrated by ethnic Vietnamese who supplanted the Khmers, the rebellion moved north, led by a group of brothers with the surname Nguyen (loosely pronounced nwin). Nguyen Anh established himself as Emperor Gia Long in 1802; soon thereafter, he captured Hanoi from the Chinese, thus uniting all of Vietnam. Clearly, it was a Nguyen Nguyen situation.

Hue (hway), in the center of the country, was declared the national capital. Today its Imperial Citadel is one of the most stirring historical sites in Southeast Asia.

Built by the French in the 19th century, the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Saigon ís now undergoing refurbishment. (JGA photo)

Voila! The French

Less than a half-century later, the French arrived. Driven by imperial suppression of Catholicism and the imprisonment of missionaries, a military force landed in Da Nang in 1847. Saigon fell in 1859, and three years later Emperor Tu Duc signed over control of the south to France, establishing the Mekong Delta region as “Cochinchina.” The Europeans didn’t stop there, occupying Hanoi in the early 1870s and Hue in 1883, when a “treaty of protectorate” signaled the beginning of seven decades of colonial rule. The French did some good things — building the Saigon-Hanoi railway and draining the swamps of the Mekong Delta for rice cultivation — but those actions were outweighed by their cruel treatment of Vietnamese laborers.

Nationalist sentiments simmered just below the surface. Perhaps ironically, some activists chose to work together with the colonists to achieve this. Around the time that 12-year-old Bao Dai, then studying in France, was elevated to emperor (in 1925), progressive intellectuals saw fit to replace Chinese script with the quoc ngu system of writing, as a more facile way to educate the population.

France was also where a young Hô Chí Minh fomented the movement that led Vietnam to communism. Influenced by the U.S. civil-rights movement and his readings about the American Revolution, the young cook moved to Paris as World War I came to a close and joined other Vietnamese expatriates in challenging French domination. After Allied leaders denied his group’s petition to end colonial rule as a provision to the Treaty of Versailles, he took his politics to the Soviet Union, where he embraced Marxism and Communism, and to south China.

Depicted here as a benevolent father figure, Ho Chi Minh was the leading force in introducing communism to Vietnam. (JGA photo)

Ho takes over

In Canton (now Guangzhou) Hô organized the Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam, with its first demands being fairer distribution of land. The Marxist philosophy gained traction with a 1930 rebellion led by peasants and intellectuals, and the youth league evolved into the Communist Party. When the Japanese occupied Vietnam in 1941, Hô returned to Vietnam and formed the Viet Minh (an acronym for League for the Independence of Vietnam) to contest both sets of foreign intruders, initially funded in part by the U.S. government.

When the Japanese were defeated, Hô proclaimed Vietnamese independence on Sept. 2, 1945, in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. But the French weren’t about to step aside. More than eight years of intermittent warfare ensued. The Viet Minh were boosted by an increased arms flow from China after the communist victory there (led by Mao Tse-tung) in 1949. On May 7, 1954, at Dien Bien Phu on the Laotian border, they finally defeated 10,000 French troops after a 57-day siege.

The Geneva Accords divided Vietnam in two at the Ben Hai River (the 17th parallel), a temporary measure pending nationwide elections in 1956. Those elections were never held. In the south, a U.S.-supported, anti-communist republican government was established under President Ngo Dinh Diem, but Ngo’s anti-Buddhist policies put him at odds with many, leading to his assassination in a military coup in 1963. In the north, communist leaders mercilessly eliminated opposition through executions and imprisonment. Funneling supplies and freshly conscripted personnel down the Hô Chí Minh Trail, the National Liberation Front (the Viet Cong) took over the countryside as the Saigon government faltered.

Photographer Nick Ut captured this famous image of terrified children fleeing a napalm attack in 1972. (War Remnants Museum)

The American War

The Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 led to direct U.S. involvement in this undeclared civil war. American military advisers had been present since 1950, but no shots were fired until an American destroyer came under attack off the coast of North Vietnam. The U.S. responded by bombing dozens of roads and rail bridges. Its first troops came ashore at Da Nang in March 1965, formally starting the conflict known to the West as the Vietnam War, to Vietnamese as the American War.

Over the next 10 years, more than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam, and more than 58,000 of them were killed or left missing in action. More than 4 million Vietnamese are estimated to have died or suffered severe injury. The watershed year was 1968. The Tet Offensive, a coordinated attack on more than 100 cities and towns around the country, showed off the strength of the VC. Incidents such as the My Lai Massacre, in which more than 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were slaughtered by U.S. troops, led to a massive loss of support for the military presence among American citizens.

Hô Chí Minh died of heart failure in 1969. Peace talks began in Paris the following year. They continued until 1973, when the U.S. withdrew most of its troops. South Vietnam continued to fight until April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army rolled unopposed up to the gates of Independence Palace, the seat of government. Almost immediately, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Modern-day visitors walk through the gates of Independence (Reunification) Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. (JGA photo)

Uniting two economies

Suddenly, after decades of warfare, Vietnam had “united” two nations with totally different economic and social systems. There was a lot of work to be done, with bitterness on both sides and widespread political repression. Land mines and toxic chemicals (Agent Orange) were still destroying lives and communities.

Vietnam’s immediate neighbors continued to underestimate the gritty country, however. At the end of 1978, tired of continued incursions upon the Mekong Delta, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the rebel Khmer Rouge government within two weeks. In 1979, it took only slightly longer to drive off the Chinese, who had invaded the border region north of Hanoi as payback for its Khmer Rouge ally.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Vietnam attempted to bridge the gap between its differing economic philosophies, welcoming a version of capitalism, promoting tourism, and joining the pro-democracy Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Today it still struggles to merge the two. Although Vietnam’s central, one-party government is devoted to a doctrine that tolerates no dissent, it continues to encourage citizens to freely interact with foreign residents in building the economy.

A Hindu frieze in the Museum of History is part of the rich artístic heritage left by the ancient Champa civilization. (JGA photo)

62. The World Coffee Museum

The World Coffee Museum in Buôn Ma Thuột honors traditions of the planet’s favorite beverage in its exhibits and demonstrations.

The author sips a cup of Ottoman coffee with a turbaned barista at the World Coffee Museum. (Photo by Y Thong)

Turbans aren’t everyday garb in Vietnam. This is a nominally Buddhist country, with few Muslims or Sikhs except for a handful of foreign residents in major cities. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I was served coffee by a barista wearing a headdress.

It was all part of the show at the World Coffee Museum in Buôn Ma Thuột. My Vietnamese host, Thông, was demonstrating coffee service in the Ottoman civilization. Although that empire has been defunct for a century, its colorful history lives on, especially in the Turkish- or Ethiopian-style coffee that it spawned.

Thông began his unfiltered preparation with finely ground Robusta. He measured out five grams of coffee into a tiny pot with a gram of sugar, added warm water and set it in a tabletop tray of hot sand (in this modified case, heated from below) to gently boil. After a couple of minutes, he poured it into a lidded espresso cup and served me.

And when I finished sipping, Thông offered to read the leftover grounds. “It is said the Ottoman people can tell your fortune from the coffee,” he said.

The longhouse-style World Coffee Museum was built atop a small hill. (JGA photo)

Stylized architecture

The World Coffee MuseumBảo Tàng Thế Giới Cà Phê in Vietnamese — was opened in late 2018 by the Trung Nguyên (“Central Highlands”) Legend coffee company. Now, three years later, it has just unlocked its doors again after a six-month COVID-enforced closure. Only a couple of kilometers from the heart of Buôn Ma Thuột city, the museum stands atop a grassy mound. Its architecture resembles a side-by-side series of stylized nha dai, or long houses, typical of the region’s Ede ethnic group.

I purchased my ticket at a Trung Nguyên Legend coffee shop beside the access road. (To be honest, I thought the cost of 150,000 dong, about US $6.50, was steep in this economy.) A small tram shuttled me to the museum’s front entrance, where I provided proof of vaccination to be admitted.

The current highlight is a ground-floor parlor that presents the coffee stylings of a trio of civilizations, Ottoman, Roman and Vietnamese. On rotating days (twice each week), a barista demonstrates one of these. Had I arrived a day earlier, I would have experienced Romanesque espresso beverages, including lattes and cappuccinos. A day later, it would have been Thiền (Zen).

A coffee hut replicates Vietnamese coffee culture of the early 20th century. (JGA photo)

The latter is representative of Vietnamese coffee culture of the early 20th century. French missionaries introduced the plant in 1857, and it made ít way to the Central Highlands between 1915 and 1920. Along the way, it was partially assimilated by the Zen tea culture of Chinese Buddhism. The display here includes a replica coffee hut, where various blends of Trung Nguyên’s Robusta and Arabica beans are sold, and a seating and brewing area, where beverages are prepared in traditional manner using tiny burlap sacks as filters.

The soul of coffee

As a place of learning, the Coffee Museum performs a greater educational function. Its opening exhibit, “The Soul of Coffee,” explores what is required to nurture a coffee tree — soil, water and sunlight — along with the human element that goes into planting, tending, harvesting, processing and preserving the fruit.

Exhibits have been selected from a collection of more than 10,000 coffee-related artifacts, many of them transferred from the renowned Kaffeemuseum Burg in Hamburg, Germany. They range from Brazilian cannisters to Dutch coffee vessels, but are largely German.  My favorite was an industrial-sized 1894 roaster assembly that apparently was operational in Deutschland, but which hasn’t yet been made to work in Vietnam. So it sits in a sunken basement ready to be activated.

An 1894 German roaster, measuring about 4 meters (13 feet) in length, is a popular exhibit. (JGA photo)

In the Library of the Light, hundreds of books (all in Vietnamese) surround a central reading table. Prominent is a translation of Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends & Influence People. It’s a personal favorite of the positive-thinking, 50-year-old Trung Nguyên Legend company founder and chairman, Đặng Lê Nguyên Vũ, who has a private desk in this very room.

Within the library — and, for that matter, throughout the museum — are posted quotes in Vietnamese, English and French from famous figures in the fields of literature, science, music, even statesmanship. “When we drink coffee, ideas march in like the army,” wrote Honoré de Balzac. “Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat,” declared composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Ethnic identities

Many of the coffee farmers in Đắk Lắk and adjacent Lâm Đồng provinces are from ethnic minority tribes. There are 54 separate groups throughout the country, each with their peculiar dialects and cultural identities. Prominent near Buôn Ma Thuột are the Ede, with more than 300,000 members, as well as Mnong, Hmong, Jarai, Ma, Bana, Thai, Có Ho, Muong and Dao people. The museum displays traditional costumes of each of these ethnic groups, along with descriptions of some of their unique customs.

Ethnic minority coffee farmers used woven baskets to winnow beans. (JGA photo)

It could be that some of the Ede or other minority farmers were the first to discover what is known today as cà phê chồn, or “weasel coffee.”  In point of fact, it should be credited to palm civets, not to their distant-relative weasels, minks or ferrets. But regardless of the animal, the principal is the same: It’s shit.

Yeah, but it’s good shit. Really good shit. Palm civet shit. The small, furry mammals love the ripe red coffee cherries. As they eat, their digestive enzymes partially ferment the fruit, removing the hull but leaving the excreted seed. Farmers gather the beans and thoroughly wash them before processing. The resulting coffee is rich and mellow, with notes of caramel and chocolate. And very expensive.

In Lâm Đồng province, there is a five-acre coffee farm near Da Lat with 150 resident palm civets to produce this cà phê chồn. Sadly, the animals are cruelly treated and fed a diet of nothing but coffee cherries, with none of the protein they get in their wild diet of insects and small reptiles. So the Trung Nguyên company has devised a technique to produce its own imitation weasel coffee free of excrement, with a flavor that nearly duplicates the original.

You can ask for a cup in the World Coffee Museum’s own luxuriant café, its windows opening to a colorful nearby Buddhist pagoda.

The Trung Nguyen museum cafe has a window that looks upon a colorful Buddhist pagoda. (JGA photo)
Espresso-style drinks like cà phê latte are credited to the Roman style. (JGA photo)

61. Coffee Culture in Dak Lak                  

Vietnamese coffee is a stronger brew than most foreigners expect to find here. The author learns about its robust beans with the help of a South African friend.

Pepper trees rise above coffee shrubs on a private farm in Buon Ma Thuot’s Khanh Xuan district. (JGA photo)

I’m a coffee drinker. I have been for more than 50 years. But when I moved to Vietnam in 2019, I discovered a whole different beverage than I thought I knew and loved.

The difference is in the bean and the way it’s produced. Vietnamese java is stronger and more bitter than the typical American brew. It has a higher caffeine content: A single cup may be sufficient to kick-start the day.

When I came to this country, one of the first things I noted in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was the prevalence of a “coffee culture.” It seems that every city block has a coffee shop, sometimes as many as a half-dozen on each side of the street. These are where average citizens gather, especially young people, not in a neighborhood pub. Most of these cafés are tiny, just big enough for patrons to enjoy conversation while waiting for the grind to filter through a four-part aluminum phin into a pool of sweetened, condensed milk. More often than not, the brew is consumed iced in a glass: cà phê sữa đá.

When it comes to coffee, I’m neither a farmer nor a scientist, but I’m forever inquisitive. I like to know how things work, why they are the way they are. And I’m not the only one. I found a mentor in Buôn Ma Thuột, the main city of Đắk Lắk, Vietnam’s leading coffee-producing province.

A handful of freshly picked coffee “cherries” will soon be sorted, cleaned and laid to dry. (JGA photo)

Rock ’n’ roll coffee

I’ll never accuse Christiaan (Kalfie) Bredenkamp of having clouds in his coffee. To the contrary, his clouds are coffee. The 30-year-old native of South Africa believes he can make Vietnamese cà phê the next big thing in the Cape Town beverage scene. To that end, he has founded The Good Life Coffee company with a goal of exporting his product to the Cape of Good Hope.

 “The way they make it here (in Vietnam) breaks all the rules of what people say makes good coffee,” he said. “It’s so strong. It’s rock ’n’ roll coffee. And I love that.”

The two main types of coffee in the world are Arabica and Robusta. Americans (and, apparently, South Africans) tend to prefer the former, as Arabica is considered to have a smoother, sweeter taste, often with notes of chocolate or berries. But in Vietnam, Robusta accounts for about 97% of production. And in Đắk Lắk, which accounts for about one-third of that total (1.8 million tons a year), the coffee is of a particularly high quality.

Coffee was introduced to Vietnam by French missionaries in 1857. It made its way to Đắk Lắk and the Central Highlands region (encompassing the small cities of Buôn Ma Thuột, Da Lat and Pleiku) during the First World War era. And it succeeded beyond farmers’ wildest dreams.

Today, about 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) are cloaked in coffee. Vietnam has become the second-leading coffee producer and exporter in the world, after only Brazil. Most of its production (that not consumed domestically) goes to Europe, Russia and Japan, at an average annual value of about US$3 billion.

A picker strips coffee “cherries” from the plant’s branches to collect them on a canvas for processing. (JGA photo)

Throwing a punch

Kalfie has college degrees in clinical physiology and psychology. In Vietnam he has worked for two years as an English teacher. But he hasn’t lost sight of his entrepreneurial goal.

“In Cape Town, the coffee culture is about trying artisanal kinds of things,” he said. “For something to be considered a good coffee, it had to be a certain bean, creamy or chocolaty or caramely.

“Here, the way coffee is served, it’s super bitter. It has a burnt flavor, a little more smoky than a normal coffee, and I quite like that. They really roast it heavy, almost like moer coffee in South Africa. It was always the best.” [Moer, Kalfie explained, means “throwing a punch.” I imagine it’s like the old chuckwagon coffee of the American West.]

Iced coffee was not something he drank in Africa, Kalfie said. But he quickly got used to the balance of bitter and sweet in cà phê sữa đá. In the coffee business, he wants to apply that same principle of balance in choosing and blending beans:

“The most important thing for me is to get a bean that is consistent, and has a specific taste — something Robusta, but with less bitterness and a more inherent sweet aspect to accentuate the chocolate flavor. The beans I settled on are roasted in a honey process.”

Kalfie Bredenkamp ẹnjoys a sip of strong Robusta coffee at a cafe in Hanoi. (Photo by Vera Kruger)

Keeping a secret

The ancient volcanic soil of the Central Highlands makes it fertile ground. With an altitude between 800 and 1,000 meters (2,600 to 3,300 feet), Đắk Lắk is ideal for Robusta production. Lam Dong province, with its hub at Da Lat, is less humid and higher, 1,400-1,600 m (4,600-5,250 feet), so it is better suited to Arabica.

Kalfie notes fundamental differences in size, taste, caffeine content and yield between the two families of beans. Now, he is buying whole beans and making his own blends of Robusta and Arabica by trial and error. “My current ‘Good Life’ blend is more Robusta, made for sữa đá,” he said. “I have another blend that’s more Arabica. What’s the ratio? Well, that’s my secret.”

His goal, said Kalfie, “is to get a lot of coffee into South Africa and introduce Vietnamese coffee. It needs to be a nice product. I envision roasting my own beans and opening my own coffee shop.”

The café element is important. The same blend “can taste different in different coffee shops,” he said. “The way it is brewed is key. What kind of filter do they use? What temperature is it poured at? How fast does it drip? The usual Vietnamese roast is really thick. It takes some experimentation.”

If you’re craving a South African’s Vietnamese coffee, but you don’t plan a trip to the Central Highlands anytime soon, you can visit Instagram — @tgoodlifec — or email Bredenkamp at tgoodlifec@gmail.com. Prices and shipping costs are listed on the Instagram handle.

Strip pickers sort debris from freshly harvested “cherries” at a Dak Lak coffee farm. (JGA photo)

Harvest time

I had occasion last week to visit a 10-hectare (25-acre) coffee farm near Buôn Ma Thuột, not far from the Sêrêpôk River. Spire-like pepper trees, their vines trailing tiny green corns, rose amidst the dense grove, making my ramble an obstacle- impeded adventure.

The shrub-like coffee tree — trimmed to about 2 meters (6 feet) in height to facilitate the harvest — takes about four years to begin producing its white flowers, and another season before its fruit (“cherries”) emerge, changing in color from green to red as they ripen. Normally the harvest occurs in September and October, but this year heavy rain, cooler temperatures and a COVID-wary labor shortage resulted in a later-than-usual harvest. Even so, it seemed there were more green cherries (hard and bitter) than red (soft and sweet) on the trees.

In mid-morning, I found a half-dozen men and women amidst the foliage, engaged in the labor-intensive process of strip-picking. They spread a canvas on the muddy ground beneath the bushes and pulled their gloved hands along each branch, removing all fruit (regardless of its degree of ripeness) onto the ground. Then they poured the contents of the canvas into a large bag and moved on to the next shrub.

Before the end of the day, these “cherries” would begin dry processing. They would be sorted and cleaned by winnowing, then laid to dry upon mats extended across decks or patios. It may take a month of raking and hand-turning before they are ready for dry-milling: not so dry as to become brittle, but not so moist as to draw mildew.

At this point, the dried cherries are ready for hulling, sorting, grading and bagging. A hulling machine removes the outer layers of fruit and dry skin in a single step. Then the green seeds, or beans, are cleaned and sorted by size, density and color, and prepared for export.

Beans must be roasted before they are ground into the fine powder that is steeped in hot water and filtered into a cup, making what is arguably the world’s favorite beverage.

In Vietnam, there’s no argument.

All the tools needed for a great cup of coffee: ground Robusta, hot water, sweetened condensed milk, a four-part phin filter … and a mug. (JGA photo)

And voila! The brew is almost ready to drink. (JGA photo)

Coffee cherries on the tree. (JGA photo)

60. Deer Me! Stepping Back to Nara

Sika deer are national treasures in Nara, an ancient Japanese capital whose grand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrine are the highlights of a visit.

A sika deer peers from between stone lanterns near the Kasuga Shrine. (JGA photo)

It’s not everywhere that your tour guide can be a deer. But in Nara, Japan, sika (spotted) deer will usher you from one temple to the next as if it’s their profession.

They’ve lived in this ancient city ever since Takemikazuchi rode into Nara on a white deer in 710 A.D.  Legend tells that the “thunder god” of the Shinto faith came to guard the newly built Japanese capital. (Nara remained so until 794, when jurisdiction was transferred to Kyoto.) They are still considered national treasures, roaming through the small city of 360,000 people, and especially Nara Park.

More than 1,200 wander freely through the 502-hectare (1,240-acre) park and the adjoining grounds of three great temples — the Buddhist Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji temples and the Shinto Kasuga-taisha shrine — as well as the Nara National Museum.

Vendors sell sika-senbei (“deer crackers”) for visitors to feed the deer. It is said that some deer have learned to bow to receive these offerings. But they can also be dangerous: More than 100 tourists a year are injured by the animals’ hooves or spike-like antlers, and multilingual signs now advise caution.

Warning signs are written in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. (JGA photo)

The deer form a charming welcome committee for the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing the trio of forementioned sites along with three other Buddhist temples, a palace and an old-growth forest.

If Kyoto is the cultural heart of Japan, its history must be traced further back to the Nara region. Indeed, Nara’s economy is closely tied to tourism today, and much of its architecture, seen in shops and galleries, restaurants and Japanese inns (ryokan), reflects that of traditional merchant houses.

Wear your best walking shoes when you come to Nara. While there are alternative methods to move about, including rickshaws, the city is much better suited to pedestrian traffic. Arrive by commuter train from either nearby Osaka or Kyoto, take a look at detailed, artful, and widely posted maps, and start walking.

The To-kondo (East Golden Hall), built in 1425, is one of Kofuku-ji’s most important reliquaries. (JGA photo)

First stop: Kofuku-ji

Close to downtown, the Kofuku-ji temple complex is a logical first stop. Established in 669, it was moved to Nara some four decades later, and it’s still here. Two imaginatively named pagodas rise above the landscape here. Both are national treasures, the Goju-no-to (Five-Storied Pagoda), built in 1426, and the Sanju-no-to (Three-Storied Pagoda), begun in 1185 and completed in 1274.

The complex includes three “golden halls,” highlighted by the To-kondo (East Golden Hall), built in 1425, and two “octagonal halls,” the Hoku’endo (1210) and Nan’endo (1741). Contained within these structures are numerous priceless statues, among them a Thousand-armed Kannon (goddess of mercy).

At the height of ancient Nara’s glory, Kofuku-ji was the head temple of the Hossō sect of Buddhism, and it remains so today. The Hossō school maintains that nothing is real — that everything is a projection created by the mind that appears to experience it. That applies to this story as well.

Kofuku-ji suffered a devastating fire in 1717, and in the late 19th Century, during the early Meiji Period of Japanese history, it fell victim to the anti-Buddhist policies of a Shinto national government. Reconstruction work continues on some of its buildings.

The Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) at Todai-ji was until recently the world’s largest wooden building. (JGA photo)

Todai-ji and the Great Buddha

This great Buddhist temple complex dates from 738. Until the end of the 20th Century, when its dimensions were surpassed by giant sports stadiums, Todai-ji laid claim to the world’s largest wooden building, the Daibutsu-den, which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha, 15 meters (49 feet) tall.

The statue and its hall were built over three years, ending in 751. Official records show that 350,000 people contributed labor and more than 2.5 million donated rice, wood, metal and cloth to its construction. The statue used imported gold and exhausted much of Japan’s bronze supply at the time. Forty-eight lacquered cinnabar pillars support the blue-tiled roof. The modern Daibutsu-den building, 30 percent smaller than the original, was a reconstruction finished in 1709.

Visitors pass through the Nandai-mon (Great South Gate) on their way to the Daibutsu-den. (JGA photo)

The original Todai-ji complex featured two pagodas, each 100m (328 feet) tall, making them among the tallest of the time. They were destroyed by an earthquake. It also had a library, lecture hall and monk’s quarters, as Todai-ji was as much an institution of higher learning as it was a place of Buddhist worship and practice.

Today, most visitors enter through the Nandai-mon (Great South Gate), built at the end of the 12th Century. Its two 8½-meter (28-foot) guardians, the dancing Nio, were restored between 1988 and 1993 at a cost of US$4.7 million by the National Treasure Repair Institute in Kyoto. Yes, there is such a thing.

Tame sika deer shepherd new arrivals to the natural setting of the Kasuga Shrine. (JGA photo)

Kasuga: Here and now in nature

One of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, the Kasuga-taisha had its origin as the spiritual refuge of the politically dominant Fujiwara clan. The Shinto faith places great emphasis on living in the present and harmonizing with nature, as affirmed in frequent matsuri (festivals). That’s pretty much what I believe, too. Kasuga’s forest setting reinforces those beliefs.

Built in 768, the shrine is famous for its long approach promenade: More than 3,000 stone lanterns line the way, and sika deer are with you nearly every step of the way. The interior of the building is remarkable for its bronze lanterns. The torii (gateway arch) at the approach to the shrine is one of the oldest in Shintoism.

The gateway torii at the Kasuga Shrine set an early style standard for archways across Japan. (JGA photo)

Pouring across the summit of nearby Mount Kasuga, and covering about 250 hectares (620 acres), is the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. Hunting and logging have been prohibited here for nearly 1,200 years, so it’s safe to say that the 175 types of trees here (inhabited by 60 species of birds) are old growth. Next to the shrine is the Man’yo Botanical Garden. All that greenery assures happy deer.

And in Nara, happy deer make happy tourists.

Sika deer inhabit the old-growth Kasumayama Primeval Forest. (JGA photo)

59. Stepping Back: Pre-pandemic Kyoto

A stroll through the tranquil lanes of Japan’s imperial city reveals beautiful gardens, marvelous temples and a people in love with their heritage.

The Yasaka Shrine is the gateway to Maruyama Park in Kyoto’s Higashiyama ward. (JGA photo)

Kyoto, Japan, is on my short list of favorite cities in the world. Japan takes great pride in its heritage, and that fact is nowhere more apparent than in the country’s cultural center, a city that was the national capital between the 8th and 19th centuries. Spared large-scale bombing during the Second World War, the old imperial palace, immaculately tended gardens, Buddhist pagodas and Shinto shrines are among many buildings honored as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As it so happens, my brother lives only 36 miles (58 km) from Kyoto. Fred is a longtime resident of Japan, a linguistics professor at Kansai University. I often refer to him as “a tall blond Japanese guy,” even though his hair has now turned white, like mine. He and his wife, Kiyoko, live in suburban Osaka, in the town of Takarazuka; their two married sons and a grandson in Tokyo.

On the rare occasions when I’m able to visit Fred, who is better known in Japan as Sensei (teacher), I make it a point to spend at least one full day in Kyoto. The city of 1.4 million is too big (and it has too many sterling attractions) to see everything in a single swallow. So I decide upon one area at a time.

I doubt if very much has changed since my last visit, in late October 2019. COVID-19 has precluded any more recent trip to Japan — or, for that matter, to almost anywhere. But my footsore day of wandering the pedestrian paths and temple trails of Higashiyama ward yielded some beautiful photographs that I’m pleased to share on this forum.

Sensei Fred Anderson chats with a fellow scholar on an Osaka train. (JGA photo)

Scent of a geisha

I disembarked from my Hankyu Line train at Kawaramachi station and walked about a kilometer down Shijo-dori through the heart of the Gion district. The smell of pungent green tea (ocha) invaded my sinuses, even though it was still morning.

By night, the teahouses (ochaya) become clubs where high-priced geishas demonstrate classical dances, traditional music and intricate crafts for an appreciative audience. For less-well-heeled admirers, especially tourists, apprentice geishas (maiko) present a daily cultural show at Gion Corner that includes such arts as bunraku (life-size puppet theater), kyogen (comic theater) and ikebana (flower arranging).

I wandered into some of the side streets off Shijo-dori, where the wooden homes of medieval merchants still stand, most now converted to restaurants and shops. No more than six meters (20 feet) wide, they may extend back three or four times that dimension, as property taxes once were based upon street frontage. I found one that served me a light and early chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) lunch before I began temple hopping.

My first stop was the Yasaka Jinja, an Eighth-century shrine at the head of Shijo-dori. As serendipity would have it, I had arrived in Kyoto at the start of the annual Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), honoring the city’s rich heritage. A great many women, and also some men, climbed the steps of the main hall wrapped in their finest kimonos to make offerings to the Shinto gods.

Lanterns line the entrance to Chorakuji temple near Maruyama Park. (JGA photo)

Finding faith afoot

The Yasaka Shrine is also the gateway to Maruyama Park, renowned for its ephemeral sakura (cherry blossoms). Japanese gather here by the thousands for blossom viewing parties in April.

The park is nestled on the lowest slopes of Higashiyama (East Mountain), which gives its name to the surrounding district. Easily followed signs direct pedestrians from here to the great Kiyomizu-dera temple through a variety of narrow lanes and walkways.

My first stop on this promenade was Chorakuji, a temple established in 805 A.D. by the Tendai Buddhist sect. While religious scholars make note of its trio of historically important ancient Buddhist statues, I am most impressed by the beautiful, lantern-lined walkway that leads to the temple.

Nearby, the temple of Otani Sobyo contains the mausoleum of Shinran, founder of Buddhism’s Shinshu sect. The sweping grounds embrace beautiful bonsai and evergreen gardens and extend to a broad hillside cemetery.

The Entoku-in temple is a classic Shinto shrine with all the symbolic trappings. (JGA photo)

Shinto and sake

Well-known by Japanophiles for its artistic and cultural treasures is the Kodai-ji. The temple’s 16th-century teahouse and 17th-century garden were designed by the preeminent artists of the time in their respective fields.

I was even more taken by the Entoku-in temple, considered a subtemple to the Kodai-ji. I entered the modest Shinto shrine through a gateway of empty sake barrels (kazaridaru, believed to connect people directly with the gods), white papers in zigzag designs (shide, marking sacred boundaries), and swirling commas (mitsu-domoe, symbolizing the interaction of earth, heaven and hell) on the eaves of the roof. Within, a labyrinth of slender hallways leads through beautiful meditation halls and other rooms that show off a priceless art collection and a magnificent garden of stone.

Beyond Entoku-in, I entered a warren of crowded lanes leading to narrow Ninenzaka, which ascends slowly to the famed Kiyomizu-dera temple. It is framed by ancient wooden buildings — homes on the second floor, all manner of shops and restaurants below — that have been patronized by pilgrims for centuries. They come for everything from pottery to pickles, from sweet cakes to freshly roasted chestnuts, from souvenir fans to fine kimonos.

Visitors gather beneath the entrance gates to Kiyomizu-dera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (JGA photo)

Drink the water

Ninenzaka ends at the broad Sannenzaka steps. These climb more steeply to a plaza at the entrance to Kiyomizu-dera. Above it rises a vermilion three-storied pagoda, a repository for sutras, large entrance gates and the Zuigudo Hall, dedicated to the mother of the Buddha.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. It dates from 798 A.D., when it was built beside the Otawa waterfall as it drops through wooded hills. Indeed, its name translates to “Pure Water Temple.” Today, the waterfall’s three streams meet in a pond beneath the main hall; drinking from each is said to give wisdom, health and longevity.

No nails were used in the construction of Kiyomizu-dera, most of whose buildings were erected as part of a restoration in 1633. That includes a wooden stage that juts out from the main hall, 13 meters (42 feet) above the hillside. In spring and fall, when cherry and maple trees emblazon the city of Kyoto with their vibrant colors, it’s a great viewpoint.

The main hall houses a small but precious statue of the 11-faced, thousand-armed Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Also within the complex are the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking; the three-story Koyasu Pagoda, where mothers-to-be pray for a safe and easy childbirth; and a small hall with nearly 200 stone statues of Jizo, the protector of children and travelers.

I returned to Gion via Matsubara-dori, a somewhat wider version of my Ninenzaka approach, and caught the evening train back to Takarazuka.

Lunch in the Gion neighborhood is chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard. (JGA photo)
Formally dressed for the Jidai Matsuri holiday, a family dances through Masuyacho on their way to Kiyomizu-dera. (JGA photo)

58. Finding Nature in a Highlands City

Surveying the urban parks of Buôn Ma Thuột, center of Dak Lak province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region.

Sunflowers adorn a hillside in the KoTam Eco Park. (JGA photo)

When I moved to Buôn Ma Thuột from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in February, I did so for a variety of reasons. Not the least of them was environment — getting out of a huge, pulsating metropolis in favor of a quieter provincial capital. Instead of severely polluted air quality and the endless cacophony of motorcycle engines, I could breathe clean air, see the stars at nights and walk across city streets with barely a concern about oncoming traffic.

Now that the threat of COVID-19 is finally easing a bit, it’s a pleasure to get out of urban lockdown and rediscover some of the well-tended green spaces in the city (actually more of a big country town) of 380,000.

The heart of Dak Lak province and Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, Buôn Ma Thuột (pronounced boon ma toe) has an elevation of 536 meters (1,800 feet), assuring a cooler climate than the tropical Mekong Delta lowlands of Saigon. That translates to plenty of beautiful natural sites nearby. Within a short drive are Yak Don National Park, an expansive nature reserve famous for its elephants; several memorable waterfalls, including Thác Dray Nur, a sort of mini-Niagara; and Lak Lake, fringed by villages of the minority M’nong and Ede people.

This blog introduces only a few of the urban parks and natural spaces.

Am elephant fountain adds whimsy to Uncle Ho Memorial Park. (JGA photo)

The centerpiece of Uncle Ho Memorial Park (Đài Tưởng Niệm Bác Hồ) is a gold-painted statue of a seated Ho Chi Minh, father of modern Vietnam, surrounded by three Central Highlands children. (Ho is often depicted as a benevolent father figure.) But that’s just one attraction of this lovingly groomed park, which occupies about four square city blocks.

Contemporary stone sculptures (I especially like the uncredited fingers squishing a mosquito) rise from beds of red flame vine, shaded by large copperpod, bodhi and malia trees. Rudimentary exercise equipment entices adults of all ages to maintain their cardio fitness. A broad plaza encourages stargazing. And at the heart of it all is a whimsical four-elephant fountain, homage to an animal that is a symbol of Dak Lak and the Central Highlands.

Bảo Đại, the last emperor of Vietnam, considered this modest villa as his “palace.” (JGA photo)

Just across the AH-17 highway from the Bac Ho Monument is a large greensward shared by the Dak Lak Museum of Ethnology and the Bảo Đại Palace. The contemporary two-story museum was built in 2008 in an architectural style inspired by the traditional longhouses of hill tribes. It is a wonderful place to while away a couple or three midday hours, especially if your interests extend to regional history, the natural environment or, especially, minority ethnic groups of the Central Highlands.

Bảo Đại (1913-1997) was the last emperor of Vietnam, ruling until the monarchy was abolished in 1945, and Vietnam’s nominal head of state from 1949 to 1955. His Buôn Ma Thuột “palace,” one of several Saigon escapes that he maintained, is actually a villa nestled in a grove of ancient trees, including camphor, ylang-ylang and native fruit trees.

A central fountain adds antique appeal to BMT City Park. (JGA photo)

Buôn Ma Thuột City Park (Công Viên Thành) has a pleasing city-center location, though it clearly is in need of a facelift. Groundskeepers continue to give attention to thoughtfully platted flower beds that surround a central fountain with a sort of antique appeal. It’s a popular place for townspeople to stroll in the early evening hours, when they don’t have to look at painted semi-truck tires that once, perhaps, added decoration to a couple of side fountains.

To be kind, the rest of the park is tired. A children’s play area may once have been wonderful, with a carousel and bumper cars, but it has recently been abandoned to weeds and ill repair. A coffee pavilion and a sand volleyball (or badminton?) court are vacant nearby.

A statue of Quan Am, the goddess of mercy, towers above KoTam Eco Park. (JGA photo)

Not so KoTam Eco Park (formally the KoTam Ecotourism Destination), one of my favorite places in the city. Located a few kilometers east of the center, it combines a natural fruit grove — bananas, papayas, guavas, jackfruit and much more — with a dense copse of bamboo, gentle walking trails through floral gardens, and a group picnic area with a children’s playground.

A highlight is a lovely waterfall feeding a stream that flows through marshy reeds into a larger river where boats offer short outings. Flamingoes, ducks and other waterfowl splash in the pond at the foot of the falls. Overlooking the site are a restaurant and cafes, a traditional Ede longhouse and funeral hut, and a much-visited hilltop shrine to Quan Am, the goddess of mercy in Vietnamese Buddhism.

Fishermen employ unique methods as they cast their lines in Ea Kao Lake. (JGA photo)

Just south of the city is Ea Kao Lake, a 300-acre reservoir with multiple inlets and promontories cloaked in green forest and flanked by gardens and a botanical park. I enjoyed a tour of the monuments of the lakeside Ba Vang pagoda and even a swim in the swimming pool and its spacious hotel-restaurant.

But my fascination fell primarily on the fishermen who cast their lines as they sat upon stilted tables, 20 feet offshore, or trolled from primitive canoes that they rowed with their legs to leave both hands free to catch perch and other freshwater species. Vietnamese love their hai san (seafood), and having a fresh local supply certainly beats having to wait hours for truckloads shipped inland from Nha Trang.

Midday visitors enjoy a relaxing cup of tea at Cafe Yang Sing. (JGA photo)

Even in the heart of town, there are places to escape and capture the local culture. Cafe Nhà Sàn Yang Sing is one such location. Far more than a café, it represents an effort by the inner-city Ede village of Buôn Ako Dhong to cash in a bit on Dak Lak tourism. Coffee shop by day, it becomes an entertainment venue in the evening when bands play on a stage built upon a pond. There are ethnic homes to visit, museum pieces to admire, rice-grinding and coffee-harvest activities to observe.

And speaking of coffee, the province of Dak Lak is coffee country. It even boasts a World Museum of Coffee. The precious bean and berry will, I hope, be the subject of a Travels in Vietnam blog in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, the midtown Trung Nguyen Coffee Village complex offers a combination of good beans, coffee shrubbery, and historic, museum-quality coffee-growing tools along with stunning architecture. It just underscores the point that in Buôn Ma Thuột, you don’t have to travel far to feel immersed in nature.

Trung Nguyen Coffee Village is an intriguing mid-city oasis. (JGA photo)

57. Vietnam’s Central Coast

There’s a lot to consider when planning an overland trip from Nha Trang to Ninh Binh: beaches, history, scenery, the world’s biggest cave … and beaches!

Tourists take an evening stroll in Hoi An’s Ancient Tơwn. (Depositphotos image by Halen Hoie)

Look at a map of Vietnam and you’ll see nearly 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) of coastline between Ninh Binh and Nha Trang. Your first thoughts might be of golden sands puncuated by modern resort hotels, of rolling surf and water sports, of colorful fishing boats and unforgettable seafood restaurants. 

You wouldn’t be wrong. The beaches are there by the dozens. But there’s so much more to this nation’s central coast.

For one, there’s the pure scenic splendor of the region. Craggy capes conceal hidden coves and sheltered islands. Forested hills descend to small fishing villages washed by waves, whose demeanor changes from peaceful to angry during early autumn typhoons.  

Layered atop that beauty is Vietnam’s rich history. Hue was the imperial capital, at the peak of its power in the 19th Century. Hội An thrived as an Asian trade port between the 14th and 17th centuries. Bleak reminders of the American (Vietnam) War persist in places like China Beach, Sơn La (Mỹ Lai) and the old Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The city of Da Nang is the hub of the central coastal region and Vietnam’s third largest population center.

And then there are the Phong Nha caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A honeycomb of remarkable caverns laced with underground rivers, the network has only been seriously explored in the past three decades. The Sơn Đoòng cave, largest in the world, just opened for tours in 2013 — and then only with guides on a multi-day trek through a jungle habitat of elephants and tigers.

With so much to see and do, there only remains the question: Shall I travel the coastal route from north to south, or from south to north? Because I currently live in the Central Highlands, I will find it more practical to begin in Nha Trang and work my way north. But there’s no right or wrong way.

Surf breaks just offshore near Nha Trang. (Depositphotos image by Phuong Photos.)

Russian to the beaches

Nha Trang (in Vietnamese, it sounds like Nya Chang) has a greater Russian influence than anywhere else in this country. With direct charter flights from such frigid cities as Vladivostok, Irkutsk and Novosibirsk, more than 200,000 Russians visited Nha Trang in the halcyon pre-COVID year of 2019. They’re expected to rush back in 2022. Many top-end tourist hotels are Russian or Chinese owned, and the script at restaurants and travel agencies may be Cyrillic or Sinitic rather than Vietnamese or English.

But package tourists tend to stay in their own clusters, meaning there’s plenty for visitors to see and do that doesn’t involve buses, boats and fancy hotels. The crescent beach, 6 km (3.8 miles) long, offers every marine pursuit imaginable, from surfing to sailing to diving, and it’s flanked by a handsome promenade that doubles as a sculpture garden. Many of the town’s favorite restaurants and bars overlook this broad walkway. Yet few vacationers have an interest in the Po Nagar Cham Towers, a Buddhist temple complex over 1,000 years old on a bluff north of downtown.

Boat tours to isolated beaches and waterfalls, and to 71 offshore islands (some home to exclusive resorts), are popular diversions. More upscale accommodations dot the shoreline past Bãi Đài beach en route to the international airport at Cam Ranh Bay, 28 km (17.5 miles) south of Nha Trang, and north up a beguiling coastline road.

The sedate beach town of Quy Nhon, six hours by bus from Nha Trang, is gateway to the twin coves of remote Bãi Xép beach. Another 3½ hours north,  Quảng Ngãi is the nearest town to Sơn Mỹ, site of the infamous Mỹ Lai massacre. A poignant memorial recalls how more than 500 villagers, many of them children or elderly, were ruthlessly slain here by American troops in March 1968.

Lantern-bedecked boats float on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An. (Photo by JGA)

Historic Hội An

No other place in Southeast Asia is quite like Hội An. Its entire Ancient Town neighborhood, including more than 800 wood-frame buildings, has been preserved since 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, appearing much as it might have in the centuries it served as a window on trade with other Asian and European nations.

My brief visit in May 2020 only whetted my appetite for a longer stay. In the early days of the COVID pandemic in Vietnam, many of its historic temples, museums, Chinese community houses, handicraft shops and excellent restaurants were closed. I want to wander the public market and cruise the Thu Bon River on small boats lit only by colorful lanterns.

And I want to take a day trip to Mỹ Sơn, another UNESCO-acclaimed site that, between the 4th and 13th centuries, was considered the spiritual and intellectual hub of the ancient kingdom of Champa. Although severely damaged by bombing during the American War, the site preserves about 20 Hindu temples (out of an original 68) dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva.

Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge towers over motorbikes by day. (Photo by JGA)

Da Nang and Hue

Da Nang, now a city of more than 1 million, is as well-known for its bridges and street food as for its beaches. In particular, the so-called Dragon Bridge (one of several that cross the Han River just above its confluence with the East Sea) puts on a show every Friday and Saturday night, when the arched double sculpture, nearly half a mile long, changes colors and spouts fire and water. In the hills to the west, the new Golden Bridge (opened in 2018) features two giant hands framing an overlook between a resort garden and cablecar station.

U.S. Marines made their first landing in Vietnam at Da Nang in March 1965. An R&R resort was soon established at Mỹ Khe beach, dubbed “China Beach.” Today the strand remains popular among visitors; it is somewhat sheltered by the Son Tra peninsula, known to tróops as Monkey Mountain when it was a radar and communication base. Look for the giant “Lady Buddha” statue on the hillside.

For a history lover, I can’t imagine a better destination in Vietnam than Hue (pronounced hway), three hours’ drive north of Da Nang.

This city, which spans the Perfume River on a coastal plain 15 km (9.5 miles) from the beach, preserves the legacy of Vietnam’s last imperial dynasty, the Nguyễns, who ruled the country from 1802 to 1884, then nominally under the French until the end of the colonial era.

Hue’s historical centerpiece is íts Citadel and Imperial Enclosure, now protected by UNESCO after suffering severe wartime damage. Mostly completed by 1833, the stronghold has thick walls surrounded by a broad moat, with minimal entry points. Within the citadel itself are palaces and residences, gardens, a grand theater and the To Mieu temple complex. Outside are impressive pagodas and museums.

Beyond the central city, numerous flamboyant royal mausoleums stand in what was once countryside. The hillside tomb of emperor Tự Đức (died 1883), only 5 feet tall, is especially impressive. It’s not far from the seven-story Thiên Mụ Pagoda, an octagonal Vietnamese icon built in 1844.

The Citadel of the Imperial Royal Palace in Hue. (Depositphotos image by Curioso)

Going underground

Hue is just south of the DMZ, the old Demilitarized Zone of the American War era. If I pause to visit a friend in the gateway town of Đông Hà, I will plan on a motorbike tour of wartime sites, including the notorious Hamburger Hill and the elaborate Vĩnh Mốc tunnel system.

More likely, I will continue through to Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng National Park. Located at Vietnam’s narrowest point (only about 55 km, or 34 miles, from the East Sea to the border of Laos), the park embraces the limestone mountains of the Annamite Range, their evergreen jungles descending to savannah-like plains. The peaks are laced with a network of cathedral-like caverns, many miles in depth, spiked with stalagmites and stalactites. It is one of the world’s longest subterranean networks.

I cannot afford the thousands of dollars that would enable me to join a four-day trek to explore the Sơn Đoòng cave, considered to have the world’s largest natural opening. But I would hope there might be another, smaller grotto that could find a place for me.

Trekkers’ tents nestle inside the entrance to the world’s biggest cave, Hang Son Doong. (iStock image by Geng Zu.)
Stalagmites and stalactites highlight the Paradise Cave at Phong Nha. (iStock photo by Gilitukha.)

56. Exploring Vietnam’s Far North

Thoughts on planning a trip from Hanoi to the mountain resort town of Sapa, as well as the Perfume Pagoda and lovely Ninh Binh.

Morning sun breaks through the clouds in Sapa. (iStock photo by Sirichai Asawalapsakul)

Hanoi is not only Vietnam’s capital and second largest city. It is also the gateway for exploring the far north of this dragon-shaped country, where its highest peaks rise above 10,000 feet in the rugged Hoàng Liên Son mountain range.

I am planning to be here in February. The altitude and the latitude, 1,314 kilometers (817 miles) north of Saigon, are sufficient that I might expect a little winter snow. That would be a welcome occurrence for a former competitive skier who has experienced little but tropical temperatures for the past two years.

I’m not expecting to ski. I only hope I can find enough pre-dawn snowflakes in the resort center of Sapa (elevation 1,500 meters, or 4,921 feet) to toss a couple of snowballs. Sapa has become the tourism hub of the northern border area, a center both for outdoor recreation and for visiting the villages of numerous ethnic-minority tribes. Outfitters lead hiking, rafting, climbing, zip-lining and other adventures, and a cablecar spans a steep-sided valley to summit lofty Fansipan — for those not inspired to undertake the 19km (12-mile) hike.

The mighty Red River (Sông Hồng) flows from these heights. So does northern Vietnam’s other major stream, the Black River (Sông Đà), which joins the Red just above Hanoi on íts course through Haiphong to the Gulf of Tonkin. Rice is the dominant crop in these lowlands. Hills rise to the west along the long Laotian frontier; the climactic battle of the French colonial period took place at Điện Biên Phủ in May 1954, and that town remains a “must-visit” destination for history buffs.

The Perfume Pagoda is Vietnam’s leading site of Buddhist pilgrimage. (iStock phôt by heckepics)

The Perfume Pagoda

Now that I have (finally!) received my first Covid-19 vaccination, I can begin to confirm travel plans. After spending the better part of two weeks in Hanoi and stunning Ha Long Bay, I intend to travel west through Hoa Binh to Mai Châu. If my timing is right, I could be there during the annual Perfume Pagoda (Hương Sơn) Festival in mid-February.

The most revered site of Buddhist pilgrimage in Vietnam, Hương Sơn is a broad complex of temples and shrines built (beginning in 1686) in a range of karst hills that rise dramatically above picturesque rivers and rice fields. Its central temple nestles within a sacred limestone cavern that features 18th-century statues of the Buddha and Quan Âm. Tens of thousands of pilgrims annually climb a long set of stone steps to offer their prayers for the coming year.

I look forward to spending several nights at the Mai Châu Sol Bungalows, recommended by a friend as the lap of modest luxury in the heart of this stirring landscape.

Then I will continue to Điện Biên Phủ, where a museum, cemetery and various monuments commemorate the 57-day siege that put an end to Gallic control of Vietnam. But I won’t stay long. The mountains will be calling.

At 3,143 meters (10,311 feet), Fansipan is the highest peak in Vietnam. (iStock phôt by Vladyslav Danilin)

The roof of Vietnam

Travelers don’t come to Sapa to sit in town and gape at the summit of Fansipan (3,143 meters, or 10,311 feet) from a café terrace. The less intrepid may settle for a ride on the 6.3-kilometer (3.9-mile) cablecar to the gift shops on the mountaintop. I’ll be more interested in making the town a base for treks to nearby hill-tribe villages, home to such colorfully costumed ethnic minorities as the Tay, Hmong, Dzao, Nung and Thulao.

Depending upon the amount of time I want to spend in the highlands, I might also visit such destinations as the Bắc Hà market, where many of the area’s hill tribes gather every Sunday morning to sell their handicrafts. I may detour to Hà Giang province, where narrow roads through mountain passes challenge drivers but offer spectacular vistas of lakes and canyons framed by the Chinese border.

I’m keen as well to visit the mountains and dense rainforests of Ba Bể National Park, with its central lakes, grand waterfalls and ancient caverns. It sounds like a piece of paradise for a nature-lover such as myself, with 65 kinds of mammals (from bears and pangolins to primates and at least three different flying squirrels), 233 species of birds, dozens of reptiles and amphibians, and a great diversity of butterflies. Trekking routes wind through more than a dozen tribal hamlets.

Women of the Flower Hmong tribe gather at Bac Ha’s Sunday market. to sell their woven fabrics. (iStock photo by Nikada)

Fertile wetlands

A full day of train or bus travel links Hanoi with the communities of the far north. But before I turn my back on the Gulf of Tonkin region and begin traveling south again, I’ll want to tarry awhile in Ninh Binh, southwest of the capital.

The scenic wetlands of Tràng An have been occupied for more than 30,000 years, and UNESCO has given them World Heritage Site status. Tràng An is known for its cave temples accessible by boat tours, which begin near the 17th-century temples and pagodas of Hoa Lư, an ancient Vietnamese capital.

Also in the area is Cúc Phương National Park, an environmentalist’s dream with an even greater range of fauna and flora than Ba Bể. Declared as Vietnam’s first national park by Ho Chi Minh in 1962, its highlights include an Endangered Primate Rescue Center and a Turtle Conversation Center. It is also home to the Con Moong Cave, whose multiple soil layers have revaled human graves and tools from three diferent cultures dating back as far as 13,000 years.

In nearby Thanh Hóa is another UNESCO site, the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty. The design (in 1397) of the two riverside towers is said to demonstrate the influence of China’s Confucian philosophy in a traditionally Buddhist culture.

The town of Phát Diệm is known for its massive Roman Catholic cathedral, among Vietnam’s largest. Built of stone in 1891, in traditional Vietnamese style, it offers European-style neo-Gothic walls and a wooden interior, and was fully restored after a 1972 bombing. Graham Greene readers may recall a description of the church in The Quiet American.  

Rice fields wrap arround karst limestone hills in Ninh Binh province. (iStock phôt by photogilio)
Planted rice cascades down steep-sided terraces in Yen Bai Province near Sapa. (iStock photo by NanoStockk)

55. On Reopening the Border

With Vietnam preparing to reopen its international gateways, the author begins making plans to get back on the road.

Nha Trang, immensely popular with Russian visitors, will be among the first resort cities to reopen. (iStock photo by Huy Thoai)

At long last, Vietnam is preparing to reopen its borders to foreign tourists. Beginning next month, the resort island of Phu Quoc will welcome visitors to its international airport on a four-month trial basis. If all goes well, the tourist centers of Nha Trang, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An and Da Lat will follow in December with eased quarantine restrictions.

In announcing its intention, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism said all tourists must carry proof of full vaccination (with two doses) against the Covid-19 virus, and follow other prevention and control procedures including regular testing. That will apply to domestic travelers as well, of course, but the emphasis is on reigniting a stagnant international tourism market — beginning with charter flights from cities in eastern Russia, a prime market for Viet beach resorts.

That’s all fine and good, but what about foreign residents like me who live in smaller cities and still await our first Covid-19 vaccination? I’m regularly assured it will happen soon; meanwhile, my frustration grows. I didn’t come to Southeast Asia to sit in one town for months on end.

Hoan Kiem lake nestles in the heart of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and second largest city. (iStock photo by Thanh Ngoc Tran)

Planning ahead

Now I have begun making specific plans, in anticipation of being fully vaccinated and cleared to travel before Christmas. By then, I will have been working two years for APAX Leaders, my English-education center. I am entitled to a “contract pause” of two months. I want to take the cooler winter months to properly explore the north of Vietnam and share my experiences and discoveries with you on this blog site.

Up to now, my Vietnam travel pieces have featured various locations in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, where I lived during my first year in Vietnam) as well as Phu Quoc, the seaside towns of Vung Tau and Mui Né, and the hill town of Da Lat. I’ve also made brief visits to one corner of the Mekong Delta and the religious center of Tay Ninh. And of course I have written about Buon Ma Thuot (“BMT”), the provincial capital of DakLak, where I have lived since February.

My plan is to launch my extended journey with a flight from BMT to Hanoi, the national capital and Vietnam’s second largest city after Saigon. From there, I will spend several weeks traversing a region of 110,000 square kilometers (over 42,000 square miles), about the size of Iceland or the American state of Virginia. All eight of Vietnam’s UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites are in the northern half of this serpentine country, half of them within a four-hour drive of Hanoi.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter retains the intimate feel of decades long past. (iStock photo by vinhdav)

The capital city

From what I’ve learned in conversation and reading, there are distinct differences between the northern capital and its rebellious southern sister that extend well beyond latitude, climate and dialect. (For the record; The air distance from Saigon to Hanoi is 1,161 km or 721 miles, a little more than from San Francisco to Seattle. As for climate, Saigon is tropical, with a summer monsoon; Hanoi has a more temperate four-seasons climate.)

The money is in modern Saigon. Vietnam’s hub of international trade drives the country’s economy. Western influence has been strong since the Vietnam War era.

But the government (and the attendant bureaucracy) is in Hanoi, by far the more conservative and traditional of the two major cities. There are fewer skyscrapers here, and more Chinese temples and French colonial architecture. There’s a greater sense of history in its everyday urban life, and travelers rave about the street food.

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Hanoi. (iStock photo by mikeinlondon)

In particular, I look forward to exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter — its narrow lanes, street markets and ancient temples, on the west side of the broad Song Hang (Red River). While it is customary throughout Vietnam for individual blocks to be dedicated to a single craft or trade, Hanoi takes it to a whole different level. There’s one place to look for shoes, jewelry, medicinal herbs, ceramics or toys … or for woven straw, Buddhist altars or hand-carved gravestones.

The city is built around several lakes, small and large, which I know will beckon me for morning walks. Hoan Kiem Lake spans Hanoi between the Old Quarter and the quieter French Quarter. Bai Mau Lake is embraced within Thong Nhat Park. Truc Bach Lake, surrounded by vibrant flame trees, adjoins large Ho Tay (West) Lake; its 15-km (9½-mile) circumference will probably be best suited for a bicycle ride.

As I am a history buff, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is on my must-see list. Acclaimed by UNESCO, the complex was built 1,000 years ago, in the 11th Century. The communist government’s military command hub during the Vietnam War, it served a similar purpose for a millennium prior. Ongoing archaeological digs have revealed pavilions, imperial gates and other ancient structures.

Small cruise boats nestle in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s #1 tourism attraction. (iStock photo by Jaroslav Sugarek)

Ha Long Bay

Arguably Vietnam’s best-known natural attraction is Ha Long Bay, a maritime fantasy land of chiseled limestone pillars that rise from the iridescent waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. More than 2,000 islands of all shapes and sizes spread for about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Chinese border all the way to Cat Ba island, at the gateway to the seaport city of Haiphong.

To date, I have only seen photos of this otherworldly landscape, whose ports of entry are only three to four hours by limo bus from Hanoi. No doubt, I will want to book a cabin to cruise for a couple of nights through this sunken karst plateau. I will want to kayak among its monolithic isles, their summits shrouded in thick tropical vegetation. I will want to venture into some of its yawning caves and gnarled grottoes, sculpted over the ages by wind and waves.

Whereas the celebrity of the larger bay has made it a tourism mecca (and one I’ll want to see), I’ll want to spent a few more days at Lan Ha Bay on Cat Ba island. Sailing and kayaking are said to be excellent here, with guided excursions into sheltered lagoons and floating fishing villages. There are also numerous trails into the inland hills of Cat Ba National Park, which might be a good warmup for my plans to explore Vietnam’s highest mountain area—along the Chinese border—in subsequent weeks.

A kayaker pauses to enjoy the view of limestock peaks in Ha Long Bay,. (iStock photo by Cristal Tran)
Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Vietnam’s leading natural attraction. (iStock photo by mihtiander)