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)

54. Stepping Back: Malay Memories

A 1976 excursion through the Malay Peninsula introduced the author to the smell of opium, the Ten Courts of Hell, and a coven of frightening ghosts.

The facade of the historic Raffles Hotel still appears as it did in the mid-1970s. (iStock photo by fotoVoyager)

Serendipity was my constant companion as I continued along the old Hippie Trail.

Upon leaving Lake Toba in North Sumatra, I took the short flight across the Strait of Malacca from Medan, Indonesia, to Penang Island, Malaysia. A few days later, I snagged a local train to Singapore.

In 1976, the Malay Peninsula was still defining its identity. The region was fewer than two decades removed from the era of the old Straits Settlements, the Crown Colony that was a direct legacy of Sir Stamford Raffles and the British East India Company. English remained at least as widely spoken as the Malay language, and most important buildings displayed Victorian and Edwardian architecture. The kampong style so distinctive in Malay communities was not much in evidence.

After Samosir Island, Penang and its main city of George Town seemed the pinnacle of Western civilization. But the temptations of snake temples and erstwhile opium dens couldn’t hold me for too long, especially when an ancient fortune teller took one long look at my palm and told me I was destined to spend most of my life far from home and loved ones. It was time to jalan jalan, as the Malays say. Time to hit the road.

In Singapore, I reconnected with my traveling friends Bert and Bret. We toasted the great W. Somerset Maugham with a sloe-gin Singapore Sling at the old Raffles Hotel, since dwarfed by towering skyscrapers, and made a wee-hours visit to notorious Bugis Street. Foreigners called it “Boogie Street,” because that’s how transgendered performers pranced through its night market: They boogied. (When I returned to Singapore six years later, the street had been “cleaned up.”)

Somewhere along the way, I met a small group of Singapore National University anthropology students who invited me to join them in a rustic fishing village near Kota Baharu. They assured me that tiny Kampong Bachok, located in a remote corner of Malaysia’s Kelantan state, would be a fine place to break the next phase of my journey between Singapore and Bangkok. They just didn’t say anything about the ghosts.

Heritage houses recall British colonial history in George Town on Penang Island. (Depositphotos)

Poppies in Penang

Indeed, I had already encountered the supernatural at Penang. It wasn’t only the opium. At least, I don’t think it was.

The Straits Settlements, with their large Chinese populations, were once the hub of the worldwide opium trade, nowhere perhaps more than George Town. That changed rapidly with Malay independence, as a conservative Muslim government banned its infamous opium dens beginning in the 1950s. But in the mid-1970s, the sickly sweet fragrance of the black tar still reeked from the back rooms of young pilgrims’ palaces like the Hong Kong Bar, where carefully dated photo albums documented decades of guests. (Years later, my younger brother unknowingly stumbled into the same saloon and discovered my smiling face in a photo surrounded by other travelers of questionable repute.)

The opium poppy doesn’t grow here; it is most notoriously a product of the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar intersect. But the processing of the flower into a thick paste is well-understood by the guardians of several traditional Chinese Taoist temples. Opium tar continues to smear the mouths and tongues of underworld deities in shrines throughout the city.

Penang’s most noted sanctuary may be the Temple of the Azure Cloud, otherwise known as the Snake Temple. For more than two centuries, dozens of resident serpents (specifically pit vipers) have curled around Buddhist-Taoist images, bells and other icons. When the temple was under construction in 1805, its priest, a healer named Chor Soo Kong, welcomed the venomous creatures’ forebears, and they’ve never left. Indeed, their numbers have grown. The sacred smoke of burning incense sedates the snakes and renders them harmless … or so it’s said.

On the beach at Batu Ferringhi, the author had his fortune read by Ba Pak Dinh. (iStock photo by TravelPics)

I had stopped by the Snake Temple on my way to Batu Ferringhi, then a laid-back beach community (since condominium-ized) on the north coast of the island, a short taxi ride from George Town. My Lonely Planet guidebook, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, sang the praises of Ba Pak (“Father”) Dinh, a lifelong denizen of the golden sands who had pleased author Tony Wheeler with his forecasts of life on the road. For little more than the price of a cup of tea, he would speculate on my future as well.

I found Dinh, wizened beyond his years by the tropical sun, holding court in a thatch-roofed coffee house beside the beach. He must have been younger than I am now, although he didn’t look it. His prognostication, on what lay ahead for me, had a polished authenticity: I’m certain he had delivered the spiel scores of times before. It wasn’t quite “You’re not from around here, are you?” but it came close.

Dinh studied my palm for some minutes, took a deep breath, and smiled. “Your home is far from here. (You think?) You will not spend a lot of your life at your home. I see you as a traveler.” Isn’t that what every young backpacker wants to hear?

Change is constant in Singapore, but the Merlion remains an urban symbol. (iStock photo by Vincent St. Thomas)

The Lion City

By my 26th birthday, on October 14, I was on Boogie Street with Bert and Bret. I couldn’t have imagined that a half-dozen years later I’d be married and living in this “Lion City,” the translation from Malay of the name “Singapura.” My son was born here in 1984, and when Erik was 12, he and I revisited the independent city-state together.

The urban landscape has continued to change dramatically with each passing year. So much of what is identified with modern Singapore didn’t exist on my first visit in 1976, starting with Changi International Airport. Sentosa Island — which now swarms with international mega-resorts, a casino, a Universal Studios theme park and an extensive cablecar system — was still breast-feeding as a place for tourism. I remember it mainly for its Fort Siloso museum of military history, its exhibits recounting the story of Japan’s 1942 invasion of Singapore by land as British guns pointed out to sea.

Singapore has four official languages (English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and the Tamil tongue of south India), and its multinational character contributes greatly to the diversity of its cuisine. I loved the food in Singapore. (I still do.) The hawker stalls on Orchard Road, the banana-leaf restaurant in Little India on Serangoon Road, and especially the Peranakan (“Nyonya”) eateries in old Chinatown blew me away.

A hawker stall on Singapore’s Orchard Road serves Nyonya cuisine. (Depositphotos)

Peranakan? Yes, that was something completely new to me. Mainly between the 15th and 17th centuries, young traders had immigrated from southern China to the Strait of Malacca, where they took Malay or Indonesian wives. Although the ingredients were not the same, these women (nyonya) learned to adapt their traditional foods to the Chinese appetite, and a hybrid cuisine was born. That became the basis for a rich regional culture that today remains prominent in the old Straits Settlements.

The Chinese influence was especially evident at the Tiger Balm Gardens, which in the mid-1970s were the nearest thing Singapore had to a theme park, albeit a gruesome one. I visited to see hundreds of gaudy statues and giant dioramas depicting tales from Chinese mythology and folklore. Scariest were the Ten Courts of Hell, which illustrated in grisly detail what might happen to sinners in the afterlife. It was enough to make me purchase my own container of the medicated unguent known as Tiger Balm.

A demon threatens sinners in Tiger Balm Gardens’ Ten Courts of Hell. (iStock photo by Kreangchai Rungfamai)

Going jalan jalan

I was still haunted by the Courts of Hell as I disembarked the overnight train from Singapore in Kota Baharu, a tin-mining and pepper-producing center not far from the border of Thailand.

While I have no memory of where I met my student friends, I clearly remember their names and faces. Bhopinder Singh is today a chief immigration officer in Singapore. Raj Kumar is the CEO for a major engineering contractor. Juanita Noroñha has become an Australian citizen with family in Sydney. Joann Craig, whose book Culture Shock: Singapore! became a best-seller among expats, is a retired anthropology professor living in California’s Sonoma Valley.

One of the group — it may have been Raj — had made arrangements for a stay in Bachok village, and all were glad to have me tag along. By day we observed the fishermen return with catches from the South China Sea, watched the women prepare meals, and played with the children. By night we bedded upon rattan mats in a simple shanty and listened to ghost stories from the young men of the kampong.

The east coast of peninsular Malaysia is far more traditional in belief, than the more cosmopolitan west side. It seems everyone has a tale about the hantu, the local spirits. And no one would dare challenge the truth of such stories.

Traditional Kelantan fishing boats moor in an inlet near Kota Baharu. (iStock photo by coleang)

There are apparently hundreds of kinds of hantu — some evil, some friendly, some even companions to the living. Many of them are djinns living in the natural world, in trees and rocks and rivers. Some, like voodoo spirits, can be programmed to cause illness or to do harm. There are hantu raya, great ghosts that perform mighty tasks for their owners, and hantu jamuan, party ghosts, harmless unless you fail to invite them to your shindig. Carrie had nothing on them.

There are ghosts of the sun and the moon and the sea, ghosts with the heads of animals, ghosts who throw stones at people just for fun. Others are, for lack of a better word, tricksters.

“You can buy a toyol,” one of our hosts said. His description made it sound like a small goblin in the form of a naked baby with pointed ears and sharp fangs. Their owners may use these mischievous imps to steal small valuables such as coins or precious rings, he said. That’s why many homes in Bachok village scattered buttons, marbles or sweets on their floors, as an expedient distraction.

And there’s the semengat, as the Malay people call the human soul. My friends in Bachok described it as being about the size of a thumb and able to fly like a bird. When a person is sleeping or ill, the semengat may temporarily leave the body, though it always returns … until that person dies, at which time it is set free.

One of the Bachok youth had an uncle who was widely recognized as a bomoh, or village shaman. He had been conditioned to fear the penanggalan, one of several flying, vampire-like spirits that may be released when a woman dies in pregnancy or gives birth to a stillborn child. “I’ve seen this one,” he whispered. “It is the head of a woman with its insides flying behind it. It wants the blood of children. Its mother, the lang sayur, attacks pregnant women. There’s a hole at the back of her neck. If you catch one, you must stuff her hair into that hole to stop her.”

That might have been too much information. I don’t think any of us slept well that night, for fear that the sounds we heard outside our primitive dwelling may have been, er, supernatural.

Artist’s depiction of the vampire-like penanggalan, trailing its internal organs. (Pinterest image by foxeni)

53. My Year in Photos: Fifteen Favorites

A selection of the author’s photos, each of them a memory from a year of Travels in Vietnam.

It has been a difficult year all over the world. In Vietnam, we cruised through 2020 with some of the lowest coronavirus infection rates on Earth, only to be hit hard by Covid-19’s Delta variant in 2021.

A year ago this week, I launched this blog. It has helped me to weather the storms of the past year, keeping me focused on my original purpose for coming to Southeast Asia: to travel widely and absorb the Vietnamese culture along the way.

Given the restrictions on movement made necessary by the omnipresent flu, I’ve done much more of the latter (sponging up culture) than the former (traveling). I have high hopes that will change in coming months.

To celebrate my first year of regular blogging, and two years living in Vietnam, I’ve put together a collection of photographs to share. Each of them has a story. All photos are mine. Please keep in mind that I’m a journalist, not a photographic artist, and I choose images to illustrate or complement my writing.

The photo immediately above was taken at my favorite Saigon restaurant, Quince, in District 1. French Chef Julian Perraudin, who combines Gallic sensibilities with local ingredients, has been honored as the best in Vietnam. Here, the front-of-house manager, Ms. Kim Nguyen, displays a chef’s special.

Motorbikes and motorcycles are the primary form of transportation throughout Vietnam, but especially in the big cities. When I lived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), I relied upon two-wheelers for taxi service, but didn’t wish to drive myself — for reasons best expressed by this picture. Having moved in February to the far less frantic provincial center of Buôn Ma Thuột, I now ride and own a motorbike.

The Mekong Delta is only one region of Vietnam, much as the Mississippi Delta is only one part of the United States. But it is this nation’s breadbasket, where the lion’s share of exportable rice is grown, and thus is a major population center. I had the opportunity to spend several days of the annual Tet holiday with a rural family, which required several crossings of the various braids of the Mekong River on local ferries such as this one.

Quack! As a loyal Oregon Duck (that’s a sports team, for my non-American readers), I’m partial to the web-footed waterfowl. On the other hand, its meat is delicious. At Tet holiday markets in the Mekong Delta, you can select your own bird, whether they like it or not.

There is amazing diversity in the religions of Vietnam. A person may profess a singular faith, but often it is much more complicated. Buddhism may intermingle with Taoism and Confucianism, for instance, and become a very different religion than the one the Buddha taught. At Saigon’s Jade Emperor Pagoda, a monk sells various icons and fruit drinks to raise money to support the temple.

Even further from the norm is the Cao Dai faith, a syncretic philosophy which honors Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen among its avatars beside the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc and Vladimir Lenin. At its mother church in the town of Tay Ninh, devotees gather four times daily to direct their chants and paeans of praise to an all-seeing eye.

A favorite getaway for Saigon’s European residents is the hill town of DaLat, once a French colonial retreat at 1,500 meters (about 5,000 feet) elevation. It is especially popular among artists and other independent speakers. A prime example is an architectural oddity known as the Hang Nga crazy house. Construction began in 1990 and it remains a work in progress.

Tropical Phu Quoc island is a popular vacation spot for Vietnamese nationals and foreign visitors alike. A 4.9-mile (7.9-km) cablecar, the world’s longest such over-the-sea aerial, has been a popular attraction since it opened in 2018. It carries excursionists over the Gulf of Thailand fishing village of An Thó’i to Hom Thom isle, with its nature reserve and water park.

At Phu Quoc’s Ong Lan Beach, a lone celebrant dances to the setting sun as it disappears into the Gulf of Thailand near the Mango Bay Resort. Yes, this is the same image I’ve chosen to introduce my blog posts. Nearer to Cambodia than to the Vietnam mainland, Phu Quoc island still offers quiet getaways despite an explosion of commercial and resort development in recent years.

If there is one Vietnamese food that is known around the world, it is the savory beef-noodle soup known as phở. Slow-simmered beef-marrow broth is accented by lemongrass, coriander and ginger, then served with a variety of other vegetables and spices. My favorite variety is phở tai nam, served with beef filet and flank, as presented in this photo taken at Phở Nguyen in Buôn Ma Thuột.

A keeper from the ethnic Ede tribe directs an elephant through the shallow waters of the Srepok River in Yok Don National Park, Vietnam’s single largest nature reserve, near Buôn Ma Thuột. Besides elephants, the park is home to muntjak deer, monkeys, leopards and red wolves. I look forward to hiking here.

Spectacular Dray Nur Falls is just one of several beautiful waterfalls in DakLak province, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region. About 250 meters (more than 800 feet) long and 30 meters (100 feet) high, it also has hiking trails to various natural attractions, including ancient caves and spooky exposed tree roots.

Vietnam’s third-largest city, and the hub of the Central Coast region, is Da Nang. The waters of the East (South China) Sea appear impossibly blue in this view from the lower slopes of Nui Son Tra (“Monkey Mountain”), a location well-known to American servicement in the early 1970s.

Downtown Da Nang is separated from its beach strip by the broad Han River, itself crossed by no fewer than four major bridges. Most spectacular among them is the Dragon Bridge, which changes color from green to blue to orange to magenta as fire and water spout from the head of the “creature” at the bridge’s far (east) end.

No small town in Vietnam is more popular among tourists than Hoi An, a half hour’s drive south of Da Nang. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was once a port of international trade. Today it charms with colorful lanterns, floral displays and bustling riverside activity. This is the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, a presence since the 17th century.

52. On Dating (Chapter Three): Enlightenment?

Comments from an expert on intercultural communication shed new light on the author’s relationship questions.

Anh and John at the Kotam Eco Park in April. (Thuy Dung Nguyen photo)

Among the most memorable books I have read are a 1996 science-fiction novel, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, and its 1998 sequel, Children of God.

The story: A faith-questioning Jesuit priest leads an exploration party into the first interstellar encounter with an alien species. In spite of both sides seeking a meaningful, peaceful rapport, and with both doing everything right according to their best understanding, their meetings are mutually disastrous.

I’m not suggesting that intercultural dating must necessarily end catastrophically. What I am saying is that even in our best efforts to do everything right, and in our counterpart’s best efforts to do the same, there will inevitably be things about which we just cannot agree.

Nor, perhaps, should we even try to agree. We must only learn to accept without judgment.

I love getting mail, especially when it challenges me. Following my blog last week, I got a wonderful response from Carol Dinh, a teacher of Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City with a university degree in English.

Carol is well-traveled internationally and has an enlightened perception of both local and Western cultures. She stepped to the defense of Lan Anh, my partner of six months.

“I don’t completely agree with you,” she wrote. “I’d like to share a bit about our culture.” And in doing so, I feel, she inadvertently confirmed much of what I wrote. Following is a part of our dialogue.

On romance:

ME: Love is not about romance. It is perhaps never about romance. It’s about what is practical.

CAROL: It’s actually both, not either, and romance comes first.

ME: Certainly, no one (I suspect) will begin a serious relationship without some spark of attraction. But I have spoken to many Vietnamese women between their mid-30s and mid-50s who have lamented succumbing to parental pressure to marry their first boyfriend. After a few years, they are single mothers or in loveless couplings.

CAROL: That’s one of the reasons they are more practical. In older generations, especially in the countryside, not losing “face” was extremely important. If a girl was not married before 25ish, people would think she was unwanted (for many reasons: Not skillful enough to be a housewife? No longer a virgin?).

So the girls usually got married at all costs and ended up getting divorced or putting up with the unhappy marriage so the children could have both parents under one roof … or to keep “face” for herself, her children and her parents. So there’s love or no love, but it’s better to have some money (or the equivalent) just in case. This “face” thing still exists nowadays, just less so than before.

On a woman’s role:

ME: There is an enduring perspective that a woman’s job is to serve a man.

CAROL: We don’t serve; we take care of men. That’s how we show our love to them, not by a romantic response. If she takes care of you very much, she loves you very much, though she may never [show affection when she is caring for you].

ME: Isn’t that just semantics? Maybe that’s what Vietnamese men are looking for, but Western men, not so much. Most of us value affection over being “taken care of,” even if that is the less practical approach. I’m very independent. That’s why I’m here. I am grateful for everything she does, but I can “take care of” myself.

CAROL: This is the culture gap that you need to overcome. It’s why more open-minded younger generations don’t want to date or get married to Viet men.

On sex:

ME: She says she doesn’t understand why sex is such a big deal — in fact, she doesn’t really like it.

CAROL: People at her age grew up from such a conservative culture that sex is considered dỉrty to talk about, especially by a woman. All they learned was now a baby is made, in a biology lesson at school, if she was lucky. Nothing else, so that’s the reason why.

ME: I suspected as much, from the conservative cultural standpoint. Before we ever became intimate, she volunteered her lack of interest in sex. But it’s not something she is comfortable discussing. After six months, she is finally showing an occasional flash of desire.

CAROL: “Romance” means different things to Viet women depending upon their age. It’s more spiritual when they are younger or dating, but the older they are, the more practical they become.

On giving attention:

CAROL: In general, a woman needs to feel like a priority in every little thing. Does he take care of me as much as I do for him? Does he care about my feelings?  Give her more attention (in both words and actions).

ME: Give her more attention? What do you suggest? I can say, “I love you,” but she offers no response. When I say “thank you,” and tell her how much I appreciate her, she grunts. She isn’t impressed when I bring home flowers. She doesn’t know how to accept a compliment.

CAROL: She seems to be a practical one, so I think you should give her something more material, not spiritual. But we don’t say “thank you” on a daily basis. We seldom do, no matter how much we appreciate people/things. We show our appreciation via facial expression (a smile) or actions such as giving care or gifts. Don’t be surprised if you hold the door for someone and she doesn’t even give you a glance.

Most of us [Viet women] have the same practical way to “calculate” the love of men. But some of this might make you feel you have no “space” left: Can I touch his phone or wallet any time I want, and do whatever I want with it, without having to ask? [ME: Yes, she can.]  Does he stop drinking with friends to go home with me if I am tired, or will he stay and let me go home alone? [This isn’t an issue for us.]

On expressing emotion:

ME: How is emotion expressed in this culture? I observe very little emotiveness. Is it held inside, or even felt?

CAROL: As I said, the “face” thing is still important in our culture, so negative emotion is usually hidden. You can only see the positive.

ME: But how do you normally express yourself? A simple smile doesn’t say all that much.

CAROL: Facial expressions. Body language.

ME: In my culture, that is nice, but insufficient. And those things can be misinterpreted. Words cannot.

CAROL: That’s the difference. We say thanks in many ways, but just not words.

ME: But it’s very ambiguous.

CAROL: Yes, because we are not as direct as in Western countries.

ME: My expat friends and I feel that our Viet girlfriends keep a lot of secrets from us. We are much more open with them.

CAROL: Not secrets. Just less direct.

ME: Avoiding questions is being less direct?

CAROL: Yes, not to cause argument or misunderstanding, or lose face.

ME: Ah, back to “face.” To us, it creates more misunderstanding when they avoid answers. Another cultural gap.

CAROL: Yes. Here, you need to feel it. People need to interpret everything from one another.

ME: And Westerners are not used to having to interpret.

CAROL: And not good at it at all!

ME: Just over a year ago, I had a relationship end because I didn’t read the secret clues. And then she just left. How can we interpret when we lack the cultural foundation to do so?

CAROL: You need to find the correct hidden messages.

ME: But where is the special secret-agent decoder ring? It is inevitable that we will take things out of context.

CAROL: Yes.

Square One

So here I am, back at Square One. What a fantastic learning experience this is! For anyone who wonders why I travel, this is it! Feed me knowledge. I can’t get enough.

But, oh, yeah, the relationship.

Could it be that Anh is showing her love in the best way she knows possible? By “taking care of” me, as she learned from her late mother and her older sister? And in spite of appearances to the Western mind, although she is unable to articulate it in my language or hers, she really loves me?

If so, is a compromise even possible? And what would it look like? What can I accept without judgment, and what can I not accept?

Clearly, affection and communication are huge issues. But are they issues only with Anh?  Although every individual is different, from what I am learning, I think they would be obstacles to a relationship with anyone in the Vietnamese culture.

Stay tuned.

Together or apart? (Thuy Dung Nguyen photo)
(Image by Depositphotos)

51. On Dating (Chapter Two): Now, It’s Personal

What is love, in the Vietnamese context? A successful relationship must be seen as a social contract, practical rather than romantic.

Lan Anh practices yoga in Buon Ma Thuot (JGA photo)

What have I learned after nearly two years in Vietnam, and six months exclusively with the same partner?

“Love” is not about romance. It is perhaps never about romance. It’s about what is practical.

Anh has stunning good looks and the to-die-for body of a yoga instructor, which she is. She learned all the tricks of gourmet Vietnamese cooking from her mother and especially her older sister. She is fastidious, if occasionally quirky, in her everyday habits. Her knowledge of preventive medicine and herbal remedies is not lost on a partner a full generation older than she is.

“You are lucky,” she often reminds me. Yes, I am. But what’s the trade-off? What does she get from me?

Companionship, I suppose. Apart from her yoga community, Anh doesn’t have many friends. And we take care of each other: I pay her a modest sum for daily private yoga lessons and I buy our groceries.

She doesn’t ask for much, although she did suggest that I “will have to” buy a house should I choose to remain in Buôn Ma Thuột for the long term. That ain’t happenin’. Neither my limited resources nor my travel agenda will allow.

All you need is love

Does she love me? I think so, but she never tells me. My attempts at affection are inconsequential. Although she frequently snuggles with me in front of the television at night, or drapes her legs across my lap, she offers no response to a gentle kiss on the nape of the neck as she cooks, or to a squeeze of her hand and a “Drive safely!” request as she heads to the market on her motorbike.

In moments of frustration, I wonder if I’m merely fulfilling a role. In traditional Vietnamese society, I (and my expatriate friends) have observed, there is an enduring perspective that a woman’s job is to serve a man.

Of course, that includes sex. Not for female pleasure, heaven forbid. Sex is merely a part of a woman’s duty to the family line (to reproduce) and to the masculine gender (to provide relaxation and stress release). Growing up, Anh was never led to believe that a woman could also enjoy sex. She says she doesn’t understand why sex is such a big deal — in fact, she doesn’t really like it.

She never expresses desire, let alone lust. She would rather wrap her fingers around her cell phone than, well, you get the picture. It’s no wonder that an unrestrained display of emotion is so stifled in this culture.

Uptown girl

My landlord has just notified me that we may have to relocate from our lovely three-bedroom house at the end of this month. Bich told me she needs a home for her two children, who will be returning from their father’s house to attend school in Buôn Ma Thuột in October. Anh can move back into her sister’s house, where she lived previously; but unless I can negotiate an arrangement with Bich, I’ll be seeking a new residence, perhaps a hotel room, in very short order.

That won’t be easy during the Covid-19 lockdown, at a time when I’m still waiting to receive my first vaccination. But Anh has a solution: Why not marry the owner, who is, after all, an attractive divorcee?

If this were a girlfriend in the United States, I would give her a smirk, knowing that it was a joke.  But here in Vietnam? She is serious.

“She’s beautiful,” said Anh. “She’s rich. She has a lot more going for her than I do.”

Let it never be said that Vietnamese women are not practical.

Society’s child

In six months of dating, I feel that I know remarkably little about Anh — far less than I would expect in a dating relationship with a Western woman. That feeling is magnified, no doubt, by our communication challenges. Neither of us speaks the other’s language well: Thank goodness for translation apps.

But there’s an underlying sense that Anh really doesn’t want me to ask a lot of questions. As a journalist, that’s what I do. I am left with the thought that she has a lot of secrets. Might my queries open a door to things that I really don’t want to know? I know she was a teacher in her 20s, an accountant in her 30s. But the woman doesn’t even have an email address. What is she hiding or hiding from?

She is fearful of introducing me to her family, although they live nearby. Could it be because I am much older than her? Or because I am a foreigner? That’s never been made clear. At 45, she is the middle child of five sisters and a brother, and one of two who never married. Although her parents are long deceased, the eldest sister, whom Anh describes as “fierce,” is regarded as the matriarch and the force behind a family catering business. Revealingly, Anh calls her “Móm.”

I have met one of her two younger sisters and a 13-year-old nephew. Family salutations have gone no further. If I dare to cross the invisible line to meeting big sister, well, “It wouldn’t be fun anymore,” Anh said. There must be something more than Confucianist filial piety going on here.

She told me five years have passed since her last relationship, which she ended because the man, a Vietnamese, wanted to exert too much control over her life. “I must have my freedom,” Anh insisted. Yet since that time she has lived under Móm’s authority.

Skin care au naturel. (JGA photo)

Avocado dreams

There may be nothing that Anh has said that gives me greater concern than when she told me she has no dreams. “Dreams are for young people,” she said.

I must have been speechless when she uttered these words. I told her I dream every day and every night. I told her I would not have traveled the world, would not be in Vietnam right now, were it not for my dreams.

Was there a time when her youthful dreams were shattered?

Finally, she caved. “I dream of doing yoga in India,” she said. Hey, that’s a good start. Anh hasn’t articulated a lot of interest in travel or fine dining, which can be a major obstacle for someone dating a food and travel writer. In the past, she traveled a small amount in Vietnam, and once (on a yoga trip) to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

I am a man with a passion for life, for travel, for great food — for new and varied experiences. I’m not at all certain that passion is a word that is well understood in Vietnam.

To be fair, I’ve seen flashes of it in small packages. Anh is passionate about yoga. Oanh is passionate about ballroom dance. Nguyen is crazy for soccer. A great many women are obsessed with posting selfies of themselves on TikTok, Instagram and other social media. That’s not passion. That’s narcissism.

What is normal? I don’t know. Even in my own country, one person’s normal is another’s aberration.

I’m a romantic. I’m not a flowers-and-chocolate romantic, but I easily romanticize places and people. In the Vietnamese context, I am very clearly not a practical person.

How could I be practical? I’m still looking for love.

Image by Depositphotos

50. The Waiting to Be Vaccinated Blues

COVID-19 vaccinations haven’t yet arrived in the Central Highlands in any significant quantity. The author is more than ready.

A COVID-19 test is administered on a street corner in Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)

Patience, John. I tell myself every day: Patience.

I’m still waiting to be vaccinated against Covid-19. For the first time.

A year ago — heck, five months ago — we were cruising here in Vietnam. We were aware of the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, but the problem seemed to belong to the rest of the world, not to us. Our numbers were minuscule by comparison.

As of mid-April in this country of 98 million people, we had seen only 2,733 cases and 35 deaths. But the situation changed with the arrival here of the Delta variant in late April/early May.

Statistics now show over 551,000 cases and 13,701 deaths as of September 7. In the last two weeks alone, we have seen 181,700 new cases, almost one-third of the total. According to statistics site WorldOMeters, Vietnam still ranks only 50th internationally in total cases, but this country is 13th in active cases with 225,000. And that number is climbing daily.

A reasonable comparison is our Southeast Asian neighbor, Thailand (population 70 million). That country has seen 1.3 million cases of Covid-19 but only 13,511 deaths, fewer than Vietnam. Its active case load has dropped to 143,000.

Astra Zeneca was among the first vaccines available in Vietnam. (VNExpress phôto)

Why did the first wave largely pass Vietnam by, only to strike heavily with its second coming? I’m going to argue that the country got complacent. In 2020, the authoritarian government mandated that masks be worn in public at all times, and no one blinked an eye. The entire country went into several weeks of self-quarantine. And whenever a corona victim was identified, they were subjected to a hardline regimen of “contact tracing” to determine whom they may have breathed common air.

But vaccines were not yet available. Countries with higher initial rates of infection leapt to the forefront when AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Chinese and Russian vaccines became available for international distribution. Vietnam’s need was, at first, not so great.

The vaccination rate was very low until June. Since then, it has increased, but only slowly. As of yesterday (September 7), only 3.5% of the population had been fully vaccinated (two doses), according to the news site VN Express. Twenty percent have now received one dose. But that distribution is concentrated in the metropolitan area of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where the disease is at its worst, and in greater HaNoi, the national capital. And at a vaccination rate of 300,000 per day, it will take two more months to cover another 10% of the people.

Indeed, half of Vietnam’s cases are in Saigon, my original home when I came to this country nearly two years ago. I moved in February — ahead of the Delta variant — to the provincial capital of Buon Ma Thuot, in DakLak state. Right now, my friends in Saigon are essentially under house arrest, confined to their apartment blocks or residential streets by military barriers. They are tested for Covid weekly and have groceries delivered. But at least they all have at least one vaccination, and many already have two.  

Why anyone would choose to reject a shot, I don’t know.  I don’t care what it is. At this point, I’ll even take the Russian Sputnik or the Chinese Sinovac. I just want to improve my chances of minimizing the effect of the virus if or when I’m exposed.

A do-it-ourselves haircut in the comfort of home. (JGA photo)

My movements are still heavily restricted, even in the Central Highlands. I’ve been teaching English classes online for many months, and I’ve made it clear that I won’t return to the classroom until I am fully vaccinated. But I’m lucky. Really lucky. Here in Buon Ma Thuot, instead of a one-room studio flat in Ho Chi Minh City, I have a three-bedroom house and enough income to afford it.

My house has an exercise studio where my girlfriend and I practice yoga each morning. And Anh is much more than a fitness coach and lockdown companion. She’s a fantastic cook — albeit my diet these days is 100% Vietnamese — and a translator of Covid-related legal documents that I would be unable to decipher without her help.

This story is not very different from those that so many friends and colleagues around the world have experienced. It’s frustrating, of course. I came here as a travel and food writer, anxious to explore and share discoveries in my new domicile. Now I am necessarily a homebody, and that’s not something I’m very good at.

But I will continue to be patient, as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has recently declared the Covid-19 death toll rate in Southeast Asia to be the highest in the world.

 “We fear that as the virus spreads from cities to regional and rural areas that many more lives will be lost among the unvaccinated,” said Alexander Matheou, the IFRC’s Asia Pacific director. He continued:

“In the short-term, we need much greater efforts by richer countries to urgently share their millions of excess vaccine doses with countries in Southeast Asia. We also need vaccine companies and governments to share technology and scale up production. These coming weeks are critical for scaling up treatment, testing and vaccinations, in every corner of all countries in Southeast Asia. We must aim for mass vaccination rates of 70 to 80 per cent if we want to win the race against the variants and overcome this global pandemic.”

As I wrote at the start: Patience, John. Patience. My name is in two and maybe three different registries for the jab(s), which I assure myself will come soon. Meanwhile, I will stay fit and healthy and follow all health-oriented protocols. Now is not a time to take foolish risks.

A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccination in Ho Chi Minh City. (PATH.com photo)

49. Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Vietnam

There are contradictions galore in contemporary Vietnamese culture. “You can’t kiss in the street, but you can piss in the street,” one longtime resident noted.

When nap time beckons, a three-wheeler provides stability. (JGA photo)

These are a few observations after nearly two years of residence in Vietnam. Most of them you won’t read in travel narratives.

Nap time. Days begin early, about 5:30 a.m. or before. Many people are at their places of work by 7 a.m.  And they’re still working at 5 p.m.  A long day? Yes, but built into it is a midday rest period, typically between about 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 or 2 p.m.  Government offices, banks and other large businesses, public and private schools lock their doors to allow their employees and staff shelter from the storm of their workaday lives.

At schools where I have taught both morning and afternoon classes, for instance, unoccupied classrooms become communal bunk rooms during this “down time,” with adult bodies sprawled on floors and heads tucked upon folded-up jackets. (The floor isn’t much harder than the average Vietnamese-made mattress.) Outside, meanwhile, markets and other small businesses remain open, but owners and workers are still catching winks on cots or hammocks positioned to keep one eye on the shop entrances. And frankly, anywhere is a good place to nap — even on your motorbike, as long as you turn the ignition off before you close your eyes.

Ong Johnny has a new young friend. (Lu’ong Thi Tu’o’i photo)

How old are you? Don’t be surprised when one of the first questions you are asked, after your name and nationality, is your age. It’s not just that experience and wisdom command respect; it’s also built into the language. Different pronouns are used to address not only men and women, but also those younger and older.

As my age is greater than most, I am called Uncle (“Bác Johnny”) or, more frequently, Grandfather (“Ông”). I refer to my students or those younger than me as em (boys) or (girls). I call my close friends anh (men) or chi (women). I show deference to a gỉrlfriend’s mother by calling her bà. A first acquaintance wouldn’t want to err by calling me ông if they were, in fact, older than me. Quickly asking one’s age establishes a pecking order.

Entry gates are made just wide enough to welcome a motorbike. (JGA photo)

Two wheels. Everybody owns a motorbike. Or four. And they are parked not in a garage, which few homes have, but in the sân, an enclosed entry area that English speakers might call a courtyard. More valuable cycles will be wheeled into the home’s living room each night so as not to attract the attention of thieves.

It makes sense, then, that gates and doors are designed to be just the right width — about 88 centimeters, a little less than three feet — to accommodate the handlebars of a motorbike.

A walk in the park. When you say that something is a walk in the park, you make reference to perhaps the most popular recreational pastime in Vietnam. In the early-morning and twilight hours in particular, scores of men and women of all ages may be seen sauntering solo, or in small conversational groups, around park blocks. They get their exercise where they don’t have to dodge urban traffic. Many others fill gyms and other fitness centers to capacity.

But they don’t walk to the park. They drive their motorbikes, even if it’s only a couple of blocks. It’s ironic to me, as someone who loves to walk, that I am met with a blank expression or even a frown of astonishment when I express a desire to “take a walk” around my neighborhood. Even when there’s a beautiful park three blocks from someone’s home, they won’t consider hoofing it there.

Parks are magnets for walking and other exercise. (Vietnam Discovery photo by @nhannt98)

No PDAs. Public displays of affection are considered inappropriate. Public urination (by men, at least) is not. This was one of the very first things I discovered when I moved to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) nearly two years ago. “You can’t kiss in the street,” my longtime expatriate friend told me, “but you can piss in the street.” Motorcyclists would pull their bikes over to pee on a traffic island or the side of a building in full view of passers-by. Fishermen didn’t think twice about whizzing into a canal as street traffic whizzed past.

Yet to give a friend of the opposite sex a hug, or a peck on the cheek at the end of an evening out, is improper, particularly if anyone else might observe this gauche behavior. Even holding hands is discouraged. While this is slowly changing in Saigon and tourist destinations like beach cities, it remain heavily observed in “hometowns” and provincial centers throughout the country.

Couples must find private moments for displays of affection. (123RF photo by @quangpraha)

Sexual freedom. By contrast, out of the public eye, sex is very matter-of-fact. First-date hookups are commonplace. The marquees of budget hotels offer rooms in one- and two-hour blocks. Many young (twenties) marriages serve the purpose of pleasing parents with grandchildren, but often within a few years husbands begin patronizing massage parlors for sex, and wives discreetly take lovers … with each others’ tacit acceptance. It’s important that no one lose face. Divorces are not uncommon, but neither are they inevitable.

Family units are very tight. Three or even four generations may live together and assist in raising children. There’s no need for babysitters: That’s what moms and sisters are for. One expat friend of mine has enjoyed the extended company of a string of beautiful single mothers. Even though they leave children at home, their families provide parenting during their (sometimes weeks-long) absences. Who knows? With a little luck, they might find a rich foreigner husband.

Mental floss. Need a good shrink? You are not in luck. Vietnam is a good two generations behind the West when it comes to counseling services. No one wants to bring their personal problems to a stranger. Ask your ông. He’s been here 50 years longer than you. If he doesn’t know the answer, there probably isn’t one. Marital problems? Deal with it. Or leave.

I dated one woman whom I suspect had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. In the West, a person who is ready to talk about it will seek out a trained psychologist, someone they’ll never have to meet in “real life.” In Vietnam, well, it’s a family problem, right? So let’s keep it in the family. Which means it will never get talked about.

Bold “Instagram” eyebrows are a popular trend in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo by Miss Tram Academy)

The eyes have it. Manicured eyebrows are perhaps even more common than manicured nails. Most Vietnamese women have perfectly waxed and shaped eyebrows. They are sculpted, braided, feathered, microbladed, embroidered, powdered and often tattooed. No one wants a Frida Kahlo unibrow, and good eyebrow artists are well-paid professionals.

Leading beauty academies give special instruction in shaping eyebrows to match the proportions of the face. “To have a perfect eyebrow, each eyebrow stroke must be carefully and meticulously cared for to every millimeter, must be highlighted in the right place,” the Miss Tram school instructs.

Ear cleaning is a thing. This is especially so for men. At many better barber shops (hớt tóc), grooming includes head and shoulder massages, sensual shampoos, facial treatments and precision shaves. But for many patrons, the climax — figuratively and perhaps literally speaking — is an ear cleaning.

Men do the scissoring of clients’ hair in the barber’s chair but “ear pickers” are inevitably women. Their tool kits could do Sweeney Todd proud. There are skewers, scrapers, tweezers, baby cotton balls, miniature razors, and tiny shovels on long steel spikes. Wearing head lamps, these women focus on digging out wax and dirt, taking a half-hour or longer while maintaining a flirtatious banter with their patrons. And some patrons say it can be an ear-gasmic experience. Expert pickers (and regular customers) speak of a place near the eardrum that tingles when stimulated in just the right way — and which may, in fact, elicit a sexual response. At least in Ho Chi Minh City, some hớt tócs have traded directly on that reputation.

Ear picking is said to be a sensual experience. (Geekologie photo)

Trashy tunes. Several mornings a week, the sound of an ice-cream truck filters through my neighborhood. It is preceded by that same sort of repetitive Looney Tunes that always signaled the arrival of Creamsicles and other frozen delights when I was growing up. Only here, the truck isn’t dropping off. It’s picking up … garbage.

We don’t have trash cans where I live. And we sadly don’t know the meaning of recycling. Food waste, glass, paper, tin cans, it doesn’t matter: It’s all tied into plastic supermarket bags and tossed into the driveway or to the side of the street. The garbage trucks collect it on a semi-regular basis. Or not.

Vietnam is full of surprises, whichever way one looks. (JGA photo)

48. Stepping Back: North Sumatra

Lake Toba, the great volcanic lake in a remote reach of Indonesia, was once an essential stop on the Asian “hippie trail.” The author shares memories.

Traditional Batak architecture distinguishes a hotel on the shore of Lake Toba. (Deposit Photos)

How do I love thee, Pulau Samosir? Let me count the ways.

When I arrived at Lake Toba in September 1976, I found a different world than the one through which I had been recently traveling. Indonesia is an incredibly diverse nation, an archipelago of 17,000 islands that stretches 5,150 km (3,200 miles) from west to east. But not even the Toraja society of Sulawesi, who carve standing burial sites into rocky cliffs, nor the Dani tribe of Irian Jaya, who hollow out calabash gourds as festive adornments for their penises, could win my heart as did the Batak people of Pulau Samosir.

Samosir is an island — in a lake — in an island — in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, in all the world, there is no island larger that meets that description. It is an animist-Christian oasis in the conservatively Muslim province of north Sumatra, its stone churches and archaic tombs revealing a place where 19th-century Dutch and German Protestant missionaries introduced monotheism to a Batak culture that performed ritual sacrifices and occasionally ate its rivals.

Forty-five years ago, it was also a destination on the so-called Hippie Trail. Long before chic boutique hotels were “a thing,” young backpackers like myself considered Toba a treasure. We were led here by our dog-eared, scrawled-in-the-margins copies of Tony Wheeler’s original Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, the once-thin book that (along with Across Asia on the Cheap) was the cornerstone of the Lonely Planet publishing empire.

Makassar schooners, fishing vessels from the island of Sulawesi, crowd the port in Jakarta. (Deposit Photos)

Cruisin’ for a bruisin’

It took me about a week to venture here after my departure from Yogyakarta. The severely overcrowded capital city of Jakarta didn’t inspire me to stay. A few paces from the antique and colorful Makassar schooners in its harbor, I boarded a Pelni Lines freighter that delivered me halfway up the west coast of massive Sumatra. The so-called “ferry” left Jakarta in the late afternoon and took something like 36 hours to make the passage. The ship circled infamous Krakatoa volcano the first evening and slithered up Sumatra’s mountainous shore to steamy Padang, which I had previously known only by reputation for its similarly sweltering curries.

Like my fellow vagabonds, I was traveling Ekonomi, which meant deck class, and that was not pretty. Most of the passengers were poor Javanese transplanting their entire families to a new home and, hopefully, a better way of life in a less-populated land. The scene was like something out of Fons Rademakers’ Max Havelaar, an unforgettable Dutch film released that same year (but banned from Indonesian cinema for more than a decade).

It was perhaps unfortunate that Pelni Lines, in its bid to be contemporary, had installed flush toilets in its restrooms. Footprints on toilet seats were ample evidence that most travelers had never before seen these contraptions. Nor did they understand the concept of flushing. Well before noon on the first morning, human waste floated from one end of the lavatory to the other. One glimpse certainly didn’t settle the paltry plates of rice served with overcooked meat and vegetables. (The “cruise” had promised “meals included.”)                                                                            

Bukittinggi’s central clock tower boasts Minangkabau “horns” on its rooftop. (Deposit Photos)

Roofs like buffalo horns

In a previous blog about durian, I recounted my two-hour bus ride from Padang to Bukittinggi and my introduction to one of the world’s most infamous foods. Although it almost straddles the Equator, the hill town of Bukittinggi, at 930 meters (3,050 feet) above sea level, provided welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the previous few days. And as the cultural capital of the fascinating Minangkabau people, it was a good place to briefly rest a gypsy’s weary bones.

One of the first things a traveler notices upon arriving in a new location is the architecture. In Bukittinggi, it was hard to miss. The traditional rumah gadang of the matriarchal Minangkabau people is a communal residence whose design reflects tribal reverence for the water buffalo. Rooflines sweep upward from the middle to end in points, imitating the upward-curving horns of the beast of burden.

Curious about local handicrafts, I discovered a village of silversmiths in Sianok Canyon. The clerk at my hotel drew a rough map that directed me to Koto Gadang, which I reached after walking a narrow but well-trodden track for about an hour through a broad ravine. Several shops, in old Dutch colonial homes, welcomed me, and at each of them I was stunned by the fine detail of the filigree work.

A 4-km hike through Sianok Canyon leads to the silversmithing village of Koto Gadang. (Deposit Photos)

Zen and (I forgot)

Ninety kilometers (55 miles) separated Padang from Bukittinggi. It was 620 km from Bukittinggi to Prapat, on the eastern shore of Lake Toba. That’s a long way in a local bus on an ill-maintained highway. At an average pace of 25 miles per hour, it took about 16 hours.

I don’t remember a lot about this trip. I’m quite sure I was traveling alone. Either I was sick or I was deeply engrossed in a third-hand copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I vaguely remember being bounced about in a mobile sardine can. It seems that I should have been on the lookout for wildlife as we progressed through jungle-clad mountains, but if so much as a lone langur (forget the tigers and orangutans) had leapt upon luggage on the rooftop rack, I have no memory. I don’t remember the boat ride from Prapat to the village of Tomok. I just remember waking up one morning at a losmen — a guest house — called Rudy’s.

I had a private room with a choice between two single beds so hard, they could have doubled as coffee tables. I draped myself in a Balinese sarong to sleep. A single light bulb dangled from a frayed cord that hung from a corner of the ceiling. No doubt, this domicile left something to be desired. Yet I felt glorious.

I don’t know how long I slept. But when I threw open the squealing door of my room to the view that awaited me, I knew I had found a little piece of paradise.

Samosir Island and Lake Toba rest in the center of north Sumatra. (Map by Pinterest)

An ancient crater lake

Geologists say Lake Toba was formed in much the same manner as Oregon’s Crater Lake, but 73,000 years earlier with the cataclysmic eruption of a supervolcano. Like the Cascade caldera, it is a tremendously deep lake (505 meters  or 1,657 feet). In the midday sun, it reflects an intense blue color, framed by the rainforest green of tropical pines creeping down surrounding mountainsides.

Samosir is not a tropical island that one casually circumambulates. It’s about 19 km (12 miles) wide and 43 km (27 miles) long. But for several days I enjoyed walking its trails, visiting Batak villages and historical cemeteries, sampling local dishes like ikan mas arsik (lake carp spiced with torch ginger) … and sitting in the stone chairs where King Siallagan offered human heart-and-kidney stew to missionaries as recently as the 1840s.

Archaeologists say the Batak have lived in north Sumatra for more than 2,000 years, and there are several distinct tribes with different customs and dialects. The Toba Batak, in particular, are traditional farmers and traders, but in modern Indonesia they have become known as teachers, artists, writers and especially national political leaders.

I was walking through the village of Ambarita one late morning when I heard a voice shout my nickname: “Andy!” It was my hirsute American friend Bret, with whom my adventures have spanned three continents. He had serendipitously arrived at Samosir a few days before me and had lodged himself at the Hotel Carolina, a couple of steps up the food chain from Rudy’s.

The Carolina was built in classic Batak style as a communal rumah bolon, its high-peaked roof mimicking the houses I had seen in Bukittinggi. Designed as a home for a half-dozen families, it was now a perfect high-end hostel entered by a central staircase. A low beam at the head of the steps required taller foreigners (of whom Bret was not one) to bow as they went in, lest they lose their heads.

King Siallagan once served human soup in this stone dining room in Ambarita. (Deposit Photos)

Just pay the men

A couple of afternoons later, Bret sat with me outside Rudy’s as a French-Swiss couple, Claude(she) and Claude(he), picked stems and seeds from the buds of an elephant stick they had acquired in local exchange. Elephant was known among stoners as a sativa-rich strain of cannabis, and the Gallic lovers were practically drooling as they inhaled its essence before packing it into their pipe.

But just as Claude(he) lit the flame that would ignite their cloudy respite, two stern-looking young police officers, the first we had seen on Samosir, arrived at the inn. They had been summoned, apparently, by Rudy, the innkeeper whose earlier come-ons to willowy Claude(she) had been rebuffed, first gently, then not so gently. He would have his revenge.

Even though laws were typically lax for foreigners, marijuana was highly illegal in Indonesia, and the constables immediately threatened arrest. The Claudes’ faces faded into a whiter shade of pale. They spoke no Bahasa, the lingua franca of Indonesia, and the cops of course spoke no French and only a few carefully chosen words of English.

I nobly donned the mantle of mediator. I knew a little French and, in two months of travel, a smidgeon of Bahasa Indonesia. At least Bret and I could count in the local tongue. Perhaps a settlement would satisfy the officers?

Cinq milles rupiahs, said the Claudes. Five thousand rupiahs.

The officers laughed. Seratus ribu rupiah, they responded. One hundred thousand. At least they were willing to negotiate.

Nous avons seulement dix milles, said the French. We have only 10 thousand.

Lima puluh rupiah. Fifty thousand. Now we were getting somewhere.

The Indonesian gendarmes were happier than the Claudes as they stuffed 20,000 rupiahs into their pockets — a little less than US $50, at the exchange rates of the time — along with the elephant stick. “We will burn this,” said one police officer with a smile, suddenly fluent in the English language. I’ll bet they did.

Ikan mas arsik — curried carp with torch ginger and long beans — made a fine dinner. (iStock photo by Miel Photo)

Letting go

Bret and I returned to the Carolina for dinner that evening. By the time we said, “Good night, my friend, I’ll see you in Singapore,” a new-moon blackness had enveloped Pulau Samosir. I was glad for my battery-powered flashlight as I started onto the trail that linked Ambarita with Tomok. To be sure, the distance wasn’t much more than a kilometer, but imagination can run wild in the jungle at night. I hadn’t heard of tigers at Lake Toba, but surely there were nasty insects. Spiders. And snakes. Big poisonous snakes.

Even a sliver of a moon will reflect a gleam off a large body of water. I took comfort in seeing the lake to my left, a brighter presence between the near shore of the island and the mountains on the far shore. Occasionally there was a lantern lit in a window beneath the tin roof of a rumah.

Then the storm began. Quickly. First a low rumble of distant thunder, then the deluge. I quickened my step as the sandy soil of the track turned to mud. And then my flashlight died.

There may be worse things than being alone in a remote tropical jungle in the black of night, in a storm so drenching that even the shimmer of light on the nearby lake disappeared, a tempest so penetrating that I couldn’t even hear myself cry for help, but I didn’t know what they might be. I was terrified. So I did what any still-wet-behind-the-ears 25-year-old, with no combat experience beyond “Capture the Flag” in Boy Scouts, would do. I gave up.

I surrendered to the universe. I stopped thinking and started walking. After a couple of false starts, running into trailside undergrowth and tripping over unseen tree roots, I found my way. Or the universe found my way for me. I kept reciting a mantra from the only book I carried in my backpack for three full years, Ram Dass’ Be Here Now. “Don’t try to figure anything out,” Ram Dass said. “Let go. Let God.”

I walked up the steps of my losmen, into my room and fell asleep.

Afternoon clouds filter the sun upon fishermen’s nets near Samosir’s Tuktuk Peninsula. (iStock photo by USKARP)
Aerial view of Lake Toba and Samosir Island’s Tuktuk Peninsula. (Deposit Photos)

47. Vietnam and China: No Love Lost

Vietnam is not one of China’s biggest fans. The reasons may be rooted in a long and combative history, but they extend today to a perceived lack of respect.

A fierce dragon greets visitors to Ho Chi Minh City’s historical Chinatown quarter, Chợ Lớn. (JGA photo)

If you are of an age that you followed world affairs in the 1950s and ‘60s, you’re familiar with the “domino theory.” It was a key factor in the American involvement in the war in Vietnam, promoted heavily by General Dwight Eisenhower, the U.S. president from 1953 to 1961.

Following Mao Tse-tung’s revolution in China in 1949 and Ho Chi Mính’s rebuff of French colonialism at Dien Bien Phu in 1953, Eisenhower believed strongly that the advance of communism had to be stopped in Southeast Asia — lest the renegade philosophy take over the world. Under U.S. President Richard Nixon (1969-1974) at the height of the Vietnamese civil war (known in Vietnam as the American War), the perceived threat posed by the domino theory was rekindled by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In the end, the belief in dominoes was mostly misguided. Although the government of Vietnam (with minimal support from China) became fully communist upon the country’s reunification in 1975, communism spread no further than the former French colonies of Laos and Cambodia … despite political crises in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines that might have given it a foothold.

If mid-20th-century American politics were tagged to an assumption that Vietnam would be riding the coattails of the huge country on its northern border, that conjecture was very wrong. Even today, 46 years after U.S. troops exited Saigon, the Vietnamese don’t like the Chinese very much. Indeed, surveys suggest that fewer than one in five Vietnamese has a positive view of China. (Four in five, by contrast, are fans of Korea and Japan.)

China’s claims in the East Sea are a point of friction. (map by BNN Bloomberg from CSIS)

History

Why? It starts with more than 2,000 years of history. Although a Taoist and Confucianist ethic (instilled by centuries of Chinese occupation) prevails today in Vietnam, especially in the north, the Southeast Asian country has thrown off the yoke of Chinese imperialism at least four times. Vietnam first won its independence in 938 A.D.

More recently, it did so during the Sino-French War of 1884, a conflict that ushered in the era of French colonization. That didn’t last long. In the frenzy that followed World War II, China administered northern Vietnam until France could regain its footing. That never happened, of course; even though they contributed baguettes (banh mì) to the culture, the French were soon history.

Gratitude for Chinese support quickly evaporated when China aligned itself with Phnom Penh’s Khmer Rouge government during the Cambodian-Vietnamese War of 1978-1990. Vietnam thrust back the Chinese on two fronts — on both sides of the border in the Mekong Delta, and in a particularly bloody confrontation on its northern border — before settling into an uneasy and distrustful peace.

Military posturing continues today, especially in the East (South China) Sea, where China has made no secret of its designs on the Trường Sa (Paracel and Spratly) island groups. The Chinese have built naval airfields on atolls that Vietnam has for centuries claimed to safeguard offshore natural resources, including oil, along its long coastline. (The Philippines and Malaysia also claim the Spratly group.)

Now Vietnam perceives China as using underhanded methods to achieve a greater economic presence. According to the Indochine Counsel, headquartered in Hanoi and with sources in Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense, China now controls well over 100 companies in border and coastal regions, illegally employing Chinese in Vietnam on tourist visas. “In some cases,” the sources report, “firms have disguised themselves as normal companies to commit high-tech crimes and even produce and/or trade in narcotics. Other firms have evaded taxes and caused severe environmental pollution.”

Chinese couple visiting Hoi An in 2019 (iStock photo by Yumi Mini)

Arrogance

As an overseas American, I have heard many criticisms of my countrymen as travelers — that we are arrogant, that we don’t try to speak the local language, that we expect to get special treatment wherever we go. It’s not just Americans, of course, but our presence is unmistakable, and I mostly concur.

In Vietnam, these comments are mostly directed at the mainland Chinese: “They are smelly. Noisy. Obnoxious. They throw trash all over the place. They look down on locals.”

“Chinese think they are better than Vietnamese,” says Professor Nguyễn Hải Hoành. He has published a long article in which he maintains that Chinese regard Vietnamese as an inferior nation, not worthy of being accepted for who they are.

As paraphrased by the Indochine Counsel, Nguyễn writes that “Chinese see Vietnam as poor and backwards, undeveloped and damaged. They do not look at the people or the culture … They look down on the quality of Vietnamese goods, food, manufactures, services. They judge Vietnamese for the corruption of their government, which is little worse than China’s own, and for the value of its currency.”

What is more, China continues to export its poorest quality goods to Vietnam, failing to recognize the consumer culture — which, as I quickly discovered, is substantial. People, especially young Vietnamese, love to spend money. And they expect quality in return. This is no longer a backward Third World nation, as it may have been two generations ago.

Black chicken, rich in antioxidants, is served at a Chợ Lớn restaurant. (JGA photo)

Food culture

In North America, Chinese restaurants have been popular for more than 150 years, ever since Asians first crossed the Pacific to mine gold and build railroads, and Hop Sing was in the Cartwrights’ kitchen on Bonanza. Today, many food-conscious Americans know the difference between Cantonese, Mandarin and Szechuan cuisines.

But here in Vietnam, you’re hard-pressed to find a Chinese restaurant of any kind, except perhaps for those serving Singapore-style dim sum. In Ho Chi Minh City, for instance, there are far more Korean, Japanese, Thai and Indian restaurants than Chinese.

Saigon’s traditional Chinatown, Chợ Lớn (District 5), was once a city in its own right and clings to some heritage, especially in the classical architecture of its temples and in a smattering of herbalists’ shops. But Chinese characters are fading away, to be replaced by the modern Vietnamese alphabet.

A few restaurants here serve traditional Chinese specialties, such as black chicken, an herbal dish praised by aficionados because it has more antioxidants and fewer calories than regular chicken.

But popular culture? Music and film comes from many countries — the United States in particular, but also Europe and Japan — and especially from South Korea. There’s a lot of Seoul in the subtitled soap operas and cheesy K-Pop offerings.

Taiwan? OK, fine. But nothing from mainland China, thank you.

A temple god receives incense and offerings at a Taoist temple in Chợ Lớn. (JGA photo)
Chinese and Vietnamese flags (iStock-Getty Images photo by Oleksil Liskonih)

46. Vũng Tàu Getaway

Vũng Tàu, the nearest seaside community to massive Ho Chi Minh City, is a clean and quiet resort town just two hours’ travel from the urban center.

Vũng Tàu’s Front Beach extends between a downtown park and Small Mountain. (JGA photo)

As the nearest seaside resort to Ho Chi Minh City, and a popular weekend destination for urban residents, Vũng Tàu is a place to come for the beaches — and to stay for the seafood.

Indeed, there are two main city beaches, not just one, divided by a prominent headland. Southwest-facing Bãi Trước (Front Beach) is fringed by a green belt that divides it from Vũng Tàu’s crisp, clean downtown blocks. There’s even a “Book Street” in Quang Trung Park with coffee shops and bookstores, along with a live performance area. Pre-dusk most evenings, dozens of motorbikes gather at the park to watch the sun sink into the Mekong Delta as local parents enjoy the day’s last rays getting wet with their pre-schoolers.

Barely two kilometers (1.2 miles) east of here, Bãi Sau (Back Beach) beckons. If you’re looking for a tourist scene, this is where you’ll find it, although the resort hotels are decidedly modest by international standards. The sandy beach itself extends north for about 4 km (2.5 miles). Quiet during the week, it picks up crowds on the weekends.

Big Mountain frames downtown Vũng Tàu and its quiet harbor. (JGA photo)

Twin Peaks

Home to about half a million people, Vũng Tàu is framed by two hills, generously called “Big Mountain” (Nui Lon) and “Small Mountain” (Nui Nho). Nui Lon is at the north end of the city, overlooking Dau Beach and its passenger boat terminal, serving this community with direct transit to Ho Chi Minh City. A cable car climbs to the peak from Ho May Park, where fascinations include colored fountains and other amusements.

Nui Nho’s two adjacent summits, both of which offer panoramic views from a top elevation of 170 meters (557 feet), are more frequently visited by tourists, as there’s no charge to see the attractions at either. The Vũng Tàu Lighthouse, built by the French in 1862, has a winding staircase that leads to an antique Fresnel lens.

A statue of the Christ (dubbed “Giant Jesus” by Lonely Planet) was recognized as the largest Christian icon in Asia when it was unveiled atop Con Heo (Pig) Hill in 2012. Standing 32 meters (105 feet) high, its arms outstretched 18.4 meters (60 feet) wide, the statue invites daylight visitors to climb spiral staircases to Jesus’ shoulders.

Steep hikes from Ha Long street offer the most direct access to both. Locals know more gradual routes accessible by motorbike. Both lookouts afford views of the Hon Ba island temple, which can be reached by a path from Dua Beach at extreme low tides. Fishermen and their families come here to ask Thu Long Than Nu (the Sea Dragon Goddess) to protect them at sea.

Asia’s largest Jesus statue rises 32 meters (105 feet) above the city of Vũng Tàu (JGA photo)

Something fishy

Small Mountain is encircled by Du’ong Ha Long, a cliffside avenue that eventually descends to Back Beach. My favorite Vũng Tàu restaurants cling to this southwest-facing bluff, looking across the bay toward (mostly) Russian oil tankers at anchor.

Fortunately, the oil is well-segregated from the seafood, which is phenomenal. My favorite place to eat is Gành Hào 2, where a streetside wall of tanks displays every fresh catch of the day … still swimming. Indeed, they’re not “caught” until you choose your meal!

I’m still trying to learn the English words for Vietnamese seafood names. For one main course, a friend and I ordered a large mackerel (cá thu), which we had prepared two ways, both grilled and in a hotpot with a variety of vegetables and chilies. Large baked clams, sautéed squid, prawns, crab, octopus, and at least a dozen different kinds of snails — some much larger than escargot, others too small for a cocktail fork — are menu mainstays.

But Vũng Tàu is a large enough city, with a sufficiently diverse range of visitors, to have restaurants to please anyone. I found an Australian-style breakfast, as well as hamburgers and nachos, at Ned Kelly’s Pub on Quang Trung street opposite Front Beach. It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy.

Grilled mackerel, straight from the live tank, makes a great main course for a seafood dinner. (JGA photo)

Over the waves

Coming from Ho Chi Minh City, getting to (and from) Vũng Tàu is half the fun. The GreenLines hydrofoil runs every couple of hours, 10 a.m to 4 p.m., from its Bach Dang terminal on the Saigon River in District 1. The fare is VND 170,000 (about US$7.50) per person.

Limo buses are a very efficient alternative for a similar price. They offer the added bonus of dropping travelers at their hotel. The Sun Beach Hotel is one very reasonable lodging option, midway between the two main beaches with rooms for as little as VND 330,000 (about US$15) a night.

Within Vũng Tàu, bicycles are an inexpensive means of transportation. Rental agencies will drop off and pick up bikes at hotels. Because the city is small and motorized traffic is minimal, it is easy to manuever. And a 4 km (2.5-mile) circuit of Small Mountain and both main beaches assures a modicum of healthy exercise!

A bicyclist shares Quang Trung street with motorbikes and a jogger in downtown Vũng Tàu. (JGA photo)
Giant prawns and pompano fish are kept alive until dinner time at the Ganh Hao 2 restaurant. (JGA photo)