Sika deer are national treasures in Nara, an ancient Japanese capital whose grand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrine are the highlights of a visit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A stroll through the tranquil lanes of Japan’s imperial city reveals beautiful gardens, marvelous temples and a people in love with their heritage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Surveying the urban parks of Buôn Ma Thuột, center of Dak Lak province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region.
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.
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.
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.
Buôn Ma ThuộtCity 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Thoughts on planning a trip from Hanoi to the mountain resort town of Sapa, as well as the Perfume Pagoda and lovely Ninh Binh.
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
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.
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.
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.
With Vietnam preparing to reopen its international gateways, the author begins making plans to get back on the road.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. About250 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.
Comments from an expert on intercultural communication shed new light on the author’s relationship questions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What is love, in the Vietnamese context? A successful relationship must be seen as a social contract, practical rather than romantic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
COVID-19 vaccinations haven’t yet arrived in the Central Highlands in any significant quantity. The author is more than ready.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cô (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Count on your fingers or toes. Here are two handfuls of reasons why Vietnam is a great country to be living in.
I’m in Vietnam by choice. Nearly two years have passed since my arrival in this Southeast Asian country, and despite what some previous blogs may have suggested, I’m grateful to be here.
I am a proud American. I always will be. But I am now enjoying a more relaxed lifestyle in this country than I would in my own.
Here in Vietnam, we maintain our vigilance toward the coronavirus, but I don’t stress about politics or football scores, firearms or forest fires. My income is modest but given the low cost of living, it’s sufficient to allow me to save for future travel.
I am learning and growing in a new culture, which is the very reason I travel at all — not to see things, but to experience them.
These are a few things that I love about Vietnam, in no particular order, and with varying degrees of importance and whimsy.
Fresh, delicious food. Cooked with a minimum of butter and salt, but with ample chilies and other spices, it is at once high energy and low calorie. The seafood is remarkable, as it should be in a country with a coastline of 2,000 miles (3,260 km), about as long as from Miami to the Canadian border of Maine. The quality of pork and chicken are superb. And the vegetables and fruits are abundant and nourishing.
Street food. From phở tái nam (beef noodle soup) to bánh mì (crispy baguette sandwiches), I can eat like a king at street stalls for only a few dollars a day. (When eating soup, it’s polite to slurp, by the way.) And for a midday snack, fruit markets offer a cornucopia of delectable choices.
The floor. If you’re cooking at home, this is also a prep table for meals. Whether severing a chicken’s head and feet from its body, or stuffing a bitter melon with minced pork and vegetables, the kitchen floor offers the ultimate amount of space for completing chores. That’s why it’s so important to keep it CLEAN! (And it’s one more good reason to take your shoes off before you enter a home. No one would be so gauche as it step into a home without removing their footwear.)
Coffee culture. Vietnamese coffee is strong and delicious. In fact, this nation is the world’s second largest exporter of the ancient brew (after only Brazil). In cities and towns of all sizes, there are more cafés than you’ll find Starbucks in Seattle. A single urban block may have a half-dozen tiny independent cafés serving the caffeinated beverage (usually iced, with condensed milk) as well as various teas and fruit juices. Here people of all ages, notably the young, gather for conversation and often romantic trysts.
Craft beer. The wine in Vietnam is mediocre, but no matter: The beer is good, and it’s the beverage of choice for evening hours. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Ha Noi, in particular, the craft brewing industry is booming. Brands like Heart of Darkness and Pasteur Street Brewing have found a place on many better restaurant menus. And we don’t say “Cheers!” here. We say “Mot, hai, ba,” (One, two, three), Yo!”
Health care. Short of a medical crisis, the cost of curative care is remarkably inexpensive, even without insurance. I had a full physical exam, including X-rays and an extensive blood panel, for under $100. I had an outpatient dermatological surgery for which I paid $75, including post-clinical prescriptions. For my blood-pressure medications, I pay about $15 a month. Prescriptions, for that matter, are all available over the counter from myriad pharmacies.
Cost of living. I am leasing a newly built three-bedroom, two-bath house, less than a mile from the downtown core in the city where I live, for US$300/month, including electricity and water. When was the last time I could have done that in the States? Or in Australia? Or Western Europe? Maybe 50 years ago?
Teaching. Educators, especially those immediately identifiable as foreigners, don’t have to earn respect: It already comes with the job. I would never abuse that respect, so I’m grateful to be greeted with: “Hello, teacher!” and “Hello, Mr. John!”
Age stigmas. There is none that I’ve discerned, especially with regard to male-female relations. As a man still active at 70, I have dated women as young as their 20s. (Don’t be shocked. They certainly aren’t: I’ve even been offered marriage. On the other hand, to be fair, I’m not aware of any older women who have dated significantly younger men.) My most successful relationships have been with women in their 40s. Sexuality is very matter-of-fact, and same-sex relations are widely accepted.
Motorbikes. In a country as heavily populated as this one, motorized two-wheelers absolutely make sense! Indeed, many urban streets are constructed specifically for bike traffic. Thus it also makes sense that motorcycles are far more prevalent, and far cheaper, than automobiles as taxis. Taxi companies like Grab and Gojek do 24-hour business delivering passengers and goods in major cities as well as smaller ones.
The author reflects on his long-ago visit to central Java, especially the great religious monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan and the vibrant culture.
My whirlwind romance with the isle of Bali had come to an end not with heartbreak, but with love and respect. My first Asian mistress had given me everything I could handle, kissed me gently goodbye, and told me to come back and see her again when I was a little older.
So in August 1976, I took the ferry from Gilmanuk, in west Bali, to Banyuwangi, in east Java, and continued by whistlestop train for who-knows-how-many hours to Yogyakarta.
Travelers know this Indonesian city of a few hundred thousand people as “Jogja.” It’s an oasis of sanity on an island that is the most densely populated on earth, a cultural capital that sits roughly midway between industrial Surabaya and teeming, bureaucratic Jakarta, the national capital.
My interest in Asian religions had drawn me to Yogyakarta. Although Indonesia has been a nation of Islam for at least six centuries, that creed was preceded in the island archipelago first by Hinduism, then by Buddhism. Both faiths left important monuments within an easy day’s jog from Jogja. Both have been designated by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as World Heritage Sites.
Prambanan is nearer and slightly more ancient. Built in the Eighth Century, this Hindu temple — the second largest in Southeast Asia — offers praise to the supreme trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).
At the time of my long-ago visit, much of the temple compound was in disarray. Shiva had visited in the guise of a major earthquake in the 16th century, destroying 240 structures and leading to its abandonment as a center of worship. Not until the 1930s did restoration begin with Dutch East Indies archeologists, and in 1953, under the new Indonesian government, reconstruction of the great Shiva temple was completed.
In 1976, this was still the only major renewal. I came to understand Shiva not as a primal element to be feared, but as a power to be respected. Just as a farmer burns his field to enable new growth, Shiva makes way for a new era. Tall and pointed, 47 meters (154 feet) high, the temple towered above an arena of brick and rock scattered for acres in all directions. Since that time, I understand, Prambanan has been reborn; it is considered a masterpiece of ancient Hindu art and architecture. Reconstruction of the Brahma temple was completed in 1987, the Vishnu temple in 1991. Work on smaller temples continues today, and full-moon dance performances are popular among tourists.
I saved my visit to grand Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, for another day. A World Heritage Site of similar stature to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Bagan complex in Myanmar, it was being restored in the mid-‘70s with UNESCO assistance. Ninth-century Borobudur had not suffered the level of earthquake damage as had Prambanan; although it had been similarly abandoned for centuries, restoration work directed by British and Dutch had begun as early as 1814.
What I remember best about Bo-RO-boo-door were the 72 bell-shaped stupas, each concealing a statue of the Buddha, that surrounded its central dome … and the spherical trail that led me to the three levels of Buddhist cosmology: the worlds of desire, form and formlessness.
This was a personal pilgrimage toward achieving nirvana. The temple is designed with six stacked square platforms, each smaller than the next, and three more stacked circular platforms topped by the innermost dome. Thousands of bas-relief panels and more than 500 Buddha icons directed me on my way through a series of corridors and stairways to my ultimate destination.
Whether from Borobudur or Prambanan, it’s impossible to miss Mount Merapi, volcanic smoke oozing from its pores. Indonesia’s most active hot spot (merapi means “mountain of fire”) has periodically erupted for centuries, most recently in 2018. Seeking a haven for reflection, I found a wooded spot with a view of the summit, but my solitude lasted only until local youths surrounded this odd foreigner to discover why he might possible choose to be alone! Such is life on the most crowded island on earth.
Batik and Wayang
Back in the city, I dabbled in the arts. I ran into my American friend Bert, with whom I had biked and hiked in Bali, in the Beringharjo market. He had befriended a Javanese batik artist named Haryono. It didn’t take much convincing for him to talk me into joining him to learn the process, paying Haryono a modest sum for lessons and taking home our very own designs.
Batik is a wax-and-dye process on cloth (typically cotton) fabric. Beginning with a template of popular patterns, Haryono demonstrated use of a canting, a spouted tool, to apply wax to the fabric as he drew lines and dots. He imprinted broader motifs with a copper stamp. Once the dye-resistant wax was applied, he soaked the fabric in dye before removing the wax with boiling water. Multiple colors could be added by drying the fabric and repeating the process.
Needless to say, my creations weren’t impressive. I came away with a simple Buddha batik. But I purchased Haryono’s striking image of Arjuna, Rama’s heroic archer and charioteer from the Ramayana epic, to remind me of what a real artist could do. Even for a backpacker, a piece of folded cloth is not a heavyweight luggage addition.
I wished that I had learned more about wayang kulit, the traditional shadow puppetry of Java and Bali. Wayang is Javanese for “shadow,” kulit for “leather.” I beheld a traditional street performance one night, the puppets rear-projected on a linen screen before a light, the good-versus-evil narrative dictated by the puppetmaster as gamelan musicians played the live soundtrack.
Some years later, I was able to purchase a set of the flat puppets. They remain among my most valued travel souvenirs, made from water-buffalo hide and horn, elaborately painted to represent a cast of well-known mythological figures. I have them lovingly stored in an insect-proof rosewood chest.
Yogyakarta has a history of more than 1,000 years. It is built around the Kraton, the palace of the sultan — as it is the only city in Indonesia still ruled by a sultan. There are plenty of old buildings and monuments, including a museum in the sultan’s palace. Renowned as a center for culture and education, Yogya also is home to Gadjah Mada University, the country’s largest.
In a string of open-air cafes on Malioboro Street, I became enamored with ayam goreng. This chicken dish is stewed in coriander, garlic and coconut milk, then deep-fried until it is crispy. I learned to like it with sweet-and-savory gudeg, made with unripe jackfruit, boiled for several hours with palm sugar and coconut milk, and wedang uwuh, a hot clove drink.
More significantly, I met Claude Rémy. “Alors, monsieur,” he approached me during one midday meal. “Have you ever, comment veut dire, experienced being hungry, but not wanting to eat? Or of wanting to eat, but not being hungry?”
I invited him to join me and my ayam goreng, and left it to him whether to eat or not. At 22, Claude was a couple of years younger than me; he was taking the long road home to his Vosges Mountains ski village after finishing his military hitch on the French Pacific island of New Caledonia.
Five months later, I would be waiting tables and teaching the occasional novice ski lesson in La Bresse, France — thanks to my acquaintance with Claude (who, for many years now, has been the general manager of a major hotel in beautiful Gérardmer.) But that’s another story.
Continuing his musings on differences between Vietnamese and Western values, the author takes on curiosity and gratitude — in a culture with “no queues, no order, no concessions.”
When I was young, and by that I mean my 40s, I often didn’t say what I wanted to say, didn’t do what I wanted to do. I feared that someone would disapprove. It might have been a parent, a spouse, a best friend. More often, it was casual acquaintances or readers. I worried that my words or actions would reflect badly upon me, would come back to haunt me. I never wanted to be hurtful with my words. I still don’t.
After I published my previous blog, a friend whose opinions I deeply value conveyed her disapproval. “I don’t think as an expat you should write such a piece,” she said. “It makes you sound condescending. To me, it only shows a lack of understanding of your host country on your part. It also sounds like you’re implying they lack gratitude when this whole thing makes you sound like you have none. I honestly wish I didn’t read it.” I thanked her for telling me what she really thought.
Was I condescending? It was not my intention. Do I lack understanding? Yes, of course I do. I said as much. Am I ungrateful? Nothing could be further from the truth. The people of Vietnam are wonderful. They have welcomed this aged expatriate into their homeland, and I am so very grateful.
Another friend wrote this: “It takes guts nowadays to approach any topics around cultural differences. I appreciate when it happens, purely for the sake of sharing and listening to ideas without judgment. Thanks for making yourself vulnerable and writing a great piece!”
Life is too short not to express myself. If someone takes offense, so be it. During 17 years as a weekly restaurant critic, I learned that as long as I speak or write with honesty, and hopefully with sensitivity, I am comfortable with the response.
It is precisely because I am an expat that I feel I should write such a piece. Self-improvement comes only with self-awareness. For the most part, the Vietnamese are not very self-deprecating. They find no more fault with themselves than they do with their government (which is just the way their leaders want it). Sometimes it takes an outsider to raise a critical brow. Please indulge me this indiscretion.
The Vietnamese are very good at following rules laid out for them. This waxes well in a nation with a one-party government that tolerates no serious dissent. It is also useful during pandemics, as no one questions the importance of wearing a face mask.
Public education is rote. Students read and recite with considerable skill, although they often don’t understand what they are reading and repeating. To my students, I emphasize the importance of asking questions. Rule No. 2 in my classes, after “Speak English,” is “Raise Your Hand.” I encourage children to put aside their books and use their brains — their “grey matter,” as Minerva Niemi, my seventh-grade teacher, called it — to puzzle out problems.
Without a sense of inquiry, many Vietnamese can be obdurately judgmental. Without exploring all sides, or even being open to doing so, they will jump to conclusions based only upon hearsay and assumptions. What their parents told them, what their government tells them, must be true. If it comes from a trusted source, why question?
They tell me that Donald Trump, who is “only bad to bad people” (i.e., the much-despised Chinese), was deprived of reelection by fraud. That’s what Trump said, so it must be true. How can I not believe what my president tells me?
Often they think they know our countries better than we do — as when they tell my friend Bill how easily they might start a business and become rich in his native Australia. When he alerts them to government regulations and other hoops to jump through, they tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Judgments of foods never tasted, of restaurants never tried, of movies never watched, of books never read, are rampant. My forearm tattoo (which honors my deceased son) has been mocked by people who don’t know what it stands for … but didn’t think to ask.
On the other hand, as a journalist, I do not know how not to question. My girlfriend Hà, by contrast, doesn’t like to ask or be asked questions. “Why, why, why?” she says. “Why do you always ask me?”
Is it really so hard to say “please” and “thank you”? Is it a waste of words to say, “You’re welcome”? I rarely hear these words spoken outside of my classroom, where I have tried to instill them in students.
It’s even an alien concept to Lan Anh. Before we began dating in March, she had never been close with a foreigner before … and in her 45 years, she had never encountered the expectation that she might express appreciation for what others had done for her.
“It’s the custom,” she has tried to explain, acknowledging feeble childhood education as part of the reason. She insists there is no need to express gratitude in one’s home, which is the focus of traditional Vietnamese life.
But why do you not say vui lòng (please) or càm ơn (thank you)? I ask. Don’t parents teach their children common courtesies? They provide food and shelter, and hopefully love, as they raise their offspring. Aren’t children taught appreciation?
The answer, apparently, is no. There is no real concept of courtesy. It’s rare for someone to open a door for another person. Another common example: People who see me as I walk down an urban sidewalk, rather than allowing me pedestrian passage, pull their motorbikes out directly in front of me. It’s not an accident. It happens to locals as well as foreigners.
Anh concurs. “In this culture, there are no queues, no order, no concessions,” she says.
Vietnamese do not lack gratitude. It’s simply that they don’t express gratitude.
Anh owns a yoga academy. When she concludes a lesson, she sits in cross-legged lotus position and recites a verse in Vietnamese: “Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” “I pray for my own peace,” she explains. “I pray for peace for my family, loved ones and friends. I pray for peace for everyone in the world.” She prays from her mind, her soul and her heart.
No one would question her gratitude. But does she offer thanks? No, not specifically. That’s left for me to interpret.
The author finds himself challenged to understand and accept the values and mindset of his Vietnamese hosts, without surrendering his own Western standards.
“I think I have to get out of the country,” said my malcontent friend Bill. “I don’t trust the system and people. I’m tired of persons who have no common sense and are not willing to change their minds.”
Now, Bill is often not willing to change his own mind. And more than once I have questioned his common sense. It goes both ways. But my friend’s frustration with the Vietnamese mindset has some basis — at least to the Western way of thinking.
Perhaps you’ve read the modern science-fiction classic, The Sparrow. Both parties in a peaceful human-alien encounter do everything correctly according to their customs … but things still go disastrously wrong. For a successful intercultural relationship, they would have had to compromise their comfort levels and adjust their beliefs.
That may be more true in Vietnam than in any of the other foreign countries (eight) where I’ve lived for periods of months or years. In Vietnam, I am more challenged to achieve an understanding and acceptance of my hosts’ values without surrendering my own.
I offer these opinions after 21 months of domicile here, friendships and love affairs with Vietnamese, and discussions with other expatriates — some who have resided in this country for more than a decade. And I am fully cognizant of my own character defects. In the world view, we Americans are often viewed as arrogant. While I hope my comments don’t come across as such, I am a product of the environment in which I was raised.
Perhaps we can use this platform to open a discussion.
For the past year and a half, I’ve worked for a company with centers throughout Vietnam, an education organization that specializes in teaching English to the under-15 set. APAX Leaders isn’t perfect, but it has a lot of positives to offset its negatives, and one of them is a determination of what might be good for the young people who represent Vietnam’s future in the world community.
Founded in South Korea in 2007, franchised to Vietnam in 2015, APAX espouses a “Seven Character Traits for Success” program. Its goal is to prepare youth for a career in some aspect of international business such as commerce, communications or hospitality.
Some of the Seven Traits are good rules of life for everyone. Consider Grit (“perseverence and passion for long-term goals”), Zest (“enthusiastic and energetic participation in life”) and Optimism (“confidence in a future full of positive possibilities”). Self Control, which promotes “the capacity to regulate one’s own responses,” is a good one to instill in classrooms of 8-to-10-year-olds.
But some of the traits seem more specific to what some consider Vietnamese character flaws: Curiosity, for instance: “Eagerness to explore new things with openness.” Gratitude: “Appreciation for the benefits we receive from others, and the desire to express thanks.” I’ll talk about them in my next blog. First, I will address Social Intelligence.
A year ago, Bill was devastated when his younger brother died unexpectedly in Australia. He turned to his Vietnamese girlfriend for solace and emotional support. Her response? “Get over it. I don’t have time for this right now. My grandmother is sick.”
Ruthlessly cold? That’s how I perceive it. And yes, Bill jettisoned that romance. But the woman’s unsentimental response speaks to a common inability to step into the shoes of another, to understand their feelings.
APAX defines Social Intelligence thusly: “Understanding the feelings of others and adapting actions accordingly.” In my culture, we call this empathy. But the Westerner who goes looking for an empathetic partner in Vietnam may be sorely disappointed.
Here, empathy is often mistaken for sympathy, which in turn is confused with charity. One Vietnamese friend told me he expresses his deep compassion by joining a group of work colleagues to deliver food boxes “to the poor people in the mountains.” With that, he’s done his Buddhist duty.
Us and them
There are exceptions, of course, for which I’m grateful. I have some wonderful, empathetic Vietnamese friends. And I certainly know people in my own culture with not a single empathetic gene. But among the masses, I observe little consciousness, little awareness, of the needs of others. Appointments are made, then forgotten or ignored, and it’s not just the cable guy. My furniture-maker neighbor often begins to hammer at 5 in the morning, without a thought to people sleeping. A line crew offers no heads-up when it disconnects electricity for several morning hours as I’m cooking and using WiFi.
My friend Hà blames the poor education of the working class, but I feel there’s more to it.
Nothing in Vietnam is stronger than the family unit. Life revolves around home and the blood family. There’s us. There’s them. Everyone else is “them.” And as few foreign residents have a “family unit” here, they are left on the outside, looking in. The Vietnamese cannot relate to that. Life goes on.
Vietnamese are taught from an early age that to express emotion is to show weakness. This is especially true for men, who are expected to be “strong” and unyielding. Women will walk away from a relationship rather than discussing their grievances with their partner. They may talk about the importance of communication but when it comes right down to it, they don’t want to confront. Too few people, it seems, want to put themselves in another’s shoes.
Why is this so? It’s a question I will continue to explore. If you live in Vietnam, or if you are Vietnamese, I’d like to know what you think.
The bodhisattva Quan Âm has a following in Vietnam comparable to the Buddha himself. Sometimes called ‘Lady Buddha,’ her image is found at places of worship throughout the country.
On a hillside overlooking Mỹ An Beach in Da Nang, on the south-facing flank of the Son Tra Peninsula, a colossal figure in white fixes its gaze across hundreds of fishing boats anchored in the East (South China) Sea.
Rising 67 meters (220 feet) atop an 11-meter (35-foot) lotus pedestal, this is the tallest statue in Vietnam and the central feature of the Linh Ứng-Bãi Bụt pagoda. It can be seen all along the shoreline from many miles away.
Ironically, it isn’t the Buddha.
Locals sometimes refer to the sculpture as Lady Buddha. In fact, it is a representation of Quan Âm, the goddess of compassion, known as Kuan Yin in China, Kannon in Japan and Avalokiteshwara in India.
Completed in 2010 along with the pagoda and monastery, she appears to attract a respect equal to or greater than the Buddha himself. Indeed, Quan Âm’s enormous icon dominates the pagoda grounds, easily overshadowing a whimsical image of the so-called Laughing Buddha that sits nearby on his own lotus pedestal.
Devotion to Lady Buddha is a common element in Vietnamese Buddhism, a syncretic faith that weaves in elements of Taosim, animism, ancestor worship and folk religion. Although not every place of Buddhist worship portrays her as prominently as Linh Ứng, Quan Âm is inevitably accorded a place of honor wherever prayers are offered.
This isn’t the Buddhism that I learned in graduate school, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. But the practice of a religion in its daily application is often very different from its scriptural foundation.
I am reminded of the pious praise heaped upon the Madonna in Roman Catholicism, especially in Latin American countries. The Blessed Virgin, mother of the Christ, receives more adoration than Jesus himself. I don’t recall anything in the canons to suggest this should be the case.
Pure Land aspirations
Just as there are two primary schools of Christian thought and practice (Catholic and Protestant), so are there two main divisions of Buddhism. These are Mahayana and Theravada. Theravada Buddhism, which predominates in South Asia including Thailand, focuses on meditation and time-honored teachings without deities. In East Asia, including China and Japan, Mahayana Buddhism prevails.
Like Protestantism, Mahayana Buddhism has a great many “denominations.” Many Westerners may be familiar with Zen, an elite and intellectual practice, but it’s not accessible to the common people. Pure Land Buddhism, foremost in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan, is.
Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land. Here, free of the trials of everyday life, they will find it much easier to concentrate on shedding their earthly attachments to achieve enlightenment, as the historical Buddha demonstrated 26 centuries ago. They do this by chanting sutras (Buddhist verses) in the name of the Amitabha Buddha.
A primary tenet of Mahayana Buddhism is a belief in the compassion of bodhisattvas. The old Steely Dan song might have suggested that you sell your house and become a recluse, but the concept is much deeper than that. A bodhisattva is defined as a devout Buddhist who commits to postpone enlightenment, to not transcend into nirvana, until every other person who similarly aspires has achieved this goal.
The Amitabha Buddha is a bodhisattva, known in Vietnam as Phật A Di Đà, the “buddha of infinite light.” Once a monk known as Dharmakara, he presides over the Pure Land, a kingdom whose residents have abandoned their egos and trusted in the infinite compassion of Phật A Di Đà.
In Buddhist pagodas and temples throughout Vietnam, his image sits to the right of the historical Sakyamuni Buddha in the hall of worship.
Compassion and peace
Quan Âm is also a boddhisattva, esteemed for her compassion and peace for all living creatures. She is often depicted holding a vase in her right hand, as a vessel for the nectar of life, and a willow branch of peace in her left. Devotees bring incense or fruit and ask her merciful assistance in making their lives better.
In fact, bodhisattvas are everywhere in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition. That Laughing Buddha? He’s actually another bodhisattva, an eccentric 10th-century Chinese monk named Budai. In his saintly incarnation, he carries a sack that holds food, sweets for children and the sadness of the world. His swelling belly represents wealth, happiness and good luck.
But there’s no scarcity of images of Gautama Siddhartha, the Fifth Century B.C. Nepali prince who became known as the Buddha, “The Enlightened One.” Most frequently, he is shown seated in lotus position, meditating under a bodhi (fig) tree, or sometimes reclining as he slips quietly into nirvana — in other words, as he dies.
At Chùa Sắc Tứ Khải Đoan, the largest pagoda in Buôn Ma Thuột, where I presently live, there are numerous representations, along with fierce guardians borrowed from Chinese Taoism. A short walk away at the Hong Phuoc pagoda, visitors are greeted by the Laughing Buddha, small children climbing all over his ample body. Nearby, shaded by trees, Quan Âm smiles beatifically.