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.
With Vietnam still in pandemic lockdown, the author raids his memory cells to recall his earliest travels in Southeast Asia. The Indonesian isle of Bali was a very different place 45 years ago than it is today.
Bali was a remarkable place to take my first steps in Southeast Asia.
In August 1976, I flew into Denpasar airport from Darwin, Australia, after a 10-day hitchhike from Adelaide via Alice Springs and the Red Center. At the age of 25, I was already a vagabond. I had been on the road for 20 months, drinking kava in Fiji, skiing and playing music in New Zealand, cooking and writing for a weekly newspaper in Australia.
Bali represented the beginning of the next chapter of my adventure. The Western world — burgers and baseball, meat pies and rugby football — was in the rear-view window. For months to come, I would be in Third World Asia, learning to live in societies where prayers to a Christian god carry far less cachet than Buddhist meditation or supplications to Shiva.
At Kuta Beach, the backpackers’ alternative to the upscale hotel strip of Sanur, I reconnected with my photographer friend Bret Lundberg, with whom I had shared a house in New Zealand and traveled in Australia. In years to come, he and I would climb the slopes of a smoldering Mount St. Helens before its historic 1980 eruption, and work closely as an editor-photog team for a Singapore-based travel publisher. (These days Bret has a pet cremation business in Southern California. I’ve never understood how that transition came about. He always did like cats.)
On the beach
Kuta was the perfect setting for dealing with the culture shock inevitable in a first-timer’s jump from West to East. Bret and I stayed in a small guest house, a losmen, a short walk down a flower-lined path from surf gently rolling upon a sandy beach. In the morning, we ate black rice pudding with coconut milk and fresh fruit. In the afternoon, clad only in colorful new wraparound sarongs, we succumbed to therapeutic coconut-oil massages from a gnarled grandmother with hands like vise grips. In the evening, “magic” mushroom omelets enhanced the sunset-viewing spectacle.
In short order, we had gathered a posse of other travelers. Herbert (Bert) Campbell, a soft-spoken, introspective teacher from Ohio, years later would become a psychiatrist for the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. Paul Hyslop and Ian Cottingham from England were on a lengthy vacation between the completion of their degrees in biochemistry and the beginning of their doctoral studies.
Bali has a unique culture, as anthropologists recognized long ago: It is an oasis of animistic Hinduism in a far-reaching archipelago conquered by Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries. Our tight quintet bathed in royal pools where fountains spewed water from the mouths of mythical monsters. We bowed our heads in ancient red-brick temples labeled with signs that warned in awkward English of the importance of cleanliness: “It is forbidden to enter women during menstruation.”
We learned the Ramayana story, how the armies of the monkey king Hanuman defeated the demon Ravana after he kidnapped Sita, beloved wife of the Hindu prince Rama. We relived this epic at ritual performances of the barong (lion) dance, during which warriors in spiritual trance turned their deadly keris (daggers) on themselves, and the fiery and heavily acoustic kecak (monkey) dance. We even experienced a Balinese funeral, including an impressive parade and animal sacrifices.
Most people think of beaches when they think of Bali. I think of mountains, specifically Gunung Agung, which rises nearly 10,000 feet above the surrounding landscape. In 1963, the volcano erupted for the first time in more than a century, spewing lava and killing thousands. (It erupted most recently in 2019.) The Balinese people consider it a divine miracle that the lava flows divided as they approached Pura Besakih, the island’s mother temple, and spared the 15th-century complex.
Our group was drawn to the foothills of this peak, to the town of Ubud, which has earned fame as a center for arts and culture. In the Sangeh “monkey forest,” home to many hundreds of macaques, Paul tempted fate as he clutched a handful of peanuts during a forest stroll. In no time, he was beset upon by a throng of the nasty little creatures, biting and pulling at his clothes and hair. He quickly tossed away the nuts and dashed from the wooded area. Lesson learned. (Some years later, when we rendezvoused at England’s Stonehenge, he had neither peanuts in his pockets nor a monkey on his back.)
Of more lasting impact to me was the enchanting music of the gamelan orchestra and wayang kulit puppetry. Gamelan is a traditional percussion orchestra comprised mainly of gongs, bells, drums and xylophones, tuned to a different, six-note scale than the standard eight-note European scale. I found the melodies haunting, especially when they accompanied a performance of wayang kulit, traditional shadow drama. (When I later did a graduate fellowship in Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, I made it a point to study both arts in academic courses.)
My first time ever as the pilot of my own motorized two-wheeler was on a motorbike trip with these friends. We spent several days bonding on a circuit of the island, staying in small villages and eating at local dining spots. And when Paul and Ian caught a night flight from Bali to Singapore, and Bret headed back to the beach, two of us weren’t yet ready to call it quits.
Bearing only day packs, Bert and I took off walking from Ubud, not knowing where we might be going. We left the main road, then turned from a narrow lane onto a trail leading into the lush green padi fields. Hours passed. We were never bored. Even non-agrarian intruders such as ourselves found the dynamics of irrigation fascinating. The terraces enabled rice farmers to inundate some plots as others were drained, allowing for an almost never-ending harvest.
By now, we had learned just enough of the Bahasa Indonesia language to get ourselves in linguistic trouble. We could count (satu, dua, tiga), express pleasure (Ini bagus!), and offer greetings such as “What’s up?” (Apa kabar?) But our arrogance in asking directions did us no favors.
We still didn’t know where we were headed. The fruit and snacks we had carried were long gone. We had convinced ourselves that our rural trek would soon lead us into a larger town. Indeed, several times we had posed the question to villagers: Dimana? We asked. What is this way? The answer was always the same: Sawa! We knew the town of Sawa must be near.
As the veil of twilight fell upon the terraces, we accepted that we would not reach Sawa until the next day. A village head man offered us nasi goreng (fried rice) and a mat where we could sleep on the floor of his hut until morning. He was pleased to have visitors with whom he could practice his few words of English and, at the same time, boost his esteem in the village.
Early the next morning, as we prepared to depart after fortifying cups of tea, we thought to confirm direction and time before our steps led us into Sawa. Our host laughed and spread his hands in all directions. “Sawa!” he exclaimed!
That was how we learned the Indonesian word for “rice fields.”
What’s on the morning menu in Vietnam? What do people eat at the start of the day that might differ from later? Surprisingly, perhaps, some things are always popular.
Đặng was insistent. It was 9:30 in the morning — late, by Vietnamese standards, for breaking the overnight fast — and I was hungry.
“John,” he approached me after I finished teaching an early class, “there’s a new restaurant just down the street that is serving bánh cuốn. Have you tried it yet?”
As a fellow teacher in Saigon who had attended university in the United States, Đặng, or “Andy,” spoke better English than most of my colleagues. More importantly, perhaps, he had a strong sense of which Vietnamese foods might appeal to Westerners.
He made the right call on bánh cuốn.
There is no standard morning meal in Vietnam, nothing like bacon and eggs in America or a baguette with cheese and sausage in western Europe. Indeed, a steaming bowl of phở is as popular a repast to start the day as any other. But bánh cuốn immediately elevated itself high on my list of options.
A Vietnamese-to-English dictionary will tell you bánh means “cake.” That’s a very basic interpretation, as pretty much anything with a principal ingredient of flour is called bánh. In the case of bánh cuốn (literally “rolled cake”), it’s a broad thin sheet of rice-flour batter, steamed and fermented.
The steamed cake is filled with a mixture of ground pork with minced mushrooms and shallots, seasoned and fried. It is most often served with additional meats, usually traditional Vietnamese pork sausage (chả lụa), and such vegetables as sliced cucumber, bean sprouts and/or salad. There may sometimes be prawns. There is always a dipping sauce of nước chấm (fish sauce) and condiments such as soy sauce and tiny but very hot red chilies.
Another popular morning meal, offered at both restaurants and street stalls, is bánh xèo, or “sizzling cake.” A sort of crêpe or savory fried pancake, its base is a thin flour of rice, egg and water seasoned with turmeric powder and spread on a very hot grill or skillet.
Upon this flavorful crêpe, the chef will fold in a generous helping of sliced pork, prawns and bean sprouts. Additions might be green onion, mung beans, basil or mint.
I love a good bánh xèo in spite of one peeve — the preparation of prawns or shrimp. Vietnam’s seafood industry is thriving, thanks in large part to the popularity of these crustaceans, which are farmed in several locations. But the translucent shells, not to mention the heads, are almost never removed before serving. My interest in bánh xèo fades a little when I’m forced to pick pieces of prawn shell out of my mouth.
‘Water fern cake’
One of the most popular places to eat bánh bèo in Buôn Ma Thuột, where I currently live, is no more than 100 meters down the street from my house. The eatery’s schedule is unpredictable, but it’s easy to tell when its gate is open: A dozen or more motorbikes are parked side-by-side outside, and as I ride past I can see diners seated shoulder-to-shoulder at a pair of long aluminum tables.
Bánh bèo originated in Huế, the ancient imperial capital in central Vietnam. It can be either a morning or midday snack or a restaurant dish. Small steamed cakes are made from a blend of rice and tapioca flours and served with small dried shrimp, crispy pork skin (or crunchy minced bacon) and scallion oil. In some regional versions, shrimp and pork paste may be a filling, or sweet mashed mung beans may be a topping.
Frequently bánh bèo are served in small individual dishes and eaten directly from the saucer after being scraped free with a spoon or chopstick. It is named for the water fern or duckweed, an aquatic plant that floats on or near the surface of placid lakes — even though this is not an ingredient. Perhaps, in the distant past, it once was.
Soup and sandwich
Since I’ve been in Vietnam, I haven’t once touched oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. On the other hand, rice porridge is ubiquitous on the streets early in the morning. In my household, a little fresh fish — lightly grilled salmon and eel, sprinkled with green onions and red chilies — are popular choices
Other soups never let down a person with a hearty appetite. As noted previously, phở never fails to please, and the same may be said of bún bò Huế. The key to flavor is to place fresh noodles in a bowl and to pour the potage on top, not to combine the two in advance.
My first breakfast passion after arriving in Vietnam nearly two years ago was a bánh mì sandwich, and it’s still among my favorites. A French baguette sliced lengthwise and packed with chopped pork, carrot-radish slaw and other vegetables, it is delicious at any time of day. And there’s a particular breakfast version called the bánh mì trung ốp-la, or fried-egg sandwich.
A note to my friend Đặng (“Andy”): I owe you one, buddy. If you make it up my direction one of these months, I know a couple of great new breakfast places I’d like to share.
Learning to speak Vietnamese may be harder than it first appears, no thanks to 11 vowels, six tonal diacriticals and a handful of regional dialects.
There are two schools of thought about learning the Vietnamese language.
One is that it should be easy, for several reasons. Every word is a single syllable. There are no verb conjugations, whether past, present or future tense. There are no masculine-feminine or plural noun forms. Sentence structure follows the standard subject-verb-object construction of English and the Latin languages. The alphabet, introduced long ago by Jesuit missionaries, is a Roman one, unlike most other Asian tongues.
But like many other foreigners, I find the Vietnamese language difficult. The pronunciation of no fewer than 11 vowels, complicated by five or six diacritical (tonal) accents and specific regional dialects, more than offsets the simplicity of the grammar. If you apply the wrong diacritical — a falling tone rather than a rising tone, for instance — it changes the entire meaning of a word.
I’ve been in this country for 20 months now, and I’m still laboring to learn the language. Normally, when I apply myself to the process, I’m pretty good at picking up the patois beyond basic vocabulary — greetings, numbers, directional words and restaurant orders. This has been different.
In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where I initially settled, I quickly learned that, although a grasp of Vietnamese would have been a convenience, it was too easy to not speak it. English is far and away the most widely spoken foreign language in Vietnam (ahead of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French). And there are entire urban neighborhoods where speaking Vietnamese can be more of a hindrance than a help, such as Thảo Điền (an Anglo-European precinct of District 2) and Phú Mỹ Hưng (a predominantly Korean and Taiwan-Chinese area of District 7).
I decided early that I would not surround myself with other foreigners. Even then, the (primarily female) company that I kept was only too glad to practice their high-school English with a native speaker. I naturally gravitated toward those with whom I could converse without relying upon a translation app.
One of the reasons I moved from Ho Chi Minh City to provincial Dak Lak at the start of March was to put myself in a place where I’d be more-or-less forced to learn. In all of Buon Ma Thuot, I think there are fewer native English speakers than in my last apartment building in HCMC. And my lady friend here, with whom I do often rely upon that translation app, is only too glad to try to accelerate my Vietnamese language learning.
Here’s what I’ve learned — what I’m trying to learn — so far.
The 11 Vietnamese vowels are: a, â, ă, o, ô, ơ, e, ê, u, ư and i (or y). Each has one and only one possible pronunciation. So instead of trying to guess how to pronounce letter “a,” for instance, in English (aah as in cat? aw as in all? ay as in place?), you’re only tasked with remembering one pronunciation. In theory, at least.
That all goes to hell with the diacriticals, as I’ll try to demonstrate here:
ma, mà, má, mả, mã,mạ
These are six different words. They are spelled identically, with the exception of their different tonal marks. The tones are level (no mark), falling (downward sloping), rising (upward), questioning (a question mark), tumbling (a tilde) and a heavy glottal stop (a dot beneath the vowel). These six words mean, in order, “ghost,” “but,” “mother,” “grave,” “horse” and “rice seedling.” If you pronounce phở without the proper ở — that is, the correct vowel and questioning diacritical — it has another meaning entirely than the beef-noodle soup you probably intended.
It would be easy to say Vietnamese consonants are the same as in English. Indeed, B, H, K, L, M, P, Q, R, T and V are very similar.
But C is always “k.” CH is closer to “j.” There is no J. D is “d” when crossed (đ), but “y” or “zh” when uncrossed (d). F is replaced in sound by PH. G is a hard G unless it is followed by an I (gi), in which case, like the uncrossed d, it takes a “y” or “zh” sound. X is pronounced like “s”; S is pronounced like “sh.” TR sounds more like “ts” in the north, “tch” in the south.
The N words can be the most difficult. NG is pronounced as in “singer,” except that in Vietnamese it can be used to start a word. The exceedingly common surname Nguyễn is pronounced just the way it’s spelled, in one syllable: Say it right, and it almost rhymes with “win.” NH or NGH is a “nya,” sort of like “canyon.” Thus the resort city of Nha Trang is pronounced “Nyah Tchang” and not “Na Trang.”
Then there are the regional dialects. The “northern” vernacular spoken in the national capital of Ha Noi, employed in national media broadcasts, is considered the mother tongue (much as the language spoken on nationwide TV networks in the United States is considered the standard for American English). It is mutually intelligible with the “southern” dialect prevalent in Saigon, but even a novice learner like myself can hear differences in pronunciations and some vocabulary. The central dialects spoken in Hue, Da Nang and other mid-coastal cities are said to be harder to understand.
End of lesson one. Even as I work on learning to pronounce everything properly, I’m struggling mightily with personal pronouns.
There are a half-dozen different ways to say “you,” for instance, based on age, gender and relationship. One of the most important reasons a stranger is asked his or her age is to establish social status for addressing them properly.
When I finally have a grasp of that, I may be on my way to learning this language.
Some of Vietnam’s finest fruits are nearly unknown in the West. Dragonfruit, mangosteen, sugar apple and rambutan will please nearly every palate.
The first time I beheld a pitahaya, I remember thinking: How curious! It certainly didn’t appear to be anything edible. It looked less like a fruit than some strange small beast, its rosy skin blemished by greenish extrusions curling like small tails or the nubs of premature limbs.
Today the dragonfruit, as the pitahaya is more widely known, is one of my favorite things to eat. Although this cactus fruit is native to Central and northern South America, it is widely cultivated throughout Southeast Asia — especially in Vietnam, where it is called thanh long.
One of the great joys of spending time in an unfamiliar part of the world is discovering its unique foods. Tropical fruits, it seems, are particularly memorable. No matter where I travel in Vietnam, the colors and textures found in the ubiquitous fruit stalls and public markets, and the distinctive aromas that emanate from them, inevitably add to the pleasure of the experience. Even better, they are a mere prelude to the taste of what I have discovered.
Not all of the fruits sold at the markets here are native to Southeast Asia. A majority would be instantly recognizable to visitors from North America or Europe. Bananas, pineapples, mangos, papayas, pomelo (Chinese grapefruit), lilikoi (passion fruit) and coconuts are all grown in Vietnam. So are oranges (which when ripe are green, not orange) and such melons as watermelons and canteloupe. And there are some popular imports from temperate climate zones, including apples, pears, peaches and grapes.
Like the infamous durian, two of my favorite local fruits are often barred from hotels. But it’s not an unpleasant odor that nixes the dragonfruit and the mangosteen. It’s because their can stain the hotel’s soft goods.
Dragonfruit (thanh long)
Yes, one of these culprits is the mystical dragonfruit. Its soft, leathery skin is either red, with red or purple flesh inside, or pink, with white flesh. (There’s also a yellow-skinned pitahaya, with white flesh, in the Americas, but I haven’t seen it in Vietnam.)
An average dragonfruit weights 300 to 400 grams — less than a pound. The skin, a couple of centimeters (3/4 inch) thick, is tender and easy to slice. Quarter and peel it, but be careful not to wipe your hands on anything but a napkin or towel: Its hue comes from betanin, the same natural dye that colors beets and Swiss chard.
The fruit is laced with small, black, crunchy seeds, like a kiwifruit. But when you bite in, you don’t even know they are there. Dragonfruit is slightly crunchy and mildly sweet, the red variety slightly more than the white. I’ve heard the flavor compared to a cross between a kiwi and a pear; I find it more similar to its cousin, the prickly pear.
It is delicious in fruit salads and smoothies, blended with such other fruits as papaya and lichee. If I were in North America, I would implore my favorite Mexican cantina owner to make me a dragonfruit margarita. In fact, I think I’ll do that for myself!
Mangosteen (măng cụt)
The mangosteen, no relation to the mango, will also leave a permanent purple stain on your best T-shirt. That’s from the thick rind, so even though you may be impatient to taste the fruit, be careful as you prepare to devour it.
As it’s about the size of a tangerine or an average everyday tomato, I can hold a mangosteen in one hand and squeeze it until the shell splits. But that’s a good way to make a mess. It’s better to slice it carefully around its waistline and gently lift the lower half of the rind away.
In either case, you’re left with five juicy, ivory-hued segments, about the size of those in a Mandarin orange. I find the sweet, tangy flavor similar to that of the raspberry, only creamier. Each delicate segment surrounds a couple of almond-sized seeds of such thin fabric that they can often be eaten along with the pulp.
Native to Southeast Asia, the mangosteen grows throughout the year on a tree that stands between 6 and 24 meters (20 and 80 feet) tall. Medieval Chinese, who gave it its common name (mang-chi-shih), often paired it with durian because its “cooling” qualities balanced the “heating” characteristics of the larger fruit.
Sugar Apple (táo đường)
The grayish-green skin of the sugar apple, or sweetsop, reminds me of a reptile — a lizard, perhaps, or a small crocodile. But the heart-shaped fruit, about the size of a large red apple, bears a taste treat quite opposite that.
Native to Latin America and the West Indies, carried to Asia by 17th-century Spanish traders in the Philippines, the sugar apple is now one of Vietnam’s most popular fruits. A close relative of the Americas’ cherimoya or “custard apple,” it grows seasonally on a shrubby tree.
It’s unmistakeable in the market stalls. The scaly rind is thick, a medley of knobby segments, but surprisingly fragile. When ripe, it tends to fall apart, making it a snap to peel.
Inside, the white flesh is sweet and creamy, with a custard-like flavor. There may be two to three dozen hard, black seeds immersed in the pulp; standard practice is to spit them out as you eat.
One of my close Vietnamese friends insists that the Thai variety, so labeled in fruit stands, is sweeter than that grown in Vietnam. She also noted that Taiwan has developed a sweetsop hybrid with a pineapple flavor.
Rambutan (chôm chôm)
The Vietnamese name for this nut-like fruit, chôm chôm, literally means “messy hair.” And that’s just what it looks like, if you happen to have flaming red hair. Unlike its cousins, the less flamboyant lychee and longan, the ripe fruit has a reddish pod the size of a ping-pong ball, covered with herbaceous spines or “hairs.”
Rambutan trees reach up to 20 meters (65 feet) in height and bear fruit twice a year. The fruits grow in loose clusters of 10 to 20 pods. Each shell carries a single fruit surrounding a large seed; these seeds may be cooked and eaten, but they are commonly disposed of, in favor of the flesh of the fruit.
That watery flesh is whitish or translucent. Its sweet, mildly acidic flavor and jelly-like texture make one think of grapes. Compared to lychee, it is sweeter, less floral and a bit more tart, like a strawberry.
Memories of a son who was born in Singapore, raised in Seattle, and who would have been at home anywhere. The melody lingers on.
I outlived my father this week. I passed the threshold of 70 years, eight months, that Einar Fred Anderson achieved. He’s been gone now for over three decades, but I still remember the man’s integrity, his quiet ways, his love, his respect for our differences — especially on Father’s Day. Today.
I wish my son would have had the opportunity to outlive me. Erik John Carlock Anderson departed this life much too young. He was only 32 years, five months, when he succumbed to liver cancer five years ago. My only child took his last breath a few seconds after midnight on June 20, having stayed alive through Father’s Day.
Erik is buried in a north Seattle cemetery. There’s a postscript on his grave that reads: “The song may be over, but the melody lingers on.” Two years to the day after his death, I was delivered a nearly identical message in a tattoo, one that graced the back of a woman I saw in a marketplace in Nice, France: “Every song ends. Is that any reason not to enjoy the music?”
Of course. While I still grieve and always will, I have nothing but gratitude for my son’s life. The melody lingers on. I still enjoy the music that plays in my mind.
Although it is common in Vietnam to celebrate a “death anniversary,” and I will ring the bell at the Buddhist temple later today, I doubt I would be living here now if Erik were alive. But my son had strong ties to East and Southeast Asia. He was born in Singapore in 1984 when I worked for a publishing house there. After I took him on a trip through Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan in 1996, he never looked at Asian women the same way again. Indeed, his high-school sweetheart, Kim, whom he eventually married and with whom he longed to start a family, is a Chinese-American woman.
Erik worked in information technology, but he was a man with many interests and several true passions. He was devoted to family and friends. He loved sports, especially baseball and football. He loved animals — it seems he always had two dogs and two cats in his house — and in his later years he enjoyed duck hunting, which took him into the outdoors with his golden retriever Brady (as in Tom).
And there was always music. Many in the Seattle scene knew Erik only by his nickname, “Beefer.” He learned to read and play music young. He was a capable saxophonist who loved a wide range of music, from swing-era Glenn Miller to hard-rock Led Zeppelin and neo-punk Green Day. He found his niche in electronic dance music (EDM), specifically hard trance. He began to deejay in his teens and later established his own company, Mad Cow Productions, to book and promote touring artists.
When I decided to write this blog, I reached out to many of the people closest to Erik for their memories. There was a common thread in their responses — Erik’s kindness, his openness, his perseverance, his vigorous spirit, his sometimes brutal honesty. Even his father didn’t escape that. It was refreshing.
What follows are (edited) reminiscences from his mother, high-school friends, music-industry colleagues, and two other buddies.
Linda Carlock, mother — Erik was always busy trying to figure out how everything worked. He loved to “help.” Just before his first birthday, he took the screwdriver that his grandfather put down, pried off the “childproof” outlet cover, inserted the screwdriver, and shorted out the entire circuit.
In first grade, Erik was the only kid at his school who would be friends with one boy who had severe allergies but wouldn’t blow his nose. Most of the kids called him “Snot Face” but Erik called him by his name and invited him to play; that acceptance turned that kid from a pariah to being totally accepted by the kids. Erik’s life was filled with small instances of kindness that most people never knew about, but made a difference to those on the receiving end.
My friend once said, “Erik is a very old soul with a very tender heart.” How right she was.
John Meyers, high school friend — Erik was a force of nature. I first met him in ninth-grade math class. He trudged in with a Big Gulp from 7 Eleven at 8 in the morning and challenged our math teacher on something totally forgettable. I couldn’t keep from laughing during their argument, and our friendship was sealed.
A month or so before Erik died, he joined the guys and I on a camping trip to Shaw Island in the San Juans. He was in incredible pain but did not complain once. He was laying in his tent to rest. I pulled up the Mariners baseball game on my phone and laid in the tent next to Erik listening to the broadcast. He was never much to show emotion, but I could tell he appreciated me being there. We just laid and listened.
Erik was loud, boisterous, brash and incredibly smart. He was also caring. I have two categories of people — those you can call at 2 a.m. to bail you out of jail, and those you can’t. Erik certainly fell into the former category. I think about him often and miss him incredibly.
Neal Benyak, high school friend — We have a group text thread amongst high school buddies, and this chat is really what connects us day to day. It’s been going for more than 10 years now and Erik was a fixture in there. More than anything, outside of actually seeing Erik, is his presence in the group. We naturally argue and opine about immaterial things and get way too heated. But it’s not as dynamic without him. I actually miss Erik’s incredulousness when you didn’t agree with him!
He was a good friend. A loyal friend. And he will always be a missed friend.
Chris (Channel) Herrera, DJ, friend — He was almost too good to be true, a strange angel all too happy to wear some devil horns. Earthy but grounded, sweet but brutal. He scared me, overwhelmed me. I wasn’t even sure I liked him at first. Then I fell in love with the man. After that, I grinned when others weren’t sure they liked him either. He didn’t pull punches. He was not afraid to rattle your cage and leave you unsure that you wanted to hang out again. But ultimately, beyond his bombastic approach, you always knew where you stood. And sometimes, respect meant insult. If you weren’t worth fucking with, you weren’t worth loving.
Not a day passes when I don’t act like Beefer. Bad jokes, poorly placed commentary, intentional alienation of people found unworthy … and at the same time, joy in music, pride in performance, entrepreneurship and a sense of irony about all of it.
Beefer was my best friend. Beefer is my best friend. He had my back then, and he watches over me now. As time goes on, all I feel is joy and gratitude. I celebrate what is when I think of him, not just what was.“Don’t cry that it’s over,” wrote Dr. Seuss. “Smile because it happened.”
Eric (Web) Weber, DJ, friend — Whenever June comes around it brings back the great memories I had with my best friend, Beefer. I think back to the shows we did like “A Midsummer’s Night Rave.” Beefer gave me some of my first electronic shows in Seattle and helped me get my foot in the door. We did many shows together and opened for some major acts.
He brought out the best in people and was a large part of how the Seattle music scene is shaped today. His shows and personality influenced many local DJs and international talent. I miss doing shows with him. I miss drinking with him on the party boats, wing nights, and just hanging out! I really just miss him!
Jason (Monkey) Robertson, DJ, friend — Erik was the kind of asshole that everybody needed in their life. He was my best friend and we shared many great times together. I taught him how to play records and he taught me how to tell people like it is. He was the guy at a party that would call people out on crappy stories and made-up things.
Once, when he was unable to drive for several months, he generously gave me his car to drive and take care of, as mine was broken beyond repair. This allowed me to continue to go to work and throw the events that Beefer and I loved so much.
Jason Rosenberger, friend — Erik was always joyful, caring, inclusive and full of talent. When I first met Erik, he was playing music. Instantly I was blown away by his knowledge of multiple genres, styles and instruments.
As our friendship blossomed, I was able to capture his true passion, which was his friends and family. He had a way of speaking to who you are, and to capture your attention through humor and kindness. When Erik passed, he left a big gap in all our hearts, and we will always remember his intoxicating laugh.
Hans Sundy, friend — Knowing Erik was a blessing. To this day, I reflect on all we talked about, and his general approach to life — to make the best of it and try to find the humor in all circumstances. Even in dark times, he tried to find the light and stay positive. Yet he’d get real with you and let you know when he was serious if it was needed.
I truly miss him and wish he was there to randomly send texts or to call. Despite life happening, and us both working and living, he was always there to talk to and shoot life with. To this day, I don’t feel like he’s left us, but is still there, always in my heart. I was an only child. He’s the brother I wish I had growing up.
Rejected by outsiders for its pungent odor, the durian fruit is beloved across Southeast Asia. The thick husk hides a delightfully creamy pulp within.
I’ll never forget my first real encounter with the botanical renegade known as durian.
I had heard stories about “the king of fruit” that left me wondering how it could be so offensive to some palates and so seductive to others. I may have even inhaled its unique aroma as I traipsed through street markets, unaware of what I was smelling. It was inevitable, I guess, that one day the fruit would grab me by the collar and refuse to let me go.
It happened many years ago in the town of Bukittinggi, in the western highlands of the massive Indonesian island of Sumatra. The previous day, I had disembarked in Padang from an interisland freighter, muscled my backpack to the bus station, and climbed aboard a local conveyance to the next point of interest recommended by Lonely Planet, whatever that may have been.
An Aussie rocker named Peter had materialized as my short-term traveling companion. I remember his shaved head, gold earring and little else about him, even though we had decided to save money by sharing a budget hotel room that probably cost about US$5/night. I do remember that Peter was badly in need of a shower. (I’m sure I was, as well.) But in lieu of a well-water dousing, he went out for a short walk around town.
I napped. About an hour later, he burst into the room in a frustrated bluster. “I bought us something,” he exclaimed, “but they won’t let me bring it into the room!”
What in the world would be prohibited from a fleabag hotel, I pondered, unless it was drugs or loose women? A baby tiger?
“You’ll have to come outside!” Peter continued. “We’ll eat it there!”
What? No durian?
Decades later, I know that there is no one durian. Indeed, there are at least 30 species. The ripe fruit may be green, brown, yellow or even rosy. But every mature pod appears as threatening as a medieval mace, a truncheon far more deadly than a coconut.
Peter had cautiously set his herbaceous treasure on a concrete ledge outside the hotel door, just beneath a “NO DURIAN” sign. I examined the offering. It was about the size of a oblong soccer ball and was everywhere covered with thick thorns (indeed, spikes), an effective chastity belt thwarting any who would violate the virgin fruit for the sweet temptations within. I gingerly lifted it by a thin stem; it was heavy, maybe about 5 pounds (over 2 kg).
It’s not the size nor the natural fortification, however, that make the durian a pariah at hotels, on public transportation, and undoubtedly at Crazy Rich Asians-style cocktail parties. It’s the fruit’s peculiar odor.
I write this at my table in Vietnam’s central hill country, where the durian is known as sầu riêng. I smell the fruit’s singular aroma with each sweep of the floor fan across the room. Clearly, I don’t find the fragrance disagreeable, which is why the shell of a half-eaten durian is within arm’s reach as I type.
Others are not as impressed. My literary friend Richard Sterling, a longtime Asian gourmet who lives in Cambodia, says of durian: “Its odor is best described as pig excrement, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” He perhaps thought he was being charitable. Andrew Zimmern, the host of TV’s Bizarre Foods, was so repelled by the smell that he had one taste and said never again.
My culinary adviser, Ms. Lan, assured me that sầu riêng is best when it has fallen from the tree to the ground, and has not been commercially harvested. She also told me the specific durian that is on my table is a hybrid variety, perhaps a clone of the very common Durio zibethinus with something of less pungent smell and a milder flavor.
On that day in 1976, Peter used Western ingenuity by dropping the durian on the pavement until the thickly spiked husk split. Then we took our Swiss army knives — a backpacker’s best friend in those days — and sliced the orb into two more-or-less-equal halves.
Cradled within the intimidating rind was a fruit like I had never tasted, like I had never even imagined that I would ever taste. Not quite banana-yellow in color; nestled in cribs around avocado-like seeds, as if the abandoned progeny of triffids; the individual segments promised a creamy first taste … but then what? I could ignore the garbage smell. I had to try.
Peter looked at me wide-eyed, awaiting my judgment.
“It’s like eating garlic custard,” I finally told him, “while standing over an open sewer.” (Full disclosure: I could have sworn I read that quote from author Rudyard Kipling, but I can’t find even a close approximation online, so until I do I’ll claim it as my own.)
Although the smell and taste vary slightly from durian to durian, I can tell you today that I now find the aroma to be mildly sweet rather than trashy. There is definitely a garlic overtone, one that lingers longer on the palate than the smell stays in the sinuses. The texture is blatantly buttery. The overall sensation is like slurping a full-bodied cream cheese flavored with almonds, overcooked onions and maybe a touch of caramel.
“Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.” — Tim Robbins as Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh in Bull Durham (1988)
I had Queen at full volume. Freddy Mercury was Under Pressure as he strutted across the Wembley Stadium stage in my YouTube video. But even his astonishing tenor voice couldn’t shatter the acoustic seal created by the rain that reverberated upon my home’s roof and skylight.
Rainy season has indeed arrived in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
It began with a glimmer of wet in mid-April, breaking a typical “dry season” drought of about three months. By mid-May, sunny mornings were more frequently yielding to rolling thunderstorms by midday. Gratefully, the true torrents held off until I was able to repair a bothersome leak in my roof. Now, a few days into June, the forecast for the weeks and months ahead is offering no mercy.
This is southern Vietnam in the summer. The daily deluge is a Sadie Thompson Rain, for those familiar with the W. Somerset Maugham story. By the time the wet season has ended, around about September or October, substantially more rain will have fallen than New Orleans or Miami see in a typical year, hurricanes included. Their annual average is about 62 inches.
In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), it’s about 75 inches (190 centimeters). More than 80% of that falls between May and October—about 10 inches every month through Halloween.
The city that I now call home, Buon Ma Thuot, is a little cooler and a little drier than Saigon. But that doesn’t excuse us from inundation. Again, today, for at least the fifth time in the past two months, I watched my residential street turn into a rapidly flowing river on the heels of a sudden storm. Only a gentle slope keeps it from becoming a lake. If I were back in my beloved Pacific Northwest, I’d be ready to break out the kayak.
Locals take it all in stride. It is, after all, an annual occurrence. Those who drive motorbikes — which is most of us here — may seek shelter during peak precipitation, but once the weather has shifted to a steady drizzle, poncho-cloaked pilots proceed with business as usual.
Vietnam is a long, skinny country, more than 1,000 miles (1,650 km) south to north, nearly the distance from Miami to Washington, D.C., or from San Diego to Portland, Oregon. It comes as no surprise, then, that the climate differs significantly between Ho Chi Minh City, in the south, and the capital city of HaNoi, in the north. Indeed, the southern region recognizes only a dry season and a rainy season.
Vietnam’s central coastal region, focused on Da Nang and Nha Trang, typically get their heaviest rains between October and December. In recent years, typhoon flooding has become more commonplace. HaNoi and the north, inversely, acknowledge all four seasons. Heavy summer rains have largely ceased by September, making the autumn a popular time to visit. Winters, however, can get cold and damp, with frosty winds blowing from the high mountains along the border of China.
The best thing about the rain is — hey, it’s rain! If it weren’t for the seasonal showers, Vietnam would not produce the wealth of fruits and vegetables that make every trip to the market unforgettable. If it weren’t for the dependable precipitation, the coffee industry wouldn’t have such a lofty perch on the world stage. (Vietnam is the second leading coffee exporter on earth, after only Brazil.)
Indeed, if it weren’t for the rain, the province of Dak Lak (where I now reside) wouldn’t have the spectacular waterfalls nor the lush habitat for wild elephants that are two of the reasons I live here. And I’m willing to accept some wet weather for those residential bonuses.
Dating in a new culture is like finding one’s self as a Stranger in a Strange Land. As any local might tell you, it’s “same same … but different!”
My friend Bill is going through the meat grinder again. But it’s his own damn fault.
Bill is 40, a never-married British-Australian man who, ever since I met him a year and a half ago, has been in a constant state of relationship crisis.
He came to Vietnam in October 2019 to pursue an affair that began online. When that foundered, he discovered the hostess bars and massage salons, and quickly learned that sex is far less expensive when you’re not buying lady drinks, when you just get right down to business.
Bill subsequently had a lot of coffee dates with Tinder links that led either nowhere or to doomed dinners. He went out for a brief time with lovely Nguyet, but that soured when he realized that her unexplained wealth could be explained by her association with organized crime. He fell madly in love with Thuy, owner of a bar on the infamous Bui Vien walking street, but their 10 weeks of passion came to an abrupt halt when Bill tearfully confessed he got terribly jealous every time Thuy chatted up a customer in her bar, and he “got even” by getting drunk with a hooker down the block.
He doesn’t let go easily. A social worker by profession, Bill is a highly emotional fellow. He knows that he wears his heart on his sleeve. He desperately wants a girlfriend. But binge drinking isn’t helping his quest. And it has gotten worse since he lost his younger brother to illness in Australia last year. He expects every woman he meets to not just sympathize, but to soothe his tortured soul. And not a lot of women have the ability to do that in a second language.
Bill is still angry at Jane, his first Vietnamese girlfriend who continually berated him for his drinking behavior. Their affair led him to the conclusion that Viet women don’t understand him, and perhaps don’t try. It’s true that empathy sometimes seems in short supply. Then again, try walking in the shoes of someone whose every step sloshes.
Pressure to marry
As in any culture, each woman is different from the next, and every man is different. That said, Vietnam is decidedly more socially conservative than Western countries. Family ties are extremely strong here. Parental opinions matter a great deal. Young women, even more than their brothers, are under tremendous pressure to marry young (almost upon graduation, if they’ve gone to university) and start a family.
Those who do wed young often regret their decisions. Again and again, I have met single mothers with school-age children who choose to work in career-oriented positions rather than be supported by breadwinner husbands. Five years seems to be a common threshold for women to cut the matrimonial knot. With marriage behind them, these women often take lovers, even if they still live with husbands who accept the arrangement.
Before marriage, premarital sex for fun is frowned upon, or at least is made extremely difficult by watchful parents. Girls barely out of their teens, who may leave their homes in rural provinces to hustle drinks in Saigon hostess bars, often refuse lucrative propositions until their suitor has met the hometown family.
Of course, there are the pay-for-play girls, who either negotiate independently in bars or work in massage parlors. Many of them speak excellent English or another language spoken by visiting businessmen who frequent their bars: Chinese, Japanese or Korean. If they’re lucky, they might find a paramour, or several, who will (let’s call it what it is) keep them on a retainer until their next visit, and beyond. One of these swain might indeed come carrying a “golden ticket” to financial freedom and a life overseas.
Practical makes perfect
And then there are the exceptions, the bright young university grads who move to Ho Chi Minh City or to Hanoi for career opportunities rather than husband-hunting. They are far more open to liberal Western attitudes toward dating. If I were my friend Bill, or any other lovelorn Westerner in search of an enduring coupling, these are the women I’d want to meet.
Now, don’t ever blunder by underestimating a Vietnamese woman. Make no mistake: They run this country. Many of their menfolk may be irresponsible oafs, spending hard-earned dong on beer, gambling or “massages,” but the women maintain a keen sense of how to manage a family or a business. They often are well-schooled in investment and real estate. They understand how to work the “system” — in other words, which palms to grease and when. Is it legal? Oh, hell, no. But forget about ethics. By Vietnamese standards, it is the way business is done.
In a word, Vietnamese women are practical. Ruthless, many times, but practical. When Diem, my first semi-serious Saigon girlfriend, decided she was done with the relationship, she simply emptied her things out of my closet and texted me a “goodbye” later that day. It was straight out of a Paul Simon song: Just drop off the key, Lee. Was it cold? Obviously. Did it hurt? Of course. But it was certainly practical: Don’t need to discuss much. In retrospect, it was the same way Diem told me she had left her husband years earlier, with a message that said little more than “I’ve got the girl, you keep the boy.”
I was lucky. I’ve heard other versions of this story from foreigners whose longtime girlfriends and sometimes spouses had left in similar fashion, clearing out their joint bank accounts as they did so. In such cases, the law doesn’t offer a lot of protection to foreign nationals.
Savvy at seventy
My own love life in this Southeast Asian country has presented challenges of its own, but nothing like Bill’s. I have found it remarkably easy to meet beautiful women — smart, sane, often stubbornly sassy women — without many of the traumas that my friend continues to experience.
And consider that I am 70 years old. Age is not the stigma in dating that it is in the United States or elsewhere in the Western world. Since my arrival in Vietnam, I have dated women in their 50s, 40s, 30s and 20s, all of them gorgeous. There was the real-estate broker, the corporate CFO, the ballroom dancer, the singer-actress, the plastic surgeon, the model, the screenwriter, the professor. All of them are quality women. I would probably still be with the last of them had I not been transferred to a different city.
My current girlfriend, a business owner, is 25 years my junior. She trains me in yoga, practices physical therapy and Oriental folk medicine on my willing body, cleans, shops and cooks delicious traditional Vietnamese meals. I know I’ve said it before, but I think I’ll keep this one.
**Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty.
Vietnam’s best bánh mì sandwich, a legacy of 19th-century French colonists, is a perfect balance of soft, crispy bread and fresh meats and vegetables.
There’s a rapid-fire art to making a perfect bánh mì sandwich. Blink and you probably will miss it.
Slice the baguette lengthwise. Spread mayo and chile sauce. (Srỉracha will do.) Add cilantro and thinly sliced cucumber. Pack in an ample quantity of chopped pork: pâté, sausage, pork belly, head cheese. Add a few sliced chile peppers, a handful of carrot-radish slaw, maybe a dash of Maggi sauce (a more robust version of soy sauce).
Presto! You have a bánh mì. And the entire production took fewer than 30 seconds.
Throughout Vietnam, at mobile food carts and in brick-and-mortar restaurants, bánh mì has a presence that is highly recognizable to local citizens and foreign residents alike. It’s one of my go-to meals at any time of day or night.
Other than phở, the savory beef noodle soup found on menus from Saigon to Sydney to San Francisco, no Vietnamese food is better known in the Western world than bánh mì.
Literally “baked wheat,” and synonymous with bread, bánh mì is in fact a baguette sandwich that originated in the mid-19th century during the French colonial era in this country.
To me, it is all about that freshly baked bread. The perfect bánh mì is about 10 cm (6½ inches) long, shaped like a short hoagie roll. Its flame-grilled crust is thin and crispy; ínside, the white bread has a soft, ảiry consistency. Aficionados say the fluffy texture is due in part to the blending of rice flour with the wheat.
Most often eaten for breakfast or as an afternoon snack — it’s baked twice daily for freshness in the tropical heat — the bread is cut the long way and filled with ingredients. My friend Lan Anh argues that it is not the bread, but the freshness of the component meats and vegetables that determine quality.
Choose Your Meat
There are many varieties of bánh mì. The most common is bánh mì thit, a meat (usually pork) sandwich. Often several kinds of pork are used in a single sandwich, including chả lụa (pork sausage), liver pâté, pork belly and head cheese.
Additionally, a sandwich will always come with a variety of vegetables, including sliced cucumber, cilantro (coriander leaf), and shredded pickled carrots and daikon (radish). It will also have thinly sliced chilies (very hot), sweet Viet chili sauce, a dab of mayonnaise and often soy or Maggi sauce.
Other than bánh mì thit, popular types of bánh mì include xíu mại (smashed pork meatballs), barbecued pork sausage, shredded pork with nước mắm (fish sauce), and ham. You can also get them with grilled chicken, fish patties or sardines. A vegetarian version with tofu is especially popular at Buddhist temple celebrations.
A particular breakfast version ís the bánh mì trung ốp-la, or fried-egg sandwich. It’s made with onions and sprinkled with soy sauce. And for those who like their food sweet, bánh mì kẹp kem is an ice-cream sandwich with scoops of ice cream, topped with crushed peanuts.
Blame the French
Beginning in the 1860s, French colonists in Vietnam, isolated from Paris patisseries and boulangeries, began to make their own breads, pastries and other baked goods. Initially, they were priced beyond the rich of ordinary Vietnamese. But during the First World War, as production couldn’t keep up with the demands of an influx of French soldiers, rice was added to wheat flour — and the cost dropped to make bread accessible to nearly everyone.
Initially, bánh mì were mainly ham sandwiches, with a little mayo and perhaps pâté, to cater to the Gallic palate. After the political division of Vietnam in 1954, when the French were deposed, an exodus from north to south of more than a million Ẻuropean loyalists led to the development of a more creative bánh mì Sài Gòn, which quickly evolved into the street food that remains popular today.
Following the end of warfare and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, overseas Vietnamese and returning soldiers helped to popularize the sandwich in the West, especially in the United States, Canada and Australia.
A move from Ho Chi Minh City to the coffee capital of Buôn Ma Thuột, in the rural province of Đắk Lắk, brings relief from urban air pollution and big-city traffic.
Those who know me best know that my two favorite beverages are red wine and coffee.
The tropical climate here in Vietnam is far from ideal for growing quality grapes and making good wine. There are a handful of wineries in the country, mainly in the hill town of DaLat, but the wine is frankly mediocre. Some of it, indeed, is produced from imported grapes supplemented with mulberry juice. Chilean wine is a widely available alternative, and some French table wines are reasonably priced. But I’m not in Vietnam for the wine.
Coffee is another story. Vietnamese coffee is some of the best in the world. And it is strong — some of my Viet friends insist they are “drunk” by their third cup. That could be one reason why coffee (ca phé) shops are even more ubiquitous here than pubs in Australia or England. Cafes are indeed community gathering places, social hubs for the young and not-so-young.
Vietnam produces and exports more coffee than any country in the world besides Brazil. And the heart of this nation’s coffee industry is Đắk Lắk province, a plateau region of the Central Highlands, 350km (220 miles) north of Ho Chi Minh City at an elevation of about 600 meters (2,000 feet) above sea level.
This is where I live now, in a small city — actually, a big country town of half a million people — called Buôn Ma Thuột. (Pronounced BOON-ma-toe, the name means “Thuot’s father’s village” in the indigenous Ede dialect.) A dozen weeks after moving here from Vietnam’s largest city, I could not be happier.
I have nothing against Ho Chi Minh City (SaiGòn). It’s the hub of the action in this Southeast Asian nation. Its many millions of minions certainly kept me entertained during my cultural readjustment. I was never wanting for company. The restaurants fed me well, leaving me fat and happy. I was spending big-city money on big-city women, breathing toxic big-city air and dodging hundreds of big-city motorbikes every time I crossed a street. But at heart, I’m just not a “Big City Boi,” per the lyrics of a recently popular Viet rap song.
A two-week, work-related visit to Đắk Lắk last October convinced me I could enjoy living outside of the population hub. At first, I worried that as an extrovert who did not yet speak much Vietnamese, I would feel confined in a solitary lifestyle.
But I weighed that concern against the positive aspects of a move: I would have a better quality of life, nearer to rivers, lakes and a national park famous for íts elephants. I would spend less money on food, drink and lodging; indeed, my employer, APAX Leaders, would boost my housing allowance. In addition, I felt my contributions as a teacher were more highly valued in this single small center than among the dozens in HCMC. In particular, I foresaw that I would have more time and inclination to devote to writing and to learning Vietnamese.
Home Sweet Home
I lived in a hotel for a month after my arrival before I found a suitable home. Unlike HCMC, there aren’t many full-service apartments suitable for short-term visitors in Buôn Ma Thuột, or “BMT,” as it is widely known. Indeed, the population of English-speaking foreigners in this city may be only two or three dozen. (I’ve met just two other Americans since I arrived.)
But good things come to those who wait. On the first of April, I moved into a new home, a three-bedroom, two-bath townhouse with a staircase to what is now my yoga studio. I pay a mere VND 6,000,000 (US$260) a month, plus another VND 600,000 (US$26) for electricity and water. That’s less than I paid for a one-room studio apartment in HCMC. And I need not commute across half the city to work; I just take an easy 15-minute walk.
The studio was a natural. Even before I found the house, I had begun seeing a yoga studio owner and Oriental medicine practitioner with whom I now spend most of my free time. Lan Anh and I met, appropriately, in a coffee shop. So much for my fear of being socially isolated.
On no level does Buôn Ma Thuột have the drama of Ho Chi Minh City. It has beautiful parks but few grand monuments. Its two fine museums are devoted not to war, but to ethnic minorities and to coffee. Its restaurants are not focused on steaks, spaghetti, Thai curries or Indian vindaloo, but on beautiful renderings of traditional Vietnamese dishes such as nem nuong (fresh rolls with sausage), bánh bèo (savory rice cakes) and bún riêu (noodle soup with minced seafood).
At the heart of downtown Buôn Ma Thuột, where the highways from SaiGòn and Nha Trang meet, is the city’s most notable public artwork, the Victory Monument. It commemorates the North Vietnamese liberation of the city in early March 1975. The sculpture depicts soldiers atop a column rising above an arch that shelters a replica tank.
A short walk south is the Ethnographic Museum, whose history and biodiversity exhibitions are secondary to its introduction of Đắk Lắk’s minority populations. Forty-four ethnic groups are recorded in this province’s vast territory, which extends across more than 5,000 square miles from the border of Cambodia east. Most visible are the Ede (one of whom, H’Hen Niê, was a finalist in the 2018 Miss Universe pageant), the M’nong and the Jarai.
The Trung Nguyen coffee company’s new World Coffee Museum has two large exhibit halls paying tribute to the global heritage of coffee from ancient times. It expands on the beautifully landscaped grounds of the original Trung Nguyen Coffee Village in another part of the city. The city’s biennial Coffee Festival was unfortunately canceled in March 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I have also enjoyed the Kotam Ecotourism Destination, a bucolic suburban oasis with flowers and fruit trees, a manmade waterfall, a Buddhist temple, an Ede longhouse and funeral shelter, restaurants and coffee shops.
One of my favorite places in Buôn Ma Thuột is the Khải Đoan Pagoda (Chùa Sắc Tứ Khải Đoan), a large Buddhist temple less than a half-mile from my house. Built in 1951 and since expanded, it features an 800-pound bronze bell, several halls of worship and a bonsai garden with Buddhist sculpture.
Out of Town
Beyond the city, the leading attraction is Yok Don National Park. Its 115,000 hectares (284,000 acres) of mainly dry deciduous forest comprise Vietnam’s single largest nature reserve. Elephants, muntjak deer, monkeys, and rarely seen leopards and red wolves are among the denizens of the park, which is bisected by the Srepok River — a key Mekong River tributary that flows westward into Cambodia. Most visitors approach through the small Ede town of Buon Don and sign up at the park office for guided treks or birdwatching hikes.
Elsewhere in Đắk Lắk is large, shallow and reedy Lak Lake (Ho Lắk), popular among domestic tourists for its canoe rides to M’nong villages. I’m more impressed by the waterfalls that roll from the hills surrounding the plateau. Dray Nur Falls, 25 km (16 miles) south of BMT, has already lured me back: This cataract, 250 meters (more than 800 feet) long and 30 meters (100 feet) high, also has hiking trails to various natural attractions, including ancient caves and spooky exposed tree roots.
The Saigon Zoo & Botanical Gardens, one of the oldest such parks in the world, shares its urban campus with a wonderful history museum.
“Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo,” American singer-songwriter Paul Simon opined in the mid-1960s. “I do believe it. I do believe it’s true.”
I have always loved visiting the zoo. Beginning with some of my earliest memories at The Oregon Zoo in Portland, famous for its elephant breeding program, I have been thrilled to support zoological parks all over the world. From New York to San Diego, Tokyo to Melbourne — and even in lesser-known zoos such as Bukittinggi, Indonesia, and Colombo, Sri Lanka (remember The Life of Pi?) — I have been privileged to observe creatures that I will never see in the wild.
It was inevitable that during my residence in Ho Chi Minh City, I would become somewhat of a regular at theSaigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Not only was it a short walk (about half a mile) from my apartment in the Binh Thanh District; it also offered an oasis of ample greenery within the concrete jungle of a city of 13 million people.
Spread across 50 acres on the south bank of the Thi Nghé canal in District 1, just above íts confluence with the Saigon River, the botanical garden opened in 1864, with its initial animal habitat completed the following year. That makes it the eighth-oldest, continually operating zoo on earth. Part of a French colonial building frenzy that also included the Ben Thanh Market, the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral and the central post office, it was nevertheless conceived from the start as a place to conserve native plants and to breed rare Asian animals. Today it has an added mission of providing environmental education.
And it shares its acreage with the Museum of History of Ho Chi Minh City, where visitors can learn a little about the 300,000-year history of Vietnam before Europeans and Americans got so unceremoniously involved.
It’s Just My Nature
The gardens claim about 3,000 trees of 260 species, a few of them planted in the 19th century. There are also precious collections of native orchids, cacti and manicured bonsai.
The zoo is home to nearly 1,000 animals of 125 species, including all the usual suspects: elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, and African savannah hoof stock such as zebras and antelope. The primate domains are particularly popular, with their chimpanzees, orangutans, macaques, gibbons, langurs and doucs. There are dedicated flamingo and butterfly gardens, a mini-waterpark and a redeveloped children’s playground with a Ferris wheel and roller coaster.
I don’t always see what everyone else sees. I seek out the rhinoceros, knowing each time that its species will not survive on this planet very much longer. I’m fascinated by the feral cats that cling close to the elephant enclosure. I’m concerned when I see that the gate to the captive home of the Indochinese tiger — a notorious man-eater, of course — has been left wide open. I’m curious if the fortune tellers plying their trade beside a small café can tell me where the tiger has gone, or if its diet might include feral cats.
Eyes of a Child
On my most recent visit, I was accompanied by my friend Phong Lan and her 10-year-old son, Huy. Being joined by a bright and well-behaved child, of course, added a whole new dimension to my appreciation of the zoo.
Unsurprisingly for a lad of his age and gender, Huy liked the reptile house. Black cobras and gray-green iguanas were his favorites. A dozen large crocodiles, chomping at the bit near the children’s playground, were another pick. Sun bears, wild boars, hyenas and the rare forest-dwelling binturong also drew Huy’s attention.
I don’t think he even missed the Indochinese tiger, indigenous and endangered, as there were a couple of Indian white tigers in another enclosure. Mostly, he liked eating lunch — sitting near the elephants enjoying his mom’s homemade sandwiches with carrots and cucumbers.
History Comes to Life
Within the zoo’s boundaries are two other buildings of note. The National Hung King Ancestor Temple was built in 1926 to honor Vietnamese soldiers who fought and died for France during World War I. It was rededicated in 1955, after the ouster of the French colonists, to the memory of Vietnam’s founding dynasty.
You can learn about the Hung kings, and so much more, just across the quadrangle in the Museum of History. Built in 1929 as a museum of Asian art, it was expanded in 1975 to showcase Vietnamese history. That was more than 4,800 years after the Hung kings’ progenitors — Dragon Lord Lac and his consort, Fairy Âu Cơ— sired 100 sons from a single egg sac, as legend would have it. Their Bronze Age leadership peaked with the Dong Son culture of the 8th to 2nd centuries B.C
My young friend Huy learns his country’s heritage in school. He showed great interest in many of the interpretive exhibits in the museum. Much of the history is represented as great land and sea battles against China and other invaders like Hindu Champa. But there are also engaging displays of stone and bronze sculptures and wood carvings from Champa and the 2nd Century A.D. Óc Eo culture of the Mekong Delta region.
I love a good museum. I love the zoo even more. I will certainly return again.
When COVID-19 reared its ugly head in early 2020, the educator-author began to scramble for other means of supporting his lifestyle. He liked to eat: Why not become a chef?
It only took the arrival of a little thing like coronavirus to send me scurrying for the economic security of my other profession.
I’m not talking about teaching. When COVID-19 made its first landfall in Vietnam early last year, schools closed. Like everyone else, the kids stayed home. My primary employer, APAX Leaders, made a spirited effort to keep its English tutors in the fold, but a limited schedule of online Zoom classes barely paid the rent.
I didn’t look for acting work. I had learned my lesson a couple of months earlier (insert LOL emoji). My boldness on a video-production set was rewarded with an offer to falsify my passport and travel under an assumed identity from Beijing to Moscow. I wonder how that would have worked out in the time of COVID.
Music wouldn’t be my ticket to financial freedom. While I do enjoy tickling the ivories from time to time, my facility on a keyboard was rusty — to say the least — when I played for drinks and tips at the Casablanca (“Play it, Sam”) restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. I was not the same piano man as in my younger years, when I took requests in seedy establishments across the Pacific from Hawaii to New Zealand, and even the Cook Islands.
I wasn’t looking to be a carpenter (Sweden) or waiter (France) or salesman (Australia) or bartender (Amsterdam) or any number of other peripatetic hats I have worn over the years. (A ski instructor in the tropics?) Writing? Had I wanted to be a rich man, I would have become a stockbroker instead of a journalist.
No, I’m talking about the refuge of a restaurant. I could be a chef. Everybody’s got to eat, right?
Introducing Adam Angst
I threw that premise in the direction of my close friend Adam, a British-born Australian of part-Burmese heritage who lives a life of sustained anxiety. I call him Adam Angst.
Adam may be the one person I know in Vietnam who doesn’t eat. But he can cook. He may be skinnier than the rice noodles in phở bò tái nam, but the man knows his way around a kitchen, whether the culinary goal is linguine alla vongole or foie gras torchon or prime beef with a sauce of witchety grubs.
I told him that I had made friends with the manager of a struggling Ho Chi Minh City restaurant, the Oia Castle on Tôn Thât Dam, who was “between chefs,” and that we as resident foreigners might be compensated for our assistance in a time when our own English-teaching jobs were imperiled.
“Well, I don’t know, mate,” he predictably responded. “I haven’t cooked, except at home, for a long time now. And what’s the menu like? I mean, is it something I’ve made before? And how is the kitchen set up? I don’t want to slip and get hurt. I don’t have insurance. Can they insure me?”
From my perspective, I saw a chance to try something new (again). A risk to be measured and explored. As the late Anthony Bourdain wrote: “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters, or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food for me has always been an adventure.”
My résume? Well, I’ve had a lot to say about food over the years. Many would say I’ve said too much. As a former senior editor for France’s famous Michelin guides and a restaurant critic in America’s Pacific Northwest for 17 years, I know what I like and what I don’t. I like my tuna seared, my steak medium rare, my enchiladas washed down with Don Julio. I’m not much for offal (it’s awful), and I don’t like mắm tôm, that wretched purple fermented shrimp sauce so popular in Vietnamese cooking.
I do have basic culinary skills. I began chopping carrots and onions in restaurants when I was 21. (I was a late starter.) Four continents have tolerated my knife-wielding presence in their kitchens. I even worked in a catering kitchen in my home state of Oregon, U.S.A., for several months prior to my travel to Vietnam in 2019.
What was the new adventure to be? I was setting sail for the eastern Mediterranean, for the Aegean isle of Santorini. And it was all Greek to me.
Souvlaki. Dolmathes. Tabouleh. Avgolemono soup. I was not prepared for Hellenic cuisine. Neither, for that matter, was Adam Angst.
The Oia Castle restaurant was an unlikely retreat on any account. Tucked behind a double row of traditional Vietnamese market stalls on an urban lane barely wide enough for pedestrians to share with motorbikes, it had a Levantine charm rarely seen in Southeast Asia. Three narrow stories high, painted white as chalk and trimmed in cerulean blue to resemble the famous domes of Santorini island, it was as attractive a restaurant as one might ever accidentally stumble upon.
I’ll let Adam take it for a second here: “So, yeah, mate, I reckon if you were a Western bloke walking down that street, and then you come to this oasis among all the chaos on the street, and you walk in and, yeah, it was very appealing to the eye. And the menu was really quite nice.
“But the condition and safety of the kitchen — bloody oath, mate! I’ve worked in plenty of kitchens before, and safety is always paramount to me. Oia Castle had no medical box; no fire extinguishers, either. There were oil spills on the floor, which had no proper slip mat; no mat at all, for that matter.
“And the stove, mate. You cooked on it, you know. It hadn’t been cleaned in, well, who knows? Months? Years? It was about an inch thick in grease and cooking spills. A real fire hazard.”
Lucy in the sky
The general manager was a lovely young woman who went by the name of Lucy. She tried hard to succeed, but she was in denial about her lack of relative experience in the food-and-beverage industry. With patronage curtailed by the pandemic, she was severely overmatched. Tourist traffic had disappeared. Morning, noon and night, Lucy sat at her laptop in the restaurant, crunching numbers, posting employment ads, tap-tapping emails to potential cooks, servers and other would-be staff. She even interviewed marketing agencies to help promote the restaurant. Without a product, however, that was a dead end.
This was where I made my entrance. I nearly tripped over the Oia Castle signboard one day as I traipsed down Tôn Thât Dam buying vegetables, rice and freshly butchered pork to cook at home. Bars were closed due to corona fears, and everyone was wearing a protective mask. But a handful of restaurants remained open during the lockdown, often with little or no staff.
Lucy did have a young man in the kitchen when I dropped in to say hello and place an order for falafel and a baklava dessert. To his credit, the youth, a student at a local culinary school, did a creditable job on both dishes. As I ate, the manager sat opposite me and, learning that I had some knowledge of the business, expressed her frustrations. I offered a sympathetic ear.
I gave Adam a shout soon thereafter. A week later he joined me for lunch at Oia Castle. Lucy wanted to tickle our brains for ideas on how to improve her business. Our first recommendation: Find a chef who will stay. In the long run, temporary fixes aren’t going to cut it.
Lucy herself prepared our pita plate, with hummus and baba ghanouj, along with a tangy horiatiki salad. She had no chef today. And just as she was lamenting that fact, the emergency bell rang. Someone had called Grab, the local taxi and food-delivery service, and placed a substantial order — one that had to be filled in 30 minutes or the food charge would be forfeited.
“Oh my god!” Lucy shuddered. “Can you guys cook?”
“And all of a sudden,” a retrospective Adam shrieked, “we were employed!”
Starting from scratch
Adam and I dutifully marched into Oia Castle’s kitchen, having only previously taken a quick glance inside. Starting from absolute scratch — with no knowledge of inventory, organization, or even if there were clean skillets in the cupboard (whew!) — we set to work on a takeout order of caprese salad, spanakopita, moussaka and pizza.
The stress-free end of the order was the Italian-style caprese: Simple if the ingredients were in stock. Beefsteak tomatoes, check. Modena balsamic vinegar, check. Basil leaves, fresh from the market this morning. Buffalo mozzarella … now we had a problem. I substituted much softer, creamier burrata. It was less practical to slice for layering with the tomatoes and basil, but it served the purpose.
Spanakopita, or spinach-feta pie, calls for the preparation of leafy filo dough. Moussaka requires béchamel sauce and an hour of baking. Without prep cooks to clock an early shift, neither could be turned around in a half hour. I began to work on both on both dishes, cognizant that I was doing so for a future order. Lucy, meanwhile, convinced the hungry caller to settle instead for a double order of kofta, or lamb meatballs. That was Adam’s call to action: He made a spicy tomato sauce with garlic and chili powder that could also be adapted for the margarita pizza with Kalamata olives.
We met the deadline. Lucy wanted us to run the operation. I could be executive chef. Adam offered his services as back-of-house manager, so long as he was provided an insurance policy and a budget for basic safety concerns. Clearly, in this economic climate, that wasn’t about to happen.
I did return to Oia Castle a few more times, accepting payment in only meals and wine. I wrote some menus and recipes, shopped in the local street markets, sharpened my Mediterranean cooking skills, and learned a little bit more why success in the food-and-beverage business is so hard to achieve, whether you’re in Vietnam or the United States.
My career as a chef was an amusing hobby for a slow time in my pandemic-enforced life schedule. When Vietnam’s national government reopened schools after a few weeks, I departed. Now, a year later, I notice that Oia Castle has been replaced on Tôn Thât Dam by an establishment serving upscale Vietnamese cuisine. I wish Lucy well. I hope the new restaurant is better financed to get through these difficult times.
Finding a comfortable home away from home is always something special for a traveler. Ong Lan beach on Phu Quoc island offered not just one, but two.
Ong Lan beach at Mango Bay, on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, is not a place you’re likely to be directed by most travel agents. To find it, you’ll have to stray from the beaten path, but not in the manner of an exclusive resort community (although it has a couple of those, too). It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Soft rock. Classic rock.
The long sandy beach, better known to locals than tourists, has a view down the Gulf of Thailand coast to the fishing pier at Duong Dong town, 6 km (3.8 miles) south. At its north end, the willowy needles of ironwood trees drift and land upon a rocky point where young children pursue tiny crabs skittering through tidepools, as their caretakers salute the setting sun with graceful twilight dances.
The neighbors are friendly. Five hundred meters inland, small cafés serve peach tea, avocado smoothies, egg coffee and, sometimes, weasel coffee. (More on that in a future blog.) A trio of Thai-Cambodian sisters do a brisk business in pad thai noodles, som tum papaya salads and pleasant conversation. Striking Thu’an, the proprietor of a souvenir shop (the tourist trade is slow during the pandemic), welcomes strangers to gatherings in her home. Everyone has a story to tell.
Mango Bay Resort
Extravagant accommodations are nice, to be sure, but a few days at the Four Seasons can get old quickly. The infinity pool, the concierge desk, the room-service dinners, the specialty spa treatments, the barkeep with a frozen smile pouring Ketel One on the rocks, cease to be exceptional when they become commonplace.
Ong Lan’s brand of luxury is more my style. The Mango Bay Resort conceals 44 bungalows and other guest rooms in a frangipani-scented forest that slopes gently to the beach. The design reflects the architects’ commitment to conservation and environmental sustainability. Solar panels provide much of the energy. There is no air-conditioning, no television, no wifi in the rooms. Off-site parking and shuttle vehicles assure traffic-free relaxation.
Mango Bay has two restaurants that serve regional and international specialties and cocktails. I enjoyed the chef’s original chicken curry with red rice as much as I did an Australian beef steak. Many weekends, a Filipino band performs everything from the Beatles to Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.” The resort has a full-service spa, morning yoga classes, a full roster of beach sports and equipment, and even a sand volleyball court.
Tropical Garden Homestay
But it was the Tropical Garden Homestay that stole my traveler’s heart. In the heart of Ong Lan township opposite the elementary school, this simple pension has everything a vagabond could want, and then some — beginning with the gracious host family. Vu and Linh made it happen with their 8-year-old son Huynh, an integral part of the restaurant crew, and 3-year-old Khanh (“Candy”), whose main function was entertaining guests.
Vu told me the couple came from central Vietnam about 10 years ago. After studying tourism and hospitality at university, they traveled around the country in search of a place to settle and build. They found it in Phu Quoc. Now their compound includes three private, air-conditioned guest rooms, a five-bunk dormitory and a small house to accommodate families.
The Yellow House Restaurant, serving both Western and Vietnamese food (with Linh’s seafood specialties), is built like a beach cabana, framed in bamboo with a thatched roof. Phong Lan and I enjoyed taking our morning coffee in the adjacent garden courtyard before heading out for a day of exploring or relaxing on the beach. When we did depart to discover more of Phu Quoc’s island-wide plethora of pleasures, Vu’s in-house travel agency arranged for our tickets when necessary (as for the Hon Thom Nature Park cable car) and provided us with a motorbike for backroads excursions.
The island’s north
We had already explored Phu Quoc from its midpoint south, from the main city of Duong Dong to the southernmost point at An Thò’i. Now we pointed our directional needle to the north.
More than half of northern Phu Quoc island was sheltered (one hopes forever) from 21st-century blemishes when 130-square-mile Phu Quoc National Park was proclaimed a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2010. Its mountainous spine, cloaked with broadleaf and evergreen forest, is home to a unique flora and such rarely seen wildlife as long-tailed macaques, silver langurs, slow lories and hornbills. Khu Rung Nguyen Sinh Forest Reserve, which can be reached via dirt roads from the gateway village of Ganh Dau, offers hiking, camping and memorable bird-watching. A hiking trail is being completed to the summit of Mount Chua, at 603 meters (1,978 feet) the island’s highest.
But Lan and I were greeted by something very different than wilderness on our ride north. About 20 minutes beyond Ong Lan, the VinPearl company is engaged in a massive real-estate development project, at the heart of which is the VinWonders amusement park — Vietnam’s largest. Covering more than 120 acres, the park could be a Disney clone with its castle-like, medieval European façade. Within, I learned, are over 100 rides and attractions, including a walk-through aquarium, a water park, roller coasters, restaurants and an amphitheater for live shows.
Nearby, more than 2,000 wild animals of 130 species are on exhibit at the VinPearl Safari Park, Vietnam’s largest zoo/wildlife sanctuary, along with 400 types of indigenous plants. The VinPearl venture also includes its original VinPearl Phu Quoc Resort and the Vinmec International Hospital. Rapidly taking its place in the grand scheme is the VinPearl Grand World, whose preliminary models display a strong resemblance to many of the great capital cities of Europe.
Had we wanted Europe, we would have flown to Paris. We preferred to pause for refreshing shells of natural coconut water at Ganh Dau, the fishing village at the head of Phu Quoc island. From here, we could look beyond a small fleet of brightly painted fishing vessels to the border isles of neighboring Cambodia, so near yet so far. In these times of the COVID-19 virus, international crossings are tightly guarded.
Vietnam’s tropical resort island of Phu Quoc is a great place to escape the city and engage with nature … so long as rapid tourism development doesn’t overwhelm the laid-back ambience.
The view from the windows of the world’s longest over-the-sea cable car was magnificent.
From our ephemeral perch, more than 500 feet above the Gulf of Thailand, Phong Lan and I looked down upon the fishing village of An Thó’i at the southern tip of Phu Quoc island. Hundreds of commercial vessels, their red decks sharply contrasting with the turquoise and aquamarine of the water, crowded close to a rocky shoreline where coconut palms and mango trees drooped over modern villas. Soon we soared above heavily wooded isles reachable only by sea, the tin roofs of their traditional homes sloping toward golden beaches and more boats moored in a crescent-shaped harbor.
We were on our way to the Hon Thom Nature Park, a fledgling tourist development on an archipelago of new visitor attractions. Opened in February 2018 by SunWorld, one of Vietnam’s hospitality leaders, the cable car extends 4.9 miles (7.9 km), hop-skipping two smaller islets in a 15-minute journey to Hon Thom. We had boarded the 30-passenger aerial tram in a grand Romanesque terminal beside Accor’s Mediterranean-style Premier Village lodging complex, still in development.
Lan and I spent several hours in the park before returning to the real world at An Thó’i. We admired the landscaping and architecture on Hon Thom isle, only 5 km long, and wondered at the Disneyesque features of the rides and slides (Medusa’s Trap, Poseidon’s Revenge) in the Aquatopia water park. But we saved our greatest pleasure for Bai Trao beach, whose graceful palms swayed above hammocks on a sandy strip framed by coral outcrops.
When travelers set their sights on tropical islands, they don’t often think of Vietnam. But Phu Quoc island is, indeed, one of the gems of this Southeast Asian country. Despite an onslaught of luxury hotel and theme-park development at both the south and north ends of the island, Phu Quoc (pronounced fook woke) retains a laid-back ambience across most of its 31-mile (50-km) length.
Geographically, Phu Quoc is often lumped together with the Mekong Delta provinces of southernmost Vietnam. But it’s well beyond the Mekong — so far west, in fact, that it’s closer to the Cambodian mainland than to the nearest Vietnamese port. (There’s regular ferry service to Phu Quoc from both Ha Tien and Rach Gia, but most visitors arrive at the international airport, in the center of the island.) As broad as 16 miles (25 km) in the north, tapering to a mere 2 miles (3.2 km) in the south, Phu Quoc is home to only about 180,000 permanent residents. Tourism, of course, multiplies that number.
Nearly half of the people live in Duong Dong, the only town of size. Midway down the west coast facing the Gulf of Thailand, it’s a lively community with many two- and three-star resort hotels, bustling day and night markets, and some outstanding seafood restaurants.Bún quậy is a local specialty food, a shrimp-and-noodle soup most famously enjoyed at Kiên-Xây, beside the harbor. Nearby, atop convoluted Dinh Cau Rock, a small Buddhist temple doubles as a lighthouse; devotees pray to Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea. If you concentrate, your nose might detect Vietnam’s most famous fish sauce (nu’oc maam) factory. (Personally, I prefer the smell of the notorious durian fruit to the aroma of this pungent condiment.)
I didn’t stay in Duong Dong, instead choosing a homestay in the Ong Lan community about 6 miles (10 km) north. I’ll tell you more about that serendipitous choice in my next blog.
Exploring the island
I spent my first full day on Phu Quoc simply relaxing. By my second day, I was ready to explore. I hired a freelance guide, Hong, born and raised on the island, to take me under her wing (on the back of her motorbike) for a full day of simply tripping around.
Our first stop was Long Beach, locally known as Bai Tru’ong. Extending south more than 12 miles (20 km) from Duong Dong, it was one of the earliest parts of the island to be developed by luxury lodging groups. Hotels, many of them still under construction, are widely spaced along the golden sands, leaving a long sandy trek from one to the next — although they do beckon visitors to sip late-afternoon cocktails while watching often-spectacular sunsets upon the Gulf of Thailand.
One Long Beach highlight, not far from Duong Dong town, is the Ngoc Hien Pearl Farm. Established in cooperation with Japanese investors in 1994, this roadside attraction welcomes first-time visitors to its basement-level museum. Docents describe traditional pearl farming, recall the industry’s ancient history, and display undersea artifacts recovered by pearl vessels around the world, including Mediterranean amphorae and fossil giant clam shells. In a sterile laboratory, technicians demonstrate the surgical process of gently removing a cultivated pearl from an oyster. The upper floor of Ngoc Hien is an expansive jewelry store, featuring all manner of pearl necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings and more — in colors that range from “pearly white” to black, pink and golden yellow.
Crossing the island, we dropped into the fishing village of Hàm Ninh, nestled at the foot of a forested mountain ridge that extends up most of Phu Quoc’s eastern shore. A large flower market captured my attention during our brief visit. Village residents are famous island-wide for their local cuisine (including sea cucumber soup, boiled flower crab and foraged wild mu shrooms) and their medicinal drinks, made with seahorses, ginseng and seaweed.
Prayers and white sand
A highlight of our day was Ho Quoc Pagoda, a Zen monastery and the largest Buddhist temple on Phu Quoc. Erected in 2011-2012, its original ỉronwood architecture and stone carvings — including a dragon built into a staircase and a large marble Buddha — are at once classical and contemporary. Playful wind chimes make the bell tower a wonderful place for serene meditation, especially seated facing the sea with one’s back to the mountain.
Tourism promoters make a strong case for Bai Sao, the nearest beach to the temple, as Phu Quoc’s most beautiful because of íts fine white sand and clear blue water. Sao are starfish, and there’s a reason Bai Sao has been dubbed Starfish Bay: At slack tides on calm evenings, thousands of starfish move from deeper water toward shore under the protective cloak of dusk. Resort properties along Bai Sao are mostly moderately priced. A short distance further south, also on the east coast, Bai Khem (Ice Cream Beach) has become a luxury destination. Here you’ll find resorts like the J.W. Marriott and Kem Premiere, whose casitas flow across the isthmus of an adjacent peninsula.
The tranquility of the beaches and the pagoda are a sharp contrast to the shock of a visit to the ìnfamous Phu Quoc Prison, only a couple of miles inland from Bai Khem. Built by the French in 1949, it was declared a national historical site and opened to the public in 1995. But in the 46 intervening years, more than 40,000 Viet Cong soldiers, sympathizers and politicians who stood in opposition to French and American occupational forces were imprisoned here. Today the museum’s exhibits graphically depict the barbaric tortures administered, including electrocution, crucifixion and food deprivation.
At the south end of Phu Quoc, the colorful fishing port of An Thó’i is the gateway to the Hon Thom cable car and a center for fishing, diving and snorkeling expeditions. Hong and I took a look around, but didn’t stay. That would be left for my return visit to the nature park with Phong Lan several days later.
Ho Chi Minh City’s most profoundly emotional collection is displayed at its War Remnants Museum, where visitors learn more than they wanted about what is called the American War.
Pham Anh Dao, 70, gestured toward his left foot, or what should have been his left foot. Now, there was merely a knob, a long-ago memory of a field medic’s emergency handiwork. The American War had already ended, Dao told me, when he stepped on a land mine in the jungles of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. He was lucky. He survived.
Dao’s story is hardly unique. The war that the United States waged in Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1975 took a terrible toll. Yes, more than 47,000 Americans died; but so did over 1.5 million Vietnamese, including at least 350,000 civilians. (Casualty figures are estimates.) And those are only the dead.
In most of the rest of the world, it is not widely recognized that this is a war that has kept on giving — or, more accurately, kept on taking away. (Known in the U.S. as the Vietnam War, it is the American War in Vietnam.) The conflict left a legacy of unexploded ordnance as well as hereditary illness and birth defects caused by Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants.
A Day at the Museum
For me, that’s the biggest takeaway from a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (Another War Remnants Museum is in Hanoi.) I consider it the single most important urban attraction for Western tourists.
Located just a couple of streets north of Independence Palace, where South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam in 1975, the Ho Chi Minh City museum is a rude reminder to Western visitors that the Americans didn’t play nice. During a war, of course, no one plays nice, and the account rendered here is an undeniably biased one. But it’s hard to look at graphic photographs of atrocities like the notorious My Lai massacre or the Agent Orange attacks, whose victims still haunt Vietnam’s streets.
Visitors arrive at the museum through a curated display of captured U.S. tanks, warplanes and artillery (including an M132 flamethrower) in the museum yard, presented side-by-side with Vietnamese equipment. Nearby, a replica prison recalls such punishments as a notorious isolation chamber (the “tiger cage”) and a guillotine.
War Crimes and Chemicals
Exhibits within the museum are on three floors, with interpretive signs in English, French and Vietnamese. On the ground floor are well-documented testimonies by U.S. servicemen who could not keep silent about war atrocities after they returned home.
One level up, some of the frightening images that illustrate “War Crimes” may be all too familiar to older Americans who recall the carnage of My Lai, Son My and Pleiku. A collection of U.S. Army weapons is displayed for its role in the “persecution, torture, murder and massacre; bombing innocent peoples’ homes, villages, hospitals, schools, causing casualty and damage to Vietnamese people.”
Other rooms on the same floor describe, in words and pictures, the disabling efffects of Agent Orange and related dioxins. Panels of photographs looked like something from a freak show. As many as 3 million Vietnamese suffered disfiguring wounds or illnesses as a result of exposure to the chemicals. Third and even fourth generations of victims still show genetic disabilities; the International Red Cross estimates that as many as 1 million people may still have health problems as a result of the dumping of Agent Orange prior to 1975.
On the top floor of the museum, an informative display labeled “Historical Truths” lays out the roots of the American War, beginning with communist Vietnam’s 1945 declaration of independence from colonial France and its subsequent war with the Europeans. That ended with a final victory in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, on the border of Laos in North Vietnam. The U.S. almost immediately involved itself by providing financial aid and military advisers to the democratic government of South Vietnam. The Americans crossed the thin red line when Marines landed at Da Nang in 1965. The next 10 years were ugly.
In “Requiem,” I found a collection of more than 200 photos by (and of) 133 war correspondents from 11 countries who died doing their jobs in Vietnam. As a journalist myself, I found this particularly poignant. Indeed, in my earliest years in the business, in the early 1970s, I had brief conversations with a couple of the men pictured here.
An exhibit on unexploded ordnance brought me back to my conversation with Pham Anh Dao. Since the war ended 46 years ago, the detonation of land mines, bombs, mortars and grenades has killed more than 40,000 people in Vietnam and adjacent Cambodia and Laos. The ordnance still takes several hundred lives a year — often innocent people planting rice or tilling their gardens.
Gratefully, the U.S. government has spent more than $65 million in the past 20-plus years to clear ordnance, and nonprofit organizations like Seattle-based PeaceTrees Vietnam have done their part. But rural areas, especially the central provinces, may remain hazardous for many more decades. I’ll be especially cautious when I wander from the beaten path, lest I suffer an injury like my friend Dao … or worse.