54. Stepping Back: Malay Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poppies in Penang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lion City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going jalan jalan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

53. My Year in Photos: Fifteen Favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

52. On Dating (Chapter Three): Enlightenment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On romance:

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

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

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

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

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

On a woman’s role:

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

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

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

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

On sex:

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

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

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

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

On giving attention:

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

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

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

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

On expressing emotion:

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

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

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

CAROL: Facial expressions. Body language.

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

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

ME: But it’s very ambiguous.

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

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

CAROL: Not secrets. Just less direct.

ME: Avoiding questions is being less direct?

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

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

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

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

CAROL: And not good at it at all!

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

CAROL: You need to find the correct hidden messages.

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

CAROL: Yes.

Square One

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

But, oh, yeah, the relationship.

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All you need is love

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

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

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

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

Uptown girl

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

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

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

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

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

Society’s child

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

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

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

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

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

Skin care au naturel. (JGA photo)

Avocado dreams

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

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

Was there a time when her youthful dreams were shattered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Depositphotos

50. The Waiting to Be Vaccinated Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49. Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

48. Stepping Back: North Sumatra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruisin’ for a bruisin’

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

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

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

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

Roofs like buffalo horns

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

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

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

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

Zen and (I forgot)

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

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

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

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

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

An ancient crater lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just pay the men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

47. Vietnam and China: No Love Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrogance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

46. Vũng Tàu Getaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twin Peaks

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

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

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

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

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

Something fishy

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

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

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

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

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

Over the waves

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

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

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

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

45. Dear Vietnam: 10 Things I Love About You

Count on your fingers or toes. Here are two handfuls of reasons why Vietnam is a great country to be living in.

Who doesn’t love pho? Vietnam’s famous beef noodle soup makes a great meal. (JGA photo)

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.

Giant prawns are the best of the best when it comes to fresh seafood. (JGA photo)
  • 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.
A young woman squats in her family’s kitchen to stuff bitter melon with pork. (photo courtesy Nhat Nguyen)
  • 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.
Young people gather at a coffee shop in Ho Chi MInh City’s vibrant District 1. (JGA photo)
  • 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.
The author’s US$300/month home in Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)
  • 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!”
The author’s first week of teaching in Saigon in December 2019. (JGA photo)
  • 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.
Nothing but motorbikes on the street during rush hour in Saigon’s Go Vap district. (JGA photo)

Dak Lak’s night market offers a plethora of fruit. (JGA photo)

44. Stepping Back: Yogyakarta

The author reflects on his long-ago visit to central Java, especially the great religious monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan and the vibrant culture.

Volcanic Mount Merapi rises behind the city of Yogyakarta, Java. (iStock photo by Dialga 109)

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.

After decades of restoration, ancient ruins still surround the Prambanan Temple. (iStock photo by Sadagus)

Hindu Prambanan

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.

Nine stacked platforms comprise Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. (iStock photo by Pawopa3336)

Buddhist Borobudur

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.

An intricate Javanese batik design (Freepik photo by Ginanperdano)

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.

Wayang kulit puppets are made from water-buffalo hide and horns. (iStock photo by JokoSL)

About Yogya

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.

A traditional Yogyakarta feast can mean a lot more food than just fried chicken. (iStock photo by MielPhoto)
The Buddhist stupas of Borobudur frame Mount Merapi at sunrise. (iStock photo by pigprox)

43. They’re Not Like Us, Bill (Part 2)

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.”

The author thinks carefully, writes cautiously, and expresses himself honestly. (lan Anh photo)

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.

Young English students at APAX Leaders are taught to ask questions at an early age. (JGA photo)

Curiosity

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?”

Saying “thank you” in Vietnamese is taught on YouTube. (Learning Vietnamese Online photo)

Gratitude

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.

“Om Shanti.” Lan Anh prays for peace after yoga exercises. (JGA photo)

The author backs himself into a corner on a one-way staircase. (Lan Anh photo)

42. They’re Not Like Us, Bill (Part 1)

The author finds himself challenged to understand and accept the values and mindset of his Vietnamese hosts, without surrendering his own Western standards.

Vietnamese gather to eat and drink, somehow demonstrating their manliness. (JGA photo)

“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.

Teenage English students at APAX Leaders are taught character traits along with language. (JGA photo)

Seven traits

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.                                                                                                                                  

The character traits taught to students by APAX Leaders include social intelligence. (JGA photo)

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.

Charity to flood victims represents compassion to many Vietnamese. (Help Center photo by Thông Tin Chính Phủ)

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 family that rides together has a bond that will never be broken. (JGA photo)

Next: Curiosity and gratitude

Bill is puzzled by the Vietnamese mindset. (JGA photo)

41. The Lady Buddha

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.

A monumental statue of Quan Âm towers above the Laughing Buddha at Da Nang’s Linh Ứng pagoda. (JGA photo)

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.

The 67-meter statue of Quan Âm can be seen from miles away. (JGA photo)

Lady Madonna

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.

Quan Âm at the Hong Phuoc pagoda in Buôn Ma Thuột (JGA photo)

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.

Sakyamuni Buddha meditates beneath a bodhi tree in Tay Ninh. (JGA photo)

Bodhisattva

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.

Worshippers pay homage to a reclining Buddha in Tay Ninh. (JGA photo)

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.

Temple attendants clean the courtyard of the Chùa Sắc Tứ Khải Đoan pagoda in Buôn Ma Thuột (JGA photo)

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.

A supplicant offers prayers to Quan Âm at Chùa Sắc Tứ Khải Đoan. (JGA photo)

40. Stepping Back: Bali 1976

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.

Pura Ulun Danu at twilight. (Simon Hack/Dreamstime photo)

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.

A quiet day on Kuta Beach. (Simone Bortignon/Dreamstime photo)

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.

The frenzied kecak dance is a crowd pleaser. (Wayan Suadnyana/WIRA photo)

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.

Mountain time

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.

The Besakih temple miraculously survived the 1963 eruption of Gunung Agung. (Shunga Shanga/Dreamstime photo)

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.)

A gong musician leads a gamelan orchestra in Ubud. (Evan Spiler/Dreamstime photo)

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.

Directionally challenged

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.

The author followed primitive paths like these around rice terraces. (C Noval/Dreamstime photo)

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.”

Volcanic Gunung Agung rises nearly 10,000 feet above the isle of Bali. (David Mylivec/Dreamstime photo)
Picturesque rice terraces dominate the landscape. (Anna Dudko/Dreamstime photo)

39. Breakfast of Champions

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.

A team of cooks prepare a morning meal street-side in Saigon’s District 6. (JGA photo)

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.

Pork sausage and bean sprouts accompany rolled rice flour in a bánh cuốn. (JGA photo)

‘Rolled cake’

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.

A street vendor makes savory crepes called bánh xèo in Saigon’s District 9. (JGA photo)

‘Sizzling cake’

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.

Shrimp paste and cakes made of rice and tapioca flours add to the savory goodness of bánh bèo. (JGA photo)

‘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.

Homemade salmon porridge can be a delicious start to the day. (JGA photo)

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 p-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.

Morning, noon or night, there’s never a best time to enjoy phở. (JGA photo)
Bánh cuốn is a delicious meal that is rarely sold after 10:30 a.m. (JGA photo)

38. On Speaking Vietnamese

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.

Duolingo is one of the most popular of many online programs for learning Vietnamese. (JGA photo)

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.

English is the most widely spoken foreign language in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh district. (JGA photo)

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.

Whether the cuisine is Japanese or Vietnamese, local language knowledge is key to conversation. (JGA photo)

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.

Unless you read Vietnamese, it won’t be obvious that this text is from an air-conditioner user’s guide. (JGA photo)

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.

The dialect spoken at Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge is strikingly different from either Ha Noi or Saigon. (JGA photo)

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.

An ability to communicate is an essential piece of building a cross-cultural friendship. (Thuy Dung Nguyen photo)

37. A Taste of the Tropics

Some of Vietnam’s finest fruits are nearly unknown in the West. Dragonfruit, mangosteen, sugar apple and rambutan will please nearly every palate.

Dragonfruit is stacked high at a street market in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 9. (JGA photo)

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.

The seed-speckled flesh of the dragonfruit can be either deep red or white. (JGA photo)

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!

Ripe mangosteens are about the size of tangerines or tomatoes, and have a thick purple skin. (JGA photo)

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.

The sweet, segmented fruit of the mangosteen has a flavor similar to the raspberry. (JGA photo)

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.

The sugar apple, or sweetsop, is a transplanted native of Latin America and the West Indies. (JGA photo)

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.

Custard-like in flavor, the sugar apple has a handful of seeds embedded in its flesh. (JGA photo)

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.

Depending upon its degree of ripeness, the rambutan is a red-colored nut with “messy hair.” (JGA photo)

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.

Rambutan and mangosteen take center stage in the public market in the town of Hoi An. (JGA photo)

36. A Father’s Day Tribute

Memories of a son who was born in Singapore, raised in Seattle, and who would have been at home anywhere. The melody lingers on.

Erik, at center in “12th man” jersey, celebrates the Seattle Seahawks’ 2013 Super Bowl victory with friends.

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.

Einar Anderson holds his 2-year-old grandson Erik in 1986. (JGA photo)

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.

Erik was laid to rest in north Seattle in 2016. (JGA photo)

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.

Erik and his father at a Seattle Mariners game, spring 2015. (JGA photo)

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.

Erik with his mother, Linda Carlock, in Hawaii, February 2016.

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.

High school friends: John Meyers, Erik and Neal Benyak, circa 2007.

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.”

Erik gives Chris (Channel) Herrera a lift, circa 2012.

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!

Eric (Web) Weber and Erik (Beefer) Anderson deliver tunes at the Q club on Capitol Hill in Seattle, June 1, 2013.

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.

Seattle trance music lovers (in Mad Cow T-shirts) paid tribute to Erik at Club Contour in July 2016. (JGA photo)

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.

Erik married his high-school sweetheart, Kim Chan, in Hawaii in February 2016. (JGA photo)


35. Durian: The King of Fruit

Rejected by outsiders for its pungent odor, the durian fruit is beloved across Southeast Asia. The thick husk hides a delightfully creamy pulp within.

Durian’s creamy fruit segments are cradled within an ominous hull. (JGA photo)

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!”

Because of its pungent aroma, durian is banned from many hotels as well as public transportation. (stock photo)

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.

Durian is sold next to dragonfruit in a Buon Ma Thuot supermarket. (JGA photo)

Singular aroma

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.

Probably no other fruit has the natural defenses of a durian. (JGA photo)

Garlic custard

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.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Orchard workers unload a crop of fresh durians. (JGA photo)
Durian in a marketplace, Dak Lak province, Vietnam (JGA photo)