31. A Home in the Highlands

A move from Ho Chi Minh City to the coffee capital of Buôn Ma Thuột, in the rural province of Đắk Lắk, brings relief from urban air pollution and big-city traffic.

Two young Ede women serve coffee at a Buon Ma Thuot resort. There are 44 ethnic minority groups in Dak Lak province. (JGA photo)

Those who know me best know that my two favorite beverages are red wine and coffee.

The tropical climate here in Vietnam is far from ideal for growing quality grapes and making good wine. There are a handful of wineries in the country, mainly in the hill town of DaLat, but the wine is frankly mediocre. Some of it, indeed, is produced from imported grapes supplemented with mulberry juice. Chilean wine is a widely available alternative, and some French table wines are reasonably priced. But I’m not in Vietnam for the wine.

Coffee is another story. Vietnamese coffee is some of the best in the world. And it is strong — some of my Viet friends insist they are “drunk” by their third cup. That could be one reason why coffee (ca phé) shops are even more ubiquitous here than pubs in Australia or England. Cafes are indeed community gathering places, social hubs for the young and not-so-young.

Vietnam produces and exports more coffee than any country in the world besides Brazil. And the heart of this nation’s coffee industry is Đắk Lắk province, a plateau region of the Central Highlands, 350km (220 miles) north of Ho Chi Minh City at an elevation of about 600 meters (2,000 feet) above sea level.

Coffee flowers were in full blossom in October in the Trung Nguyen Coffee Village. (JGA photo)

‘Father’s Village’

This is where I live now, in a small city — actually, a big country town of half a million people — called Buôn Ma Thuột. (Pronounced BOON-ma-toe, the name means “Thuot’s father’s village” in the indigenous Ede dialect.) A dozen weeks after moving here from Vietnam’s largest city, I could not be happier.

I have nothing against Ho Chi Minh City (SaiGòn). It’s the hub of the action in this Southeast Asian nation. Its many millions of minions certainly kept me entertained during my cultural readjustment. I was never wanting for company. The restaurants fed me well, leaving me fat and happy. I was spending big-city money on big-city women, breathing toxic big-city air and dodging hundreds of big-city motorbikes every time I crossed a street. But at heart, I’m just not a “Big City Boi,” per the lyrics of a recently popular Viet rap song.

A two-week, work-related visit to Đắk Lắk last October convinced me I could enjoy living outside of the population hub. At first, I worried that as an extrovert who did not yet speak much Vietnamese, I would feel confined in a solitary lifestyle.

But I weighed that concern against the positive aspects of a move: I would have a better quality of life, nearer to rivers, lakes and a national park famous for íts elephants. I would spend less money on food, drink and lodging; indeed, my employer, APAX Leaders, would boost my housing allowance. In addition, I felt my contributions as a teacher were more highly valued in this single small center than among the dozens in HCMC. In particular, I foresaw that I would have more time and inclination to devote to writing and to learning Vietnamese.

Home Sweet Home

I lived in a hotel for a month after my arrival before I found a suitable home. Unlike HCMC, there aren’t many full-service apartments suitable for short-term visitors in Buôn Ma Thuột, or “BMT,” as it is widely known. Indeed, the population of English-speaking foreigners in this city may be only two or three dozen. (I’ve met just two other Americans since I arrived.)

But good things come to those who wait. On the first of April, I moved into a new home, a three-bedroom, two-bath townhouse with a staircase to what is now my yoga studio. I pay a mere VND 6,000,000 (US$260) a month, plus another VND 600,000 (US$26) for electricity and water. That’s less than I paid for a one-room studio apartment in HCMC. And I need not commute across half the city to work; I just take an easy 15-minute walk.

The studio was a natural. Even before I found the house, I had begun seeing a yoga studio owner and Oriental medicine practitioner with whom I now spend most of my free time. Lan Anh and I met, appropriately, in a coffee shop. So much for my fear of being socially isolated.

Climbing the stairs to the yoga studio. (JGA photo)

Local Attractions

On no level does Buôn Ma Thuột have the drama of Ho Chi Minh City. It has beautiful parks but few grand monuments. Its two fine museums are devoted not to war, but to ethnic minorities and to coffee. Its restaurants are not focused on steaks, spaghetti, Thai curries or Indian vindaloo, but on beautiful renderings of traditional Vietnamese dishes such as nem nuong (fresh rolls with sausage), bánh bèo (savory rice cakes) and bún riêu (noodle soup with minced seafood).

At the heart of downtown Buôn Ma Thuột, where the highways from SaiGòn and Nha Trang meet, is the city’s most notable public artwork, the Victory Monument. It commemorates the North Vietnamese liberation of the city in early March 1975. The sculpture depicts soldiers atop a column rising above an arch that shelters a replica tank.

The Victory Monument is a central Buon Ma Thuot landmark. (JGA photo)

A short walk south is the Ethnographic Museum, whose history and biodiversity exhibitions are secondary to its introduction of Đắk Lắk’s minority populations. Forty-four ethnic groups are recorded in this province’s vast territory, which extends across more than 5,000 square miles from the border of Cambodia east. Most visible are the Ede (one of whom, H’Hen Niê, was a finalist in the 2018 Miss Universe pageant), the M’nong and the Jarai.

The Trung Nguyen coffee company’s new World Coffee Museum has two large exhibit halls paying tribute to the global heritage of coffee from ancient times. It expands on the beautifully landscaped grounds of the original Trung Nguyen Coffee Village in another part of the city. The city’s biennial Coffee Festival was unfortunately canceled in March 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I have also enjoyed the Kotam Ecotourism Destination, a bucolic suburban oasis with flowers and fruit trees, a manmade waterfall, a Buddhist temple, an Ede longhouse and funeral shelter, restaurants and coffee shops.

The Kotam Ecotourism Destination is a semi-natural urban oasis. (JGA photo)

One of my favorite places in Buôn Ma Thuột is the Khải Đoan Pagoda (Chùa Sắc Tứ Khải Đoan), a large Buddhist temple less than a half-mile from my house. Built in 1951 and since expanded, it features an 800-pound bronze bell, several halls of worship and a bonsai garden with Buddhist sculpture.

Out of Town

Beyond the city, the leading attraction is Yok Don National Park. Its 115,000 hectares (284,000 acres) of mainly dry deciduous forest comprise Vietnam’s single largest nature reserve. Elephants, muntjak deer, monkeys, and rarely seen leopards and red wolves are among the denizens of the park, which is bisected by the Srepok River — a key Mekong River tributary that flows westward into Cambodia. Most visitors approach through the small Ede town of Buon Don and sign up at the park office for guided treks or birdwatching hikes.

Asian elephants, with or without riders, ply the waterways of Yok Don National Park. (JGA photo)

Elsewhere in Đắk Lắk is large, shallow and reedy Lak Lake (Ho Lắk), popular among domestic tourists for its canoe rides to M’nong villages. I’m more impressed by the waterfalls that roll from the hills surrounding the plateau. Dray Nur Falls, 25 km (16 miles) south of BMT, has already lured me back: This cataract, 250 meters (more than 800 feet) long and 30 meters (100 feet) high, also has hiking trails to various natural attractions, including ancient caves and spooky exposed tree roots.

Spray from the thundering Dray Nur waterfall offers a cool respite on a tropical day. (JGA photo)
Fishermen on Ea Kao Lake cast their lines from platforms erected offshore. (JGA photo)
The elegant Khải Đoan Pagoda is in the heart of the city of Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)

30. Where the Wild Things Are

The Saigon Zoo & Botanical Gardens, one of the oldest such parks in the world, shares its urban campus with a wonderful history museum.

A leopard takes a midday nap in its enclosure at the Saigon Zoo. (JGA photo)

“Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo,” American singer-songwriter Paul Simon opined in the mid-1960s. “I do believe it. I do believe it’s true.”

I have always loved visiting the zoo. Beginning with some of my earliest memories at The Oregon Zoo in Portland, famous for its elephant breeding program, I have been thrilled to support zoological parks all over the world. From New York to San Diego, Tokyo to Melbourne — and even in lesser-known zoos such as Bukittinggi, Indonesia, and Colombo, Sri Lanka (remember The Life of Pi?) — I have been privileged to observe creatures that I will never see in the wild.

It was inevitable that during my residence in Ho Chi Minh City, I would become somewhat of a regular at the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Not only was it a short walk (about half a mile) from my apartment in the Binh Thanh District; it also offered an oasis of ample greenery within the concrete jungle of a city of 13 million people.

The view across Ben Nghe canal from Saigon Zoo includes Binh Thanh district and Landmark 81 tower. (JGA photo)

Spread across 50 acres on the south bank of the Thi Nghé canal in District 1, just above íts confluence with the Saigon River, the botanical garden opened in 1864, with its initial animal habitat completed the following year. That makes it the eighth-oldest, continually operating zoo on earth. Part of a French colonial building frenzy that also included the Ben Thanh Market, the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral and the central post office, it was nevertheless conceived from the start as a place to conserve native plants and to breed rare Asian animals. Today it has an added mission of providing environmental education.

And it shares its acreage with the Museum of History of Ho Chi Minh City, where visitors can learn a little about the 300,000-year history of Vietnam before Europeans and Americans got so unceremoniously involved.

An Indian rhinoceros tramps through its pen. Vietnam’s last native rhino was killed by poachers in 2011. (JGA photo)

It’s Just My Nature                                                                                     

The gardens claim about 3,000 trees of 260 species, a few of them planted in the 19th century. There are also precious collections of native orchids, cacti and manicured bonsai.

The zoo is home to nearly 1,000 animals of 125 species, including all the usual suspects: elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, and African savannah hoof stock such as zebras and antelope. The primate domains are particularly popular, with their chimpanzees, orangutans, macaques, gibbons, langurs and doucs.  There are dedicated flamingo and butterfly gardens, a mini-waterpark and a redeveloped children’s playground with a Ferris wheel and roller coaster.

A feral cat is at home in the light foliage near the elephant enclosure. (JGA photo)

I don’t always see what everyone else sees. I seek out the rhinoceros, knowing each time that its species will not survive on this planet very much longer. I’m fascinated by the feral cats that cling close to the elephant enclosure. I’m concerned when I see that the gate to the captive home of the Indochinese tiger — a notorious man-eater, of course — has been left wide open. I’m curious if the fortune tellers plying their trade beside a small café can tell me where the tiger has gone, or if its diet might include feral cats.

Eyes of a Child

On my most recent visit, I was accompanied by my friend Phong Lan and her 10-year-old son, Huy. Being joined by a bright and well-behaved child, of course, added a whole new dimension to my appreciation of the zoo.

The rarely seen binturong, or bearcat, has a home at the Saigon Zoo.. (JGA photo)

Unsurprisingly for a lad of his age and gender, Huy liked the reptile house. Black cobras and gray-green iguanas were his favorites. A dozen large crocodiles, chomping at the bit near the children’s playground, were another pick. Sun bears, wild boars, hyenas and the rare forest-dwelling binturong also drew Huy’s attention.

I don’t think he even missed the Indochinese tiger, indigenous and endangered, as there were a couple of Indian white tigers in another enclosure. Mostly, he liked eating lunch — sitting near the elephants enjoying his mom’s homemade sandwiches with carrots and cucumbers.

The Museum of History of Ho Chi Minh City stands near the Saigon Zoo’s main entrance. (JGA photo)

History Comes to Life

Within the zoo’s boundaries are two other buildings of note. The National Hung King Ancestor Temple was built in 1926 to honor Vietnamese soldiers who fought and died for France during World War I. It was rededicated in 1955, after the ouster of the French colonists, to the memory of Vietnam’s founding dynasty.

You can learn about the Hung kings, and so much more, just across the quadrangle in the Museum of History. Built in 1929 as a museum of Asian art, it was expanded in 1975 to showcase Vietnamese history. That was more than 4,800 years after the Hung kings’ progenitors — Dragon Lord Lac and his consort, Fairy Âu Cơ— sired 100 sons from a single egg sac, as legend would have it. Their Bronze Age leadership peaked with the Dong Son culture of the 8th to 2nd centuries B.C

Huy is fascinated by the intricate pattern in a Hindu carving of Champa origin. (JGA photo)

My young friend Huy learns his country’s heritage in school. He showed great interest in many of the interpretive exhibits in the museum. Much of the history is represented as great land and sea battles against China and other invaders like Hindu Champa. But there are also engaging displays of stone and bronze sculptures and wood carvings from Champa and the 2nd Century A.D. Óc Eo culture of the Mekong Delta region.

I love a good museum. I love the zoo even more. I will certainly return again.

A fearsome Indochinese tiger once lived here. (JGA photo)
Bronze chimpanzees encourage visitors to hear, think, speak nor see evil. (JGA photo)

29. My Life as a Chef

When COVID-19 reared its ugly head in early 2020, the educator-author began to scramble for other means of supporting his lifestyle. He liked to eat: Why not become a chef?

Fasolakia lathera and chicken cacciatore at Oia Castle (JGA photo)

It only took the arrival of a little thing like coronavirus to send me scurrying for the economic security of my other profession.

I’m not talking about teaching. When COVID-19 made its first landfall in Vietnam early last year, schools closed. Like everyone else, the kids stayed home. My primary employer, APAX Leaders, made a spirited effort to keep its English tutors in the fold, but a limited schedule of online Zoom classes barely paid the rent.

I didn’t look for acting work. I had learned my lesson a couple of months earlier (insert LOL emoji). My boldness on a video-production set was rewarded with an offer to falsify my passport and travel under an assumed identity from Beijing to Moscow. I wonder how that would have worked out in the time of COVID.

Music wouldn’t be my ticket to financial freedom. While I do enjoy tickling the ivories from time to time, my facility on a keyboard was rusty — to say the least — when I played for drinks and tips at the Casablanca (“Play it, Sam”) restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. I was not the same piano man as in my younger years, when I took requests in seedy establishments across the Pacific from Hawaii to New Zealand, and even the Cook Islands.

D.J. Banerjee mocks “The Entertainer” at the Casablanca restaurant. No one asked to hear it again. (Rick Reid photo)

I wasn’t looking to be a carpenter (Sweden) or waiter (France) or salesman (Australia) or bartender (Amsterdam) or any number of other peripatetic hats I have worn over the years. (A ski instructor in the tropics?) Writing? Had I wanted to be a rich man, I would have become a stockbroker instead of a journalist.

No, I’m talking about the refuge of a restaurant. I could be a chef. Everybody’s got to eat, right?

Introducing Adam Angst

I threw that premise in the direction of my close friend Adam, a British-born Australian of part-Burmese heritage who lives a life of sustained anxiety. I call him Adam Angst.

Adam may be the one person I know in Vietnam who doesn’t eat. But he can cook. He may be skinnier than the rice noodles in phở bò tái nam, but the man knows his way around a kitchen, whether the culinary goal is linguine alla vongole or foie gras torchon or prime beef with a sauce of witchety grubs.

I told him that I had made friends with the manager of a struggling Ho Chi Minh City restaurant, the Oia Castle on Tôn Thât Dam, who was “between chefs,” and that we as resident foreigners might be compensated for our assistance in a time when our own English-teaching jobs were imperiled.

John and Adam backstage at the Oia Castle. (JGA selfie)

“Well, I don’t know, mate,” he predictably responded. “I haven’t cooked, except at home, for a long time now. And what’s the menu like? I mean, is it something I’ve made before? And how is the kitchen set up? I don’t want to slip and get hurt. I don’t have insurance. Can they insure me?”

From my perspective, I saw a chance to try something new (again). A risk to be measured and explored. As the late Anthony Bourdain wrote: “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters, or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food for me has always been an adventure.”

Mouthing off

My résume? Well, I’ve had a lot to say about food over the years. Many would say I’ve said too much. As a former senior editor for France’s famous Michelin guides and a restaurant critic in America’s Pacific Northwest for 17 years, I know what I like and what I don’t. I like my tuna seared, my steak medium rare, my enchiladas washed down with Don Julio. I’m not much for offal (it’s awful), and I don’t like mắm tôm, that wretched purple fermented shrimp sauce so popular in Vietnamese cooking.

I do have basic culinary skills. I began chopping carrots and onions in restaurants when I was 21. (I was a late starter.) Four continents have tolerated my knife-wielding presence in their kitchens. I even worked in a catering kitchen in my home state of Oregon, U.S.A., for several months prior to my travel to Vietnam in 2019.

What was the new adventure to be? I was setting sail for the eastern Mediterranean, for the Aegean isle of Santorini. And it was all Greek to me.

Oia Castle restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, early 2020. (JGA photo)

Greek 101

Souvlaki. Dolmathes. Tabouleh. Avgolemono soup. I was not prepared for Hellenic cuisine. Neither, for that matter, was Adam Angst.

The Oia Castle restaurant was an unlikely retreat on any account. Tucked behind a double row of traditional Vietnamese market stalls on an urban lane barely wide enough for pedestrians to share with motorbikes, it had a Levantine charm rarely seen in Southeast Asia. Three narrow stories high, painted white as chalk and trimmed in cerulean blue to resemble the famous domes of Santorini island, it was as attractive a restaurant as one might ever accidentally stumble upon.

I’ll let Adam take it for a second here: “So, yeah, mate, I reckon if you were a Western bloke walking down that street, and then you come to this oasis among all the chaos on the street, and you walk in and, yeah, it was very appealing to the eye. And the menu was really quite nice.

“But the condition and safety of the kitchen — bloody oath, mate! I’ve worked in plenty of kitchens before, and safety is always paramount to me. Oia Castle had no medical box; no fire extinguishers, either. There were oil spills on the floor, which had no proper slip mat; no mat at all, for that matter.

“And the stove, mate. You cooked on it, you know. It hadn’t been cleaned in, well, who knows? Months? Years? It was about an inch thick in grease and cooking spills. A real fire hazard.”

Dining room at Oia Castle. (JGA photo)

Lucy in the sky

The general manager was a lovely young woman who went by the name of Lucy. She tried hard to succeed, but she was in denial about her lack of relative experience in the food-and-beverage industry. With patronage curtailed by the pandemic, she was severely overmatched. Tourist traffic had disappeared. Morning, noon and night, Lucy sat at her laptop in the restaurant, crunching numbers, posting employment ads, tap-tapping emails to potential cooks, servers and other would-be staff. She even interviewed marketing agencies to help promote the restaurant. Without a product, however, that was a dead end.

This was where I made my entrance. I nearly tripped over the Oia Castle signboard one day as I traipsed down Tôn Thât Dam buying vegetables, rice and freshly butchered pork to cook at home. Bars were closed due to corona fears, and everyone was wearing a protective mask. But a handful of restaurants remained open during the lockdown, often with little or no staff.

Lucy did have a young man in the kitchen when I dropped in to say hello and place an order for falafel and a baklava dessert. To his credit, the youth, a student at a local culinary school, did a creditable job on both dishes. As I ate, the manager sat opposite me and, learning that I had some knowledge of the business, expressed her frustrations. I offered a sympathetic ear.

Lucy sits down to a horiatiki salad, her laptop on the table behind. (JGA photo)

I gave Adam a shout soon thereafter. A week later he joined me for lunch at Oia Castle. Lucy wanted to tickle our brains for ideas on how to improve her business. Our first recommendation: Find a chef who will stay. In the long run, temporary fixes aren’t going to cut it.

Lucy herself prepared our pita plate, with hummus and baba ghanouj, along with a tangy horiatiki salad. She had no chef today. And just as she was lamenting that fact, the emergency bell rang. Someone had called Grab, the local taxi and food-delivery service, and placed a substantial order — one that had to be filled in 30 minutes or the food charge would be forfeited.

“Oh my god!” Lucy shuddered. “Can you guys cook?”

“And all of a sudden,” a retrospective Adam shrieked, “we were employed!”

The street scene on Tôn Thât Dam, as seen from Oia Castle’s third floor, persists well after dark. (JGA photo).

Starting from scratch

Adam and I dutifully marched into Oia Castle’s kitchen, having only previously taken a quick glance inside. Starting from absolute scratch — with no knowledge of inventory, organization, or even if there were clean skillets in the cupboard (whew!) — we set to work on a takeout order of caprese salad, spanakopita, moussaka and pizza.

The stress-free end of the order was the Italian-style caprese: Simple if the ingredients were in stock. Beefsteak tomatoes, check. Modena balsamic vinegar, check. Basil leaves, fresh from the market this morning. Buffalo mozzarella … now we had a problem. I substituted much softer, creamier burrata. It was less practical to slice for layering with the tomatoes and basil, but it served the purpose.

Spanakopita, or spinach-feta pie, calls for the preparation of leafy filo dough. Moussaka requires béchamel sauce and an hour of baking. Without prep cooks to clock an early shift, neither could be turned around in a half hour. I began to work on both on both dishes, cognizant that I was doing so for a future order. Lucy, meanwhile, convinced the hungry caller to settle instead for a double order of kofta, or lamb meatballs. That was Adam’s call to action: He made a spicy tomato sauce with garlic and chili powder that could also be adapted for the margarita pizza with Kalamata olives.

I made these! Clockwise from left: spanakopita, caprese salad and avgolemono soup. (JGA photo)

We met the deadline. Lucy wanted us to run the operation. I could be executive chef. Adam offered his services as back-of-house manager, so long as he was provided an insurance policy and a budget for basic safety concerns. Clearly, in this economic climate, that wasn’t about to happen.

I did return to Oia Castle a few more times, accepting payment in only meals and wine. I wrote some menus and recipes, shopped in the local street markets, sharpened my Mediterranean cooking skills, and learned a little bit more why success in the food-and-beverage business is so hard to achieve, whether you’re in Vietnam or the United States.

My career as a chef was an amusing hobby for a slow time in my pandemic-enforced life schedule. When Vietnam’s national government reopened schools after a few weeks, I departed. Now, a year later, I notice that Oia Castle has been replaced on Tôn Thât Dam by an establishment serving upscale Vietnamese cuisine. I wish Lucy well. I hope the new restaurant is better financed to get through these difficult times.

Stuffed pepper wasn’t on the menu, but it was a personal favorite. (JGA photo)
See the source image

28. The Last Mango in Margaritaville

Finding a comfortable home away from home is always something special for a traveler. Ong Lan beach on Phu Quoc island offered not just one, but two.

Neighbors and friends, old and new, gather for a holiday party in Ong Lan beach.

Ong Lan beach at Mango Bay, on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, is not a place you’re likely to be directed by most travel agents. To find it, you’ll have to stray from the beaten path, but not in the manner of an exclusive resort community (although it has a couple of those, too). It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Soft rock. Classic rock.

The long sandy beach, better known to locals than tourists, has a view down the Gulf of Thailand coast to the fishing pier at Duong Dong town, 6 km (3.8 miles) south. At its north end, the willowy needles of ironwood trees drift and land upon a rocky point where young children pursue tiny crabs skittering through tidepools, as their caretakers salute the setting sun with graceful twilight dances.

A lone bather ventures into the gentle surf at Ong Lan beach near the Mango Bay Resort. (JGA photo)

The neighbors are friendly. Five hundred meters inland, small cafés serve peach tea, avocado smoothies, egg coffee and, sometimes, weasel coffee. (More on that in a future blog.) A trio of Thai-Cambodian sisters do a brisk business in pad thai noodles, som tum papaya salads and pleasant conversation. Striking Thu’an, the proprietor of a souvenir shop (the tourist trade is slow during the pandemic), welcomes strangers to gatherings in her home. Everyone has a story to tell.

If it seems that you’re close to everything in the heart of Ong Lang village — well, you are. (JGA photo)

Mango Bay Resort

Extravagant accommodations are nice, to be sure, but a few days at the Four Seasons can get old quickly. The infinity pool, the concierge desk, the room-service dinners, the specialty spa treatments, the barkeep with a frozen smile pouring Ketel One on the rocks, cease to be exceptional when they become commonplace.

Mosquito netting offers added comfort in a plantation bungalow room at Mango Bay Resort. (JGA photo)

Ong Lan’s brand of luxury is more my style. The Mango Bay Resort conceals 44 bungalows and other guest rooms in a frangipani-scented forest that slopes gently to the beach. The design reflects the architects’ commitment to conservation and environmental sustainability. Solar panels provide much of the energy. There is no air-conditioning, no television, no wifi in the rooms. Off-site parking and shuttle vehicles assure traffic-free relaxation.

Mango Bay has two restaurants that serve regional and international specialties and cocktails. I enjoyed the chef’s original chicken curry with red rice as much as I did an Australian beef steak. Many weekends, a Filipino band performs everything from the Beatles to Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.” The resort has a full-service spa, morning yoga classes, a full roster of beach sports and equipment, and even a sand volleyball court.

Thai-style chicken curry with red rice is a specialty at Mango Bay Resort’s On the Rock restaurant. (JGA photo)

Tropical Garden Homestay

But it was the Tropical Garden Homestay that stole my traveler’s heart. In the heart of Ong Lan township opposite the elementary school, this simple pension has everything a vagabond could want, and then some — beginning with the gracious host family. Vu and Linh made it happen with their 8-year-old son Huynh, an integral part of the restaurant crew, and 3-year-old Khanh (“Candy”), whose main function was entertaining guests.  

Hosts Linh and Vu, with children Huynh and Khanh, welcome visitors to their Tropical Garden Homestay. (JGA photo)

Vu told me the couple came from central Vietnam about 10 years ago. After studying tourism and hospitality at university, they traveled around the country in search of a place to settle and build. They found it in Phu Quoc. Now their compound includes three private, air-conditioned guest rooms, a five-bunk dormitory and a small house to accommodate families.

The Yellow House Restaurant, serving both Western and Vietnamese food (with Linh’s seafood specialties), is built like a beach cabana, framed in bamboo with a thatched roof. Phong Lan and I enjoyed taking our morning coffee in the adjacent garden courtyard before heading out for a day of exploring or relaxing on the beach. When we did depart to discover more of Phu Quoc’s island-wide plethora of pleasures, Vu’s in-house travel agency arranged for our tickets when necessary (as for the Hon Thom Nature Park cable car) and provided us with a motorbike for backroads excursions.

The homestay’s garden courtyard is a fine place to take morning coffee. (JGA photo)

The island’s north

We had already explored Phu Quoc from its midpoint south, from the main city of Duong Dong to the southernmost point at An Thò’i. Now we pointed our directional needle to the north.

More than half of northern Phu Quoc island was sheltered (one hopes forever) from 21st-century blemishes when 130-square-mile Phu Quoc National Park was proclaimed a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2010. Its mountainous spine, cloaked with broadleaf and evergreen forest, is home to a unique flora and such rarely seen wildlife as long-tailed macaques, silver langurs, slow lories and hornbills. Khu Rung Nguyen Sinh Forest Reserve, which can be reached via dirt roads from the gateway village of Ganh Dau, offers hiking, camping and memorable bird-watching. A hiking trail is being completed to the summit of Mount Chua, at 603 meters (1,978 feet) the island’s highest.

The new VinWonders amusement park. (JGA photo)

But Lan and I were greeted by something very different than wilderness on our ride north. About 20 minutes beyond Ong Lan, the VinPearl company is engaged in a massive real-estate development project, at the heart of which is the VinWonders amusement park — Vietnam’s largest. Covering more than 120 acres, the park could be a Disney clone with its castle-like, medieval European façade. Within, I learned, are over 100 rides and attractions, including a walk-through aquarium, a water park, roller coasters, restaurants and an amphitheater for live shows.

Nearby, more than 2,000 wild animals of 130 species are on exhibit at the VinPearl Safari Park, Vietnam’s largest zoo/wildlife sanctuary, along with 400 types of indigenous plants. The VinPearl venture also includes its original VinPearl Phu Quoc Resort and the Vinmec International Hospital. Rapidly taking its place in the grand scheme is the VinPearl Grand World, whose preliminary models display a strong resemblance to many of the great capital cities of Europe.

The islands of neighboring Cambodia are easily seen from the fishing village of Ganh Dau. (JGA photo)

Had we wanted Europe, we would have flown to Paris. We preferred to pause for refreshing shells of natural coconut water at Ganh Dau, the fishing village at the head of Phu Quoc island. From here, we could look beyond a small fleet of brightly painted fishing vessels to the border isles of neighboring Cambodia, so near yet so far. In these times of the COVID-19 virus, international crossings are tightly guarded.

A dance to the setting sun on Ong Lan beach. (JGA photo)

27. The View from Phu Quoc

Vietnam’s tropical resort island of Phu Quoc is a great place to escape the city and engage with nature … so long as rapid tourism development doesn’t overwhelm the laid-back ambience.

The cable car to Hon Thom island passes high above the colorful fishing town of An Tho’i. (JGA photo)

The view from the windows of the world’s longest over-the-sea cable car was magnificent.

From our ephemeral perch, more than 500 feet above the Gulf of Thailand, Phong Lan and I looked down upon the fishing village of An Thó’i at the southern tip of Phu Quoc island. Hundreds of commercial vessels, their red decks sharply contrasting with the turquoise and aquamarine of the water, crowded close to a rocky shoreline where coconut palms and mango trees drooped over modern villas. Soon we soared above heavily wooded isles reachable only by sea, the tin roofs of their traditional homes sloping toward golden beaches and more boats moored in a crescent-shaped harbor.

A variety of boats share the harbor with aquaculture floats on Hon Roi island. (JGA photo)

We were on our way to the Hon Thom Nature Park, a fledgling tourist development on an archipelago of new visitor attractions. Opened in February 2018 by SunWorld, one of Vietnam’s hospitality leaders, the cable car extends 4.9 miles (7.9 km), hop-skipping two smaller islets in a 15-minute journey to Hon Thom. We had boarded the 30-passenger aerial tram in a grand Romanesque terminal beside Accor’s Mediterranean-style Premier Village lodging complex, still in development.

Lan and I spent several hours in the park before returning to the real world at An Thó’i. We admired the landscaping and architecture on Hon Thom isle, only 5 km long, and wondered at the Disneyesque features of the rides and slides (Medusa’s Trap, Poseidon’s Revenge) in the Aquatopia water park. But we saved our greatest pleasure for Bai Trao beach, whose graceful palms swayed above hammocks on a sandy strip framed by coral outcrops.

The author poses at Aquatopia. (Phong Lan photo)

Tropical Escape

When travelers set their sights on tropical islands, they don’t often think of Vietnam. But Phu Quoc island is, indeed, one of the gems of this Southeast Asian country. Despite an onslaught of luxury hotel and theme-park development at both the south and north ends of the island, Phu Quoc (pronounced fook woke) retains a laid-back ambience across most of its 31-mile (50-km) length.

Geographically, Phu Quoc is often lumped together with the Mekong Delta provinces of southernmost Vietnam. But it’s well beyond the Mekong — so far west, in fact, that it’s closer to the Cambodian mainland than to the nearest Vietnamese port. (There’s regular ferry service to Phu Quoc from both Ha Tien and Rach Gia, but most visitors arrive at the international airport, in the center of the island.) As broad as 16 miles (25 km) in the north, tapering to a mere 2 miles (3.2 km) in the south, Phu Quoc is home to only about 180,000 permanent residents. Tourism, of course, multiplies that number.

Early mornings are busy times at Duong Dong’s public market. (JGA photo)

Nearly half of the people live in Duong Dong, the only town of size. Midway down the west coast facing the Gulf of Thailand, it’s a lively community with many two- and three-star resort hotels, bustling day and night markets, and some outstanding seafood restaurants. Bún quậy is a local specialty food, a shrimp-and-noodle soup most famously enjoyed at Kiên-Xây, beside the harbor. Nearby, atop convoluted Dinh Cau Rock, a small Buddhist temple doubles as a lighthouse; devotees pray to Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea. If you concentrate, your nose might detect Vietnam’s most famous fish sauce (nu’oc maam) factory. (Personally, I prefer the smell of the notorious durian fruit to the aroma of this pungent condiment.)

I didn’t stay in Duong Dong, instead choosing a homestay in the Ong Lan community about 6 miles (10 km) north. I’ll tell you more about that serendipitous choice in my next blog.

More than 12 miles long, Bai Tru’ong (“Long Beach”) is home to many luxury hotel developments. (JGA photo)

Exploring the island

I spent my first full day on Phu Quoc simply relaxing. By my second day, I was ready to explore. I hired a freelance guide, Hong, born and raised on the island, to take me under her wing (on the back of her motorbike) for a full day of simply tripping around.

Our first stop was Long Beach, locally known as Bai Tru’ong. Extending south more than 12 miles (20 km) from Duong Dong, it was one of the earliest parts of the island to be developed by luxury lodging groups. Hotels, many of them still under construction, are widely spaced along the golden sands, leaving a long sandy trek from one to the next — although they do beckon visitors to sip late-afternoon cocktails while watching often-spectacular sunsets upon the Gulf of Thailand.

One Long Beach highlight, not far from Duong Dong town, is the Ngoc Hien Pearl Farm. Established in cooperation with Japanese investors in 1994, this roadside attraction welcomes first-time visitors to its basement-level museum. Docents describe traditional pearl farming, recall the industry’s ancient history, and display undersea artifacts recovered by pearl vessels around the world, including Mediterranean amphorae and fossil giant clam shells. In a sterile laboratory, technicians demonstrate the surgical process of gently removing a cultivated pearl from an oyster. The upper floor of Ngoc Hien is an expansive jewelry store, featuring all manner of pearl necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings and more — in colors that range from “pearly white” to black, pink and golden yellow.

A colorful flower market attracted attention in the fishing village of Ham Ninh. (Hong photo)

Crossing the island, we dropped into the fishing village of Hàm Ninh, nestled at the foot of a forested mountain ridge that extends up most of Phu Quoc’s eastern shore. A large flower market captured my attention during our brief visit. Village residents are famous island-wide for their local cuisine (including sea cucumber soup, boiled flower crab and foraged wild mu shrooms) and their medicinal drinks, made with seahorses, ginseng and seaweed.

Prayers and white sand

A highlight of our day was Ho Quoc Pagoda, a Zen monastery and the largest Buddhist temple on Phu Quoc. Erected in 2011-2012, its original ỉronwood architecture and stone carvings — including a dragon built into a staircase and a large marble Buddha — are at once classical and contemporary. Playful wind chimes make the bell tower a wonderful place for serene meditation, especially seated facing the sea with one’s back to the mountain.

The Ho Quoc Pagoda, a Zen temple and monastery, is Phu Quoc’s largest sanctuary and among its newest. (JGA photo)

Tourism promoters make a strong case for Bai Sao, the nearest beach to the temple, as Phu Quoc’s most beautiful because of íts fine white sand and clear blue water. Sao are starfish, and there’s a reason Bai Sao has been dubbed Starfish Bay: At slack tides on calm evenings, thousands of starfish move from deeper water toward shore under the protective cloak of dusk. Resort properties along Bai Sao are mostly moderately priced. A short distance further south, also on the east coast, Bai Khem (Ice Cream Beach) has become a luxury destination. Here you’ll find resorts like the J.W. Marriott and Kem Premiere, whose casitas flow across the isthmus of an adjacent peninsula.

The tranquility of the beaches and the pagoda are a sharp contrast to the shock of a visit to the ìnfamous Phu Quoc Prison, only a couple of miles inland from Bai Khem. Built by the French in 1949, it was declared a national historical site and opened to the public in 1995. But in the 46 intervening years, more than 40,000 Viet Cong soldiers, sympathizers and politicians who stood in opposition to French and American occupational forces were imprisoned here. Today the museum’s exhibits graphically depict the barbaric tortures administered, including electrocution, crucifixion and food deprivation.

At the south end of Phu Quoc, the colorful fishing port of An Thó’i is the gateway to the Hon Thom cable car and a center for fishing, diving and snorkeling expeditions. Hong and I took a look around, but didn’t stay. That would be left for my return visit to the nature park with Phong Lan several days later.

A moment of relaxation on Bai Sau. (Hong photo)

Next: A paean to Mango Bay.

Motorbiking down the east coast of Phu Quoc.

26. The Bleak Legacy of War

Ho Chi Minh City’s most profoundly emotional collection is displayed at its War Remnants Museum, where visitors learn more than they wanted about what is called the American War.

Deadly ordnance, some of it concealed long after the war, is displayed at the museum. (JGA photo)

Pham Anh Dao, 70, gestured toward his left foot, or what should have been his left foot. Now, there was merely a knob, a long-ago memory of a field medic’s emergency handiwork. The American War had already ended, Dao told me, when he stepped on a land mine in the jungles of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. He was lucky. He survived.

Dao’s story is hardly unique. The war that the United States waged in Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1975 took a terrible toll. Yes, more than 47,000 Americans died; but so did over 1.5 million Vietnamese, including at least 350,000 civilians. (Casualty figures are estimates.) And those are only the dead.

In most of the rest of the world, it is not widely recognized that this is a war that has kept on giving — or, more accurately, kept on taking away. (Known in the U.S. as the Vietnam War, it is the American War in Vietnam.) The conflict left a legacy of unexploded ordnance as well as hereditary illness and birth defects caused by Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants.

The entrance to the War Remnants Museum on Vo Van Tan street. (JGA photo)

A Day at the Museum

For me, that’s the biggest takeaway from a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (Another War Remnants Museum is in Hanoi.) I consider it the single most important urban attraction for Western tourists.

Located just a couple of streets north of Independence Palace, where South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam in 1975, the Ho Chi Minh City museum is a rude reminder to Western visitors that the Americans didn’t play nice. During a war, of course, no one plays nice, and the account rendered here is an undeniably biased one. But it’s hard to look at graphic photographs of atrocities like the notorious My Lai massacre or the Agent Orange attacks, whose victims still haunt Vietnam’s streets.

A father tells his children tales of the American War that he heard from his own father. (JGA photo)

Visitors arrive at the museum through a curated display of captured U.S. tanks, warplanes and artillery (including an M132 flamethrower) in the museum yard, presented side-by-side with Vietnamese equipment. Nearby, a replica prison recalls such punishments as a notorious isolation chamber (the “tiger cage”) and a guillotine.

War Crimes and Chemicals

Exhibits within the museum are on three floors, with interpretive signs in English, French and Vietnamese. On the ground floor are well-documented testimonies by U.S. servicemen who could not keep silent about war atrocities after they returned home.

One level up, some of the frightening images that illustrate “War Crimes” may be all too familiar to older Americans who recall the carnage of My Lai, Son My and Pleiku. A collection of U.S. Army weapons is displayed for its role in the “persecution, torture, murder and massacre; bombing innocent peoples’ homes, villages, hospitals, schools, causing casualty and damage to Vietnamese people.”

A museum visitor perceives the pain of a young Agent Orange victim in a gallery painting. (JGA photo)

Other rooms on the same floor describe, in words and pictures, the disabling efffects of Agent Orange and related dioxins. Panels of photographs looked like something from a freak show. As many as 3 million Vietnamese suffered disfiguring wounds or illnesses as a result of exposure to the chemicals. Third and even fourth generations of victims still show genetic disabilities; the International Red Cross estimates that as many as 1 million people may still have health problems as a result of the dumping of Agent Orange prior to 1975.

Historical Truths

On the top floor of the museum, an informative display labeled “Historical Truths” lays out the roots of the American War, beginning with communist Vietnam’s 1945 declaration of independence from colonial France and its subsequent war with the Europeans. That ended with a final victory in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, on the border of Laos in North Vietnam. The U.S. almost immediately involved itself by providing financial aid and military advisers to the democratic government of South Vietnam. The Americans crossed the thin red line when Marines landed at Da Nang in 1965. The next 10 years were ugly.

This famous 1972 image shows Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack in Trang Bang village. (Nick Ut photo by JGA)

In “Requiem,” I found a collection of more than 200 photos by (and of) 133 war correspondents from 11 countries who died doing their jobs in Vietnam. As a journalist myself, I found this particularly poignant. Indeed, in my earliest years in the business, in the early 1970s, I had brief conversations with a couple of the men pictured here.

Unexploded Ordnance

An exhibit on unexploded ordnance brought me back to my conversation with Pham Anh Dao. Since the war ended 46 years ago, the detonation of land mines, bombs, mortars and grenades has killed more than 40,000 people in Vietnam and adjacent Cambodia and Laos. The ordnance still takes several hundred lives a year — often innocent people planting rice or tilling their gardens.

Gratefully, the U.S. government has spent more than $65 million in the past 20-plus years to clear ordnance, and nonprofit organizations like Seattle-based PeaceTrees Vietnam have done their part. But rural areas, especially the central provinces, may remain hazardous for many more decades. I’ll be especially cautious when I wander from the beaten path, lest I suffer an injury like my friend Dao … or worse.

As many as 500 unarmed civilians may have died in the 1968 massacre at My Lai. (Ronald l. Haeberle photo)

Campus of Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum. (JGA photo)

25. Tay Ninh and the Cao Dai Religion

The Cao Dai faith is an otherworldly blend of Asian, European and mystical beliefs. Its mother temple is a mere 80 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.

God is watching you everywhere at the Cao Dai mother temple in Tay Ninh. (JGA photo)

You know The Eye?

Yeah, that one. The Eye of Providence. The one in the pyramid on the Great Seal of the United States. The eye whose gleam illumines obscure Latin mottos on the back side of the dollar bill. The all-seeing Eye of God embraced by Knights Templar, Freemasons and Rosicrucians alike.

Everywhere I went in the mother temple of the unique Đạo Cao Đài faith, in the provincial capital of Tây Ninh, it was watching me. Or so it seemed. And I continued to imagine The Eye long after I left.

It appeared in every doorway and window, framed by the holy trinity of a perfect triangle, rays of imaginary sunlight reaching beyond its universe. And it was embedded in a giant, globe-like orb, luminescent blue and green like Earth itself, elevated on a dais where another church might have placed an altar.

During holy hours, you may see scores of Cao Dai devotees, cloaked in white and wearing black hats, singing and chanting and bowing in unison to this “left eye of God.” To me it suggested an old Flash Gordon sci-fi movie, or perhaps an Indiana Jonestown parody.

Every window and doorway has, at its core, the Cao Dai eye. (JGA photo)

East meets West

I hadn’t expected to see this sort of ceremony in Vietnam. As a student of world religions, I had anticipated a largely Buddhist society, with significant numbers of Catholics (a French colonial legacy), Chinese Taoists and Confucians. And in a communist society, I expected that many would profess to “no religion.” I didn’t think I’d find the whole mix in a single package.

Although it has an estimated 3 to 5 million followers worldwide (mostly in Vietnam), I had never heard of Caodaism. Founded by Vietnamese spirit mediums in the 1920s, the religion merges 19th-century European mysticism with the various East Asian faiths.

Its objectives are honorable — the unity of all religions; the harmonious balance of the universe; the coupling of god and mankind, love and justice (and karma).  The two main gods, Cao Đài (“Highest Power”) and Diêu Trì Kim Mẫu (the Mother Goddess), are considered equal creators of the universe, the yin and yang of humanity. If there ever was a duotheistic religion, this is it.

But here in Tây Ninh, 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, it seemed a little cosmic, a little spooky, to have the “left eye” of the all-seeing Cao Dai watching me as I moved through the massive Great Temple of the Holy See.

Cao Dai devotees offer prayers in the nave between services. (JGA photo)

Four services daily

Prayers are offered daily at noon, 6 p.m., midnight and 6 a.m. Men, having removed their shoes, enter on the right side of the sanctuary and move around the floor in a counter-clockwise direction. Women enter on the left and move clockwise. The area in the center is reserved for priests. During the full moon and new moon — the first and 15th day of each lunar month — the sanctuary welcomes a couple of hundred visitors. At other times, there may be only a few dozen.

I was glad to tour between services, when I could be ushered about by congregation members proud to share their beautiful house of worship. Red, gold and sky-blue dominate the color scheme. Mythological dragons and cranes wrap themselves around gaudy columns. Fanciful carp spout upward, dreaming that they, too, might someday be dragons.

On another level are altars for worship of ancestors, much as one might see in a Confucian or Taoist temple.  An adjacent building has meeting rooms and a kitchen and dining area. Caodaists, who practice vegetarianism, earn good juju when they work in the kitchen to feed others. That includes substantial charity work.

Sun Yat-sen, left, and Victor Hugo, center, are among the most revered figures of the Cao Dai faith. (JGA photo)

Cosmic truths

The avatars of the Cao Dai faith are not whom you might expect. For one, there’s Victor Hugo, the 19th-century French author of “Les Misérables.” He has been assigned the post-mortem post of “spiritual chief of the foreign missions of Caodaism.”

Along with early 20th-century Chinese patriot Sun Yat-sen and medieval Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem, Hugo is a “signatory of the Third Alliance Between God and Man,” although the trio lived their earthly lives at different times. They are said to be guiding humanity into a new era of enlightenment, ably assisted by Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, William Shakespeare and Vladimir Lenin, to name but a few.

Throughout history, according to the faith’s leaders, Cao Đài has communicated his cosmic truths through a series of prophets — great visionaries like the Sakyamuni Buddha, Taoism’s Lao Tzu and Jesus Christ. But mankind has not embraced their messages, distracted by physical and secular desires. The time has finally come, Caodaists believe, when God is speaking directly to humanity instead of through a messenger.

As a covenant between Heaven and Earth, the objective of the Third Alliance is universal peace. It will be ushered in by a period of intense religious activity that “will unite God and humanity in ways not yet imagined,” a church leader told me.

But it’s imperative that we listen. If we ignore the truth one more time, things could get really ugly. The choice is salvation for living beings … or universal destruction. And none of us really wants that.

The Great Temple of Caodaism is a prominent structure in Tay Ninh. (JGA photo)

Cao Dai community

The Cao Dai temple is the main feature of the township of Hoa Thanh, located about 4 kilometers from the heart of Tây Ninh. Started in 1931 and completed in 1947, the temple sets the tone for other Cao Dai sanctuaries in Vietnam with a blend of ornate architectural styles as staggeringly dissimilar as the religion’s doctrines.

The building is 320 feet long, with 156 pillars and two tall towers at its front. Adjacent avenues are fronted by administrative buildings, public gardens, a hospital of traditional herbal medicine, large schools, lovely homes and other structures that suggest substantial wealth in this community.

Tiers of grandstands flank the boulevard that approaches the temple from the elaborate main gate, providing viewing for occasional festival parades and funeral processions. Most times, however, they are playgrounds for about 150 macaque monkeys who live in the adjacent forest. The younger generation of these primates can provide considerable entertainment for visitors, but they can also be a nuisance for the unwary.

A cablecar carries visitors through the clouds to the summit of Ba Den Mountain. (JGA photo)

Ba Den Mountain

Tây Ninh itself is a lovely town of about 150,000 people, with broad streets and precious little traffic, especially compared to Ho Chi Minh City. Apart from the Cao Dai community, its main appeal for visitors is Ba Den (“Black Virgin”) Mountain, with views into neighboring Cambodia from 10 km northeast of the urban center.

The solitary cinder cone, largest free-standing peak in southern Vietnam, rises to an elevation of 986 meters (3,235 feet) above surrounding rubber plantations and fields of rice and corn. Those who follow a strenuous trail to the crest can enjoy a respite at a tranquil Buddhist temple complex halfway up the mountain, and several ancient cave temples near the summit.

The vast majority of visitors avoid the walk and take a cablecar to a visitor center on the mountaintop. Many of them are young families, dating couples and honeymooners. The destination’s popularity has mushroomed to the point that SunWorld, a national hospitality group, is completing a hotel on the peak’s highest point. The structure is so prominent that, from many miles away, it looks like Ba Den’s nipple.

The summit of Ba Den Mountain is a popular location for wedding photography. (JGA photo)

For anyone planning a visit to Tây Ninh, I recommend the understated Gold City Hotel , a modern boutique property on a quiet downtown street. The hosts are exceptionally generous with their time and in providing assistance, and there are numerous choices of restaurants — and a great little pub — in the immediate neighborhood.

Worshippers kowtow to the Cao Dai eye during a midday service in Tay Ninh. (JGA photo)

24. Celebrating Tét

Vietnam’s biggest annual holiday celebration is Tet, the lunar new year. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day rolled into one.

Apricot blossoms on Dường Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai (JGA photo)

It’s that time of year again! Chúc mừng năm mới!

In Vietnam, the Tết holiday, which technically begins today, is equivalent to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day all rolled into one.

The Vietnamese people don’t get a lot of long vacations. They work hard for 50 weeks, often putting in seven days a week on two jobs. Tết — the lunar new year — is the one time they can truly “cut loose.” (This is evident if you track the bulge in November births.) During Tết, employees get at least five days off from work, more to bridge weekends, and it’s not uncommon for companies to stretch the break to a couple of weeks.

Tết is the word for festival. In this context, it is short for “Tết Nguyên Đán,” which means “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.”  It falls on the first night of the new moon in the first month of the Lunar (Gregorian) Calendar, usually between late January and mid-February. In 2021, the new year falls on Thursday, February 11. [in 2020, it was January 23.]

Workers prepare the opening of ‘Flower Street” on Nguyen Hue (JGA photo0

Flowers and food

Besides marking the beginning of the year, Tết signals the first day of spring … and the day when everyone becomes one year older. In Vietnamese tradition, age is determined by the new year and not by the actual date of birth. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the first questions asked upon an initial meeting in Vietnam is: “How old are you?”

You may then be asked: “What is your hometown?” A huge number of the younger (and middle-aged) people living in the major cities today maintain strong ties with the provincial towns where they, or their parents, were born. During Tết, their exodus from Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City, to be with hometown family and friends, has an indelible impact on the population centers. Restaurants and other businesses close down, transport services are stretched to the limit, and the cities seem like ghost towns.

A family of water buffalo greet the new year outside the Diamond department store (JGA photo)

At least in HCMC, the city-center boulevard, Nguyễn Hue, stays lively through the week of Tết. This broad pedestrian street becomes “Flower Street,” which in recent non-pandemic years has attracted more than a million visitors. Yellow apricot blossoms and light-red peach blossoms, representing good fortune, are ubiquitous, as are the tiny orange fruits of the bonsai-sized kumquat tree. Among the trees and flowers are various depictions of the animal of the new year — in 2021, it’s the water buffalo (or bull); in 2020, it was the rat.

Adjacent streets have community fairs. On Dường Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai in District 1, for instance, music, art and calligraphy mix with popular street foods. Inevitably you’ll be offered “chung cake” (bánh chung or banh tet), made of sweet sticky rice, corn or green beans, pork and spices, wrapped in a leaf and boiled overnight. Legend traces its origin back more than 2,000 years.

“Chung cake,” or banh tet, is made from sticky rice, pork and vegetables. (JGA photo)

A fresh start

The lunar new year festival traditionally lasts for three days. It is considered a time to begin anew — to let go of the problems of the past year and start all over. People pay off old debts. They buy new clothes and often change jobs or switch careers. During the last week of the old year, they sweep away all the bad things that have accumulated in the previous 12 months with a thorough cleaning of their homes and gardens, especially including altars that honor gods and ancestors.

Traditional holds that on the eve of Tết, Ong Tau, the “kitchen god,” travels to the heavenly home of the Jade Emperor to give his annual report on family members. He is hastened on his way by carp, released into rivers as vehicles of the divine. These fish become dragons at midnight on the new year, when Ong Tau returns and is welcomed back with fireworks and gongs.

Calligraphers and fortune tellers forecast the future at street fairs. (JGA photo)

While Ong Tau is away, the multigenerational family feasts. Everyone avoids bad thoughts or arguments in case they allow bad spirits into the house. When younger people go out to watch the fireworks, their parents and grandparents offer pig heads, boiled chicken, rice and salt to the gods and ancestors. They will pray for a new year of luck, health and fortune to every family member.  After midnight, the young people return home and become the first to enter the house in the new year, bringing luck to the family.

The first day of the new year is the time to visit grandparents and relatives. They gather again to drink, eat and share their wishes and plans. Children are given lucky money inside red envelopes, which may keep children away from evil. The elderly receive gifts and wishes for health; younger adults receive tokens of fortune and success.

Ancestral altars get special offerings on the new year. (JGA photo)

By the third day of the Tết holiday — Day Two of the new year — people go to pagodas and pray for a year of prosperity, happiness and health. Their donations are repaid with assurances of luck and fortune.

These are some of the greetings you may hear this week:

An khang thịnh vượng: Wishing you safety, health and prosperity.

Vạn sự như ý: May all your wishes come true.

And, of course, Chúc mừng năm mới. Happy new year.

Celebrants welcomed the year of the rat in January 2020. (JGA photo)

23. Mugged

Getting mugged in any city is no laughing matter. It may only be about money, but after it happens, will you ever feel safe again?

These are valuables that no traveler ever wants to lose. (JGA photo)

No matter where in the world you might go, crime is real.

I’ve been fortunate. Except for bullying as a nerdish youth, a couple of minor cases of home burglary, and occasional petty theft like pickpocketing, I have never really been a victim.

Now I have been.

It only happened once, about six months ago. But it served as a reminder that — mentally strong though I believe myself to be — we all have a place of vulnerability, an Achilles heel. Mine, it can be reasonably argued, is the simple awareness of how easily my trust and innocence can be shattered.

Phan Van Han, a narrow market street, was the location of the crime. (JGA photo)

Broad daylight

I was mugged in broad daylight on a Friday afternoon, as I walked a kilometer home from the Naman import grocery store in Da Kao. With my day pack full of Australian beef and Swiss muesli, French cheese and Chilean wine, I navigated the construction sites along Nguyen Thi Minh Kai street and crossed the bridge over the Thi Nghé Channel. From here, I looked down at bamboo-roofed sampans floating past neglected double-deck tour boats, moored beside a riverside café as they have been since the COVID epidemic was spawned a year ago.

The footpath came to an end at a steep curb, where motorbikes merged perilously into bridge traffic. Here I turned sharply left onto Phan Van Han street. This narrow market lane is shared by motorcycles and a rare truck or automobile, is a single one of which is a severe impediment.

The “street” is lined with shops of all kinds. There are women’s boutiques, jewelers, children’s stores, toy shops, men’s tailors, barbers, salons, home appliance stores. There are butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, flower shops, coffee shops, a couple of mid-sized supermarkets and one popular báhn mì vendor. All this is in the span of one long block, barely 150 meters (about 500 feet) long.

At 3 in the afternoon on a sunny day, it is a thriving marketplace.

Phan Van Han on a typical afternoon. (JGA photo)

No warning

The attack came suddenly, without warning.

As I passed a private convenience store, my steps were interrupted by a motorbike that swerved toward the store and stopped directly in front of me. My first reaction was frustration with a driver who had ignored my presence. But the young man looked at me and told me sharply in English to “Stay there!”

My reaction was to keep moving. I walked around the bike and its female passenger and tried to continue. But not 15 seconds later, a second bike blocked my way.

It was a bigger bike. The driver was a bigger guy, older and tougher and angrier than the first. He leapt from his cycle and threatened me with a black police baton, waving it in my face as he demanded to see my cell phone.

“Open your phone!” he shouted.

Confused, I was a little slow to produce the mobile appliance. He jammed my left upper arm with the baton. It didn’t feel good.

“Your phone!” he screamed, in perfectly good English. “Show me your ‘Line’ app!”

Line is one of a half-dozen social media apps popular as chat sites in Vietnam. It’s not one that I often use. (I prefer Zalo or What’sApp.) But my assailant knew exactly what he was looking for, as he scrolled through my very limited inventory of Line phone contacts.

As he did so, the first guy — at least, I think it was the first guy — reached into the front pockets of my pants and pulled out anything else he could find. He didn’t want the keys to my house/apartment. He didn’t want the groceries on my back. My wallet, on the other hand, was of interest. He slid it into his own pocket and vanished.

A banh mi vendor on Phan Van Han caters to motorbike riders. (JGA photo)

A naked feeling

I stood naked in the street, fully clothed but utterly dumfounded and disoriented. I remember glancing at a merchant who looked as flustered as I felt. I wanted to ask, “What is happening here?” but no words were escaping my mouth.

Then my phone was being returned to me. The assailant thrust it into my hands. “Sorry,” was all he said, shaking his head. I could only think I was glad he didn’t find his wife’s or girlfriend’s name in the contacts. What else could he possibly have been searching for?

He disappeared.

There was still the matter of my stolen wallet. It not only contained money — about 1.7 million Viet Nam Dong, as I near as I could remember, or about US$80 — but also my Temporary Resident Card (TRC), certifying me to remain in this country. I could do without the cash, but to lose the TRC would be a major headache.

My bewilderment lasted another minute or two, until my pilfered billfold magically landed at my feet, as if dropped by a passing pigeon. Then I heard the vroom of a motorbike passing in the opposite direction and another shout: “Sorry!”

The money was gone, but the TRC was intact.

Phan Van Dan supermarket workers rarely worry about holdups. (JGA photo)

Still nervous

The entire episode was over and done with in no more than five minutes. But six months later, I am still nervous about walking down Pham Van Han.

In the big picture, this was not a major event. It was not a rape or a beating. Although violence was threatened, I suffered no physical injury, save a minor bruise.

Nevertheless, I felt fearful, violated, defiled. Post-traumatic stress, I suppose, on a very elemental level. I trembled for days after. Thankfully, it was only days. I can barely imagine how real victims must cope.

Ironically, my close friend Adam Angst, an Australian resident of Ho Chi Minh city, was mugged at almost the same time as I, on the same date, in another part of the city. And another friend and longtime resident, American David, had perceptively warned me never to carry a wallet in the city. “That would be stupid!” he exclaimed, which subsequently gave him the right to say: “I told you so!”

As in any big city in the world, there are horror stories, some of them undoubtedly urban legends, some perhaps not.

In reflection, I’m not sure I could have avoided this attack. I was walking mid-afternoon in an open, brightly lit area with a lot of people. I wasn’t openly flaunting my valuables. It seems I was the guiltless suspect in a jealous boyfriend’s rage.

But my Spidey-sense is now on the alert, lending me at least a hint of misgiving whenever I traipse through an unfamiliar corner of the city.

A fishmonger scales and cleans her merchandise on Phan Dan Han. (JGA photo)

22. A Palace Intrigue

Once the seat of government of republican South Vietnam, Independence Palace is now a “national cultural and historical relic” and an attraction for tourists in Ho Chi Minh city.

Wrought-iron gates welcome visitors to Independence Palace. (JGA photo)

No other structure in Ho Chi Minh City says “South Vietnam” like Independence Palace. Constructed between 1962 and 1966, it was the seat of government of the Republic of Vietnam until the fall of Saigon.

It became an international symbol on April 30, 1975, when a Viet Cong tank thundered through the wrought-iron gate facing Le Duan street, effectively putting an end to what is known here as the American War.

I began my recent visit at these very gates (the newer version thereof). Here, guests pass security protocol, purchase tickets (VND 40,000, or US$17.40) and perhaps also book a guided tour. I chose to move independently, wandering the 30-acre (12-hectare) grounds and taking my time to read interpretive panels, written in excellent English as well as Vietnamese and French. (Audio guides are available in seven additional languages.)

This is a destination for history buffs. As a recent resident of this country, I want to discover as much as I can about this country. I learned a lot here.

Dressed in a traditional ao dai, a docent welcomes visitors to the exhibits. (JGA photo)

A historical interlude

My first stop was an exhibition hall on the site of the former Norodom Palace, once the seat of French colonial government. France occupied southern Vietnam, or Cochin China, beginning in 1867. The neo-Baroque Norodom Palace was built between 1868 and 1873, and except for six months of 1945, when the Japanese took control, it was the home of the governor-general of French Indochina.

In 1954, after the French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ, France withdrew its troops from Vietnam. The ensuing Geneva Accords established the 17th parallel as a border between communist-controlled North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam, pending general elections to establish a unified government. That never happened.

An ongoing exhibit of historical photos explained how Norodom Palace became the official residence of Ngô Đình Diệm, who had been designated as prime minister following four years of self-exile in the United States and Europe. A year later, he defeated former Emperor Bảo Đại in a referendum, declared himself president of the Republic of Vietnam and renamed the building Independence Palace. But in 1962, after a destructive bomb attack during an attempted coup, Diệm decided to demolish the building and rebuild on the same site.

A family portrait. President Ngo Dinh Diem is at the far left, next to his archbishop brother Thuc.

Diệm consolidated his tenuous power base with his four brothers — Thục, Nhu, Cẩn and Luyện — and Nhu’s wife, Trần Lệ Xuân (“Madame Nhu”). Older brother Thục, a Mekong Delta bishop who was named archbishop of Hué in 1960, corralled Christian support. As Diệm’s top political advisor, Nhu founded the clandestine and fiercely loyal Can Lao Party, which controlled national security and surveillance.

Never popular, Diệm and Nhu were assassinated in a coup in 1963, three weeks before U.S. President John Kennedy was slain. The new Independence Palace, which combined modern European elements with traditional Asian style in a design by architect Ngô Viét Thu, wasn’t completed until the end of October 1966. When General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president in 1967, it became headquarters for South Vietnam’s government and home for the general’s family.

In addition to the historical chronology, the exhibition hall features intriguing videos and models of Ho Chi Minh city as it appeared in the pre- and post-colonial era of Norodom Palace.

The view from Independence Palace extends across an oval lawn to Le Duan street. (JGA photo)

Feng shui design

The main entrance to Independence Palace (also called Reunification Palace) sits atop a flight of broad steps that overlook an oval-shaped lawn. I can still recall television news footage of a U.S. military helicopter lifting off from here in 1975, evacuating the last American troops from Saigon. I was working in New Zealand at the time; it was an international event.

The Palace appears to the undiscerning eye (my own) as an undistinguished contemporary building of the 1960s. But its layout welcomes natural lighting, and it is true to the traditional Eastern philosophical design principal of feng shui. Chinese symbols for auspiciousness, fidelity, humanity, intelligence, strength and prosperity are all incorporated into the design, and there are stylistic nods to the imperial architecture of Hué in its stonework and outlying ponds and gardens.

As the new Vietnamese government was headquartered in Hanoi, the Saigon site had only adjunct usefulness. Today it appears much as it did 45 years ago, its bright, broad corridors opening into expansive reception rooms and offices. Most of these are roped off, viewable only from the outside, but well worth inspecting for their displays of Asian art, including original works, antiques and “presidential gifts.”

Thirty-six chairs surround the table in the Cabinet Meeting Room. (JGA photo)

A central staircase climbs from the main public-reception level to the first floor. Here, 36 chairs around the ovate central table in the Cabinet Meeting Room suggest a lot of voices wanting to be heard. Nearby is a banquet hall and the elaborate Conference Hall, still used on special occasions.

The second floor contains the offices of the president and vice-president and their respective reception rooms. (U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger was received here in 1972.)  The National Security Council met in its own chamber on this floor. And the Nguyen family’s private quarters, including bedrooms and a dining room, were also on this level.

A vintage HC-1 U.S. helicopter sits atop the palace heliport. (JGA photo)

The third floor might best be described as the entertainment center. It had a cinematic theater, a library and a gaming room, with a billiards and casino-style cards tables. Vietnam’s first lady had her private reception room here. A mezzanine extended to a helipad that was bombed by a renegade South Vietnamese air force pilot three weeks before the capitulation of his government.

That helipad (featuring an American helicopter) is better seen from the rooftop terrace, which also affords good views across the city and the palace grounds. A souvenir outlet here sells a variety of memories that glorify Vietnam’s victory, including toy replicas of two original Russian tanks that are parked on the palace lawn.

A souvenir coin is a popular takeaway for palace visitors. (JGA photo)

Digging deep

For many visitors, including myself, the most interesting part of a palace tour is a descent to the basement, where the South Vietnamese government maintained its command center and a presidential bunker — in rooms linked by tight passages and protected by reinforced concrete walls designed to withstand bombs.

A bank of telephones sits ominously in the underground command center. (JGA photo)

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the military intelligence operations that were coordinated here. Rows of telephones, telex machines and short-wave radio transmitters were left just as they were in April 1975. Walls of maps followed soldiers’ activities north and south of the 17th parallel. One of them tracked the infamous supply network known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its spurs, extending from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta, within striking distance of Saigon.

President Nguyen’s spartan quarters only hint at isolation. (JGA photo)

The blast walls in the maximum security shelter were four times as strong as those in the command center. President Nguyễn had direct access via a staircase from his second-floor office, and on April 8, 1975, when the palace was initially bombed, his entire family took refuge here. That’s hard to believe now, when his “bedroom” is depicted with a single bed, two phones, and nothing more.

But Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s much-loved Mercedes-Benz 200 is still parked in the bunker, just around the corner from his secure room and down a hall from a shooting range where target practice was, presumably, a frequent recreation.

A shooting range provided diversion in subterranean lockdown. (JGA photo)

21. My Motorcycle Song

Ho Chi Minh city can be a lonely place if you’re not ready to climb aboard a motorbike. But beware the crosswalks.

Mid-afternoon motorcyclists cross the Thi Nghe bridge between Da Kao and Binh Thanh (JGA photo)

“I don’t want to die,” crooned Arlo Guthrie, the American folk singer. “I just wanna ride on my motorcy — cle.”

Virtually every day of my life in Vietnam, I am on a motorbike. Fifteen months ago, I never would have believed this would happen. I had previously spent hundreds of hours and thousands of miles on bicycles, but (except for a four-day odyssey around Bali in 1976) almost never on a motorized two-wheeler.

Motorbikes outnumber cars (and trucks and buses) in this country by multiples. There are 45 million registered motorbikes in a country of 97 million people. And that doesn’t include highly fuel-efficient 50cc bikes, which are not required to be registered. There are perhaps another 10 million of those.

In Ho Chi Minh city alone, a metropolis of some 13 million people, more than 8.5 million motorbikes are in use, their horns beeping endlessly. They share eight-lane arterial highways and tiny lanes not wide enough for one bike to pass another. Empty lots become de facto parking areas, as do sidewalks and, often, private parlors and living rooms. Business opportunities abound for parking attendants and security guards who can assure the safety of these vehicles for their owners.

A motorbike parking lot in the Da Kao ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh city (JGA photo)

Filling the gaps

All riders must wear fitted helmets, subject to a fine of around US$10; Most do so, although flip-flapping straps are almost as common on drivers as flip-flop sandals. Motorcycles also must not exceed 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph), but few riders are true to that law. They are not patient drivers.

Indeed, it seems most have the same perspective as building contractors: If there’s a gap, an empty space, fill it. Don’t wait behind a half-dozen other bikes at a traffic light when you can wheedle your way through the breach between a bike and a commercial van to get 10 meters closer to the stop line. And if the congestion is too stifling — well, there may be a sidewalk where you can negotiate a passage between pedestrians and mobile kitchens.

Right-of-way between motorbikes is determined by whose tire is ahead of the other’s. Right-of-way for pedestrians is determined by … well, there is no right-of-way for pedestrians. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, my first big culture shock came in merely crossing a street.

An elderly man finds his way through motorbikes in a District 6 crosswalk. (JGA photo)

Negotiating a crosswalk, even with a green walk light, is always an adventure. The key is to wait for an ever-so-minor break in traffic and begin walking slowly and steadily. As long as you don’t stop and start, as long as you maintain a steady pace in the direction you’re going, drivers are very good at gauging your stride. They won’t stop, they rarely even slow down, but they veer at all the proper angles.

If you remember the 1980s video game “Frogger,” you’ll have some idea what it is like. Local TV hostess Tracy Thuy gave me this advice: “When you want to cross the road with so many motorbikes, do not worry. Close your eyes, and then keep walking straight. But during that time, don’t forget to pray to your god. And then you can cross the road!”

Taking the dog for a ride on Vo Van Kiet. (JGA photo)

Safety issues

Fourteen thousand people die on the road in Vietnam every year. In Ho Chi Minh city, the death rate is about 20 per day. Traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death for men and women between the ages of 15 and 29, and motorcycles are responsible for more than half of those deaths. Traffic congestion, inadequate law enforcement, poor driving skills and bad street conditions are often cited as reasons. Police may turn a blind eye or accept a private cash settlement to avoid ticketing.

No doubt, motorbike exhaust contributes mightily to the frightening level of air pollution in both Ho Chi Minh city and Hanoi. In recent years, both cities have proposed schemes to ban motorbikes from the urban core to discourage traffic congestion. By 2030, boosted by new subway systems projected for completion before that time, full-sized motorcycles could be relegated to urban fringes. Already, local manufacturer VinFast is producing smaller electric scooters, cutting into the profits of Honda and Yamaha, who have dominated the motorcycle market in Vietnam for 50 years.

A quick District 5 market stop after work and school. (JGA photo)

Motorcycles aren’t going to go away. For many families, they are the principal means of transportation. It’s common to see mom, dad, three kids and the family dog sharing a single bike. And they carry staggering amounts of goods, as well as people: Visitors are often surprised to see how much can be stacked on a bike. Rather than renting a pickup truck or other four-wheel vehicle, placing the burden on a bike saves time and money.

Motorbike commute

Now, here I am on a motorbike. The cycle isn’t my own, but the helmet is; it’s an Andes, a solid piece of equipment that cost me about VND 300,000 (about US$13).

Every day, I travel the 6.2 km (3.9 miles), between my home in the Binh Thanh district and my work place in District 6, by taxi — motorbike taxi, that is. By day, it costs me about VND 43,000 (about US$1.85). By night, there’s a surcharge of another 20 percent. When I call a bike to take me into the heart of District 1, it costs well under US$1.

A GoJek motorbike taxi driver pauses at a stoplight. (JGA photo)

There are two main ride-sharing services. Singapore-based GrabTaxi merged with Uber in 2018; Grab controls the market in countries throughout Southeast Asia. GoJek (formerly Go Viet) is a newer startup that offers service of similar quality for a substantially lower price. GoJek, however, doesn’t have any cars, and during rainy season, Grab automobile taxis are welcomed by non-drivers who will pay more to stay dry.

A growing number of drivers speak sufficient English to communicate with foreign riders.  Although some pay insufficient heed to safety, hygiene or most convenient routes, the vast majority of drivers are excellent.

Late-night traffic on Duong 3/2. (JGA photo)

Tracy Thuy told me that if I want a serious girlfriend in Ho Chi Minh city, I’m going to have to shell out for a motorbike of my own. I’m not sure that’s worth the risk, as an inexperienced rider, of braving the traffic — especially when there are others who can do it for me!

It’s never a bad time for a nap. (JGA photo)
Rush hour in the Go Vap district. (JGA photo)

20. Flying High in Mui Né

The Vietnamese beach town of Mui Ne is one of the best places in Southeast Asia to take up the sports of kite surfing and paragliding.

Nick unfurls his parasailing wing beside the South China (East) Sea. (JGA photo)

“It’s a lot like drugs,” said Nick, the globetrotting Frenchman. “You can get addicted really easily.”

I had no reason to doubt him. My friend Bill in North America would echo these words. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that both of these gentlemen are junkies.

Oh, not on substances, for heaven’s sake. They get high in a different way. They may uncap an occasional beer or uncork a smooth Bordeaux, but it’s their obsession with the wind that carries them through the heavens beneath a synthetic fabric wing.

Nick and Bill are aficionados of the sports of kite surfing (or kite boarding), a nautical ballet if ever there was one, and even more so, its close cousin paragliding, which they also can enjoy on land … or even snow.

You’re most likely to encounter Bill, who has visited Vietnam but who lives in western Canada, sailing beneath his maple-leaf emblem off the heady cliffs atop Grouse Mountain, near Vancouver. The season doesn’t matter. Nick, who like me makes his home in Ho Chi Minh City, pursues his passion by the sea.

The Sailing Club offers kite surfing lessons on Mui Ne beach. (JGA photo)

The Sailing Club

In Vietnam, there may be no better place to learn and practice kite surfing and paragliding than the sands of Mui Né, 225 kilometers (140 miles) east of HCMC.

Carving a gentle crescent, the south-facing beach at Mui Né extends for more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) along the South China Sea (here known as the East Sea). The main coastal road, Du’ong Nguyen Dinh Chieu, is home to a couple of dozen resorts, most of them low-rise properties with lush gardens stretching from the highway to the beach. Cheap guest houses and a surprisingly international choice of budget restaurants gather on the inland side of Nguyen Dinh Chieu.

Numerous schools teach kite surfing. They have hung their shingles above the beach sands, especially in the area known as Ham Tien, near the west end of the strip. This is said to be the area with the best winds, especially between October and April.

I met Nick at the Sailing Club Resort after a crab Benedict breakfast at Sandals, the resort’s lovely seaside restaurant. The Frenchman was furling his colorful “wing” when I approached and asked some questions about his sport.

A kite surfer on a foilboard soars high above the ocean. (JGA photo)

Steady winds

He had not been kiteboarding, he asserted — indeed, he had no board. The surfer I photographed the evening before had been on a foilboard, with a hydrofoil that extends a meter below the board to provide loft. He wore a harness and held a control bar, with about 20 meters (65 feet) of lines attached to an inflatable “power kite.”

Nick was enjoying what Bill and I would call paragliding. Like a kite surfer, he looks for steady regular winds, not gusts, and he controls the lightweight, free-flying wing by means of suspension lines that extend from his harness. Beyond that, it’s all aerodynamics. He can stay aloft for hours, wearing only beach clothes, a fanny pack and a helmet, and easily cover the kilometers from one end of Mui Né beach to the other.

Paragliding is notably different from parasailing (a person is towed behind a boat with little or no control over the chute) and hang gliding (the pilot is harnessed into an aluminum frame covered with sailcloth, a far more intrepid adventure).

Nick said he especially likes kiting over Mui Né’s white sand dunes, about 24 km (15 miles) east of the main beach strip. With a short run down a sandy hill to catch extra wind, he can climb several hundred meters above the surrounding landscape for spectacular views.

Daunting dunes

Indeed, after the beach itself, the dunes are the #1 attraction in Mui Né. As a native of America’s Pacific Northwest, I’ve been jaded by the expansive Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, but Vietnam’s white dunes (in reality a pale yellow in color) are impressive in their own right.

I only saw these dunes as I rode through on a bus from Phan Rang. But I could see some of the local concessions that Lonely Planet warns tourists about — dune buggies, quad bikes and plastic sleds. I did not observe any evidence of ostrich riding, but apparently that is an activity as well.

Much nearer to central Mui Né are the so-called “red dunes,” whose ochre color is more like Moab and less like the Sahara. They are dissected by a small stream that is fed by pretty Fairy Spring; a trail through rock formations begins not far from the original Mui Né fishing village.

Mui Ne’s “white sand dunes.” (Photo from tourinsaigon.com)

Tourist town

Everyone, of course, has a different experience when they travel. I’m the guy with champagne tastes and a beer budget, so I tend to cover both ends of the spectrum.

I do a lot of walking. And because Mui Né is laid out in a single long strip, it’s a great place for people like me, as well as for joggers. I easily logged a couple of kilometers in either direction from my guest house, and I noticed numerous runners — all of them Westerners — on the sidewalks. There’s little concern for dodging traffic here, unlike in the big Vietnamese cities.

The main cho, or public market, is in the village itself. I didn’t make it that far. But my walks took me past other interesting locations. I enjoyed my visit to the Chùa Phu’óc Thiên pagoda, ornate but tasteful, with lovely gardens and a whimsical statue of a laughing Buddha in its courtyard. The Bo Ke seafood stalls offered a tantalizing selection of critters of all kinds, including some I swear I’d never seen before.

Mui Ne’s Chùa Phu’óc Thiên pagoda. (JGA photo)

In a tourist town, the street signs, especially those on restaurants, tell a story about where tourists come from. In Mui Né, there were as many signs in Russian as in English. European Russians may seek sun in the Mediterranean, but Asian Russians — those from Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Irkutsk and other large cities — are drawn to Vietnam, in part I’m sure because of a shared political philosophy. Indeed, the large coastal city of Nha Trang, as far north of Mui Né as HCMC is west, may have a larger Russian population than even Hanoi.

Eclectic options

But I didn’t eat at any of those, although the Ararat Armenian restaurant may well get my attention on my next visit to the beach. This time, I dined at the Sailing Club’s Sandals restaurant, at the SaiGon MuiNe Resort (grilled grouper), and at the Villa Aria Mui Ne (a seafood platter), all with tables overlooking the sands as the sun went down.

Later in the evening, I visited the Filipino staff at El Latino, a Mexican restaurant that took no offense when I directed the bar staff in how to make a proper margarita. And I wound up at Joe’s Café, a local institution where two live bands perform nightly. It was an entertaining stop, but the bearded Irishman who led a band that tried to funk-ify Marvin Gaye sent me scurrying back to my lodging.

A margarita at El Latino restaurant. (JGA photo)

That would be the NoStress Guest House, a garden spot if there ever was one. Set on a hillside a couple of hundred meters above the main drag, its dozen-or-so guest rooms share a unique vista of green — as in tropical plants large and small, accented by ceramic tchotchkes and a fringe of pink bougainvillea. At US$10 a night, the private room was simple and spacious. It would have been lovely, were it not for the roosters that began crowing at 4 in the morning, and the neighborhood dogs that soon joined the chorus.

I returned to the beach at the Sailing Club on my final morning and thought about my previous meeting with Nick, the adventurous Frenchman.

“It’s easy to learn,” he said of paragliding. “And it doesn’t really take a lot of strength.”

I told him that my only previous experience at the sport was a tandem descent through the clouds at Jackson, Wyoming, in the shadow of the Grand Teton mountains.

“Then I definitely think you should do it!” he exclaimed.

I’ll be back in Mui Né. And now I have another reason.

Sunset on Mui Ne beach. (JGA photo)

19. Crazy About DaLat

Visitors may marvel at the quirky Hang Nga Crazy House, but that’s not the only architectural oddity to stir interest in this Central Highlands city.

The yellow Da Lat Opera House rises behind an artichoke-like cafe. (JGA photo)

It is often said that highly creative people may be a little crazy. That being the case, the hill town of DaLat seems to have more than its fair share.

The quirky architecture found in this community of 350,000, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, contributes mightily to its stand-alone quality among Vietnamese cities. An undeniable streak of independence inspires artists, entrepreneurs and conservationists to turn from convention and do things their own ways. From coffee farmers to wildlife guides, oil painter-chefs to wine producers, there’s a place for anyone here. Eccentricity is not just accepted; in some circles, it’s the norm.

Looking south across the waters of Hồ (lake) Xuân Hương, two hillside structures capture an onlooker’s eye near the Eiffelesque spire of a radio tower. One of the buildings is roundish and yellow, like a half-buried pineapple lying on its side. The other resembles an artichoke. They are hardly the concepts from which socialist dreams are nurtured and grown.

The courtyard of the Crazy House is sheltered by a giant banyan tree. (JGA photo)

More Dali than Disney

The same might be said of Dr. Dang Viet Nga’s Hang Nga Crazy House — if the architect were not the daughter of Trường Chinh, a Vietnamese Communist party leader through the years of war with France and the United States.

This eccentric estate, formally dubbed Hang Nga (“Moon Goddess”) Villa, is truly an architectural oddity, more Gaudi than Gehry, more Dali than Disney. Nga, who studied and practiced architecture in Moscow from 1959 to 1972, moved to DaLat in 1983 after a decade with the cultural ministry in Hanoi. She designed and began to build the house in 1990 and called it complete 20 years later. But it clearly remains a work in progress, as there are plentiful signs of ongoing construction both inside and outside.

Frightening fingers creep down an arboreal wall at the Crazy House. (JGA photo)

Entering the complex (where Nga, now in her 80s, still lives) is like following the March Hare down the rabbit hole, or tracking Peter Pan’s Lost Boys into their arboreal refuge. From a courtyard beneath a fanciful five-story banyan tree, seemingly directionless staircases climb to slender bridges with jungle-vine handrails. These link a series of audaciously decorated rooms — some straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien, others, like the “Ocean Room,” more Jules Verne — and colorful outdoor areas.

Bony red hands that creep down a garden’s giant tree-trunk wall seem more attuned to a horror film than to a freewheeling forest. But turn a “corner” (there are no straight lines or angles here) and you’ll find yourself passing a … guest room? Yes, the Crazy House is also a boutique hotel. Rooms are sculpted like caverns within the hollows of what appear to be giant roots, their spider-web windows one more example of Nga’s commitment to recreating a whimsical natural environment.

A guest room at the Crazy House appears to be hollowed from a tree root. (JGA photo)

Fruits and veggies

The “pineapple” on the hillside above the lake is the Da Lat Opera House, which opened in 2020 at a cost of over US$3 million. With a three-story theater and an 850-seat outdoor auditorium, the concert hall was specifically designed to present performances of live classical and acoustical music and to attract international festivals. There’s a gallery for art exhibitions, as well as an underground cinema complex, bowling alley, video-games center, restaurant and gym.

I can’t say for certain, but I suspect the architect is the same person who designed the nearby Doha Café. This green “artichoke” rises three floors above a public plaza just west of the Opera House. Both structures overlook a tented public market selling everything from clothing to rosewood furniture, from cheap jewelry to dried fruit and nuts.

A better choice for market lovers might be Cho Da Lat in the heart of downtown. Each morning, the stalls are replenished with a new abundance of strawberries, avocadoes, durian fruit, and of course flowers by the thousands. Indeed, Da Lat likes to call itself the “city of eternal spring.”

A flower vendor at Cho Da Lat is immersed in color. (JGA photo)

Food and drink

The sweeping steps that rise above the central market area lead pedestrians to Hoa Binh Square, the focal point of a web of streets that wind away in every direction. Here are some of the city’s nicer mid-range hotels, restaurants and bars.

On Tru’ong Cóng Dinh street alone, eateries include Goc Ha Thanh, which makes a great Thai-style chicken curry; The Sky Over Da Lat vegetarian restaurant and gallery (try the cauliflower gratin pizza); and Mỹ Liên Từ’s carnivore-luring Aussie Burger bistro. Down the hill, at Artist Alley, on Phan Dinh Phung, accomplished painter Vo Trinh Bien hangs his oils and acrylics in the same upstairs room where ostrich steaks and grilled sea bass delight Western palates.

I would love to recommend Da Lat wines, but I cannot. It seems that most are sweet, high-potency varietals (as much as 17.5% alcohol) with a substantial blend of local mulberry juice. Wine lovers are better directed to Le Retour, a dedicated wine bar on Phan Boi Chau that specializes in European imports.

Eccentric decor and steep, narrow staircases are hallmarks of the Maze Bar. (JGA photo)

Amazing places

One establishment not to miss in this area is the Maze Bar, also known as “100 Roofs.” Coffee shop by day, bar by night, it’s a bohemian response to the Hang Nga Crazy House — like something out of The Hobbit. There are no jungle vines, no viaducts, but dark, narrow staircases that connect clandestine chambers conjure claustrophobia in even the most adventurous and level-headed visitors. Climbing five stories from basement to multiple rooftops, the watering hole is decorated with a trove of tribal antiques and collectibles from all over the world, adding even more mystery to its oddness.

Far saner is the DaLat Mountain View, a café and dessert stop that promises “coffee, joy, music” from its ridgetop outpost on the city’s east side. The view across the verdant highlands from the spacious deck draws throngs of young visitors for selfies and group photos framed by luxuriant foliage and luxurious hillside homes. And there’s nothing crazy about that.

A visitor to the DaLat Mountain View cafe enjoys the view from the deck. (JGA photo)

Next: The beach at Mui Ne

18. A Visit to DaLat

A holiday in the Central Highlands yields delightfully cool temperatures, great street food, year-round flowers and a beautiful town-center lake.

Purple blossoms, perhaps lupine, are among many that make DaLat the flower capital of Vietnam. (JGA photo)

Christmas doesn’t seem like a winter holiday when the weather is hot and muggy, as it almost always is in Ho Chi Minh City. A visit to DaLat offered a way to escape the heat, and a lot more.

This former French colonial hill town — its center rising like a citadel above the surrounding sprawl — sits at about 1,500 meters’ elevation in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, nearly 5,000 feet higher than sea-level Saigon. Eight hours on a bus, to travel 240 kilometers (150 miles), was a small price to pay for the reduction in heat.

By the time I arrived at DaLat in the early evening, the thermometer had dipped from 84 degrees to 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 Celsius). Townspeople were swaddled in downy parkas, gloves and wool hats. Santa’s sleigh, perched on a fountain in the central roundabout, didn’t look so out of place. But there was no danger of a white Christmas: No one could see their breaths.

The poinsettias didn’t have to be covered. Indeed, they were being sold in the public market, along with dozens of other kinds of flowers that, even now, were growing wild and in gardens throughout this provincial capital of 350,000.

Mountains and jungle surround the highway near Bao Loc. (JGA photo)

A jungle out there

My bus from Saigon was a luxurious sleeper coach, with just 22 recliner seats well suited to overnight journeys. I may someday take advantage of that option, but for my first visit to DaLat, I was glad for the scenery.

The first couple of hours were decidedly urban as we crossed the wide Saigon River and proceeded through the modern industrial suburb of Bien Hoa. As Dong Nai province grew more rural, small farms became visible behind a single row of buildings that lined the highway. After the small town of Tan Phu, we began a steep climb through jungle-covered mountains to Bao Loc.

As we crossed into Lam Dong province, I looked out my window at a dozen different shades of green. The highway switch-backed around broadleaf foliage and sturdy trees draped head-to-toe with liana vines. I could imagine monkeys, colorful birds, snakes and other wildlife, perhaps even rare tigers, that might be hiding here.

In the wink of an eye, we climbed the last hill, left the jungle and emerged on a street where coffee was king. Every home in Bao Loc, it seemed, had fresh coffee beans — olive green, chocolate brown and blond — spread to dry on blankets in their yards.

Street vendors offer skewered meats on a cold night. (JGA photo)

Street eats

A picturesque two-hour ridgeline drive ended at my hotel in DaLat.  (My booking at a budget inn called Khánh Hân was so disappointing that I moved the next day to the Phu’ong Vy boutique hotel. This was superior in every way, at the hardly exorbitant nightly cost of US$13).

I was just in time for dinner. In the town center, a street market on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai was drawing a large Monday night crowd. Several women, dressed for the wintery weather, were hawking skewered meats, which they barbecued over sizzling coals as I sat with a Tiger beer. The chicken and beef sticks were good, but the baby squid and okra combination was exquisite.

Further down the row, a young man had his own mobile street-food café at which he offered bánh tráng nướng, otherwise known as “Da Lat pizza.” Instead of wheaten dough, he used several layers of rice paper, topped with a beaten egg to prevent burning, then grilled on a hibachi. Cream cheese, mayonnaise, chili sauce, spring onions and other ingredients, including locally made sausage, were added as it cooked. I especially liked the strawberry flair at the finish, but I think avocadoes, another popular local product, might have been more complementary.

DaLat “pizza” is a local specialty. (JGA photo)

Like a banana moon

As a mountain-town boy living in the Ho Chi Minh City megalopolis, one of the things that I miss most is having places to walk where there’s no traffic to dodge. Even circuits of the big city parks, where many choose to exercise, aren’t appealing to me.

I loved walking in DaLat, especially around Hồ (lake) Xuân Hương. It’s in the heart of town, entirely fringed by a park strip. Some say this reservoir is shaped like a crescent moon, others like a banana; I suppose they’re both right. On my first morning, I easily covered the 5-kilometers (3.2-mile) circumference in a casual two-hour stroll, with plenty of time for photographs.

My initial destination was the DaLat Flower Garden, on the north shore furthest from the city center. En route, I paused at a purple-painted lakefront café, where I enjoyed a cup of local coffee; a tiny marina, where paddleboats disguised as giant swans attracted parents visiting with young children; and a depot for ornate horse-drawn carriages that could have been extras in Disney’s Cinderella.

There were swans on the lake, but no “nutcracker.” (JGA photo)

Floral wonders

But I was grateful to use my own horsepower. And as I ambled, I was astounded by the botanical wonders lining this promenade. I passed white and orange trumpet flowers, pink and red hibiscus, jacaranda, mimosa and poinsettias. There were anthurium, ginger, morning glory, hydrangea and crepe myrtle.

Tiny, delicate blossoms peeked from quiet garden corners and flamboyant garlands draped from trees. There were red flowers, purple flowers, yellow flowers, pink flowers, more than I could put names to.  The Flower Garden was an anticlimax, a few beds of carefully tended fuchsias and orchids amidst seasonal kitsch such as Santa and reindeer.

Poinsettias grow wild along the streets of DaLat. (JGA photo)

I turned at the head of the lake and followed the south shore back toward the town center, passing en route an inconspicuous pagoda, a public market (where I purchased a stock of fresh roasted cashews and dried apricots), and the DaLat Opera House (more on which in my next blog). Along the fertile shoreline, hobby fishermen pulled in catches of what, to my untrained eye, appeared to be carp, as white cattle egrets stared on hungrily.

And to think: I had not even spent 24 hours yet in DaLat. What would tomorrow bring?  Indeed, what was ahead for the afternoon?

DaLat’s town center rises like a citadel above its surroundings. (JGA photo)

Next: Crazy? Who’s crazy?

17. Christmas in Vietnam

Although its Christian population is relatively small, Vietnam is all about wishing you a merry Christmas.

Santa tramples the blossoms in the Da Lat Flower Garden. (JGA photo)

He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.

No, I’m not talking about the Vietnamese government. I’m talking about Santa Claus. It seems everywhere I look this days, I see some version of the jolly old soul, with or without reindeer, inviting the people of this Southeast Asian country to join in the Christmas spirit.

Never mind that fewer than 10% of Vietnam’s people are Christian. I suspect that not many people here associate the holiday with the birth of Jesus. But that doesn’t stop the masses from singing non-sectarian seasonal songs (“Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” is a favorite), spending small fortunes to decorate their Christmas trees, or visiting with Santa himself in urban department stores.

A child at Saigon Centre hopes Santa gets her letter. (JGA photo)

Holiday spirit

Chúc Giáng Sinh (“Merry Christmas”)! As a resident Westerner, I do find a hint of home in the banners draped across hotels and restaurants that depend upon expatriate business. I’ve been listening to holiday music since mid-November.

But unlike the West, there’s no halt in day-to-day activities during the Christmas period. Some commercial offices, especially those that employ foreigners, may find time for holiday parties, but there are no days off. Business continues as usual. Ditto public schools, where students are preparing for end-of-the-calendar-year examinations.

As far as most of Vietnam is concerned, the new year begins not on January 1, but with the Lunar New Year, which in 2021 falls on February 12. That’s when everyday life comes to a complete halt for a week, when urbanites return to their “hometowns” to visit family and friends.

A holiday sign at the Cha Tam church in Saigon’s Cholon district (JGA photo)

Catholic legacy

Of Vietnam’s 9 million Christians, a majority live in the southern part of the country, near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). About 80% of them are Roman Catholic, a legacy of Jesuits and other missionaries — French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish — who began visiting in the 16th century. The written Vietnamese language (with its diacritical marks) owes its very existence to these emissaries of the Pope.

During the “American” War of 1954-75, a great many Vietnamese Catholics fled persecution in Marxist North Vietnam for the shelter of South Vietnam, where archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc just happened to be the brother of republican president Ngo Dinh Diem. Today, there’s a great deal more religious freedom. In fact, Vietnam’s government has semi-normalized its ties with the Vatican, unlike China and other communist countries of Asia.

Nativity grotto at Dalat Cathedral (JGA photo)

The churches, of course, celebrate the birth of Christ with choral events, Christmas Eve masses and other activities. In Vietnam, they also invariably build grottos in the form of mangers. Blankets, aluminum foil, perhaps papier mâché and other materials, are used to fashion these crude constuctions both indoors and out, with nativity scenes carefully constructed within them. They remind me of the Stations of the Cross — without the stations.

Ho ho ho! (not a selfie)

And yes, this Santa is yours truly in disguise. Please allow me to wish all of my friends, family and dedicated followers around the world the very best for the holiday season. It’s a new year in 2021, and for all the changes that 2020 has wrought, we can be excited about positive changes in the months ahead.

Next: A visit to Da Lat

16. In the Time of Corona

Vietnam has a record of remarkable success against COVID-19, which has ravaged much of the rest of the world.

Frame from a public-service TV commercial in Vietnam

In this landmark year of 2020, North American friends have asked me no question more often than: “What’s going on with COVID in Vietnam?”

As a matter of fact, there is probably nowhere in the world that I would rather be.

In sharp contrast to most Western nations, Vietnam has been in almost complete control of the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic, since the first case was detected here on March 6.

The following statistics — current as of December 18 — underscore the country’s success.

Vietnam population: 97.7 million. Total cases: 1,407. Total deaths: 35 (none since September 3). Active cases: 109.

Contrast this to the United States, which has far and away the worst COVID record in the world. US population: 332 million. Total cases: 17.6 million. Total deaths: 318,000. Active cases: 7 million.

For every million people who live in Vietnam, 14 have contracted the disease, and 0.4 have died. For every million people who live in the US, 53,100 have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 958 have died. The rate of infection in the US is 2,400 times greater than in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, the average number of new cases per day, since March, is five. In the United States, the average number of daily new cases during that same time period is 61,000. Daily new cases are now approaching a quarter of a million.

It is a shocking disparity.

Cautionary poster emphasizes face mask use

Do as you are told

How can a country that is considered a world leader in the field of medicine be such an utter failure at managing a deadly disease, when a Third World nation has such success? Without pointing a finger at political mismanagement in the US, here’s my interpretation.

First, Vietnam’s government is authoritarian, not democratic. It’s a one-party, communist system. When you’re told to do something, you do it. A higher power makes the decisions for you. There may be some minor acts of personal rebellion, but heavy fines and possible imprisonment await those who try to assert their rights as individuals, especially if they are counter to the political line. Communism advocates the belief that “We’re all in this together.”

Secondly, the Vietnamese people are used to wearing face masks. Especially in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and Ha Noi, where most citizens ride exhaust-spewing motorbikes, and where air pollution is a health hazard in itself, it is de rigueur to breathe through a filter on the city streets and highways. When the federal government mandated that masks be worn at all times, no one questioned the ruling.

Although this is a communist society, it is also, beyond question, a capitalistic one. People like to make money. So in March, when the severity of the first wave of COVID became apparent, an order to close all but the most essential businesses was met with shock and consternation.

Initially, this focused on places where people gather in close proximity — bars, restaurants, coffee shops and retail merchants. Soon, public transportation was shut down as well. Government schools were closed and private academies, such as my own, were told to do the same. (APAX Leaders, where I work, transitioned to online instruction within a week thereafter.)

Hospitals, pharmacies and major groceries remained open with skeleton staffs. Virtually everyone else in the country went into self-quarantine. We stayed at home. Once a week, I walked three blocks to the supermarket, where I had to pass a security screening (temperature taken, hands scrubbed with disinfectant) before I could do my shopping. I cooked at home, worked online, and read a lot.

TV commercial spot: Wash your hands!

Invasion of privacy

By mid-April, the initial threat had mostly waned without a single death. Then, in the latter part of July, there was a second, harsher wave, traced to a handful of illegal immigrants in the resort city of Da Nang. All of the country’s deaths occurred during this period. If COVID were going to truly surge in Vietnam, this is when it would have happened. It didn’t.

A good part of Vietnam’s success might be credited to “contact tracing.” As soon as a corona victim is identified, he or she is relentlessly grilled to determine any and all of their contacts in the two weeks prior.

The information is then published. That includes names, residential addresses (to alert the neighborhood), and businesses they are known to have visited — stores, restaurants, gyms where they may work out, karaoke bars where they may take the microphone.

Is this an invasion of privacy? Absolutely! It would not go down well in Western democracies, where individual freedoms are more highly valued than society as a whole. But it’s hard to argue with success, at least in this case.

COVID dancer Quang Dong goes viral

Feeling the bite

Even in this safe place, a great many Vietnamese remain terrified by the implications of COVID-19. There remains some fear of domestic travel, even to areas with no history of this flu. Restaurant and bar business continues to suffer. And in my classrooms, I still hear, “I wear a mask because of COVID.” Whenever anyone coughs or sneezes, an alarm flag is raised.

Ad campaigns have contributed to the heightened awareness. Early in the COVID era, a public-service television commercial with a catchy jingle reminded viewers to wear masks and wash their hands assiduously. When a Saigon dance choreographer produced a video and uploaded it to TikTok, it became a viral (no pun intended) sensation. And everywhere, there continue to be billboards and print advertisements reminding the public to keep vigilant.

Few segments of the national economy have been affected as much as the travel industry. Because airports were quickly determined to be the biggest offenders, where the virus entered the country, Vietnam suspended inbound international flights as early as March 25. That effectively put a temporary end to tourism.

In September, some flights to selected Asian countries — including China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore — resumed. But incoming passengers are still required to spend two weeks in quarantine (either in a private home or a hotel) until they can again freely mix in public.

Now, with vaccines about to become available, the country is again promoting tourism for 2021. A new ad campaign by Vietnam Tourism — Why Not Vietnam? | Vietnam Tourism — highlights many of this nation’s stunning attractions.

And that’s a subtle invitation to my friends around the world to come visit.

Keep the pandemic from exploding!

Next: Christmas in Ho Chi Minh City

15. Kindergarten Pop

English teaching is big business in Vietnam, where it seems everyone wants to learn the world’s most widely spoken language. But it can be a challenge for a novice instructor.

Kindergarten-age students in a teaching environment. (JGA photo)

Anyone who thinks teaching 4- and 5-year-olds is easier than lecturing to 20-year-old university students obviously has never spent much time around young children.

When I committed to an English-teaching job in Vietnam, I did so with the naivety of a jellyfish. I hadn’t planned on teaching at the kindergarten level, but if that were to be my temporary destiny, I figured the kids would all be like Sponge Bob. They would simply absorb the new language as I showed them pictures and drilled the vocabulary.

Guess again. Every one of these kids has a personality as unique as my brother, my sister and I. Who knew? There may be a couple of sponges in each class of 10 to 12 students, but every day I find myself wrestling with tears, misbehavior, clinginess, hyperactivity and attention deficit (big time). Some children won’t let go of stuffed animals. Others don’t want to lose sight of Mommy.

Thankfully, I am assisted at the younger levels by bilingual Vietnamese teaching assistants, young men and women with some expertise at soothing childhood anxiety.

Classes are 90 minutes, twice a week. I regularly devote a large part of that block — 30 minutes or more — to short videos, singing, and arts-and-crafts activities. I learned quickly that I must entertain as well as educate, to maintain any level of attention.

Young “Ryan” puts the finishing touches on a picture of Picachu. (JGA photo)

Learning phonics

The course material provided by APAX Leaders, my parent English education company, is very phonics-oriented. The most basic level (“Cocoon”) starts with learning the alphabet: “Letter ‘A’ sounds like ‘ah.’ Letter ‘B’ sounds like ‘bah.’” It’s easy to confuse the sounds of “b” and “p,” of “d” and “t.” And how do I explain that “C” can sounds like either “k” or “s”?

Some of the quietest kids are the ones who grasp the material most quickly. Some of the loudest kids have the greatest struggles with phonics. I don’t want to say they seem hopeless, but, well, take Sarah, for instance. Please, take her. She is an impudent little princess, but after several months in class, she still can’t recite a letter. Yet impish Ben and teeny, tiny Mimi have the right answers nearly every time.

Yes, the children are encouraged to take common English names. Most of the choices are American or British. But in my various classes, I have girls who go by Sky, Pink, Mori and Xuka, and boys named Coco, jindo and Yasuo. Food names are popular: Strawberry, Sushi, Cherry, Mint, Candy and Apple. So are superheroes and their ilk: Spiderman, Conan, Sonic.

The front desk staff at APAX Leaders, Pham Dinh Ho, District 6 (JGA photo)

Moving up

Now, not all of my students at APAX Leaders are this young. Indeed, my classes span all age categories up to about 15. The youngest, after progressing through two levels of Cocoon, move up to Caterpillar and Butterfly. The older students, most of them at least 8 years old, progress through the levels of Seedbed, Seed, Sprout and Sapling as their knowledge expands and their fluency improves.

As a teacher, I emphasize listening, speaking, reading and writing. A typical lesson will begin with vocabulary review, followed by the recitation of a picture story. Next comes a series of questions designed to test comprehension of the material. It’s easy to tell who listens and who doesn’t.

 Among the older kids, in classes that top out at 16, talking is the biggest disciplinary problem. Our first classroom rule is “Speak English!” and many youngsters gradually learn to adhere. But there are exceptions to every rule. When my irritating toy bicycle horn fails to produce a degree of silence, I have a booming voice: “Be quiet!” may shortly be followed by “Shut up!”

10-to-12-year-olds in Seedbed class (JGA photo)

Prep and progress

There’s a substantial amount of “prep” (class preparation) that goes on for an hour or so before classes begin.  At the conclusion of every three- to four-week unit, I use a tablet to video the class, creating short movies for parents to observe their children’s progress.  (I like to ask the students, “How are you?” One girl responded, “I’m fucking great!”)

And several times a year, I write individual critiques of each of the kids whom I instruct.

This has been the general program since I began teaching English at the end of December last year. For about six weeks in March and April, when fear of the corona virus crested in Vietnam, I stayed home and conducted online classes via Zoom.

That was sufficient but far from ideal. My shouts of “Be quiet!” were much fewer in number, but online teaching did not provide a practical method of drilling and follow-up.

I’ll talk about the virus (COVID-19) and its impact on Vietnam in my next blog.

APAX Leaders, Pham Dinh Ho, District 6, Ho Chi Minh City (JGA photo)

Next: Here comes COVID-19

14. The Sacred and the Profane

A celebration of the Tet holiday, in a Mekong Delta village, is a magical mystery tour of Buddhist spirituality, drinking games, unthinkable foods and cockfights.

Kurt Bennett at the Quoi An pagoda on the eve of Tet (JGA photo)

Years ago, when I was a student of world religions, required reading was a book called The Sacred and the Profane. In his work, author Mircea Eliade compared and contrasted the serenity and devotion of a spiritual practice with the chaos of non-religious activities.

I couldn’t help but reflect on that volume during my few days in Quới Ân. In this tiny Mekong Delta fishing village, in a very real sense, I experienced extremes of both.

The acrid smell of burning incense drew Kurt, Thi and I into the village pagoda early on the eve of the Tet new year, which in 2020 fell on January 25. Within the shrine, we were captured by the seductive scent of two Đầu lân (“cannonball”) trees, their riotous, crimson-and-yellow blossoms dangling between the beige pods that give the plant its English name.

Đầu lân (“cannonball”) tree at Quoi An pagoda (JGA photo)

A padded gong gently announced our arrival to a young priest, whose face lit into a broad smile as Kurt and Thi approached. Kurt embraced his wife’s Buddhist faith when they were married. His annual returns to his wife’s hometown are met with anticipation not only by the immediate family, but by the greater Quới Ân community, as well. (I had already grown accustomed to him wishing “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới,” “Happy New Year,” to everyone we passed as we walked.)

A young monk accepts envelope offerings at Quoi An pagoda (JGA photo)

The monk was grateful for temple-goers’ offerings, each gift discreetly hidden in a holiday-red envelope. The pagoda’s upkeep and maintenance, as well as the holy man’s own spartan quarters, are reliant upon community support.

I followed Kurt and Thi as they visited each room of the sanctuary, occasionally pausing to pray at colorful altars and austere memorials, some of them framed in Chinese characters. “If my wife says it will assure me a better after-life, I’m all for it,” said Kurt, a large man raised in a blue-collar family in Oregon.

Kurt and Thi offer prayers at the pagoda (JGA photo)

Offerings of fruit, flowers and incense adorned altars to the Sakyamuni Buddha, often protected by icons of fierce warriors. The many-armed goddess of mercy, Quan Yin, had a central place of respect. Against one wall stood an antique bronze bell, its bench and hammer confirming that it was often in use.

Outside were whimsical animal images, including an Easter Bunny look-alike cavorting with fat, laughing Buddha sculptures in the garden. In a kitchen at the rear of the pagoda, local women volunteers prepared vegan food to share with worshippers.

An image of the Buddha crowns this Quoi An altar (JGA photo)

I could quite happily have stayed all afternoon and evening in the little pagoda. I might even have been inspired to revisit the meditation practice that I learned long ago, in a far-away Zen forest retreat, but now too often forget.

The Tet feast

But the next day was the Tet holiday itself, and we had a big day planned. I borrowed a motorbike and followed my new “clan” to another sister’s house — Thi has seven, after all.

I would never find the house again, not without a guide. There are no roads here in the remote Delta, at least not as Westerners define roads. Narrow, lightly black-topped byways, wide enough only for motorbikes, meander through forests of palms and mangroves. Riders who venture onto these lanes are serenaded by an abundance of birds that are mostly unseen, but whose melodious songs leave no doubt of their presence.

The road to the party (JGA photo)

Some of the bike trails cross narrow bridges over muddy canals where fishing boats lie in tilted repose, destined to sleep at 45-degree angles until the start of the next rainy season. Chickens scamper helter-skelter through fallen fronds, raising no notice among sleepy cats and dogs that slumber through the tropical late-morning heat.

The country house was already bustling by the time we arrived. Sisters and children scurried in and out of the doors, past their grandparents’ granite graves in a part of the adjacent jungle that was cut back for burial purposes. The moment we arrived, Thi made a beeline for her mother’s cremains, boxed beside a shrine in the living area.

Kurt and I relaxed with beers in folding chairs on the covered patio. We were soon joined by other menfolk. In almost no time, raised glasses and chants of “Môt, hai, ba, yo!” had begun.

Drinking games took a back seat to eating as soon as the repast began in earnest. Women, men and children, all of whom seemed to prefer gender- or age-appropriate conversation to communal dining, sat at three large, round tables.

Quite the feast: a Tet new year dinner (JGA photo)

And what a feast it was! Whole baked bullfrog. Crispy duck, complete with head. Grilled snakehead fish. Baby octopus with mushrooms and river vegetables. Homemade sausage. Gỏi cuốn spring rolls. Barbecued eel, straight from the rice paddies. Marinated field mice.

I tried to eat everything. I really did. The eel, fish and octopus were delicious, as were the sausage and spring rolls. I love duck, but not with Daffy’s beak on the plate. I even nibbled gently at the frog, pulling bones away from rubbery skin, though I found its white meat unremarkable in flavor. But the mice, still with tails attached? Somehow, I just couldn’t go there.

Down the rabbit hole

No, hand me another beer. Please! “Môt, hai, ba, yo!” A popular drinking challenge among men is to see who can empty their glass the fastest. Watered down by large cubes of ice, the ale disappears quickly.

At some time during the drinking games, as the afternoon shadows grew longer, one of the party goers began crowing about his prize-winning fighting cocks.

The losing entry (JGA photo)

Cockfighting is a traditional if brutal sport that has been banned by the Vietnamese government. Its illegal status, however, doesn’t dissuade devotees from pursuing their passion. A lot of money is gambled when the roosters are wrestling, and many men have lost a small fortune in the chicken ring.

When I confessed that I had never witnessed a cockfight, my new acquaintance leapt to his feet. Less than a half-hour later, he returned to the party not only with his own frenzied fowl, but with a willing opponent and his bird. And before long, a dozen would-be local gamblers straggled in.

Roosters do not like each other very much. There isn’t much love lost between males when a harem of hens is involved. The hatred is intensified when their owners ruffle the birds’ feathers — literally — after bandaging claw-like spikes to their feet. By the time the cocks are released to do battle, their only thought is to kill or be killed.

The pair that I observed matched a brown-crested black rooster against another with a flowing blond crest, Dennis Rodman versus Hulk Hogan. The fight went two rounds, after which the blond was mortally wounded. I’m sure he made a fine dinner for someone the following night.

If this wasn’t sacred — and it was not — it was most certainly profane.

Drinking with new friends: “Mot, hai, ba, yo!” (JGA photo)

Next: Kindergarten pop