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

13. Journey to the Mekong

Nearly 80 percent of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is covered with rice. The region is always wet and green. But a visit to a tiny riverside village is a cultural adventure as well as a geographic one. …

A tiny Mekong Riverside house in Quoi An, Vinh Long province (JGA photo)

The Mekong Delta includes everything south and west of Ho Chi Minh City, an area about the size of Switzerland or The Netherlands. Its 12 provinces embrace the mouths of the Mekong River, which starts as a trickle on China’s Tibetan Plateau and runs 2,700 miles (4,350 km) down the borders of Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. It finally pours through Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea, known here as the East Sea.

The Mekong exits the vast Asian heartland not as a single vein, but as a network of intertwined capillaries, a multitude of canals linking natural waterways. For most of its human history, it was navigated only by boat. Even in the modern era of bridge building, many homes remain on the water, and a handful of traditional floating markets persist. The major towns, including Can Tho, with its 1½ million people, are bustling commercial centers.

I was glad to visit the Mekong and escape metropolitan HCMC during the Tet holiday of 2020. Embracing an invitation from my old friend Kurt Bennett, I traveled to Vinh Long province and the tiny village of Quới Ân, a place that isn’t found on any tourist map.

Quới Ân is the family home of Kurt’s wife, Thi, whom he met when working in HCMC some years ago. This year during Tet — Vietnam’s annual mid-winter tribute to the lunar new year — Kurt and Thi invited me to share several days with Thi’s extended family, which welcomed us as guests in one sister’s rural home.

Dream waits astride his motorbike for a Mekong River ferry (JGA photo)

Motorbike adventure

Thi’s nephew, “Dream,” as he calls himself, was more than happy to provide my transportation from the city. Self-taught in English, this young man in his early 20s, a shipping clerk and dedicated runner, made a great companion for my four-hour motorbike ride into the pastoral hinterlands. I took what I needed in a small backpack, donned my facemask and helmet, then shared the rear seat of his Honda Air Blade with three pizza boxes. The family in Quới Ân loved it when he gifted them city cooking, Dream explained.

As we traveled, urban sprawl slowly dissipated, along with smog and the relentless buzz of motorcycles. It gave way first to modern industrial parks, then to rice fields as we headed westerly from HCMC on Highway 1. Nearly half of this country’s rice, in a variety of textures and colors, is produced in the Delta.

Loosely tethered water buffalo grazed beside the highway, occasionally lifting their heads to low deeply and slog to a new patch of grass and mud. Behind them, as we scooted across the fertile countryside, the rising sun cast diminishing shadows on a multitude of greens — emerald, jade, celadon. Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn” would have been an appropriate soundtrack.

I was grateful to break the journey twice, giving my hind side a rest, for cups of coffee at roadside cafés. Already, still not far from the big city, I felt my muscles relaxing and urban stress slipping away.

A local ferry crosses one of the many ocean-bound rivulets of the Mekong River. (JGA photo)

At the market town of My Tho, we exited Highway 1 and took the back road through languid Ben Tre, a center for day-tripping urban explorers who want to see the Delta but return at night to the comfort of their Ho Chi Minh City hotels. We didn’t pause, instead climbing high above the waters of the Mekong on a couple of Vietnam’s longest and highest bridges. From these perches, it was easy to get a sense of how this region might have looked a century or two ago: broad muddy rivers and rivulets dissecting deep green palm forests, small fishing boats venturing into the flow from villages built on stilts in the middle of the streams.

Beyond Cai Mon, there were more backroads. These had no bridges for river crossings; small ferries took us where we wanted to go. The last one, not coincidentally, crossed the Mekong channel known as the Cổ Chiên and deposited Dream and I directly in Quới Ân.

Arrival in Quới Ân

Kurt and Thi greeted us in the open market next to the ferry terminal. Compared to Saigon, the market was (as English-speaking Vietnamese like to say) “same, same, but different.” “Same” were the abundant displays of fruits and vegetables harvested that very morning from local farms: mangoes, bitter melon, water spinach and dark green — rarely orange — oranges. “Same” were the mountains of fresh coconuts and the stalls of inexpensive clothing and cookware in tidy but crowded shops. The fragrance of fresh flowers from nearby nurseries was a welcome antidote to other, less pleasant market odors.

Ducks awaiting slaughter bicker in the Quoi An marketplace (JGA photo)

Decidedly “different” were the river fish flopping in shallow baths next to prawns, octopi and eels. The latter were plucked from rice fields along with chubby bullfrogs, dozens of which clambered over one another in tubs beside a chortling merchant. Plump white ducks bickered from an open crate that stood beside the butchered carcasses of their kin. This clearly was not a place that saw many tourists.

From the market to Thi’s sister’s house, we followed a narrow dirt track along the riverbank, passing a colorful pagoda, a long-abandoned elementary school and several well-loved homes. I wondered how some of these houses survive heavy seasonal rains and flooding.

Certainly, the potential for natural disaster is increasing each year. Global warming is causing oceans to rise and inundate the banks of the Mekong, which in Vietnam is barely above sea level anyway. Vinh Long city, 173 miles (278 km) inland, has an elevation of fewer than 10 feet (about 3 meters) above sea level. Dire forecasts paint a gloomy picture for rice farmers in future decades.

Home away from home in Quoi An village (JGA photo)

For now, however, my friends’ family is unaffected. The elder sister’s home, where we stayed, faces a serene country lane a couple of hundred meters from the river, behind a sand-and-gravel company lot. With marble floors, it is surprisingly spacious and beautiful, both inside and out. Family portraits and Buddhist iconography adorn rosewood furnishings. Outdoors, a flagstone fountain, bonsai sculpture and animal statuary point the way to a charming gazebo.

During the next few days of Tet, the gazebo became an outdoor party space. It was put to good use by husbands and boyfriends anxious to hoist a tin of beer — Tiger, Saigon Special or 333 (say “Ba Ba Ba”) — with the foreign visitors. And that’s where the next installment of this blog will continue.

Dream, Kurt, John and Thi in Quoi An

Next: The sacred and the profane

12. No Thanksgiving? No problem

Where does an expatriate eat Thanksgiving dinner when it’s being served half a world away? …

Quince manager Kim Nguyen (JGA photo)

It’s Thanksgiving week back in the United States, my home country. I have indelible memories of family feasting — of roast turkey, its juices locked in by its crispy skin; of moist stuffing and mashed potatoes with savory gravy; of candied yams and green beans and cranberry sauce; and especially of mom’s freshly baked apple pie with vanilla ice cream.

This year, of course, health concerns have curtailed many family gatherings in North America. And I’m in Vietnam, far from the gobble of turkey farms. But living in Vietnam doesn’t sentence a foreign national to a diet of only soup and noodles.

That’s especially true in cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City, a metropolis of about 13 million people where a foodie can find pretty much whatever he or she wants. And I plan to eat well for this and other holidays.

Quince Eatery

Duck magret at Quince Eatery (JGA photo)

Duck is a worthy replacement for turkey. No doubt, I will enjoy it at Quince Eatery, recently named Vietnam’s best restaurant by Vietcetera magazine. Located in the gritty Nguyen Thai Binh ward of HCMC’s District 1, it is blessed with the culinary talents of French-born chef Julien Perraudin — himself the magazine’s “chef of the year” — and a trove of young talent who someday soon will make names for themselves.

The menu features plates like wagyu steak bavette and whole roasted mackerel (in the US$28 to $39 range).  In particular, Perraudin’s aged Barbary duck magret, cooked medium rare, is superb. I’ve ordered it twice, with pickled cherries and a stir of parsnip purée and …  and I will order it again.

Ice cream with honeycombs at Quince Eatery (JGA photo)

A fig-and-beetroot salad is one of my favorite sides. And desserts are, as the saying goes, “to die for,” whether that means baked Camembert cheese or house-made ice cream with crushed honeycomb, yuzu cream and blood-orange syrup.

Ambience is modern rustic, service is appropriately attentive, and the wine list is strong in European vintages, especially, French, Spanish and Italian.

Before or after dinner, the Madam Kew cocktail lounge is just upstairs from Quince. It was launched earlier this year by a former Russian death-rock drummer named Ivan Shenevskiy; he has since moved on to new projects, but his imagination lives on. Madam Kew recreates the ambience of Shanghai in the 1930s. I am charmed by the open mezzanine windows where, on weekend nights, models lounge on divans reminiscent of opium beds.

Founder Ivan Shenevskiy at Madam Kew (JGA photo)

A Viet classic

One of the city’s finest Vietnamese restaurants is a short stroll from here. Anyone who is enamored with Saigon street food, who thinks it represents the pinnacle of this country’s culinary achievements, owes him or herself a dinner at Bếp Nhà Lục Tỉnh. My friend Anna took me to this inner-city garden, and I was delighted.

A native Vietnamese, Anna did all the ordering. We began with deep-fried prawn spring rolls. We followed that with a green mango salad with crispy anchovy, and grilled beef on lemongrass skewers. The climax was dessert: green Banh Duc cake with palm sugar.

Deep-fried prawn spring rolls at Bep Nha (JGA photo)

Bếp Nhà isn’t easy to find. It’s packed into a street that includes a Malay-Indonesian mosque and the offices of the English-language Saigon Times, as well as a pair of high-end nightclubs. And it’s around the corner from a Spanish tapas restaurant, Jibu, that I promise myself to visit in the very near future.

There are also some intriguing bars in this neighborhood, include Qilin, a second-story Hong Kong-style lounge, and Chinatown Heritage, a young Vietnamese hipster joint. If you don’t normally associate tattoos, piercings and hair dye with Asian culture, guess again.

Grilled sea bass with corn relish at Octo (JGA photo)

Spanish tapas

Another establishment that I highly recommend is the Octo Tapas Restobar, just a half-block from the iconic Bitexco Financial Tower.  

Executive chef Albert Suárez, born and raised in Barcelona, offers a weekly changing menu that always includes Spanish ceviches and croquetas, but also focuses on fresh seafood and imported meats. If the chilled watermelon gazpacho is available, don’t say no.

With its third-floor perspective and open kitchen seating, Octo is a popular wine bar with a nice international selection. The restaurant also has an ambitious guest chef program. A recent guest, for instance, was Mexican chef Ricardo Luján, now at the Azerai resort in Can Tho, in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Gourmet Latin cuisine is a real treat in tropical Southeast Asia.

Chefs Albert Suarez and Ricardo Lujan with partner Julian at Octo Tapas Restobar (JGA photo)

11. Going with the phở

Pho is enjoyed throughout Vietnam. This dish was served in the city of Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)

No Vietnamese food is better known than the beef-noodle soup called phở. Served everywhere in Vietnam and in restaurants around the world, phở is the ultimate comfort food. It may be found from street stalls to fine-dining restaurants, and it’s as ubiquitous in households as the tomato soup or chicken broth your mother made when you were a kid.

Long before I moved to Southeast Asia, I grew to love phở at Vietnamese restaurants in the United States. And now that I’m in Vietnam, it has become a staple of my diet. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, between meals — it doesn’t matter. Any time is the right time.

Why do I love phở? Let me count the ways. The slow-simmered broth has the savory essence of beef marrow, accented by lemongrass, ginger and coriander. The meat is sautéed just long enough to bring out its best flavor. The rice noodles add the contrasting texture that leads my palate to respond with a silent “wow!” And the herbs, spices and other botanicals complete the cornucopia of often-surprising flavors.

The preparation varies from the north of Vietnam to the south. Regional distinctions are well defined in this country, whether with regard to food, climate or business culture. In Ho Chi Minh City, for instance, the noodles are not as broad but the broth is sweeter and clearer than in Hanoi, where a fatty stock is preferred. Ironically, the best phở I’ve had in Vietnam was at Phở Nguyên, a small, open-air restaurant in the Dak Lak provincial capital of Buon Ma Thuot.

Bo kho is a beef stew similar to pho. (JGA photo)

Home cooking

My friend Dung (pronounced “Yung”) grew up on Vietnam’s central coast in Dong Hoi. Her version of phở. represents a middle ground between northern and southern styles.

“It’s not easy to make a delicious phở with traditional taste,” she said. “There are many ways to cook the soup quickly and simply, but this is my recipe.

“The broth is most important. I take tubular beef bones, with marrow intact, and boil them in a pot of water for at least 45 minutes. The longer you can boil the broth, the better. Some chefs may even simmer it overnight.”

Dung said she adds spices — salt, pepper, sugar, lemongrass, ginger, coriander and chilies — early in the boiling process. Next come onions, including spring onions and shallots. She throws in a splash of nước mắm (fish sauce) toward the end.

The noodles, meanwhile, have been prepared separately. “The shop owners know the noodles that you need to cook phở,” Dung said. Usually, that means flat, freshly made rice noodles of medium width. Quickly cooked, they are placed in a bowl; the boiling broth (with meat) is poured over the top.

 “I like phở with beef filet and flank,” Dung said. “I sauté the steak just rare, cut it into thin slices and add it to the pot with a squeeze of lime.”

Phở with filet and flank is called phở tái nam. With brisket, it’s phở gầu. In the south of Vietnam, you can also order it with tendons (phở gân), meatballs (phở bò viên), tripe (phở sách) or even boiled beef blood (phở tiết).

Virtually all Vietnamese soups, including phở, are served with a salad of garnishes, from greens — such as Asian basil, cilantro, mint and ngò gai (sawtooth herb) — to garlic, green onions and condiments, including chile sauce. You’re more likely to find mung bean sprouts, lime wedges and fresh sliced chili peppers in the south than the north. I like my phở with plum-based hoisin sauce and unsweetened chili sauce, but I’m still not accustomed to the sweet tương ớt chili sauce popular in Ho Chi Minh City.

Chopsticks and a deep spoon are de rigueur. Diners dip and slurp simultaneously, lifting the noodles with one hand as they scoop the broth with the other.

Bun bo Hue may have once been cooked by Vietnam’s ancient royal court. (JGA photo)

Different strokes

Phở is said to have originated southeast of Hanoi at the start of the 20th century. French colonists were partial to beef, which had not been especially popular in Vietnam, and Chinese workers sought to recreate a soup common in their homeland.

Previously unpopular in the South, phở suddenly became popular with the partition of Vietnam in 1954, where more than a million people fled the North. Twenty years later, in the wake of the Vietnam War, refugees brought phở to North America, Europe and Australia.

Phở is but one of many popular soups. Phở gà is made with chicken. It uses the same spices as beef, but with a broth of chicken bones, meat and some internal organs.

Bún bò Huế is another beef noodle soup, with rice noodles typically thicker and rounder than in phở. Originating from the ancient Vietnamese royal capital of Huế, on the central coast, its salt and spice are balanced by a strong flavor of lemongrass, boiled with bones and beef shank. It may be seasoned with fermented shrimp sauce, sugar and chili oil. The best bún bò includes sliced beef along with oxtail and pig’s knuckles.

Bò kho is a stew of tender braised beef, is often sold in the same street kitchens as phở. The broth is somewhat heavier, but it is no less delicious.

For non-meat eaters, Bún riêu is a sweet-and-sour seafood stew, made with minced crab, fish (especially catfish) or snails. It is traditionally served in a nutrient-rich tomato broth with thin vermicelli noodles.

Hủ tiếu is a noodle dish that can be served either “wet” (hủ tiếu nu’o’c, as a soup) or “dry” (hủ tiếu kho, as a salad accompanied by a side of broth). The broth is most often simmered with dried squid or shrimp, and toppings — meat and seafood, sautéed or fried — are added after (rather than during) preparation. I like this dish with yellow egg noodles instead of white rice noodles. Another delicious variation, originally from the Hoi An area of central Vietnam, is mì quảng, usually served dry.

Mi quang originated in Hoi An in on the central Vietnam coast. (JGA photo)

10. Hem Sweet Hem

The author finds a place to live in central Ho Chi Minh City. It may not be charming, but it’s definitely quaint. …

A gateway marks the street entrance to Hem 100, Đường Nguyễn Công Trứ

The word “hem,” in English, describes a seam created by a tailor. In Vietnamese, the definition is a bit seamier, though not entirely unseemly.

My first semi-permanent home in Ho Chi Minh City was in a “hem” — a narrow urban alley, if you will.

Hem 100 extends off Đường Nguyễn Công Trứ in District 1, in the center of the old Saigon banking district, surrounded by financial office towers and the central stock exchange building. It’s only four blocks from the Calmette Bridge over the Ben Nghé canal, a similar distance from the quaint shops of “Antique Street,” and a few staggering steps from the hostess bars of Pasteur Street.

The neighborhood is a curious meeting place of starched suits and sodden souls, of karaoke clubs and soup kitchens, of high heels and low morals. Motorbikes naively block the entrances to some of the city’s finest restaurants. Off-leash family dogs slurp offerings left on sidewalks for deceased ancestors.

Hem 100 is a microcosm of the larger neighborhood. No more than 6 meters (20 feet) wide at its entrance, it’s anything but a freeway. The front section of the lane is dominated by food carts from the break of dawn until about half past noon. Diners — bankers and business people — squeeze into plastic stools, allowing barely enough room for a motorbike to skirt past. Noodle soup, chicken rice, fish, snails and other meals cost no more than US$2.

Bo kho (beef stew) served in the hem

Further back, street food transitions into a handful of retail establishments and a few sit-down restaurants. Office girls look dreamily through the window of a bridal wear shop, a small steakhouse features ostrich on its menu, an upstairs tea room is rumored to have once been an opium den. Indeed, the history of this discreet block might be considered “sketchy.”

The hem melts into a passageway barely wide enough for two pedestrians to walk side-by-side. The corridor twists and turns for a couple of hundred meters, past tiny apartments and discreet businesses. I was told it was best not to wander alone into this lane, home to hem chim (“alley trash”) and other unsavory elements.

For nearly six months, my home was in the middle section of the hem. Built in the 1950s, the relative elegance of this five-story house could not be understated. There is speculation that, at various times before and after the fall of Saigon (in 1975), it served as a private home and a hotel, a casino and a brothel.

Today thoroughly remodeled, the entry is through a parlor shared by motorbikes and rattan chairs. A billiards table dominates what might otherwise be a living room; a beer tap serving Tiger Draught stands between here and the spacious kitchen. One floor directly above is the TV and music lounge, where more than a few dates were primed to succumb to Western charms. The stairs then zigzag up to five bedrooms, ending at a rooftop garden.

Motorbikes obstruct the front entrance to the author’s erstwhile home

I lived here from mid-January through June, at which point my girlfriend (at the time) helped me find a more private option in the nearby Binh Thanh district.

But oftentimes, I find myself missing Hem 100.

I miss sitting in the front parlor on a balmy day, shouting to a food purveyor who might deliver bo kho (beef stew) or com tám gà (chicken rice) without my ever having to change position.

I miss stepping around those same food-cart owners as they dump their waste water into drains that wash directly into the nearby canals.

I miss the heavy seasonal rains that back up those drains, leaving lakes of standing water where children love to play.

I miss the sounds of morning and evening, the caged songbirds and chirping geckos, the yowling of tomcats on the prowl, the impromptu karaoke singing sessions, the cadent chants of Taoist funerals when a neighbor has died.

I even miss the cockroaches. I had nearly settled on names for the mating couple who maintained residence in a wall behind my shower stall.

The central location of Hem 100 made it a great place to begin my life as an expatriate. There were both pros and cons — but the experience definitely made my transition to life in Ho Chi Minh City a lot easier.

A Taoist funeral salutes the passing of an esteemed Chinese-Vietnamese neighbor.

9. My brilliant (acting) career

Having once appeared in a school play, I decided to explore a career in acting. The audition went smoothly, and then …

That’s me, alright. Center stage. (Diego Portales photo)

The ad was simple enough. A production company was auditioning English-speaking actors (no experience necessary) to appear in a promotional video for an international financial firm.

Announced on a website directed at expatriates who were living in Ho Chi Minh City, it promised to pay US$100 for the day — not a sheik’s ransom, but in Vietnam a competitive wage for people like me, who were waiting to start a new job but not yet officially employed.

I passed an initial audition (a 30-minute interview) with flying colors. A few days later, an agent emailed instructions to dress in a conservative suit and arrive on the sixth floor of an office block at 9 on a Sunday morning in mid-December.

The main entrance was locked. A security guard pointed to the parking garage. I wondered if I were being followed as I cautiously stepped into the elevator. Upon disembarking, I read the words FVP Holdings in new lettering on a glass door. I knocked.

My hosts greeted me warmly. They described FVP as a Taiwanese brokerage firm expanding into Vietnam, but wanting a “Western” image to establish credibility in the cosmopolitan marketplace.

I was asked to wait among a couple of dozen other people, most of them in their 20s and 30s. Besides native English speakers, I introduced myself to people from France, Greece, Russia, Romania, Morocco, Israel, China, Japan and Mexico. All spoke English with reasonable facility.

The film crew catches footage of a makeshift brokerage firm. (JGA photo)

The office space had been designed for a brokerage. Desks were carefully grouped into workplace pods with computers and other office equipment. Whiteboards and oversized monitors, displaying up-to-the-second financial reports from around the world, stood at the head of the room.

Soon the film crew was ready to go. The director, a small man with a floppy hat, kept his cast laughing with a rubbery face that betrayed his every mood. Younger actors were assigned roles as enthusiastic interns and new employees. As an elder statesman of the group (I prefer to think of my appearance as “distinguished”), I was one of three men singled out for a senior role.

I had no script. My lines were extemporaneous. My job was to make several walk-throughs as the CEO evaluating his charges. When I paused to address my employees, I was on my own. So I congratulated one and all for the outstanding job they had done in the past year, and promised everyone a substantial Christmas bonus, to be reflected in their next paychecks. The room erupted in applause.

The shoot turned into an all-day event, including a series of individual and group shots for use as FVP Holdings saw fit. But it was all good. I made new friends. I was even paid a little extra: 2.5 million Vietnam dong (about US$115), along with an indication that additional work might be forthcoming. “We’ll be in touch,” the company said.

And that evening, about a dozen of us gathered at a brewpub to toast the day’s activity.

New friends celebrate a successful filming at a Ho Chi Minh City brewpub. (JGA photo)

The rest of the story

Not long after the Christmas holidays had ended — upon my return from Chiang Mai and my signing of my teaching contract — I did indeed hear again from FVP Holdings

Indeed, the principals made me one of those proverbial “too good to be true” offers.

I was offered a position apprenticing in commodities trading (in which I have absolutely no experience) while writing and editing English-language financial documents. I would be paid (not handsomely, but more than I am to teach) to do so.

Moreover, I would be expected to attend conferences in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Moscow and other cities — all expenses paid, with an additional stipend — as I pretended to be a partner in the holdings company, using the same alias that I did while filming the promotional video.

“Have you ever been to Shanghai?” they asked me. “To Moscow? We want to send you there!”

I was tempted. Oh, man, was I tempted. But something didn’t smell right.

I floated the proposal past eight separate people, all of them expats like myself, and each one raised two curious eyebrows, as had I.

The most incisive and realistic comments came from my brother, who has spent most of his adult life in Japan. He wrote, in small part: “There are a lot of things that can happen in third-world Asia under the radar. And it might be that you are just a convenient fool, the new guy in town who is single, getting up in years, does not have close relatives in the area and is easy to lure away.

 “Really, why would they want to hire you for a semi-full-time job on the basis of one short performance in a promotional video? The fact that they want to create a new alias for you is especially worrying.”

But wait: There’s more!

Clearly, he underestimated my brilliance in front of a camera. But I was warned by another friend that, the previous year, just such an opportunity had been afforded an American living in Thailand. The company had disappeared overnight and the expat was charged with stealing millions from investors. He is still in jail.

Suffice to say, I didn’t quit my day job. But I occasionally wondered what happened to FVP Holdings. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic would have quickly squelched the travel opportunities.

There are two postscripts to this story. The first came in an email from a fellow actor, Dasha Zhezherun. She had discovered that the photographs of several of us had been used on the FVP website: You’ll find me here as “Nick Williamson, partner.” You’ll find my friend Alex Pilgrim as “Arman Lankarani, head of finance.” Dasha herself is “Stacy Wright, head of marketing.” How’s that going for you, Dasha?

The second postscript followed several months later in a conversation with a woman I was dating at the time. She was surprised that I had not considered the FVP offer more seriously. “Why not?” she asked. “Everyone does it here!”

That was a real-life reminder that standards of morality differ widely between cultures. My friend herself acknowledged that she was more than willing to bend rules and leapfrog laws in her real-estate dealings if it meant saving money to get a project accomplished more quickly.

I’ll be returning to the subject of morality in a future blog. I promise.

They’re not REALLY aspiring brokers. (JGA photo)

Next: Hem sweet hem

8. An appetite for Chiang Mai

An all-day lesson at a northern Thai cooking school is followed by a late-night romp with the Midnight Ramblers, a regionally renowned cover band.

Some like it hot:: Chilies in a market stall, Chiang Mai. (JGA photo)

A big part of travel for me is always the food. I have loved Thai food for as long as I can remember. In recent years, inspired by chefs like Andy Ricker and Paul Itti, I learned to truly appreciate the cuisine of northern Thailand.

Ricker, based in Portland, Oregon, achieved widespread acclaim for his nationwide Pok Pok group of restaurants, recently closed due to COVID-19 economics. It was Andy who first described to me the pleasures of khan tok, an elaborate feast offered on special occasions such as Buddhist temple dedications, festivals like Loi Krathong, or weddings such as his own vows in Chiang Mai.

Itti, a native of Chiang Mai, established the wildly popular Wild Rose restaurant in Bend, Oregon, where I was a longtime food writer. Paul taught me the Jedi ways of khao soi, a savory noodle curry dish far more robust than southern Thai curries. Typically served as a one-bowl meal with egg noodles, shallots, pickled cabbage, ground chilies and wedges of lime, it can be offered as a vegetarian dish or with meats. I recommend duck.

Organic farm, Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School (JGA photo)

Having landed in Chiang Mai, I wanted to learn more about northern Thai cuisine. So I went to cooking school.

I found several modestly priced options available. I chose to invest a full day (six hours) at the Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School.  My 1,000 baht (US $33) was well spent.

Founder “Gayray” Sriwichian, a former international tour guide with a graduate degree in art history, considers cooking an art form in its own right. The Scenic Thai school reflects that philosophy. Along with a small group of other aspiring chefs, I was taken by van first to a rural market to purchase fresh ingredients, then to the family farm, a short distance outside Chiang Mai’s urban core.

The Sriwichian farm is a lush organic garden. Rows of fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables stimulated my senses before the cooking process even began. My fellow students and I sampled as we strolled, and in the process had our appetites aroused by aromas and tongue-teasing tastes.

Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School, Chiang Mai (JGA photo)

Learning to cook

Before we began, we enjoyed a snack of miang kham, featuring a variety of minced ingredients to be wrapped in raw tea leaves. These include chilies, roasted coconut, ginger, garlic, shallots, chopped nuts, lime (including the peel) and small dried shrimp. The ultimate finger food, it is simply delicious.

There is no fixed menu. I learned to make seven different dishes in seven elective categories, from soup and salad to dessert. I had individual coaching from start to finish. Once I began steaming the traditional purple sticky rice, I turned to spring rolls, filled and lightly deep-fried.  

Som tum (green papaya) salad has always been a favorite of mine, and I was able to give my version an extra twist, with carrots, mushrooms and peanuts.

spring rolls, Asia Scenic Cooking School (JGA photo)

I wanted to learn to make a good pad thai (sautéed rice noodles) and tom yum (hot-and-sour lemongrass) soup, not forgetting newly foraged oyster mushrooms. But even before I began envisioning dessert (banana steamed in coconut milk), I was already looking forward to my personal favorite: an authentic green curry.

Thai cuisine features a variety of curries: red curry, yellow curry, mild massaman curry, spicy Panang curry, and the regionally popular khao soi . I would love to learn to cook every one of them, which I suppose will give me a good excuse to return to this school whenever I’m in Chiang Mai.

As it turned out, using a pestle and mortar to grind fresh ingredients into a coarse paste was harder than I might have imagined. Not surprisingly, green chilies were the main ingredient. But there was also ginger, garlic, turmeric, shallots, lemongrass, peppercorns and a handful of garden herbs. By the time I was ready to simmer the curry paste with coconut milk before adding sautéed chicken as a protein, I was approaching exhaustion. But every minute invested made the final result even more memorable. Wow.

Curry pastes (clockwise from lower left): redi, massaman, khao sai, green (JGA photo)

Time to rock

It would be awhile before I’d be ready to eat again! But by mid-afternoon, it was already too late to plan a hike in one of the nearby national parks, including Doi Inthanon (named for Thailand’s highest mountain, a summit of 2,565m, or 8,415 feet) or to travel on the back of an elephant to visit a hill tribe, such as the Akha and Karen.

So after the class ended, Opor took me shopping. Our destination was not a mall, but Chiang Mai’s large night market — in fact, numerous interconnected markets that extend across (and through!) several city blocks to the east of the walled city.

Inside and outside buildings, on sidewalks and temple grounds, these markets are as well known for their local arts and handicrafts as they are for their savory street foods. At a stage constructed in the middle of one open square, I listened to painful renditions of American country-and-western classics by young Thai bands … even as I smiled to see how much they pleased onlookers.

Dinner at Khualek with Opor

It was finally dinner time. My companion was hungry. We crossed the Ping River to the waterside Khualek restaurant to enjoy a simple, Western-style meal of salad, rice and fried chicken. And the imported Australian wine was good, as well.

At 10 p.m., nightlife was just beginning to pick up. One reason I had chosen this particular week to visit Chiang Mai was to see an old friend. Joe Cummings — a expatriate American writer, musician and actor whose name is well-known to many longtime Asian travelers — was in town with his band, the Midnight Ramblers, following a gig on the Mekong River border with Laos. It had been a week or two (or 1,000) since Joe had crashed on my couch back in the States, but we had kept in touch through all his years as an author for the Lonely Planet guides in southeast Asia.

Joe’s passion has always been music, so it was no surprise, after serving as a personal guide to Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger in Bangkok, when he began playing more Stones music. For several years now, he has been the lead guitarist in a band that performs 100% Stones covers. Along with singer Eric Brown and erstwhile horn player Roddy Lorimer, himself a legend in British rock-and-roll circles, they rocked the house when Opor and I descended upon the Aiya Café in suburban Nong Pa Krong. Let’s have a little sympathy for the devil, shall we?

The Midnight Ramblers’ Roddy Lorimer, Eric Brown and Joe Cummings harmonize on “Honky Tonk Woman.” (JGA photo)

As it has all over the world, the COVID-19 virus has frozen international tourism to Chiang Mai in 2020. That may not be entirely a bad thing. This city of a quarter-million is using the time to catch up with the rampant growth it has seen in recent years. Its 40,000 hotel rooms often have not seemed to be enough. The infrastructure, especially with regard to transportation and pollution, has been strained.

Last year, Chiang Mai launched a bike-sharing app called “Mobike In” that added 500 smart bikes to the streets, for use by both locals and tourists. The program supports eco-tourism with another non-motorized travel option. Agritourism (such as my cooking school) is showing promise for the future. The promotion of arts and crafts provides new incentives for local artists.

I look forward to my return.

John at the Asia Scenic Cooking School, Chiang Mai (Xingci Situ photo)

7. Chiang Mai, city of temples

Ancient tradition collides with modern tourism on a “visa run” to northern Thailand. If I lived here, I would no doubt be a Buddhist.  …

Sleepy stone elephant on Chang Moi Road bridge (JGA photo)

From the time I first ventured into Thailand at the age of 26, I had been hearing rapturous recommendations about travel to Chiang Mai, in the country’s far north.

Metropolitan Bangkok was a must for travelers, of course. So, too, were the islands and beaches of the long southern peninsula. But they wouldn’t enchant me, I was told, in the same way as Chiang Mai.

It took me decades, and four more visits to Thailand, before I reached this destination. And guess what? Everything that everyone had said was right. Now, there is no place in Thailand to which I want to return more.  Had I arrived as a young man, I may never have left.

Tuk-tuks provide transportation on Ratchadamnoen Road (JGA photo)

What is it about Chiang Mai? Nestled beside the Ping River, amidst the forested foothills of Thailand’s highest mountains, it has a quiet charm that reflects the gentle culture of Laos and Myanmar — both of which are nearer than Bangkok itself.

Unlike Asia’s megacities, and despite Chiang Mai’s rapidly growing population (about 200,000 in the city, more than 1 million in the metro area), the tone is NOT frantic. Indeed, visitors like myself are more likely to travel around the city by foot, three-wheeled tuktuk, or songthaew (re-outfitted pickup trucks) than by taxi, bus or train.  

I got a great price on a five-day, round-trip air fare from Ho Chi Minh City to Chiang Mai on Vietnam Airlines. From the international airport, I clambered aboard a songthaew to be delivered to the cheap private room I had booked at a hostel near the city center. (The owner, a young Belgian man, made great waffles.) Then I set out to explore.

Wat Phan Tao (JGA photo)

Chiang Mai, ironically, means “New City” in the Thai language. Seven centuries old is hardly “new”: It was founded at the end of the 13th century as a trade hub and as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lan Na. Within 50 years it had been fortified with gated walls and a moat. Most of those ramparts remain today, embracing a city center of about one mile square.

For me, an erstwhile scholar of Asian religion, I was most enthralled by the concentration of ornate Buddhist temples and pagodas in Chiang Mai, and especially in the central city.

The practice of Buddhism in northern Thailand is very different from that of southern Vietnam. It is even more pronounced than, say, the difference between the Protestant and Catholic practices of the Christian church. The Theravada school of Buddhism, as it is understood in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Sri Lanka, reveres the Buddha as a teacher, as one who set a course of mindfulness and study 2,500 years ago. (Most followers of the Mahayana school, as practiced in China, Korea and Japan, confer more god-like status upon the Buddha; in Vietnam, there is the additional worship of a mother goddess.)

Wat Chedi Luang (JGA photo)

Many of Chiang Mai’s greatest wats (temples) predate the cathedrals of Europe. Among my favorites was Wat Phra Singh, a landmark since 1345. Its classic northern Thai-style architecture provides a home for a sacred Buddha image that was carried to Thailand from India, via Ceylon (Sri Lanka), more than 1,000 years ago — and was taken to Chiang Mai when the city became the Lan Na capital.

Wat Chedi Luang, whose construction began in 1401, is dominated by large chedi (a stone stupa) that was badly damaged by an earthquake in the 16th century. It was never fully restored. There are many impressive Buddha images, including a large reclining Buddha, within its walls.

 Wat Chiang Man, near the walled city’s north gate, is the oldest in Chiang Mai. It dates from the late 1200s, and was the home of ancient King Megrai when he built his capital. Its treasures include remarkable images of marble and crystal.

Buddha images, Wat Dok Eung (JGA photo)

I especially enjoyed Wat Pan Ping and Wat Dok Eung, whose colorful image houses display a large number of Buddha images. The whimsical art at Wat Pat Ping also includes depictions of a goddess taming a snake, and of three monks in a “see, hear, speak no evil” pose.

In all, more than half of the city’s 24 wats are within the ancient walls. At Wat RamPoeng, students (including many westerners) may stay from 10 days to more than a month to practice in the vipassana technique at the Northern Insight Meditation Center.

Chiang Mai’s most famous temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, built in 1333 atop Doi Suthep. This peak, 1,073 meters (3,520 feet) high, northwest of the city, is at the heart of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park and is a popular pilgrimage location. The temple can be seen on clear days from much of the city.

Opor offers prayers (JGA photo)

I owe special thanks to my friend Opor for sharing her practice of Buddhism in Chiang Mai. I met this woman on my second day in the city, and we were almost constant companions thereafter. As we explored various temples and pagodas, she provided an example that I followed in showing respect according to local tradition: shoes off, head bowed, often kneeling — and, when appropriate, extending my forehead to the carpet.

Next: Chiang Mai’s Northern Thai cuisine

6. Stacking the dominoes

John finds a job, negotiates money and visa crises, and makes new and old friends to help ease the transition to his new life.

It didn’t take long for me to get a job teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City. As AVSE had promised, the school made an email introduction for me with a company called APAX Leaders. By the first week of December, I had a job interview. “Frankly, we don’t get many people with a background like yours,” the recruiter said. By the second week of December, I was training the APAX way.

The company was established in Seoul, South Korea, in 2007, and expanded to Vietnam in 2015. Its emphasis on cooperative learning, creative and critical thinking — and on teaching children to say “please” and “thank you,” not part of a normal Vietnamese vocabulary — seemed to be a good fit. With more than 130 centers and 700 teachers across Vietnam and Cambodia, I hoped I would have an opportunity to work in different parts of the country, from the city to the Mekong Delta, the beaches and the hill country.

My first workplace: APAX Leaders’ Pham Dinh Ho center. (JGA photo)

I trained for a week at a center in the Binh Thanh district, near downtown, carving out a block of time for a mandated physical examination. I learned as much as I could about the teaching system, which includes pre-written lessons and video-recording with green-screen technology. For a non-tech-savvy bloke like myself, it was still challenging, but I persisted and passed. A high percentage of the staff were native English speakers from South Africa, a country (for that matter, a continent) to which I have not yet traveled.

I was placed at the Pham Dinh Ho center in District 6, just beyond Cho’lòn (District 5, Chinatown) and a few steps from its Binh Tay market. I was told that my starting date would be December 27, just after Christmas, and I would sign my contract (and begin to draw a paycheck) on that same morning. But there was a catch: I had to get a work visa.

This was confusing, because I had come into Vietnam on a one-year tourist visa. Now I had to surrender that in exchange for a three-month work visa, which would be extended once more to a full year resident’s visa after I started work. I couldn’t legally work on a tourist visa. I had to have the work visa.

Watching the money go

By now, I had discovered that the amount of money I set aside for my relocation was falling far short of what I needed. The bureaucratic hurdles and auxiliary costs, including the month between the end of my certification program and the start of my salaried teaching, left me no choice but to be exceedingly stingy in my spending. I saved money by getting well acquainted with Vietnamese street food. I urge anyone who wants to come to Vietnam and teach, young or old, to carry at least US$3,000 to get them by until the checks begin to flow.

Fortunately, Anna Nguyen, a marketing associate with the Red Doorz Hotels management group, was able to offer me a discount rate at her company’s properties. One was near my training site in Binh Thanh; the other, close to my new workplace, in District 6. I paid about US$14/night for no-frills rooms in simple but clean hotels. One of them even had a window with a balcony overlooking the street — a blessing that turned out to be a curse on nights when home karaoke machines were cranked up.

Sharing a reunion with old friend Alan Mulley (JGA photo)

During this time, I was reunited with one of my dearest friends from my distant past. When I was a young reporter in Sydney, Australia, Alan Mulley was a graphic designer for the same biweekly dining and entertainment publications. I had seen the Welshman only once or twice since then in Australia, but he hadn’t lost the twinkle in his eyes nor his wry wit.  He was stopping over in Vietnam for a couple of weeks on a flight between London and Sydney, visiting his friend Rick Reid. When Alan returned to Australia, Rick and I kept our friendship going — and I am now an official member of the unofficial Friday Lunch Club.

I also began to hang out with the Fabulous Baker Boys, close friends of my buddy Kurt Bennett, who carried significant responsibility for launching me on this adventure (see “2. Making the Move”). David Baker, a fiber-optics engineer from Mississippi, had been working in Saigon for more than 15 years. Terry Baker, his older brother, had joined David about a year ago, retired from working as a wildcatter on Gulf Coast oil rigs. A few weeks later, they took me in as a housemate.

First, however, there was the little matter of getting my new work visa. In order to do so, I had to travel out of Vietnam and fly back in. Once I arrived at the airport, my passport could be stamped with my new, shorter visa.

Rather than simply jumping across the border of Cambodia, I chose to take my “visa run” to Chiang Mai, Thailand, a city I had always wanted to visit.

My new Temporary Residence Card and visa (JGA photo)

            Next: Chiang Mai

5. Uncle Ho

Hero or villain? In Vietnam, there’s no question where his legacy stands. Some thoughts about Hô Chí Minh and the country’s contemporary history.

A statue of Ho Chi Minh stands in the heart of the city that bears his name. (JGA photo)

The guidebooks may disagree, but I consider the heart of modern Ho Chi Minh City to be a larger-than-life statue of its namesake. The guidebooks may point you to the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral, but I defer to Hô Chí Minh himself, standing in the heart of broad, pedestrian-friendly Nguyen Hue boulevard. Unveiled in 2015 on the 125th anniversary of Hô’s birth, the statue stands a long block south of the elegant People’s Committee Building (“City Hall”), once the French colonial Hôtel de Ville.

For a generation of Americans like myself, whose coming of age paralleled the years of the Vietnam War, Hô was the enemy personified. Here, he’s Bác Hô, “Uncle Ho,” and he is something of a folk hero. You can’t even look at a bill of currency — whether 500 dong or 500,000 dong (about US$23) — without seeing his face, the white goatee streaming off his chin like Spanish moss from a sycamore. When I researched his biography, I came to understand why he is so revered.

As a young man initially educated by his Confucian scholar father, Hô Chí Minh (a name that he adopted in 1938) grew up resenting the French colonial occupation of Indochina, which then included Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. He left home at 21 and spent the next three decades abroad, working first as a cook aboard ships, then at hotel restaurants in Boston, New York and London.

He’s been gone for half a century, but “Uncle” Ho’s image still graces billboards in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. (JGA photo)

Influenced by the civil-rights movement in the United States — as well as by his own readings about the 18th-century American Revolution — he moved to Paris as the First World War came to a close and joined the Vietnamese nationalist movement. When that group petitioned Allied leaders to include a provision in the Treaty of Versailles ending French rule in Vietnam, it was ignored.

Hô spent most of the next 20 years in the Soviet Union and China, where he embraced Marxism and communism. He returned to Vietnam in 1941 to lead the fight for freedom against not only the French, but also Japanese imperial forces.

In 1945, Hô proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, with himself as president. His request for an American seal of approval was met with silence by US President Harry Truman. China and Russia stepped up to fill the void after the French surrendered to Hô’s Viet Minh troops at Dièn Bién Phu in 1954. By the Geneva Accords, the country was divided at the 17th parallel into the communist north, with its capital at Hanoi, and the republican south, focused on Saigon.

In 1955, the US government began sending aid and advisors to the Republic of (South) Vietnam. The North, meanwhile, was quietly infiltrating, building discreet trails and supply lines through neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

Hô stepped down as president in 1965, about the same time that the first US combat troops arrived in Vietnam. (He died in 1969.) But the stage was set for 10 infamous years of bloodshed. Eventually, North Vietnam won the war, its tanks bursting through the wrought-iron gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace in April 1975. The two regions were formally reunited as one Vietnam in 1976.

Artillery from the 1970s at the War Remnants Museum. (JGA photo)

Today, the War Remnants Museum is a rude reminder to Western visitors that the Americans didn’t always play nice during the “American War.” Without doubt, the account rendered here is a 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. Captured US tanks, warplanes and artillery are presented in the museum yard.

Independence Palace has been renamed Reunification Palace. It welcomes visitors on tours of its vintage-1960s hallways and various rooms, including the basement “bunker” and telecommunications center. I’ll take longer looks at both of these sites in future blogs.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking at Uncle Ho’s smiling, paternal face on billboards and posters throughout the city that now bears his name.

Vietnamese currency. (JGA photo)

Next: Stacking the dominoes

4. Learning the city

John explores some of the sights of Ho Chi MInh City, including the Bitexco Tower, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

On the day in late November that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, AVSE handed me a diploma and threw me out in the street.  It was not a surprise; I had been expecting this. I knew that for the next several weeks I wouldn’t have a permanent home. In a city as large as Ho Chi Minh (universally known as HCMC), I wasn’t going to commit to a long-term lease until I knew where in the city I would find employment.

The Bitexco Financial Tower, 584 feet high, rises high above the central business district. (JGA photo)

I hoped that I would find a job sooner rather than later, as my money was in short supply. But the respite gave me an opportunity to get to know the city. During my month in Go Vap, I had seen little of the metropolis. Indeed, I had been out of the district only twice: once on a brief and mediocre bus tour for new AVSE students, once on a Saturday jaunt to visit the friend of a friend in the central city.

Not until I took an elevator to the 49th floor Skydeck of the Bitexco Financial Tower, 584 feet (178 meters) above street level, did I get any real concept of the geography of this sprawling city. It stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see — and it was flat. The famously polluted air didn’t allow me to see west toward the hills along the border of Cambodia, or even southeast 45 miles (72 km) to the South China Sea at Vung Tao, the nearest seaport to HCMC.

The Saigon River winds past the central business district of Ho Chi Minh City. (JGA photo)

Prominent, however, was the broad and muddy Saigon River, meandering around modern high-rises like the Bitexco that clustered on its west bank. Here and there, it was intruded upon by smaller tributary canals that divide neighborhoods. Across the main stream, new cities of residential skyscrapers were in development atop reclaimed riparian lowlands. Some of the more desirable zones for foreign residents — the riverside District 2, home to many international schools, and the more southerly District 7, with its large Korean contingent — were easily visible.

When I turned to the north and west, I could look straight down upon District 1, the central commercial district of old Saì Gòn and modern Ho Chi Minh City. I was not yet familiar with several of the landmarks that I would soon readily recognize, but I was able to pick out the three-acre roof of the Cho’ Ben Thanh, the central market, an institution for locals and visitors alike. Anything a person wants, he or she can likely find at this seemingly simple bazaar, from food to clothing, flowers to housewares. Beside it, extending diagonally, is an urban subway line, a joint venture of Japan and Vietnam that has been under construction for many years.

The red roofs of the Ben Thanh Market cover the city’s oldest and largest public market. (JGA photo)

A three-hour tour

HCMC is divided into quàn, or districts, 12 of them numbered, 12 of them named, apparently without any real rhyme or reason. Once you get acquainted with the districts, you discover that each is unique in its own way. Most of the so-called “tourist attractions” are in District 1, the central business and entertainment district, or immediately north in slightly more gentrified District 3. The only other precinct of particular interest to casual visitors is Cho’Lón (Cholon), Saigon’s historical Chinatown district, just west of downtown and encompassed by District 5. Today it is mostly of note for its concentration of traditional temples and its own outstanding market, Cho’ Binh Tay.

My initial three-hour tour, courtesy of AVSE, was as mediocre as a tour can be. With no guidance offered, our group was dropped at three locations, left to wander on our own and told when to be back on the bus. One of them was Cho’ Ben Thanh. The others were the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral and the Jade Emperor Pagoda. We were handed a couple of printed pages with tour information in English, but were offered no other assistance, written or verbal — even when we drove past the Reunification Palace, where South Vietnam surrendered to the North in 1975. I queried one of our so-called “guides” about a large building we were passing: “What is this?” I asked. “Um, the Ho Chi Minh Museum,” she responded. “Are you going to tell us about it?” I pressed. “No,” she said. And that was it.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral, built by the French in the 19th century is the city’s most famous. (JGA photo)

The cathedral was locked and swaddled in scaffolding for restoration. It will probably remain so through 2021. Meanwhile, a side door provides access for Sunday morning masses. Nonetheless, it is an impressive structure. Built of red Provençal brick by French colonists between 1863 and 1880, the neo-Romanesque basilica has a pair of 190-foot bell towers, stained-glass windows from Chartres, and outside, a granite statue of the Virgin Mary (“Nôtre Dame”) carved in Rome in 1959.

Directly east of the cathedral is the Central Post Office. The ornate, yellow-painted manor is said to have been built in the 1880s by the same Gustave Eiffel responsible for the Paris landmark that bears his name. Indeed, the green-painted, wrought-iron trim suggests Eiffel’s architectural style. A highlight of the spacious interior is a fascinating collection of historical maps painted on its walls. Next door, just past the golden arches of McDonald’s, is “Book Street,” where 20 tiny bookstores are gathered in a single lane. Some at the east end specialize in used English and other foreign-language volumes.

Saigon’s Central Post Office is said to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel. (JGA photo)

Our final stop, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, was the most intriguing. Traditional Chinese religion is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and animism. Although this particular house of worship was built in 1909 to honor the Taoist king of heaven, it showed ample respect to other faiths. The Chinese characters in the main hall may be translated to read, “The light of the Buddha shines on all.”

Though not as outwardly colorful as many temples in Cholon, this pagoda’s grotesque statuary and fine woodcarvings, cloaked in acrid incense smoke, make it well worth a visit. The Jade Emperor himself is flamboyantly garbed, flanked by four fierce guardians and protected by two 13-foot-tall statues of generals who, in legend, dispatched a fearsome dragon and tiger. In the adjacent Hall of Ten Hells, carved panels depict the gruesome punishments that await evil doers. Outside, in a small pond, turtles whose shells bear Chinese inscriptions clamber over one another, to the delight of children who accompany their parents to the pagoda.

A monk sells offerings for the gods at the Jade Emperor Pagoda. (JGA photo)

Next: A history lesson

3. The invisible man

Ho Chi Minh City, especially the working-class Go Vap district, made John’s first month in Vietnam a cultural challenge. And, as if that weren’t enough, he was going back to school.

I stepped into Ho Chi Minh City just in time for Halloween. But for the next 30 days or so, I felt as though I were the ghost.

It was a strange feeling. On the one hand, I was aware of standing out, a bearded, older white guy in a sea of Asian faces. Another student in my 17-member TEFL class, a lanky young man from America’s East Coast who was biding time before starting law school, complained: “Help! Everyone is staring at me!” Perhaps. But I felt ignored as much as I was noticed, especially as a pedestrian.

I soon came to realize that it wasn’t just me. In a metropolis of some 13 million people, the best way to retain anonymity might be to discount anyone who “doesn’t matter,” whose path never crosses yours except in traffic, foot or otherwise. Western concepts of courtesy are largely nonexistent.  Everyone is treated the same. People would see me coming and stand in the way, or move their motorbikes precisely across the path I was walking. They would stare — not at me, but through me — and turn away.

There wasn’t much in the way of sidewalks, at least in the sense I understood. Shops overflowed onto disintegrating concrete blocks, most of which had no true curbs to divide them from the busy streets. The smells of garbage sacks and decaying tropical fruit, so unpleasant to the Western nose but attractive after dark to cockroaches and rats, filled the air.

Early evening traffic in Go Vap, Ho Chi Minh City, November 2019 (JGA photo)

Literally millions of motorbikes, their horns endlessly beeping, move through these avenues, far outnumbering cars and trucks and buses. They have nowhere to park except on the sidewalks or in parlors and living rooms. That’s not an exaggeration.  Business opportunities abound for parking attendants and security guards who can assure the safety of these vehicles for their owners.

Perhaps the biggest culture shock came in merely crossing a street. If you remember the pioneering 1980s video game “Frogger,” you’ll have some idea what it is like. 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.

Down in the ‘hood

Not every first-time visitor to Vietnam is going to have the same experience. Mine was heavily influenced by the location of my school in Go Vap, a hardscrabble, working-class district of Ho Chi Minh City, about 30 minutes’ drive north of the city’s tourist-friendly commercial center.

AVSE, the Australia-Vietnam School of English, was headquartered in a small storefront on busy Du’òng (Street) Quang Trung, between a juice bar and a bridal shop, a seafood restaurant and a karaoke bar. I was quartered in a residence about 10 minutes’ walk away from the school, a private room in a house shared with three other students. It was lonely but sufficient. The bed was hard, the community kitchen wasn’t much, but I had a desk, air-conditioning and my own bathroom.

Like three other AVSE-owned houses, my home was nestled on a side street away from traffic. Hem 51, the nearest through street, had a handful of coffee shops and open-air cafes. Just around the corner, my usual route to school was down another lane just wide enough for motorbikes to negotiate their ways past a row of shops.

Chicken as you like it, street market, Go Vap, November 2019 (JGA photo)

Every morning, this alley was clustered with market stalls, or what is known here as a “wet market.” All manner of fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood and poultry, were for sale beside children’s toys and casual clothing. The market was a great place to grab a banh mí, a baguette sandwich, as I walked past. In the evening, when only the tiny pharmacy remained open, I could hear residents of many homes practicing their karaoke singing through open doors. (More than once, I was invited to join them. And I did.) And when it rained and the streets flooded, as occasionally occurred in November, I replaced my shoes with flip-flops and strode through the warm water. Yes, it was truly a wet market.

Had I not already been a big fan of Southeast Asian cuisine, it might have been challenging to get used to a new diet. There wasn’t a lot of Western food in Go Vap, besides Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Circle K convenience store.  Vietnamese pho’ (beef noodle soup) and bân xèo (a filled crêpe) were delicious.

Back to school

Peter Gouger, a short, stout man with a heavy Aussie accent, a thick wallet and a stunning Vietnamese wife, operated the school. In my month in Go Vap, I met him three times, including once at a meet-and-greet event at a pool hall before classes began. He left it to his staff, some of whom were well qualified, to keep the business running smoothly. Some of them succeeded. It was unfortunate that certain others didn’t themselves have a better grasp of English before they were hired.

The curriculum was constructed specifically to prepare us for English-teaching positions. The first week was mostly lectures on theory and methodology, lesson structure and planning, and class management. In the second week, we went into more detail on how to present vocabulary and grammar, how to keep the lessons fun, and how to monitor student progress in reading, writing, listening and speaking English.

A lesson in early childhood education, AVSE, November 2019 (JGA photo)

By the third week, after a couple of simulated classroom presentations before our peers, we began actual classroom training with sometimes unruly and snot-nosed children. (One gets used to seeing fingers up noses here, even among adults.) This continued into the final week of classes. We also produced a series of lesson plans and an essay on motivation for evaluation by the Australian International College of Language, AVSE’s mother agency.

The AVSE teachers were very good, especially head teacher Andrew Alford, another Australian. The students in my November class included six Americans, but we were truly a multinational group: Canada, England and Australia were represented, as well as Romania, South Korea, China, Singapore and Vietnam. We ranged in age from just out of college to AARP-eligible. Several students had lived and worked for years in Asia or elsewhere on the globe.

My graduating class at AVSE, November 2019. That’s me, third from left, back row. (AVSE photo)

Everyone was mutually supportive, although our two Koreans were sometimes on another planet when it came to understanding course content. Indeed, Harry, a sweet man of middle years who had been living for a couple of decades in Australia, kept the class amused with his malapropisms. My most frequent drinking buddy was Adam, a 39-year-old property investor from Perth, Australia. In the ensuing weeks and months, he has become my best friend in Ho Chi Minh City.

I’m not certain how many of our group finally completed the certificate. For those of us who succeeded, AVSE followed through as promised on job placements. I was recommended to one of the leading national language programs in Vietnam, APAX Leaders, and was hired almost immediately.

Next: Learning the city

2. Making the move

It wasn’t easy to make a major life change at the age of 69. Perseverence, inspiration and the knowledge of veteran Asian expatriates helped to make possible the jump to Vietnam.

I began exploring my options, casting long glances at Asia. My girlfriend of many years, Barb, wasn’t interested. Not only had she had a negative experience living in Singapore in her early 20s; she wasn’t prepared to consider a new life so far away from her young-adult son.

I’m often asked how I wound up in Vietnam specifically. There is no one answer. Certainly, the experience of my traveling friend Kurt Bennett weighed in. Kurt ventured to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) around 2008, used his considerable wisdom to start a couple of small manufacturing businesses, and returned to Oregon with a wife. Now he and Thi have two homes, including Vietnam for several months each year. Not surprisingly, he gave the country his highest recommendation.

There was Isabel Dréan, a French Canadian film director. She and her ex-partner had launched a contest to sell the bookstore they owned for 10 years in the charming town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. I serendipitously discovered the competition on a random website, immediately applied, and was among the first finalists chosen. The contest didn’t generate the interest she required to sell, and the bookstore is still in her family, now managed by her mother. But Isabel and I have remained friends.

Kurt and Thi Bennett, Vinh Long, Vietnam, February 2020 (JGA photo)

The Laos temptation was the spark that reignited my desire to return to Asia. It accelerated when my primary travel-writing market, the Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Oregon, stopped publishing my weekly stories after 10 years. As my income took an immediate dive, I was forced to consider where I might be able to live on a retirement income. Southeast Asia leaped to the head of the list.

With my parents and son having passed, I had only two immediate family members (and a few cousins) surviving, a sister in Oregon and my brother in Japan. Although my sister and I chatted from time to time, I had more in common with Fred, who had lived in Japan since 1977. His wife, two adult children and one grandchild were all there. I missed being closer to them.

I had flashes of interest from English-language newspapers in Hong Kong and Beijing. Mostly, though, publications were seeking tech-savvy journalists in their 30s and 40s, not 60s. And I discovered, to my disappointment, that seniors were also not graciously welcomed to teaching positions. Perhaps I had waited too long in my life to make this move.

The final pieces

Enter Jessica Hill. During the early spring of 2019, I glimpsed a post on my Facebook feed from this woman, a fellow Laos bookstore applicant from Oregon. She was now promoting English-language teaching jobs for an agency called Global University. At a small independent bookstore, she laid out the opportunities available. It was true, she said, that many countries discouraged teachers of advanced age. But Vietnam and Cambodia were not among them. So hungry were these two countries for capable English teachers, they were rolling out the red carpet even for the seniors among us.

Certain things would be required of me before I would qualify for a teaching job. I would need a diploma from a university (I had two) and a clean criminal background check (my sole transgression, for drinking and driving, had been dismissed years earlier). More importantly, I would need a certificate of proficiency in TEFL, Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. With Jessica’s guidance, I enrolled in a four-week course at the Australia-Vietnam School of English in Ho Chi Minh City.

Barb Gonzalez and I dining with renowned travel guru Rick Steves, Bend, Oregon, October 2014 (Lilian Chu photo)

I paid tuition of US$1,749 in six monthly installments. I got my airline ticket and visas. And I put my life in Oregon in the rear-view mirror. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I reluctantly kissed my girlfriend goodbye. I tearfully put my aged and ailing dog to sleep. I said farewell to friends. I underestimated how much “stuff” I had accumulated in my itinerant life, but I got rid of what I could before putting the rest in storage for who knows how long.

I packed one large suitcase, a smaller one and my laptop computer, and boarded a flight from Portland International Airport on October 21, one week after my 69th birthday. Following a week with my brother in Osaka, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City late on the night of October 29.

Next: Culture shock, and learning to teach

1. A new beginning

What in the world might have inspired this stunning, late-in-life adventure? John’s first installment explains what brought him to Vietnam.

My birthday is almost here again. That means I’ve been nearly a year in Vietnam, a tropical Southeast Asian country that, half a century ago, I did everything I could to avoid.

Of course, looking back 50 years, I was of prime military draft age, and Uncle Sam would have loved to cloak me in khaki, hand me an automatic weapon and drop me into a rice padi. Student deferments enabled me to stay in university through the first draft lotteries. Then I drew a very high lottery number and wasn’t called.

The United States withdrew its forces from Sài Gòn in 1975. A year later, I was a backpacker traveling through Bangkok, just a hop, step and jump away from what Vietnamese today call The American War. From 1982 to 1984 I worked elsewhere in Southeast Asia, in Singapore, where my son was born. By that time, Vietnam’s socialist-communist northern province had consumed its once-democratic southern jurisdiction, and Westerners were not roundly welcomed during the national rebuilding process.

Vietnam is different now. If some Americans of my generation continue to hold resentment against the Vietnamese, that grudge is not reciprocated. The people are almost universally warm and gracious. Although the country has a one-party communist government, it has an unabashedly capitalist economy. And tourism — not so long ago nonexistent — is now a stanchion of Vietnam’s booming success. At least it was so prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m sure it will bounce back.

Buddhist temple complex, Tay Ninh, Vietnam, 2020

With its millennia-old history and great natural beauty, Vietnam has become one of the most popular travel destinations on earth. In fact, this seahorse-shaped country has no fewer than eight UNESCO world heritage sites.

An Asian attraction

Early on, I was smitten by Southeast Asia. I had traveled through western Europe, parts of Latin America and across the South Pacific, but it was this corner of the world that most enchanted me. As a meeting place between the cultures of India to the west and China to the north, the region hosted a singular blend of world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and more) and history, from the Mongol hordes to European colonization.

Several years after earning my journalism degree from the University of Oregon, I did graduate work in Asian cultures and history. I focused my learning on Southeast Asia, accompanied by coursework in basic Japanese language. (My brother, Fred, by this time had become a resident of Japan.) In my subsequent career as a travel and food writer and editor, however, I returned to this area only twice after leaving Singapore in 1984. Once was in 1996 with my son, Erik, when he was 12. The other was in 2004 as a guest on a clipper cruise line operating out of Phuket, Thailand.

I had always planned to return for longer stays. But LIFE happened. (As John Lennon famously said, LIFE is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.) Between 1980 and 2019 there was marriage. Childbirth. Divorce. Child support. Attractive new job opportunities. Book contracts. Two more major relationships. Dad’s death to heart disease at age 70. Mom’s declining health and, finally, her passing at the age of 89 in early 2015.

Between it all, my life was uniquely fantastic. I wrote 19 first-edition books and hundreds of feature articles for major magazines and newspapers. I was an editor for The Los Angeles Times and France’s renowned Michelin Guides. I worked not only as a journalist, but also as a cook, a musician, a carpenter, a salesman, a university professor, a bartender, even a sheep shearer. As a ski champion and instructor, I waxed my planks on four continents. I rode the Hawaiian surf, paraglided from the heights of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, rafted the whitewater of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, backpacked large portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, and bicycled the length of New Zealand and the Oregon coast. I played ice hockey in Sweden and roller hockey on Venice Beach, mushed sled dogs in Alaska, studied tango dancing in Buenos Aires, created batik art in Java, tickled the honky-tonk piano keys in New Zealand, and fished for tuna from a dugout canoe in the Solomon Islands.

Through all these adventures, nothing and no one in my life meant more to me than my son. Erik lived in Seattle, a half day’s drive from my Oregon home. He was only 4 years old when his mother and I split, but he and I always remained the best of friends. We skied together, rafted together, shared a love of dogs, dining and professional sports. He found a career in information technology, but his passion was music. He was a popular DJ and producer of EDM (electronic dance music) shows in his home city of Seattle. I attended as often as possible.

Major League baseball with Erik, 2015

Inevitably, a part of DJ’ing was hard partying. The lifestyle took its toll. When Erik told me in October 2015, not long after Mom’s death, that he had been diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer, I was devastated. Eight months later, in June 2016, he was dead at the age of 32, victim of a particularly aggressive form of hepatobiliary carcinoma.

Had he and his wife, Kim, his high-school sweetheart, succeeded in starting the family they so badly wanted, I doubt that I would have left the Pacific Northwest for the long term. My travels would not have been open-ended. I would have enjoyed being a grandfather. Now that would not happen.

Next: Making the move