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