On the (river) road

Coming from a place like San Diego, semi-desert, shriveling in the grip of our prolonged drought, the Mekong River and its gargantuan delta feel unreal. Intellectually we know how there could be so much water here; the rainy season is drawing to a close, but the skies still release drenching daily downpours. Still, making our way through this place where rivers function not just as superhighways but also as streets, as alleys, is unlike anything I’ve previously experienced.

So is the way people think about all this water. On Wednesday morning, we hired a boat and guide to take us out at dawn to see some of the impromptu markets that materialize every morning on the Can Tho river (a branch of the Mekong). Boat dwellers ply the backwaters, buying melons, beans, rice, pineapples, and the myriad other foods grown by people who live along the watery byways. The boat merchants then gather, hoisting poles to which they tie examples of what they have to sell that day. Retailers from the town take boats out to buy from the wholesalers. It’s a fascinating scene, and it provided us with several highly diverting hours.

Notice that among other things, these folks have cabbages for sale.

But none of what we saw astounded me as much as our guide’s comments about the rainy season. He mentioned that at this time of year, the town typically floods twice a day — with every high tide. Over and over, folks living near the water see it seep into their homes and rise to a height of one foot, two, sometimes more. My immediate thought was that this was a consequence of global warning, catastrophic. But Ca’s next comment suggested otherwise. “It very nice,” he said, looking serene. The floodwaters increased the supply of fish and brought in deposits of silt that made the rich soil even richer, he pointed out. Getting all their belongings up and away from the water’s reach might be a nuisance, but it only lasted for a few hours each day, part of the year, and folks were used to dealing with it.

Part of our tour included a visit to a rice noodle factory, where Steve had to stare down this resident over breakfast

After our river tour with Ca, we caught a bus to transport us on the three-and-a-half-hour journey from Can Tho to the border town of Chau Doc. The ride was pretty ghastly. Our seats were directly behind the driver, who seemed to have a bad cold. Every few minutes, he made disgusting noises as he sucked mucus from his nasal passages, rolled down his window, and loudly spat a glob into the street. He also texted and talked on his cell phone frequently, while managing to honk several times per minute — warning the bicycles and motorbikers and cars and trucks and other buses jamming the bad roads that he was about to hit them (though he never did, despite coming very, very close). The honking irritated me, but its aggravational power paled compared to the braying nonstop programming on the big TV screen hanging from the ceiling next to us. Maybe Vietnamese sitcoms and propaganda music videos are more lovable if you speak Vietnamese. It’s possible.

Still, our trip to Chau Doc was neither about the journey nor the destination; we didn’t reach our guesthouse until almost 7 p.m., and we checked out barely 12 hours later. We came to catch the Hangchau Speed Boat, which would take us up the river, across the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, and on to the capital city of Phnom Penh. I’m writing this aboard the boat.

This ride is pretty noisy too, but it’s all the rush of water sounds mixed with the bass notes of the boat’s engine. We’re not bouncing and jerking, but rather barreling along as smoothly as if we were on a jet plane rocked by only the mildest of turbulence. The only air conditioning is the natural kind. The breeze magically makes you forget that it’s 90 degrees outside with 90 percent humidity. And how much more detailed and humane the views are than those available from 35,000 feet. Earlier, near Chau Doc, we saw boats of every sort: wooden skiffs and pirogues and junks and ferries and sampans. Not one single sailboat. One expensive looking cruise ship. Now the banks are lined with jungly greenery. Once in a while, a bizarrely exotic temple materializes.

Fast boat cabin interior

Unlike another bus trip, which I would be dreading, I’m happy we’ll have one final ride on the Mekong. We’ll do that Saturday morning, when we travel from Phnom Penh up to Siam Reap, the site of Angkor Wat. But first we’ll get to see something of this capital of the one-time killing fields.

The Phnom Penh skyline, as seen from our fast boat on arrival



The bird men of Saigon

I’ve depended on guidebooks all my adult life. For this trip, I carried Lonely Planet’s guide to Southeast Asia with me, and in Saigon we followed its suggestions for a few things. All the sites we visited on our walking tour with the student were warmly recommended by the Lonely Planet writers. On our own Monday, Steve and I relaxed our aversion to Vietnam War tourism and visited Saigon’s War Remembrance Museum, which pretty savagely indicts the entire US involvement in the region. It’s an entirely one-sided view of those events, with no tolerance or understanding or attempt to present what the warriors or America’s leaders thought they were doing. Heavy attention is paid to the huge numbers of people who died, to the war atrocities (like My Lai), and to the spraying of millons of gallons of Agent Orange to destroy vast areas of cropland. (We have seen a number of hideously deformed folk in the streets, who may be part of that legacy.) Lonely Planet gives it a star.

Bitexco Tower, Saigon's tallest

In recent years, however, I’ve become more and more fond of finding travel suggestions online. The information in even the very best printed guidebook is typically several years old by the time it hits bookshelves (or becomes available on Amazon). Cognizant of this, I’ve started turning to the Internet for more up-to-date suggestions. There, for example, I found a New York Times travel piece published this past summer (“36 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City”) that led us to two phenomenal dinners (one about $12 and one about $25).

I perked up when I came upon the “Fly, Icarus, Fly” blog. It contained a post in which author “James” recently enumerated some of his favorite quirky things to do in Saigon. An intriguing list, it led me to the free student tour. It also advised that while tourists usually experience the Bitexco Tower (Saigon’s tallest building) by paying to go to the “Skydeck” on the 49th floor, locals head to the coffee shop on the 50th floor. We did that, and sipped delicious iced coffees with condensed milk while drinking in the mind-boggling skyline.

James also recommended seeing a show at the Saigon Opera House, and that turned out to be the impetus for me securing tickets to an amazing Cirque de Soleil-style performance (“AO”) that dazzled us Sunday night. He sung the praises of local barbers, and although neither of us got a haircut, we did spring for foot massages ($5 each for 30 minutes). Best of all was James’ advice to stroll over to Tao Dan Park to see the bird men of Saigon.

Vietnam still has plenty of ladies carrying shoulder poles, and they're up early..
Fewer motorbike riders take to the sidewalks in the early morning hours.

He said these were bird owners who every morning gathered in the park to provide their feathered friends with a play date. Intrigued, we set our alarm and were walking out of our hotel by a little after 6 a.m. (Tuesday). It was a pleasant time to walk in Saigon, warm, of course, but not the steamy blast furnace that it builds to by late morning. The streets were far from empty, but the cars and motorbikes seemed more like battalions than armies. Folks were setting up their wares and cooking grills on the street; carving hunks of meat, displaying vegetables for sale. The world felt calmer and quieter than it would be a few hours later in the workday.

The park was a haven of pathways winding in the shade provided by huge, old trees. We arrived shortly before 6:30 a.m. and gaped at the bustle of activity: young men And women clad in black practicing martial arts, joggers, ungainly middle-aged ladies jazzercising to Vietnamese pop music, couples playing badminton. But no bird men! Had we been duped? I pulled out the blog post and re-read it; noted that it mentioned the action occurring next to some kind of cafe. We saw a building like that, headed for it, and found what we were seeking.

Men were sitting on blue plastic chairs at little plastic tables set under metal structures that looked like abstract representations of trees. From these, they’d hung the beautiful wooden cages housing their birds. From what we could see, the birds for the most part weren’t beauties. Some were the size of finches, while a few could have been mockingbirds. Most were singing in the dappled sunshine. In his post, James claimed that the birds actually learn new songs from each other.

The birds seemed happy

He’d said that up to 100 bird owners sometimes gather, and indeed, in the 15 minutes or so in which we watched the scene, we saw at least a dozen more men (young and old) arrive, remove the colored cloth covering their cages, and hang them up to join the other birds. It was the kind of scene that makes you like a place, and we were sorry we had to leave it, to rush back to the hotel. But we had a bus to catch for a gathering of boats, rather than birds, in the Mekong Delta.

Language lessons

On our very first morning in Vietnam, when we strolling around Hoam Kiem Lake In the center of Hanoi, two groups of young people approached us and said they were students, seeking to improve their English. Both times they asked if we could spare 5-10 minutes to chat with them and give them some conversational practice. My hackles rose. I remembered all the students in Beijing who did the same thing, but there it invariably turned out to be a ruse to try to lure tourists into buying art. So I brushed them off. They didn’t react the way the Chinese students did, however. Instead of pushily pursuing us, they seemed embarassed and apologetic, and they immediately backed away. Steve later chastised me; said we should have talked to them.

In Ho Chi Minh City (still aka Saigon), we got a second chance. While planning the trip, I had found a website for free tours organized by Vietnamese university students to give themselves some one-on-one time with native English speakers. It sounded too good to be true, but I emailed anyway and asked to sign up for such an excursion. I got no response at first. But 5 days after we left San Diego, I received an enthusiastic e-mail from one “Salmon Tranh,” offering to show us some of Saigon’s top sights. We made plans to meet at 10 a.m. Sunday morning (10/26) in front of the Independence Palace.

The Reunification Palace (aka Independence Palace)

By that point, Steve and I had come to understand the desperate need for more and better English-language instruction in this country. We’ve been told that nowadays all Vietnamese children get English lessons in school. But we’ve also heard — and it’s obvious as one travels here — that this education is poor. It focuses on grammar and (some) written comprehension, but there’s little to no opportunity to converse. As a consequence, many shop folks cringe when you ask them anything in English. Others, particularly tour service providers (hotel and restaurant personnel, museum guides, etc.) speak it freely — but with such heavy accents it’s usually tough to understand them.

Twenty-year-old “Salmon” (who arrived right on time) turned out to be an exceptionally perky young Vietnamese woman whose accent was pretty good. Over and over, she exclaimed about how excited she was to be able to talk to native speakers. Although she’s studying accounting at one of the best universities in the city, she seemed to have a clear grasp of how important a strong command of English is (particularly for folks whose language is pretty much only spoken by their own fellow citizens.) She told us she’s only been a member of the free tours group for a month, but that we were the sixth set of visitors she’d taken around.

Salmon and friends
The red circles mark where the bombs hit

We spent a lively and entertaining two and a half hours with her. The palace, where we started out, is a fascinating place — the former home of Nguyen Van Thieu during all the bloody years when American warriors struggled to keep him in power as the head of an independent south. A tour of the place takes in everything from the sumptuous state rooms to the underground bunkers to the rooftop from which Thieu finally escaped in 1975. (Big red circles on the roof mark the two spots hit by North Vietnamese bombs, and the first two Communist tanks that crashed through the gates sit in a place of honor on the grounds.). Salmon also showed us the exquisite Cathedral and central Post Office and City Hall structures built by the French colonialists in Saigon, and we chattered away about everything from English-language pitfalls to where 20-somethings live (in both our countries). We paid for her admission to the palace, and pressed her to join us for lunch. But she demurred, hinting that she had to prepare for her next day’s classes.

For my part, I have to say my biggest regret of this trip is that I didn’t have the foresight to take a semester of Vietnamese. I love learning new languages and have spent a lot of time studying both Japanese and Mandarin. I think I failed to think of it because I knew we’d be passing through dozens of different language zones. Yet if I had concentrated just on Vietnamese, I would have gained a lot. I wouldn’t have become anywhere near fluent, but I would have mastered a lot more of the spoken language than just the “please,” “thank you,” “hello,” “yes,” “no,” and “OMG!” I got Manh on our Halong Bay cruise to teach me. Most importantly, I would have been able to read dozens or hundreds of words. Unlike the Japanese and Chinese and Thais and Cambodians and Laotians, the Vietnamese have long used a standard Latin alphabet (albeit embellished with a bunch of diacritical marks) to write their language. That makes it easy to get around town and find stuff.

If things are written in Roman letters, you at least can read them (even if you can't understand what the words mean.)

We still managed to do a lot of that, but it would have been even more fun if I had had a bit more of Salmon’s gumption.


Ground v. air — part II

I didn’t try to buy our Vietnamese railway tickets from home. I’d read that they would be easy to secure just a few days in advance, so when we checked into our hotel in Hanoi, I told Ms. Julia in the lobby that we wanted berths on the sleeper from Hanoi to Hue, seats on the 3-hour morning train from Hue to Danang (the portal to Hoi An), and seats on the 7-hour train from Danang to Saigon. The first two were no problem; $55 a person for the sleeper and $15 for the second train ride. But I had misunderstood the mechanics of rail travel between Danang to Saigon. Instead of taking part of a day, we learned, it would require a much longer amount of time, leaving Danang in a sleeping car about 10 p.m. Friday and not arriving until late Saturday afternoon.

I think that would have cost around $80 per person. In contrast, Ms. Julia informed us we could get seats on the one-hour-long Vietnam Air flight leaving Danang at 11:05 a.m. Saturday for $115 per person. We agonized a bit over the decision. We’ve come to loathe the time and tedium involved in modern air transport, and we had looked forward to seeing the scenery en route. In the end, however,the thought of giving up our prepaid room in Hoi An to rattle through yet another night made us come to our senses and buy the plane seats.

Thank god! The Vietnamese train system doesn’t offer first-class sleepers, so instead of having our own cozy space from Hanoi to Hue, we shared our 4-berth compartment with 2 other Americans (a likable young couple from Washington DC). We all had working electrical outlets, which was nice (I could charge up my phone and iPad!), but in other ways, it seemed inferior to the Thai sleeper we took from Bangkok to the Laotian border — no dining car, for one thing. And Steve saw a cockroach and spiders lurking in the recesses near his upper berth, though he kindly kept that news from me until after we had arrived.

The morning train ride from Hue to Danang was pretty mesmerizing. We had two seats In a standard day coach on which we appeared to be the only foreigners. The train was probably 60 years old and exceedingly slow, but it hugged a mountainous coastline with jaw-droppingly spectacular views. The action inside our coach was almost as diverting. Across the aisle and two rows up from us, a woman slept on the floor at her husband’s feet. I’m not sure how, with car attendants periodically rolling carts up and down the aisle (at one point dishing up some kind of hot food). Someone’s very naughty two-year-old was on the rampage. And from the ceiling, screens displayed “Rail TV,” which among other things aired a Vietnamese (officially franchised) version of The Amazing Race.

On the day coach from Hue to Danang
A view from the train

All pretty entertaining, but more than sufficient to satisfy the craving we’d had for rail time. Moreover, both of the short Vietnam Airlines flights we took (Luang Prabang to Hanoi and Danang to Saigon) felt like going back to a time when air travel was easy. All three airports were clean and uncrowded; the huge and gleaming one In Danang was only 2 years old. Hassles were minimal — no taking off of shoes nor long security lines. In fact, no one seemed to be paying much attention to what was rolling through the X-ray screeners. On board, the flight attendants didn’t patrol to check for seatbelt scofflaws, and no one seemed to care when I trturned on my electronic devices.

Now we’re in Saigon for two full days. I’ll probably wait until our Tuesday morning bus ride to the Mekong delta to write again. Between now and then, our schedule is pretty packed.

Forget me not the tailor

I’ve never owned clothes that were made by a tailor especially for me. I’ve never wanted any; ready-to-wear is fine. But I’d read an account by a friend of a friend of having some things made for her while on a trip to Vietnam. That was several years ago, but when I was researching this trip, it became clear that getting tailor-made clothes still ranks high on the agenda of many visitors.

Historic Hoi An

I’d read that Saigon and Hanoi both are places where you can have outfits whipped up in 24-48 hours. But Hoi An is a particular Mecca for clothes lovers, and there appeared to be plenty of other reasons to linger in this town on Vietnam’s central coast. A World Heritage Site, the old quarter was said to be both atmospheric and architecturally distinguished. Superb restaurants abound. So I planned for a two-night stay during which getting some clothes made would be our central mission.


To prepare, I did some online research and found one traveler’s fairly recent account of her interactions with a tailor who went by the name of “Ms. Forget-Me-Not.” She was not pushy, charged fair prices, and did excellent work, attested the writer (an exuberant looking blonde who included a photo of herself in Ms. FMN’s stall — #20 in the cloth market. Some recommendation seemed better than nothing.

After arriving in town, we ate lunch at the Mermaid Restaurant, Hoi An’s first restaurant (opened in 1992). Since then hundreds of others have opened, but the simple Mermaid ranks among the best. For $12 we got superb crispy wontons, thick noodles with pork, delicate seafood dumplings, and 2 16-ounce local beers. Then we walked the two blocks to the cavernous building labeled “Hoi An Cloth-Market.” From storefronts along the street, hawkers implored us to let them make our custom garments. We marched on, into the dimly lighted building, moving through narrow aisles, scanning, scanning for #20. “What number you looking for?” women shouted. “I make anything you want! Very good! very cheap!” We tried to ignore their siren cries (Come to me! To me!), but the stall numbering system was completely random. I broke down and confessed what we were looking for.

“She move,” a woman declared. Indeed in the vacant space where she led us, a sign taped to the wall announced that Ms. Forget-Me-Not could now be found at #37 Phan Chau Trinh. Our map indicated the street was just a few blocks away, so we exited, leaving a sea of disappointed seamstresses in our wake.

Within the open-front shop at #37, the walls were stuffed with thousands of fabric bolts. I recognized Ms. FMN from her photo online. She and her sister (“Rose”) and a third sister whose name I never learned greeted us warmly. I have to confess my heart sank to see they were already working with another customer, a chatty young blonde from Britain. She’d been there the year before, loved what she’d bought, and had returned for more. Within a few minutes, two more young Englishwomen joined us. I’m not sure what they wanted because by then we were immersed in the serious business of deciding what to order.

Interior of Ms. Forget-Me-Not's shop


Savvy shoppers bring photos, but all I had was the notion that I should get a couple of pairs of pants made (since it’s rare to find ones in any store that fit like a glove). Along the way, Steve had also persuaded me to order up an ao dai — the traditional Vietnamese slit-skirted top and pajama bottoms. I in turn insisted that he get a nice short-sleeved shirt or two. The ladies slapped big scrapbooks in front of us, filled with magazine images of all manner of clothing items. We fumbled a bit but found a couple styles we judged would do. Next we picked out fabrics — a gray checked cotton and regal jade green silk for Steve’s shirts; a pretty floral crepe for my ao dai top; solid black and turquoise blends for my two pairs of slacks. Rose prised the fabrics from the jam-packed shelves and Ms. FMN told us what it would cost: $32 for each of my pants, $15 for Steve’s cotton shirt and $20 for the silk one, and $55 for my complicated ao dai. That seemed fair.

Over the next hour, I began to feel like I was in a friend’s workroom. Outside, the threatening skies opened up with a deluge that filled the street with maybe half a foot of water, but we were busy being measured — chests, waists, neck and crotch, multiple points along my arms and torso. Informed that we were leaving town early Saturday, the sisters told us to return at 2 p.m. the next day (Friday). When we did, we were sticky from all the walking and bicyling we’d done in the heat and humidity. My pants and ao dai top were a little hard to pull on, and I worried: were they too small? But once in place, it was clear: both my outfits and Steve’s shirts fit just the way I’d hoped they would.

Ms. FMN checks the fit of Steve's silk shirt.


Ms. FMN wasn’t completely satisfied. She suggested letting out the black pants by a quarter inch; adjusting the torso of the ao dai top by a smidge. We agreed to return and pick up the final products later that evening. (The sisters live upstairs over the shop.)

And so we did. We covered a lot of ground in the 22 hours we had between our first and second visits to #37 Phan Chau Trinh: visited some glorious old houses and temples, strolled the pedestrian streets bedecked with silk lanterns and lined with a million and one tempting things to buy. We hired a motorboat for a 45-minute ride on the Thu Bon river, rode creaky old bicycles past flooded rice fields and water buffalo and cranes. Ate meals that ranked among the most delicious I’ve ever had. Swam in an exquisite disappearing-edge pool.

The pool at our hotel, with the river just beyond.

But when I think back to Hoi An, I’m pretty sure what will stand out is our time joking with Ms. FMN and her sisters. (“Nice ass!” she cracked as she and I surveyed how her handiwork fit me.) I’m impressed by what an intimate and personal thing it is to craft clothes for one particular body. I expect Steve and I will wear our clothes from Hoi An for years (except for maybe that ao dai top), and every time we do, we’ll feel the presence of the tailors.






In the shadow of the war

Yesterday (Wednesday, Oct 22), Steve and I arrived in Hue on the night train from Hanoi. We got in just after 8:30, so we had plenty of time to explore this pleasant, walkable little city.

Hue's famous citadel

Hue’s principal attraction is the sprawling imperial fortress built by one of the Nguyen emperors at the start of the 1800s. We spent a couple of hours strolling around the grounds. It was at least 90 degrees and humid, but when we could get out of the blazing sun and under some of the huge sheltering trees, it was tolerable. And the buildings that have been reconstructed within the citadel and “forbidden city” have a striking and graceful beauty.

The interior of one of the reconstructed buildings

Much of the grounds consist of open grassy fields, however, because so much of the citadel was destroyed — beginning in 1946 when the Vietnamese were battling the French imperial forces and more thoroughly in early 1968. During the “Tet offensive” that unfolded then, the North Vietnamese army stormed and occupied the fortress, and American forces launched a sustained and bloody effort to get it back. Thousands died during the battle (soldiers on both sides and civilians), and when it was over, the Americans had re-occupied it. But it lay in ruins.

After we left the citadel and were walking around the town, we got the clear impression that some of the Americans who participated in the fighting make a pilgrimage here. Hue is just 31 miles from the former “demilitarized zone” — the no man’s land that was set up between the north and south. All over town we saw ads for tours to the DMZ and to some of the tunnels the North Vietnamese lived in and from which they launched attacks. One of the maps we got from our guesthouse was marked with the sites of other American battles and bases. All this war tourism might have creeped us out more had it not been for what we’ve already heard about Vietnamese attitudes toward that sorry chapter in our shared history.

Typical war-tour offering

We got some insight from Manh, our young guide on Halong Bay. At one point, Steve and I were asking him about the influence of the Chinese language on the Vietnamese tongue, and he launched into a detailed presentation of the history of China’s 1000-plus-year-long occupation of Vietnam, its attempts to exterminate Vietnamese culture, its current aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and the generally unpleasant behavior of contemporary Chinese tourists. “French people and American people sometimes ask me how Vietnamese people feel about them, because of the wars,” he said. “To us that was a few seconds, compared to what the Chinese did.”

Ed, our friend who’s lived in Hanoi, says the Vietnamese government has always portrayed the “American War” as a dirty conflict that the American people rejected, so average folks blame the US government and not the people. Several ordinary folks here have confirmed that. “We like Americans now!”

Steve and I are glad to hear that. We’ve both felt our guts twisting when confronted with some of the war-touristic options. Back home, when planning this trip, we decided to forego visiting any of those famed tunnels. We saw them when, in preparation for our travels, we watched a 20-part PBS series on the war. That was enough. We decided we didn’t need to spend the better part of a day in order to see them in person. Similarly, we passed on a DMZ expedition. When we were in Hanoi, we declined to tour Hoa Lo Prison (the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where we knew we could see John McCain’s flight suit on display.) Here we have no desire to go on the 7- hour excursion to the infamous My Lai massacre site.

Frankly, I’m a little surprised by my squeamishness. I haven’t flinched from death camps and genocide museums in other places ranging from Dachau to Rwanda. But this was feels more personal; somehow, I feel more grief-stricken over the destruction, the waste. If the Vietnamese have managed to move beyond it, I’m happy to try to follow in their footsteps.



How to eat turtle

Turtles are one of the 4 sacred animals of Vietnam (along with the lion dog, dragon, and phoenix), but as Steve points out, they’re they the only ones people eat because they’re the only ones that are real. Real turtles are eaten all over Vietnam, particularly at significant times. Folks think they bring good luck. Steve and I wanted to try them because an American friend and long-term Hanoi resident recommended the experience. Here’s how it went.

Our friend Ed (who’s not in Hanoi at the moment), had introduced us to a dear friend of his whom I’ll call Thanh (to protect his privacy). When we told him we would love to have a turtle dinner, he seemed surprised but happy to arrange it.

At around 6:30 p.m. Monday, we assembled with Tranh, his wife, and three other associates outside the restaurant. The 7 of us were ushered to a doorway where we kicked off our shoes then entered a private dining room paneled in dark wood. It had a round table sunken into a deck on which we took seats. An instant later, a waitress appeared with shot glasses containing the first reptilian components: scarlet turtle blood mixed with vodka in some receptables and turtle bile that turned the vodka in other shotglasses jade green.

Tranh declared that we should start with the red. I was happy to discover that vodka with blood doesn’t taste any different from vodka without it. Another waitress appeared, bearing a large silver bowl containing a live turtle. At least I think it was alive. Tranh poked at him a few times with his chopsticks, but the poor creature was trying to hide in his shell (for all the good it would do).

The waitresses removed him, I assume to go to other diners, because just a moment later they brought us platters piled high with large chunks of fried turtle meat. Someone placed a knobby piece in each of our bowls: turtle feet, we were informed. A morsel like that you have to pick up with your hands. Then you do your best to gnaw off the soft bits.

The fried turtle (Not sure what the yellow thing was -- probably carved mango, but no one dug into it)

Over the next hour and a half, several more turtle feet were placed into the bowl in front of me, along with hard flat pieces that someone said were flippers. Not much meat was on the latter, and it was tricky to rip off what there was. I can tell you that the breading was tasty. The foot meat was slate-colored and chewy, not repulsive enough to ever make me feel like gagging (although the bile-infused vodka came close; I passed most of mine on to Steve.) The stewed turtle was more likable, bland and gelatinous.

The stewed turtle (served with the delicate white noodles)

But Steve and I later agreed no one is likely to make a fortune opening a tortugeria anywhere in America (except maybe Little Saigon in Westminster?)

If the meal was one of the least delicious we’ve had on this trip, the company was incomparable. Tranh is less than 2 months younger than me, but what different lives we’ve led. While I was studying and performing in high school plays, he was studying too — and dodging the American bombs aimed at his village. On a national mathematics exam, he scored among the highest in the country and was rewarded by being sent to Poland to learn the language and study computer programming at Warsaw University. He returned to Vietnam in 1977, two years after the war ended, and since then he’s become one of the country’s leading computer scientists. He’s also one of the most open and generous people I’ve ever met.

The day before our turtlefest, he took Steve and me to the excellent Museum of Ethnology. After we toured the exhibits and watched a water-puppet show, we strolled through Nghia Do Park, a vortex of jolliness, jammed with joggers, badminton players, lovers, old men smoking, children climbing on play structures and driving little electric cars. We wound up at Tranh’s home, where he showed us every room then led us to a table where he and his wife plied us with meat and veggie rolls and rice patties and beef pho, washed down with lots of local beer.

The city intoxicated me even more than the beer. Within minutes of walking around Sunday morning, I was blurting out, “I want to live here!”

“You always say that,” Steve dismissed me.

That’s unfair. It’s a craving that only seizes me in a select company of urban centers: Paris, Barcelona, Fes, Tokyo. But Hanoi makes Tokyo seem sleepy and sanitized in comparison. The raw energy of the place is as palpable as the heat and humidity (at least at this time of year; folks say the winters are chilly). But if it’s a cauldron of frenzied free enterprise, it also feels so homey. I lost count of all the men and women and teenagers I saw sitting out on little plastic stools in front of their homes or businesses, tickling or hugging or just holding happy-looking babies.

“Ho Chi Minh must be turning in his grave,” Steve commented. I don’t know about that. I know little about Uncle Ho. We couldn’t view his preserved body in its grandiose mausoleum because the 45-years-dead corpse is off in Russia for its annual spruce-up. And the Ho Chi Minh Museum, while artsy, was a total dud at providing insight into Ho’s character. If he was a rigid ideologue, intent on dictating every detail of his countrymen’s lives, then he would be appalled indeed. But if he mainly wanted to see the Vietnamese people out from under the heel of foreigners (the Chinese oppressed them for 1000 years; the French for about 100, the Americans (in the south) for the blink of an eye, then I think he must be sleeping soundly.


Battling the Vietnamese army

Our guide on Halong Bay, a charming 31-year-old named Manh, told us 7 million people now call Hanoi home. He also claimed there are 7 million motorbikes in the city. He insisted he wasn’t being hyperbolic. A bunch of those 7 million people are babies and school kids, and it’s hard to believe there’s a bike for every one of them — until you start driving and walking and driving through the streets of Vietnam’s capital.

Driving in from the airport last Wednesday night, Steve and I were slack-jawed, watching the army of vehicles surging around our taxi. There’s a swarming, free-form, chaotic pulse to the flow. Bikes suddenly veer off diagonally; once in a while you see them proceeding against the current. While cars and buses (mostly) stop at the occasional traffic lights, the motorbike riders for the most part ignore them. Everyone honks, often. (Manh told us this is considered a courtesy. “It tells other drivers, ‘Watch out!'”) Steve and I have previously awarded Cairo and Shanghai our award for scariest traffic. Now Hanoi surges to the top of our chart.

If I’ve had to stifle a scream a couple of times while riding in taxis, I’ve failed to keep my cool once or twice while out walking. Bikes parked on the sidewalks often make it impossible to walk on them. Instead, you have to edge around them, in the street. But that’s trivial, compared to the challenge of crossing streets. In the Old Quarter, where we’ve been staying, there are almost no traffic lights, and we’ve never been out and about at any time when the flow of vehicles abated, so getting across most streets requires steady nerves. We’ve used a couple of strategies. My favorite is waiting for a couple of locals who also want to cross, then positioning myself behind them, to use them as a shield. When no one else has been crossing, we’ve made each other hold hands before stepping in to the oncoming tide. People say that if you can refrain from panicking — never freezing or bolting — the motorbikes (and lowly bicycles) will always swerve around you. So far, at least, they always have. (Cars are another matter, but mercifully there are fewer than them.)

A rare quiet moment

As I write this, we’re at the end of our third full day of exploring Hanoi. By this end of this afternoon, I certainly wasn’t as blase as the locals, but at least I’d stopped being really frightened. I’d even come to appreciate a few aspects to the motorized insanity. To wit:

1) It can be extremely entertaining to watch. People of all ages ride the bikes. I’ve seen countless well-dressed middle-aged women at the controls, some wearing very high heels. A certain minority of them wear protective jumpsuits (to guard against the road grit) and decorative face masks (feeble protection against the gas fumes). I’ve seen guys simultaneously driving and texting and smoking. Many of the teenagers in the mix look to be no older than 14. Some folks are transporting cargo.

2) There’s an astounding fluidity to the madness. Watching the Hanoi traffic has made me think: these folks are so flexible, they could handle anything.

3) Many must enjoy the nutty drama, on some level. I say this based on what we saw last night. We’d gone out to dinner with Vietnamese friends, and we got back to our hotel around 8:30 p.m. We decided to take a short walk to the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake (“the spiritual heart of Vietnam”), to see what it looks like at night. As we got close to it, we found the streets not just busy, but jam-packed with a great mass of bikes — thousands and thousands of them. Most were couples or young families. I saw infants strapped to the backs of their mothers (who in turn were riding behind the dads). Other vehicles bore tiny toddlers — no helmets, no seatbelts, just clinging to mom.

The explanation turned out to be that it was Woman’s Day. All day long we’d marveled at the vast floral displays everywhere in the streets. That’s one way the ladies get honored. But apparently a whole gigantic bunch of them think it’s lovely to plunge into the throng — and cruise.

Cruising the enchanted bay

In 2008 Steve and I took the first cruise of our lives, down the Nile. There are other waterways we’d liked to cruise some day, but we’ve saving them until we’re older and infirm, unable to handle the rigors of more adventurous travel. We made an exception to that rule for Halong Bay; spent Thursday and Friday nights sleeping on the Treasure.

Our cruising home

It is possible to see the bay on a day boat, but that would be arduous. The bus ride from Hanoi takes more than three and a half hours. We boarded our bus at 8 a.m. Thursday, reached Halong City shortly before noon, and boarded a small pontoon boat that transported us to the junk, a handsome motorized sailing ship that sleeps about 30.

The Treasure was lovely: dark polished wood and rich upholstery, our cabin well-designed and comfortable. Meals consisted of multiple courses, many of them tasty sea creatures freshly harvested from the bay. Steve and I did all the activities: tai-chi lessons on the deck at dawn,

Vietnamese cooking lessons both evenings at 6 p.m. In between, we climbed into a sturdy double ocean kayak and paddled for hours, following our guide around the islands. We paddled to a deserted sand beach (one of the few left in the bay, we learned, due to shellfish farmers stealing the extraordinarily fine-grained sand to use in their aquacultural enterprises.) We toured a sea cave and a floating village, home to about 100 of the bay’s 500 resident fishermen. All of it was fun.
Getting into reed boats for a tour of the fishing village

None of that compared, however, to the pleasure of simply gazing at the staggering beauty surrounding us. Halong Bay has been included on at least one of those recent lists of Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It’s been declared a World Heritage Site on two counts — for nature and beauty. We couldn’t quibble with those designations. The place is as spectacular, in its own way, as the Grand Canyon or Table Mountain in South Africa. What makes it so special are the 1,969 islands that stud it. Composed of highly eroded limestone, what makes them so special, in turn, is their great height. The legend goes that they sprang up from seeds of jade spit out by dragons protecting the local folk from an invading army. Today they’re covered with jade-green plants, and they indeed look magical.

I was somewhat prepared by how splendid the bay would be. What was unexpected was how superbly our expedition company (Handspan Tours) managed to organize our itinerary to keep us out of sight of other cruisers. The first tours of Halong Bay began just 10 or 11 years ago. Steve and I have friends who visited in 2005 and were the only passengers on their junk. Now, however, some 500 tourist boats play the water daily — 300 for daytrippers and 200 for overnight cruisers. I’d read warnings online of how traffic-jammed the bay can seem, marred by the sight of garbage floating on the water. But the Treasure steamed to a relatively pristine section. Once moored, we often were the only visitors in sight.

I’m not a good enough writer to describe the bay and islands adequately. So here are a few digital impressions:

I’m hoping all these photos will upload because the Golden Sun Palace, our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, has very good wifi. We arrived back late yesterday afternoon and already my neurons are overloaded with the effort to take this place in. I’ll let them calm down, then I’ll try to describe some fraction of it.


Laos once was known as the land of a million elephants, but today authorities say only 1600 or so are left. About a third of them toil as slaves for the Laotian logging industry, hauling the heavy trees being taken from the forest. A handful of lucky pachyderms have been rescued from this servitude and transferred to sanctuaries. They still have to work for their keep, which is considerable (around 500 pounds of food per animal per day). But instead of 8-9 hours of daily heavy labor, they only have to put up with tourists for a part each day.

Steve and I got to meet some of these animals Wednesday, having impulsively signed up for the excursion the preceding day. An air conditioned van picked us up at 8:30 and drove us out into the country, where the Elephant Sanctuary leases land from the local authorities. The project we visited was started in 2003, we learned, brainchild of a visionary German. Over the years, the property has grown to encompass an exquisite cliff-top resort with manicured grounds and white-curtained cabanas that overlook the broad Nhom Khai river and fantastically dramatic distant mountains.

Some folks opted the ride their elephants across the river and give them baths. But the forest ride called to us..

We sat in one of the cabanas and sipped coffee while our guide, Cha Vang, told us a little of the history of the place. Then we walked down to the riverbank and hopped into a long-tail boat that ferried us to the other side.

One of the newer females in the compound gave birth 5 months ago to a mischievous little male christened Maksi. The two of them spend most of their time on long chains that give them a measure of freedom to enjoy the surrounding forest. But for a few hours every day they move to a small enclosure, There Steve and I and Londoners Dominic and Sophie (the two other members of our group) hand-fed small yellow bananas to the mother. She scarfed them down –skin, knobby stem, and all — like potato chips, but Maksi’s immature digestive system required that we peel the fruit before placing it in his eager, searching little trunk.


After a while, Steve and I climbed up onto one of two nearby bamboo platforms. From it, we had to step out and onto the howdah, the wooden bench strapped onto the back of Mea Khammee, our ride for the morning. Every elephant here has her own mahout, the trainer/driver who directs and controls her. Mae Khammee’s mahout slipped in front of the howdah, wrapping his legs around her neck. And then we were off.

I’ve traveled on the backs of horses, mules, and camels; I’ve ridden in cars, boats, trains, buses, and planes, big and small. To my mind, nothing beats being transported by elephant. Granted, it would be impractical on Garnet Avenue, not to mention the 405 freeway. But for moving up a rugged mountainside through a teak forest, it’s quiet. Soothing. Majestic.

After about an hour, Cha asked if either of us wanted to switch places with our mahout, to ride on Mea Khammee’s bare neck and from that position do our best to control her. I had a sudden vision of losing my balance and tumbling from that 10-foot perch, breaking a leg or my back and being paralyzed for life. So at first I demurred. But 20-something Sophie was slipping onto her elephant’s neck, calling out that it wasn’t bad, and I couldn’t resist seeing for myself.

The view over our mahout's shoulder

I stretched out my legs then inched my butt off the polished wooden bench; eased my legs around the rough gray curve. Then Mea Khammee was bearing all my weight, and the Laotians were urging me to move forward; to tuck my knees behind her ears.

And we were off! Rocking a bit, yes, and there was no saddle or rope or pommel to grip. But I found that if I rested my palms on the great round knobs that constitute the back of the elephant’s head, that was sufficient to steady me. More remarkable than the motion was the way I could feel her huge muscles moving beneath my thighs. She flapped her great ears often, and when she did, they gently slapped my bare knees and calves.

At first I was most aware of the sinewy motion of her neck muscles. But after a while, I sensed her legs beneath me too, each stride fluid and sure. If there’s an elephantine version of a centaur, I seemed to become that — my pelvis fused to her upper back, her great legs become mine. We trod on that path through that impenetrable profusion of green, and it gave me a new goal in life: to lie on my deathbed years from now, ancient and fading, and remember when I strode through Laos, half-elephant, half me.

Eventually, I inched back into the howdah, to return to a more prosaic state for our final ascent up the mountain and give Steve a chance at the elephant ecstasy (he declined). From the top, we hiked down. Before we did, we fed a bunch of bananas to Mea Khammee. She seemed to enjoy them, but to me it felt like miserly thanks.