Author Archives: Marce

Humane treatment

Morning found us walking purposefully south and west of our hotel, navigating via Google maps on my phone because we found it difficult to follow the tourist map our hotel concierge gave us. We zigged and zagged a number of doglegs around Hoan Kiem Lake, dodged traffic, made vague promises of “later” to groups of school children wanting to practice their English, and fought the temptations of inviting streets and alleyways. After about 30 minutes we turned a corner and saw what we were looking for, one of the remaining outer walls of Maison Centrale, the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where captured American pilots were imprisoned and tortured, some for more than eight years, during the “American War.” When I saw the recognizable wall, my breath caught in my throat and I anticipated another difficult morning.

We paid our admission fee, entered though the main arch and picked up our headphones and players for the audio tour.

As it happened most of the tour focused on the construction of the prison by the French in the late 19th century and the abominable conditions experienced by the Vietnamese patriots who were imprisoned there. The place was called “hell on earth” and the French were said to use “ruthless and inhumane torture against patriotic and revolutionary prisoners.” Exhibit after exhibit detailed the meager food rations, the beatings, the stench, the killings by guillotine, the attempted escapes and subsequent recaptures and punishments, and of course the heroic acts of the patriots to subvert their French rulers.

After the overthrow of the French in 1954 the Vietnamese took over the prison, and from 1964 to 1972 during the “war of destruction against North Vietnam” the prison held captured US pilots.

Our audio tour painted a happy picture of war prisoners being well looked after, playing basketball, decorating Christmas trees, preparing holiday dinners. We’ve been told a different story.

Later I looked up the tap code that we’ve heard about so many times from survivors of the Hanoi Hilton and found this.

We left Maison Centrale in a glum mood and walked back toward the center of town. We had lunch on a balcony overlooking the cathedral and the setting lifted our spirits while we batted around doing an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay. We wanted to do it, but it would eat up two full days of our time in Hanoi and we were really enjoying the energy of the city and hated to leave. Choosing a tour operator was also causing some agita, as there are dozens of them and the guidebooks and online sources are full of warnings of low quality, unsafe or unscrupulous companies. What to do, what to do?

We pushed that dilemma to the back burner and enjoyed the afternoon and evening. shopping, eating, and doing the usual Schulz Aimless Wandering that we’ve perfected over the years.

Back towards our hotel we found ourselves on Musical Instrument Street and while we were marveling over some of the unidentifiable native instruments Jack spotted a mandolin, a target of his obsession over the years. He recently bought a ukulele bass and wisely talked himself out of adding another instrument to the growing onboard collection.

As darkness fell activity spilled out into the streets and we returned to our hotel to freshen up and rest before tackling dinner.

It was Cinco de Mayo so like all good Americans we opted for Mexican again and enjoyed two-for-one margaritas and about the best quesadilla I’ve ever had. In Hanoi.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

H4 U3

We didn’t plan it especially for this reason but our tour of Vietnam includes four cities beginning with H: Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hué and our final stop, Hanoi. We also planned three UNESCO sites, Hoi An Ancient Town, the Citadel in Hué and our last intended site, Ha Long Bay, which isn’t really near Hanoi but that’s how you get there.

After the dead heat of Hué I was glad to be going further north and hoping to find cooler temps. We did, but we also got our first cloudy weather, and eventually, rain. We had pushed the calendar a little and were on the cusp of rainy season so we weren’t surprised at that, and really, in a big city, rain is rarely a deterrent to activity.

We settled into our hotel by mid afternoon, giving us plenty of time to reconnoiter the neighborhood. Right away we noticed that the shops are largely organized like a giant department store, with one street mostly hardware stores, one street baby clothes, several streets toys, etc. Our hotel was in Notions department with separate shops selling buttons, zippers, fasteners, beads and so on. If my feet would hold out I’d have walked the streets for days just to discover the categories.

The scary Vietnamese telecom system is on full view in Hanoi and apparently kept in good nick.

We decided Hanoi is even more chaotic than Saigon but we enjoyed navigating the crazy traffic and crowded streets, appreciating the architecture and the way the city seems to be held together by sheer determination and a little luck.

Our hotel concierge tipped us on the night market happening around the corner on the evening of our arrival so we joined the fray and negotiated the crush of humanity for about an hour and a half before taking refuge in a quiet restaurant for dinner. The food would surely have been better out in the market but we needed real chairs to sit in, and a bit of air conditioning.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

May the fourth

Today is the March for Science and we wish we could participate in a local event but it’s a travel day for us. Two years ago we were in New Zealand on the day and we had our own march despite our remote location.

This year the March for Science appropriately falls on Star Wars Day, all the more reason to celebrate science in all its branches, everywhere, by everyone. Science isn’t something you decide to agree or disagree with. There aren’t “two sides” to science. It’s the fundamental underpinnings of everything over, under, around and through us. And I say hats off to every scientist, past, present and future, who furthers our understanding of the world.

May Fourth has a darker meaning and for me it’s become a personal day of remembrance, a meditation on peace, and a ritual of thanksgiving. It was on this day in 1970 that the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State University who were protesting the American invasion of Cambodia, killing four and injuring nine others. It was a shocking act of violence against unarmed young adults exercising their right to free speech in a country we were being told was fighting a war halfway around the world to protect those very rights. I can remember the horror I felt that my country turned its weapons on its own citizens. Ten days later a similar shooting at Jackson State University in Mississippi left 2 student protestors dead and injured 12 more. Every year on this day I think of those students and the soldiers who killed them and hope that one day we will have peace on earth for all people.

On May 4th, 2014, forty-four years after the Kent State massacre, while I was pondering how to memorialize the event, we lost our rig to the Pacific Ocean on a fine sailing day when a critical piece of hardware failed without warning 450 miles from the nearest land. We were not injured, and except for the loss of sail power we were not disabled. We had sufficient fuel, water and food to make it back to safety. We were able to make repairs and continue our journey less than a year later, and we will always be grateful that what could have killed us or at least ended our plans, instead taught us patience and led us to experiences we never imagined.

Life is cruel and wonderful. We always hope for more wonderful than cruel, but we have no choice but to take it as it comes. Breathe in peace; breathe out love.

May the Fourth be with you.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

When In Hué

When we finally reached Hué our driver had a hard time finding our hotel. That’s because it was tucked down a narrow alley barely wide enough to accommodate a car and generally packed with motorbikes and backpackers squeezing past each other and the pedestrians. We learned there are quite a few alleys like this in our Hué neighborhood and we were to discover restaurants and cafés hidden in these tiny lanes. Out on the streets eateries spilled out into the sidewalks And like everywhere else in Vietnam, diners perch on child-sized plastic chairs at low tables. I don’t know why they don’t use adult sized chairs but my knees would definitely not be able to negotiate those chairs.

We had no plan for our time here except to see the Citadel, another UNESCO site. Our friends who’ve been here were of mixed opinions, from “we loved it” to “there’s not much there.” The stifling heat that nearly felled us in Hoi An followed us here and unlike Saigon there are few air conditioned cafés to take refuge in when the midday humidity saps your energy and dulls your brain. We spent the afternoons in the cool sanctuary of our hotel room or a cafe with a fan blowing directly on us. We had to.

The Citadel is surrounded by a moat and walls, with very few walkways through the massive ornate gates.

If you are told, when asking directions, that the entry gate is around the other side, you’ve just lost half a day. It’s big. There are virtually no signs or directions posted. When finding ourselves in the vicinity we decided to reconnoiter and while we couldn’t find the actual entrance, we did find a nice little lunch spot which was friendly to vegetarians. Getting Veitnamese to make our favorite banh mi without meat seems to offend most of them. I’m a simple man. I go with the pork. 

Along the Perfume River we admired the Eiffel-designed bridge which bears an uncanny resemblance and construction techniques to the Smithfield Street bridge in Pittsburgh.

Walking across we were startled to see that Christo may have been here.

The following day our assault on the Citadel began in earnest with a Grab ride in an effort to save the legs. During the “American war” our country bombed the bejesus out of the Citadel, easy to find along the Perfume River and so big you can’t miss it, and the Vietnamese have been restoring it ever since. The site includes three walled enclosures and the signage is so poor that the Imperial City is probably here in these photos somewhere, it’s just that how would one know?

One dragon looks pretty much like another so you compose and shoot randomly. Turns out these walls contain a massive fort with, in its day, the largest guns in the world.

In our day, the only way the finish off this town was with giant mojitos at the Secret Garden just down the alley from our hotel.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hot Hoi An

We thought Hoi An would be a break from the intense city environment of Saigon and it was, but not from the crowds. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its history as a commercial crossroad for Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, Indian and Japanese traders of spices and ceramics, and the mix of architecture reflects the varied influences. The listed historic district, Ancient Town, isn’t a living museum but rather a crowded, somewhat chaotic, and, while we were there, hot jumble of craft emporia, touristy souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants. I’m pretty sure there are museums too, but we spent our days just exploring the streets and alleyways, plopping down at a café whenever we needed a cold drink to cool off or a coffee to perk us up. The tourists were from everywhere and in a hurry, the shopkeepers were aggressive and bent on separating everyone from their money, but we loved every minute of it. The town is gorgeous and obviously well loved and there are flowers everywhere. We had some delicious meals, too.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Five for five

This is the fifth country we’ve visited in Southeast Asia and we’re finding some obvious differences.

Our first clue that we’re not in Kansas anymore is the intensity of the traffic. Where traffic in Cambodia and elsewhere is equally dense, we never heard a single horn from a car, motorbike, or tuk-tuk. Drivers are bold but polite. Here, horns are not just a specific warning but an announcement of presence. Our Grab driver for the ride from the airport displayed mad twitch muscle chops to produce a constant signature tattoo that brought to mind Herb Alpert playing the Spanish Flea.

The traffic density rarely lets up, making crossing the street an adrenaline sport. I haven’t exercised the required technique since Naples, where you step off the curb, look neither left nor right, don’t deviate in course or speed and have faith that the stream of traffic will part like the waters for Moses. Directional lanes don’t mean much if where a driver wants to go happens to be against the flow, nor are the rare traffic lights taken seriously, a fact proudly touted on a popular t-shirt.

People all over the world rest when they can, but only in Vietnam have we seen them drop anywhere at all, balanced on their motorbike seats, on the sidewalk, in hammocks in the park. The other day we were booking a car to take us over the mountain to Hue and when I reached for a brochure I saw two pairs of inert legs protruding from under the counter. The clerk making our reservation just stepped over them, unperturbed.

We generally like most street food, but we’ve fallen in love with the ubiquitous and cheap bánh mi, literally “bread” but more of a light sandwich on a fresh baguette. They’re usually filled with some kind of meat, pâté, spiced mayo and a few veg. Most traditional vendors vehemently reject the idea of a veg version but I’ve been able to find a few less orthodox practitioners and have enjoyed egg or tofu fillings, and today had an amazing and creative one featuring both tofu and shredded jackfruit. Depending on location they can cost anywhere from 50¢ up to $1 or even more in highly touristed areas. The bread is always fresh and crispy. Jack says the quality of the meat varies, but it’s an easy and delicious lunch or snack.

Vietnam was at war for thirty years, and although they’ve moved on, the physical debris is frequently used as decorative elements, and the American invasion gets used in retail by people who aren’t old enough to know first hand the toll it took. There’s a bar right down the street called the DMZ, and we passed this place earlier today. The street vendor asked Jack where he’s from, and when he answered “America,” the man pointed to the display and said, “So is this bomb.”

Finally, we’re reminded at every turn that we’re visiting one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. This is my fourth communist country, after East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, none of which exist anymore. The posters and flags are everywhere and always make me stop and think. I don’t feel the least little bit of the repressive paranoia that was so evident under the soviet satellite states, where I experienced surveillance cameras for the first time, and went about my business under watchful authorities or even armed guards. This just seems like a normal capitalist society, but with more red.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Tankful

Our hotel is so centrally located that a few blocks in any direction leads us to something on the Must Do list. This morning within a few minutes’ walk we found ourselves at the War Remnants Museum which we’d decided to skip. But once Jack saw all the planes on display we sidled up to the ticket booth and plunked down our bucks for entry.

It was already steamy hot, and while Jack inspected the collection, I sought shelter from the sun. A young man beckoned me over to his shady bench and the conversation started with the usual opener here in Vietnam, “Are you French?”

“American.”

“American!” He seemed genuinely delighted.

“Yes,” I said, and I looked over at the war machines and added, “and this makes me sad.”

He turned to face me and spoke earnestly. “Do not worry. It was a long time ago. We are friends now. Americans are good people.”

I thanked him for that, then asked what they learn in school about the war.

“We are taught that America is the enemy. But we know from books and documentaries that Americans are good. War is always bad. It was a long time ago. Don’t worry.”

His name is Peter and he’s a tour guide and we continued our conversation until Jack finished his review of the fleet and found me under the trees. Peter told us that Vietnam isn’t looking backward but is focused on the present and future. We exchanged cards and later he sent us a kind email wishing us well for the rest of our Vietnam journey.

Jack and I moved in to the museum and spent time at the exhibit showing photos of all the anti war protests around the world.

It was Jack’s turn for a sit down and I explored the galleries on the upper floors. Some I just couldn’t face, like the ones focused on war crimes and agent orange. The gallery detailing the timeline of events from the end of WWII to the present was well done, and the memorial to all the press photographers who died was a reminder of the remarkable people who run towards danger instead of away from it, just so the rest of us can know the truth.

We made a quick stop to the Reunification Palace, the site where North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates, signaling the fall of Saigon and ending the war.

Any lingering doubts we had that the Vietnamese people have moved on from the war were roundly dispelled as we watched the usual photo op/fashion shoot using a displayed tank “of the type” that led the incursion into the palace grounds. It’s not clear what happened to the original.

We needed to purge the war thoughts and spent some time exploring the shops. At an upscale food emporium we found this display, something we haven’t seen since we were last on American soil.

And despite our determination to eat only Vietnamese food on this trip, we couldn’t pass by a Mexican restaurant we found right near our hotel. Margaritas, guacamole and tacos. Say no more.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Serendipity, part 3

The one thing we were determined to do in Saigon is have a drink at the rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel.

The Rex was the headquarters of the American Information Service during the Vietnam war and the site of the Five O’clock Follies, the much reviled daily military press briefings that had little relationship to reality.

By the time we reached the open-air bar a fresh breeze kicked up. We snagged a table with a view, ordered up a couple of fancy drinks and imagined the heckling the press officer endured as he attempted to paint a positive picture of a conflict that was increasingly going south.

We lingered until sundown, watching the lights come on at the beautiful city hall, then walked a few blocks to one of the vegetarian restaurants I’d marked on the map. It was a quiet place with a menu that we barely understood but we managed to select a few dishes, and with the help of our server, ordered up a few “cleansing drinks.” Jack’s was listed as apple-cinnamon, and rather than being apple juice flavored with cinnamon, as we assumed, he was disappointed to see that it was pure water with a few apple pieces and a rather large curl of cinnamon bark.

The cinnamon reminded me that Vietnam produces the best in the world so I asked our server where I might find locally grown cinnamon to take home with me. She didn’t know but offered to ask the chef. A few minutes later she returned with the largest cinnamon stick I’ve ever seen, and presented it as a gift from the chef. We took turns scratching the bark and breathing in the spicy aroma.

While we ate Jack leaned in and whispered that the man at a table nearby was wearing a SpaceX t-shirt. As we were leaving I walked over and told him we were admiring his shirt. He laughed and asked where we’re from. When we told him, he brightened and said, “I studied in America.”

“Where?”

“The Wharton School.”

“No kidding! I’m from Philadelphia!”

How small is the world? Small and getting smaller I reckon. Turns out he lives in Singapore but is originally from India. The big question from us was, does he work at SpaceX? No, but his company did a project for them.

“So you came by the shirt legitimately?” I asked.

“I did.”

It’s pretty easy to impress Jack and me, and the encounter put a smile on our faces as we shook hands and said goodbye.

A few blocks on we heard live music and followed the sound to a massive stage show set up in front of the Opera House. It was a Soviet-like celebration of the workers’ paradise, and even though we couldn’t understand the lyrics, we could definitely get the intent. “We are all happy to be cogs in the machinery of state!” Even the dance moves were poses we’ve seen in Soviet films and statuary, with a few gratuitous chest pumps by the men to bring it into the 21st century. The women’s choreography was chaste and heroic.

We watched for a while but couldn’t make it ’til the end. It was a long day full of surprises and it’s time to sleep.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Serendipity, part 2

I can’t go anywhere without visiting the local market so we plodded along in increasing heat and humidity to Ben Thanh market, which was a bit further than our feet wanted to go. It was the huge and warren-like type of market and we couldn’t discern the organization, if there was one. By now we were well past needing a sit down and a cool drink.

The cool drink could be had at the market but not the sit down, especially in air conditioning, so we abandoned the market ramble in favor of a café break, which we accomplished after my obligatory ceremonial sidewalk fall (not a neurological event but a frequent occurrence due to inattention, uneven or broken pavement and a trick ankle that lets me down a little too often for my taste.) I didn’t actually hit the dirt this time but I did end up with a muddy foot and shin, so when I spied a man hosing off his motorbike halfway down the street I jetted right up to him and pointed to my leg. He obliged without hesitation and hosed down my leg while his friend doubled over in laughter. I’m perfectly fine being a source of amusement and thanked them both.

We’re only a few days from Independence Day here, April 30, the day the Viet Cong tanks broke through the gates of the palace and ended the War of Aggression. We can see various venues being set up for celebration and at the Ho Chi Minh memorial we spied a small but quiet group gathering in the park. We were stopped by police from approaching from the back, so Jack circled around to get a photo. Unfortunately we couldn’t find anyone with sufficient English to tell us the significance or identify the groups who were taking turns reading short speeches, respectfully holding a moment of silence and laying the same wreaths over and over while photographers recorded the moment.

On the way back to the hotel we ducked into a silk embroidery shop, mainly to catch our breath in the air conditioning, but the artwork took our breath away again. These are not paintings, but finely detailed stitchery in luminous silk thread. One picture takes up to a year to complete. The shop minders hovered closely so I didn’t feel I could take closeups, but trust me, you couldn’t tell they aren’t painted even inches away, so perfect is the needlework, so subtle the color shading. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Serendipity, part 1

As we get older we find we no longer try to squeeze every must-see site into our travels, especially on shorter journeys like this visa run to Vietnam. It isn’t just the decreased range we have owing to Jack’s deteriorating knee and my aching back, but we often think, do we really need to visit one more temple? Do we want to spend a half day in a museum? Is a three hour bus ride worth a photo op? But the real reason, as we’re still learning after seven years of near continuous travel, is that good things happen when we set out with only a vague destination and keep our eyes and ears open.

Saigon was always going to be a challenge. Yes, it’s a city with important historical significance and a widely touted foodie reputation, but it’s huge and sprawling and more than a little daunting as we tried to plan a tourist itinerary for our days here. We consulted online lists of Top Ten Things to Do but in the end we threw up our hands and did what we usually do, picked a direction and started walking.

Because we like architecture we walked towards the old Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, a scaled down replica of the original, sure to be poignant in light of the recent tragic fire in Paris. But as we were rolling our eyes over the huge McCafé on the corner we were delighted to discover an entire street of book stalls and cafés, heaven for readers. We were tempted to stop right there and just soak up the literary atmosphere and we thanked the French for the legacy of café culture they’ve imprinted on their former colonies and possessions.

The architecture didn’t disappoint, although the cathedral is mostly scaffolded and shrouded in tarps and netting.

The post office is also beautiful and inside we watched a public scribe fill out a complicated form for his customer. I’ve never seen that before.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized