Speaking my Language


“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected" ― Roman Payne, Cities & Countries

After Hue, I headed over the mountain pass, towards to sea and to the small city of Hoi An. I am in love. Hoi An is a magical place. It is the reigning culinary capital of Vietnam, an old Chinese merchant town - a mecca for fabric and food.

Hoi An lies along the Hoia river and during the 16th and 17th centuries was a major merchant town for the Chinese, Dutch, Japanese and Indian traders - somehow remaining untouched during any of the wars. The old town is a 15 block area that architecturally is both European and Asian…tree lined streets, row houses, Chinese assembly halls (temples dedicated to various clans), a Japanese wooden bridge, and so much more. The entire area is a heritage site, so there is no unwanted development, and even better, there are no motorized vehicles allowed in the city center, only bikes and foot traffic.

I knew I wanted to learn to cook Vietnamese food in Hoi An. The location of the city makes it a melting pot of both northern and southern cooking styles. I found a cooking school run by a Vietnamese woman chef named Mrs. Vy. She is a force of nature - an advocate for preservation of Vietnamese street food, the use of local, fresh ingredients and the owner of four restaurants. I was incredibly lucky to be in a small group (again, no Americans), but a Canadian chef, and two people from the UK.

Our day started with a trip by boat to the local market. All of the local restaurants and hotels shop at this outdoor market twice a day to guarantee the freshest ingredients. I learned how to tell if a papaya is ripe, watched a woman tie crabs with banana leaves, tasted herbs (one leaf that tasted exactly like an anchovy), and the difference between the several varieties of garlic available. After the boat trip, we headed back to the kitchen and got to try our hand at making several Vietnamese staples, rice paper wrappers, noodles (much harder than it looks) and tasted some local delicacies (including frog with lemongrass and chili, which I tried, and fried silk worms, which I did not).

After that we set to work making some traditional vietnamese street food, crispy rice pancakes, mango salad, barbecue, cabbage soup…while this sounded simple, each dish was a complex mix of flavors and textures - sweet, salty, bitter, crunchy, soft. Not to mention everything had to be presented in a manner pleasing to the eye. I’m not sure I will ever remember how to make it all, or be able to get the ingredients, but I will remember the tastes.

Hoi An comes alive in the evenings, after the sun has set and the weather has cooled. The chinese lanterns that line the street are lit, the shop owners put out their goods and the street side tables fill with diners. I walked the old town for a few hours, spent a few dollars and am sad knowing that tomorrow I will leave this place, but so glad to have found a city that speaks my language.

Traveling on Two Wheels


On this trip I’ve travelled by planes, buses, trains, boats, bicycle and foot. The only mode of transportation I hadn’t tried was a motorcycle. In a country of 90 million people and 40 million motorbikes, it seemed like something I should do. But given the traffic situation and the lack of good road maps, I though I’d make a better passenger than driver, so I hired a local English-speaking Vietnamese guide to drive me to some of the sites outside the city of Hue on his “very good” motorbike. Turns out his English was not so good and his motorbike only so-so, but his driving skills were very good.

At 9am, I climbed on the back of Lu’s (my driver’s) motorcycle and headed out of the city. We left the town behind and began climbing the hills. I looked around and realized, “Holy (blank), I’m on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam with a complete stranger and I have no idea where I’m going.” I had a brief moment of panic and then decided, Lu had done this before, he was recommended by my hotel and sometimes that has to be enough. I took a deep breath and a long look around at the scenery flying by. It was pretty amazing. I’m not sure there was a better way to see it.

I wanted to visit some of the imperial tombs that were located along the river around the city. These were no ordinary burial sites. The emperors began building their tombs almost as soon as they ascended to the throne. In some cases, they would take regular visits to these sites to check on progress. In other cases, they became second cities, and they would govern from the site of their tomb, building residences, and theaters and later the ritual burial site. Some even built residences for their eunuchs and concubines to live in after their death to watch over them and their tomb.

The burial sites are guarded by stone statues representing the emperor’s military and civilian leaders. Several temple buildings lead up to the burial site, and finally, usually at the top of a mountain, a huge circular enclosure with a stone building to house the remains. One emperor had an underground channel built to ferry his remains to the mountain. After his death the channel was destroyed and has remained sealed ever since.

What struck me was that most of these sites were relatively new. The last one was finished in 1924…less than one hundred years ago. I was trying to imagine something as elaborate as these places being built in the U.S. with the sole purpose of honoring and paying on-going tribute to a leader. Maybe the closest we come is a presidential library, but they pale in comparison to these complexes.

Lu and I drove from one tomb to the next, only got stuck in the mud once and had no near misses with on coming cars (even when he was driving on the what I would guess was the wrong side of the road). After five hours and despite my earlier trepidation, he dropped me at my hotel. I guess today (against the advice of my mother) trusting a complete a stranger was the right thing to do.

Seeing What's in Front of Me

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” ― John Ruskin

I’ve been traveling now for almost two weeks. I can tell. Packing and unpacking, figuring out what to see, how to get there…I’m not complaining, but as I got to the city of Hue, I decided instead of knowing what I wanted to see, I would let the city decide what I should see. Hue is the former political and cultural capital of Vietnam, located in the center of the country and set along the banks of the Perfume River. The Nguyen emperors united north and south by building the capital here. Before the war I can imagine how beautiful, almost European it might have been.

I headed in the direction of the old citadel across the river from my hotel (leaving my map in my bag). I stopped at a small pagoda complex that was completely deserted except for some monks studying and tending orchids. It was quiet, cool and the infamous horn honking of southeast Asia faded into the background. As I came out of the pagoda, I saw the ancient walls of the citadel. The citadel is surrounded by brick walls on four sides, each almost a mile long and inside the citadel in another walled fortress - the old imperial city - also surrounded by a moat. I wandered through the citadels narrow streets, finally stumbling upon the entrance to the imperial palace late in the afternoon. The sun was lower, the tour busses and crowds were gone. I paid my entry fee and wandered inside. The palace area used to include almost 150 buildings, about 20 remain (the palace was heavily bombed during the war). The street noise once again faded, and a I walked the grounds…the ceremonial palace, the house for the emperors’s mother, the royal theater, the spot where the forbidden city once stood, I saw only a handful of people.

As I was leaving the citadel, I met a Vietnamese man who showed me where the citadel’s walls had been bombed. He explained that his father had fought with the Americans (the first question everyone asks, “Where you from?”). He said that his father was shot by Vietnamese and lost both his legs for his treason. In this small country, everyone was affected by the war.

I made it back to my hotel and in the spirit of not having an agenda, I showered, changed and headed out to find a spot for dinner. I stopped at a cafe that was run by two Italians. I ordered a beer and a pizza marguerite. It was delicious! My American palette (and my Wisconsin dairy-addiction) was craving something other than rice, noodles or spring rolls. An Australian guy sitting next to me had the same idea, as he sheepishly order a pepperoni pizza, saying he needed some “real” food. We talked about where he had been, what I should see in Saigon and his travels around the world.

I’m not sure that I did everything I was “supposed” to do in the citadel of Hue, but I saw what was in front of me and I feel ready for the next leg of the journey. Tomorrow…a motorcycle tour outside the city.


To Bus or Not to Bus

I just finished a 24 hour journey from Cat Ba Island to Sapa, in the mountains of northwest Vietnam. The trip required a bus, a boat, another bus, yet another bus, a taxi, a six-hour layover, a train and a minivan. Despite all this, I have to admit, I love public transportation.

When I’m traveling solo, I rarely feel afraid. With a map, a little common sense and a home base, I’m free to explore, but when moving from one city or place to another, that is the time I feel most vulnerable. I’m out there, stuck between two worlds and have to negotiate systems or bargain with people who don’t speak my language. The possibility of being taken advantage of, or led astray, are my biggest worries. Public transportation is my safety net. I assume the bus (train) driver knows where he’s going, the prices are clearly stated and besides a whole bus load of people are not going to let him go off his route (let’s hope).

Also, because you’re sharing the journey with other strangers, you just might meet someone new. On this last trip, during my extended layover at the Hanoi train station, a little Vietnamese boy ran over to me, waved a toy bird, smiled and ran away. This game continued for several minutes, until his mom came over. She sat down and introduced herself (Ahn) in broken English. She was clearly curious about the lone American, and also, I think, wanting to practice English. We shared our stories (as best we could)…where we were from, where we were going, our families. While talking, I saw some older women (I later learned that this was her mother and other relatives), spread out a piece of plastic on the floor of the train station, I asked what they were doing. She said they were preparing dinner. After a bit she apologized and said she had to join them, but immediately came back and in very proper, but halted English, asked, “Would you like to share a meal with us?”. I couldn’t refuse, so I sat on the floor of the train station, and shared a dinner of rice, vegetables and fruit.

Amid lots of nodding and smiling, she asked questions about the U.S. and places I had gone. I learned her mother had worked teaching sewing in Hong Kong when she was young and this is where she had learned English. She talked about places she wished she could go…if things were different.

After dinner, she, her son and I walked around the night market pointing out fruits and vegetables in English and Vietnamese. I could see she wanted her son to learn English, to see, and maybe do the things she couldn’t. Afterwards we sat on the step of the train station, and paged through my Vietnam guidebook, her trying to read the English, and genuinely curious about what was said about her country. As her departure time got closer (and the grandmothers had enough of chasing her son), she went back inside the station and boarded her train.

I don’t know her last name, I will never see her or her family again, but I’m grateful for the kindness, the meal shared and the conversation…and for public transportation.

Stepping off the Curb


Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore….Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

I woke up this morning on the other side of the world. After 22 hours of travel, I arrived in Hanoi late at night and rode to my hotel in the back of a dark, air-conditioned mini-van, so my first glimpse of Vietnam came as stepped outside the doors of my hotel this morning.

Living in a tourist destination, I think of myself as prepared for cars stopping randomly, people stepping out into traffic, and generally slow going. Nothing could have prepared me for Hanoi…a seething mass of motor bikes, goods for sale, people, and the ever-present honking. Crossing the street, while a necessity, seemed part dance and part blind faith that some unfathomable system was at work.

I had the inevitable moment of “What have I gotten myself into?” and “Can I do this?”, but I stepped off the curb, dodged several motorbikes and started to wander the streets of the Old Quarter.

This central area of Hanoi, is a one of the oldest parts of a city that was named the capital in 1010AD. There are no Walmarts or big box stores in the Old Quarter. Each alley or street is dedicated to a particular type of good being sold or merchant…tin boxes, blacksmiths, toys, gravestones, herbs, altars, shoes, rope, straw mats, silk, jewelry…every street has a purpose.

While this ancient grid of streets is the foundation, everywhere the new is pushing up against the old - crumbling clay tile roofs and brick alley ways surrounded by soviet-era block buildings, women carrying baskets with produce and a motorbike loaded with knock-off Beats headphones; traditional straw hats and young Vietnamese in fedoras; handmade wooden toys and plastic Hello Kitty dolls, faded communist party posters and pirated DVDs.

I wandered this maze of alley ways for several hours finally coming out on the other side at Hoan Kiem Lake. A brief moment of quiet at the temple on the edge of the lake and then I took a deep breath and threaded my way back through the streets to my hotel. While I didn’t travel far today, I did learn to cross the street…