Archive for November 2018

Mmmmm Mooloolaba

November 30, 2018

Mooloolaba (accent on the second syllable) is all about the beach. It’s 100% beachy, with dozens, nay hundreds, of shops selling t shirts, flip flops, swim suits, gauzy cover-ups, hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Here’s where the Australian slogan “slip, slop, slap” really comes to life: slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat. The government makes a point of it, given that Australia has the dubious distinction of being the skin cancer capital of the world. The smell of coconut oil sun creams wafted everywhere.

 I walked down the Esplanade to this rocky outcropping, which reminded me of when I lived in California. It smelled reassuringly like home, because here’s a thing I never realized before. What I have always thought of as the smell of the sea, that briny, pungent fragrance, is really the smell of the shore. Out in the middle of the ocean there’s no smell at all, the air is just clean. It’s the messy convergence of sea and shore, the life and death of seashore inhabitants both animal and vegetable, that creates the smell I love, and I was very glad to find it here.

You can see our ship anchored out there. We had to tender in to shore in our lifeboats, because Mooloolaba doesn’t have a dock suitable for such a large ship.

Once off the beach, this place is a tropical paradise of flowers,

and street after street of vacation homes for sale and for rent.

Mooloolaba is also famous, at least locally, for its prawns, and I walked an extra mile to try them at their best.

The waiter seemed a bit taken aback when I announced that I wanted just prawns, prawns alone, cooked all the different ways they served them. The kitchen made me a plate of all the prawns and nothing but the prawns, although they couldn’t resist giving me four dipping sauces as well. It was pretty much prawn heaven, and I tasted my way through it. The winner? Crumbed prawns with lime and ginger sauce gets my wholehearted vote.

Another thing that gets my vote is the Australian pharmacy system. If you have aches and pains, you probably know Voltaren gel. If you live in the U.S. you have to have a prescription to use it. But I first discovered it in France, where it’s sold over the counter, just as it is in Australia, where my guess is that big pharma does not hold sway.

Speaking of sway, I got to watch as they put the tenders back up onto the ship, something I’d never seen before. The tender pilot has to position the boat exactly under the two hooks that will winch it up,

until it reaches its normal resting place some 40 feet above the water. I was glad not to be in the boat with the crew as they rode it up, although they probably think it’s fun, having done it safely so many times.

As we sailed away the sky seemed perfect for seeing the elusive green flash, which I’ve been stalking most every sunset during this voyage.

But alas, it was yet another flash-less sky, beautiful though it was. And now, time to sail into somewhat cooler waters, heading down south to big-city Sydney.

An Australian Thanksgiving

November 29, 2018

The ship’s stop was Cairns, but I had Kuranda on my mind. It’s a tiny town about 1000 ft. above sea level, that you can reach via an antique train, then depart via a horrifyingly high cable car. Just the way to spend a tropical Thanksgiving, I thought. I booked a ticket for the trip, and thought that, if nothing more, it would be a good way to take my mind off being away from the family at Thanksgiving.

Then, the night before, I had a look at Facebook and got into this amazing conversation with a couple of old friends, Della and Greg, whom I hadn’t seen in about five years. They had posted a picture of themselves in an album labeled “Australia.” A flurry of messages ensued.

A: Hey, are you guys in Australia??? I am too!!!
D&G: Yeah, we’re in Cairns.
A: No way, I’m going to be in Cairns tomorrow!
D&G: We’re planning to go up to Kuranda tomorrow, though.
A: I am going to Kuranda tomorrow too!

And thus was hatched one of the most far-fetched and wholly unexpected Thanksgiving plans I have ever made. We agreed to meet up in Kuranda, and so we did. But first,

I took the antique train up there. This railway is 23 miles long, has over two kilometers of tunnels that were dug out by hand, over two kilometers of bridges, has been in service since 1891, and traverses an incredibly lush rain forest. 

32 men died building this railway, much of it pickaxed out of sheer rock faces.

This huge boulder remains as a monument to those workers.

Arriving in Kuranda I was met by Della and Greg, who had made the upward journey by cable car, since the train was sold out. After a long series of hugs and greetings, most of which were of the “Can you actually believe that we are all accidentally celebrating Thanksgiving together in a tiny town in Australia?” sort, we set off to explore the town.

Of course we went shopping, although none of us bought anything except the macadamia nuts I got to take back to the ship. Greg insisted on taking this picture, and even I resisted the kitschy opportunity, I’m glad he did.

It was a super-hot day, and we were all thrilled to find this shady terrace restaurant where we could have lunch over a bottle of an unremarkable but refreshingly chilled sauvignon-blanc semillon blend. And then, after a bit more sauntering through town, came the time I had been dreading.

I’m not sure whether I’ve ever mentioned it here, but heights are not my favorite thing. A cable car ride high above a rain forest is not an activity I would normally choose to do, but I had heard that it was a spectacular trip. So I swallowed my totally irrational terror and hopped aboard.

Della’s not a fan of heights either, but she was braver, having come up that way earlier in the day.

It really was a beautiful ride, and although the river below looked inviting, it was almost certainly full of fresh-water crocodiles.

I kept taking pictures, trying to show how high up we were. This is the best I could do, since my camera just refused to look through the forest canopy all the way to the ground. See that small dark blob, suspended toward the center from 2:00? That’s the shadow of our gondola, high above the tree canopy. We were a long way up, and we had a couple of nervous conversations about how one might be rescued, were one so unlucky as to suddenly be stranded up there. It really didn’t bear thinking about, since at least two of us would undoubtedly have died of fright before any rescue could be accomplished.

Arriving back in Cairns we recovered from our self-inflicted ordeal with more catching-up conversation, accompanied by quite a lot more more chilled white wine and an Indian restaurant dinner. There was no turkey, and we resisted the urge to try the crocodile curry.

All in all, I’d call it one of my most unusual Thanksgivings ever. Not least because I normally think of Thanksgiving as a cool-weather, northern-hemisphere, red-wine holiday. Also, I never did really see Cairns.

On Top Of Australia

November 29, 2018

From Komodo Island we sailed down to the Top End of Australia. It was a bit of a shock to be back in an English-speaking land, especially since the weather was just as equatorial as what we’d experienced in Indonesia, and they still drive on the left. 

Our first Australian port was sleepy little Darwin, where the community chorale was out in force to serenade us. Speaking as a former chorale singer, I was very pleasantly surprised by their excellent performance.

Darwin is known for being the epicenter of Australia’s aboriginal culture. I hate to be crass and put shopping first,  but in truth I was looking forward to finding some pretty bits to bring home with me. And then, I wanted to go to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and see the exhibit of aboriginal art. I took the city bus to get there, which surprised me by being free for seniors. 

The spider exhibit wasn’t open yet, but I’m sure that it would have been suitably scary, since there are apparently over 500 species of spiders in Australia, many or even most of them poisonous, depending on who you believe.

I did wander, jaw dropped, through several rooms of amazing stuffed mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish, all completely foreign to me. That’s when the reality of being in the southern hemisphere struck me: in Australia you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore and they’ve got the wildlife to prove it. Just one example is this grouper, which weighed over 500 pounds when it was caught.

The art there was wonderful. And the museum is free, although it accepts donations. It’s quite a treasure and I feel lucky to have been able to visit there.

When in Australia, eat barramundi and drink sauvignon blanc. And so I did. The crunchy fried capers really made this dish.

Australians are very inventive about things to do in the water. These folks were having a blast, giggling and screaming as their giant water toy tossed and turned them.

And that was Darwin, a tiny visit, but a very rewarding one. And now, on to Cairns, which, for your edification and mystification, is pronounced Cans. 

Of Dragons And Beggars

November 25, 2018

You only go to Komodo Island for one reason: to see the dragons. This guy may look like he’s smiling, but if he bites you there’s a good chance you won’t survive, thanks to the creature’s serrated teeth and some nasty venom conveyed by their bite.

The dragons are found on only a few Indonesian islands, and Komodo Island is the only one that’s a national park, and allows visitors in an organized way. It’s very remote.

See that little dock in the distance? That’s the cruise terminal, such as it is. Obviously a huge ship can’t get in there, so we drop a bunch of small tenders

and bustle ashore.

And speaking of small boats, as soon as we get near the island we are greeted by these kids in boats. At first I think it’s charming. They’re calling out to us continuously, and I imagine they’re welcoming us. But finally I can decipher what they’re saying, over and over, possibly 20-30 times a minute. “Papa, money. Papa, money. Papa, Mom, money please. Ok?” 

I see a couple of items tossed to them, until the captain says it’s not allowed. But why are they begging?

We take a very hot walk, accompanied by park rangers, to see the dragons. They water this spot, making a mud hole where the dragons like to congregate, so that visitors can see them. They make much of keeping us on the path, saying that dragons and even cobras can be anywhere along our trail. But in fact the only place we see the dragons is the spot where they take us.

The rangers and guides stand around vigilantly, holding forked sticks to fend off any marauding dragons.

But in fact the dragons show little to no interest in us.

As we walk back to the ship we come to an area of gift shops, selling an assortment of tacky stuff that’s of no interest to me. However, walking through there almost requires a forked stick to fend off the children.

I didn’t take any pictures of them, because it sickened me. Kids that looked like they ranged in age from four to twelve were begging everywhere. Dozens and dozens of them. A few had some little items to sell, but most just flat out begged, with the most universally pathetic expressions on their faces, coming right up to grab our sleeves. “Papa, money. Mom, money.” I found it horrible. Who taught them to do this, in such a remote place? Why are they asking in English? Do they even have a place to spend money?

And what will happen when they get older? Have we created a whole generation that will grow up to be beggars? If you look around online you’ll see lots of comments about how this is a “must see, once in a lifetime experience.” I’m not so sure about that. I’d rather see the big lizards on YouTube than see a bunch of kids learning to beg as soon as they learn to walk.

I was happy to leave, and I wouldn’t go back. I don’t know what the local culture was before the cruise ships started calling there, but I’m pretty sure we’ve ruined it forever.

Bali Highs And Lows

November 24, 2018

Bali, the fabulous land of fruit, flowers, and temples on every corner. Or not. This was the one time on this trip where my guide and I just could not get in sync. He wanted to show me “the real Bali.” I thought I wanted to see it.

All began well, with these beautiful dancers waiting to entertain us as we got off the ship. As we drove away from the cruise terminal I was kind of shocked by the level of traffic and development all around us, but then, it’s been 30 years since I last saw Bali so I’d more or less expected that.

First up, an hour-long performance of traditional dancing. Every Balinese dance tells a story, and this one, all about various gods and demons and their mysterious shenanigans, was hard to follow but fun to watch.

The dancers were accompanied by

a really excellent gamelan.

Then we walked to a nearby market, which was just wrapping up for the morning.

There were still some beautiful rambutan and mangosteen, 

but also, these chickens. I haven’t mentioned yet that it was at least 90° out, although that probably goes without saying, and as you can see, the chickens are just lounging about in the open air and undoubtedly have been all morning. Also, all those black specks? Flies.

I try to be chill about things in developing countries, even the dreaded squat toilets, when absolutely necessary. But food sanitation, especially after my years as a personal chef, it’s my bête noire. I just have a hard time with raw, hot, fly-covered food. I’m guessing you do too.

Fortunately the market also sold coconut leaf offerings, and I hoped the food-borne illness gods were appeased.

I partly put it out of my mind with a visit to the Dewa Malen woodcarving workshop, where I saw some particularly fine carving being done, all by hand. This one is crocodile tree, but they also carved hibiscus, ebony, and mahogany.

The men did the carving and the women did the polishing. Dewa Malen is a cooperative that employs about 150 carvers, and I was really glad to have a chance to see them at work and buy a couple of their exquisite carvings.

But then came the test, my visit to “the real Bali.” A Balinese guy on the ship had told me that I should eat lawar, a traditional and ubiquitous Balinese food. Of course I looked it up: minced pork meat, pigs blood, coconut, spices, shrimp paste, and bits of vegetables, all chopped together and eaten over rice. Ok, bring it on!

My guide didn’t want to take me to a restaurant to eat it, but instead to a small village house, evidently a common thing, where the family prepares just lawar and village people come there for a cheap and homey lunch. Also, you eat sitting on a stone floor because, no chairs. Fabulous!

Ok, get ready to see the kitchen.

Here we go again. Food sitting out at ambient temperature, no fridge in sight. And those same black specks everywhere, especially on the food.

So I’m gulping a bit, but I’m thinking that surely she’s going to cook it first, at least heat it up, something.

But no. Just a bare-handed assembly of my plate.

It arrives looking like this,

then you spoon a really, really spicy cold soup over it,

and you just eat it all up. In truth, it was good. The texture was peculiar, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was eating, and of course I was worried about getting deathly ill, but I decided to ignore all that and experience the real deal. My guide urged me at least five times to drink beer with the meal. I’m not sure whether he got a kick-back from the beer seller or whether he viewed the alcohol as a disinfectant. Post-prandial Googling informed me that this dish is often used to test foreigner’s resolve, and if so, by cleaning my plate I passed with flying colors. At least momentarily.

After lunch we went to see a bit of rice harvesting,

and a couple of small temples in the rice field and nearby village. Then my guide proposed that we go “trekking.” He told me that most of his clients, mainly young Aussie guys, loved to drink beer while trekking. Obviously he was used to a different sort of clients, or else he failed to notice that I’m about as far as you can get from a male, beer-swilling Aussie trekker.

Apparently he had no experience of clients who were beginning to feel a bit unwell. Or clients who might find themselves in urgent need of a bathroom while in the middle of nowhere, after a meal that included unrefrigerated pig’s blood.

After a much-too-close-for-comfort emergency visit to the local hospital’s bathroom, guaranteed to have at least one toilet of the sit-down sort, all I wanted to do was get back to the ship and swallow some of the antibiotics that my travel doctor had thoughtfully prescribed before I left.

Which is what I did, and all was well. I felt absolutely fine after that, although I’ll admit that writing about lawar I feel a bit squeamish now.

But it really made me think. If someone says “Do you want to see the real Bali? Do you want to eat an authentic dish in someone’s house?” of course I always want to jump at the chance. But there’s a reason that tourist sites are good for tourists. They’re almost certainly going to be interesting, beautiful, and at least moderately clean and hygienic. Often too much so. It’s a balancing act, authenticity vs. comfort and safety. This time I took a chance on authenticity, but I don’t necessarily recommend that. I could have just as easily found myself with my pants down by the side of the road, and that would have been a real Bali low.

Unsexy Semarang

November 23, 2018

How can I say this? I’d wanted to love every bit of Indonesia. I have such fond memories of it from my first visit, thirty years ago. Most of the crew of our ship is Indonesian, and they’re the nicest folks possible. I wanted to get back on board after my visit and tell them how much I loved their beautiful country. This was not exactly that kind of day.

Some of it was the weather. When I got off the ship in the morning a small gamelan was playing on the dock. There’s no special effect going on here, the fog is the condensation created by the temperature difference between my ship-cooled camera lens and the formidable heat and humidity on the pier at 8:30 in the morning.

My lovely guide Sofie was waiting for me. This was my first time to spend a day with a 23 year-old woman in a hijab, so I took full advantage of being able to ask her the many questions about hijab-wearing women that I have accumulated over the years. The motto of the tour company she works for is “you have a friend in Semarang,” which was just what I wanted, and we both felt genuinely sad to say goodbye at the end of the day.

The first place she took me was to her mosque. She moved to Semarang so that she could go to this mosque every day, because she felt an instant connection with it.

Of course she wanted to take me only to beautiful places, and there are some. The problem is, for me at least, that in between the beautiful places there is so much un-beauty. Although they say that Indonesia’s economy is doing well, coming out of Singapore, the standard of living seemed staggeringly low in Semarang. I also didn’t feel that I could say “stop the car so that I can takes pictures of how miserable it looks to live here.” We did get out of the center of town, upland as they call it. It’s still Semarang, but on the hilly edge.

As a few shots from our moving car reveal, things are better here than downtown, but still pretty rough. It’s typical for people to have a little shop or restaurant and live in back, usually in a concrete block building.

This little neighborhood, a batik village, looked more prosperous. I did get some really nice batik items there. But now, I’ll show you the parts of town that lucky tourists get to see.

This is the city’s Chinese temple, and it’s quite a pretty one. As with the mosque, going inside would have required a barefoot walk across quite an expanse of bare stone floor, something my still-tender foot refuses to do, so we had to content ourselves with looking at the exteriors.

Then, although I had named a couple of Semarang specialties that I hoped to try for lunch, Sophie took me to an ultra-fancy restaurant. She said that she was worried about the cleanliness of places that sold what I wanted, and told me I’d love the place she was taking me, which was true. And to her credit, she did take me later to get some of Semarang’s special lumpia to take back to the ship for my dinner, and they were, in fact, quite excellent.

So instead of street food we went to the splendidly beautiful and serene Balemong Resort. If you ever find yourself in Semarang overnight, and you have a car, this is where you want to stay. It’s a group of old Javanese buildings, beautifully restored, and filled with antiques, on breathtakingly landscaped grounds.

There’s lots of beautiful mosaic and tile work,

And it’s still repaired and replaced the old-fashioned way.

We also saw Lang Sewu, sometimes called the house of 1000 doors, which is a Dutch colonial remnant from the turn of the 20th century and is said to be haunted.  This was once the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, but I don’t think the ghosts are supposed to hearken back to colonial times.

These visitors were posing so nicely for someone else that I couldn’t help sneaking my own shot, although one lady, who didn’t look the least perturbed, caught me in the act.

And now I’ve done it, I’ve made Semarang look like a picture-perfect place. All too often that’s what this kind of travel is, floating from one postcard to the next. But I wouldn’t choose to return to Semarang, and would actually resist the opportunity, if one arose. To me that says more about the place than all my pretty pictures ever could.

Super Special Singapore

November 19, 2018

There’s something about Singapore, and I can’t get it out of my mind. People laugh at the fact that it’s a crime to bring chewing gum into Singapore, and complain that it’s a nanny state, but I love it anyway, at least what I know about it.

For one thing, there’s a beautiful mix of cultures, and, at least according to what my guides there told me, they all get along. This wedding bed is a gorgeous example of Peranakan culture, often called nyonya, a local mix of Chinese and Malay, that specializes in joyous colors.

I kind of wanted to buy everything in this shop.

These houses are part of what was once the city’s red light district.

There’s Muslim culture, centered around the Arab Street neighborhood, although the people aren’t Arabs, just Muslims, usually of Indonesian or Malay origin.

There you can see everything from traditional dress, gorgeously tempting modern fashion, and school kids dressed for a festival.

There are Christians, who are already preparing for Christmas.

There’s Chinatown,

with a museum celebrating the samsui women, Chinese women credited with doing much of the construction work in Singapore in the early 20th century.

In this Chinese temple,

there are amazing decorative friezes made entirely of hand-stitched embroidery done in China, where a few artisans still master this craft.

There’s Little India, where the characteristic Indian love of glitter, color, and flowers is in evidence everywhere.

I stalked this lady down the street, to get a shot of how she twisted strings of jasmine in her hair. My guide Gee-Soo got some flower chains for me, and I hung them in my cabin, where they perfumed the air for two days.

I was curious about housing, about how all of the folks who aren’t represented in “Crazy Rich Asians” live. The answer is that over 80% of Singaporeans own and live in apartments in buildings known as public housing, which are built and subsidized by the government.

Gee-Soo took me high up in one public housing building, to have a look. The views were pretty spectacular, especially as an epic rainfall was brewing.

This is the nicely-customized front entrance of one apartment.

There’s lots of lovely modern architecture as well, although the knife-edged building on the left was considered to have bad feng shui, and so the building on the right was constructed to deflect any negative energy its neighbor might be emitting.

We walked out of the apartment building into a downpour the likes of which I’ve seldom seen,

and I realized why most sidewalks in Singapore are at least partly covered, as we all huddled together, trying to stay dry.

Water is a serious issue in Singapore, and Gee-Soo told me that two out of every three raindrops falling on the island is captured for purification and reuse. Even toilet water is cleaned until it’s completely pure and goes back into the system.

This is also the only place I’ve ever seen electric cars available on the street for rental, using a tap-and-go card payment system.

And pour finir en beauté, as the French say, saving the best for last,

there’s the stupendous National Orchid Garden, every inch of which is groomed to perfection, where I could have stayed for days, or even weeks.

So that was my little peek at Singapore, and I spent quite a bit of time fantasizing about how I could move there, or at least make an extended visit.

Except for the weather, a combination of heat and humidity that taught me a whole new understanding of the perspiration process, it’s my ideal environment in so many ways.  But for now, on to Indonesia.

Singapore, Just For The Food

November 17, 2018

There are so many reasons to go to Singapore. In fact, after two days I was seriously trying to figure out how to spend a year there. And not the least of the reasons is the incredible food scene. If you love Hawaii for its mix of cultures and their foods, you will think you’re in heaven in Singapore, except for the weather. But that’s a subject for the next post. This one is all about the glory of the food.

My first day there I did a walking/bus/subway food tour. And even though it was 90° it was worth all the walking, just to find the best foods.

At our first stop my guide, Daryl, taught me how to eat the classic Singapore breakfast, kaya toast with half-boiled egg. The kaya toast didn’t impress me a lot, just super sweet, and not a lot of the coconut and pandan flavors that are its trademark. But the egg was really good. You crack a soft-boiled egg into a saucer, douse it extravagantly with ground white pepper, and splash it with a kind of sweet and salty soy sauce. Then, as Daryl showed me, you turn away from your dining companion and slurp it on one gulp.

Why turn away? Because sometimes you inhale just as the pepper hits your throat and you spew it all out in a fit of coughing. So he said. Not even being a soft-boiled egg person, let alone an egg-spewer, I took it in three discreet gulps. And I have to say that it was delicious.

Then we proceeded to travel to four hawker centers. This was an eating marathon, although it took us about seven hours to make our way through it all, and I mostly didn’t take pictures as I was too busy marveling at the food, a lot of which was brown and non-photogenic.

Each center looked more or less like this: a row of stalls lining narrow alleys, as far as the eye could see, and then, more rows just like this one, say 10-12 in each center. So hundreds of stalls, each with its own unique offering.

Along the way I tried to take surreptitious photos of people eating, but this lady caught me in the act, and didn’t look too happy about it. By the way, in case you’re noticing that the booths have English descriptions, English is one of the official languages of Singapore, so everybody speaks at least a bit and many people speak a lot.

Here’s a little food parade for you, a mix of prepared foods and market sightings, foods I ate and some that I didn’t. Because, although it seems like I ate everything in town, actually I didn’t even get to try the famous chili crab.

I did, however, eat chili frog legs, because they’re iconic, and because Daryl said I should.

I couldn’t decide between prawn noodles and live prawn noodles, so in the end, for noodle of the day,

I had laksa, with barbecued fish.

I didn’t have canned coffee, or these surprisingly Western-looking baked treats, but lots of people around us did.

The laksa came with eating instructions, and we dutifully used our spoons. I think it did taste better that way, because you get some of the spicy soup with each bite of noodles.

This crispy, baked char siu bao was probably the best I’ve ever had.

This “carrot cake” was what I would call steamed daikon cake, but in Singapore what we call daikon is called white carrot. It had a pudding-y texture, and when spread with the spicy sauce it was exactly what I wish I could eat for breakfast more or less every day of my life.

Wandering through the market made me long for a kitchen, the perennial desire of travelling cooks all over the world.

Perhaps you are thinking that Salted Egg Fish Skin doesn’t sound appetizing, but you have no idea. Daryl warned me not to eat them, “unhealthy, and addictive” he said. Right on both counts. I’m just glad I only bought one bag, because they absolutely impossible to stop eating. Trust me on this one.

All in all, I actually can’t think of a more interesting country in which to eat, with its culture of Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences. I just don’t know whether I could stand the heat enough to get into the kitchen. I’m still pondering that, though. It’s very tempting.

The Rise Of Saigon

November 12, 2018

I was nervous about going to Saigon, and have been having a hard time getting myself to write about it. In fact, it took two shots of espresso to get my fingers moving to tell you about this day.

I grew up marching in the streets against the war in Vietnam. I remember the fall of Saigon, and couldn’t understand how an American could be welcome there today, even 50 years later. But I went, and I’m glad I did.

We started at the Rex Hotel, on whose rooftop garden were held the infamous daily press briefings during the war, known as the “five o’clock follies,” the content of which fell generally in the category of fake news, fed by the military to a cynical press corps.

Today the rooftop is a bar, where you can drink a delicious Vietnamese coffee and almost forget that there ever was a war.

Except, see that low building almost in the center, in the deep shade? That’s the former CIA headquarters, on whose rooftop the famous photo of people scrambling frantically up a ladder into the last helicopter out of Saigon was shot.

Even though today the hotel sports a glamorous lobby

housing a Cartier shop, everyone remembers that the place had another, darker life.

We visited a Buddhist temple nearby.

where we wrote our names on pieces of paper and attached them to hanging coils of incense. In a few weeks, when the incense finally burns our names, we’ll have good luck. It’s a long game.

When I asked our guide how the Vietnamese can forgive Americans he said it’s because they’re Buddhists, believing in reincarnation, and because they’re Asian, believing in going with the flow and letting time pass. The wheel goes around, he said, and that was a long time ago.

We visited the post office, the first example of French Colonial architecture in Saigon. The French colonized Vietnam for more then 50 years. They’re long gone now, their main legacy being these beautiful buildings and the Vietnamese people’s enduring love of baguettes.

We visited a market, where you can have a suit made in just one day. Time flows differently here.

We visited a lacquer workshop. It’s an ancient art, but time has changed the artists’ perspective, and the subjects are vivid and new, touched by history.

And we went to the place no one wants to go: the War Remnants Museum. It was first called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, then the name was changed to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, and now that we’ve somehow managed to establish a good relationship between our countries, it came into its present name. This museum, quite naturally, shows the war from the Vietnamese perspective. How could it be otherwise?

When I say that no one wants to go there, I mean that there were passengers on our cruise who refused to set foot in Vietnam at all, as well as some who went to Saigon but wouldn’t go to the museum. I know that I shuddered and took a deep breath before entering, and I saw others do the same.

It’s mostly a photographic exhibit, with detailed historical accounts in the captions. For that reason you have to get very, very close to each photo, if you want to read about it. Often it’s the photographer who wrote the caption, although there’s a section devoted to photographers from many countries who did not survive the war.

It was all terribly painful to see,

but I knew I couldn’t leave without finding the section on the My Lai massacre. I won’t tell the story here; if you don’t remember it you can look it up. But here’s a tiny part of how it looked.

The photographer had provided the caption for this last shot. He said that he saw soldiers surrounding this family, and asked them to wait while he took this photograph. He then turned his back and heard the gunfire. What you see here is the very last moments of the lives of these men, women, and children.

So that’s Saigon today, risen from the ashes.

In the van on the way back I was sitting in the very front seat, so I couldn’t see any of the nine people behind me. I said, to no one in particular, not knowing where anyone fell on the political spectrum, “All that, and 58,000 American lives lost too, for nothing.” And behind me I heard several voices echo emphatically “For nothing.” Then I said “And we never learn.” And others said, one after the other, “Never….Afghanistan…..Iraq”

That was one day in Saigon, one day spent in the dust of a war fought so long ago that all is now forgiven. Let it not be forgotten.


Street-Level Saigon

November 9, 2018


Our guide said that in Saigon there are 2.2 million vehicles, and 7.5 million scooters. I haven’t fact-checked him, but I have no reason to doubt his numbers. Until the moment was upon me I had forgotten that our tour of Saigon was supposed to include a ride in a tri-shaw, or cyclo as they’re called here. Take a careful look. See how it’s just a flimsy frame, allowing a passenger to perch precariously in front of someone who’s pedaling? See how said passenger is sitting well below the level of the other traffic? What you can’t see is how the cyclo I had to endure was pedaled by a guy who looked about 70, and weighed about half of what I do. Or less.

I admit to being petrified. Saigon traffic is already in the “shut your eyes and hope for the best” category, and to be right in the middle of it with nothing between you and the scooter that’s only a couple of inches away, well, it’s a sobering experience.

I know that this shot makes it look like traffic is politely waiting for us to cross in front, but no, not at all. These scooters and bikes were rushing directly at me and all I could do was hope that my skinny old guy could out-pedal them.

Fortunately these guys were on the other side of the road, on a portion of road that actually had another side, as opposed to a complete free for all.

To distract myself from what appeared to be my impending demise I just pointed my camera away from me and clicked semi-randomly. There were lots of shops lining the streets


although it wasn’t always obvious what they were selling.

We saw brightly colored funeral vehicles, in which families accompany the coffin to the cemetery.

We got a ground-floor look at typical apartments,

and saw how their essential services are delivered, which gives a whole new meaning to bundling utilities.

We saw scooters used as delivery vehicles,

and the Saigon version of Uber, called Grab, which delivers people via scooter. And we saw them all up very close and personal, because no, I wasn’t using any sort of zoom or telephoto lens, this is how close to my fragile self all of this traffic actually was.

Finally freed from this torture, the first thing I saw was this little altar, complete with open flame, in front of a truck. I joked that it was an altar to all the cyclo passengers killed by the truck, but upon reflection, I’m not so sure that was a joke. What other explanation could there be?