Tag Archives: CNN

The IBIT Travel Digest 6.16.13

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel

Airbus A350
AIRBUS A350 — Airbus Industrie

Up next, a heavyweight fight over a pair of new lightweight jets.

When Airbus successfully debuted its new A350 wide-bodied airliner last week, it effectively threw down a multibillion-dollar challenge to Boeing.

Boeing invented the jumbo jet concept with its now-iconic 747, but when Airbus upped the ante with its humongous double-decked A380, the Americans changed the game with their 787 Dreamliner, opting for longer range over greater size.

When the airlines rewarded Boeing with an avalanche of Dreamliner orders, a panic-stricken Airbus scrambled to create the A350.

Both aircraft use lots of carbon-fiber in place of metal to save weight. But the A350 was still on paper while the Dreamliner was already flying. It looked like a first-round knockout for Boeing.

But multiple delays made Dreamliner deliveries three years late, and when the 787 finally did go into service last year, its well-publicized battery problems grounded them all for months. Airbus took full advantage.

Now, the A350 is flying, just in time for the week-long biennial Paris Air Show, where airlines and aircraft builders traditionally do their mega-deals.

And which officially opens…tomorrow.

I’d go to the Paris Air Show just to watch all the flying displays and check out their air museum, but between Boeing and Airbus, there will be enough back-room dealing and drama to create your own reality TV show.

Trust me, it’s on now.


Regular readers of IBIT know that next weekend is the first African American National Parks Event. If you haven’t heard about this, read up on it here — then start planning your weekend outing.

Too many have this misguided idea that America’s national parks consist of a handful of giant, scattered wilderness preserves, beautiful but distant to reach, expensive to access and unwelcoming to “us.”

None of that is true.

In reality, our national park system is as diverse as the nation for which it was created — parks, monuments, seashores, lakeshores and recreation areas in virtually all 50 US states. Admission is cheap, and often free.

And the National Park Service is practically dying for more black American visitors.

So consider taking some time next weekend to see what your taxes are paying for — and what you’ve been missing.


Need a reason to include Taiwan in your Asia travels? How about free wifi?

Taiwan already offers free wifi to all its citizens. Now it’s making wifi available at no charge to touristsall tourists. Just show your passport and you’re in.

Check out this story from CNN for more details on how it works.

Taiwan is an underdog in a take-no-prisoners battle with the rest of Asia for a share of the tourism market, but it’s coming out swinging — and it has to. Japan already makes wifi free for foreign visitors and Thailand is making plans to follow suit.

Expect this trend to continue throughout the region.


The cruise ship Carnival Triumph, whose name became synonymous this year with nightmares at sea, is ready to return to sea, according to NBC News.

This was the ship that left some 4,200 passengers and crew adrift for five days earlier this year, with little food and few working bathrooms, the result of an engine-room fire that left the vessel powerless. More problems soon followed aboard Carnival Dream, Carnival Legend and Carnival Elation.

Meanwhile, Travel Weekly is reporting that while this and other mishaps with its ships have given Carnival Cruise Lines a public-relations beatdown, veteran cruise travelers are remaining loyal.

Carnival can brave-face this situation all it likes, but the fact is that such brand loyalty is likely to be of scant comfort in its Miami headquarters. Why? Because Carnival needs a steady stream of new cruise vacationers to fill the tens of thousands of cabins in its large and growing fleet.

And it’s those cruise virgins who are most likely to give cruising the side-eye following the Carnival Triumph and other unfortunate episodes. Some serious confidence building — or in this case, rebuilding — may be in order.

And now, here’s The Digest:

from NBC News
American Airlines, trying to merge with US Airways to stave off financial demise, has figured out an ingenious way to lure more passengers — reduce the legroom on many of its planes. What will they think of next…and are you sure you want to know?

from NBC News
Another one for the “What will they think of next?” category. A new private air service in California called Surf Air doesn’t want to sell you a ticket. It wants to sell you a subscription.

from Agence France Presse via France 24
Dubai debuts one of the world’s tallest buildings…and when they say this tower is twisted, they’re not kidding.

from France 24
And speaking of “twisted,” are you ready for a flying bike?

from the Washington Post
The beleaguered cruise industry has come up with a passengers’ bill of rights. But does it protect you, or the industry?

from SFGate.com
Cruise the New England coast as 19th century seafarers did, aboard a three-masted schooner. SLIDESHOW

from the Washington Post
Want to see where your food comes from, and maybe bring some of it home, fresh from the source? Do a rolling tour from farm to farm along Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

from The Guardian (London)
Street food, Greek style. Athens is the place.

from The Guardian (London)
A taste of Bolivia, cuisine with as much attitude as altitude. How else can one describe bull’s penis soup? Uhh…

from SFGate.com
Come to picturesque, trendy Monterey, CA for some of America’s finest…moonshine? Yes. And it’s legal, too.


from The Point (Gambia) via allAfrica.com
The Gambia’s president pushes food self-sufficiency for the country and urges Gambians to “go back to the land.”

from the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
A museum in Tanzania dedicated to the birthplace of humanity itself…or so they will tell you.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
If you thought the poaching in Kenya couldn’t get any uglier, with entire elephant families being wiped out to the last animal for their tusks, guess again: Conservationists are now being accused of colluding with poachers.

from the Los Angeles Times
Drought-stricken Southern California may not much going this summer for river-rafting enthusiasts, but there are plenty of places in Northern California and elsewhere in the West to take your whitewater thrill rides.

from the Toronto Star
For a stunningly beautiful and spiritual time, hike the Himalayas.

from the New York Times
The other Bangkok — the cool, green, smog-free Bangkok. Hike. Ride your bike. Then retreat to your boutique hotel.

from the Toronto Star
When Americans want to visit a Pacific island paradise, they go to Hawaii. When Chinese tourists want to do the same thing, they head for Hainan.

from the Washington Post
The Santorini that the tourists don’t know, and most won’t find.

from the New York Times
No man is an island, but Stockholm is composed of 14 islands. On one of them, gentrification is grudgingly depriving the Sodermalm neighborhood of its reputation for high crime. Crime…in Sweden? Who knew? SLIDESHOW


Can you help document some history?

A documentary film crew needs donations to help fund a feature-length program on the first all-black American team of climbers to take on North America’s tallest mountain.

Yeah, I know. Your mailbox and your email get flooded daily with people pitching you for money — charities, politicians, you name it.

This one’s more than a little different.

Next month, a team of nine mountaineers will attempt to climb Denali, aka Mount McKinley, the highest peak on the North American continent.

Nine young black American mountaineers, the first such team ever to make this attempt.

The National Outdoor Leadership School helped train them for the climb. Now, NOLS wants to take a crew from Distill Productions in Montana to record it for a documentary, but they need $107,500 to do it.

They’re trying to raise the money online via Kickstarter, which has agreed to finance the project…IF they raise the money before the deadline, which is less than 48 hours from now.

So far, they’ve raised about $79,000 in pledges, which puts them $28,500 short, with two days left.

Kickstarter won’t fund the documentary for anything less than the whole amount, so getting close won’t cut it here. It’s the $107,500…or nothing.

Can we help these folks out a little bit? You can donate as little as $1, and there are rewards for donors at levels above a buck.

As for the climbers themselves, Denali isn’t the end of anything. They’re out to bag each of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the world’s seven continents.

And yes, that includes Mount Everest.

It also includes Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which actually has a higher failure rate among climbers than Everest.

These mountains are no joke. Somebody dies on these peaks nearly every year.

This is an inspirational story of nine black Americans who have worked and trained hard to take on one of the world’s toughest climbs. And seriously, couldn’t we all use a little inspiration right now?

Wouldn’t you love, just one time, to turn on your television or log on to YouTube and see something other than the usual mass media force-feeding of stories about crime, drugs, single mothers, deadbeat fathers, kids with sagging pants and which rapper got arrested today?

How cool would it be to turn on the box and see something to show us that we can do anything — and that in fact, we already do everything?

This is not strictly a black thing, however. The Denali climbers want to inspire all of us who live strictly urban lives to re-connect to the natural world, something we need for our physical and mental well-being.

It doesn’t have to be anything as daunting as climbing towering mountains. There are beaches, hiking trails, bike-riding trails in or near our own communities. How many of us live within a four-hour drive of one of America’s great national parks, but have never been to one?

That needs to change, and these six brothers and three sisters are part of a small but growing movement to lead that change.

A click on this link will take you to the Kickstarter campaign where you can make your contribution.

Honestly, it shouldn’t even be necessary to do this. CNN, National Geographic, even BET and AspireTV should be all over this event. But that’s a conversation for another time.

How many times have we heard friends and family complain that there aren’t enough positive programs about black Americans on TV? How many times have you made that same lament yourself? Well, here’s a chance to help get one on the air.

How about it? Can we climb this mountain? Let’s go!

Climb every mountain


AFRICA: In a different light

Downtown Nairobi, capital of Kenya — ©Vladimir Kindrachov | Dreamstime.com

How is it that you can get a fuller picture of African realities today from Chinese television or al Jazeera than you can from American mainstream media?

I just watched a brilliantly produced 30-minute documentary on the fashion scene in Kenya, focusing on a single young Kenyan fashion designer, John Kaveke.

How much can you learn in 30 minutes?

I learned that Nairobi has one hell of a vibrant urban scene. Mr. Kaveke calls it “a small New York” and it’s not hard to see why. The rhythms you see pulsing on those streets require no translation from anyone who’s spent even one day in Manhattan — or London, for that matter.

I learned that Africa’s fashion scene is as diverse as the Mother Continent herself. If you approach African fashion with the “Africa is a country” attitude, you’ve already lost the plot.

I learned too that there are economic, social and even political implications that play in the background of things like fashion.

Kenya may have energetic, creative designers like Mr. Kaveke, but he finds himself up against with a mountainous second-hand clothing industry.

Tons of used clothing from the United States and other Western countries are imported wholesale into Kenya for buyers eager to emulate the styles they see in Western magazines and on television. Local buyers snap up the best to re-sell in their small shops, which do a thriving business serving Kenyans looking for fashionable, affordable threads.

Even middle-class professionals who can comfortably pay for high fashion buy the second-hand stuff, known as “mitumba,” for the quality of its manufacture…and the knowledge that they’re unlikely to run into someone else on the street wearing the exact same thing.

How does this encourage local creativity, pride in Kenyan design? To the dismay of designers like Mr. Kaveke, it really doesn’t. As a result, you see him being invited to high-profile fashion shows in London, but getting not nearly as much love in Nairobi.

The prophet, it seems, is not the only one dishonored in his own land.

Another thing I learned: Kenya grows its own cotton and once produced a lot of its own unique textiles. These days, though, Kenyan cotton producers are suffering and the country imports most of its fabrics from elsewhere, fabrics that don’t reflect Kenyan tradition or creative spirit.

A lot of good, eye-opening stuff, huh? So where did I see all this? On one of the regular television networks? On CNN, MSNBC, Fox News?

No. It was on a program entitled “Talk Africa” from CCTV. China Central Television.

I wish I could say this is a shocking new development, but the reality is that news outlets like CCTV, al Jazeera, the BBC and France 24 all do a much better job of reporting on Africa than any US mainstream news outlet.

It helps to explain the discouraging degree of American ignorance about Africa that persists even into the so-called Information Age.

When it comes to Africa, what we tend to get from American mainstream media is largely misinformation, disinformation or no information at all.

Say what you will about the large Chinese presence in Africa and the motives behind it; I certainly do. But they at least seem to be making an effort to portray Africa in a broader light, one that reaches beyond the latest war, famine or coup d’etat.

That kind of light eventually destroys stereotypes and clichés. Captured in such a light is an Africa that has a lot more going for it than safaris. An Africa that a lot more Americans and other Westerners might love to visit, if only they knew it were there.



A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media.

Pacific sunset
Sunset from San Clemente, taken from the Amtrak Surfliner | ©IBIT G. Gross

Travel writers love making lists. We all do it. And so does the New York Times.

They’ve published a list of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012.”

At the top of their list is a place near the top of mine, Panama. Vibrant, a growing economy, small enough to explore, and a mix of indigenous, Latin and African cultures.

It’s an extremely eclectic list. It must be if it includes Myanmar and Oakland, CA in its top ten. And that’s just part of what I love about it.

Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has his own list of places to go if you want a better understanding of the rapidly changing world we face. Top of his list, India and China.

He especially recommends breaking away from the big cities like Beijing and Mumbai and getting out into the countryside in both those countries. Good advice, but tough to do when you have only a handful of days “in-country.”

Your best bet is to do some research, decide what interests you the most, and focus on that.

London’s daily Telegraph is reporting that one of China’s four main airlines, China Eastern, has just trained 20 of its flight attendants in kung fu. The company considers the pilot project so successful that they will now train up all 2,600 of their attendants.

The idea, apparently, is to enable them to act as the first line of defense against an on-board terrorist attack, and give the air marshals (who are on every Chinese flight) extra seconds to intervene.

You can read the entire Daily Telegraph story here.

Don’t be surprised if the other three major Chinese air carriers — Air China, China Southern and Hainan Airlines — adopt similar measures.

For years, Los Angeles traditionally has hosted a major travel show each winter bringing together tour companies and travel experts with would-be travelers. This year, there will be two.

The Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show, which had been held for the last couple of years at the Los Angeles Convention Center, is moving back to Long Beach, where it had been held in years past. That one’s scheduled for this weekend.

Then there’s the Los Angeles Times Travel Show, which will be held at the LA Convention Center Jan. 28-29.

Confused yet?

The Times, after several years of co-sponsoring the other travel show, decided to break off and do its own thing.

Each will have its share of high-powered presenters with the likes of Andrew Zimmern, Samantha Brown, and Rick Steves. But my two favorites are always the man I call the Godfather of Travel, Arthur Frommer, and his daughter, Pauline, herself an accomplished travel writer.

This is the kind of overload I like!

Believe it or not, one of my favorite travel activities is to watch television. You can learn a lot.

One of the things you learn is that there’s a lot of great stuff being aired around the world that will never make its way to the States. Another is that network news elsewhere in the world is not the joke it has become here.

While in Paris, I was able to compare CNN, the BBC, France 24 and Al Jazeera during their coverage of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Al Jazeera blew them all away — thorough, professional, level-headed, fresh.

What made me think of this today is word that a six-part mini-series is in the works about the life of Nelson Mandela, an international production to be shot in South Africa. It’s to be called “Mandiba.”

You can pick up more details about the series from The Guardian story here.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:


from We Blog the World
Here’s a thought: Instead of donating money to charity, why not donate some of your frequent flier miles? Yes, you can do that.

from Eurotriptips
Some tips for avoiding add-on fees on low-cost European airlines.

from Budget Travel​
Another day, another fee. Airlines are adding a $6 fee to cover a “carbon fee” imposed by the European Union. Still, considering what US airlines charge to check a suitcase, it’s hard for me to get too upset.

from the New York Times
Another list from the Times, this one of useful Web sites for saving money on flights, lodging and a whole lot else. Many of them are the “usual suspects,” but you’ll find a few new names, as well.

from USA Today
Before we write off airport security as a total joke, TSA screeners say they’re finding an average of four guns a day at US airports. Say WHAT?

from Pushing the Limits
His name is Andy Campbell. He’s paralyzed. And he’s out to travel 30,000 miles around the world…in a wheelchair. What was your excuse again?

from Smarter Travel
The ST crew gives you their outlook for cruise travel in 2012. The good: new ships, refurbished ships, a big year for river cruising. The bad: smaller cabins and more add-on fees.

from USA Today
The comeback continues. Cruise ship sailings are breaking marks set prior to Hurricane Katrina.

from Travel Weekly
After three years’ absence, Royal Caribbean resumes cruising the Panama Canal.

from USA Today
Have you heard of or seen a “5-D” movie? The next new Carnival cruise ship will boast a 5-D movie theater.



from the East African Business Week (Uganda)
Hundreds of elephants and other wild animals are stampeding out of Uganda’s largest wildlife reserve and into inhabited areas, trashing farmers’ crops and generally raising hell. The suspected culprit: oil exploration inside the park.

from the Citizen (Tanzania)
Tanzanian tourism officials crow after their country cracks the top ten of the NY Times’ list of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012,” and look to build on that momentum.

from the Herald (Zimbabwe)
Tourism minister rails against “shylocks” whom he says charge exorbitant prices at the country’s tourist resorts, inhibiting tourism growth in the country. ​


from USA Today
If you live within easy travel distance of a US national park, the upcoming Martin Luther King holiday weekend would be a good time for a visit. Admissions are free.


from the Los Angeles Times
Turning ice into art in the Chinese city of Harbin. SLIDESHOW

from the Quirky Traveller
Hanoi is emerging from the shadow of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) as a tourist destination.

from the Telegraph (London UK)
A massive snowfall in Austria strands thousands of skiers. ​

from CNN
North Korea. Rogue state…cult of personality…tourist destination? Really?


from msnbc
Cheapest European cities to hit in 2012.

from Budget Travel
How to fly around Europe for ridiculously small amounts of money. One key advantage, low-fare airlines. Another, smaller airports. The tradeoff, a longer cab, bus or train ride to your destination.

from the Guardian (London UK)
Brussels may not get as much respect as Paris when it comes to cuisine, but these folks know how to throw a food festival. For one thing, theirs lasts most of the year. Turn a tram into a resto? A dining room suspended from a crane? Top that, Monsieur Michelin!

Edited by P.A. Rice




Samoan fire knife dancer, Maui
Samoan fire knife dancer, Maui | @Greg Gross

In private business and public service, America has a crying need for people who can speak more than one language. It’s one more good reason to travel.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

“If you speak three languages, you’re trilingual. If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you speak only one, you’re an American.”

Sad, but unfortunately true.

As a newspaper journalist, I watched U.S. news organizations trying to cover Mexico with reporters whose Spanish vocabulary couldn’t cope with the menu at Taco Bell.

Few Americans of my generation bothered learning other people’s tongues — and our attitude the most part, was “why should we?”

In the 20th century, America was the planet’s alpha male, the economic and political big dog. If you wanted to run with us, we said, you’d better learn English.

The world’s response: So be it. In nations large and small on every continent, English became a mandatory class subject.

New century, new dynamic. We find ourselves confronting a world increasingly capable of dealing with us not only on our own terms, but in our own terms.

It explains why you can seemingly go almost anywhere in the world and find a local English speaker. And the higher you go on the economic/social/political ladders, the more of them you find.

Meanwhile, the world’s major languages remain a mystery to far too many of us. This has implications for everything from community functions and international business to national security.

In the 21st century, our prideful, chauvinistic attitude toward language simply won’t fly anymore.

Just last week, in fact, First Lady Michelle Obama urged students at the historically black Howard University in Washington DC to join the global community by studying abroad.

“Studying in countries like China isn’t only about your prospects in the global marketplace. It’s not just about whether you can compete with your peers in other countries to make America stronger,”she said. “It’s about the friendships you make, the bonds of trust you establish and the image of America that you project to the rest of the world.”

You can read the entire Washington Post story on Mrs. Obama’s visit to Howard here.

Luckily, there are plenty of language schools out there where students of all ages can learn a new language, in the country where that language is spoken. And the folks at GoAbroad.com have a list. Scores of countries and scores of languages, from Afrikaans and Aymara to Turkish and Xhosa.

Even more luckily for us, the list is in English.

Flash sales are invitation-only discounts on everything from clothing and home items to luxury hotel stays. Comes now a British outfit, VoyagePrivé, that’s taking things two big steps further.

According to the folks at Tnooz.com, VoyagePrivé, which bills itself as “a private travel club selling quality holidays at discounted prices, exclusively to its members,” is now setting up an iPhone app to make exclusive offers and add-ons. Available to iPhoners only… and it’s free.

Is this the wave of the future for online travel discounters? Maybe not, but it sure sounds intriguing. This one bears watching.


from USA Today
All those who suffer a fear of flying, take note: The United States got through all of 2010 without a single airline fatality, the third time in the last four years. Airline safety is one field in which the USA still leads the way.

from CNN
from Budget Travel
QUESTION: What does an airliner have in common with an impoverished developing country? ANSWER: Don’t drink the water from either. Don’t use the ice, either. And in the case of the plane, beware the seat pocket in front of you. It’s a potential hiding place for everything but disco fever.

Delta is gettin’ jiggy with standby flying. They’ve create an online auction system for passengers who volunteer to be bumped from a flight that’s been overbooked, a common practice that airlines do deliberately. The CNN crew thinks this is a great thing, if you play the game right.

from Reuters
Did Boeing’s penchant for outsourcing sabotage its new state-of-the-art Dreamliner?

from Independent Traveler
Eight rail trips with scenery to die for, if the trip itself doesn’t kill you. Some of these are not for faint-hearted tourist types.

from Tnooz.com
Speaking of trains, this will give you an idea of how successful high-speed rail travel is in France: The country’s national railroad has the second most popular travel Web site in France. It was Number One, but slipped last week behind a skiing site. Something tells me that won’t last long.

from the New York Times
A Caribbean cruise aboard Celebrity Eclipse. When you go to a shipboard restaurant — and the menu comes to you on an iPad — you know you’re not on you’re father’s cruise ship. It’s called Qsine, and Eclipse is the first Celebrity vessel to feature it.

from eTurbo News
February is high season for cultural happenings on the Mother Continent. At the same time that the International Roots Festival in the Gambia in West Africa is winding down, the biggest cultural fest in East Africa, the Sauti za Busara on Tanzania’s legendary island of Zanzibar, will be getting underway. Even if you can’t attend this year’s events, take note for the next time.

from IPSNews
Mozambique braces for the worst flooding in ten years. Roughly 1.3 million people may be at risk.

An American pesticide banned in Europe and restricted in the United States is killing off lions in Kenya. If you want to see lions in the wild in East Africa, you’d better hurry.

from Time
Meanwhile in Tucson AZ, there’s a restaurant selling tacos made with lion meat. They buy it from a farm in California that raises lions…as food.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
The Obama administration is still tiptoeing around the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, easing travel restrictions for students, religious groups, academics and journalists to travel there legally. Thousands already flout the embargo to visit the island nation every year.

What do the new regs really mean for Americans who want to visit Cuba? The Godfather of Travel, Arthur Frommer, weighs in.

from the New York Times
The Dominican Republic has some of the most inexpensive all-inclusive beach resorts in the world. But if you really want to get away from it all, you can also find some lovely, isolated stretches of Dominican beach that will cost you nothing.

from the New York Times
The latest Japanese youth craze (and “craze” is the operative term here): LED lights for your teeth. And you thought gold “grills” were the height of ridiculous! Makes girls look like space aliens. “Take me to your dentist!”…?

from the Japan Times
Exploring the back streets of Tokyo. This time, it’s the Hakusan area. If you love the beauty of autumn leaves, this neighborhood may be your cup of sake.

from the New York Times
An influx of new entertainment, dining and shopping options are turning Tokyo’s Marunouchi district from a staid collection of offices into a happening place. SLIDE SHOW

from the New York Times
Europe’s economic turmoil is good news for travelers looking for bargain vacations.

from EuroCheapo
You’d expect France to produce great street food. A sweet or savory crepe from a good sidewalk vendor will make you forget all about Mickey D’s. A list of five of the best in Paris. (My personal favs come from a cart next to the St. Germain de Pres Church on Boulevard St. Germain in the 6th arrondissement.)


TRACY GROSS: Vietnam on two wheels, Part 1

Vietnam riders
Vietnam tour riders. Tracy Gross, right.

Which was more fascinating — the sight of Vietnam to me, or the sight of me on a motorcycle to the Vietnamese? Call it a tossup.

We picked out our hired motorcycle at a makeshift garage on the edge of Saigon, housed under a cinema which was showing Big Momma’s House 2. Martin Laurence in all his Big Momma fat suit glory beamed down upon us as we assembled our caravan.

Our chosen bike was a Honda Steed. The other bikes were late-model Indians and some other Japanese models, plastered with decals making them look like Harley-Davidsons, which weren’t officially allowed in the country.

Since almost everybody in Vietnam travels on two wheels — bicycles, rickshaws, mopeds or motorcycles — it was not unusual to see five or six people riding piggyback on the family scooter. Full-blown motorcycles were strictly limited to government-controlled Motor Bike Clubs.

To legally ride a bike with an engine bigger than 155cc, you had to be a Vietnamese citizen with a Vietnamese driver’s license, or in some cases, both a Vietnamese and an international driver’s license, and pass the local driving test. To get around this, our tour rented personal bikes from a private Motorcycle Club and were made honorary members, with the bonus of real members riding with us as tour leaders and mechanics.

Vietnamese women seemed to be obsessed with not letting their skin darken under the blazing tropical sun. They wore wide-brimmed sun hats, goggles, silk gloves and face masks, anything to avoid tanning — even in 90-plus degree heat. Repeatedly, mothers pointed out my dark skin to their children, no doubt to warn them that this is what would happen if they didn’t cover up.

Helmets were not yet mandatory. I saw women on motorcycles wearing everything from platform heels to flip-flops.

Being about six times the girth of the average Vietnamese (male or female ) made for even more specialized roadside sales pitches. I was harangued with “we have your size, big Western woman!,” “special sale for middle-aged big big size woman!”

“How many children do you have?,” “how much do you weigh?” and “how old are you?” were common greetings.


Most Vietnamese I encountered had never seen a Black person, not even in the media. Depictions of foreigners, Black or otherwise, were relatively stereotyped, if not comedic. Hotels and more affluent Vietnamese seemed to have access to satellite broadcasts bringing in Western-produced programs such as CNN, HBO and MTV Asia.

The one Black woman I glimpsed on hotel TV was Raven-Symoné on the Disney Channel’s “That’s So Raven.”

Beyond my dark skin, my braided hairstyle fascinated people. Young girls followed me, daring each other to pull my hair and play with the beads on the ends. In truth, so different was I in shape, color and proportion that I must have seemed like a space creature.

Evidently there exists a country folk legend of an evil giantess used to make toddlers go to bed. It is said that she is very dark-skinned and has a hunger for disobedient children.

To the average Vietnamese four-year-old, I must have fit the bill. I actually scared small children in remote more rural areas.

My fellow travelers recognized my discomfort and went out of their way to help me spot other colored travelers. Throughout our month-long visit, the total persons of color, including myself, totaled five: A retired army sergeant, retracing his tour of duty with his Puerto Rican wife, one French-African woman taking an adjacent boat tour in Ha Long Bay, four East Indian engineering students in Sapa.

But my all-time favorite was the beautiful Nubian dancing “girl” in the Hanoi market who turned out to be a Filipino transvestite.

Our first inland stop from Saigon was the city of My Tho. My Tho is the main port to the four major islands in the Tien River. These islands were named as physical embodiments of the four primary beasts of Vietnamese mythology: Dragon, Tortoise,Phoenix, and Unicorn.

Our destination was Unicorn Island, in the absolute heart of the delta. The Tien is a tributary of the mighty Mekong River. Named one of the world’s twelve largest rivers, the Mekong is known as the dragon with nine mouths. For the Vietnamese, the Mekong exists like the mighty Mississippi for Black Southerners: a lifeline, a spiritual plane and a haunting reminder of past struggles.

Boarding the Mekong ferry was like being poured through a funnel. We never dismounted and when the gates opened, we rode straight off the boat onto the opposite dock.

Unicorn Island was quite kitschy. There was a petting zoo, complete with a boa constrictor and mannequin Viet Cong soldiers offered as photo opportunities. This area is what most Americans tend to associate with the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is called here).

We took a photographic “Apocalypse Now” sampan tour down river. Sampans are still widely used by rural residents for fishing, general transportation — or like this, as cheap cruisers on the waterways. The next morning, we took a larger boat further into the islands for a home-stay with a local family.

Vietnamese is a tonal language and the phonetics of the family names and products all lent themselves way too easily to innuendo in American English. For example, Hung Phat is a popular brand name distributor for tea and energy drinks.

Much of the community was housed in the heart of the flood plain and the homes were elevated on stilts to avoid being washed away. At key crossing points, the islands were connected by “monkey bridges” basic arches over the canals, built of bamboo or uneven logs.

The government is phasing out most of these houses. The state was building a series of mortar overpasses along the coastline to the inland rivers, and residents of the poorer wooden-stilt homes were being relocated into concrete apartments.

Sadly, it seems that gentrification is a universal concept.

The next afternoon, we rode to the infamous Cu Chi tunnels. Dug over a period of twenty five years, this warren of tunnels begun by the Viet Minh when they were fighting the French in 1948 were expanded to a remarkable 124-mile network used by the Viet Cong literally underneath the American military. The tunnels are both and a testament to Vietnamese tenacity. Two main sections were open to visitors.

Tunnel 1 had been widened to accommodate western body sizes. And we were encouraged to fire heavy weapons at Cu Chi Tunnel 2. The cost: one US dollar per round.

NEXT: Heading north

Images by T. Gross & M. Small. All rights reserved.