Tag Archives: Ho Chi Minh City


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

TRACY GROSS: Vietnam on Two Wheels, Part 2

The lowdown on the Highlands

boat guide

By far, this was the most grueling part of my trip, emotionally and ride-wise.

In Dalat, I was rushed by groups of Asian tourists wanting to take my picture, pull my hair and take pieces of it as souvenirs. Tour buses tried to get me to pull over to be ogled and pinched.

What I thought would be a relaxing massage turned into a staff lesson on Black anatomy — including parading around my bra and poking at my breasts and the color variations across my body. At the tribal markets, women continually felt me up, thinking I was pregnant and possibly lactating.

This area had the largest concentration of indigenous or hill peoples. The Highland minorities were collectively referred to as “Montagnards” (French for “mountain people”) or nguoi thoung, Vietnamese for “Highland citizen.”

And like minorities around the world, they have been poorly treated by the majority.

The government has been “Vietnamizing” the country cultures. A major thorn in the side of this was the guerrilla organization FURLO ( Front Unifee de Lutte de Races Opprimees) or the Unified Front For The Struggle of the Oppressed Races. Their existence is not officially acknowledged by the government. At best, they were relegated to embarrassing blurbs in foreign-printed guidebooks that the government couldn’t censor.

In many instances, special permits were required to enter indigenous zones. We were ordered not to photograph or interact with any of the tribespeople. Requests for further explanation were politely rebuffed: “It is forbidden…please to not.”

We also were told that the secret police were following us, which we doubted — until we got an escort out of town, with sirens.

Leaving Dalat, covered 300 kilometers in one day. Crossing the former DMZ, we bypassed to arrive in Hoi An.

When we arrived in northern Vietnam, we received a new guide, Loi.

Loi pointed out that my riding partner and I were a lucky omen. Murray Small and Tracy Gross — quite literally small and big, black and white, male and female. Yin and Yang on wheels.

Our reward for riding long and hard was a much needed three-day break in a five-star hotel and the ultimate in shopping opportunities. In addition to its natural beauty and status as a UNESCO Heritage Site, Hoi An is an artisan town, is filled with galleries featuring traditional lacquer, ceramics and wood-working, as well as silk embroidery paintings.

But the biggest draw was the hub of tailors. As in Hong Kong, designer wardrobes can be reproduced at a fraction of the cost and time to buy retail. Cobblers recreate designer shoes while you wait.

From Hoi An, we side-tripped to the village of Buon Ma Thout. We visited a traditional Edi tribe longhouse for a cultural performance. After the restrictions we experienced earlier, I was afraid that it would be a bit depressing, like American Indian reservations or Aboriginal Designated Territories, but it was surprisingly sincere and truly welcoming.

Next, we ventured to the top most mountain town of Sapa.

At the time, Sapa was full because there was a four-day celoebration of two national holidays, Reunification Day and Liberation Day. We hiked Vietnam’s tallest peak, Fabsapian Mountain, to reach the Hmong Lau Chai village. There, we encountered the Red Hmong, Black Hmong and the Flower Hmong peoples.

The Hmong are a darker people and the women wear elaborate head dresses, so I didn’t faze them at all. They just figured that my braids were how my people traditionally wear their hair. In the midst of sales pitches, I was presented with offers to trade goods for showing them how to cornrow.

Some of them thought I was a hill person from Dalat!

From Sapa, we rode to Lo Cai to board a train onto Hanoi.

Lo Cai was quite literally an Asian version of Tijuana. It is the regional train hub and a border crossing point into China. Our train was part of the “Reunification Express”. Historically known as the Transindochinois, these tracks ran directly from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.

Vietnamese railcars comes in four classes: There is a hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper category. Also known as first-first class, first-second class, second-second class and third-second class. First-first class is a soft sleeper with air conditioning.

If you are ever in Vietnam and take the train, go first-first.


We spent one night in Hue and then re-boarded the train to Hanoi the next afternoon.

Hue was the Vietnamese imperial capital. The last bastion of the Nguyen dynasty, Hue housed tombs of the emperors and the famed Citadel on the Pearl River. The tombs and pagodas dedicated to the old royal family took a particular beating from both the Vietnamese and the Americans during the war. Rescued from decay, Hue was declared a World Heritage Site in 1993.

Outside the city we found marble rock formations known uniformly as Marble Mountain. We climbed what felt like a million steps carved into the white and pink marble mountainside. At first, there was a series of Buddhist temples and mountain-to beach-lookouts. Then we worked through a row of Indiana Jones-style cave entrances and climbed into the mountain’s belly.

Concealed in the rock outcrops were the most spectacular Buddhas.

From the ceiling, natural chimney shafts allowed in streaming sun rays from outside the caverns that any Hollywood director of photography would have killed to re-create. Apparently these caves served as a secret Viet Cong hospital during the war. There were no official guides or markings. The only indicator that the caves were open to tour was a small booth next to an active quarry.

At the entrance was where local children and elderly women sold trinkets. As it is illegal for them to take payment for leading you on the pathways, they circumvent this by selling you a marble carving or stone piece.

For my “non guided” tour, I was adopted by a tiny old lady. Barley five feet tall with teeth reddened from chewing betel nuts, she took us deeper and deeper into the caverns until we reached a beautiful pink marble reclining Buddha. Still further, hidden behind the first Buddha, she revealed there was another incarnation of the Buddha. This one is solid white marble and nearly forty feet tall- The resplendent enlightened standing Buddha.

In pidgin English, she recalled her early childhood, her teenage years marked by the war erupting around her and her constant struggle to survive. She told us how she had been befriended by American soldiers, who gave her food and offered to take her to the United States. She then sold me some incense and showed me how to make an offering.

As we prayed our mantras, she smiled at me. Her eyes twinkling in the low light, she reached over and patted my arm in a grandmotherly fashion. Perhaps remembering her encounters with Black GI’s she said to me, ” You soul sister. Black too. We same-same, but different”

Images by T. Gross and M. Small. all rights reserved.