Tag Archives: Saigon

the IBIT Travel Digest 2.10.13

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

Hong Kong fireworks
Hong Kong fireworks — © Farang | Dreamstime.com

Wishing peace, health and prosperity to our IBIT friends in China and Chinatowns around the world as they ring in the Year of the Snake on this Lunar New Year.

Every so often, I go back through old digests of mine to look for recurring themes — and if you’re a regular reader of the IBIT Travel Digest, there’s at least one you’ve spotted already. Nearly every digest, it seems, features at least one mention of food or drink.

So starting today, FOOD & DRINK gets its own section in the digest — and it kicks off with two subjects equally dear to my heart and my tastebuds.

New Orleans was a foodie town long before someone invented the term “foodie.” The word itself is out of favor these days among the blogerati (not that I give a damn), but the NOLA’S flare for flavor will never die.

From its beginnings, New Orleans cuisine has blended a mélange of influences — French, Spanish, Native American, African, Italian, Irish. Starting with the 1980s, though, a new taste fell into the city’s gumbo pot — the flavors of Vietnam.

San Diego was the first American city to receive South Vietnamese refugees en masse following the 1975 fall of Saigon, which made it the first to be exposed to Vietnamese dishes in a big way.It didn’t take long for pho and banh mi, with their fresh ingredients and vibrant mix of flavors, to become staples here.

And for you gumbo purists out there (and you know who you are): Yes, they do put in okra on request.

But while the Vietnamese cuisine tsunami was washing over San Diego, other refugees gravitated to the Gulf of Mexico to resume their lives as fishermen. Inevitably, many settled in New Orleans.

A city that already treated po’boys and gumbo as basic food groups had little trouble embracing pho soups and banh mi sandwiches. And among the Vietnamese and their descendants who grew up in the NOLA, the feeling seems to be mutual, as the New York Times recently discovered.

Today, within an easy drive from my house in San Diego are at least two Vietnamese restaurants whose menu is a mix of Vietnamese and New Orleans Creole dishes, run together by people from both locales. The nearest one features a daily special that includes half a banh mi and a bowl of gumbo.

But the best place to see the result of this marriage of cultures is in the Crescent City itself and you’ll see it below in the inaugural FOOD & DRINK section of the IBIT Travel Digest.

IBIT says: Bon appétit…or perhaps, chúc ngon miệng!


Back at the turn of the 20th century, as Europe was plunging into the first of its two disastrous world wars, Paris witnessed the arrival of blacks from America, mostly soldiers, who brought with them a style of music Parisians had never heard before.

The Americans called it jazz, and Paris promptly fell in love with it. And as Jonathan Lorie discovered when he went roaming Ernest Hemingway’s old Parisian haunts for London’s The Guardian newspaper, the love still burns.

Jazz may be an American invention — perhaps the best of all American inventions — but there may be no better place to enjoy it than Paris. And as you’ll see in Lorie’s article, there are a lot of venues in the City of Light where you can enjoy it.

Lorie’s piece also links four other famed Jazz Age authors — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham — and their jazz hangouts from New York to Germany and even Sri Lanka.

But if all these folks were still around today, they all might leave their hearts in San Francisco. The reason is SFJAZZ, which opened late last month in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.

It is the first concert hall in the United States — and maybe the world — built expressly for jazz. It features an auditorium, an ensemble room, rehearsal areas, a digital learning lab, and even a sidewalk cafe.

IBIT says: Hemingway would’ve dug it…once he got used to the no-smoking rule.


USA Today reports that Kate Hanni, head of the airline consumer organization FlyersRights.org, is stepping down as the group’s executive director, walking away from the outfit she founded in 2006.

You can read the entire USA Today story here.

She formed Flyers Rights after being stuck on the tarmac aboard an American Airlines flight in Austin, TX — for nearly nine hours — and getting little more than lip service from the airline. Her outspoken efforts since then led to federal regulations governing how the airlines handle flight delays.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Hanni didn’t make a lot of friends in the airline industry during her time with Flyers Rights, but she did prove that consumers who organize at the grassroots and speak truth to power can make a difference.

IBIT says: Thanks for all you did, Kate, and all you tried to do.


And now, here’s The Digest:

from the Los Angeles Times
In the eternal hunt for airfare bargains, booking too early can be as costly as booking too late.

from Travel Weekly
You may soon be able to watch in-flight shows and movies on-demand on Southwest Airlines flights, streamed to your own personal electronic devices. That’s the good news. The bad news? You’ll be paying extra for it.

from Budget Travel
A survey of travel agents says that when it comes to booking their clients on connecting flights, Atlanta-Hartsfield is one of their most favorite airports. It’s also one of their least favorite airports. Am I confused? No. I’m just booking non-stops.

from Travel Weekly
Frequent-flier miles…from an airport? Starting in June, the parking, food, merchandise or airport hotel stay you buy at Dallas-Ft. Worth International (DFW) will count toward airline miles.

from FareCompare
When is a “free” airline ticket not really free at all? FareCompare’s Rick Seaney counts the ways, and there are five of them.

from Condé Nast Traveler
The world’s ten most beautiful train stations, according to CN Traveler, right on time as New York’s Grand Central Terminal marks its 100th anniversary. Some are classic, others ultra-modern, and some brilliantly mix old and new. SLIDESHOW

from Travel Weekly
For the third time since it first opened in 1981, San Francisco is set to expand its Moscone convention center.

from the New York Times
Lust and luxury aboard the Queen Mary 2. Just don’t call it a “cruise.” It’s just not done, you know…

from Travel Weekly
Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s old airport, where almost every landing seemed like an adventure, is returning to the travel business — this time as a gleaming $1 billion cruise ship terminal that can handle the largest vessels in the business, even Royal Caribbean’s behemoth Oasis-class ships.

from the New York Times
In New Orleans, they know their pho — and their yaka mein. If you don’t know either, read up. WARNING: Your mouth may involuntarily water while reading.


from Travel Weekly
The Radisson hotel chain opens its first Radisson Blu hotel in Mozambique.

from TechZim (Zimbabwe)
New travel startup, Zimbabwe Bookers, aims to make finding hotel rooms easier for travelers in one of Africa’s growing tourist markets.

from Tanzania Daily News (Tanzania) via allAfrica.com
Tanzania draws up plans to aggressively promote tourism in overseas markets. Its top four markets — Britain, the United States, Germany and Italy.

from Angola Press via allAfrica.com
Angola’s environmental agency building bungalows, other facilities in the country’s national parks in a bid to boost ecotourism.

from The Guardian (London UK)
When your mother takes you on a sailing excursion to Central America at the age of six, just the two of you — and it lasts for four years — school field trips may have a hard time holding your attention after that.

from the New York Times
A look at San Juan, Puerto Rico, starting with one of my favorite spots — Condado Lagoon. SLIDESHOW

from The Guardian (London UK)
Are you into “Girls?” I’m referring here to the HBO hit TV series, set in Brooklyn. A look at the neighborhoods that give the show its inspiration.

from the Washington Post
Singapore spent so many decades living with the reputation of being the straight-laced capital of Asia, that it’s hard to imagine this city-state having a quirky side. But it does have one. Yes, it does.

from France 24
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of…graffiti? The city’s Shoreditch neighborhood is becoming a mecca for lovers of street art.

Edited by P.A.Rice



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



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

My Point Loma bodyguards | ©Greg Gross

Cycling is a great way to experience a new city, and as the Los Angeles Times points out, two of the best cities to enjoy by bicycle are up in eastern Francophone Canada, Montreal and Quebec.

Given Montreal’s close cultural ties to France, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the capital of Canada’s Quebec province has followed the example of Paris and created a city bike rental program.

They call it Bixi — part-bike, part-taxi.

Pick up a bike from one outdoor Bixi station, drop it off at another.

The cost: roughly $5 an hour. The beauty: If you drop off the bike within a half-hour, it’s free. As in no charge. The bikes themselves are built to be smooth, comfortable, easy to ride and carry stuff.

The catch: The program doesn’t operate in winter (what, Canadians don’t like to pedal in snow?). Also, such programs almost never provide bike helmets with their bikes, so you’ll have to provide your own — and just on general principles, you really should.

As for Quebec, more about that later.

One of this seasons’s most supremely hyped TV shows is “Pan Am,” a nostalgic look back at America’s flagship airline at the birth of jet travel.

To many travelers of a certain age, the show represents a look back at what “Pan Am’s” producers want to portray as the golden, glamorous age of air travel. However, from the other side of the Atlantic, the view is a bit different.

In particular, Simon Calder of London’s The Independent finds a lot more tarnish than gold. Not only were trans-Atlantic airfares much higher back then, but you had to book your flight literally months in advance.

Maybe the “good old days” really weren’t all that good, eh what? In any case, you won’t find Mr. Calder pining for them, and perhaps we shouldn’t, either.

USA Today is reporting that an environmental group in Nepal is installing portable toilets on Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, as part of an effort to get the thousands of mountain climbers to assault the peak each year to help keep it clean.

Have we turned the world’s highest mountain into the world’s highest outhouse? Guess it’s not just the yellow snow you have to watch out for anymore. EWWWW!

If you read blogs like this one, you probably already know why it’s good to travel. If you know folks who don’t, refer them to this short but on-point essay from Lonely Planet’s Tony Wheeler:

“The media feed us scare stories about those in other countries, but the reality is that most people in the world are searching for the same things we are – a better life, a better future for their children – and they’re only too ready to lend a hand to a fellow human being.”

In a world driven by politicians and media bent on naming and villifying the latest bogeyman of the month, that’s a good thing to remember.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:


from the New York Times
The NYT’s Susan Stellin offers up some suggestions and Web sites to help you refine your online airfare search. for one thing, look for sites that give you the FULL price of your ticket, including things like baggage fees.

from USA Today
Korean Air brings the Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet to LAX, with the fewest seats of any A380 now in service. They’re billing it as “the world’s most spacious A380.” If any of that extra space is in Coach, it might be worth the airfare.

from the Guardian (London UK) ​
London’s three main airports — Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted — to hit the saturation point in less than 20 years. Some travelers would tell you they’re there now.

from Frommer’s
Ten rail trips via Amtrak that are cheaper than driving.

from Leave Your Daily Hell
This travel blogger offers up a list of the cities that the world loves to hate. He loves every one of them, and tells you why you just might, also. One of them, quite naturally, is Los Angeles.

from USA Today
If you’re thinking about doing a cruise in 2012 and you want to get the best deals, you need to start planning — and booking — now.

from USA Today
Some signs of life on the Mexican Riviera: After pulling out due to security fears, Princess Cruises set to return to Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta in the fall of 2012 and spring 2013.

from Lonely Planet
The LP gang share their list of ten of the best places on the planet for a journey on the water.


from the Independent (London UK)
Cape Verde, a nation comprised of ten small islands 300 miles off the West African coast, is the latest hotspot for Europeans seeking to escape the winter cold. Clear waters, pristine beaches and people whose motto is “No stress.” Yeah, I could do that.

from BBC Travel
The Tour d’Afrique makes the Tour de France look like a weekend cruise. Whether you ride it to win or just to experience the continent of Africa, you will be changed.

from ​allAfrica.com
Zambia and Zimbabwe will co-host the 2013 Genera Assembly of the UN World Tourism Organization. The venue will be Victoria Falls, the world’s largest natural waterfall, which straddles the border of the two countries.

fromthe Independent (London UK)
The 15-year civil war that devastated Mozambique until 1992 also devastated its wildlife. After nearly two decades of peace, both are now coming back strong.


from the New York Times
Think of French-speaking eastern Canada and you’re likely to think of Montreal, a great city. But give some thought to Quebec, a beguiling blend of New World and Old Europe. And one of the best ways to see Quebec is by bike.

from the Los Angeles Times​
Not all the most beautiful fall foliage in North America is to be found back East. According to my friend Chris Reynolds, the small British Columbia enclave of Nelson can match New England color for color.

from the Daily Mail (London UK)
Just for a little variety — or maybe a lot — you might want to consider a different venue for next year’s Oktoberfest. Like, say, Brazil?


from the Los Angeles Times
The world hasn’t quite run out of unspoiled tropical paradises, as witnessed by Malaysia’s Tioman Island. Development is minimal. Natural beauty is boundless. Just watch out for the falling coconuts.
from the

from Vayama
Etiquette matters everywhere, but good etiquette really matters in Singapore. A comprehensive lists of do’s and dont’s, especially if you plan to do business in this island city-state.

from Rusty Compass
Vietnam is a wonderful place to visit, but mind your bag — especially your camera bag — in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). Snatch-and-grab thieves on passing motorbikes can rip you off and hurt you at the same time. VIDEO

from Travel and Beyond
Where to get your eat on in Singapore, a foodie’s paradise. Second of two parts (the link to Part One is in the text).


from BootsnAll
Seven things you should know about Germany’s perpetually changing capital, Berlin.


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.


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.