Category Archives: Vietnam-Cambodia- English

Mekong Delta

An intricate network of canals meander around tiny islands buried under coconut groves, water palms and various fruit trees.  The water is brownish, a light café au lait or watery chocolate milk.  You go from island to island on a flat boat with a punter and a rower: two women in conical hats.  They lend me one.  Surprisingly light and cool. I’m tempted to buy one for less than a dollar but, knowing myself, I won’t be able to abandon it here and will have to drag it all the way home.



Just got my home for tonight: a few thatched roofs in the farmyard of a property between two Mekong “arroyos”(canals).  A local home has been converted into a few guest rooms.  Chickens, and frantically scratching cats, are mounting guard at the entrance to my room.  Oh yes, I was forgetting the cobras in a cage not too far from my balcony.  I thought they were rabbits and was in for a bad surprise.  I backed off quickly.

On racks, right in front of the porch, flat cakes are drying on bamboo trays.  They vaguely look like warty fish skins.  I’m told it’s banana pulp to be barbecued and turned into banana wine.  I had a taste: something like burnt toast wine.  Supposed to be good for rheumatism.  I’ll pass.  There must be a taboo here about drinking alcohol just for pleasure.  Practically every alcoholic potion is supposed to have medicinal virtues. 



After lunch, they set up a hammock for me, from which I’m writing this.  Lunch was a delightful deep-fried carp, spectacularly presented upright, all golden and crackling, standing between wooden supports.  The boy put a bit of it in a rice pancake with noodles and greens, rolled it up and gave it to me to eat dipped in nuoc-mam.  And then, there were nems (spring rolls) and rice cakes and veggies and shrimps and a mystery soup with dark green, slimy herbs and dried shrimp that was also quite delicious.


I’m going to bike a little later this afternoon.  Don’t know how many K’s.  Certainly nothing too demanding, it’s a flat country but hot, as if a wet blanket had been thrown over you.  But there is something comforting about it; it makes you feel all the more organic and part of that animal and plant proliferation.  You are practically dissolving into it.

It’s none too quiet in this hammock.  The Vietnamese might not like music but they like to talk and loud, which might explain why music becomes redundant.  So, they’re doing a bloody racket behind, in the kitchen I believe, while a group of Taiwanese is making its own racket on the other side.  They are being served the same standing gold fish, only larger.  Somewhere beyond, someone is banging while the Chinese are snorting, sniffling, clearing their throats and spitting noisily.

Very strange setting. like an encampment in the middle of nowhere and yet being totally surrounded at the same time.  Even cell phones contribute to the ruckus with the very same little ring as ours.

 I went on that bike ride.  Very tired bike: wobbly front wheel, loose handlebars.  Nothing to show off my ability to perform.  It was actually harder on the arms and shoulders to keep that front wheel under control than to pedal.  But the narrow paths and oblique sunlight were delightful: banana leaves and palm fronds brushing against your face and little donkey-back bridges everywhere over the arroyos.  Hard to believe that those were the zones where agent orange did its damage.

I managed to take a nose-dive into the roadside.  Just looked like a fool but the  padding of greenery amortized the fall.  Better than falling into the brown water on the other side.

As much in the back country as you might be, the motorbikes are still terrorizing you along the narrow lanes.


Not quite sure where I am, somewhere in the district of Ben Tre (pronounces Beun Tway).  The guide, this time, is a four-toothed war veteran who speaks a brand of French I can barely understand.  Needless to say he doesn’t understand me any better.  He’s a bit bizarre and wherever we stop, he likes to pinch little girl’s bottoms who flee away giggling.  Not too professional.

The tour in the Mekong Delta ends up feeling a bit longish.  That guide, Kinh, is no great help.  Whenever you ask a question, he says he’ll tell you tomorrow.  Yes, but I want to know now.  Where are we?  Where are we going?  Show me on the map.  He says he doesn’t have his glasses. His idea of fun is to take you all day long in a junk along the canals. It was great to start with but it’s getting a bit old after a while.  Great sense of decrepitude: the ancient junks, the huts on stilts, each and everyone practically falling apart.  It could be picturesque if it weren’t so miserable.  All that humanity busying itself to survive makes you feel guilty for being the onlooker.


Once in a while, an immaculate colonial villa appears.  That’s in one of those that we stopped for lunch.  A giggly girl is serving, trying to teach me a few words of Vietnamese.  I’m not too gifted apparently but she is worse I think, or perhaps only more timid than I am.

Had I known I would have stayed in that villa and slept on one of the four platform style beds at the foot of the ancestor’s altar.  Parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents keeping an eye on me.  Had I known…K0034_003613_0079_DSC01139

I’ve weakened and bought a conical hat.  I may look ridiculous but she tells me I’m beautiful and I’m vain enough to believe her.  And yes, it followed me all the way back to Guatemala.

We’re headed for an island: Bin Hoa Phuoc.  It’s after 2 in the afternoon and the canals we’re sailing along are getting busier and busier and therefore smellier and smellier.  I’ve traded my conical hat for my old tried and true jean hat.  At least, it stays in place in the wind.

It’s getting somewhat boring.  No point in asking the guide when we’ll get there, he’ll tell me tomorrow.  He’s suggesting another bike ride.  so let’s go for the bike ride.

I’m afraid I had to pull my ugly American number.  So far, I’m underwhelmed by the Mekong.  Even more underwhelmed was I when we got to that “inn” where we were supposed to stay the night.  I’ll pass over the fact that it’s a boa constrictor or some sort of huge python that’s keeping vigil over the room this time.  If I avert my eyes, I can possibly get to the latrines on the other side without seeing it.

The room, if you can call that a room, is opened to all winds and all bugs, close with…a curtain.  The… backhouse is several meters down the path.

I decided it was time to put up a fuss and, after long negotiations with Mr. Tan in Saigon, demanded to be brought back to Saigon.


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Vietnamese music anyone?

One thing, strangely, is missing from the cacophony of cars and bikes honking, TVs blaring, Chinese soap operas translated in Vietnamese (with ONE voice off translating) and it is music!

The Vietnamese seem to be a rather non-musical people.  Restaurants turn on the Muzac as soon as you come in and you have a helluva time making them understand that it’s not necessary.  So far. it’s been a hodgepodge of electronic, lab-churned sounds that shouldn’t dare call themselves music, American successes of the 70’s and, yes, Even Engelbert Humperdinck !!!

There is also the lady who walks around with a blood pressure taking, height and weight gauging apparatus that plays Jingle Bells, Happy Birthday and Auld Lang Syne over and over again.

Unfortunately, no music!

Unfortunately, no music!

At dawn, in the train between Hanoi and Hue, they finally blasted some loud Vietnamese music.  It went so well with the scenery that I hurried in the corridor to enjoy the combination of both but as soon as I parked myself in front of the window, it stopped as abruptly as it had started.

Once in a while, you hear a few tinny notes, a lute perhaps, coming from God knows where, just enough to catch a bit of melody.

I asked the guide in Hue, Li, to sing something for me, which she did after much initial hesitation and ensuing grace: a lilting, melancholy song in the Hue tradition I’m told.

She suggested that we go to the karaoke bar but never got around to doing it.  Then, last night, In Saigon, after supper, I went to a jazz bar recommended by a young Swiss couple I met on Halong Bay.  Found it easily.  Sax n’Art in Le Loy Street.  A bit like the Griffintown Cafe on Friday night, with a more clubby atmosphere.  Classical jazz, blues, rock with remarkably skilled pianists, singers and a stupendous old Swedish clarinetist who sat in the audience and was invited to show what he could do with his instrument.  Quite a lot actually.  He also sang and whistled and had everybody swaying  and tapping their feet.

It was not Vietnamese but it satisfied my hunger for music.


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Bay of Halong – Hué


 A junk on the Bay of Halong,  Surprisingly peaceful after the hustle-bustle of the last week.  The sky, exceptionally cloudless, lush, vertical chimney hills set on the silky, shimmering waters of the China Sea.  Pretty luxurious boat too with crab, shrimp and Venetian white wine for lunch.  That’s a welcome change from tepid beer in dusty streets.






Another night train.  Slept like a baby but they woke us at 7:30 with Pho (soups).  No thanks.  Didn’t get into Hue station until 8:40 and, boy, did they want us out of there.  Couldn’t get my bag out fast enough to satisfy that vociferating monster of a train attendant who wanted my sorry ass out of there and presto!

Nicely ensconced in a lovely garden hotel some kilometers out of Hue,  Took the morning off.  Needed it.

Few motorcycles here.  Hue is a small town and from what I’ve seen lovely and peaceful. 

Still, watching people on their bikes and motorcycles is a never-ending source of fascination.  They travel 2-3, sometimes 4 to one bike. 


They carry anything and everything from sheet glass to a school of goldfish, each swimming in its own individual plastic bag; steel beams and 3 well tied up live pigs, one aft and 2 sideways, bonsai and a washer and dryer.



And old woman in a pink silk “ao day” read my hand this morning: she was reclining on the ledge of an ancient covered bridge, crossing over the River of Perfumes.  A bunch of lies she told me.  She was really besides the track but there was something magic in the moment.  A little boy besides her was stroking my arm as if to try and find out if it was really skin…


Hue’s Forbidden City is far more beautiful than Beijing’s.  It’s still very large but built on a more human scale.

Within the sunlit dome of a temple, one of the last kings left, engraved on a bronze stele, the confession of his many sins.  Above, a cupola is soaring, resting on four massive pillars washed in various nuances of ocher and peach and interlaced with the pale blue garland of a swirling dragon.  There was something at the same time outwordly and very modern in those sober pillars reflecting amber light.  I couldn’t quite be captured with a photograph, perhaps even less so with words.

Detail of a column

Detail of a column

Would I have had more success with the quiet balance and harmony of that other temple, its breathtaking red, such a perfect red set off with burnished tiles, with its space stretching into porticoes and terraces, its polychrome ceramic cornices?

Hue temple ruge







In a far more modest pagoda, in the temple of the Celestial Lady,  young monks in  brown tunics are seriously at work. The library where they work is peaceful, with books in French.  Mostly poetry and philosophy, from Baudelaire to Nietzche and even Sartre, Far away, a gong is hit three times.  The air, drowning in smells of incense, vibrates. I could easily have stayed in front of the Buddha’s altar and meditated even though I don’t really meditate.

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A train platform at 5 am.  Hanoi station.  For obvious reasons, train platforms always evoke war movies and films noirs?  Of course, we all look like a bunch of bleary-eyed refugees.

Hanoi Station

I hadn’t seen much of Hanoi yet, except for the suburbs leading from the Airport to the hotel.  But enough to catch glimpses of a surrealistic architecture: very narrow, tall, neo-colonial row houses painted in candy colors, sometimes sprouting alone in the middle of apparently nowhere like orphan Dutch houses, sometimes within the expected rows, with peasants in conic straw hats milling about.


At 7 am, in the streets of Hanoi, the killer motorcycles are on the warpath and the sidewalks encumbered with various merchants and people slurping soup as they squat on little plastic stools, right off the sidewalk.  Crossing the street has me petrified: thousands of motorcycles zoom by like swarms of killer bees.  They come from right and left, across pedestrian walks, red lights, turning corners on a penny.  Total anarchy and tens of thousands of dead every year I’m told.  Sidewalks are not much safer. If anything happens to me here it will certainly occur under the wheels of a scooter.  Until then, I grab my partner, hide behind him, eyes closed, hoping that his “you just have to make eye contact” technique keeps working.  If he’s not around, any old lady will do.  They seem to know where they are going and how.

Better get out of the way

Better get out of the way


-A little dog is made up to look like one of those monkey-lions or lion-dogs in Chinese iconography: shorn like a lion with the mane, pompom tail, he only needs an orange dye-job.  Pretty ugly little face with protruding, crooked teeth.  He’s friendly but looks a bit embarrassed at his get-up.

Little lion

Little lion

-Aphrodisiacs pickled in alcohol: lizards, snakes and scorpions swimming in clear liquid held in a glass jar.  If it doesn’t improve your sexual performance, it will at least looks nice on your bathroom shelf. Still, I can’t think of bringing one back as a souvenir.


-In a small grocery store, the pretty salesgirl – about 17 or 18 – hugs and kisses me non-stop purring “mama-mama”.  I haven’t figured that one out yet.  My long lost Vietnamese daughter.  I played the game.  What could I do?

-Several women whiling time away looking for lice in each other’s and their children’s hair.  Memories of delousing my own kids.  Nobody seems to escape those little monsters.



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Today in Sapa, Thé tried every dissuasive argument to prevent us from going on our much awaited trekking.  It’s true that it was still raining and it might be better to take the jeep to go down the valley.  So the jeep it was, along a narrow winding road partially buried in mud from recent landslides – many of them.  The jeep was bumping, jerking and hiccupping and I was getting fed up and a bit sick too, so I decided to continue on foot.  Thé didn’t think that was a good idea but he reluctantly followed, for a while.  I have to admit that he was wearing nice shoes and might not have wanted to get them all muddied up.  I made a note to buy him hiking boots back in Sapa. “Are you planning to get down there running?” he sneered.  I suggested he get back on the jeep, which he did – the sissy – and I continued on foot.  It was glorious: the oblique sun on the sculptured tapestry or rice paddies and low hanging clouds on the summits high peaks.

Countryside near Sapa

Countryside near Sapa

Down in the village, we walked into one of the houses.  Below the main level, raised on stilts, a buffalo peacefully chewed his cud while the owner was busy at some carpentry task: building a coffin for his father.

Friendly buffalo

Friendly buffalo

Was he dead?  Oh no, well, alive and at work in the fields.  Quite fine actually.  That was just a gesture of filial piety.  God forbid that I’d ever come home to my sons building my coffin!

Building a coffin or two

Building a coffin or two









Sapa is a charming alpine town, on the border of China near Lao Cai.

Sapa in the fog

Sapa in the fog


I was told that I should try a Sapa massage and thought I needed one.  And what a massage it was!  At one point, that woman had my leg over her shoulder. Further on, she was massaging my inner thigh with her feet.  I lifted my head, wondering what she was up to.  I thought it was her head down there.  Let’s just say that it was…special: absolutely not sexual but erotic in a chaste sort of way.  One hour for $12! I’ll have to try that again, but I’ll keep my underpants next time.


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Tam Duong, Vietnam

The expression “being in the middle of nowhere” never rang so true as in this dusty town called Tam Duong on the border of China.  Don’t bother looking for Tam Duong on the map.  The place is -still is I’m sure – eminently forgettable.

Curiously this most homely town turns its back to spectacular sceneries of sugarloaf formations and greenest than green terraced rice paddies.

Tam Duong Surroundings

Tam Duong Surroundings

Colorful ethnics having migrated from China to live in the hills, almost lending credence to the few eccentrics who pretend that the Mayas descended from the Chinese.  They look like Mayas, dress like Mayas, grow corn like Mayas and probably speak a dialect similar to Mayan.

Women from Tam Duong

Women from Tam Duong

It poured all night which made the hiking trails impracticably muddy.  Even yesterday, they were very slippery. We went to the market instead where I was assaulted by a group of Black Dao women who insisted on covering me with jackets, belts, headdresses and assorted jewelry.  Just hope I don’t catch lice, scabies, fleas or any such critters.  They didn’t look so clean if indeed quite attractive and beautifully put together.

Black Dao Women

Black Dao Women



The next trend in tooth fashion might very well be “tooth blackening”. It’s the latest – as well as most ancient – style here.  Village women sport that most peculiar look and particular smile of jet-black lacquered teeth against pink gums: fetching combination.  Each village, apparently, has its tooth blackener.  Move over piercings and tattoos, black teeth will soon be in.

Woman with black-lacquered teeth

Woman with black-lacquered teeth

 I’m not sure the food agrees with me.  It’s either hard or soft in tomato sauce: hard meat, soft tofu. It was okay in Hanoi but this region truly has dismal gastronomy: saw a basket of squirming serpents and caged dogs at the market.  Looking at the meat at butcher’s stalls is enough to turn you into a staunch vegetarian, but how many spring rolls and rice with green grass can you eat?  My stomach is protesting.  I suspect a conspiracy of the guide, in cahoots with the local restaurateurs. 

Tofu in Tomato Sauce Anytime!

Tofu in Tomato Sauce Anytime!

Our guide is a cute, always smiling, proverbially inscrutable little man with very developed masseters (probably from chewing all that hard meat).  He speaks impeccable, cultured French but suddenly stops understanding whenever he doesn’t like the topic.  I suspect he’s at the root of all that hard meat and flabby tofu.  Somehow you can very well imagine him as a tiny  Vietcong, oh well…I guess it must not be fun to be a tourist guide, all that waiting around and explaining things over and over again.

Thé and I

Thé and I


Thé, that’s his name, is more an intellectual than an athlete, therefore trekking is something he tries to avoid as much as possible.  It’s true that it rained buckets yesterday,  which was a convenient excuse to pretend that trails had been transformed in slippery, murderous mud slides.  Well, he might know better.  Let’s hope that tomorrow dries dries those treacherous trails.




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