• Letters to My Daughter: Travel Tips

    The daughter I’m writing to, Lizzie, and me.

    So here’s a confession. What I thought I knew about Việt Nam mostly fell by the wayside. What I’m saying is, the trip was humbling.

    Two weeks in the country and now another several weeks since I came back, I’m still recognizing new ways to see it, and how I can’t see it anymore the way I ever told you about it. Even the words I see differently.  I spent the morning adding the Vietnamese language to my MAC keyboard ‘input menu’ so that I can at least add the diacritical marks to the letters.   Vietnamese is spoken in tones and the diacritics tell the reader what the words mean. The marks are integral to the letter. They are the letters. (See my note below about the language.*) The marks help me come into a country in a way I had no room in myself to do in 1970.

    Expect time, the entirety of time, to have its way with you.  So many things got in my way in writing these “Letters” to you about returning to Việt Nam. You were with me all the way. We texted from all the airports and you told me what-on-earth time it was in some part of the world. I was so upside down with time. When I got back, I couldn’t, for the life of me, sleep at any time. Also, I’d gotten sick in a minor way in Hanoi, and that lingered.  Then my brilliant editor for a forthcoming novel showed me a vision for fixing some things, and I leaped from Việt Nam back into the novel with huge excitement to rewrite.  Now I’m letting the characters rest, so I can write to you way past the time I wanted to write this last letter.

    silk robes

    The country might change you. For one, it entices you to shop. Give in to it. At least in small ways. One day, in some time, I texted you,

    What’s your favorite color? knowing that it changes.

    You were shocked. Are you shopping?  I’ve never seen me shop

    Just tell me your favorite color.


    Yes, I went shopping for blue silk on Hàng Gai Street (Silk Street) in Hanoi.

    If you get something that needs an antibiotic to heal, you can do this in Việt Nam.  I did. Take a fellow traveler with you to a street pharmacy. Travel to the pharmacy at night for the drama of the night, and with the fellow traveler and the pharmacist google your affliction and she’ll know right away.  She’ll pick the pills from the wall of drugs, write on the box “Morning: 1 after/Evening: 1 eating”, and charge not much more than a U.S. dollar for a 10-day supply. This practice is frowned on by the National Institute of Health and the World Health Organization because of the danger of building resistance to antibiotics. When I came home I read about other dangers of pharmacies internationally on the Washington Post podcast, “By the Way.” The story is called, “Everything You Need to Know about Foreign Pharmacies” by Andrea Sachs.

    from the local pharmacy
    By the Way column, Washington Post

    A true practical tip is drop everything and read or listen to all the stories from “By the Way: Detours with locals. Travel trips you can trust.”  I’d do that in a heartbeat and I will, after I finish the novel rewrite.

    Hammocks in Mân Quang village

    There are cafes along the highways, there are cafes down side roads, there are cafes in villages.  Sometimes beside the cafes there are trees strung with hammocks.  I was curious about the hammocks and found that they were for people to take a nap at a point in the day when you need to stretch out, shut your eyes. Along the highway, I saw workmen in the hammocks and imagined them having a nap between lunch and getting back to the job.  I think the hammocks are a brilliant idea and Americans should add hammocks to their restaurants.

    Me and Le Ly at the Continental in Saigon

    Always travel with Le Ly.  One day we were in Huế.  We saw what remains of the former Imperial City and walked along the moat and the thick stone walls around the city. We saw the Sông Hương that empties into a lagoon farther on. We walked through dense intersections of city streets toward our van, passing cafés and trinket shops and manikins in t-shirts that say Huế and that bright gold national star. Le Ly worried about our hunger and spotted a street-side café next to the t-shirts.  No one was eating at the small tables. She talked briefly to the owner. She seemed to extract promises from him about feeding this small band of Americans.  Le Ly had run a restaurant of her own. She knew how to do that. In Da Nang during the war, she ran a black market business to feed and house her baby and her mother. She makes things happen.  When the staff at restaurant was not quick enough to set up for us, she moved tables. Brought us cups and water. Then she ordered for us. Platters of food came which we ate communally. And there is where I got the best pumpkin soup of all the pumpkin soups I ate the length of the country. Always travel with Le Ly.

    Looking at the photo above and the garden where we ate under a canopy of trees, I wonder if this was the same place I was years ago when I was called to Saigon from my unit.

    Red Cross headquarters staff, Saigon, 1970. I was taking the photo.

    I found out that the blue silk scarf I got you on Silk Street in Hanoi near my hotel called The Silk Path Hotel, may not be silk. I heard from my friend that she knows of the place in Hanoi where the scarves are silk.  I’ll get back to you on this. 

    Get a roller bag. Forget about being carefree with a bag slung over your shoulder. Like me. It nearly killed me those hours going through security at Nội Bài Airport. Get a suitcase that rolls.

    I’ll get you a true silk scarf. I’ll go back. Even though I know you like the one you’ve got, and it is a beautiful blue. I’ll get a roller bag as small as they come, so I can still heft it into the overhead and happily wheel it through security for however many hours. I’ll just keep texting you. Maybe it’s you who’ll go and you’ll text me. If you do go to Việt Nam, do something for me. Wander around the grounds of Thich Nhat Hanh’s pagoda. You can sit at the outer gate and have some sweet Vietnamese coffee and read the book you love that day. The monks will chant for you.

    *“Vietnamese [was] written using modified Chinese characters, derived between the second century BC until the tenth century, when Vietnam was a province of China.”  Then  later, “In the mid-seventeenth century, Catholic missionaries introduced Roman script, modified by diacritics to mark tones and certain vowels. The developed orthographic conventions were influenced by Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and French.” https://plc.sas.upenn.edu/vietnamese

  • I Wrote a Story on a Riverboat in Hạ Long Bay

    (c) UNESCO

    Hạ Long Bay becomes a looming character to me in my story of Việt Nam. I have never been to Hạ Long Bay until this day in March on this second journey.

    I saw a landscape extraordinary to me. There were karst towers and inside them were caves. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site of 1600 islands and islets “rising from the sea, limestone pillars unaffected by human presence” the UNESCO site writes in its description.

    I boarded a riverboat with my group on Hạ Long Bay and as I did, I simply wanted to take in that such a boat as this exists and that the boat was on this otherworldly body of water with towers around us. I wanted at that moment to just write a story from the well of emotions the place brought up in me. So I began to write in the small green notebook I’d written in throughout the days. I did write a story; it’s in the notebook, safe beside me. Below is not that story, but a poem I wrote about the experience of boarding the boat on Hạ Long Bay.

    I Wrote a Story on a Riverboat on Hạ Long Bay

    I wrote a story on a riverboat on Hạ Long Bay.

    We passed like a ghost ship among limestone islands shaped

    by regressions and transgressions of the sea.

    I wrote a story and was overwhelmed with love.

    It was cliched and disarming to feel a tenderness

    uncalled. But it was there, even for our tour guide who

    will later teach us Taiji and how to make spring rolls.

    I love him. I love my tour group. I love the cook

    even though I only saw his concentration as he worked.

    I wrote a story on a riverboat in Hạ Long Bay.

    I wonder about the ways the sea transgressed.

    Whatever, it has left me disarmed.

    Limestone is soluble and offers itself to the rain and sea.

    Hạ Long Bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin which is a shallow sea.

    Today I and all I love are in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin,

    not so shallow that the very name is not a drum-beat of war

    that continues, if not here, then there and there and there.

    Maybe this love I feel is simply an awe of life and the living.

    On Hạ Long Bay, Quang Ninh Province, Việt Nam, the sea

    overwhelmed the land and over millions of years created

    underground lakes connected by hidden caves. I am saying,

    My God! will you look at these hallowed walls of the caves

    the sea made, and this crazy riverboat we’re on that looks

    like it was built for the Mississippi.

    I knew a soldier who never saw the north of the country.

    He never knew Việt Nam contained a seascape

    sculpted by nature so beautiful, so other-worldly, and the very

    air whispered I love you. There is more, there is so much more.

  • Global Village Helps Children and Grandchildren of the American war in Viêt Nam

    The flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam marked our pilgrimage everywhere, even in a lagoon in Phú Lộc, north of the Hải Vân Pass.

    Le Ly Hayslip welcomed our group to make this Heaven and Earth Pilgrimage with her.  In Viêt Nam she showed us the wealth, the poverty, and the extreme beauty of the country. We saw entrepreneurs everywhere including the small islands of the Mekong Delta. She brought us home to meet her family, and hear memories of her Central region neighbors in what was Ky La. We saw the country’s cultures preserved in the astounding Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, the vast cityscapes of high rises in the north of the country, and Halong Bay which still haunts me and when I boarded a boat on the bay, I felt something as cliched and disarming as love.

    But a most memorable part of the pilgrimage has been the opportunity to see the humanitarian work of the Global Village Foundation founded by Le Ly in 2020. I was astounded by the reach of Le Ly’s work which she began even before the books, the movie, and the documentaries.

    In 1993 while Le Ly was with East Meets West, the first Foundation she established, she founded Village of Hope. Village of Hope serves orphaned and hearing-impaired children in Danang. Since the founding, over 800 children have grown up there. Our group visited the Village of Hope, met many children, and also adults for whom the Village was their family. They have gone on to higher education, and have children of their own.

    Le Ly speaks with the Village of Hope director and adults who grew up in the Village and are now business owners or educators in the community.

    Groups of dancers, including dancers who were hearing-impaired students, performed for Le Ly in thanks for her work and the work of others in the Global Village Foundation.

    Dancers perform for Le Ly and visitors at the Village of Hope, March, 2023.

    We also visited two orphanages. Global Village Foundation delivered food supplies and cash to Mái Ấm Mây Ngàn Orphanage in Tay Ninh, a home for children of all ages. Here’s my fellow traveler, Vietnam veteran, and life-long teacher, Mike Stempe, who dressed as a clown to entertain the children.

    Mike Stempe, a U.S. Army veteran, performs as a clown at the Mái Ấm Mây Ngàn orphanage in Tay Ninh. The orphanage was founded by a Buddhist monk named “Barefoot,” a name he earned because he ran barefoot very fast. Global Village Foundation has supported the Center for the last ten years.
    Children at the Mái Ấm Mây Ngàn Orphanage in Tay Ninh
    Cook stove at the Mái Ấm Mây Ngàn Orphanage in Tay Ninh
    Some of the kids joined me while we had lunch together at the Mái Ấm Mây Ngàn Orphanage
    Le Ly with staff at Peace Village orphanage in Tam Ky, Quang Nam province.  Global Village also delivered supplies and food here.
    Members of our traveling team met children and staff at the Peace Village orphanage.

    The Peace Village community gathers to greet us on Heaven and Earth pilgrimage.

    Some at Peace Village are students born with disabilities that have resulted from Agent Orange. I learned more about the extent of the on-going damage caused by Agent Orange in the country. The United States Institute for Peace reports: “The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese have been affected by dioxin [the toxic chemical in Agent Orange], including at least 150,000 children born after the war with serious birth defects.” They also report that “there is no timeline [across generations] for when the health effects of Agent Orange stop.”

    The documentary “From War to Peace and Beyond” tells the full story of Le Ly’s humanitarian work in her motherland. We on the 2023 pilgrimage had small, but life-changing, experiences in our visits with children and adults whose lives she has saved.

    Next: Just two more Letters to My Daughter, Come With Me to Halong Bay and Travel Tips for the Clueless (Such As Me).

  • A Soldier and a Child

    Return to Vietnam.

    It wasn’t until I found my way down Trang Thi Steet in Hanoi and then to Hai Ba Trung that I found JD Salinger. He was there in translation in Vietnamese on a street with a sign that read Book Street. I was looking for a bookstore, but that’s another story. First I have to tell this one. I wanted to set this story up by referencing another, but I couldn’t remember it until I found it here. It was “For Esme — With Love and Squalor,” a brilliant story from Salinger’s Nine Stories, about a soldier’s chance meeting with a child, and the memory of their encounter was part of his healing from war.

    (c) Chuck Forsman. From his book of photographs, Lost in Vietnam.

    This story I want to tell is a soldier story, too. I’m traveling with a small group in the country. Three of the men are veterans of the U.S. war here. Two of them, Chuck Forsman and Mike Stempe, were in the Information Office at Headquarters, 1st Logistical Command, I Corps in Danang. They were photographers and reporters for the I Corps newspaper and sometimes their work was picked up by Stars and Stripes.

    Not far from their headquarters was an orphanage run by an order of Vietnamese Catholic sisters, called Thanh Tam. Mike and Chuck used to go to the orphanage on Sundays. “It was about a half mile from our compound,” Mike said. “It was freedom to us. We got all pumped up. ‘Let’s go see the kids.’”

    Chuck has been back to Viet Nam four times since he was here as a journalist with I Corps. His book of photography, Lost in Vietnam, presents a collection of photos from his journeys back. The book includes a memory of a small child he has never forgotten. He met her one Sunday at the orphanage in Danang. In the book he writes that when she first came to the orphanage, she didn’t look at him; her eyes were vacant and her body was emaciated. Over the weeks, in hopes of engaging with her, he slipped off his wrist watch that had a twist-able band and she was drawn to it. She touched it. The watch was a small first connection between them and a friendship began.

    On this trip, when we got to Danang we all wanted to go with Mike and Chuck to find the orphanage. Could there be a way to trace the children who had been there so many years ago? We found, though, that the orphanage was no longer there. The building was now a retirement home for sisters of the French order. We met Sister Ane Nguyen Thi Tinh of the order that had run the orphanage, and Sr. Ane welcomed us to come in. Inside, we heard a bell sounding. It was a call to the sisters, not to prayer as I thought but to lunch and we met many of the older nuns at their lunch. There, a remarkable thing happened: a sister introduced herself as one of the nuns who worked in the orphanage in 1969 when Mike and Chuck had been in Danang. They talked and exchanged memories of that time. Chuck put down his camera and listened.

    Chuck meets a sister who worked at the orphanage in 1969 when Chuck and Mike often visited on Sundays.
    The sisters greet the returning vets. Chuck is in the back, center. Mike is in the back, right. Le Ly is pictured in front, center. Le Ly’s Global Village foundation has worked to support many elders in Viet Nam.

    After the war, Mike Stempe became a teacher and continued to find satisfaction working with children. He taught in Alaska for many years and as a photojournalist created a book of photographs about Alaska.

    This trip we’re all on will be Chuck’s fifth trip to the country. He and Mike have been documenting our journey at every step as if they are seeing the country for the first time.

  • Letters to My Daughter: A Song

    So here’s a broad-brush story. It begins with a song. I hear a lot of stories in Vietnam. Some are in song. Le Ly invites us to her family home in Ky La where she’s prepared a feast. Not only that but she invites two neighbors over to meet us and one woman sings us a song. She is in her 80s and is one of those we meet who remember the American war. Le Ly said her song is famous in the neighborhood as a local tribute to the children from Man Quang School who died in a B52 bombing and whose graves we’ve just come from.

    Le Ly’s neighbor sings a song to remember a soldier’s loss of a little girl who had been his inspiration to fight. The neighbor sings that the soldier had held the child’s small hand and was proud to go and fight for her and his country. But when he returned to the village, the girl had been killed and his heart was broken.

    We also hear a tragic tale of another neighbor. When she was 13, she worked for the Viet Cong, passing on information to support their troop movements. She was imprisoned by the southern army, part of the time in a tiger cage, which is just like what it sounds like and held four people. But she said she didn’t feel alone. She felt embraced by her family and her country.

    At Le Ly’s family home. In the center between the neighbors who gave their testimony is our beloved guide, Quyen.

    The country proudly welcomes us to the DMZ at the 17th parallel that had divided the country into two nations after the end of French control of Viet Nam.

    The DMZ that divided the country follows Ben Hai River – Song Ben Hai. Here are Ho Chi Minh’s words on this wall at the site. He writes his vision for the country: “The river should be shallow, the mountains should be smaller.”

    Then we come to the village of Vinh Moc, not far after we cross the Hien Luong Bridge over Ben Hai River. (I’m trying to learn the names so I’m giving as many as I can to you.) In Vinh Moc, the country invites tourists into a stunning and also terrifying work of architecture, a complex of underground tunnels. In the tunnels, 600 people could sleep, cook, set up a hospital, and have a birthing room for hundreds of babies born here. The military built the tunnels for people to shelter in when the Americans dropped bombs on this area north of the DMZ. The U.S. was attempting to stop the supply lines to the northern army. This is a rattled photo of our no-nonsense young guide, but I’m including it because is shows my own rattled state of mind as we walked and stooped through the complex. This young woman whose grandparents had used the tunnel marched us through it. The rocks and mud underfoot were damp and slippery. “Mind your head. Mind your feet. Mind everything,” she commanded. But I followed her voice. For me it was hard to take a deep breath. But her voice brought us out.

    This is the guide who lead us out of the tunnel. The Cu Chi tunnels in the south are famous. They were a spiders web of narrow burrows for NVA soldiers to fight from. The tunnels in Vinh Moc were bunkers to hide in. They are on the popular route for tourists and now bring cash to the country.

    Oh, I’m not such a good traveler. We are visiting many tourist sites. Young women work so hard to paddle boats we glide in. A part of me resists and another part of me is in awe that I can see this place. But then something happens that kind of shifts everything, yeah, even above the bullet holes in the buildings in Hue and the abandoned Huey chopper and C-130 we saw at Khe Sanh.

    What we see now is a cave. Here’s the cave song. We travel to a cave at Phong Nha. I’m seeing commerce of all kinds. Tourism is a huge source of pride and success and it’s just coming back since Covid. A boy paddles our river boat up the river, (I think the Son River) to the entrance of the caves. He works with his mom. We motor in and once in the cave, she cuts the motor. It’s silent in there and they pull long paddles through the water. His mom is at the bow of the boat, the boy at the stern. Le Ly gets their story and tells us the the mother and boy are allowed to operate this boat one day a week for the tourists, and other days they farm. She has five children and they are almost making it and hope for more days on the river when more tourists come.

    A boy at the stern paddles the river boat on which we enter the Phong Nha caves.

    Okay, and then I begin to look up and realize we’ve entered a cathedral, a vast natural-born cathedral formed over eons. We are in a place I learn from Lonely Planet that was formed 400 million years ago. It is so fiercely grand and holds the recent past as only a part. Another song the river tells. Just imagine.