Giving Back to Southeast Asia

I was very fortunate to be able to take time off and travel for 202 days in Southeast Asia in 2015-2016 — mostly in countries where the dollar stretches pretty far because of the disparity in wealth between the country where I happened to be born and the places I was visiting. I decided to give back, in a small way, by pledging a certain amount of money to charity for each day I spent in each country.

Thailand: 72 days

Because I spent the most days in Thailand, I split my donation between two charities.

My closest Thai friend was, like many Thais, reverent toward the royal family. I have my own outsider opinions about all that, but I respect my friend and her values for her own country. The Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, under royal patronage, provides emergency shelter, health services, vocational training, and many other services to women in Thailand.

 The SET Foundation gives scholarships to those in need, with the unique principle of supporting students for a full twelve years, from elementary through collegiate studies, rather than just for a semester or two.

Malaysia: 11 days

As you travel Malaysia, it’s hard not to notice the oil palms: acres and acres of them, a giant monoculture dominating the landscape. I didn’t visit Malaysian Borneo on my trip, but I went there recently, and I discovered the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which helps orangutans who’ve lost their mothers to recover and prepare for reintegration into the wild. Malaysia’s unique wildlife is precious and under threat — the oil palm plantations are pressing in, and the lumber industry wants what trees are left — but places like the Sepilok Centre have the potential to drive up the economic value of conservation and diversify the local economy by bringing tourism. And in the meantime, the preservation and restoration work they do is saving unique animals in a unique environment.

Vietnam: 44 days

I met my friend Christina Bui in Myanmar through a chain of travel connections, and ran into her again in Saigon and Hanoi. She works at Pacific Links Foundation, which helps to protect people in Vietnam from human trafficking — being forced into factory work, domestic work, and the like — and empowers women and communities in Vietnam. Slavery is bad and Christina is good, so this was a pretty easy choice.

Myanmar: 23 days

Yangon is a time capsule. Decades of misrule have had the perverse effect of preserving the older part of the city much as it was under British colonial rule. Yangon Heritage Trust is working to preserve and restore the city’s remarkable architecture before it all gets torn down and turned into KFCs, and I hope they succeed in making Yangon the gem of a city that it deserves to be, like today’s Hoi An or Penang but on a much larger scale. (Nothing specific against KFC, by the way. I threw up in the bathroom of the Yangon KFC and they were very polite about it.)

Cambodia: 8 days

Cambodia is rife with terrible NGOs and scammy voluntourism projects, so I wanted to find an organization with a good rating on Charity Navigator, and Cambodia Children’s Fund has that. They take “a holistic, family-based approach” to childhood education, which is sorely needed in this poor and damaged country. They recognize that there are root problems like hunger and violence that can undermine education, so they try to deal with all of these issues as they help young people get the schooling they need and deserve.

Laos: 23 days

Perhaps the most dangerous thing I did in Southeast Asia was go for a walk in Laos.

Laos has more unexploded ordnance (UXO) per capita than anywhere else on earth, a sorry result of a decade of American bombing during the Vietnam War. On a tour of the Plain of Jars, on a trail that was supposed to be cleared, my guide suddenly jumped back and pointed. “That’s a cluster bomb detonator.” He then told me how his brother died: he’d gone fishing and was cooking up his catch in a rice field when the heat triggered an old pineapple bomb that took his head off.

I split my Laos donations between two organizations that deal with the ongoing disaster my country left behind. COPE gives people their lives back by providing prosthetics and rehabilitation to UXO survivors and others with mobility-related disabilities, while the Mine Awareness Group (MAG) works to demine Laos (and other places) and educate the local people about how to avoid UXO accidents, thereby reducing COPE’s potential clientele. I saw both organizations at work in Laos, and at one point even had to stop driving while MAG blew up some UXO they’d found in a field — a field that, when cleared, could provide food and income to a Laotian family.

Indonesia: 18 days

Yayasan Usaha Mulia (YUM) – Foundation for Noble Work has been around a long time and does holistic community work focused on education and alleviating poverty. Finding a good charity in Indonesia — especially one that wasn’t religiously based — was a bit difficult, but YUM seems to have a decent track record.

Singapore: 3 days

For Singapore, I cheated. Singapore is a wealthy country, so there’s not a tremendous need to give there. Instead, I donated to Singapore-based Choson Exchange, an innovative NGO that supports North Koreans with hands-on entrepreneurship training, helping to create an ownership culture and a better standard of living for North Koreans. I’ve met the founder and some of the team, and they’re passionate but not naive about what they’re up against. I admire what they do and wish them success.

Northern Vietnam

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Out beyond Hanoi are some of the most beautiful places in Southeast Asia: the dramatic karsts rising from the sea in Halong Bay, the mysterious grottoes of Ninh Binh, and the terraced rice fields of the Tonkinese Alps at Sapa.

Halong Bay (photos)

I had my doubts about Halong Bay. I’d been hearing about it since long before I left home, but by the time I got there, I’d already spent months traveling among the limestone karst mountains of Southeast Asia. I’d been in caves in Thailand and Malaysia and Myanmar, seen the peaks that loom over the Nam Ou River and Vangvieng in Laos. After all that, would Halong Bay live up to its reputation?


Despite cloudy skies and choppy water, and despite a fair amount of trash that floats in on the currents, Halong Bay was breathtaking. Like Yosemite or Bryce Canyon, it’s one of those places where nature has carved rock into improbable shapes, dramatic even by the standards of Southeast Asian limestone karst. And because the tides undercut and erode the peaks, it sometimes seems as if these strange, upthrust islands are hovering just above the water.

I picked a tour operator recommended by the Lonely Planet and spent three days out in Halong Bay, staying two nights on a private island, where we gathered around a fire in the evenings. (There was also, alas, techno.) The water was choppy and there was heavy mist in the evenings and mornings, but that just deepened the feeling that I had wandered out of normal reality and into some mysterious edgeland. At night, from our island, we could see the lights of Cat Ba City — a small tourist town, really — blurred and fuzzed in the salt fog. During the day, we floated in among the folds and curves of the dozens of islands that make up this strange landscape, passing old fishing villages that the government hasn’t yet gotten around to dismantling. And on Cat Ba Island, which dominates the bay, we sailed into ports full of fishing boats and small paddle-driven transports steered by strong-armed women. As we made our way at last out of the bay and back to the mainland, I leaned on the weatherbeaten wooden dragon at the prow of our boat and wished I could stay a bit longer.

Grottoes and Lottos


South of Hanoi is a dumpy little city called Ninh Binh, which is surrounded by some of Vietnam’s most spectacular scenery: karsts again, this time looming up out of riverine deltas and rice fields. Unlike Halong Bay, Ninh Binh isn’t all that popular with Western tourists, though I don’t know why. It’s lovely and it’s close to Hanoi. Still, most of the other tourists we saw were either Vietnamese or Chinese.

Extraordinary as the UNESCO World Heritage Trang An grottoes are, I think I liked the little-visited Van Long Nature Reserve even more. Parts of the new King Kong movie were filmed there, and you can see why. Shrouded in mist, spectacular limestone crags and cliffs loom over wetlands so still that you can see the whole landscape reflected in it, down to the reeds and river weeds, which form curious mirrored geometries as the light fades in the evening. That’s also the time when thousands upon thousands of cranes make their way back from wherever it is cranes go in the day, pause for a bit of after-work social time at one broad stand of trees, and then wheel off in V-formation toward their dwellings on the cliffs.

On our boat tour of the Trang An grottoes, we learned about the curious system by which the boat business is managed. There are hundreds of identical metal rowboats lined up at the entrance to the complex, but none of the touts you’d expect at such a place.

Instead, the boats run on a kind of lottery system. Each household in the surrounding villages gets a number, and when your number is close to coming up, your household can send someone — usually an older woman — to wait for tourists and earn some extra income. If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on a day with plenty of tourists and go out right away; if you’re not, you could have to arrive at dawn to make sure you don’t miss an early-arriving bus. Miss your turn, and you might have to wait three or four weeks for another shot. The money earned from a tour isn’t much, but supposedly each family brings in more cash than they used to when they were doing subsistence farming on what is now parkland. (Something similar was in effect at the Van Long Nature Reserve as well, though there the government hadn’t provided the boats, so the women were tasked with rowing tourists about in bamboo boats lined with concrete, which are much heavier.)


The village lottery system for boat tours is a kind of obscure, small-scale, local communism that’s still around. Indeed, it was put in place recently, long after Vietnam as a whole went over to a capitalist economy with private ownership. I don’t know enough to say whether it works or not. Do the households really get more income than they used to? Is there a black market for lottery slots? Is it unfair to people who happen to be from the wrong village, and are thus left out of the spoils? Still, it’s an interesting example of collective ownership of a shared resource. And from a tourist’s point of view, it’s a relief not to be assaulted by a mob of screaming touts, which I assume is a pretty grim experience for the touts too. In the Ninh Binh system, everyone gets a turn.

Fog and Hmong (photos)

In Sapa, not everyone gets a turn.

Sapa, 1500 meters up in the Tonkinese Alps northeast of Hanoi, is famous for spectacular views of terraced rice fields, and for the dense fog that blocks the view. If, as I did, you grew up in or around San Francisco, you’re familiar with this kind of fog. It’s thick, almost tactile. Its tendrils crawl in among the folds of the landscape, and suddenly you find yourself wrapped in a thick blanket that obscures everything that’s not right in front of you.

When it broke, though, the views down the mountainsides were extraordinary, especially when you gave a thought to how much work it must have taken to carve whole mountains into terraces, and to maintain those terraces year after year. The people who do it are the Hmong, and they do it to grow rice for themselves. It’s subsistence farming as tourist attraction, and it fuels a whole small city of hotels, craft shops, restaurants, tour operators, motorbike rentals. Not one of those shops is owned by Hmong, at least according to one of my Hmong trekking guides (in this case, the trekking was nothing more than day hikes to local villages). The shops are all Vietnamese-owned. For the Hmong, the only cash income is from selling handicrafts in the villages or on the streets of Sapa, leading tours, or hosting homestays. That’s why Sapa was the only place in Vietnam where there were touts: a rush of women in tribal garb offering tours and lodging from the moment we stepped off the bus.

There’s a history of distrust between the Hmong and the Vietnamese. During the Vietnam War, the United States recruited Hmong to fight Vietnamese forces that were invading Laos, in what’s known as the Secret War. After the war, many Hmong fled to Thailand and the United States. Those who remained in Vietnam and Laos still face discrimination. A Lao tour guide told me a story about another guide who’d accidentally run over a Hmong woman’s chicken. He brought the chicken to the woman and asked, “Is this your chicken?” “No,” the woman supposedly replied, “my chicken is not flat.” The point of the story was that Hmong aren’t good at rational thinking.

I asked my guide whether life had improved for the Hmong in the past twenty years, and she allowed that it had. They go to school now, and can speak and read Vietnamese as well as Hmong. But going to university is nearly impossible, and so is going to a city like Hanoi to get a job, because you need “walking around money” just to survive, and the Hmong don’t have it.

On my last day, I rented a motorbike and hit the highway, cruising up over Tram Ton Pass, at 1900 meters. On the far side, the fog gives way to heat rising from the lowlands below, and the road begins to descend rapidly. Short on time and unsure how much my motorbike could handle, I turned back. I climbed up to a viewpoint where the winds were so fierce that I could barely stand, then made my way back down and rode again into town.



Phoenix, Arizona, United States


Hanoi came as a shock after more than a month in sleepy Laos and underdeveloped Cambodia: the lights, the energy, the sophistication, the sheer density. For a city boy like me, it came as a relief.

Unlike Saigon, which feels sprawling and mostly modern, Hanoi has retained its Old Quarter, complete with narrow lanes, food stalls, grime, chickens in the street, and the sort of chaotic stew you find at the heart of premodern cities, from Jerusalem to Varanasi. The Old Quarter is not a museum, the way the historic parts of Hoi An or Malaysia’s Georgetown have become. Yes, there are tourists and hotels and souvenir and tour shops everywhere — including a daunting number of Sinh Tourist outfits, all trying to capitalize on the fame of the original — but there are also streets devoted to metal workshops, bamboo pole sales, and other things no tourist could possibly need. You can find yourself dodging sparks from an aluminum beam being cut in half as you walk to a famous banh mi shop. And the Old Quarter attracts not just foreign tourists, but locals and expats, who flock to its beer street for the crowded pubs and thumping nightclubs that spill out into the street.

Spirits in the city

On my first day, strolling past traditional weddings in the Old Quarter, I had the luck to stumble onto a lên đồng — a spirit mediumship ritual — at Bach Ma Temple, Hanoi’s oldest. The spirit medium sat at the center of it all, as her assistants changed her outfits for each dance, while the musicians sat off to the side. When she became a male spirit, she would take a shot of rice wine and a puff of a cigarette before beginning her performance. As she danced, at times she would throw money, and the spectators would lunge to grab whatever fell. The denominations were small, but the point was to gather the spiritual power associated with the cash.

Several people welcomed me, offered me a place to sit, gave me a free Diet Coke, and made me feel like it was OK to be there and watch. A young woman spoke a little English and offered to explain things to me, and she introduced me to an effeminate young man who would be dancing later. He wanted to take pictures with me, told me I was very handsome, and after a few minutes, he proposed marriage, which I gently declined.

Throughout the ritual, there was a surprising fluidity of gender roles. The lên đồng can go on for hours, so I left for a while, coming back at the time that my non-fiance said he’d be performing. He was one of several very queer-seeming drummers for a male dancer who was made up pretty much exactly as the female spirit medium had been earlier in the day.

Walking Hanoi

Away from the Old Quarter, Hanoi is a good walking city. I spent a fair amount of time just wandering: finding little street markets and temples away from the tourist areas, catching little bits of city life like a bunch of mall security guards doing pushups, discovering that the art college is next to the ministry of public security. Hanoi is the capital, with plenty of the signs and symbols of government: big houses for Communist officials, a Lenin statue, and of course Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. I tried twice to get into the tomb for a peek at the preserved remains of Uncle Ho, but I never managed it. It turns out that you have to get there very early, and not on a Saturday.

On one of my wanders, I sat down to watch some older men playing jainzi — a kind of kick volleyball, played with a feathered birdie — with impressive skill. I got to chatting with a young American who was as mesmerized as I was, and we spent the evening walking together, to art galleries and up past the opera house.

At some point we wandered over to the banks of the Red River. At least near the Old Quarter, Hanoi has not turned its riverfront into an attraction. To get there, you have to cross a highway and walk through a neglected little district of motorcycle shops and very old housing, past shrines for fishermen, and down to some sketchy restaurants and bars along the piers, where you can gaze out across the garbage-strewn reeds. It reminded me of what my Saigon friend had told me about her childhood, growing up in a shack down by the riverside there.

Balloons of fun

Later that night, the two of us met up with a couple of women I’d met the night before at a language-exchange Meetup. These two expats — one from Taiwan, the other a Chinese-Indonesian — more or less decided I was their friend for the duration of my visit, and they introduced me to a couple more friends of theirs: a German woman who was teaching at a German-language institute, a Vietnamese woman who’d spent time in America. Over the course of several days and nights — and punctuated by my trips out of Hanoi — we went out for Vietnamese food, Chinese food, clubbing in the Old Quarter, and Indian food and karaoke.Clubbing in Hanoi was a trip. It’s not generally my thing anywhere, and Hanoi’s clubs were packed but not all that impressive. The one thing that stood out, though, was how many people were sucking on balloons full of nitrous oxide. It seemed to be just a normal thing. I never saw anything like that anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

For the karaoke, we were joined by a Vietnamese-American friend I’d first met in Yangon, and then again in Saigon. It was nice, for a stretch, to feel like I was anchored somewhere and had an overlapping circle of friends. It’s how I hope things unfold when I arrive in Seoul, and it gave me confidence that I can make that happen.

Last Photos from Southeast Asia

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Well, here they are: the final photos from my trip. Lots and lots of them. (You can find the full set on my photos page.)

I still have more to write as well, and hopefully I’ll do that soon — about Northern Vietnam, Thailand for Songkran, the seder in Phuket, Bali, Java, Singapore. But pictures for now.

Singapore (May 2016)

Java, Indonesia (May 2016)

Bali, Indonesia (April-May 2016)

Thailand (April 2016)

Vietnam (March-April 2016)

Hanoi Lecture on Jewish Childhood

Bangkok, Thailand

For those of you who have asked, here it is: video of my lecture in Hanoi. If you don’t speak Vietnamese, it might be slow going, but you get to experience it pretty much as I did.

I’m grateful to Catherine Yen Pham for the opportunity to share positive aspects of Jewish culture with the Vietnamese community. Catherine is doing extraordinary work to reimagine what childhood education can be in Vietnam — to bring compassion and creativity and peace to a new generation — and I am glad to be able to contribute to her efforts.

The videos are below, and here’s the full playlist.

Where I’ve Been Where I’m Headed

Sapa, Vietnam

I realize that it has been ages since I last gave an update, so here it is.

Laos and Vietnam

After Cambodia, I spent a few weeks traveling around the north of Laos: Luang Prabang, trekking in Luang Namtha, a trip down the Nam Ou River from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw, back to Luang Prabang, out to the Plain of Jars, down to Vang Vieng, and finally through the capital, Vientiane. I will (I hope) have more details to provide eventually.

From Vientiane, at the end of March, I came to Hanoi, where I gave a lecture on how Jewish people raise their children, in between visits to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and now Sapa. I head back to Hanoi this afternoon.


Then it’s on to a weekend at the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand, a couple of days in Bangkok, and then up to Khon Kaen from April 13 to 16 to enjoy Songkran, the Thai new year festival. After that, I’ll have a couple more days in Bangkok, then head south to Phuket — I’m already booked for the Passover seder at the local Chabad on April 22 — and Krabi, and maybe some other beaches too.

Singapore and Indonesia

When I finish up with South Thailand, I’ll pop in to Singapore for a few days, probably around the end of April. From Singapore, I’ll fly to Bali and begin a month in Indonesia. You cannot possibly see all of Indonesia in a month (or ever, really), but I intend to spend a week or two in Bali and Lombok, beginning with the cultural heart of the island in Ubud. When I wrap that up, I want to visit Jogjakarta and some of the historical sites around it, and if there’s time, I’d like to visit Kalamantan (Borneo) as well. Jakarta I can skip, or so everyone tells me.


I’ll probably circle back to Bangkok to catch a flight to the US, probably Los Angeles. From there, it’s a quick hop to Phoenix on a local flight, but I might spend a couple days in LA and environs, if anyone wants to put me up and can accept my jet lag. I’m expecting that to happen around June 7, more or less.

I’ll be in Phoenix probably through June, and would like to visit NYC in July. Anyone have a place for me to stay?

Korea and (maybe) Japan

And then? Well, school starts on September 6, so I need to get to Korea before then and find a place to live (and furniture, and Internet, and cable, and, and, and … eep!). But I might spend August touring around Korea beyond Seoul, and possibly even Japan. Again, anyone who has a place for me to stay should let me know.

Better Vacationing

Van Long Reserve, Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Today it was announced that South Korea will host a new sustainable tourism-eliminating poverty (ST-EP) body of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, with forty member states to begin with.

Such an organization is sorely needed. As I travel around Southeast Asia, I see every sort of tourism, from well managed World Heritage sites like Hoi An, to chaotic free-for-alls like Bagan and Vang Vieng, and everything in between. Today I went on a ride in a cement-lined rowboat — seriously — pushed along by a woman who’s lucky if she gets a passenger once every three weeks, because there are too many rowers and not enough tourists at the Van Long Reserve, and because the government hasn’t provided these rowers with the lighter, more durable, more expensive metal boats that they gave to the women down in the more popular Trang An. (In Trang An, though, there are a thousand boats, so the rowers wait just about as long for a turn at some business.) In theory, these rowing jobs are an improvement over the rice farming everyone used to do before the land got turned into tourist reserves, but I’m not sure it quite works out that way.

A new UN body will not fix all of the problems of unsustainable tourism, from overdevelopment to displacement to environmental degradation. But a UN body can set norms, make recommendations, track progress, set benchmarks. It can give sustainable, poverty-eliminating tourism a focal point and become a clearinghouse of information for travelers and governments and developers. It’s a good step (sorry) in the right direction.

Tet a Tet

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A long one, and the pictures aren’t up yet either, but there’s a lot to say. 

La Viet en rose

On the first night of the Tet holiday, my Vietnamese friend in Saigon took me to a Latin music club. It’s true that I came to Vietnam for Tet without clear expectations of what it would entail, but this was a surprise.

Even more surprising was how good it was. The entirely Vietnamese band at stylish, candle-lit Carmen Bar — three acoustic guitars, drums, bass, percussion, keys — plays with polish and flair, everything from Latin hits to bachatas to the occasional disco number for a request. They back up a rotating set of singers with different specialties: a sexy chanteuse, a hammy lounge singer type, a trio, a heavyset guy in a sombrero backing two Filipinas until he stepped forward to do a passable Louis Armstrong imitation for “What a Wonderful World.” It could have been merely cheesy, but there was a level of musicianship and a knowingness that made even the silly bits feel sophisticated, cosmopolitan. Maybe it’s just that I don’t know about it, but I never found anything this worldly, this hip, in Bangkok, or anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Vietnamese culture has a certain depth that I find compelling.

Late in the evening, a mustachioed guitarist began to play French rock and pop from the sixties, which resonated with the mostly Vietnamese audience, especially the older people who grew up in South Vietnam when the French influence was still strong. My friend, who is a bit younger than me, knew all the lyrics to many of the songs, though she didn’t know what they meant; they were the records her parents played when she was young. Some people in their sixties got up to dance. An older woman from the audience was invited onstage to sing a rich and rousing “La Vie en Rose.” The club was less full than usual, with so many people gone to their hometowns for the holiday, but that gave the place a kind of intimacy. It felt like a private conversation, like old friends reminiscing over what was and what might have been.

Red envelopes

Of course, there’s more to Tet than Edith Piaf covers. Tet, the lunar new year, is the biggest holiday of the year in Vietnam. From Saigon, much of the population disappears to the countryside, to their home villages and elderly relatives. And they bring flowers with them — yellow flowers, mostly, sometimes whole trees with yellow flowers on them, hauled along on moterbikes from one of the many flower markets that spring up all over the city in the days before the new year. (Buying an entire tree as a holiday decoration and then throwing it out a week or two later seems crazy to me, but I’m Jewish.) Throughout Saigon, shops and buildings, streets and parks are decorated with symbols of the festival: representations of old Chinese coins, flowers, pictures and statues of monkeys for the Year of the Monkey, displays of traditional Vietnamese village life, and especially red banners with the phrase “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới,” happy new year.

In any case, our trip to Carmen Bar was Saturday night, the first night of the national holiday. The following night was the real thing, the last night of the lunar year. My friend took me to her parents’ house, where we ate on the floor because they didn’t have a table big enough for everyone, and we looked at old family pictures: of my friend and her brother as babies and as teenagers, of the aunt who was a movie star, of the French grandfather in his military uniform. Then it was time for the giving of the red envelopes, in which elders give envelopes of money and blessings to younger family members, amid much hilarity. My friends’ parents gave me an envelop too — yellow, which they said was extra special because it’s the royal color — and it contained a series of bills, which my friend’s mother explained: a 1,000-dong note (roughly a nickel), which if you give to a beggar, he won’t say thank you; a 2,000-dong note, which you can give to a beggar to get thanks; 5,000, which can get you salt for ban mi bread; 10,000, which can get you the bread itself; 20,000, which can get you a bowl of pho; and  100,000 (just under $5), which can get you a whole meal.

Later my friend’s brother and girlfriend met me on District 1’s Walking Street to watch the midnight fireworks. There I learned of the ancient Vietnamese custom of resting your arm, weary from holding up your iPad to video an empty sky, on the head of the foreigner standing in front of you. At last there were fireworks, and they were pretty good fireworks — “good, but not Sydney good,” as I heard an Australian say behind me — and then it was over, and the crowd broke up, and we went our separate ways into the Year of the Monkey.

Bác Chio

The next day, like everyone else in Saigon, I left town. Along with my friend and her two daughters, aged ten and five, I headed for the beach on Phu Quoc, a charming resort island just south of Cambodia that once held South Vietnam’s largest prison and was briefly captured by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

It was fun to hang out with kids at the beach. The older one speaks English pretty well, though she’s shy about it, and the younger one understands a great deal, though she was happy to chatter away at me in Vietnamese most of the time. As the days wore on, though, she began using more English with me, starting with the moment at the beach when she held up a bunch of wet sand dripping from her two hands and declared, “It’s so yucky!” The older one called me “Uncle Josh” — “uncle” is a common term of respect for an older male, as it is in Korea — while the younger one turned that into “Bác Chio,” pronounced as something like bah jaw. We went on a snorkeling tour, and I reassured the skittish ten-year-old that she could in fact learn to snorkel in five minutes, that the coral would not slice her to bits, that there were no sharks. She and I bonded over our shared seasickness on the long boat ride. We spent a day at the beach, and then another day at a water and amusement park called Vinpearl Land, which was cheesy and ridiculous and good fun, and the bruise on my elbow from that one twisty water slide is healing nicely, thank you.

War remnants

Back in Saigon, we decided to take a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi was a jungly crossroads not far from Saigon that became a Viet Cong stronghold. It became a free-fire zone, and a place where US bombers returning from sorties to the North would unload any remaining bombs before landing on aircraft carriers.

There were people down there.

The Vietnamese response was to develop a system of tunnels and booby traps as a means of survival and to continue to challenge and ensnare the enemy close to its capital in Saigon. The Cu Chi tunnels are presented as examples of the hardscrabble genius of the Vietnamese fighters and villagers — the distinction is blurry — who survived and fought there. That’s accurate as far as it goes. They turned bomb fragments into metal spikes for ingenious, terrifying booby traps that would ensnare and mangle the bodies of those who stepped on them. They sawed open unexploded bombs to get the materials to make anti-tank mines. They dug tunnels, some as much as ten meters deep, all by hand, and created bamboo breathing tubes that they camouflaged under fake termite mounds. They dug special tunnels to dissipate the smoke from cooking fires. They made sandals out of old tires, and for the rainy season, when their steps would leave tracks, they devised backward sandals that made it look like they were going the opposite way.

It’s all very impressive and very clever, and if I were a GI sent into that jungle to look for VC, I would have been terrified all the time: every step could mean agonizing pain or death, and VC could pop out of a hidden hole just about anywhere and shoot you in the gut or face or slash you with a hoe. But then you realize that this was a response to massive aerial bombardment, and that the US soldiers came in with hand grenades and rocket launchers and flamethrowers and teargas canisters and sniffing dogs, while the Vietnamese hid in holes in the ground and hoped the bombing would stop before they ran out of air.

The Cu Chi experience is made all the more vivid by the rattle and pop of gunfire from the attached shooting range, where you can try out some of the weapons that were used in the war. I took the opportunity to fire an M-16 and an AK-47, just to feel what it’s like to use them. They’re both easy weapons to fire, with a soft trigger and not too hard a kick.

A couple of days later, I went to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, which presents the war from a Vietnamese Communist perspective, propaganda and all. The displays accuse the Americans, rightly, of counting any dead Vietnamese as Viet Cong and ignoring civilian casualties, but they tend to count any dead Vietnamese as patriots. There is, of course, no mention of any North Vietnamese or Viet Cong acts of torture or aggression, which can lead to odd gaps: a prison display that includes tiger cages used by the South but never mentions American POWs; an odd gap between the peace agreement establishing a North and South Vietnam and a war in which America was defending southern “puppets,” the actual term the museum uses for the government of South Vietnam. There’s a display aimed at branding Senator Bob Kerrey a war criminal — he probably was — that suggests he confessed, which he never did. (It was good to have Wikipedia on my phone as I walked around the museum.) There’s a reference to the Bertrand Russell Tribunal as if it were an important international body rather than an informal gathering of leftist philosophers in France in 1967.

The propaganda is unnecessary: the accumulated evidence of American stupidity and brutality is overwhelming. It’s hard to look at the accumulated evidence — the tonnage of bombs dropped, the pictures of victims, of suffering Vietnamese, suffering GIs — and not see that this was something the US created. I am not sure that anything could justify the kind of bombing we did in Vietnam, incinerating whole communities. I think the bombing we did against the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II went well beyond what was right or justifiable, but at least we were doing it as part of a larger war that had purpose. Even in Korea that was more true than not. but our strategy in Vietnam never made much sense. We were defending first a terrible, unpopular, ineffectual regime, and then no regime at all. And we were fighting in a place of minimal strategic importance — unlike Korea, which was sandwiched between Mao’s China, the Soviet Union, and Japan. There was no one brave or wise enough to see that Vietnam was more like Angola or Afghanistan, less like Korea or Berlin — and that was because McCarthy’s witch hunt had driven all the China scholars from government, blaming them for China’s fall to communism, as if the failure of the Kuomintang were somehow the result of biased academic writing. 

Yes, the US was probably right to try to block the spread of communism in Vietnam, but not through full-scale military intervention. Yes, the US was right to fear that its failure there would send a worrying message of weakness to our allies around the world, in Taiwan and South Korea and Japan and Greece and West Germany, which is the US should never have staked its reputation on Vietnam in the first place. The US should have done what it did in China, which was to recognize the absence of any viable counterweight to the communist forces and give up. But that was politically impossible in post-McCarthy America. The suffering we inflicted on the Vietnamese people in the name of a flawed geopolitical strategy is unconscionable, as is a lot of what we did in the process: My Lai, Agent Orange, Napalm, ignoring torture in South Vietnamese prisons, and much more.

These are old debates, but maybe worth thinking about if you haven’t done so in detail. The issues are still relevant. “It became clear then,” said Robert McNamara, the principal architect of the war, speaking in 1995, “and I believe it is clear today, that military force — especially when wielded by an outside power — cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.” Is he right? If so, what does that tell us about how to deal with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan?

What stays with me, though, are the pictures of American GIs, muddy and terrified and miserable. Yes, what the Vietnamese endured was far worse, but like it or not, the GIs are my people. My father could have been one of those GIs, but he engineered a way out of the war. My ex-girlfriend’s father went to the front, and he spent the rest of his life waking up screaming at night.

A holiday in Cambodia

In speaking to my Vietnamese friend about the war, we could agree that for all their flaws, the major leaders on both sides — Ho Chi Minh, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon — had been trying, in their flawed ways, to do the right thing. And we agreed that the same cannot be said for Pol Pot, who was just batshit insane and about as evil as they come, and who managed to make enemies of the United States and communist Vietnam both. Tomorrow I will be on a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of what was once the Khmer Rouge’s nightmare state of Kampuchea.

No, I’m not in Southeast Asia on a war-and-genocide tour. But I want to understand this part of the world as I travel it, and these things, as much as the mountains and temples and culinary traditions, are part of what has shaped these nations and their people today. So I’ll go, and I’ll see the height of Khmer genius at Angkor Wat, and I’ll see the depths of Khmer depravity too. The world is a complicated place.

Back to Backpacking

I’ve had a bit of an interlude away from backpacking: first a stay in Thailand, relaxing and seeing very little, and then a long visit with a friend in Vietnam over the Tet holiday. It’s not that I haven’t done any touring — I will have a blog post soon about Saigon on Tet, Phu Quoc Island, the Cu Chi tunnels, and the War Remnants Museum — but it’s different when you’re hanging out with a local who handles the logistics.

I’ll be back to solo travel tomorrow. I’m headed to Phnom Penh for a couple of days, and then Angkor Wat for pretty much as long as I feel like staying. Cambodia will get a short stay so I can have more time in Laos, which seems like a lovely place to chill, maybe trek again, enjoy nature. Then it will be time for Northern Vietnam, and I’ll finally be giving that lecture on how Jews raise their children on March 27 in Hanoi. Let me know if you want to come. And after that, I plan to visit Thailand again for Songkran in mid-April.

It has been nice relying on locals and taking a break from the backpacker trail. I’m a little apprehensive about getting back out there. But I know it will be great. I will meet new people, see new things, have new experiences. That’s what I’m here for.

Travel and Vacation

There’s travel, and then there’s vacation.

After a long stint of travel in Myanmar — buses, trucks, taxis, boats, trekking, and hotels with odd flaws like bathroom odors, water that pulses hot and cold, wheezing pumps near the room, etc. — I’ve been on a bit of a luxury vacation in Thailand, first at Cape Dara in Pattaya, and now for a few days in Bangkok at the trendy and spot-on Aloft Hotel. On Monday I didn’t even leave my hotel until evening. I had lunch in the hotel restaurant and sat in the rooftop pool for a while. These are not backpacker joints. They’re fancy hotels, pleasant and stylish, and a bargain for the price.

Heaven. For a while, anyway.

Tomorrow I’m back on the road, to Saigon for Tet. I don’t know what it will be, but I am hopeful it will be something. I needed some nothing for a few days — a chance to catch up on my writing and blogging and photo posting, to lie around, to feel zero pressure to go be a tourist and see the sights — and now I’ve had my fill.

The second half

I suppose this is a kind of halftime lull, even if it’s a few days before the midpoint. Plans for the second half are starting to come into focus:

  • Vietnam for Tet and then a little beach time until mid-February.
  • Cambodia, Laos, and Northern Vietnam from mid-February to mid-April.
  • Back to Thailand for Songkran in mid-April, with maybe some South Thailand beach time before or after.
  • May in Singapore and Indonesia.

Now’s the time to get in touch if you want to join me for any of those places.


Myanmar and Vietnam galleries are up. There will also be a trickle of Myanmar blog posts over the next few days.

Myanmar (January 2016)

Vietnam (December 2015-January 2016)