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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala


July 7, Saturday

Yes, I’m still alive...a month of trying to mix family with work has resulted in absolutely no brain energy for writing. But now that I’m off on my own again, I’ll have time for my journal. There are many stories to share. I’ll gradually send them and scan in my pile of pictures during the next few days.

I’ve decided to take a detour from my travels up the central coast of Vietnam, from historic Hoi An to imperial Hue. I caught an overnight train south to Nha Trang, where white sand beaches and grilled seafood will keep me happy for a few days while I write.

For now, I’ll answer a few of the questions that I’ve received by email:

What shoes are you wearing?

I love my Rockports! They’re plain, flat, black sandals in which I can walk and walk for days without a single blister or ache. I also have a pair of very light, squishable, gray fabric shoes with a slight platform heel for when I need to dress up. I can walk all day in them with no problem as well. No Tevas for me, as I need to look professional when I interview experts in the food industry. I also have a pair of flip-flops, for those trips to the bathroom (rural Vietnamese people still consider in-home toilets indecent) or to the beach. The last time I traveled to Vietnam, I wore a pair of Rockports, too. They were black and had two wide straps crisscrossed over my toes. I endured enough jokes then about my “VC sandals” to choose the style more carefully this time.

Have you gotten sick yet? Do you limit your diet?

I did have one worrisome afternoon of rumbly tummy, but no major abdominal catastrophes. I’m blessed with a gullet of steel that can withstand pretty much anything, from tiny chiles to ice cubes to grilled field mice. Having made a point of eating everything offered to me, I think I’ve ingested the required amounts of bacteria to take care of any potential problems. My first trip around Asia, I proactively munched on pink Pepto-Bismol tablets to prepare my stomach for whatever might be lurking on a plate of fresh greens or in a glass of limeade. I brought some tablets this time, too, but have not had to take any of them.

Do you always have a translator?

I wish! Unfortunately, I don’t have a budget that allows for a constant companion to interpret and guide me. On specific, important trips—for example, to the island in Vietnam where the best fish sauces are pressed—I make a point of finding a guide, whether a friend or a professional. At worst, I point, draw, take photos, exchange name cards, or just taste and smile. I have been working on expanding my network in the food industry here, this being one of the main reasons for the trip. As Rosemary and I discussed in emails, the process can extend over several trips and involve unusual detours along social pathways.

In Vietnam, I know enough of the language to get around. However, I do not have command of complex, technical, or abstract vocabulary. I still get comments on my excellent Vietnamese when people first meet me, for they invariably think I’m Japanese. When they learn that I’m actually Viet Kieu (or Overseas Vietnamese) people are always surprised and all repeat the familiar phrase: I have the face of a Japanese or Chinese person.

Are you carrying a big backpack?

No, but I do have a small one. I’m carrying a 17-inch, carry-on tote that weighs about 15 pounds and a small, square backpack that varies from 8 pounds to 15 pounds, depending on what books I happen to be reading at any given time. The tote is my closet, and the backpack is my office. Both are made by TravelPro. (Check www.baggageforless.com for excellent deals.) With this combination, I don’t look like I’ve wandered too far away from Khao San Road, yet I can still jump onto a train easily.

Why are all your uncles and aunts numbered?

In Vietnam, adults are rarely known by their given name. Rather, family and friends will call them by a family title and a number. Even strangers on the street may be called “uncle” or “brother.” It’s an affectionate approach to one’s community blended with the ordered society of Confucianism. Unlike the generic “aunt” and “uncle” of English, the Vietnamese language has many specific titles to differentiate members of your mother’s family from those of your father’s and to identify people who are older than your parents versus those who are younger. Upon first meeting people, you might even ask what you should call them. In the process, you’ll establish your exact relationship to them, whether by blood or by social expectations.

An important aspect of a traditional wedding reception involves an older member of the family introducing the bride and groom to every single guest and informing the couple what they are supposed to call each person. It’s a long, laborious ritual but one that is, I think, much more valuable than just shaking hands and eating cake.

For some unknown reason, there is no Number One in the familial counting system. I have asked repeatedly, but no one can explain why the first-born is always named “Number 2.” For example, I refer to my oldest aunt on my mother’s side as “Di Hai,” or Aunt Two. (If you know why there is no number one, please do share this with me.)

By the way, the Vietnamese address for “Uncle Ho” uses an honorific much more formal than our own associations with the word uncle. In English, there’s only one word for older male members of the family. “Bac Ho” encompasses respect for a person of age and wisdom, not the chummy connotations of the American term for Ho Chi Minh.

Have you gained weight?

Yes, I’ve actually gained weight on this trip. Back in San Francisco, I was all excited, thinking I would drop 15 or 20 pounds as easily as I did on my first Asian trip. I forgot that on that tour, I was a poor student who only ate street food, that I was traveling through a Chinese winter, and that I was lifting a massive backpack several times a day. Now, visiting Asian foodies and attending countless celebratory feasts, I eat very well. It’s considered very rude to leave any food on your host’s platter, and all protests over my full stomach are ignored. The concept of a simple “no” doesn’t actually exist in Vietnamese. (Even when you say “no” you have to say “yes” first out of respect: “Da khong.”)

Let me know if there’s anything else related to my travels that you’ve been wondering about. Thanks to all of you who have sent encouragement, advice, and news from home. Know that every word is much appreciated.

More Nha Trang >

July 2001