One of the most challenging aspects of writing about travel for magazines is striving to convey a sense of unbounded, unbridled adventure via a medium that’s about as bounded and bridled as it could possibly be. I imagine that the readers of travel magazines—to the extent that I can conceive there are such people—must think of themselves as swashbuckling globetrotters. They are people who wear mosquito-repellent shirts and have special leather cases for their passports. They have moneybelts and wallet pouches that hang around their necks, and, of course, multi-pocketed travel vests to further conceal their passports, moneybelts and wallet pouches.
And even as the travel reader perceives the journal in his hands as a gateway to the freedoms of the great beyond, that same magazine, to the travel writer, represents a literary ball and chain that hobbles his creativity at every step. Just as an accomplished actor might bemoan the great performances that wound up on the cutting room floor, I imagine every magazine writer—if not purely every writer—maintains an inner litany of hilarious and/or penetrating tales and insights that fell victim to sunscreen ads, or a dastardly art director’s space hogging ways, or even the council of the much-dreaded and rarely seen “lawyers.”
By now, I’ve spent so much time having my work constrained and cut-to-fit and altered for tone, that I no longer even register a reaction to being edited. If I receive a mandate to “make this more Men’s Health,” I not only understand what that means, I comply without a second’s thought. In fact, I’m so used to writing to suit the tenors of individual magazines that I can actually pick out the sections of a given draft that—even when they represent good writing—don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of appearing in print. You see, even if I can identify these unpublishables while reading a piece, I can’t pick them out and exclude them during the writing process. Ideas and concepts flow from one another during the writing phase and as such, even when I’m aware I’ll need to return to the scene of the crime later to strike a certain paragraph, I usually go ahead and put it in there anyway, just for my own pleasure.
This website, in fact, was started as a repository for orphaned bits and pieces of writing—a place where I could showcase the “Too Hot For TV” jokes, ideas and concepts that wouldn’t survive in the commercial marketplace. By far the type of writing most susceptible to flights of fancy and well-I’ll-put-it-in-but-I’m-going-to-have-to-take-it-out-later-itis is travel writing. In the folder for almost every travel story I have on my computer are two documents: one called something like “Australia Long;” and the second “Australia Print.” Of these designations, “Long,” indicates the original version of the story I wrote, the one with all my little witticisms, observations and tangents; and the second, “Print,” is the version I finally filed with my editor and consider to have a chance of being published.
Again, I am not complaining about this. Magazines need to brand themselves. Every sentence on every page must bespeak the tone and tenor of “The Intergalactic Entity That Is Cosmo,” or “Alpha GQ Prime,” otherwise, the answer to the question What Did The Connollys Have For Dinner Last Night? might someday be “shoe leather” or “sleep.” This does not mean however, now that I have my own website, that I can’t throw some “Long” versions up here once in a while. So, if you’re curious to sample a snifter of uncut, high-octane travelogue, I present…
Discovering Vietnam, by Chris Connolly
Traveling for me isn’t about seeing the famous stuff. It’s not about discovering in person how grand the Grand Canyon is or how leaning the Leaning Tower of Pisa is. It’s not about seeing Mona Lisa’s smile or David’s sculpted abs. Sure, I still enjoy Original Articles, but the pleasure past travelers took in them has been eroded by a river of postcards, Travel Channel specials and forty-minute-wait-from-this-point signs.
I much prefer discovering things I can call my own: The quirky museum no one visits; the tiny café with 150 years of bike racing history on its walls. Touring Vietnam I had this feeling over and over again. The whole country was mine to explore.
A few years ago my family went to Paris. One afternoon, exhausted from touring Sainte-Chapelle, my then 10-year-old brother, John, begged for a stop at a café. Us older folks ordered pan au chocolate, espresso and mineral water and then turned to John who—being 10—ordered a hot dog.
“John,” my father warned, “This might not be the best place for a hot dog.”
But John had decided, and we all sat there chuckling…until the hot dog arrived. A lesson in humility, this hot dog was a long, crisply-toasted baguette bedecked by dual spicy, cigar-thin sausages smothered in melting cheeses and sinus-clearing mustard. It was no more a “hot dog” than the stained glass masterpieces in Sainte-Chapelle were “windows.” I wanted to punch my croissant in the face.
That café is now “our” café. That hot dog is now “our” hot dog. In one of the most heavily-visited places on Earth we found something to call ours. Vietnam is full of experiences like this.
There’s something pure about Vietnam. Ambling down the hot, narrow streets or beside the translucent, milky blue waters feels like a privilege. From the temples to the white silk-clad schoolgirls, to the woman in the market snatching live frogs from a bucket and smashing their heads on the pavement, everything is fresh and alien. I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder for someone to commiserate with.
“Did you see how many dead pigs that guy had strapped to his scooter?” I wanted to ask to some imaginary companion. But in many ways Vietnam is a private show.
I visited three places in Vietnam: the hornets’ nest Ho Chi Minh City; the bustling beach town, Nha Trang; and the secluded and exclusive Evanson Hideaway. Each place had special secrets.
My journey began in Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City, and while I feel a bit strange writing this, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the cab ride from the airport was the single most exciting thing I did in Vietnam. The moment my van pulled out we were surrounded by motorbikes which swarmed us like a halo of flies. Young people and old rode with the skill of motorcross champions and executed hairpin turns on bikes laden with passengers, fruit, air conditioners, bundles of ducting, giant water tanks, doors, 5 foot tall bales of children’s shoes, pets and even, in one extreme case, another motorbike.
Breathless, I alighted at the Caravelle, a well-appointed hotel in central Saigon that provided a perfect headquarters for forays into the city. Walk down any street in Saigon and you’ll find people greeting you warmly. One man sitting on a stool surrounded by model ships and drinking a beer raised his glass to me. I was halfway down the block before I raced back to take a picture of his t-shirt which read, “I’m not 30, I’m 29.95!”
When the time came to leave Saigon I was filled with regret. Yes, I would miss the bustle of activity and the wonderful food—especially the crab soup and crisp, honey-glazed pork ribs I had at Yeebo, a Chinese restaurant near the hotel—but I think I was mostly just scared to get back in a taxi. I did survive the trip however, and was soon jetting north to Nha Trang.
Nha Trang is a more “beach towny” beach town than you’d expect to find in Vietnam. It has the sun, it has the surf, it even has the obligatory rusting carnival rides. But somehow—perhaps it’s the backdrop of Buddhist temples and bobbing blue fishing boats—you’d never mistake Nha Trang for Atlantic City.
One of the best things about traveling is that it makes the mundane more exciting. Waiting for a bus in Finland is more interesting than waiting for a bus in Cleveland because, Hey! You’ve never waited for a bus Finland before! And even the most tourist trappy elements of Nha Trang manage to elude that sense of impending ripoff that accompanies their counterparts around the world. The handicrafts and paintings are clearly not what you’d find in Vietnamese homes, but then again, they’re beautiful. Even the t-shirts with marijuana leaves silkscreened over the Vietnamese flag seem somehow authentic.
One morning, my hotel, the sumptuous Ana Mandara, arranged for a cyclotaxi tour of Nha Trang’s main markets. My pedicab driver greeted me with a very American, “Yo, yo, yo!” and we set off along Tran Phu Boulevard where a huge crowd had already gathered to do calisthenics and play badminton at 5:00 am.
“Yo, yo yo!” I said to my driver. “Teach me some Vietnamese.” Then, although it was April, he taught me to say “Happy new year.” This quickly became my catch phrase.
“Happy new year!” I told the giggling vendor from whom I bought seven handbags for my wife.
“Happy new year!” I said to the waiter who showed me how to eat Pho, a delicious beef soup. (You dump the raw sprouts and herbs in the soup to cook and swish the hot pepper slices in the broth until it’s as spicy as you want.)
“Happy new year!” I told the receptionist as I dropped off my room key.
“Happy new year,” she politely replied.
After three days in Nha Trang I shipped out to the Ana Mandara’s super secluded retreat, The Evason Hideaway. Cut into a wild coast The Hideaway is accessible only by boat and has only 54 villas. Relaxation is the rule.
While hidden away, Hideaway guests are pampered, petted and massaged by linen-clad attendees. I got my first facial and my first suction cup massage. I liked them both, but then, when you’re reclining on a cool wooden table looking out at sedately swaying palms framed by implausibly clear waters you might enjoy someone kicking you repeatedly in the leg.
There isn’t a lot to do at the Hideaway, but that’s the point. You could snorkel, swim, get a manicure on the beach, and you could catch your own lunch at a floating lobster farm, but spending your time admiring the environs is an equally viable and attractive option.
In this peaceful place I had time to wonder how Vietnam stole my heart? Lying with my toes in the lapping waves I spied my butler, Thuy, ambling up the beach with my bicycle. When, bowing, she leaned the bike against a palm and explained it was hot and I shouldn’t walk back to my villa, I realized Vietnam’s charm isn’t the food, sights or shopping, it’s the people.
One afternoon, touring the country around Nha Trang, I visited a family that make the iconic cone-shaped hats Vietnamese women wear for sun protection. It was a four woman operation: the grandmother, her lips and teeth stained orange by beetle nut, pulled straws through a stripping device which she manipulated with her feet. She’d then hand the strand to daughter #2 who wove it onto a frame. When the frame was full, it was passed to daughter #1 who reinforced it with thread. The mother squatted to the side—the Vietnamese are the world’s greatest squatters—picking her teeth and clucking directions. My guide explained the women make four hats a day and sell them sell for $.75 each.
I was perched on a small stool watching the weaving when the grandmother leaned forward and presented me with a hat. I tried to pay her, but she wouldn’t accept any money, so I pulled off my own baseball cap and offered it in exchange. She looked the cap over with a practiced eye, then plopped it on her head and beamed at me with her cracked orange teeth.
This opened the floodgates and suddenly a mass of children began seeping out of every hut and shack to shout “Hello! Hello!” and feel my hair. I looked down to find one determined boy elbowing his way through the throng.
“What’s up little man?” I asked, as he clearly wished to convey something of great importance.
“I’m Spiderman!” he announced, then dashed back into the crowd.
“That’s great, kid,” I thought. “Happy new year.”