July 3, 2012
Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia, a place where history lingers on as the spirited people of Vietnam charge into the future. I love especially its French colonial character, a vestige of decades when the tricolor waved over the country. Badly beaten by nationalist armies, the French finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1954, but the U.S. took up the battle against the same enemy in an effort to stem the spread of communism.
When the last American troops evacuated and the north and south reunited in 1973, Vietnam seemed to disappear behind the red walls of its communist regime, stagnating economically until free market reforms were instituted in 2005, stimulating an explosion of growth, with unbridled development in its wake. Saigon shot up, but Hanoi lagged somewhat behind, which helped keep its French colonial architecture and ambience intact. So travelers can still feel the subtle, seductive French-Vietnamese cultural blending that infused couture, art, literature and cuisine during the colonial era in Hanoi.
Embarked on a grand mission civilisatrice, the French colonial administration laid wide, tree-lined boulevards patterned on the Champs Élysées, installed electric lights and built villas in a hybrid style known as Norman Pagoda. With them came the language of Voltaire, Impressionist art, café society and Catholicism, a faith still practiced by an estimated six million Vietnamese.
A first stop for flâneurs is St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a neo-Gothic edifice with twin bell towers to match those of Notre Dame de Paris, completed in 1886 several blocks west of Hoan Kiem Lake. Black Flag guerrillas laid siege to the neighborhood in 1883, forcing harassed French colonists to hide in Ba Da Temple down the block; later the communists closed the cathedral, though worship resumed in 1990, reaching an annual climax at Christmas when choirs sing and little girls wearing traditional red and yellow ao dai tunics perform in a pageant.
Next catch a bicycle taxi—known as a pousse-pousse, which means push-push in French—to the Hanoi Opera House, inspired by the beautiful Palais Garnier in Paris. A yellow and white neo-Classical confection on August Revolution Square, it celebrated its centennial last year and often hosts performances by the Vietnam National Orchestra and Ballet. You have to attend an event to see the marble staircase, French murals and chandeliers inside, as well as the balcony where the Vietminh took control of the city in 1945.
Nearby is the Hotel Metropole, which opened in 1901, one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia, attracting luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on honeymoon, Graham Greene and Joan Baez, who had to take refuge in an underground shelter during U.S. bombing raids in 1972. American war correspondent Stanley Karnow saw the hotel at its nadir during the war. “Paint flaked from the ceilings, its bathroom fixtures leaked and rats scurried around its lobby,” he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam: A History.
But the Metropole re-emerged victoriously after a 1990 restoration, a perfect evocation of the colonial era, beginning with the vintage Citroën parked in the porte- cochere. The three-story lobby yields to intimate sitting rooms lined in dark, precious wood, prints, chinoiserie furniture, orchids and silk, where it’s easy to imagine men in white linen smoking opium-laced cigarettes. Additions were built to the rear, but the rooms in the old section summon up the colonial era best with elegant entryways, sitting areas and beds underneath slowly revolving ceiling fans.
It’s unwise to romanticize the colonial period, of course. French rule impoverished landowners, encouraged opium addiction and almost broke the spirit of a people with a long love of independence. All that’s behind the country now, but the French-Vietnamese style perseveres, a special enchantment for visitors to Hanoi.
June 7, 2012
Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.
And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago.
It was in Jaipur—known as the Pink City for the color it was painted when England’s Prince Albert came to visit in 1876—that I learned how to take wild rides in auto-rickshaws without fear, tasted my spinach paneer at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, climbed to Amber Palace built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, and had a fine gin and tonic in the style of Prince Albert at the Polo Bar in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, where the Maharani of Jaipur lived until 1957. And I only have to look as far as my bedroom to remember a daylong shopping expedition aimed at finding the perfect quilted cotton spread, decorated in woodblock prints, a specialty in Jaipur. Mine is in shades of blue—soft and beautiful, albeit somewhat threadbare now.
I went on from there to Udaipur, the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Jaisalmer, the last Thar Desert outpost before the Pakistani border. But Jaipur remains most deeply etched in my memory, which is why I took so much pleasure in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The $13 ticket price is a small amount to pay for a trip to Rajasthan.
May 16, 2012
I don’t like packing and getting shots, but when it comes to getting ready to travel, I love reading books and watching movies. I’m currently planning a trip to India, which I haven’t visited for almost 15 years. I want to find out how it’s changed, spend a week doing yoga at an ashram, see the burning ghats at Varanasi and taste the spicy food of the subcontinental south.
To prepare for my first trip I took in such standards as director Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic Gandhi and David Lean’s 1984 film take on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India; “The Jewel in the Crown” miniseries based on novelist Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet; Paul Brunton’s esoteric A Search in Secret India; A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul’s heartbreakingly funny look at family life in the Indian diaspora community; Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s evocation of India at independence; and everything by Louise Nicholson, the queen of India guidebook writers.
This time I’m finding much more to read and watch—India updated.
English, August (1988), by Upamanyu Chatterjee, follows a confused, morose, insidiously funny young man to an Indian Civil Service posting in the provincial backwater of Madna where, almost in spite of himself, he sees deeper into the nature of India with both its glories and absurdities.
A Fine Balance (1995), a richly textured, bighearted novel by Rohinton Mistry that follows two village tailors who search for work in the city during the “Emergency“ from 1975 to 1977 when the government of Indira Gandhi suspended individual rights and democratic elections, resulting in widespread abuses. “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair,” a fellow train passenger tells them—sound advice, it turns out, as the tailors are beset by more woes than Job. Together with his more recent novel Family Matters (2002), A Fine Balance establishes Mistry as one of the best, most vivid and moving chroniclers of contemporary India, especially Mumbai.
India (2011), by Patrick French, a contemporary study of the Indian nation assessing the singular nature of its democracy, the flush economy and enduring poverty, religious fractures, intransigent caste system and high-tech genius—all backed up by moving portraits of Indian people, be they quarry workers, Bollywood stars or dirty politicians.
The Last Mughal (2006) is historian William Dalrymple’s detailed look at the 1857 Indian Mutiny, the chaos it wrecked on New Delhi, the brutality of British retribution and the pathetic end of the great Mughul dynasty under its last unfortunate emperor, Zafar.
Sacred Games (2006), by Vikram Chandra, is part-thriller, part-police procedural, all extraordinary literary investigation into the beating, red heart of the Indian city of Mumbai. It features a valiant, long-suffering Sikh policeman and bizarrely tortured crime overlord, along with the fully Dickensian world of characters who bind them together. A terrific read.
Salaam Bombay! (1988), artfully directed by Mira Nair, tells the story of a boy on the mean streets of Mumbai, the drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and thugs he befriends and his hopeless struggle to make enough money to return home to the mother who all but sold him to the circus. If Slumdog Millionaire is glass half full, Salaam Bombay! is a more realistic glass half empty.
Sea of Poppies (2008) is the first book in a projected trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, set in the early 1800s when the British-run opium trade was pillaging Hindustan on one hand and enslaving China on the other. To evade it a group of travelers set out in a great sailing ship to the island of Mauritius, mixing customs and languages from all around the Indian Ocean, the rich backdrop for this epic of the Indian diaspora.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008), director Danny Boyle’s first hit film, uses flashbacks during a young man’s appearance as a contestant on the Indian TV version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to tell the story of three orphaned children growing up in the shantytowns of Mumbai. It’s pure wish fulfillment with a full-throttle happy ending, but segments were filmed in desperately poor neighborhoods of the city most visitors never see, like the unforgettably funny scene set in a slum toilet.
A Suitable Boy (1993) is a novel by Vikram Seth that depicts the lives and preoccupations of middle-class India as a young woman chooses a husband from three very different suitors. Set against the political maneuvering of the post-independence era, it unfolds like a soap opera—but with finer sensibilities—and creates a world of involving characters. At almost 1,500 pages long, in for a penny, in for a pound.
The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga, another novel—contemporary Indian writers excel in fiction—channels the hilarious voice of a devious Delhi chauffeur to serve up a scathing picture of democracy in India—vote-buying, bribes, kickbacks and all.
Still, one book stands above all as required reading for the traveler in India: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. First published in 1901, it is considered a relic of British imperialism by some critics (like Edward Said) and many Indians. But to my mind Kipling’s classic remains a window on the Indian soul and a spiritual lesson. Starting from the steps of the Lahore Museum, it travels across India in the company of an orphan boy learning to spy for the British and a Tibetan Buddhist holy man who meets adversity by remembering that “just is the wheel.” For historical background dip into The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1990), by Peter Hopkirk.
November 29, 2011
General Joseph Stilwell (1883-1946), known affectionately as “Vinegar Joe,” is one of my favorite American war heroes. His career—West Point, World War I in France, service as a military attache in Beijing and, most notably, command of U.S. forces in China, India and Burma during World War II—is masterfully described in Barbara Tuchman’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945.
Recently I discovered that it’s possible to see the man in action in The Stilwell Road, a 1947 U.S. War Department documentary, narrated by Ronald Reagan. Using vintage film footage, it tells the story of the general’s effort to retake northern Burma from the Japanese and supply beleaguered Chinese forces under Generalissmo Chiang Kai-Shek by building an 500-mile road across Pangsau Pass in the Himalayas. The Stilwell Road, as it came to be known, was an impressive engineering feat, completed in 1944, costing millions of dollars, thousands of lives and the good will of Air Force commander Claire Chennault who favored flying supplies over “The Hump” instead building a precarious land link from India to China.
Someday, I’d love to follow the Stilwell Road, though its most accessible portal is located in a rough, isolated corner of India plagued by unrest, terrorism and tension with neighboring China. I’d like to see the Stilwell monument in the West Point Cemetery and the plaque on his house in Carmel, California.
But there’s one “Vinegar Joe” site I have visited and won’t forget: the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing, China, where the general lived while liaising with Chiang Kai-Shek, then fighting both the Japanese and a Communist insurgency that would spiral into China’s long and brutal Civil War, ending in the establishment of the Peoples Republic. While Stilwell was there he grew increasingly disenchanted with corruption and subterfuge in Chiang‘s Nationalist government, ultimately opening communication with the Red Army under Mao Zedong, earning him hero status in contemporary China. The museum has artifacts and displays (with English subtitles) outlining the general‘s distrust of the Nationalists and efforts to put American relations with China on a new track. Ultimately, the powerful American China Lobby, headed by Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to recall him. Sometimes I wonder how the China-U.S. relationship would have unfolded had Stilwell’s voice been heard.
October 12, 2011
Andrea and Brandon Ross fell in love with Southeast Asia on their very first visit, then moved to Cambodia in 2003 to start Journeys Within, a travel agency headquartered in Siem Reap at the threshold of Angkor.
They were pioneers at the time. In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide and civil war that claimed the lives of at least two million people between 1975 and 1998, the town was a run-down backwater. But the young American couple knew it wouldn’t stay that way. Now Siem Reap has a population of about 100,000, an international airport, a branch of the national museum and ritzy hotels catering to millions of people who visit Cambodia every year to see the 150-square-mile archaeological park at Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site enshrining the singular art and architecture of the Khmer Empire.
Last fall I wanted to go to Cambodia, but not on my own. For this visit I wanted expert help because my goal was to visit not just Angkor, but off-the-beaten track Khmer temples in the back of beyond, such as Preah Vihear on the contested border between Cambodia and Thailand. By chance, I found the Rosses who tailored a trip for me, starting in Angkor, where I saw all the great Khmer Empire landmarks, from majestic Angkor Wat to jungly Ta Prohm. At Bayon it started to pour, sending tears streaming down the strange smiling faces that line the sides of the temple’s iconic beehive-shaped towers.
From there my guide and I took a van over rough, single-lane roads to Koh Ker, a Khmer royal city about 60 miles northeast of Angkor famous for its 7-story pyramid. Mines laid during the civil war left it largely unexcavated and seldom visited. But efforts to dismantle leftover ordnance has begun to pay off, allowing for the opening of Koh Ker to sightseers.
Then it was on the Preah Vihear, the highlight of the trip, another Khmer temple built around the time French stonemasons were at work on Chartres. The complex is clustered around a 2,600-foot walkway that leads to the edge of a cliff in the Dangrek Mountains. It‘s magnificent, but woefully neglected chiefly because of on-and-off border skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian troops in the area.
The tour company was able to stage my visit to Preah Vihear during a cease fire because it knows Cambodia at first hand. The Rosses are personally invested in it.
While living and working there, Brandon and Andrea realized how little money it takes to do good things in Cambodia where the average income is under $800 a year. For instance, $350 can give villagers a much-needed well. So along with the travel agency and a bed and breakfast inn, they founded a U.S.-registered nonprofit organization that now has an annual budget of $180,000, partly funded by clients. In addition to building wells, Journeys Within Our Community underwrites university scholarships, free language classes and micro-loans for small, start-up businesses. “Give and Take” tours allow volunteer-travelers to spend time working on community development projects.
The impulse to give back—a fundamental of responsible tourism—came naturally to the Rosses in Cambodia. And there are other small travel agencies operating in Asia that take the same approach. Myths and Mountains, based in Nevada, showed me Nepal a few years ago, including one of the 55 libraries nurtured by the company in rural villages. Like my visit to Cambodia, it was a rich trip because the tour company has deep roots in the region.