Notes from the Backpacker Trail.

"Why on earth would you do that?!" was the most common response I got from people when I told them we were going to Vietnam for our honeymoon.

Pictured at right -- the Ngo Mon Gate to the Forbidden Purple City, The Citadel, Hue.

I suppose I could have told them that it was because Vietnam was a crucial part of America's history, a time when we decided to go invade a country on the other side of the world -- a country that had done us no wrong, a country with a culture about which we knew practically nothing -- and try to remake them in our image! What were we thinking? As I write this in the spring of 2004, I'm sure glad that we've put those ideas behind us.

Here we see Lee and Nadia examining the 1500 year old ruins of the Cham civilization at My Son. (pronounced "mee-SOHN.")

I could have told them that I wanted to meet the people of a country who, despite being dirt poor by our standards, managed to defeat the vaunted American army, an army of which I was once a part. I'm certain that will never happen again!

A banana deliveryman crosses the Perfume River in Hue.

Resistance to this war was part of what fueled the sixties, it helped create a revolution in the way we thought about ourselves. I'd always wanted to see this part of my heritage.

A common scene near Dalat, in the central highlands.

I could have told them that we like the food, which is true. The vermicelli at the Candlelight Restaurant in Nha Trang was excellent.

We wanted to see and participate in the vibrant Asian street scene.

Nadia shops the mango sellers near Hang Bo street, Hanoi.

We wanted to see one of the world's ancient cultures.

The entrance to the Temple of Literature, Hanoi.

We'd heard it was a beautiful place, tropical, with a combination of ancient, colonial, and modern architecture.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.

Plus, we just like to travel and see new places, so off we went. We got off the plane for a layover in Taiwan after a 15 hour flight from El Lay.

We got a kick out of the health form we had to fill out to land in Taiwan. It asked us if we'd suffered lately from "cough, sore throat, fever, aches, or oblivion."


Actually, we found out that oblivion was a necessary attribute in order to safely cross the streets of most major cities in Vietnam. More on that later.

Then they gave us this form. We explained that we were hiking part of the way on our trip, so, as usual, we'd packed light. We were pretty sure we hadn't brought a Beagle.

They're being very careful in east Asia these days, though. They've taken some P.R. hits with diseases that the media made famous, like last years SARS "epidemic." This year it was the bird flu. All this news about deadly diseases is bad for tourism.

"But what about the bird flu?!" exclaimed an acquaintance, citing the latest "catastrophe" in the news. "I sure wouldn't go there right now!"

Naturally, I'm sad about the 23 1 people reported to have died from bird flu in Asia this year, and I know that it could have been much worse but for the wonderful efforts of the health authorities. But let's keep things in perspective.

23 people dead of bird flu. A total of less than 800 people died of SARS during the 2002-2003 worldwide pandemic.2 Is that any reason to avoid visiting a country?

Contrast those numbers with the 43 thousand people that die every year in car crashes in the USA, or the 90,000 people that die in the USA every year of cancer that is 100% attributable to obesity3. Statistically, which of these threats do you think you should be worried about?

Here Nadia poses with some chickens in the Dalat market, showing exactly what she thinks of the risk chickens pose to the average traveler in Asia. (She was holding her breath for this picture, just in case.)

I'm happy to say that both Nadia and I made it through the whole trip without getting sick, injured, robbed, or seriously hassled at all. We ate at street markets, but drank only bottled water, sodas, and beer. We spent a lot of time outside in the sun, but we used sun block and mosquito repellent.


1. The World Health Organization website, cases_table_2004_03_24/en/, "Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response" section, accessed June 5th, 2004.

2. The World Health Organization website,, "Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response" section, accessed June 3rd, 2004.

3. Adami, H -O, Trichopoulos, D. Obesity and Mortality from Cancer. NEJM 348:1623, 2003.

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