Hello everyone — I have good news! I’ve just published two ebooks on Amazon Kindle:

Saigon Tease: So, What Did You Do in Nam, Dad? (Amazon Kindle, $3.99) is a memoir of my Vietnam tour of duty in 1967-1968. My experience there was quite different from the ones you often read about, which is why I think it’s time, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war, to tell this story. Here’s a description:

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Catch-22 was the first classic farce about American military life. “M*A*S*H,” set later during the Korean War, continued that tradition. But few books have chronicled the behind-the-scenes absurdities of the Vietnam War.

In the tradition of “Sgt. Bilko,” Saigon Tease follows the misadventures, narrow escapes, and anguish of an 18-year-old in Vietnam in 1967 as he awkwardly transitions from boy to man. But it differs from its predecessors in one significant way: all the bizarre escapades are true. And that 18-year-old was me.

Many Americans, when asked what comes to mind when they think of Vietnam, would probably say anger, torment, sadness. I had a different experience. For that reason, the tone of my book is not angry, tormented, or sad. Saigon Tease is not a war story, and yet it is very much a war story. It’s not a diary from the front lines; it’s a chronicle from behind the lines where the vast majority of Vietnam vets served. It’s a saga of wonder and beauty and innocence and mischief set in exotic Southeast Asia during the pivotal war of our generation.

But perhaps the most significant thing about this memoir is that these tales were not the exceptions; they were the norm for most men and women who went there. And that story has never been told.

How I Killed Off My Ex-Wife and Other Far-Flung Misadventures (Amazon Kindle, $2.99) is a humor collection of all the other places I’ve gotten into trouble around the world. I had a ton of fun compiling this. Many of the stories were sold to such publications as National Geographic Traveler, Islands, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the lead piece in Not So Funny When It Happened: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure (Travelers’ Tales, 2000).

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In the tradition of George Plimpton’s Out of My League and P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell, participatory journalist Wood takes the reader around the world to document a lifetime of foolish decisions, embarrassing behavior, horrifying predicaments, and really, really bad luck. From disrobing for Playgirl to rescuing a hostage at James Bond Fantasy Camp. From getting the dung scared out of him on a Tanzanian safari to being detained as a spy in Havana. From stressing out on “The Dating Game” to snuffing his ex in Vietnam.

How I Killed Off My Ex-Wife is a collection of true stories that may cause the reader to wonder: No way this many dumb, outrageous, impossible things could have happened. Not to one person. Not in one lifetime. Not without extraordinarily poor judgment, unusually bad karma, or being dared lots and lots of times.

Most readers have had crazy experiences in their life. What separates them from Wood is that most people have good reputations to protect, possess reasonable judgment, and have the good sense not to publish their stories and confirm what ninnies they really are.

Both books are currently being serialized, one story/chapter at a time, for free on Jukepop.com every week. How I Killed Off My Ex-Wife is already an Editor’s Pick. Check them out!

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I’m just so tired of this:

Predators roaming the neighborhood in their identifying colors and accouterments. Armed with oversized weapons. Sweeping the streets for unarmed victims. Targeting those they most despise. Shooting them whether they’re innocent or not. Thumbing their noses at the criminal-justice system when they’re caught. Walking away scot-free. Repeat.

Yes, it’s time to do something about cops in this country.

They’ve become a scourge. A stain on our culture. A national disgrace. How can we expect to press foreign leaders to improve their human-rights records when our society flaunts the very definition on a daily basis?

The only solution to this worsening crisis is to use the same tactics against them that they use against us. I have no illusions that any of these seven ideas will work, but wouldn’t it be nice if they did?

1. Cop sweeps. The police periodically launch gang sweeps to round up leaders and shut down criminal operations that have gotten out of control. It’s mostly for show (the last time I looked, the punks were still there), but the LAPD loves to crow about their conquests anyway. “See Angelenos, we’re fighting crime every day!” Fine, well so are we. So, c’mon Police Commission and Community-Police Advisory Board, get off your keisters and sweep out police chiefs, sheriffs, officers, and patrolmen whenever their corruption or abuses become excessive. (Speaking of which, will we see indictments for former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, or any of their thugs anytime before the close of this decade? Just saying.)

2. Cop Watch. Citizens can take an active part in preventing crime by setting up a Neighborhood Watch program in their community. Cops love this system and are heavily involved in it. Good, since we have them onboard, we’re going to tweak it just a bit. From now on we’re going to monitor them as well so we can prevent police crime, too. Something tells me they won’t want to be so heavily involved in this expansion, but hey, crime is crime. Or does their crime not stink?

3. P.A.R.E. In 1983, a revolutionary effort between the L.A. County School District and the LAPD was developed to teach young people techniques to prevent them from using drugs. D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) debuted with the catchy slogan “Just Say No.” I think it’s time we develop one for cops called P.A.R.E. (Police Abuse Resistance Education). They could even keep the same motto as in “Just say no whenever you have the urge to pull over somebody just because he’s black and wearing a hoodie and standing in his front yard and minding his own business.” The program could teach valuable lessons such as “The harmful effects of misusing police authority” as in when an officer decides to restrain a mentally disturbed woman for wandering too close to the freeway by pummeling her eight times in the face. Or “Refusal strategies to combat peer pressure” as in when a cop’s partner suggests, “C’mon, let’s hassle that hooker and see what she’ll do to make us leave.” Or “Racial abuse alternatives” as in calling out to a resident from one’s squad car, “Hey Jeffrey, how you doing today? Stay good, stay safe, and take care now” instead of, “Hey Buckwheat, what’s in your pocket?”

4. Candid Camera. Communities have long favored installing police car or body cameras so officers’ actions can be recorded. Such a shame that the LAPD, after more than twenty years of really, really trying, has installed them only in the South Bureau, and among those, officers have tampered with or removed the voice recording equipment in half of the estimated eighty cars. Gee, who saw that coming? It’s time to give up the ghost on this one. When will somebody important finally admit that it’s sheer lunacy to think that police officers or higher ups could ever monitor themselves?

5. Cop injunctions. When a gang’s public behavior becomes a nuisance, police issue a gang injunction to limit the group’s activity. So why not do the same to cops when complaints suddenly pour in about a particular officer, unit, or division? Hoodlums are hoodlums. Too bad we didn’t have cop injunctions in the 1990s. Remember Rampart Division? More than seventy LAPD police officers in its anti-gang unit were implicated for massive corruption. Guess how many went to jail?

6. Weapons raids. Cops love to hold press conferences to show off all the high-powered weaponry they scooped up in their latest gang raid. Well, LAPD, if you really want to wow us, I’ve got an idea – reveal your armory. You want to shock the populace with what the bad boyz are carrying? Then bring out your helicopters, armored vehicles, Humvees, assault weapons, sniper rifles, breaching shotguns, flash-bang grenades, body armor, riot-control agents, night-vision devices, and full combat gear. That’ll rile us up. On second thought, maybe just keep your toys under wraps. You scare us enough already.

7. Hands up, don’t shoot. Residents of Ferguson, Missouri, are chanting this cry as you read this in protest of the latest in what has become an interminable series of white policemen shooting and killing unarmed black men. Their call has become a national shibboleth, a beseeching cry to all those who wield lawful authority. A plea to police officers everywhere to think – for heaven’s sake, stop and think – before you do what cannot be undone.

I have a suggestion. Mr. Lawman. The next time you take aim at a black or brown individual who raises his or her hands and cries, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” start your own national movement by being the first to lower your weapon and responding, “Gun down, won’t shoot!”

John Wood

The masked gunmen who infiltrated Nairobi’s Westgate Mall arrived with a set of religious trivia questions. As terrified civilians hid in toilet stalls, behind mannequins, in ventilation shafts, and underneath food-court tables, the assailants began a high-stake game of 20 Questions to separate Muslims from those they consider infidels. Numerous survivors described how the attackers from al-Shabab, a Somali cell that recently joined al-Qaeda, shot people who failed to provide the correct answers. – Associated Press

 

“You Muslim?” the bearded Somalian with the clipboard asked the American tourist sitting against the wall with the others.

“Since Eldridge passed, don’t hang with the brothers no more,” the tourist said, his breath reeking of Serengeti Lager.

“Take him away,” the Somalian said to a second man with an AK-47.

“Whoa, wait, wait. I was talking ’bout Black Muslims. Hell yeah, I’m a Muslim. What else would I be? As-salam alaykum, my brother.”

“Passport.”

He handed his to the Somalian, who perused it. “You live Chicago. What is name of mosque in Chicago?”

“The mosque in Chicago? How the fuck I kno–, uh, I mean…which one? They all over Chi-town now. Where you been? Mosques done took over the whole Loop. Ain’t no more synagogues or churches. America’s Muslim now. All us folks Muslims! Praise be to Allah!”

He jumped as gunfire erupted on the mall’s second level near the Elephant Tusks ‘R’ Us.

“The name,” the Somalian repeated, his eyes sweeping the concourse nervously.

“All right, I got this. I’m gonna go with…the big one with the dome on top.”

The Somalian gritted his teeth. “The name. On front of building.”

“Uh…the Chicago Mosque.”

“You make name up,” the man said. “You mock me?”

“Naw, naw, you doin’ just fine yourself. That my final answer. Look it up you want.”

The man glared at him, spoke into his walkie-talkie, then flipped it off. “My friend googling ‘Chicago Mosque.'”

“Aw, now why you wanna go and do that? I don’t know its official name, all right? Everybody just calls it that. C’mon, man. With all the guns and smoke and people running’ and screamin’, how the fuck’m I supposed to remember?”

“Enough. I ask three questions now. First question easy. Second so-so. Third impossible unless you devout Muslim. Miss one, you die. Ready? What is–“

“Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa. You expect me to think clearly when you say say shit like that? See how your brain work when I hold a gun to your head and ask the name of the liquor store on the corner of Mogadishu and Yoreass. Alex Trebek ever throw down like that, ABC toss his lily-white ass–“

“Silence! First question: What is name of Holy Book of Muslims?”

The tourist let out a belly laugh. “Hah, really? That your first question? That the best you got? The Qur’an, motherfucker. How much I win?”

The Somalian grunted. “Lucky answer. You guess.”

“Didn’t say I couldn’t.”

“Cannot guess. You guess, you die.”

“I woulda thought you’d skip the easy one to save time, since you in such a hurry and all. But your call.”

“Quiet!” Sweat rolled down the Somalian’s face as a concussion outside the Clitoridectomy Walk-In Clinic shook the building.

“Second question: How many verses are in Holy Qur’an?”

“A lot.”

“Cannot accept. Correct answer 6,236. Take him away.” The armed man moved forward.

“Wait. I answered right.”

“Did not give full answer.”

“Show me the fuckin’ rulebook says I gotta give a full answer. Based on the wording of your question, my answer’s accurate. Six thousand’s a lot. But why you care? You said your third question’s impossible, so you got me no matter what.”

The Somalian wiped his forehead. Nearby, a police squadron across from the Semtex and IED Mart crept steadily closer. “Okay, I accept answer this time. Will reword question next attack. Final question…”

“I’ll take True or False.”

“Nice try.”

“Okay then, Multiple Choice.”

“You will be shot if you ask another question.”

“Okay, then at least let me pray before you give it. I need all the help I can get.”

The man leaned close and smiled malevolently. “And who you pray to?”

“Allah, what you think? I’d be a dumb ass not to now.”

“You dare desecrate His name? We will see what He thinks of that. Final question: Who were four daughters of Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam?”

“Oh…oh…wait…I know that one.”

“You do not. You lie. Answer.”

“No, no, it’s on the tip of my…His four daughters? You sure there were four?”

“Four! Not three. Not five. Four! Admit you are not Muslim. Do not fear death, infidel. Everybody go sometime.”

“If I say I don’t know, will you give me the right answer? Quiz shows always do that ’cause otherwise how’d you know if they were chea–“

“Yes, yes. Hurry!” the Somalian spat as soldiers on ropes descended from the fourth level next to the Voting Booth & Shooting Gallery.

“Okay, I ain’t no Muslim. Now what’s the answer?”

The man ran his finger down his clipboard to the answers.

“Uh-uh-uh. Without looking, asshole.”

The Somalian fixed him with a cold stare. “I need not look. Unlike you, I am true believer. Pray every day. Give all credit and thanks to Allah. Recite the Surahs. The five pillars of Islam. The three conditions for towbah to be accepted…”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Sure you all into it and family’s real proud — ‘cept for your punk-ass mess today. But back to the daughters. You still going with four?”

“I…I know them. I do,” the man stammered. “Studied them as child. But never memorized them. Names too long.” He shook his head at his henchman. “We only get test this morning!”

His shoulders slumped, and he stared off, his face resigned.

The tourist nodded to the man with the AK-47. “Take him away.”

The poignant resilience exemplified by Filipinos in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan is no surprise to me.

In 2010-2012 I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central Visayas region on the island of Negros Oriental, just two islands west of Leyte where Haiyan obliterated the city of Tacloban on November 9. Our headquarters in Manila called or texted us continually whenever a natural disaster was imminent. We each had consolidation points to go to in times of emergency. In extreme cases, we would be evacuated.

I was texted a lot.

The Philippines, the most-exposed large country in the world to tropical cyclones, lies directly in the Typhoon Belt and withstands about 20 typhoons each year. If that’s not enough, it’s also in the middle of the Ring of Fire, where many volcanic eruptions and 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur. The country’s 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo was the world’s second largest land eruption of the 20th century.

My first taste of what Filipinos endure, and how they bear it, occurred in mid-December 2012 when I was returning to my town from a doctor’s visit in Manila. Typhoon Washi, unlike most big storms that shoot straight north and slam into Luzon, had suddenly veered sideways toward the Visayas (like Haiyan did). Although I luckily missed the storm, the aftermath remained.

From the airport, the highway heading into the main city Dumaguete was jammed. Several bridges had overflowed and turned into a mini-tsunami, carrying away untold houses. Hundreds were missing. The route to Sibulan, where I lived, was clear. When I got home, my neighborhood was untouched, but no one had power or water. My neighbors said that dozens of families left homeless by the storm were holed up at the town quadrangle. I walked down to see them and was stunned at how normal everyone looked. Several mothers were strolling back and forth across the stage happily bouncing infants in their arms. They waved and smiled when they saw me. A handful of barefooted kids ran up and greeted me. Surely these couldn’t be the victims.

When I asked, they said they had lost their homes and everything in it, including their pets. They hadn’t even escaped with their sandals. On the steps of the municipal hall, our harried-looking vice-mayor in shorts and T-shirt was conferring with aides. Soon, bottled water and packets of sandals from the market arrived. The kids and adults scrambled to grab a pair, throwing them on the ground to measure their sizes and compare colors. Many were left without a pair. Another trip to the market was ordered.

I learned that my principal’s house was flooded and he was holed up with his family in his office. My coteacher’s house was inundated with mud, and she was staying with relatives. One of my former host families had to scramble to save their valuables as a river of debris roared out of the rice paddy behind their house (and my old bedroom) and into their property.

More than 1,000 were dead.

On the way home I stopped at my friend Nick’s house to see how he and his family were doing. They were heading to Dumaguete to borrow some water from a relative. I told them the highway was flooded and they may not get through. They said they had no choice. In spite of that, he invited me to our tennis club’s Christmas party that evening. I knew he wasn’t serious.

I returned home and read for a while under candlelight. Then it started to pour. Then it got serious. It was coming down harder than I thought it was possible for rain to come down.

Nick texted me and said he was ready. He had been serious. It wasn’t raining cats and dogs, it was raining cows and caribous. The party was potluck, he said, so I scraped together some leftover spaghetti, grabbed my umbrella, flicked on my flashlight, and headed out into the monsoon. The sky was raven black, the street a river. I met Nick at his gate, and he was waiting for me in shorts and sandals. Unreal. We sloshed through the downpour to the party.

Everybody was there, relaxed on the host’s marble porch under flickering candlelight, drinking Tanduay rum, and arguing over the big story of the moment – not the typhoon but the impending impeachment of a Supreme Court justice – while the host’s wife and helpers prepared our potluck dishes.

As my head reeled at their ease at putting the rain and calamity behind them, I politely asked them what was it about Filipinos that gave them such strength to seemingly treat misfortune as a mere nuisance.

“Our faith sustains us,” one said. Nods all around.

Another added, “As a people, we’re cheerful, untroubled, no matter what happens.”

That reminded me of an incident earlier in my service after an earthquake had hit one of the islands. As a TV crew interviewed survivors, bystanders behind them jumped up and down, waved, and smiled at the camera.

“Why be sad?” a third said. “We’re hopeful. Always looking forward. It’s our nature.”

As an example, he described a call he got the day before when the typhoon was lashing the town the hardest. Floodwaters near the house of a policeman he knew suddenly surged down his street. As it rushed toward his home, he ran inside to alert his family. But he didn’t want to panic his mother because she had a serious heart condition. Such a shock could be lethal. So instead of shouting, “A flood is coming! Grab your things and run!” he sang softly to them:

“The flood is coming, so grab your things. Take my hand, and we’ll be all right. La-la-la-la-la.”

The Philippines will be all right.

Anybody flying to Rio de Janeiro in February must be either ill-advised or coming for Carnival. I’m in the latter category, but when I step from the plane into a 99-degree blast furnace — and realize it’s only 7:30 in the morning — I figure I probably qualify for the former group as well.

My second revelation comes during the 30-minute bus ride into town when I discover Rio isn’t all the scenic jewel it’s cracked up to be. The route winds through an urban squalor of rancid-smelling mills, smoke-belching warehouses, and dreary dockyards. Everywhere steep hills and volcanic bluffs jut abruptly from the earth, with grimy streets and alleys snaking into their desolate contours. The roads, I’m told, lead to samba country.

As our tourist bus approaches the heart of downtown, I catch a glimpse of Mount Corcovado — the most celebrated hunchback this side of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame — and the majestic Christ the Redeemer that crowns it. From its lofty position 2,300 feet above Rio, the 125-foot-high statue is visible from anywhere in the city.

Before I can savor the effect, however, Rio’s other famous landmark, Sugarloaf, pops into view. The football-shaped hulk looms peacefully above the myriad pleasure boats anchored at its feet in Botafogo Bay, and a tiny aerial cable car inches across the sky toward its summit.

There’s one more spectacle to come. Suddenly we’re whisked into a tunnel decorated inside and out with colorful Carnival streamers, then shoot out into a hedonistic panorama that evokes a gasp from the passengers — Copacabana Beach.

A vast carpet of gold powder sweeps across my view like a LeRoy Neiman brushstroke, then disappears into a hazy horizon. Great hotel columns of granite, steel, and glass pierce the sand and wall off the oasis from the rest of the city. Brown bodies pepper the sandscape, kept at bay by monstrous waves that pound the shore sensuously.

At 8 a.m., Copacabana is hustling. It may be a beach community, but it’s far from laid back. Serious-looking joggers sweat by, definitely not “Have a nice day” types. Beach vendors selling ice-cold drinks trudge through the hot sand, already weary from their early-morning routes (the first of Rio’s beachgoers arrive at dawn). Wiry Adonises put on a Muscle Beach-style show for the tourists with weights, bars, and rings, and a bevy of shapely tanga-stringed young women skip across the street, provoking a chorus of horns and whistles from passing cars.

It’s just another day in Rio, where having fun and looking good is serious business.

Our passenger dropoffs begin with the Meridien, a skyscrapter of glass and marble that looks more like it belongs in Manhattan. Next is the Rio Palace, complete with its own shopping center. Then comes the Nacional, a cylinder of glass at the far end of Barra de Tijuca that was the first major hotel built outside Copacabana’s tourist mecca. Next is the Ouro Verde, a tranquil Swiss-run hostelry that many consider one of the world’s finest small hotels. And for those who prefer a historical landmark — one that’s been de rigueur for the international social set since the ’20s — there’s the grand Copacabana Palace.

I’ve opted for the modest Excelsior next door to the Palace because it’s a bargain. Upon arrival, though, I see why it’s so inexpensive. The lobby is small and chaotic, the desk clerks are forever dim and confused, and my promised “ocean view” is of the hotel next door. (Actually, to be fair, I can see the ocean if I lean out far enough from my balcony.)

Following check-in and a quick change, I’m ready for the beach. “Get a tan fast so you don’t stand out,” advised my travel agent. I don’t mind exposing my paleness; what I hate is exposing so much of it. In Rio, American droopy swim trunks are verboten. Here the rule is tangas (micro-string bikinis) for women and Speedos for men.

As I dart swiftly across the street (partly due to modesty, partly due to the fear of being run over by overzealous cabbies), I head for the sand and join a legion of similarly clad beachgoers, none of whom seem nearly as self-conscious as I.

The celebrated flesh parade on Rio’s Copacabana and Ipanema beaches isn’t hype. Body talk is the only language spoken; look good and show it off are the only rules. So be forewarned: If you’re offended by such exhibitionism, stay clear of these two R-rated strands.

But don’t worry. Rio boasts more beaches than you could visit in a month, and others are more like home (dress-wise). The previously mentioned praia at Botafogo Bay, plus the neighboring Flamengo, back up to a gorgeous emerald-green park — perfect for a pre-Carnival picnic. Past Ipanema are the outlying South Zone beaches, well blessed with gentle breezes blowing in from the Tijuca Forest. At one of them, Pepino, you’re sure to spot colorful “birdmen” hang-gliding from majestic Gávea Rock above it. Farther on is the 11-mile stretch of Barra de Tijuca, which resembles California’s elite Malibu coastline. Finally, if you’re a stargazer, you can mingle among the celebrities and super-rich at the St. Tropez-like resorts of Cabo Frio and Búzios two hours away by car.

Getting around Rio is quick and easy. Taxis are cheap (if you make sure the driver uses a meter) and plentiful, and most everything worth seeing is close to everything else. Avoid the buses, however; their routes are difficult to fathom and are a favorite milieu for pickpockets.

After a two-hour bake on the sand, I cool off at a sidewalk cafe with a caipirinha, the potent elixir made from cachaça (sugar-cane liquor), green lemon, and sugar. It tastes like sweetened tequila and goes down like lighter fluid — the perfect cure for jet lag. As I relax under my table’s umbrella shade, I surrender to a warm Atlantic breeze and listen to the drumbeat of a distant samba. In Rio, especially close to Carnival, the samba is heard everywhere, a constant reminder of the celebration to come.

An immense potbelly with a man attached thrusts a hairy arm at me; on it perch two baby monkeys the size of tennis balls. They’re for sale, but the man makes no sales pitch; his creatures’ watery eyes do that for him. When I express only mild curiosity, he moves to the next table.

He’s followed almost immediately by a mini-parade of characters that’s almost as bizarre as the real parade that climaxes Carnival week: a legless beggar on a pushcart, a vendor selling fluorescent yo-yos, a transvestite pushing another in a baby carriage, three ladies of the evening working the day shift, and a boy who tosses a handful of peanuts on each table, then disappears.

“They’re samples,” says a voice beside me. “You don’t have to buy.”

I turn to see a middle-aged man at the next table. Sporting a polo shirt, white Bermudas, and a trace of sunburn on his nose, he looks American. But his accent confirms he’s Brazilian. When I offer him some peanuts, he waves them off. “Nao obrigado, they’re old,” he says. “He’ll come back with fresh ones. Those you buy.”

His name is Pasqual and he’s up from São Paulo for the big parade. “You’re going, aren’t you?” he asks hesitantly, fearful I may have overlooked it. I assure him I am.

He’s a loan officer for Citibank, and he chuckles when he learns I’m from Los Angeles. “Here it is the same, no? The sun, the beach…the women.” Then he frowns and shakes his head. “I work in São Paulo — all work, no play.”

Sensing a little jealousy, I ask if there’s much love lost between Rio and São Paulo. He grins slyly. “No more than between L.A. and New York, no?”

Our conversation is interrupted by shrill whistles and a deep rumble of drums. Like an enormous Chinese dragon, a column of T-shirted and bikinied revelers sways around the corner, waving banners and dancing to the same incessant beat I’ve been hearing all day.

“Samba school,” Pasqual shrugs matter-of-factly. “Small one.”

Small one? It fills the street and stretches as far as I can see. Café patrons break out in song, hands pound on tabletops, bystanders stand up and dance. Traffic stops to let the promenade cross the narrow intersection (it’s the only thing traffic stops for in Rio). The procession, gaining new recruits, heads for the beach.

“Samba fever has begun,” Pasqual nods. “It is nearly time.”

For first-time visitors to Rio, Carnival — the annual four-day frolic that precedes Lent — may appear to be staged for tourists and TV cameras. But its real audience, and its participants, come from high atop the humpbacked peaks where the city’s poor, its heart and soul, reside in vast clapboard eyesores called favelas — matchstick shantytowns that harbor a virtual no-man’s-land of poverty, crime, and passion. This is where the samba was born. Where Carnival began. Where Rio carved its name.

By evening I’m ravenous. Changing into a sport shirt and cotton slacks (standard Rio supper attire for men; women wear light cotton dresses), I leave the hotel. In the street, small boys wearing Halloween masks and holding balloons on long strings chase girls through the teeming crowd, slamming the balloons on the pavement with loud pops. Outrageous transvestites, always a hit at Carnival, prance boldly down the alley showing off their fantasias, or costumes. Elderly American tourists in polyester slacks and Hawaiian shirts fill the Avenida Atlântica and take in the show — unaware that for many, they are the show.

I ask an English couple waiting for a tour bus where I can sample Brazil’s legendary beef. Mariu’s they both exclaim, surprised I don’t already know. They’re on their way to the “Rio By Night” tour (one guidebook says it’s “so bad you’ll leave early”). I head for dinner hoping their choice of restaurants is better.

I’m fortunate. They know their beef. Mariu’s, a two-story establishment overlooking the beach, is one of Rio’s famous barbecue steakhouses called churrascarias that are inexpensive and as prevalent as McDonald’s. But there the similarity ends.

Crisp-coated waiters with enormous skewers glide among the tables continuously slicing an endless array of charcoal-broiled meats: filet mignon, pork, sausage, chicken, roast beef, ribs, lamb, etc. onto your plate. Along with all that you get hors d’ouvres, rolls, vegetables, rice topped with spicy tomatoes and onions, and cold chopp, Brazil’s excellent draft beer.

There’s more to Rio dining than barbecue, of course. The city also boasts five-star international restaurants featuring everything from French to Russian to Vietnamese to Italian cuisines. Brazilian fare, however, is the main event. One specialty on everyone’s list should be feijoada, the traditional soup of black beans, jerked meats, sausages, farofa with cracklings, sliced oranges, and kale. Beware, though: After indulging, don’t plan to do anything else the rest of the day because it induces a blissful stupor that lasts for hours.

All these superb eateries notwithstanding, my favorites are Avenida Atlântic’s sidewalk cafés. A sudden squall one day sends me scurrying inside one for cover and, having nothing else to do, I ask for a menu. It features one of the best selections of pizzas I’ve ever seen. Not only are the pizza and accompanying Brazilian wine delicious but the peach melba with raspberry sauce draws me back four more times.

Arriving this close to the Carnival parade is like going to London during Wimbledon week: Nothing else is on anyone’s mind or lips. Understand, the parade is no mere annual march down a boulevard; it’s the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the World Cup rolled into one — with Fellini as the commissioner. The drawback, I’d been told, is that everything stops during this period — shops, services, the works. Not true. In fact, I use the time to take in the city’s other renowned attractions.

I take the cog railway to the top of Corcovado (once during the day for the view; once at sunset for the lights). If you’re a camera buff, you’ll be hardpressed to find a more spectacular vista anywhere in the world. I haggle for bargains along Ipanema’s sidewalk arts-and-crafts fair (every Sunday). Brazil’s leather goods are superb, and good wallets can be had for a steal. Of course, the nation that produces 65 percent of the world’s colored gemstones offers myriad bargains in that area. I find a carving of a toucan for $20. One shopping caveat: locally made clothing features magnificent handiwork, but the materials used to put them together are often inferior.

I shop for a ball costume downtown. For many, these lavish parties are the only attraction during Carnival week, with tickets ranging from $100 and up. But after talking to a few tourists who’ve been to one, I decide to pass. The idea of being squeezed like a sardine all night in a giant sauna-like warehouse isn’t too appealing. Too bad no soccer games are on tap this week. At Maracaña, the world’s largest stadium (180,000 capacity), the notoriously rabid fans have to be separated from the players by a nine-foot moat.

I ferry to lovely Paquetá Island thirty minutes away, rent a bike, and sample some of the island’s warm-water coves. At dusk I hop a horse-drawn surrey and clip-clop along the cobblestones. Later, back in Rio, I splurge for the Plataforma I showgirl nightclub. You won’t leave early from this one, I guarantee you.

I stroll through Old Rio downtown, admiring its baroque and belle époque architecture, its many churches and museums. I hire a car and follow the winding road through the Tijuca rainforest, stopping to chase turquoise butterflies the size of small birds. I take a hike and watch sloths hanging from trees and a secret macumba voodoo-like ceremony at the foot of a waterfall.

But all this is just a prelude to the three-day binge of parades that start Carnival off with a bang each year — and make any other procession you’ve witnessed look like a kazoo band.

Actually, there are three official parades during Carnival. The first highlights the smaller, Class 1-B samba schools (the “schools” are actually social clubs) and isn’t all that great. Either of the final two parades, however, is a must. Each pits eight giant Class 1-A schools against each other in a “can you top this” marathon that runs all day and night. After 48 hours of this, an overall champion emerges. Schools are judged in nine categories: theme, song, floats, choreography, band, etc.

Viewing sites range from unreserved seats on hot concrete (sit where you can and stay put or lose your place) costing less than $100 to posh VIP lounges that can set you back several thousand. (Don’t buy your tickets back home before your trip; there are plenty of outlets in Rio whose prices are much lower than a U.S. travel agent’s.)

At 6 p.m. on the final day, I buy the cheapest ticket available and head for the mammoth Sambadrome downtown. I arrive 90 minutes before the first school is to start and immediately wish I’d come sooner. It’s party time! Long lines wait to get in but nobody seems to mind. Music is playing, people are dancing, and everyone’s wearing the colors or insignia of their favorite school.

No great festival begins without a traditional prelude to rev up the participants and spectators. The Indy 500’s “Gentlemen, start your engines!” is like a shot of 100-proof adrenaline. The playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” induces as many goosebumps as the Kentucky Derby that follows it. And, of course, the whole world feels the electricity when the giant torch is ignited to open the Olympic Games.

Such a moment is when Carnival spectators spy the first samba school at the head of the runway, when the lead float is wheeled into position, when the waves of colorful dancers stand poised like lathered Thoroughbreds, and when the first boom of the drums sets them off. To paraphrase author Albert Goldman: It’s the one chance every participant has to grab the brass ring, to rise above his or her dreary world, and — by virtue of a fancy step, a gorgeous costume, or a fabulous body — to become Cinderella for one glorious night. “You have 45 minutes to cut your name in asphalt.”

A tunnel of floodlights illuminates the pavement. A riot of streamers, flags, and banners bearing all the schools’ colors line the grandstands. At the far end of the runway, a three-story castle is pushed into starting position. Parade marshals dart about like worker ants, exhorting everyone and ensuring each line is in order. A wave of green headdresses bobs behind the float followed by a field of yellow capes, a sea of pink feathers, a sweep of blue topcoats.

For one eerie instant the entire ensemble freezes in place. The crowd hushes. I blink and look around me. Am I imagining this surreal moment? Then just as abruptly, a toe-tapping samba crackles from a hundred loudspeakers, the rainbow horizon shudders to life, and the audience rises as one. The contest has begun.

Fifteen hours later, I’m still in my seat. Only five of the eight schools have passed me. I’ve watched the sun set and rise. My eyes feel like burst glass, my back’s a gnarled knot, my head’s the inside of a drum. But there’s something about Carnival that makes you want to endure the ordeal along with the exhausted and sweat-soaked participants.

The next school, São Clemente, is upon me. The floats that depict its theme (the difficulty of owning a home in Brazil) look like a Hollywood set designer’s dream: gigantic Disneyesque turtles, winking snails, and robotic crabs (that carry their homes with them) scuttle toward us accompanied by dancing fairies and marsh maidens. Courtesans wave from iron-lacework-balconied brothels, inmates frolic around prison tower maypoles, raggedy bums samba with garbage cans, and gypsies dance alone (they have no homes). Then come Cavemen and Indians and Sailors and Conquistadors and Richfolk. And Caves and Treehouses and Bars and Ships and Wedding Cakes. My head is exploding. Finally, a solitary old man enters his final home, a huge casket, followed by a depiction of heaven and hell that would put most Las Vegas revues to shame.

It’s hard to notice individuals, the mass is so overwhelming, but one lone female dancer exemplifies what Carnival is all about. Drenched with sweat and wearing nothing but a sequined G-string, she shimmies past in a sort of drunken stumble, nearly delirious from heat and fatigue, her face a glistening testament to gutty perseverance. A TV cameraman beckons her over. Exhausted, she serves away, wanting no more demanding lenses. Then, as if remembering where she is and what she’s there to do, she veers back toward him, stops, and gives one last bump-and-grind. Pandemonium! A new heroine has been consecrated.

Unfortunately, the commotion draws the attention of the school’s marshal who rushes over, pushes the dancer roughly back inline, and admonishes her for risking a point deduction. The crowd explodes with wrath, booing and cursing the man. This is Carnival! Who cares about awards if there’s no art, no glory, no passion!

Next is São Clemente’s grand finale, its bateria, the 300-man percussion band that’s the heartbeat of every samba school. Legends tell of drummers so swept away during their 45-minute stomp that afterward their hands and instruments are bloodstained.

I believe it. These jack-hammer drill teams are maestros of clatter, conductors of racket, virtuosos of LOUD. How loud? Like the heart of an enormous beast, the pounding, gyrating, palpitating ensemble pumps its way down the street — faintly at first, intensifying as the parade advances, and then overwhelming everything in its path.

As the clanking, scraping tin monster thumps past, the spectators jump and pound with it, surging from their seats in a frenzy of rapture, thrusting their arms upward and shouting the ultimate accolade: “Ja ganhou!” (“You’ve got it won!”) The band passes, the thunder recedes, and I collapse. Two more schools or no, I’m going to my hotel and sleep for a week. Besides, no other club could beat this one if it paraded on its hands.

I’m wrong. São Clemente, competing in the Class 1-A category for the first time, finishes well out of the money. I miss the winner, which followed. Next time, I’m staying to the end, no matter what.

Most professions, with the possible exception of selling aluminum siding, have their glamour niche. If you’re a doctor, it could be alternative medicine. If you’re a computer programmer, it’s games. And if you’re a writer, it’s a travel assignment.

But not every writer can master the travel genre. You have to have an eye for it. A good travel writer, like a professional photographer, finds stories in the details, in the shadows, in the mundane. Marcel Proust said it best: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In this article, I will show you 10 ways to zoom in all of your senses so you’ll return from every trip brimming with travel-story ideas.

1. Foreigners say the darndest things.
Every journey will bring you in contact with a blizzard of waiters, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, shopkeepers, etc. Most of us ignore these individuals because they’re commonplace. Big mistake. Often, such people are the story.

While on a boat trip into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam a few years ago, our tour guide approached me during a quiet moment. I already knew what he was going to ask me (“Are you married?”) because my guidebook said that the very family-oriented Vietnamese always this question first.

Unfortunately, I was divorced, which to the Vietnamese is scandalous. “You’d be better off claiming your former spouse died,” the manual advised. So, rather than offend the man, I killed off my ex-wife. I was asked this question everywhere I went. By the end of the trip, I couldn’t wait return and tell my ex all the things I’d done to her.

But instead of dismissing these conversations, I wrote an amusing story about them, which became my most successful travel article ever. It appeared in the Sunday travel sections of The Washington Post, Newsday, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (with the first two waging a bidding contest for the rights to run it first) and was chosen as the lead piece in Not So Funny When It Happened: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure (Travelers’ Tales, 2000).

2. Trouble happens.
If you ever get into trouble while traveling (and who doesn’t?), don’t grumble about it. You just made a sale.

I was strolling down a tree-lined promenade in Havana a few years ago when I struck up a conversation with four kids playing soccer. A Cuban policeman, thinking we were talking politics, asked for my passport and visa. “They’re at my hotel,” I said. This was not the correct answer.

Within minutes, two squad cars arrived with a half-dozen more patrolmen. The kids and I were taken downtown to the infamous police headquarters where former dictator Fulgencio Batista used to greet visitors like us with fingernail clamps and testicle squeezers.

Although the thought crossed my mind that it wouldn’t take much for some prison guard having a really bad day to suddenly have a Batista flashback, I wasn’t scared. In fact, I was ecstatic. I was in trouble and had a story. The kids and I were released an hour later, and the instant I returned home, I asked the travel editor of The Washington Post if she’d be interested in my tale. Was she ever! She’d just put her annual Caribbean issue to bed, but because the story was so timely, she tore up the entire section to make room for it. So, you got troubles? Don’t get even; get a byline instead.

3. Custom-made stories.
Knowing local history can be priceless to a travel writer. The more regional color you can weave into your stories, the more editors will want them.

I once won a free trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. I planned to just relax, not write a travel story — until a golf partner made an offhand remark that changed my mind. The main hazards on the course were rocklike lava formations, which he said were the domain of Madam Pele, the island’s volcano goddess. “If Pele likes you, she’ll kick your ball back onto the fairway,” he said. “If she doesn’t, she’ll keep it.”

What bunk, I thought. But just to be safe, I bought an extra half-dozen golf balls. On the first tee, I joked that I hoped the goddess’s brother, the Brazilian soccer star, was doing well in retirement. Hey, she either had a sense of humor or she didn’t.

By the time I finally staggered off the first green, my partner had birdied, I had sextuple-bogeyed, and I had only one golf ball left in my bag. Madam Pele does not have a sense of humor.

The good news was, I had a story. “Golfing with Madam Pele” was sold to a sports and fitness website. Thank goodness its editor had a sense of humor.

4. Accidental discoveries.
Never underestimate the importance of happenstance. Taking the wrong fork in the road will always reward an alert travel writer.

On a trip to Bangkok, my travel partner and I signed up for the famous floating market tour. When we showed up for the popular tourist attraction, the dock was deserted except for a lone boatman. “You want to go on river…today?” he said, aghast. “This is first day of Songkran — Thai New Year!”

We looked at each other and shrugged. “Cool, no problem.” The boatman pleaded with us to reconsider, but we told him it was our only free day. Within minutes after shoving off, we discovered why the man had been so reluctant. During Songkran, the entire country turns into a perpetual water fight. So far the next two hours, a joyous mob of sadists bombarded our boat from the riverbanks with water balloons, fire hoses, and buckets. It was the most exciting calamity I have ever experienced — and a unique travel yarn that was sold to the Los Angeles Times for its annual special section devoted to travel disasters.

5. Journeys to the heart.
Editors and readers love stories that tug at their emotions. Life happens all around us, and it’s our job as journalists to find emotional moments and turn them into unforgettable stories.

The first time I visited Hong Kong, I took a ferry to nearby Lantau, a tranquil island of monasteries and walking trails. I had read somewhere that the sunsets from the hilltops facing the South China Sea were so spectacular that many people buried their loved ones there so their souls would face the view for all eternity.

As the ferry unloaded, everyone stepped around a seriously injured dog on the pier that appeared to be dying. I couldn’t get the poor thing out of my mind the rest of the day as I trekked across the island toward the fabled hills. I approached one summit just as the sun was setting and noticed something lying across the trail.

It was the dog.

Wheezing in tiny yelps of pain, it was gazing at the brilliant sunset. I was dumbstruck. How had it gotten there? How had it beaten me there? And most important, had it gone there because it wanted that inspiring view to be the last thing it saw, too? I’ve been noodling with this tale for years and haven’t gotten it right yet. But I know when I finally do, it’s gonna make people weep.

6. When in Wales.
After you’ve made a few sales, tourist boards may call you with enticing offers. But before you grab that free trip and run, make sure the story idea is right for you or you may find it difficult to sell when you get back.

Several years ago, the Wales Tourist Board invited me to attend a literary festival. I politely declined. “I’m a travel humor writer, not a reporter,” I told them. “But if you come up with something that might elicit some laughs, I’d be glad to go.”

They called back a week later. “OK, how’d you like to be a Welshman for a week — sing in a male-voice choir, spend a day in a coal mine, take a Welsh lesson, go bog snorkeling, herd sheep with a sheepdog, that sort of thing?”

The idea was so brilliant, I could not only see the article, I could see the book. The three-week adventure garnered my biggest sales to date: a $4,000 check from National Geographic Traveler (which changed format shortly afterward and never ran it) and after that a $3,000 check from Islands (whose editor left shortly afterward and never ran it either). I’m currently shopping for a third publication — and check.

7. Ordinary people.
Need I say it? Observing people when you travel is Rule No. 1. Watch how the locals cross the street, smoke a cigarette, order food, sell their wares. You never know when a gem will fall into your lap.

While taking a ferry across the Mekong River in Vietnam, I witnessed the most effective begging technique I have ever seen in my life — from a 7-year-old girl. With the tenacity of a pit bull, she withstood all attempts — physical and otherwise — from the tourists on the boat to get her to cease her incessant, monotoned, broken-record “You give  me money” demand.

That was enough for a story right there. But what made the incident especially noteworthy was that she met her match that day from an elderly Swiss woman who resisted with such herculean resolve that their 30-minute duel became a classic.

It’s too bad that no one else saw it. Everyone was minding their own business. I, on the other hand, was taking notes. Guess who’ll get the story?

8. Trading places.
Most travel writing is about places: cities, hotels, restaurants, clubs, etc. Publications constantly need new info on the hottest tapas bar in Hamburg, the sexiest spa in Cabo, the hippest shop in Buenos Aires. The best way is to ask locals and expats about their secret hideaways. The operative word is secret. You’re looking for places that aren’t touristy yet — but will be.

Years ago, when I was stationed in Tokyo in the Army, I was taken to an underground club called Dracula that only a few people knew about. It was like no other place I have ever seen. It was a combination restaurant/haunted house/fraternity party where literally every object in the place — walls, ceilings, tables, chairs, drinks, food, waiters — was a jack-in-the-box trap.

You didn’t go there to eat; you went there to lose your cookies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a writer then, and the club no longer exists. So I lost out on that opportunity. But that’s the kind of place travel publications will pay dearly to discover for their readers — with your help, of course.

9. Beyond the predictable.
What do you do if nothing out of the ordinary happens? You try and try to find a story but just come up empty? Sometimes, despite using all the tips above, a trip will stymie you.

That happened to me on an African safari. Everything I saw was a cliche: lions sleeping, elephants walking, Masai warriors jumping. No editor wants a standard safari experience. Then I remembered something I’d told a fellow traveler on our first day. I’d said, “I hope something semi-dangerous happens to us.” She and the others in our van had replied politely, no offense, but we do not want something semi-dangerous to happen to us.

The phrase became the running joke for the rest of the trip because semi-dangerous things began happening to us at a fairly rapid clip after that. Elephants and a cape buffalo charged us, hyenas peered into our tents at night, a leopard attacked a baboon in the middle of our camp.

What ultimately sold my piece was our running joke, which I made the spine of my story. The resulting $1,000 sale to The Washington Post was entitled “Game Plan: He wanted a different kind of safari. He got it.”

10. The wrong place at the write time.
The joy of travel writing is that you get to work in exotic locales. And if you’re lucky, the setting and circumstances can turn a fabulous story into the stuff of legend.

The year: 1969. The place: the lobby of the Manila Hotel. A Filipino man introduces himself and asks if I’m a GI. Yes. I have a job for you. What kind of job? Meet me tomorrow night at Malacanang Palace (the official residence of President Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos).

The next night I show up at the mansion, am escorted to a dressing room, and am told to change into one of the mock blood-stained World War II uniforms hanging on a rack. I’m given a plastic rifle and led to a stage set up to look like the Battle of Bataan, complete with barbed wire, machine gun nests, sand, and coconut trees. Other GIs and Filipinos mill around, similarly dressed. A curtain separates us from a ballroom filled with hundreds of dignitaries.

The Filipino man reappears and carefully positions each of us (I’m instructed to stand and point my rifle toward the audience). We will be the backdrop during the playing of the national anthems of both countries. We are not to move. Moments before the program begins, a Secret Service agent comes backstage and checks each of our weapons to ensure we haven’t switched our plastic guns for the real thing.

As the opening notes of The Star-Spangled Banner are heard and the curtain opens, my knees buckle. It’s not because of the anthem but because my rifle is aimed at the forehead of the person being feted that evening: President Richard M. Nixon.

Now that’s a story. And no one’s ever going to have it but me. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken a shot at an adventure. So what happened to the story? I’m saving that for my memoir.

The Writer (June 2003)

From entrepreneurs looking for deals to veterans seeking closure to travelers discovering the next new paradise, everyone’s heading back to ‘Nam these days.

With its mountain tribes and misty bays, its pristine beaches, its verdant countryside, its rivers and deltas teeming with commerce and romance, and its cities and towns alive with culture and electricity, Vietnam is colonial France wrapped around an American flag atop an Asian dragon inside the pages of a Graham Greene novel.

Contributor John Wood served in the Army there during the Vietnam conflict. He returned recently to answer this question for us: How can a visitor best get the full Vietnam experience? “It’s not in a cramped bus, a rickety train, or a wheezing Russian plane,” he says. “Get around the way the locals do: by cyclo, boat, raft, bike, and foot.”

Cyclo Confessions
One of the best ways to mingle with the people — among the most gregarious in the world — is to hop on a cyclo (pronounced “seek-low”), a three-wheeled rickshaw attached to the front of a bicycle. Because the vehicles move slowly, you can observe the people and street life in much greater detail than if whizzing by in a taxi. In addition, many cyclo drivers are former South Vietnamese soldiers who speak English, so you’ll be deluged with questions about America.

Water Wanderings
To visit Hanoi and not take the obligatory side trip to explore the eighth wonder of the world, Halong Bay, would be like going to Las Vegas and not setting foot inside a casino. The crystal-clear gulf contains literally thousands of skyscraper-sized limestone caves, islands, and karst sculptures that look like they were carved by Wes Craven.

Or you can hire a boat and tour the pagodas and Royal Mausoleums along the Perfume River in Hue. While you’re inspecting one of the temples, your boatman will buy chicken, fish, and vegetables in town, cook them on your boat, and serve them as you re-board. At night, don’t forget to return to the waterfront for a moonlight cruise where beautiful Vietnamese girls will serenade you with ancient love ballads.

In Saigon, rise at dawn, take a cyclo to Kim Café, down a hearty breakfast of strawberry French toast, bacon, and hot chocolate, and sign up for a two-day floating tour of the Mekong Delta.

When you reach the bustling river hub of Can Tho, board a long boat for a glide into its exotic world of floating markets and stunning vistas. One moment you’re in Tahiti; the next, Africa; the next, the Amazon.

And everyone on or along the river will wave and smile. “Many people, upon seeing us, would scramble around shouting and rush down underneath to the hull of their boats, bring up an infant, and wave one of the baby’s hands at us,” John said. “Along the river banks, children would scream ‘Hellooo!’ and run after us until they could not run another step, waving all the time. And they wouldn’t stop waving until we were out of sight. We stopped a couple of times to visit people’s homes, and tiny tots would just come up, take our hands, and walk with us. And people wonder why I live Vietnam so.”

Rafting Rapture
Two vivid rafting memories: About 70 miles south of Hanoi near the town of Hoa Lu, beetlenut-chewing mama-sans will scissor-oar you in tiny skiffs down Hoang Long River, one of the most jaw-dropping waterways in the world because you meander through neon-green rice paddies and caves among the same limestone outcrops that distinguish Halong Bay.

And in Can Tho one evening, John and a German foursome were walking along the waterfront when a swarm of female sampan owners beckoned them for a river ride. They didn’t see the point since the night was pitch black. But they eventually agreed on a half-hour trip (75 cents each).

“It was one of those marvelous moments you least expect,” John said. “We lay back against the side of the boat, lost in our own thoughts, and swayed to the strokes of the oars. A cool breeze wafted over us. It was so dark and quiet that every star and sound was amplified. Dogs barked at one another from opposite sides of the river. A karaoke tune echoed from some distant bar. Kids did cannonballs into the river somewhere far back in the jungle. Fishermen floated by silently laying their nets. And the Big Dipper popped out the of sky as brightly as if someone had switched it on.”

Bicycle Bravado
“Excuse me, sir.”

John braked his bike and turned around. Poised on a bicycle on the dirt road a few feet away was a silhouette so stunning, he didn’t believe it at first: a lovely young woman in jeans, T-shirt, and long hair below her waist that snapped in the breeze like a horse’s tail.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“America.”

“Oh joy! I was wondering, could I ride with you? I would enjoy an opportunity to practice my English.”

John had heard that the women of Hue are the prettiest and friendliest in Vietnam, but he didn’t think it would take less than an hour after arriving to confirm it.

Another ideal place to bike is Hanoi because of its many lakes and shady, tree-lined boulevards. The social heart of the city is Hoan Kiem Lake, where residents practice tai chi in the foggy mornings and play badminton in the cool afternoons.

But the best spot in Vietnam to bike is through the historic waterfront of Hoi An, a composite of Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, French, and Portuguese influence that will have you gaping at every pastel-colored building, funky art gallery, and postcard-framed alleyway.

Walking Wonderland
Saigon is a walker’s dream. If you want to relive history, head down fabled Dong Khoi Street. Known as Rue Catinat during the French colonial period, it was the Champs Élysées of its day, sporting the latest French fashions. In the ’60s it was renamed Tu Do street and became one of the most infamous red light districts in Asia. Today it’s a great place to window shop and eat.

Another great stroll is along the harbor. John ambled along the waterfront one afternoon and came upon two women adorned in ao dais, the traditional Vietnamese dress. They posed for a picture, a conversation ensued, and within moments, a crowd had formed. One young boy offered to translate, cyclo drivers rushed over from their pedicabs to ask questions, and elderly couples looked on in amusement. Eventually the entire throng moved across the street to take over a restaurant for an afternoon of animated conversation.

His most memorable saunter, however, took place inside the mammoth Ben Thanh Market. The main action is in the market’s rear, or “wet” portion, where every imaginable food is offered — especially if you like it live and wriggling.

“As I passed through, I noticed a gaggle of women having a rip-roaring time chopping off fish heads,” John said. “I’d never associated chopping off fish heads with a rip-roaring time before, but these women were having one.”

He  said hello in Vietnamese, and that was all it took to make him the subject of a howling tug-of-war that soon encompassed the entire fish market.

“I vaguely remember somebody dragging a middle-aged woman from the crowd and introducing her to me at some point,” John recalled. “But I was having such a grand time, nodding yes to whatever they were saying and causing cries of delight each time, that I didn’t realize until it was too late that the conversation had become more urgent and strident. And that all of a sudden they were really, really trying to communicate something very, very important to me.”

Two women finally got up, linked each other’s arms, and pointed to John and the middle-aged woman. When John finally realized what was happening, he bowed gracefully, mimicked taking a ring out of his pocket, took the woman’s left hand in his, and pretended to place the ring on her finger. The place erupted.

“I blew her a kiss, waved them all goodbye,” John said, “then hightailed it down the nearest labyrinth of stalls to a hail of laughter.”

Lesson: Always wear a wedding ring while shopping at Ben Thanh lest you be lassoed into an arranged marriage.

*     *     *

Rudy Maxa’s Traveler (February 2001)

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