Red Rock

Long before the Blue Zone, Ikaria was known in Greece as the Red Rock.

At the book store in Evdilos. Ikaria: the “Red Rock”

It’s doesn’t get its nickname from the geology, but from its left-leaning politics.

A power vacuum in Greece after World War II led to the 1946-1949 Greek Civil War between the government army and the military branch of Greece’s communist party, the KKE. With the help of the US and the UK, the government won the war. What to do with all those communists after the war? Arrest them and send them places far, far, away where they can’t cause any trouble… like Ikaria!

Over the course of the 1950s more than 13,000 leftists were exiled on Ikaria, more than doubling the island’s post-war population. Greece didn’t offer much assistance with feeding and housing these people, but Ikarians are resourceful and communists are willing to pitch in. An unintended consequence of the government’s plan was that Ikarians became communist themselves. And it stuck: according to one source, around 75% of Ikarians belong either to the communist KKE or one of the radical left parties.

Since we were on the island on May Day we thought we’d check out the Workers Day celebrations.

The event started at a small park in upper Evdilos. People gathered along the road across from a monument memorializing three Ikarian communists who were part of the anti-Nazi underground. The three were executed by the government in Athens during WWII. Songs of protest played on a loudspeaker. A woman read the history of the events of leading to the death of the three men. Children put flowers on the monument and an elegiac poem was read.

Everyone moved down the hill to the harbor for more music, more poems, and a lot more history.

It was interesting and colorful, but eventually the novelty wore off for this non-Greek speaker. Lucky for us, the cooks at the gyro shop didn’t take this workers’ day off.

We saw this poster for the All-Workers Militant Front in mainland Greece. The red shape in the center is meant to be a flag, but it bears a certain resemblance to a place we know.

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On the morning we arrived in Agios Kyrikos some colorful posters caught our eye.

The text says “Teatro Skion – Sokratis Kotsores; we will eat, we will drink, and fasting we will sleep.” All Greek to me (as they say), but Andreas immediately recognized the character in the illustrations as Karagiozis, star of Greek folklore and shadow puppet tradition.

There is a good website that covers the history of Karagiozis shadow puppet theater here (you’ll need Flash Player). I’ll summarize what I learned: Greek Karagiozis has its deepest roots in southeast Asia. The Arabs brought shadow puppetry along trade routes to North Africa in the Middle Ages. The tradition spread to the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s, and by the 1700s there were Turkish shadow puppet stories about “Karagöz.” From the Muslim Turks the form was gradually assimilated and adapted by the Greeks. In Greece, Karagiozis has been a poor but wily Greek since the early 1800s, a trickster who tries to take advantage of the wealthier ruling class Turks and Albanians. If you want to know more about the formulaic stories and traditional stock characters used in Karagiozis puppetry, this Wikipedia article is informative.

Karagiozis shows were hugely popular in Greece until after World War II when movies and other modern entertainments started to take over. The skills and stories are passed from master to apprentice, and there are still a handful of puppeteers like Sokratis Kotsores who carry on the tradition. Kotsores’s mother is Ikarian and he visits the island every spring to put on a show for the kids. I feel very lucky to have seen it.

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Panegyri season

When Lent is over, the partying begins.

Ikaria is one of the few places in Greece where the ancient panegyri tradition continues. A panegyri is a community festival held in honor of a village church’s patron saint. Villagers and guests eat, drink, and dance long into the night and often until the next morning. Everyone is welcome to the celebration, and if you find yourself in Ikaria in the summer you absolutely must go. Watch for the posters on walls and signboards.

The black and white flyer at lower left announces a panegyri

Panegyria are important summertime social events for Ikarians of all ages. A folklorist might point out that this annual event in the life of the village reinforces values and social bonds within the village community; it also provides an opportunity for the community to negotiate identity and confirm their place in the larger island context by acting in the host role. Even a small village church can attract hundreds of visitors. Back in the old days, panegyria offered the perfect chance for young people from different villages to meet each other. They still serve this purpose to some extent today.

There are certain things you can count on at an Ikarian panegyri. It will take place outdoors in a plaza or park adjoining the church. There will be traditional dancing, usually to live music. Food for sale will be homemade and will always include roasted or barbecued lamb or goat, Greek salad, feta or similar cheese, village bread, and homemade wine (“doppio”). There will be a blessing by the priest to start things off in the morning and the church will stay open so visitors can look inside and light a candle. The party will start off pretty sedately, with lots of old people and families. By 11 or 12 at night, a good panegyri can really get hopping.

Then there are features that are unique. Agios Stathis (September 20) is up on a mountain outside Arethousa without electricity; the panegyri there is lit with a bonfire and flashlights, and the music is acoustic. Agios Yiannis (June 24) in Raches has a bonfire that young men jump over, and the girls burn their May Day garlands to bring love and good luck. Some panegyria are on beaches, others on mountain tops or in forests. Between Easter and the end of October, there are over a hundred panegyria in Ikaria.

We saw posters for two panegyria being held the day after Easter. We asked around and learned that Agios Georgiou was expected to be small but fun, with good musicians.

Agios Georgiou is in Vardaradon, up a somewhat nerve-testing road on the mountain above the village of Plagia. It was well worth it.

The setting was lovely

The food was simple, local, and delicious

The musicians were skilled

And the dancing was lively.

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Χριστός ανέστη!

Our second spring break this year coincided with Egyptian Coptic Easter. That’s the same date as Orthodox Easter, which meant we’d be able to enjoy the Greek Orthodox celebrations on Ikaria.

We took an overnight ferry from Piraeus (the port for Athens, where we traditionally start our island journey with a meal at the Ikarian cafe there), arriving at the port of Agios Kyrikos just before sunrise on Good Friday. We used to camp out on the floor of the boat but these days our creaky bones are more comfortable in a cabin.

Andreas’s cousin Vasili had left a rental car for us in the parking lot. We used to run around the island in old beater cars, but Vasili recently upgraded his fleet and we got a spiffy new Citroën with a backup camera and a place to plug in my iPhone. Just one of the many indications of (relative) Ikarian prosperity in the era of Blue Zone fame.

There’s a cafe at the port that opens early when a boat is expected, so we had coffee and cheese pies while we waited for the town to wake up.

Easter is the biggest holiday on the Greek calendar. I didn’t know if shopkeepers would be working on Good Friday but fortunately pretty much everything opened in the morning so we were able to lay in supplies for the weekend. Stores would be closing early in the afternoon and staying shut until Tuesday.

We drove across the island, over the central mountain ridge to Evdilos on the north coast and then up another mountain road to Arethousa. This is the little village where both of Andreas’s parents were born. The Airbnb I’d reserved turned out to belong to another cousin – not so surprising, as there probably isn’t anyone in the village who isn’t a cousin of some kind. The house is an old “pygiri”, or tower house, so called because it has a second story bedroom. There was a fine view from the terrace down the mountain toward the sea.

I realized when I opened my suitcase that I didn’t have the right clothes. I’d packed a dressy light green outfit to wear to church Easter Sunday. But Good Friday is somber, and of course everyone would be in black. Oops. This was a bit of a bummer because soon we intend to live in Arethousa for at least part of every year. Village life being what it is I know that our personal details are scrutinized and cataloged. Hopefully the faux pas will be forgiven if not forgotten.

We spent some of the afternoon getting in the proper mood by watching “Jesus, the Christ” on TV. My Greek is not good but I knew the story already.

In the evening the church bell summoned us to the Good Friday service.

Arethousa’s church is a little oversized. In 1915, when Andreas’s grandfather led the campaign to replace the village’s tiny Ottoman-era church, there were about 500 people living in and around Arethousa. I suppose they expected their numbers to grow, but instead many emigrated and didn’t return. There are only about a hundred Arethousans today, and there’s plenty of room for all of them to bring a friend to church.

This is the main street of the village (okay, it’s the only street). The church looms large.

The highlight of the Good Friday service is the epitafio. This is a wooden table with a canopy, representing a funeral bier. Local children spent the morning decorating the frame with flowers. During the Good Friday service it occupies a place in the center aisle in front of the altar. As people enter the church, they give a donation in exchange for a white candle which they light and place among the flowers of the canopy.

At a certain point in the ceremony, the priest places the cloth (this is the actual epitafio; it’s a heavily embroidered picture of the dead Jesus) in the tray of the bier and scatters it with flower petals. Soon after that, two men put long boards under the top of the table and lift it onto their shoulders. The priest sings the funeral song and we follow them as they carry the epitafio out of the church. In other villages the procession goes to the graveyard, but Arethousa’s graveyard is a long walk from the village so the procession circles the outside of the church building instead. When they get back to the entrance, the two men hold the bier up high in the doorway for us to stoop under as we reenter the church beneath it for the end of the ceremony. This represents entering the tomb.

A funny thing happened in church. In addition to the priest, there is usually a psaltis (cantor) who sings part of the liturgy, and also a choir that sings a third part. But this church isn’t big enough to have a choir and the poor psaltis was going hoarse singing his part and the choir’s too. The priest got thoroughly annoyed at the lack of audience participation and refused to continue until someone volunteered to go to the front and sing the choir part. It took some harsh words but finally three ladies nudged each other up the aisle and accepted the hymnals. They sure didn’t know the tune but I’ve got to give them credit for trying.

The Easter service is held on Saturday night. It’s supposed to be at midnight, but little Arethousa shares its priest with two other small villages. The priest leads the service at all three over the course of Saturday evening. To make this possible, the usual two-hour event is cut down to a bare-bones 45 minutes. The villages take it in turns to have the priest preside at the preferred midnight time slot; this year Arethousa got 9 pm.

At the end of the ceremony everyone lights candles from the holy flame. Then they follow the priest onto the entry porch of the church for the last part of the liturgy. This is the part where Jesus has risen from the tomb and so a celebratory mood is appropriate. In Ikaria, that means Roman candles, firecrackers, and (alarmingly) gunshots. The priest just keeps on singing.

Back inside the church we greet each other with “Xristos anesti” (Christ has risen – the title of this post), to which the correct response is “alithos anesti” (truly he has risen). The last thing that happens is distribution of the red eggs by the priest. People take these home along with their lit candles. They’ll use the candles to mark a sooty cross above the doorway to their houses, and maybe relight the pilot light on a gas stove.

It’s traditional to have a bonfire after the service, but after a devastating forest fire killed thirteen Ikarians in 1993, islanders are cautious about flames in wooded areas like Arethousa. The harbor village of Karevostomo got the priest for midnight mass this year, and they had a bonfire on the beach there where it’s safer. We talked about following the priest down the hill for a second Easter service but decided to head back to our little house to celebrate on our own instead.

Easter is the end of the forty-day Lenten fast, so feasting is the next order of business. Most people break their fast with the red-dyed eggs from church, but not before using them in a game of tsougrisma: you and someone else tap the pointed ends of your eggs together to see who can crack the other person’s egg. If your egg wins, you play against someone else, until eventually someone’s egg is the champion.

A soup called magaritsa, similar to egg and lemon soup but containing greens and lamb offal, is traditional for the after-midnight meal. We didn’t make any but we had some at cousin Toula’s house. I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of organ meats but I took a few ceremonial sips of Andreas’s.

We prepared a tasty meal of stewed fava beans, loukaniko sausages, and horiatiki salad (aka Greek salad), washed down with our Airbnb host’s homemade wine and ouzo.

On Easter Day the festivities continued with the arrival of the Easter bunny and the best French toast ever, made from tsoureki (masticha-flavored Greek Easter bread).

Andreas read the fortunes in our coffee grounds.

In the afternoon, a braised lamb lunch at Taverna i Plaka in outer Arethousa rounded out the celebrations (and our bellies).

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Return to Ikaria

When I started to outline some posts about the week we just spent on Ikaria, I was astonished to discover that I have written only once about the island in the eight years I’ve kept this blog. Since moving overseas I have visited the island with Andreas four times that I can think of, and Andreas has traveled there at least five more times on his own. Looking back on it, I think I avoided posting about Ikaria because I didn’t want to repeat myself, not realizing that I’d never actually written about it.

I had another blog before this one, back in 2009-2010. It was called Foodlandia, and it was mostly about food but with lots of digressions. I didn’t visit Ikaria even once myself during that period (Greece is a long way from Oregon, and we didn’t travel much in those days) but still I wrote six posts about the island that year. If you care to check them out – some of those Foodlandia posts come with recipes! – you can use the search box in the old blog to find Ikaria.

This week I will probably overcompensate for the lack of Ikarian posts on lornaofarabia. Ikaria occupies a lot of real estate in the hearts and minds of my family members, and in recent years it has taken up a lot of time as well, as some of them try to legally claim their Greek citizenship and reestablish a foothold on the island. At a future date I’ll add a few family history posts to give the Ikarian connection some historical context.

It’s a beautiful island and we don’t require a special reason to visit, but our trip this week had three pressing objectives. The first was that we were meeting our daughter Alekka there; she appeared to be in the final stages of establishing Greek citizenship, and it would be helpful to have her dad present as a witness during her interview (this story will need its own post, later… it is quite the saga).

The second reason we needed to go there now is that after several years of dire warnings, Greece is finally cracking down on property tax collection. There have been property tax laws in the books for a long time, but in practice – at least in the boondocks, like the island of Ikaria – a lot of people didn’t actually pay them. A big obstacle for the government has been that many people’s land is not registered with the state. Instead of deeds, for hundreds of years villagers have relied on the long memories of elders for details like “from the third olive tree past the well to the corner of the old Papadopoulis farm” to track ownership. Sometimes property lines are marked with “synera” (a word I can’t find anywhere in any online dictionaries, but is commonly used on the island), thin sheets of rock planted deep in the soil.

Those deeds that are registered are filed in binders and folders in local offices, not digitally or in a central location for Greece. Because of the way inheritances and dowries are handled, many individuals own tiny plots of land in several villages, and other parcels of land belong to groups of siblings or cousins. Also, many properties are held by the descendants of people who left Greece decades ago for different continents whose right to it exists only by collective agreement of elderly neighbors.

At any rate, in the interest of alleviating the current debt crisis, the government is changing these these time-honored procedures. Everyone needs to get their land registered with the government using GPS coordinates and then pay the tax. Special offices have been set up in the main towns where people have to bring all their papers – wills, sworn statements, bills of sale, etc. – or (in some cases) live witnesses to testify to what is theirs. Surveyors are doing a booming business.

It all has to be recorded by the end of September or you forfeit your property to the government who will put it up for sale. It’s a bit of a mess, with old ladies showing up at the office carrying stacks of folders to prove rights to not only their houses but their garden plots, water sources, olive trees, and grazing land. For many relatives on his father’s side, Andreas lives the closest geographically to Greece, and he has been charged with arranging the survey and registration of properties belonging to his immediate family as well as those of several cousins.

In Evdilos – surveyor’s office ground floor right, and lawyer’s office ground floor left – where Andreas spent a lot of time this week.

The third reason for this trip, related to reason #2, is that for three years we have been working toward building a house on the island and Andreas needed to complete the registration of that property. He also needed to light a fire under our contractor. Things move slowly on Ikaria, which is one of the things that is so charming about it (and probably one of the reasons Ikarians live so long), but it can be frustrating. It always works better when you are there in person, and we aren’t there enough.

Our little bit of paradise needs work.

In the end, we didn’t completely meet any one of the three goals. But that gives us a good reason to go back soon.

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The Nile in style

There are so many ways to enjoy the Nile.

You can take a Nile cruise between Luxor and Aswan. Andreas calls this trip Egypt’s E ticket ride (I try to remind him that the number of people who actually remember E tickets is getting pretty small); we always recommend it to anyone who’s coming to Egypt for a week or more. While chugging sedately from one ancient temple to the next (I’m saving the temple pictures for another post), you can enjoy the river views from a lounge chair on the roof deck. In this rural region you see how Egypt’s fertile land is just a narrow strip on both sides of the Nile, with desert beyond extending past the horizon.

Or you could book a cruise on a dahabiya. This is for when you are channeling your inner Amelia Peabody. If I take the Luxor-Aswan trip again, it will be on one of these luxurious old-fashioned double sailed barges. The pictures are from one of the dahabiya companies, Nour el Nil. Looks nice, eh?

A couple of our colleagues have actually lived right on the Nile in Cairo, on a houseboat. The boats are permanently moored but you get the feel of the waves when the water taxis pass by. The view will make you wonder why you’d live anywhere else.

I’ve written before about how one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon in Cairo is on a felucca. There are several places along the Nile in Cairo where you can hire a man to take you and your friends out for an hour or two on one of these sailboats.

If the felucca is too tame, you can get a group together and hire a party boat. These feature lots of colored lights and loud dance music; whenever we go out on a felucca, there are always a few of these on the river too.

If your party is really big, you can rent a really big party boat. The international school system we work for held a conference in Cairo for all its teachers, and one night all several hundred of us went out for a cruise on this big ol’ tourist boat. There was a buffet banquet and some very touristy entertainment.

Or, if you want to do something really classy, you can spend an evening on the “Christina yacht.” The Christina’s Greek captain (looking the part with his cap and pipe) will take you and about 20 of your besties up the Nile and back to the soundtrack of your own playlist. Attentive servers make sure everyone’s glasses stay filled. After the sun sets, a tasty buffet dinner is served. Our friend Hannah’s family is here visiting from New Zealand, so Hannah arranged Thursday night’s dinner cruise on the Christina in their honor. Hurray for Hannah, Liz, and Kelvin; we all had such a great time!

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Once again I return to the blog after a long absence. I made a January resolution to get back to it, but here it is already the end of March. Well. Let’s pick up right where we are, and if I feel inspired, maybe later I can fill in some of the big blank of the last two years. I’ve been busy and there is lots to tell.

Last weekend I went on an overnight trip with some colleagues. We wanted to see a collection of ancient sites located along the Nile about halfway between Cairo and Luxor. The stops on our itinerary – Beni Hassan, Hermopolis (Tuna al-Gebel), and Tell El-Amarna – were high on my list of want-to-visits, not only because of the wonderful Amarna art and artifacts I’d seen in the National Museum but also because these places figure prominently in the most excellent Amelia Peabody mystery series by Elizabeth Peters.

Three of the Peabody books are connected with Amarna: Crocodile on the Sandbank (the first in the series); The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog; and The Painted Queen, which was completed by the mystery author Joan Hess after Peters’ death.

We left after work on Thursday in a van that took us to the modern city of El Minyah, about a four hour drive to the south. One of the Egyptian teachers at our school, Mohamed, organized the trip and acted as our guide.

El Minya isn’t marked on here but you can see the three sites. Image credit: Jonathan Brun

The van was full, but on the outskirts of Cairo we had to stop and rearrange our luggage to make room for an additional rider: the tourist police guard. In addition to the armed guard in the van, we were also compelled to follow a police escort the whole time we were in the Minya area.

This is a thing that happens in Egypt when tourists travel in large groups. There are a few places, like the Sinai, where foreigners always have to move in a convoy, but for the most part if two or three of us hire a car and driver we can travel wherever we want without guards. Many of us who live here like to travel independently and feel over-protected when we are told we need guards in bigger groups, maybe even getting a bit annoyed by the nannying (hm, do I sound annoyed?). The Egyptian government doesn’t like to take chances; after all, the country’s number one industry depends on the safety of tourists. Seems to me nothing draws attention like a bunch of people surrounded by people carrying automatic weapons, but whatever.

In El Minyah, police at the hotel directed the driver down an alley to a side entrance – the alley blocked off on both ends with armed sentries for our benefit – where we quickly checked in. Then back into the van and off to a restaurant for a very nice grilled dinner.

The next morning after a hearty breakfast in our rooms we loaded up the van ready for a day’s sightseeing.

Didn’t we just have dinner?

First stop, the tomb of Akhenaten, the heretic king. This fellow only ruled for 17 years (he died around 1336 BC), but he is famous for introducing a new monotheistic religion and for establishing a new capital city which he named Akhetaten. Long after the pharaoh’s death, when the city was abandoned, the place became known as Amarna.

The style of the paintings and sculptures from the Amarna period is distinctive and beautiful. These examples are in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin (images from Wikipedia). On the left that’s a carving of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, with a couple of the kids. On the right is a painting of birds and lotus flowers.

Akhenaten is also famous as the husband of Nefertiti and father of the future King Tut.

Akhenaten’s tomb isn’t spectacular – it probably was once, but it’s been badly damaged by floods and there is little left of the original colorful decoration. Unfortunately I can’t show you because the guards wouldn’t let me take photos. I have never really understood the point of this rule. I get that flash damages the colors but why no available light photos? In other places I have heard guides say it’s because they can’t stop tourists from using their flash, so they don’t allow any pictures at all. It just takes a few to spoil it for everyone I guess.

Our personal tourist police waiting for us outside the tomb. There were also a couple of snipers up on the hill to the right.

Our next stop was the series of tombs overlooking Amarna, which are from the time when Akhenaten was pharaoh. For the Amelia Peabody fans out there (those people of excellent taste), this is where Amelia caught up with her future husband in Crocodile on the Sandbank. The Emerson brothers camped out in one of the cliffside tombs while overseeing the excavation of the city below. I can easily picture Amelia scrambling down the rocky hillside in pursuit of the mysterious perambulating mummy. These tombs were beautifully decorated but again no photos.

That’s our van down there.
The yellow door is a modern metal gate added to protect a tomb.

Our next stop represents a big jump forward in time. Hermopolis was an older city that gained a lot of power during the New Kingdom era. We visited the ancient catacombs which go on for miles underground. These once housed thousands of ibis and baboon mummies (very cool, but again no photos). Then we went into a couple of Greco-Roman/Egyptian tombs from the Ptolemaic dynasty (think Cleopatra and family). One of these was the tomb of Petosiris, where five generations of writers are buried. Here I was able to take a few photos in exchange for a little baksheesh (tip) to the guard. We won’t call it a bribe because that doesn’t sound nice.

Our last stop was Beni Hasan, a cliff above the Nile where there are many tombs from the Middle Kingdom (21st-17th C BC).

We went into three tombs here. Again I couldn’t take pictures inside, but I am going to post a couple of images of them from the internet because the decoration was so impressive. The paintings featured scenes from everyday life; apparently the deceased in one of the tombs was a big sports fan because there were many detailed pictures of wrestling and other kinds of games and contests. Also there were pictures of visitors from foreign lands with their costumes shown in detail.

Wrestlers. Image from Wikipedia
Semite visitors. Image from

After another tasty grilled chicken dinner, we returned tired and happy to Cairo.

The Nile from Beni Hasan
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Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, still sometimes called by its old name of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City is a lot of syllables). HCMC is modern, stylish, urban, and also full of history.

Andreas had a list of costume pieces he needed for the school musical he is directing. When we returned to HCMC after our Mekong delta tour we went out in search of the night market. The city lights up at night and is teeming with people until very late. I was too busy making sure Andreas didn’t pay too much for his fedoras to take any photos of the market though.

The next day we got an early start in an attempt to pack the rest of our Saigon sightseeing into one day. Vietnam takes food seriously and our hotel offered a wide breakfast selection. Andreas was happy to have another opportunity to start the day with a bowl of pho.

HCMC is a very walkable city, and the sunny weather was perfect for getting around on foot.

Our first stop was a building that was home and office to the president of South Vietnam from 1962 to 1975. The war ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks broke through the palace gates. The two countries became one, and the Presidential Palace became Independence (also called Unification) Palace. The palace is a museum now, set up as it was during the war. The self guided walking tour takes you through all the private and public areas including the basement bunker. I thought this would be a short visit but it turned out to be quite interesting and Andreas and I were the last visitors shooed out when the museum closed for lunch at 11.

Just a few blocks away from Independence Palace is the War Remnants Museum. This museum opened just after the war as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, which was amended to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression in 1990. The current name was assigned in 1995 after relations with the US were normalized. This history was clearly written by the victors. Reading TripAdvisor reviews of the museum it seems that a lot of Americans are offended by that, but I was glad for the chance to see the war through the eyes of the other side. An exhibit about international photojournalists who covered the war was well done, as was the section about the international anti-war movement. With whole rooms devoted to American atrocities and agent orange, it’s pretty horrific, but why should a war museum be otherwise.

We had made plans to meet my friend Amy and her husband in another part of the city for dinner. It had been a sobering museum visit and we needed a good walk afterwards.

Parents on motorbikes picking up their kids outside a school around 5 pm

We stopped by the Jade Emperor pagoda along the way

We met our friends for dinner at Cậu Ba Quán, a popular Vietnamese-Cajun fusion restaurant that was featured (I am told) on the Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil. I am sure Phil didn’t leave this place hungry… our “happy salad” and a huge platter of prawns left us very satisfied (but not so stuffed we couldn’t go out for beers afterwards…)

At midnight we were winging our way back to Cairo via Dubai. To everyone who told us a week wouldn’t be enough time to see this beautiful country, you were right. But that just means we’ll have to come back. When we do, Sapa will certainly be on the itinerary.

Sapa (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, we brought a tasty little bit of Vietnam back with us.

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Mekong Delta

We spent most of our week in Vietnam in urban areas – Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, and HCMC – so I was pleased to fit in a day in the Mekong delta countryside. Andreas and I don’t take a lot of guided tours, but sometimes it’s the best way to see a place if we have only a very short time. My friend Amy recommended Water Buffalo Tours, who offer private tours in and around Ho Chi Minh City. It turned out to be a very fun day.

We started with a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a syncretic religion that combines elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Islam, and Confucianism. It was founded in 1926 and is now the third most popular religion in Vietnam. Interesting fact: Victor Hugo is one of the saints.

Next we visited a market. I love markets, and this one did not disappoint.

We stopped for a quick refreshment in a cà phê house (betcha didn’t know I can speak Vietnamese! I can say beer, too… bia).

cà phê sua dá: iced coffee with condensed milk

We left the town and drove to a bike rental shop/refreshment stand in the countryside. From there we set off on two wheels along quiet roads and paths.

We stopped at the house of the tour company owner’s uncle. Here we got a glimpse of rural life in the delta. The uncle and his wife raise goats, ducks, and vegetables in the yard of their two-room house; they also own a part in one of the large rice paddies across the road.

As we continued our ride we saw tall windowless buildings surrounded by high fencing, with large speakers on the roof playing bird calls. These are swiftlet nesting houses, for the collection of the valuable nests used in making Chinese birds’ nest soup.

We didn’t fall in while crossing a monkey bridge.

It would have been fun to cycle around all day, but it was early afternoon and getting hot. We enjoyed some fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice back at the bike shop.

We took the van to a restaurant next to the river, stopping on the way at a fish market to pick up some fresh shrimp for our lunch. I guess when this outfit promises a private tour they really mean it, because we were the only customers at the restaurant. From the well-stocked bar I’d guess they do most of their business in the evening.

The restaurant cooked our shrimp and about eight more dishes to go with it. Everything was absolutely delicious.

Our last stop was the water itself. The Mekong River splits into many distributaries in the delta, and we rode in a motorized wooden boat across one of these. We saw all types and sizes of vessels on the river – water buses and taxis, barges, fishing boats. Many boats had eyes painted on the bow, which our guide told us are there to ward off water monsters.

The boat dropped us off across the river where we transferred to a sampan. A tourist thing for sure, but at the end of this busy day we enjoyed the quiet ride along narrow waterways through water coconut groves.

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Hội An

The travel guides describe Hoi An as a laid-back town, a well preserved example of an ancient trading city. What they don’t mention is that those 600 year old shops are now filled with key rings, joke T-shirts, brand name knock-off backpacks, and mass-produced “traditional art”. It’s shoulder-to-shoulder tourists at this UNESCO World Heritage site, especially after dark when the lanterns turn on and two-for-one happy hour kicks off.

Lanterns have been a special feature of Hoi An streets since the 1500s. But at some recent point, city fathers saw fit to heavily promote the monthly Full Moon Lantern Festival as a tourist attraction. It’s traditionally a time of meditation and connection with ancestors. Now lanterns light the crowded streets not only at the full moon but every night, like summer in Disneyland. Visitors cruise the river in lantern-festooned boats and set paper lanterns containing lit candles to float downstream “for love and good luck.”

A friend told me that when she was in Hoi An about ten years ago, the islet where a carnivalesque night market is now was at that time dark and uninhabited. The rows of venerable-looking shops and restaurants on the island are actually brand new.

The newest of Hoi An’s three night markets

Right now this rolled ice cream is a popular item in the night markets.

Hoi An is not without charm. The colored lanterns are pretty. The historic buildings are, too, and in the daytime there are museums and temples to visit. In the morning you can see residents going about their daily work on the river and in the market.

We watched a group of Vietnamese people enjoying a traditional song-game called bai choi.

The audience is watching for numbers on their paddles that match the ones the singers are holding up

On every street there are custom tailor shops where you can get a dress or suit made from a picture in just a day or two. I would have ordered something if we’d stayed a little longer.

The food, like everywhere in Vietnam, is fresh and cheap. The overpriced tourist restaurants are not hard to spot. We dined at the central market.

24 hours in Hoi An was enough for us. I recognize the hypocrisy in complaining about excess foreigners when I am one myself, but it seems to me that Hoi An’s little ancient district is a destination that has fallen victim to its own success. I’m not sorry we came here but I wish I could have visited ten years ago.

My Hoi An souvenir. All my clothes were at the laundry.
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