Only in New Zealand

Part of the fun of traveling is to learn about new cultures and people. Learning a bit about the language, customs and peculiarities of a country adds to your understanding and appreciation. For the last five weeks we’ve combed the North & South Islands of New Zealand, and have come to love the country, its natural bounty, and, yes, those quirky New Zealanders. Except…they’re not called “New Zealanders,” but “Kiwis.” And this is where learning the ins and outs of New Zealand (also known as “En Zed” for “NZ”) becomes a challenge.
And that’s because a NZ’er person is a Kiwi…
whereas a kiwi is the national bird, despite being flightless, short-sighted, very shy, and on the edge of extinction:
There are two other kiwis, just to be confusing, but both are inanimate:
There is the kiwi fruit, which, just to be clear, didn’t originate in New Zealand but in China, but nevertheless New Zealand is now a major producer of the fruit:
stock photo of kiwi-fruit - kiwi fruit on white background - JPG  and, there is the Kiwi Shoe Polish:
Image result for kiwi shoe polishwhich was invented by an Australian who chose the kiwi (with a small “k”) bird as the name and logo of the polish to honor his New Zealand-born wife who was, of course, a Kiwi with a capital “K”.
It is safe to say that Kiwis (the people) take kiwis (birds, fruit,  the polish and the kitchen sink) seriously:


IMG_9786_Chocolate Easter Kiwis

Chocolate kiwis for Easter.



But to return to the heart of our discoveries, Kiwis have a great sense of humor as well as practicality which result in surprising discoveries along the way — as well as colorful “Kiwi speak.” Such as finding a picture of Dino the Flintstones’ pet dinosaur displayed in an exhibit on earthquake monitoring in the Auckland Museum.

IMG_8200_Dino at a volcanic monitoring site, White Island

No one knows the identity of the prankster who left “Dino” next to the earthquake monitoring device & webcam. Schoolchildren all over New Zealand have enjoyed Dino’s own website which “reports” on geothermal activity at his new home on White Island.


The scientists found this amusing enough to leave Dino there and have used film footage from the web cam — and Dino — in educating school children about earthquake monitoring and geothermal activity.

Despite the frequent disruption of earthquakes and eruptions, Kiwis manage to accomplish quite a number of things: a Kiwi, Edmund Hillary, was the first man to summit Mt. Everest; Kiwis are acclaimed in the arts (Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame); in the sciences eminent physicist Ernest Rutherford won the 1908 Nobel prize in chemistry (among other accomplishments he discovered radon and the first to split an atom); and sports — need we say more? The New Zealand All Blacks have ruled world rugby for decades. Maybe it’s their Maori haka (war dance) that scares the bejesus out of their opponents:

New Zealand’s world champion All Blacks performing their haka or Maori war dance before each game. As in war, this particular haka is supposed to terrify and immobilize their opponents.


Kiwis grow (in addition to kiwi fruit) a whole lot of sweet potatoes, known collectively in NZ as kumara. There are so many kumara grown, especially on the North Island, that one small town, Dargaville, claims the honor of “New Zealand’s Kumara Capital.”

Kūmara capital

Dargaville won the bragging rights for this title. Close to a dozen varieties of kumara are grown in the area; most varieties were developed in NZ.


Not to be outdone by such namby pamby fellow Kiwis, A.J. Hackett popularized the modern form of bungy jumping by performing the first bungy jump of the Auckland Harbor bridge in 1986. (A centuries-earlier form of bungy jumping had been a ceremonial activity among Vanuatu men. However, in that tradition, the men had to strike the ground with their heads; he who lived, won. Hackett must have realized smacking clients’ heads on the ground from 100 meters up wasn’t good for his insurance premiums, because that pulverizing form of bungy jumping is OUT. However, you can, if bungeeing off a great height over water, can opt to get dunked during the jump.) Regardless of how it’s currently done, bungy jumping is now a national past time in New Zealand, with intrepid souls leaping off all kinds of towering edifices, from the Sky Tower in Auckland and just about any bridge, building or ledge high enough to give one a thrill.

Bungy jumping off a mountain in Queenstown.


The surprises just kept coming with this country. A couple of British tourists we met on a wine tour encouraged us to visit the public toilets in Kawakawa (North Island). I’d heard of these colorful receptacles of human “sanitary waste” and was planning to stop by anyway, and a quick (and free!) pit stop showed why the Kawakawa facilities are so famous:


Entrance to the public toilets in Kawakawa. The Austrian artist and environmental activist Friedenreich Hundertwasser, who relocated to NZ after WWII, decorated his adoptive town’s toilet facilities using recycled materials.


IMG_8328 IMG_8330

Kawakawa now attracts a huge number of visitors just because of their colorful public (and free) toilet facilities.

Two other local sights deserve honorable mention:


This colorful, larger than life kiwi greets motorists entering the small town of Otorohanga, and serves as an advert for the Kiwi House, a wildlife preserve featuring native birds including the kiwi.

IMG_8744_Silo Motel

The Silo Hotel in Little River, near Christchurch, South Island. Note the little balconies added to the sides of the silos and the bicycle motif.


And now for charming linguistic oddities. New Zealanders are unfailingly polite, so we didn’t learn any off-color phrases, but there are several colorful terms we came across:

chilly bin — a cooler. (My absolute favorite Kiwi term! And a proud owner of my own Kiwi chilly bin!)

the long drop — outhouse. Speaks for itself.


flash — fancy, splashy, and not in an approving way.

panel beaters — car body shop

a butty — a sausage roll, that delicious, irresistible, greasy sausage in pastry with cardiac-arresting amounts of fat and cholesterol. And they go straight to the butty, too. Can’t pass them up!

a bach — pronounced “batch,” is a holiday cottage or dwelling fairly small and rustic. Probably comes from the longer term, “bachelor’s quarters.”

jandals — usually denotes flip flops but can also include other types of plastic sandals. The term originated in the late ’50s in NZ. Although there are competing claims as to who coined the term, all agree it’s a distillation of “Japanese sandals,” the phrase used for zoris in Japan. As a measure of how popular these flip flops are, New Zealand has “National Jandal Day.” Seriously. (And, seriously, the purpose of this unofficial national day is to raise money for coastal lifeguards & lifesaving training.)

And for the absolutely most tongue-twisting word I’ve come across in 5 weeks in NZ, the Maori name of a small (305 meters high) hill on the North Island, Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikmaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu.

But don’t ask how to pronounce it!


Steaming about Volcanoes


Mounts Tongiriro & Ngaruhoe loom over Lake Taupo. Mt. Ruapehu (below) is the third active volcano overlooking the lake.

IMG_8472_ Mt. Ruapehu, the highest mountain on the North Island

Mt. Ruapehu, the highest mountain on New Zealand’s North Island. The multi-crested volcano holds snow on its peaks year round.

Lake Taupo sits astride New Zealand’s most active geothermal area. That’s quite a bit of geothermal “activity” considering New Zealand is a land of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, boiling mud holes, and steaming pools and vents. In fact, Lake Taupo is the caldera of extinct Mt. Oruanui which, when it last erupted 26,500 years ago, was the largest volcanic eruption ever. One guide states, Oruanui made Krakatoa “look like a pimple.” In its last explosion in 180 AD, red skies resulting from the sheer volume of ejected volcanic ash were noted in both Rome and China.

The Waikato River, NZ’s longest, flows from Lake Taupo (pronounced “toe-paw”). One of the first gorges the river winds through produces the magnificent Huka Falls, a stunnning turquoise 10 meter blue cascade that surges through the narrow chasm at a rate of 200,000 liters per second.

IMG_8451_Huka Falls, Taupo

Huka Falls flows through this narrow gorge at 200,000 liters of water per second.

IMG_8453_Looking down Huka Falls

Looking down river through the narrow gorge forming the bottleneck creating Huka Falls.

IMG_8460_200,00 l. per second flows through the falls' gorge

The brilliant color is a combination of glacier melt and sediment from pumice stone.

We spent a day in Tongoriro National Park, New Zealand’s first national park, and named after the multi-coned volcano of the same name. Mt. Tongoriro (1967 m.) is an active volcano which most recently blasted volcanic spurts in 2012. Neighboring, single-coned Mt. Ngauruhoe (2297 m.) which erupted 45 times in the 20th century, erupted continuously in 1974-5 for 11 months. The volcano is most famous, however, as “Mt. Doom” in Kiwi native Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The tallest of this volcanic trio is Mt. Ruapehu (2797 m.), one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Ruapehu last burped in 1973, but is most infamous for its disastrous eruption on Christmas Eve, 1953, when the volcano blew, causing a massive lahar (volcanic mud flow) down its sides which swept away all in its path, including a railway bridge. Moments later a passenger train unable to stop, flew off the mountain side into a river gorge below, killing 153 holidaymakers on board.

Testing our luck and the fates, we decided to ride the chair lift up Mt. Ruapehu and were rewarded with spectacular views.


The lower level chair lift ascending Mt. Ruapehu. The mountain side below is strewn with scoria, or volcanic lava rock. The multiple volcanic cones of the mountain loom above.

IMG_8498Mt. Doom & tongiriro

Impressive views of Mt. Doom in the foreground, and Mt. Tongoriro, behind.

There is a beautiful Crater Lake further up Mt. Ruapehu, but we were unable to make the 3-4 hour hike up from the last chair lift stop on the mountain. We spent the day walking or driving around various parts of the park, taking shorter hikes. No matter the angle, the views of these three volcanoes are stunning. As we were leaving the park, I spied a stream of steam rising from one of the small cones on the flanks of Mt. Ruapehu:


Yup — Mt. Ruapehu is still kicking — and steaming. I viewed this as a farewell venting from the volcano, just letting us know we were lucky that day!


Back at Lake Taupo, we visited the Aratiatia hydroelectric dam and gorge. The dam holds back the mighty Waikato River to cull some of its hydro power into electricity for the region. Because of the sheer volume of water, the engineers open the sluice gates several times a day, creating brief but powerful waterfalls and surges, filling the rocky gorge below the dam with spectacular rapids for several minutes before closing the gates again.

IMG_8515_Aratiatia Dam on the Waikato River

The sluice gates at the Aratitia Dam before opening.

IMG_8516_empty gorge & pool below the dam

The rocky gorge beyond the dam. Note how the gorge looks impassable due to the numerous, tall rocks.


About 10 minutes since the gates were opened, the rising water has come partway up the gorge.

IMG_8528_10 min. into the dam's release, the seemingly impassable rock-filled gorge is mostly underwataer

The gorge is nearly full, and the river’s surge is still flowing.


The gorge is nearly filled….

IMG_8536_The waters receding as the gorge discharges its pent up water to below where the river widens

About 15 minutes after the gates opened, the gorge has filled and begun to empty again.

IMG_8541_About 20 minutes after the dam gates open, the grge has filled and re-emptied to close to its rockiest

Twenty minutes later, the waters have almost entirely receded, only to start the cycle again in another hour or so.

The highly active geothermal zone on the North Island runs from the Lake Taupo area northwest through Rotorua to White Island off shore in the Bay of Plenty. We chose to stay in the Lake Taupo area for several days because of the sheer beauty of the lake and mountains. We paid a nominal visit to Rotorua, the “hot spot” of the North Island, just to check it out. Broadly commercialized and lacking any interest for us, we walked around the town a bit, just to see some of the vents and mud pits, then left. However, there are a number of geothermal “parks” (read natural geysers, vents, mud pools, etc.) which are available for tourists to visit; most have some sort of “draw,” such as “cultural” event featuring a Maori haka (dance) or hangi (traditional feast) to supplement the natural, geothermal sights. Just a sample of what we saw in Rotorua:


IMG_8544_Boiling mud pool in Rotarua

Boiling mud hole in Rotorua.


Steam rising from a thermal pool.

The Taupo region is filled with spectacular scenery and constant geothermal activity. The area is considered highly unstable because of this geothermal zone, but, so is the rest of the country. New Zealand takes these threats seriously: Visitor centers and restrooms in the Taupo area displayed posters of what to do if an eruption occurred. Museums in both Auckland and Wellington portrayed extensive exhibits educating people about the causes and effects of this underlying geothermal activity. Each had “interactive” exhibits demonstration the sights, sounds and feels of a volcanic eruption or an earthquake.

The dangers of living in New Zealand are real. Christchurch, on the South Island, suffered two major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, the latter of which caused massive destruction and killed 185 people. Of the 2500 commercial buildings then in Christchurch, about 1700 either were destroyed in the 2011 quake or subsequently torn down due to the accumulated structural instability. The severity of the first earthquake in 2010 substantially contributed to buildings collapse and loss of life in the second, 2011 earthquake. The city still, five years later, has unbuilt-upon city blocks a”buildings.”


Five years after two earthquakes struck in 6 months, Christchurch still has many empty lots where buildings once stood.


The Anglican Cathedral remains boarded up as the city decides whether to try to save the structure or tear it down.


The Catholic church has only recently decided to rebuild its cathedral.


Shipping containers used to shore up an historical facade.

On February 15 — just three hours after we left Christchurch — the already traumatized city suffered a 5.7 earthquake. Thankfully, no one died (although several were injured) primarily because the quake hit 15 km east of the city and on a beautiful Sunday when people were out of offices and homes. Nevertheless, the earthquake was powerful and violent enough to cause nearby cliffs to collapse and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes.

The constant threat and occurrences of such natural disasters obviously hasn’t caused most Kiwis to leave their homes nor prevented tourists such as ourselves from visiting the region. For us, the beauty far surpasses the risk — for now. But these quakes and shakes of the land remind us that natural beauty also comes with nature’s cost.

IMG_8702_185 emptpy chairs - a symbolic, temporary honoring of 185 who died in '11 quake

185 empty chairs stand in a demolished lot as a tribute to the people who died in the February, 2011 Christchurch earthquake. The memorial is temporary, even after five years, lending some understanding as to how difficult the rebuilding of the city has been after the 2010 and 2011 quakes. The Valentine’s Day 2016 earthquake, situated 15 km east of the city, did little damage to downtown Christchurch but destroyed sea cliffs and damaged hundreds of homes in a nearby suburb.

New Zealand is For the Birds

Kiwi bird genome sequenced

New Zealand’s national bird, the Kiwi. Of the five extant species of this flightless bird, all are threatened to a degree and one species, the great white spotted kiwi, is severely endangered. Courtesy of


New Zealand is facing a crisis: without swift, radical measures for predator control, many bird species will be drastically reduced if not eradicated. The culprits: all are invasive species introduced by human inhabitants. Rats, stoats, brush-tail possums (not to be confused with the North American opossum), weasels, feral cats and dogs are the primary culprits.

Why there is such a problem with bird predation has a lot to do with how New Zealand has geologically and zoologically developed over the millennium, and with mankind itself.

  • The land forms which now make up the North and South Islands of New Zealand separated from the super-large Austro-Asian continent over 80 million years ago, leaving the island geographically isolated from other land masses.
  • There are no native land mammals to the islands other than bats. Thus, there are no large predators.
  • New Zealand has no snakes and no poisonous animals.

Maori hunters  posed with a facsimile of a moa to give perspective on size.

  • Birds were the most abundant fauna, with many avians becoming highly specialized. Two examples are the now extinct giant Moa, a super-large, ostrich like bird, and, the ground-dwelling kiwis, which range in size from a small turkey to a small hen. (The kiwi is also New Zealand’s national bird.) Over the millennia, both species became flightless with vestigial wings, most likely because they no longer had predators and therefore no longer needed flight as an escape defense.
  • The first human inhabitants, the Maori, arrived on the islands about 700+ years ago; Anglo-Europeans about 250 years ago. Both brought non-native animals with them: the Maori brought rats and dogs, the Anglos introduced many more invasive species.
  • Most of these non-native mammals were introduced with good but short-sighted intentions, but with present-day catastrophic results in this small island nation: with no larger animals as natural predators, stoats, rats, possums, ferrets and weasels are killing off New Zealand bird species at astonishing rates, some by eating eggs and chicks, the larger animals such as stoats and possums, killing adult birds.

The NZ Dept. of Conservation has listed the stoat as the country’s  Public Enemy #1 for bird predation.



The brush-tail possum was introduced from its native Australia into NZ to establish a fur trade. The marsupial has wreaked havoc among the bird population, and is thus a close second to the stoat as the major threat to many bird species. Courtesy of 

The “Battle for our Birds”

The Department of Conservation has embarked on a nation-wide campaign, “Battle for our Birds,” through predator control with intensified trapping as well as aerial applications of a biodegradable toxin of DOC lands, primarily in the lesser populated South Island. Additionally, many local governments and private conservation organizations have taken steps locally to reduce predator populations, especially rats, stoats and possums.

In the last two weeks we visited a few localities where bird conservation has become a serious mission. For the most part, these local efforts have a multi-step approach:

  • Eradicate the predators.
  • Restore native trees and other vegetation to attract and sustain native birds.
  • Where necessary, re-introduce native birds to the wild in protected areas, and if this is not possible, to establish sanctuaries. In this last instance, it may be necessary for sanctuaries to use intense mesh fencing or other means to prevent predator invasion, to continue to trap predators that do invade, and, to supplement the diet of birds within the sanctuaries. This last is especially true if the sanctuary is caring long-term for injured or older birds that cannot be re-introduced into the wild.

We visited a few bird sanctuary areas in the Bay of Islands, the Otorohanga Kiwi House in the mid-North Island, and Zealandia in Wellington. All were different in their approach but had the common goal of eradicating the predators and saving New Zealand’s native bird populations.


A colorful rendition of a feeding kiwi on the outskirts of Otorohanga, advertising their Kiwi House sanctuary for New Zealand birds, featuring, of course, the kiwi.

Below is a photo array of some of New Zealand’s birds, many of whom are endangered or threatened in the wild. Enjoy!


The great spotted kiwi is the largest of the five species of kiwi native only to NZ. The Kiwi House holds 2 of the 3 only to be held in captivity. The bird is the size of a small turkey, highly territorial and aggressive, but numbers no more than about 15,000 in the wild. The spotted great kiwi is considered highly vulnerable. Courtesy of  Dept. of Conservation, NZ.

The brown kiwi is the most common of the five species in NZ yet still considered vulnerable. Like all kiwi, it has poor eyesight but good hearing and an excellent sense of smell. Most unusually for birds, kiwi have external nostrils at the end of its long, curved beak. The beak is used to probe the ground for submerged insects, and the nostrils help locate the prey.


The kaka is a large, forest-dwelling parrot indigenous to NZ. It is highly vulnerable to endangered in the wild. The kaka is an extremely smart bird whose intelligence is compared to that of the great apes. Photo by Carol Rolnick at Zealandia.


The kea is a large, alpine parrot. Insatiably curious and “cheeky,” the kea likes to investigate backpacks and open car windows, often shredding packs and upholstery to bits with its sharp beak and talons. Photo by Carol Rolnick at the Kiwi House.


A red-crested kakariki, a small parrot. Photo by Carol Rolnick at the Kiwi House.

IMG_8634_Takahe, highoy  called Terminator 2

Terminator 2 is the fitting name of this rooster-sized bird. “T-2” and his mate, Puffin, are older and past breeding age and are now retired to the Zealandia sanctuary. Once thought to be extinct in the wild, takahe have been carefully managed  so that a few small breeding groups can be found in the wild. Nevertheless, the takahe remain highly endangered. Photo by Carol Rolnick at Zealandia.


A kereru, or native NZ pigeon, is far larger than the average pigeon. Photo by Carol Rolnick at the Kiwi House.



The tui bird, a very colorful and talkative bird. Its most easily distinguished charactereistic is the white “ruff” or clutch of feathers at the throat. Courtesy of

Anothere tui bird. From

The hihi bird, characterized by its up-tilted tail. Courtesy of Heather Arthur from

That’s all  folks — for now!


Rafting with Glow Worms

Spellbound glowworm threads (2)

Glow worm “threads” in Manawhitikau Cave, Waitomo, New Zealand. Photo by Spellbound.


IMG_8367_Glow worms at beginning of cave

The only glow worm photo I was allowed to take before we descended into total darkness for our subterranean rafting through the cave. This photo gives a better idea of the gossamer thin threads spun by the glow worms.

“You wouldn’t pay to come if we told you the caves were full of maggots so we call them ‘glow worms’,” said our guide. True enough. But in reality, the glowing strings from the larvae of the insect called arachnacampa luminosa are magnificent to behold, even if the larvae look just like slimy caterpillars.

IMG_8366_Glow worm larvae

Glow worms or larvae

Our blessedly small group of eleven headed for Mangawhitikau cave, a privately owned cave, and at 7 km long the longest cave in New Zealand. (In New Zealand, whoever owns the surface of the land also holds the rights to anything below and in the earth beneath.) About 200 meters into our first foray into Mangawhitikau we stopped to marvel over the silken, luminescent strings of a few dozen glow worms. Later, our group of eleven sat spellbound in a raft as the guide towed us down a subterranean river, through a small cavern carpeted with blue-green points of luminescence.  In the complete darkness (no headlamps, no cameras, no talking) it was easy to feel disembodied and imagine we floated through a strange, magical new universe. The only sound came from a waterfall gurgling loudly at the end of the underground river.

Spellbound light show

Glow worms on cavern ceiling. Photo by Spellbound Tours.

Copy of Spellbound Glowworms at end of cave (3)

Glow worms on the cavern roof — a galaxy of “stars.” Photo by Spellbound.

As mesmerizing as the glow worms were, we learned that these larvae – a halfway phase in the insect’s life – had a very basic purpose for their glow: survival. Their light is the product of a biochemical reaction called bioluminescence. The silk threads spun by the larvae hang like glowing, sticky strands of a curtain to catch other insects for food. Thus, the larvae act somewhat between an insect and a spider: the glowing strands use the light to attract insect prey, and the stickiness of the threads trap the hapless prey as a spider’s web. Yet, similar to other insects, the larvae eventually spin themselves into a pupae, from which they eventually emerge as adults to start the procreative process once again. We learned that while these glowing larvae can be found in dark corners of the forest, they thrive best in caves, and can be found in subterranean chambers throughout New Zealand.

Spellbound raft in cave

Rafting the glow worm cave. Photo by Spellbound.

Photos as noted from Spellbound Glowworm & Cave Tours, Waitomo, New Zealand,


Post Script: Rafting the Tongariro River

We took a hugely different half-day rafting trip down the Tongariro River south of Lake Taupo (pronounced “toe-paw”: 3 hours, 14 km and 52 Class 3 rapids later we were exhausted but exhilarated. As you can see we got soaked, but it was great fun. Remarkably, the Tongariro is so pure you can drink directly from it — which we did. Lovely, fresh,, clear water! We highly recommend the group we went with, Rafting New Zealand.


Getting ready to rock the Tongariro. We were a mixed group from the UK, Australia, US, Germany, Sweden, and, of course, New Zealanders.


Michael & I are the two in front of the guide in the stern, just as the rapids swamped us.


Near the end of the rapids, nearly 14 kilometers and 52 rapids under our belt. Good reason to celebrate!

Photos courtesy of Rafting New Zealand, Turangi, NZ,

Auckland: A city of volcanoes


Auckland from the harbor: the Sky Tower soars over all other buildings.


Three important tidbits of information from our driver pierced my jet lag fog as we shuttled into Auckland, New Zealand: (1) Auckland was founded by British so “everyone drove on the left side, so you Yanks watch out;” (2) Auckland was having a heat wave with unusually hot and humid weather (we later scoffed at their definition of humidity – and got royally sunburned in retribution); and, (3) Auckland sat on over 50 volcanoes, many of them active. Five wonderful but searing hot days later we left Auckland sunburned and alive despite constantly forgetting cars came at you from the right, and, with thanks to the still-quiet volcanoes.

The entire country of New Zealand has about 4.5 million people, one third of whom live in Auckland. The city is beautiful, incredibly clean and well organized, with a compact central business district bracketed by miles of waterfront and quaint suburbs perched on volcanic hillsides. The sprawling city straddles the narrowest strip of New Zealand, spreading between Manukau Harbor & the Tasman Sea on the western side, and at the core of the city, the eastern Hauraki Gulf leading to the Pacific.

IMG_8147_Rangitoto -- if anything will blow soon, this volcano will

Rangitoto Island, one of Auckland’s youngest volcanoes. It last erupted 650 years ago. Volcanologists predict if any of Auckland’s 50+ volcanoes will blow soon rather than later, it will be Rangitoto.

Self-appointed the sailing capital of the world, Auckland bristles everywhere with masts of Sali boats and yachts as well as “stinkpots,” a sailor’s term for motorized vessels. If the sea and island vistas don’t convince you, the thousands of sailboats, yachts, ferries, freighters – and more – will make the point: Auckland is entwined with the seas for livelihood, life and pleasure. They even have freighters that haul yachts to Auckland from around the world:

IMG_8121_Yacht Transport Frieghter

This freighter was carrying over a dozen yachts topside. No way of knowing how many were below decks.

Boats and ships were everywhere. Even if not on the water:

IMG_8126_Building built in ship form

A mixed-purpose structure built in a ship’s form. So very Kiwi!

The central business district (CBD) is very walkable, and you get quite a workout from all the volcanic hills once headed away from the harbor. The sea-to-city theme is always with you, whether in a museum viewing Maori culture displays of wakas (canoes) or pakeha (white Anglo-Europeans) sailing craft, or huffing at the top of Mt. Eden or other high points, marveling at the spectacular city-on-the-water views. And then there’s the Fish Market, where we bought fixings for most of our dinners in Auckland. Smoked broadbill (a large swordfish) is exceptionally tasty.

IMG_8128_Sky Tower at night

The Sky Tower glows with an evolving light show at night.

Another must-see landmark is the Sky Tower, which soars above its neighbors in the Auckland sky line. The Tower is where the more intrepid go bungy jumping, while the less courageous go on a tethered sky walk around a wide “lip” of the tower – still way high up there — while the true cowards among us go up the elevator to enjoy the views… Kiwis pride themselves on having a multitude of “adventure sports,” and claim that bungy jumping began in New Zealand.

Side bar: The original tethered jumping began as a rite of passage on Pentecost Island in Polynesian Vanuatu. A few centuries later, an extreme sports group in Oxford, UK, began the modern “sport” of bungy jumping. An enterprising Kiwi called A.J. Hackett saw a video by this group and developed his own harness rig to bungy jump off the Auckland Harbor Bridge. He subsequently bungeed off various high spots around the world, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He set up the first commercial bungy jumping business in Queenstown, NZ, which continues to claim (erroneously) to be the birthplace of bungy jumping.


View from the Sky Tower: Far in the distance above the center is the Auckland Harbor Bridge, location of the first “commercial” bungy jump.

Back to sea level: Various signs in Auckland and even the two-story wall of one building detailed the history of New Zealand’s attempts and wins in the vastly popular America’s Cup races. The last 40 years’ history of this yacht race reads like a schoolboy’s tale of bullies in the sandbox, except these guys take each other to court. (National origin of these pugilistic, filthy rich yacht owners doesn’t matter – they all act like spoiled brats when vying for an advantage in the races.) Yet tiny New Zealand has managed to haul in the trophy a number of times. Just as a point of history (I’ll be brief), the trophy is called the “America’s Cup” not because the U.S. has won it more times than any other participating country (which it has), but because the boat that won the initial, British sponsored race in 1851 was called “America.”

The Maritime Museum carries on with the nautical theme, and it’s one of the best such museums I’ve ever experienced. Multiple buildings house various ingenious watercraft from early Polynesians to 19th-20th century vessels used by Anglo-Europeans. Partial replicas of famous racing yachts, among them Peter Blake’s controversial Black Magic, which swept the 1995 America’s Cup, are displayed; the reason for the partial displays, such as half the massive hull of Black Magic, is due to size and space considerations within the museum.

One clever interactive exhibits coached you on how to design your own ocean-racing yacht. Michael tried his hand at racing yacht design. Warning signs kept flashing at him saying, “Your boat is very stable but isn’t going to win a race any time soon.” So he’d extend the sail height and narrow the hull, and kept getting told his boat wasn’t a winner, until….

IMG_8207_Dunked and sunk

Whoops. A bit top heavy. Capsized.

In other words, don’t quit your day job.

Auckland has much to offer, and, despite spending five days there, we only scratched the surface. I haven’t given justice to the city, as I’ve focused on a maritime theme, which is my interest and inclination. There is far more to see than I’ve written here. Hats off to Auckland – a fabulous introduction to New Zealand!

IMG_8168_sunset over Auckland from Sky Tower

Sunset from the Sky Tower.



And for those of you who thought we were over Holland, Holstein cows & Dutch cheese  —  think again! A popular ice cream chain features a Holstein cow in front of all its stores:


And on the way to our next stop, I noticed a sign saying, “Dutch Deli” and we just had to stop:

IMG_8212_Dutch Deli in mountain town

Ahhh…real Dutch cheese. We were in heaven.

It turns out that after WWII, Dutch comprised a huge number of immigrants to New Zealand, so Dutch cheese and other products aren’t as out of place as you’d think. Lucky for us!



The World’s Oldest Hip Hop Crew

Their average age is mid-70’s. The oldest performer is 96. One person is on a walker. One person is legally blind, a couple others are partially deaf. Some have had joint replacements.  All of them have arthritis. Each has adopted a stage name, along the lines of “Boom Boom,” “Dollar and Two Cents,” “Mystic Diva,” and “Shake it up Sheila.” Their creed is that if any one of them dies during a performance, the others will “step over their mate” and keep right on dancing. The show, of course, must go on.

And do they put on a show! They are the “Hipop-eration,” world-renowned hip hop dancers from Waiheke Island, Auckland, New Zealand. No lie. This energetic motley crew of mostly octogenarians has performed internationally, including at the 2013 International Hip Hop Competition in Las Vegas.

Where and how did these dancing geriatrics get their beginning? And why hip hop?

We first heard of this amazing troupe while on a wine tour of Waiheke Island. Our enthusiastic driver-guide and island native first waxed on about Waiheke’s reputation for boutique vineyards, then segued into such an intriguing story about “the World’s Oldest Dance Group” that we had to learn more.

The Story: After surviving a devastating earthquake in Christchurch 2011, Billie Jordan found herself asking, “If I’d died in the quake, could I say I had really lived life to the fullest?” Her self-assessment emphatically concluded, ”No!” She relocated from Christchurch to Waiheke Island, on the eastern fringe of Auckland harbor basin, an idyllic, laid-back island full of aging hippies and wine-growers.

Looking around for something meaningful to do, Billie noticed that many of the aging residents seemed to lack purpose and any form of activity, so she began the Wiaheke Island dance group with initial intentions of staging “flash mob” performances to promote fitness in seniors. Why hip hop? “Why not?” Billie retorts during a TED talk about Hipop-eration.

Billie told the group, “Whether you believe it or like it or not, in 8 months you will be competing at the international hip hop competition.” Their local performances swiftly morphed into “the world’s oldest” hip hop dance group with fans and shows all over New Zealand. They did believe, and in less than a year from their flash mob beginnings, they did perform at the 2013 world hip hop championship in Las Vegas. The World’s Oldest Dance Group may not have won the overall competition, but they sure brought down the house. I doubt Vegas will ever be the same again. Hip hop certainly won’t!


Hipop-eration website: Click on links on their website for videos of performances & workouts. Videos are also available on YouTube. Just type in “World’s Oldest Dance Group” and select which ones to watch.

Lecture by group founder, Billie Jordan:


Tuking into Cambodia


A tuk tuk driver rests in his hammock at siesta time, chatting with another driver.


Tuk tuks, covered carts attached to a motorcycle, are a major and relatively inexpensive form of transportation in Cambodia. Variations of the tuk tuk can be found throughout most of southeast Asia and are equally popular. Finding ourselves with an unplanned day in Phnom Penh, our guide suggested an excursion to Mekong Island (Koh Dach) for some touring off the beaten path. Always up for an adventure, we eagerly put ourselves in the capable hands of Sam, our guide.

Our day began with a short cruise up the Mekong River (a childhood favorite of mine), passing river huts and “marinas” in the shadow of Phnom Penh’s booming tourist hotels.


While we disembarked, Sam swiftly negotiated a half-day tuk tuk excursion, and in the three of us climbed. Koh Dach is one of several islands in the Mekong just north of Phnom Penh where silk production was once a major cottage industry. However, we experienced quite a bit of island life that day, way beyond our 1 hour visit to a silk “farm.”

First stop was a new temple complex. But what caught my eye was the house next to the temple. Most Cambodian abodes look similar to this:


Most Cambodian village houses are simple structures on stilts. The raised abode has a dual purpose of keeping varmints out (think snakes & rats) as well as providing a shady place for livestock.

The house that caught my attention was this one:


A monk sits in meditation surrounded by clever mobiles of…used cans and bottles. Repurposing as an at form — how clever!

Completely surrounding the porch perimeter, some clever artisan had turned soda cans and water bottles into decorative, hanging works of art. Take a closer look:


I’d seen similar but smaller and less complex recycled art at home, but nothing quite as elaborate as these pieces.

Continuing on, our next stop was even more amazing. Sam, always on the look out for the unusual, called out “Stop!” to the tuk tuk driver and ordered him to turn back around.


Female cow, on the right, is unenthusiastically awaiting her bull, the large humped bovine behind her. Assumedly, the third animal is her calf, but whether there just to help keep Mama calm or for instructional purposes wasn’t clear.

A gaggle of villagers, all men, were trying to “encourage” a bull to do his natural mission of impregnating the cow in front of him. She, being kept in place in a form of “stocks” by a nose ring and tether  was having none of it. She lowed and shook her head, the calf lowed and strained at his rope, and the bull — well, he looked completely and utterly clueless. After over five minutes of standing poised with camera in my face, I lowered the camera to give my arms a break and — FLASH!! — you guessed it — the bull had mounted and dismounted the cow in less time than it’s taken me to describe their mating. All of 3 seconds. Flat. I think some old fashioned “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” encounters have lasted far longer.

Afterwards, the bull looked a little less clueless and perhaps just a bit smug. The cow, on the other hand, was still lowing miserably.


Continuing on our way, we passed through a few hamlets, with the road gradually deteriorating from paved-with-potholes to a dirt road — a very dusty dirt road. Sam once more hollered for the driver to stop when he spied an on-going Buddhist wedding in one village. He urged us to join the party, saying the couple would be very pleased and honored to have Americans join them. I demurred as I thought our uninvited presence would be intrusive and distract from the ceremony. Besides, I didn’t really feel comfortable being a “wedding crasher.”  On we went.


Wedding #1.


The next stop — a silk farm — was fascinating as their production was truly from soup to nuts — or worms to silk products. (Skip this first  picture if squeamish.)


Silk worms — caterpillars — feeding on a basket of mulberry leaves.


The silkworms are placed in  bunches of hanging branches where they spin their cocoons. Once the moths have emerged, the cocoons are collected for extraction of the raw silk fibers.


Dyed silk thread against a nest of cocoon fibers or raw silk.


Raw silk fibers after being unwound from the cocoon.


After the silk fibers are cleaned and dyed, they are woven into cloth for various types of silk garments.



Michael trying his hand at weaving.


Some of the finished product: colorful silk scarves.

Always a cottage industry, the techniques for silk production, especially weaving, have been passed down from mother to daughter over the centuries. However, silk production, once a mainstay of Cambodian life and local economy, has faltered in recent years. The reasons are multiple and interactive: overuse of pesticides in farming have killed off huge numbers of moths and silk worms; these same agriculture practices have made small-hold farming more lucrative, drawing off silk weavers and others to support family farms; many silk workers have left for more lucrative pay in factories as Western markets have increasingly shifted production to the lower wage Asian markets. This siphoning off of skilled or potential weavers has, in turn, exacerbated declining silk production. Initially, dying off of the silk worm population resulted in importing cheaper and more available raw silk from other Asian countries. However, in recent years, the cost of these imports rose while simultaneously the cost of the finished silk goods declined.

Cambodia has struggled mightily to correct decades of both layered, institutional corruption as well as the murderous, decimating rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s and other repressive government since. Recently taxes on raw silk imports have been lowered, and some subsidies instituted for silk production, but model silk “farms” such as the one we visited have not been able to offset the steady decline of this craft. The allure of higher paying manufacturing jobs, as well as the more productive family farm, have siphoned off much of the next generation of silk growers and weavers. It remains to be seen whether silk production and weaving in Cambodia will survive the 21st century.

By the time we left the silk farm, we were getting used to Sam’s exhortations for the driver to stop immediately and perform a whiplash-inducing U-turn in the road to go back to whatever Sam had just spotted. This also meant that as we turned 180 degrees, we immediately were covered by a cloud of dust churned up by our tuk tuk just moments before. But it was always worth it.


Home brewed palm wine. Who can resist?

One such road reversal took us back to a tiny one room house where an enterprising young couple sold home-brewed palm wine. People — mostly men — would enter the hut with doubled or tripled plastic bags and emerge with a bulging sack of palm wine. The couple welcomed us into their abode, and offered us a sample of their brew. Trying not to think of how many people had imbibed from the same cup, I told myself a little bacteria can only make my immune system stronger. I sipped, Michael guzzled. We declined to buy; I really wasn’t keen on palm wine, I discovered.


Michael samples the palm wine. Sam looks at me saying, “Your turn!” I had to do it….

The lady of the house — who was drop dead gorgeous — could not have been more than 18 but already had several children under foot. Michael immediately fell in love. I think his ardor cooled somewhat when he sniffed out the other home brew she had going: teuk trei, or fish sauce. Very pungent, stomach-churning, fermented fish sauce. We declined this purchase as well.


The hut was no more than 12 by 6 feet for a family of (what looked like) five. One corner was the cooking area. The upper left corner above shows the concrete pan fire place where the palm wine (and fermented fish sauce) were cooked. Two of the bowls contain small river fish waiting to be added to the pot.

We had a few more neck-wrenching U-turns, all of them interesting. We came upon a second wedding, and Sam almost persuaded us to join the matrimonial fun. Images of The Wedding Crashers kept kalaidoscoping in my head so we chickened out. But the last stop was the best of all.

“Stop!” hollered Sam, followed by a torrent of Cambodian, he was so excited. “Cow! Giving birth! Come!” he finally managed. So we scrambled out of the tuk tuk and ran to where a half-dozen men were playing midwives to a cow. By the time I was able to get my camera focused, the calf was halfway out. We watched through the entire process:


Two men gently help pull the calf from the cow, who looks on impassively.



At this point, the calf was not yet breathing and the umbilical cord is still attached.


One man gently wipes mucous and placenta from the calf’s body.


The calf’s face and nostrils were carefully cleared and it began to breathe on its own.


The calf was placed before the mother who proceeded to first smell and bond with the calf, then lick it clean.


So that was our day: breeding cows, repurposed porch art, uncrashed-weddings, attempts to weave silk, palm wine sampling, and witnessing a calf’s birth. Certainly an off-road day, and one to always be remembered.

Thank you, Sam!


New Year in Hanoi


Hanoi street market on the eve of the Vietnamese New Year: people are bustling for last minute gifts, especially those in the good luck colors of red and gold.

Têt, the days-long New Year celebration, is by far the most important holiday in Vietnam. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, Têt falls on a different day each year. Preparations begin weeks in advance. Homes are first scoured to remove any bad luck from the previous year, then lavishly decorated with “good luck” colors of red and gold, bedecked with colorful flowers, miniature kumquat trees, and families begin to welcome home far-flung relatives as the majority of Vietnamese return to their ancestral homes for the holidays.


Hanoi’s streets were lit up for the holiday.


Signs saying “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” swayed from buildings and street poles. wishing all a Happy New Year.

Têt can last for several days, beginning days or weeks ahead, with preparing traditional New Year foods, and ancestral altars are cleaned and refreshed with heaps of foods and gifts for the family’s ancestors. The emphasis on honoring one’s ancestors is an important ritual of Têt, especially for those who’ve passed away that year. The various offerings are meant for the departed to use on their journey to (hopefully) heaven.

We were honored by an invitation from our young guide, Quan, to join his family for a New Year Eve’s dinner at his apartment. “Happy,” as he liked to be called, was newly married with a 5 month old daughter. Like most young Vietnamese,  he lived with his parents, an uncle and his grandfather in a Hanoi apartment building.

IMG_6048_Quan, Hih and their 5 month old daughter, An

Quan, Hih, and their baby, An.

We brought a traditional gift of candies, as well as a large bottle of beer. (I’m still not sure if beer is a traditional Têt gift, but Happy said his grandfather liked beer at the holidays, so beer it was.) Happy introduced us to his wife, baby, and mother, who had been laboring in the kitchen preparing all the wonderful foods eaten at Têt.

IMG_6049_Home altar with various gifts to famly ancestors and Vietnamese leaders such as HCM and General Giap

Happy’s family’s ancestral altar. Pictures on the left (partially obscured by flowers) are of honored ancestors, the picture on the right is of Buddha, and the white bust is of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. In addition to flowers and candles, the altar held five types of traditional fruit, dried fruits, nuts, and candies, as well as bottles of spirits, and several packets of  Banh Chung,  banana leaf-wrapped steamed rice cakes.

Happy proudly showed us the family’s magnificent ancestral altar, laden with various Têt foods as well as gifts. We then sat on a straw mat with his family to partake of the modest feast his mother had prepared.


In addition to plain rice, we were served Vietnamese sausage, mung bean pudding, red sticky rice, Banh Chung, or steamed rice cake (shed of its banana leaf covering), and Western-style mini hot dogs (which although certainly not traditional, Happy specifically liked  and asked for).

About halfway through the meal, Happy’s grandfather arrived, bowing and smiling in greeting before joining us on the mat. Grandfather Ca, in his eighties, formally introduced himself with Happy as his translator. After the introduction, the first thing he said was, “I am so happy our countries are friends again. War is a terrible thing, especially among friends, but now our countries are at peace. This makes me glad.”

I knew from what Happy had told us that his grandfather, now in his late eighties, had been in the North Vietnamese Army, and admired Ho Chi Minh (whose bust was on the family altar) but Happy said Grandfather Ca had always wanted Vietnam and America to be on peaceful terms. And this despite an awful, bloody war which saw, among other deeds (on both sides) massive U.S. bombings of swathes of Hanoi and other sections of then North Vietnam. Grandfather Ca ended his speech by giving me (because I had lived in pre-war Vietnam) a specially printed Têt card inscribed with a poem he’d written, and good luck wishes for the coming year. Happy explained that Ca and his friends would write these special poems and greetings every year to exchange among themselves and to give to family members and close friends. We felt quite honored.

We left after dinner for a short nap before making our way to the central lake in Hanoi to watch the fireworks that would usher in the New Year at midnight.We were intrigued by many of the altars set up on the sidewalks or roadways in front of shops to honor the shopkeepers’ ancestors. All had similar foods and gifts as had Happy’s family altar, but with the addition of a whole boiled chicken — head, cockle, beak and all — a special offering to the ancestors.


One shopkeeper’s ancestral altar. Of note in the foreground, from left, are a boiled whole chicken, red sticky rice, and the steamed rice cakes, Banh chung, with a display of five fruits and several paper presents in the rear.

Due to my dawdling over these fascinating altars, we never made it to Hoan Kiem Lake where the fireworks were held. Caught at midnight in the streets with dozens of others, we gazed from a couple of blocks away at the fireworks as they exploded over the rooftops. The Vietnamese love fireworks, but at Têt they have a special function, to ward off any evil spirits as the new year begins. Children ran about, setting off long tubes of small fireworks and whirling noisemakers, making as much noise and bangs as possible to scare off the evil spirits. It was quite a display.


A woman lights up paper offerings to speed her New Year gifts to her ancestors.

Returning to our hotel, we saw many people carefully burning their paper offerings that had earlier sat on their altars. Symbolic gifts are made of paper, such as (fake) money, cars, miniature houses, floral bouquets and wrapped (empty) boxes, to be burned as the new year begins to speed these offerings to their ancestors.

I’m not sure what is done with the chicken.

But I can definitely say that this Têt celebration in Hanoi was one of the most memorable celebrations I can remember.

Têt in 2016 in Vietnam will begin February 8.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

Cao Dai Religion of Vietnam


Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.


Vietnam is the birthplace of the unique and unlikely religion of Cao Dai. A mixture primarily of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, Cao Dai also imports teachings of Muhammad, Jesus, and Laozi, among others, along with some Catholicism (they have a Pope and a Holy See) and a bit of spiritualism thrown in. The primary temple (Holy See) is in Tay Ninh, in the heart of the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam.

Suppressed by the Communists in 1975, Cao Dai was reprieved by the government in 1997 and has flourished since in this corner of Vietnam. Government estimates indicate at least 4.4 million declared worshipers, whereas the religion itself claims upwards of 6 million believers. Given Cao Dai’s long-time criticism of Communism — they also opposed French colonial rule and USA-backed President Diem — I’d guess these official numbers are an under-representation.


The Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, 90 km northwest of Saigon.

Cao Dai believe in dual deities followed by a pantheon of saints and other holy figures. The ubiquitous, omnificent male Supreme Being, representing the yang, and the Holy Mother, representing the yin, create the balance of heaven and earth. Several historical persons are included in their panoply of revered souls, including, among others, Julius Caesar, Victor Hugo, Sun Yat-sen, and, inexplicably (in my opinion), Joan of Arc.

IMG_4816_The left eye, the all-seeing eye of the universe

The Divine, All-Seeing Eye of God.

Cao Dai is rife with symbolism, the most important being the All Seeing Eye, also known as the Divine Eye. Represented as the left eye of God, this symbol is a reminder that God is omnipresent and sees all.

The Holy See is a spectacularly gaudy display of color and opulence. The decorations of the columns and windows are so colorful and elaborate they reminded me of the rococo stylism of 18th century Europe. The three colors of Cao Dai — yellow, red and blue — represent the the three religions from which form the belief systems of Cao Dai. Respectively, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

IMG_4830_Cao Dai priest in yellow robes signifying Buddhism

Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.


IMG_4831_ Priest in red robs signifying Confucianism

Red represents Confucianism, and blue Taoism.

IMG_4839_Cao Dai Service

The Holy See during a service. Lay worshipers are dressed in impeccable white, and the three priests in yellow, blue and red (just left of center).

Cao Dai beliefs and principles fundamentally stress the “oneness” of each individual with God and the universe. There is the focus on perfecting oneself, but also strong values placed, in this order, upon the family, society, and mankind. As in many religions, Cao Dai professes a form of the Golden Rule. However, they take this precept of acting well and empathetically to another level, urging adherents to do good deeds to earn merit and a better position in the next life. Another principle that I found interesting was the emphasis on wealth and materialism.

Additional precepts in Cao Dai are also somewhat universal: do not kill, do not perform adultery, do not steal, do not get drunk, and do not sin by word (i.e. do not slander or be verbally abusive to others).

Cao Dai followers participate in four services per day at a temple with a fifth conducted at home. We were lucky enough to observe the service above from the balcony at the rear of the temple. Also in the balcony were about two dozen worshipers seated or standing around a circle of musicians.

IMG_4843_In balcony, worhippers form chorus with accompanying traditional Vietnamese musicians. The raised headress of worshippers in foreground is that of people in mourning.

The cloth-covered wire headdresses of the two women in the right foreground indicate that they were in mourning for a loved one. The four men are playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, and the women in the left top corner formed a chorus of sorts, sometimes singing softly, other times chanting. Our guide explained that this small group of worshipers were conducting a separate “mourning” ceremony preceding the main service on the main level of the temple.

IMG_4845_From left to right, Sun Yat Sen, as symbol for revolution; Victor Hugo, as symbol for compassion for downtrodden; Nguye Binh Khiem, 1st poet laureate for Vietnam. Inscription reads

The tablet above is inscribed in French, “God and humanity, love and justice.”

Each Cao Dai temple displays in its facility some rendition of the Divine Covenant of the Third Amnesty. The three figures represent three of the more important saints. From the left: revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, revered for rejecting oppressive rule in China; Victor Hugo, for his compassion and humanity; and Nguyen Binh Khiem, a 16th century Vietnamese leader, poet and teacher.

Visiting the Cao Dai Holy See was a bit of an overwhelming experience in that the gaudiness of the decor visually clashed with the plainness and simplicity of the worshipers. The theology, as well, struck me as overly complex and almost regulatory, yet the devotion of the Cao Dai worshipers was unquestionably yet quietly fervent. Certainly, the religion is complex in both belief systems and structure. This posting is but a small attempt to introduce a fascinating minor religion.


Some Interesting Facts:

  • Cao Dai is considred a monotheistic religion with a Supreme Being or God, yet professes the  male/female balance, or yin yang, by having dual male & female deities. Additionally, there is a pantheon of saints that are worshiped as well, among them:
    • Joan of Arc
    • Julius Caesar
    • Moses
    • Louis Pasteur
    • Lenin
    • William Shakespeare
    • The Bodhisattva Quan Am (Guan Yin in Chinese)
  • Kim Phuc, the 9 year old girl photographed running naked in terror and pain after surviving a napalm attack in 1972, was raised in the Cao Dai faith. Her village of Trang Bang, was mistakenly identified by the South Vietnamese Air Force as a Viet Cong stronghold, then hit with napalm bombs. Some members of her family were killed in that attack. As a young woman, Kim was used by the communists as a propaganda symbol. She later sought asylum in Canada, where she continues to live. Kim started a foundation to provide medical and psychological help to child victims of war. She is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.


Saigon, a Half-Century Later

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The Old Hotel Continental, the mainstay and watering hole for journalists and diplomats during the Vietnamese War.


I was 10 when my family left Saigon in mid-1962. For me, Saigon and Vietnam had been home for 4 years, a pretty significant chunk of my childhood. During our four years there, we’d lived through at least two coups and several rebel skirmishes; I’d seen bombings — been in bombings — my father had been shot in the neck & nearly killed during one coup; tanks or jeeps with mounted light artillery seemed to be on every corner, every day. During a lull in the fighting during one coup, I escaped our house, tired of crawling on all fours for 3 days so we wouldn’t accidentally get shot, and instead, climbed up our 20 ft. water tower to check out the fighting. It wasn’t pretty, out in the streets. What I saw served to squelch any rebellious curiosity and I stayed in the house, crawling around on all fours until the revolt was over.

And this was all before there was a “real” war in Vietnam, before American troops openly were deployed by the thousands to fight the North Vietnamese Communists.

Fifty-three years after leaving, I returned to Vietnam for the first time. My husband was afraid I’d have a lot of negative flashbacks; whatever anxieties I had were over by the time we landed in Saigon.

First & foremost, no one called the city by its “official” name of Ho Chi Minh City. It seems the southerners are stubborn in retaining the old name, although we found even in Hanoi and the far north, the Vietnamese called HCMC Saigon.

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Downtown Saigon — banners every 50 feet proclaimed the triumph of Communism and the upcoming Tet celebrations.

Obviously, much had changed: Saigon was a modern, if developing, city. Thousands of motorbikes had replaced bicycles & cyclos  (bicycle-propelled 2 seater buggies). Dozens of sky scrapers dwarfed some of the old areas and historical hotels and buildings. And everywhere — despite all the incredible and crafty entrepreneurship — were reminders that Vietnam was solidly a communist country.

First, 2015 was the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Communist Party in Vietnam, as displayed on the banner below.

Secondly, year-long 2015  was celebrated as the 40th year since the fall of Saigon in April, 1975, and the Communist Party could lay claim to the entire country.

Lastly, all of Vietnam was gearing up for THE major national holiday, Tet, the Lunar New Year. So, the streets streamed banners and strands of colorful lights, and the city hummed with anticipation.

We had a private guide and driver and thus the inescapable, crushing, cacophonous traffic was sub-bearable, as opposed to overwhelming. No one paid attention to stop lights or designated lanes. To cross a street, you held up your hand in the universal “stop” signal and waded in among the thousands of motorbikes, taxis and cars. It didn’t matter if you were at a corner or the middle of the street. In fact, stepping off a corner was far, far more dangerous as kamikaze bikers swooped and screeched around corners at full speed.


Most commuters wore masks or scarves wrapped tightly around their faces to ward off the persistent smog and bike exhaust. Many women also wore gloves and socks along with long sleeves to keep their skin from darkening.

We found that many Vietnamese, especially women, were fanatic about protecting their skin, as fair skin tone is very prized. We actually found this prejudice for fair skin pervasive among both men and women, as both sexes strove for skin as fair as one could achieve it, often chemically. (Billboards all over Saigon advertised facial whitening creams and treatments.) We had a couple of male guides tell us they would not marry a dark-skinned woman, the thought was just too repulsive to them.

I did recall this love affair with fair skin even as a child, but paid it no mind, except for one encounter when I was about seven. We were boating with another family in the northern part of South Vietnam, and the father of the boat captain, an elderly Vietnamese, had never seen a child with platinum blonde hair and very pale skin. Unsurprisingly, he wanted to touch my hair and face to see if I was real, and, of course, I freaked. My father came to the rescue and resolved the situation without causing a diplomatic incident, but I had to tolerate a lot of hair petting and arm examination the first couple of years there.



The former Presidential Palace, now the Reunification Palace. Enter a caption

In addition to seeing a lot of temples, our lovely guide, Hoa, made sure I saw some of the buildings that remained from my childhood. The old Presidential Palace was gone, destroyed by bombs while we were there, and the mid-60’s constructed replacement is now the Reunification Palace. It was amazing that so many of the old landmarks had survived the coups & revolts, the bombs and shellings that Saigon suffered through. A few, for the memories:

Notre Dame Cathedral, with a few of Saigon’s newer buildings in the background.

IMG_4757_Old Post Office.JPG

The Old Post Office

IMG_4804_The Opera House

The still-elegant Opera House, where Michael and I attended a cultural performance.

I’ve alluded to temples, and will cover some of those in a later posts, hopefully, along with photos from other parts of Vietnam.

But one place we saw held such a special meaning for me, the beautiful house my family had lived in for four years. Through the determination of our guide and driver, and despite several street name changes over 50 years, we found “my” house. I was quite surprised, because so many of the old colonial style houses had been torn down or converted into unattractive apartments. Ours had not — it was even more beautiful than I remember; obviously someone had chosen to restore the house itself, probably 100 years old at this point, and also beautifully landscaped the yard.

Like most diplomats, we had rented a house that had belonged to a French colonial who’d given up on Vietnam and returned to France. Like all such foreigners’ or ranking Vietnamese houses, the house was enclosed by a tall wall and a locked gate. Our guide would not be deterred, and long story short, she talked us past the locked gate about 10 feet. Stunned and unashamedly overwhelmed to be seeing “my house” again, I flubbed half of the pictures I took, but here are two:


The driveway leading from the gate to the portico; the main house stands to the left.


The stucco was new, as the shutters over the huge windows, and the grounds beautifully landscaped. The renovations were meant to ensure privacy, with views into the house blocked by both a high wall and these tall trees inside the wall & gate.

As it turned out, ironically, the entity that had expensively restored the house and grounds was the Communist Party of Vietnam, and one of their high-up officials now lived in our old house in relative luxury. How things do change!

There were three aspects of “modern” Saigon that I noted were entirely new in this new century. The first was the incredible amount of  air pollution, mostly from vehicular traffic. There are millions of motorbikes in the Saigon area.


From the air: a blanket of smog between the airport and very nearby downtown Saigon obscures the buildings of the city.

The other two observations were interesting, if not whimsically more appealing.


One of the recently built skyscraper in downtown Saigon, a beautiful and unusual building. Note the round platform projecting out of the building: a helipad. Business in the 21st. century!


And, finally, Amway comes to Vietnam.

Amway in Vietnam. Who’d have thunk it? Communist country or not, the Vietnamese definitely have the entrepreneurial spirit!

This first stop back in Vietnam held several surprises for me: the physical growth, the ubiquitous air pollution, the energy of Saigon. Two other aspects struck me: how happy — genuinely happy — people seemed to meet Americans, and how friendly so many of the people were. During our 2+ weeks in Vietnam, I came to realize that for the Vietnamese, the “American War” as they call it was a small blip in the overall history of the Vietnamese people. And while we were shown kindness and assistance by many people on our trip (outside of our guides and drivers) it clearly is the younger people, those under 30, who hold a deep fascination for all things Western or American. Still, along with the drive to modernize and even Westernize, the people we met also demonstrated a deep and satisfied pride in their own very ancient culture.