In this photo-rich debut memoir, an urban planner recalls bicycling through Southeast Asia, his camera in tow.
Daly had been to Vietnam before, way back in the 1960s as a diver directing “explosive ordnance disposal work” for the U.S. military. But the journey he chronicles here is a much different, far happier one. From November 2013 to January 2014, Daly cycled from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) north through Cambodia, east through Thailand and Laos, then south to Ho Chi Minh City again, hewing to the long Vietnamese coastline. Though he saw many of the same places he saw in different circumstances 40 years ago, little was familiar. Vietnam “embraced consumerism and market capitalism,” women on the street wore skirts instead of black pajamas, cheap consumer goods were hawked at every corner, and in a city like Danang, “nothing was recognizable apart from misty, foggy views of Marble Mountain, the harbor and the Han River.” Eschewing the daily journal format, Daly organizes his book like a long, in-depth, and personalized travel encyclopedia. Separate sections walk readers through guesthouses where he stayed and the state of their facilities, how to avoid dishonest touts and fixers “smooth and slippery as an overripe mango,” and what to eat and what not to eat—“Cook it or peel it; if in doubt, boil it,” a friend wisely cautioned. Color photographs accompany the text, mostly Daly’s own colorful snaps but also maps and a handful of professional landscape shots. The photos are generally excellent, not professionally framed but, perhaps because of their casual quality, convincingly true to life. Readers are offered glimpses of riverboat vendors, idle boys killing time between jobs, the furious colors of a Hanoi street scene, the stillness of a large white Buddha. Daly is a competent, often eloquent writer, as when he describes an evening walk through Ho Chi Minh City, smelling the “huge array of orchid varieties; the fresh-cut aroma of tropical hardwoods; smoky haze wafting through the streets and alleys as charcoal fires were lit at dusk.” A few readers might be inspired to retrace his path.
A useful, attractive travel guide and memoir recommended for anyone curious about Southeast Asia.