Travel guides are, beyond a doubt, fun to read, but most armchair travelers find they must augment their guides with travel literature to flesh out their imagined points of arrival. The bare bones of where to eat, where to stay, what to see are not enough to feed a fantasy. Dreams require descriptions and stories and photographs to nurture vague desires so they will grow into plans, obsessions, and, at last, into adventures.
Nourishment for dreams, as well as practical travel information, is exactly what To Vietnam With Love provides. Although editor Kim Fay modestly states that this book will never supplant the conventional, comprehensive guidebook and that "reading it is like having a conversation with a friend", the accompanying fact file for each short essay makes this book almost all that is needed for travelers once they have reached their destinations.
What makes it a unique resource is the very special information that it offers. Travelers, expatriates, and residents from birth divulge what makes Vietnam special for them, ranging from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to villages along the coast and in the highlands. Their favorite dishes and drinks, restaurants and food stalls, shops and markets, hotels and guest houses--these are what a reader would expect to find--but this book goes far beyond the expected.
For those travelers who want to venture into the daily life that hides behind the postcard landscape, there are essays about exploring Hanoi's alleys, dancing in a Dalat ballroom, eating mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival, drinking homemade draft beer with the people who brew it, exploring coastal waters in a handmade bamboo coracle, and wandering though the autumn blossoms of Hanoi's fragrant milk flower trees.
Others who want to contribute to the country but are unsure of how to accomplish that will find a whole section of possibilities in the chapter entitled Paying It Forward. Where to work with children whose homes are on the streets, how to give time and supplies to orphanages, where to work as a volunteer, and where to shop, eat, and sleep in places where profits are used to support a variety of foundations and organizations (many of which are listed in this chapter) are only a few of the suggestions that this section supplies.
Because once a traveler has fallen in love with a country there is no such thing as too much information about it, a chapter called Resources for the Road recommends books, movies, websites, language learning materials, and cooking courses that will enlarge and enrich the curious reader's knowledge and understanding of Vietnam.
And, as the editor has promised, there are friends waiting within this book. It is impossible to read about people's most particular passions without feeling close to them in a very real way. Every reader will find her own favorites. For me, Todd Berliner won me over with his essay about Hanoi Cinematheque and Cafe, Emily Huckson enchanted me with her description of Hue's Phong Nha Caves, and Alice Driver made me long to chat with her about how she found a home amid the tourist attractions of Hoi An. These people have become my invisible and indelible friends, while Julie Fay Ashborn's photographs make me wish that I could have her as my constant travel companion.
Part of a series that was launched with To Asia With Love, and that will continue with other destinations, To Vietnam With Love is as much a pleasure to wander through as it will be to wander with.