Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2015
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Discovering Vietnam through its food, around the world on a tandem bike with strangers, and a collection of fine travel writing that includes plenty of authors from Perceptive Travel.

Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table
By Graham Holliday

From England, Graham Holliday headed to South Korea in 1996 for his first expat adventure. A year later, he moved to Vietnam, inspired by a reasonable-sounding credo that the best way to discover a country is through its food, especially its street food.

Thus, Holliday offers us a travelogue in the guise of a food guide, all the while recounting his personal history. When he first landed in Vietnam, he was a neophyte, bewildered and nearly undone by the many shocks in store for a young man experimenting with bohemian life in Asia.

It's good that the author traces a backbone of a plot through the book: coming to Asia, finding a place to live, job-hunting, meeting his future wife, getting married, having a baby, finally becoming a successful blogger and journalist. Such a plot improves the flow of things and helps differentiate the dozens of food stories—which have a tendency to run into each other.

As a street guide for someone planning a food tour of Vietnam, this book is indispensable. For the general reader, however, it assumes a more-than-average interest in street food in Asia. In 336 pages, Holliday describes what seem like hundreds of foodstuffs: banh mi, hu tieu, bun cha, etc. (Holliday conforms to Vietnamese spelling and typography throughout the book; thus, Saigon = Sai Gon and Hanoi = Ha Noi. Also, many letters are marked with multiple accents which I haven't reproduced here.)

Eating Viet Nam is very funny at times and the author doesn't mind making himself the occasional butt of the joke; moreover, the book is colored throughout with an insider's special knowledge:

If you want to really discover Viet Nam, it's here in the dungeons, crannies, and sewer pipes of alleyway markets, like that on Hem Hoa Hung, that you'll find it. Not in the big brash markets of Sai Gon, like Ben Thanh. Nor in backpacker-land around Pham Ngu Lao Street, filled with dreadlocked travelers eating banana pancakes, trying hard to find themselves in budget accommodations. Nor will you find it on the slick and snazzy Dong Khoi Street, nor on any number of central Sai Gon thoroughfares.

In many cases, however, Holliday writes in a blogger's overly laid-back, overly casual style. He also loves lists a bit too much and includes sixteen of them, at my count.

With its down-and-dirty images of Asia and its dense catalog of menu items, food facts, and descriptions of gritty street life, Eating Viet Nam becomes a combination autobiography, travelogue, and guidebook. For street-food fans, Holliday has written an authoritative survey.

A Bicycle Built for Two Billion
By Jamie Bianchini

An around-the-world trip by bicycle, but this time, the bicycle is a tandem. The author, a thirty-something, former go-getting businessman from California, covered eighty-one countries in eight years, all the while giving rides to people he met along the way, with an aim to spread a self-invented gospel of "intercultural friendships across all religious, racial, and language barriers"—a mission which he named Peace Pedalers.

Other goals were to sort himself out psychologically; undertake some spiritual growth; find the love of his life, or, at least, hook up with a few women along the way; bring an end to strife and hatred; distribute malaria pills; build a school for AIDS orphans; and teach-the-world-to-sing-in-per-fect-har-mo-ny.

"Good grief!" I thought when first opening the book. This one's going straight to my local library's used-book sale. For some reason, though, I kept reading and, to my surprise, found myself engrossed in the journey.

Author Bianchini is a rugged, charismatic extrovert, a magnet for every kind of world citizen: villager, urbanite, young, old. He's an intrepid adventurer who, during his travels, endures accidents and catastrophes of every type: robberies, bicycle breakdowns, crashes, arrest, near death from gunshot, illness, and storm.

While reading, I could never decide if I were inspired by Bianchini's personal courage and idealism or repelled by his abundant self-regard. I still can't decide—a little of each, I guess.

More than once, Bianchini meets a charming woman during the journey, becomes involved with her for a while, then moves on to another fling. At such times, he seems like a frat boy on an endless spring break.

Then, in one chapter, he talks a pharmacy company into donating thousands of malaria pills for rural Africans, and a bit later helps found the Good Hope School in Uganda. He performs many other acts of selflessness and decency—thus, my ambivalence.

The travelogue at the heart of "A Bicycle Built for Two Billion" is a good one, filled with exotic scenery and chance encounters. We visit Japan, China, Nepal, Tibet, South Africa, Kenya, Italy, France, Bolivia, Peru, and many other countries. In the end, Bianchini actually does find the love of his life, marries her, and today, has a couple of kids. In truth, I don't know what to say about such a colorful character as Bianchini, except, "Pilgrim, I wish you well."

The Best Travel Writing, Vol. 10
Edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O'Reilly

With twenty-nine tales from around the world, The Best Travel Writing, Vol. 10 is a compilation of essays and memoirs from the ever-growing guild of travel writers. Contributors include veterans like James Michael Dorsey, Jeff Greenwald, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Michael Shapiro, all of whom have written for Perceptive Travel. Many of the rest of the authors were new to me, but they boast a wide range of books in print as well as publications in places like the New York Times, World Hum, the Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, etc. One or two appear to be newcomers to the travel-writing biz.

All in all, you have to hand it to the publishers of this annual anthology for gathering such interesting and variegated dispatches.

Keith Skinner visited American poet Robinson Jeffers's house in California; while Michael Shapiro made a pilgrimage to Dylan Thomas's hometown in Wales.

Elizabeth Geoghegan revisited her long-time love affair with Rome by cataloging several love affairs with Italian men, none of whom apparently lived up to the famed ideal of the Latin lover. Still … what's a single gal to do?

I greatly enjoyed Lisa Alpine's journey to South America, with a canoe trip down the Amazon and a friendship with "Fish Trader Ray" and a stop-off at Carnival in Bahia.

Same goes for Kelly Luce's antic visit to a soy sauce industrial facility in Japan, where she met company president Shikara, a rotund, expensively dressed, extremely proud company president, who managed to step into an enormous tank of fermenting sauce.

Matthew Crompton took us to Calcutta, Darjeeling, Sikkim, and other ports of call during his tour of India—all described in old-fashioned travelogue style. That is, until the end of his essay, when he waxed poetical:

I stand on the platform in the center of myself, utterly broken and inadequate, but knowing that when I give my heart to India, India gives its heart right back, brighter than my own could ever be…

Extreme self-reflection is a common trait among our latter-day travel writers. It goes without saying that this kind of soul-searching and philosophizing about travel will appeal to some readers and not to others.

William Caverlee is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Cimarron Review, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Eating Viet Nam

Buy Eating Viet Nam at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

A Bicycle Built for Two Billion

Buy A Bicycle Built for Two Billion in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Best Travel Writing, Vol. 10

Buy The Best Travel Writing, Vol. 10 at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Sign Up