A Travellerspoint blog

Discovering Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam Part I)

Research trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Co Loa and Halong Bay for my upcoming novel "Woman at the Citadel."

View Vietnam 2008 on AC Frieden's travel map.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (Jun. 13, 2008) -- After brief stopover in Hong Kong, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to conduct research for a new novel Woman At The Citadel, a mystery/political/romance that set in Indochina in 1951. I'm about a quarter into the manuscript, an ideal time to visit Vietnam and get more information about its colonial past, including its architecture in. But as an author, I find that on-site research is not only to see the settings for my book. It's also about understanding the culture, filling my scenses with the surroundings, finding off the beaten path places to supplement the better known locations, and uncovering information that is not readily available back home, such as limited edition books, archived documents, historical maps, old currency and other items that shed more light on the past. This will help me better develop my plot, the locations and the characters. And like many of my prior research trips, on-site visits often lead to scenes for later manuscripts, not just for the one I'm working on at the time of my travel.

What first struck me about Ho Chi Minh City is the traffic, or more precisely, the chaos of motorbikes and cars filling every inch of asphalt on the mostly narrow streets of this city of eight million inhabitants. There are no rules it seems. Bikes flow like water through the path of least resistance around other bikes, cars, pedestrians and other obstacles. Yikes!

(above) Congestion of motorbikes, still vastly outnumbering cars.

(above) The center of HCMC is quite modern, with popular restaurants and shops, as well as rooftop bars with great views, including the Saigon Saigon bar at the Caravelle Hotel, the one at the Rex Hotel, and my favorite at the Majestic Hotel (where I also stayed on my return from Hanoi).

(above) People carry almost anything on their scooters, including furniture, infants, large produce bags, bundles of clothing, you name it.

(above) The War Remnants Museum has many American military hardware on display, as well as gruesome pictures of war attricities.

(above) I explored the relics of war on the grounds of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (Viện bảo tàng Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh), a key historical site situated at the corner of Lý Tự Trọng street and Nam Kỳ khởi Nghĩa street. Called Gia Long Palace before the Fall of Saigon, it was the office of President of the Republic of Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm, when he returned to Vietnam following the 1954 Geneva Conference (though he was murdered in a coup d'etat in November 1963). His successors continued to work there until the Independence Palace (since 1975, the Reunification Hall) was completed. It has been a museum since the fall of South Vietnam. And given that the day I visited it was Sunday, the place was full of newlyweds getting their picture taken (why on earth here??).

(above) The Reunification Palace (Dinh Thống Nhất), formerly known as Independence Palace (Dinh Độc Lập), was built on the site of the former Norodom Palace and is a key historic landmark. Designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu as the residence of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (note that the Vietnamese refer to the conflict as the "American War"). The building is most notable for its symbolic role in the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when NVA tanks crashed through its gates and the victorious communist troops flew the flag on the balcony.

(above) In town you can also find the venerable cyclos (called "pouse pouse" in the French days). There are fewer in HCMC than in Hanoi because of police restrictions aimed at reducing traffic congestion. This picture was taken on the north entrance of the large Ben Thang market.


----- Travel Essentials Summary (and ratings) -----
Hotels: Sofitel Plaza Saigon (8.5); Hotel Majestic (8)
Restaurants: __________ ( );

All photos and text Copyright © 2008 A.C. Frieden. No reproduction permitted without prior written approval by A.C. Frieden. For reproduction rights and higher resolution images, send email to afrieden[at]avendiapublishing.com.

Posted by AC Frieden 13:22 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Scouring Vegas for One Hot Scene

Searching for the ending scenes of my upcoming novel, The Serpent's Game.

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LAS VEGAS, Nevada, USA (May 3, 2008) -- The other day I was finishing the outline for The Serpent's Game, the sequel to my 2006 spy thriller Tranquility Denied (Avendia Publishing, 2006). I had already done some research in Mexico and Poland for scenes to use in the book, but as I always do in my novels, I like to know the details of the ending before I get too immersed in the other chapters. So, I thought long and hard about it and came up with Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon for the final battle between the hero (lawyer Jonathan Brooks) and the villain. The scene, which consists of three parts rolled into one chapter, will involve a dramatic helicopter and SUV chase scene, but will end on a more sedate note with a tinge of ambiguity. Most importantly, to do the job well, I decided to research the scene on-site.

I headed to Vegas filled excitement about the journey. The first day was consumed with sightseeing on the Strip, shopping and great food, after which I returned to the Luxor exhausted. The real treat was for the second day. With two cameras (always have a back-up), I boarded the chopper from Maverick Helicopters at the airport. The next four hours were a real treat and offered me all the insight I needed to develop the scene.

(above) Standing next to the highly maneuverable EC-130 helicopter.

The helicopter took me over Las Vegas, Frenchman Mountain, Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and along the Colorado River into the western part of the Grand Canyon. The helicopter touched down on a ledge for a brief Champagne toast and lunch and then took off again for other impressive sites just south of the main canyon. After a refueling stop in the middle of nowhere, the flight continued to the sulfer and iron rich grounds north of Lake Mead (a place called the "Bowl of Fire"). And heading back over the city offered superb views of the Las Vegas Strip, the huge casino hotels, the Stratospere and other spots of interest. And as a private pilot, I especially appreciated the scenery and the maneuvres deep in the canyon itself. As you can see from the photos below, it was amazing...

(above) Flying over my hotel, the Luxor casino and resort

(above) View of the Las Vegas Strip (Caesar's Palace, the Paris, and the Bellagio are visible).

(above) Flying over Hoover Dam (note construction of the new bypass)

(above) Aerial view of the canyon's impressive rock formation.

(above) The Colorado River snaking through the canyon.

(above) Aerial view sulfer and iron rich soil just north of Lake Mead.

--- Summary of Travel Spots (and Ratings) ---
Hotels: Luxor (8)
Restaurants: _________ (in Mandelay Bay)(6); _________ (in Paris)(7);
Bars/Night Clubs: ____________ (in Belagio); ___________

All photos and text Copyright © 2008 A.C. Frieden. No reproduction permitted without prior written approval by A.C. Frieden. For reproduction rights and higher resolution images, send email to afrieden[at]avendiapublishing.com.

Posted by AC Frieden 15:02 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Mexican Sunshine, Tequila and a "Sinful" Story

The making of a short story for the upcoming anthology SIN

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PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Mar. 8, 2008) -- With a deadline looming for my contribution to a new anthology called SEX (the sequel anthology to SIN, also by Avendia Publishing), I needed two important things: time to write and a story worth reading. Authors sometimes need tranquil places to think, to spark one's literary synapses, and to get away from all the urban distractions that make it so difficult to write. So, the chance came up to go to Playa del Carmen and Tulum for inspiration. I came back with more than I expected -- I conceived a clever, short satire called Adios Verdad ("Goodbye Truth") and it rocks! Set in a steamy massage parlor on Playa del Carmen's La Quinta Avenida, the story of a married couple experimenting with risky affairs while emotionally torn about their deeds will hopefully leave readers tingling with rage, shock and laughter. SIN is due out in September and includes short stories from fourteen other Chicago-based popular fiction authors. For more information of the book, visit http://www.avendiapublishing.com.

(above) At my waterfront suite at the Playacar resort, a few hours before the massage that will shape my short story Adios Verdad.

(above) At the coastal Mayan ruins of Tulum.

(above) Heading south of Tulum through the Sian Ka'an wildlife reserve.

(above) The virgin beaches near Boca Paila, some 25 km south of Tulum, on the way to the fishing village of Punta Allen.

--- Travel Summary (and Ratings) ---
Hotels: Playacar Palace (8.5)
Restaurants: ___________(__); ___________(__); ___________(__); ___________(__);
Bars/Night Clubs: ___________(__); ___________(__);

All photos and text Copyright © 2008 A.C. Frieden. No reproduction permitted without prior written approval by A.C. Frieden. For reproduction rights and higher resolution images, send email to afrieden[at]avendiapublishing.com.

Posted by AC Frieden 16:21 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Tales from the Uruguayan Coast

Literary research trip along Uruguay's coast, from Colonia to Punta del Diablo.

sunny 94 °F
View Argentina & Uruguay 2007-2008 (New Years) on AC Frieden's travel map.

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay (Jan. 6, 2008) -- So far it's been an unbelievably pleasant journey. After a couple days in Buenos Aires, I took the ferry to Colonia and then hopped on a bus to the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, where I spend a couple days. After that, I drove to the "St. Tropez" of Latin America -- Punta del Este. It has all the glitz of its European counterpart, with luxurious villas, high-end stores, top restaurants and beautiful beaches, but it has a unique South American character. Indeed, it is a perfect vacation spot, which is why so many Argentineans, Brazilians, Chileans and Europeans come this way. So, it's at times difficult to remind myself that part of this trip is to scope out scenes for my book Where Spies Go To Die (perhaps I should rename it Where Gringos Go To Play).

Exploring the Capital

(above) Walking around downtown Montevideo on a quiet afternoon on New Years Eve.

(above) View of Puerto del Buceo and the yacht club from the condo I stayed in that first night in Montevideo.

Heading to Punta del Este

Punta del Este is definitely trendy. The nightlife too, with restaurants open till 4 a.m. and dance clubs till dawn, is abundant. With its modern infrastructure, cleanliness, order, safety, breathtaking residential architecture and expensive shops and cars, it offers a completely different picture of the continent than I had painted over my recent and past travels.

(above) Horseback riding in Punta del Este.

(above) Sunset over Punta del Este, viewed from the nearby chic town of La Barra.

(above) Nearing sunset viewed from the Casapueblo hotel in Punta Ballena, a couple miles southwest of Punta del Este.

Heading North Along the Coast

But in many ways, the traditional Latin American features return once you leave Punta del Este. I headed north toward Rocha, past beautiful hilly terrain dotted with cattle farms. Further northeast, I visited the villages of La Paloma, Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo.

(above) A stopping point just north of the coastal town of La Paloma.

(above) The lighthouse in Cabo Polonio, a remote Bohemian coastal village that seems completely disconnected from the world. There are no cars, no Starbucks, no fastfood restaurants, no mass tourism, no highrises... A true paradise for those who want to escape. It also has no roads leading to it (though it is only about 7 km from the main highway). I reached it using a 4x4 truck service that crossed the dunes to get to the village. There is no electricity or running water for the few hundred residents of this town, and only a few of them have generators to power some of the posadas and groceries stores. The place is young, filled with many South American and European escapees, all of whom enjoy the seclusion and the Bohemian lifestyle. I must admit, it has its charm. The isolation and calm that you feel walking along the pristine beaches untouched by corporate developers pleasantly disconnects you from the world. It is featured in my novel as the hometown of one of the story's paid assassins.

(above) A tranquil walk along the beach in Cabo Polonio.

(above) The view from my window seat right after takeoff from Punta del Este's airport.

All photos and text Copyright © 2008 A.C. Frieden. No reproduction permitted without prior written approval by A.C. Frieden. For reproduction rights and higher resolution images, send email to afrieden[at]avendiapublishing.com.

Posted by AC Frieden 23:58 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

Exploring Buenos Aires

Research trip to Argentina and Uruguay for Frieden's upcoming novel, Where Spies Go To Die.

sunny 90 °F
View Argentina & Uruguay 2007-2008 (New Years) on AC Frieden's travel map.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Dec. 29, 2007) -- I embarked on an intense research tour of Argentina and Uruguay. This trip adds to my already extensive travels in Mexico, Venezuela and Bolivia, all of which are for my upcoming novel Where Spies Go To Die. Arriving in the Argentine capital a couple days before New Years, I toured key locations for scenes involving my book's main fictional character, Emilio. These included the neighborhood of San Telmo, the birthplace of Tango, as well as La Boca, the oldest part in the city, and the restored area of Puerto Madeiro, a spot filled with modern lofts and highrises and hip restaurants. And as a special treat, I toured the city’s coastal neighborhoods by helicopter.

(above) Standing at the west end of Plaza de Mayo, the central square in the heart of Buenos Aires where stand the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Bank, the Revenue Department, City Hall and other important buildings. At the center of Plaza de Mayo is the General Manuel Belgrano monument, made by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse and Manuel Santa Coloma (pictured below).


(above) At the other end of Plaza de Mayo and across from the Belgrano statue stands the Casa Rosada, the former residence of many Argentinian presidents, and mostly known for being the place Eva Peron made her famous speech (the balcony on the top floor).

(above) Sitting on a balcony overlooking the main Plaza Dorrego, the main square in San Telmo, one of the most beautiful and historic barrios in the capital. San Telmo is the birthplace of tango, and is filled with wonderful restaurants, art galleries, street musicians, antique stores, as well as a interesting market in the main square.

Another component of my research is to examine the leftist transitions, particularly in socio-economic and political in governments throughout Latin America. It is not just to see the sites, but to understand the societal influences that make this part of the world unique, and helps to explain the current political movements. During my stay, I conducted various informal interviews with locals regarding the current political and socio-economic environment.

(above) Seated and ready for the helicopter tour of Buenos Aires.

(above) The main stadium in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The stadium (called Estadio Alberto J. Armando but more widely known as La Bombonera, meaning "chocolate bowl") is home to the Boca Juniors football team, best known for its legendary player Diego Maradona.

(above) The port in the La Boca neighborhood, the oldest port in the city.

(above) Flying over the hip waterfront area of Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires. Puerto Madero takes up a significant stretch of the Río de la Plata riverbank and hosts some of the city's latest architectural works, ranging from modern residential glass towers to completely renovated red brick lofts, as well as state-of-the-art luxury hotels.

(above) Standing by the helicopter after it landed at AeroPark airport, the city's regional aiport on the waterfront.

All photos and text Copyright © 2007 A.C. Frieden. No reproduction permitted without prior written approval by A.C. Frieden. For reproduction rights and higher resolution images, send email to afrieden[at]avendiapublishing.com.

Posted by AC Frieden 23:52 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

My Own Bolivian Diary

An investigative journey on the trail of Che Guevara's failed rebellion.

sunny 88 °F
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VALLEGRANDE, Bolivia (Nov. 22, 2007) -- I had been thinking about it for weeks. The excitement could hardly be contained. Finally, I was on my way to Bolivia to research Che Guevara’s 1960s revolutionary movement to complete my upcoming novel Where Spies Go To Die. My flight from Chicago connected through Miami and then stopped briefly in La Paz before continuing southeast to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The views from my window seat of the landing and takeoff in La Paz were impressive. Upon arriving in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (commonly known as Santa Cruz), I headed straight to my hotel downtown, the Gran Hotel Santa Cruz on René Moreno street. It was a classic luxury hotel in its heyday (the 70s), but now appears to be struggling to keep its four stars. But its the only top hotel in the heart of the city's historical center and only two blocks from the main square, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

Santa Cruz is the capital city of the Santa Cruz department in eastern Bolivia and the country's largest city (population over 1 million). The city was founded in 1561 by Ñuflo de Chávez, who gave the new settlement its name, meaning "Holy Cross of the Hills," in honor of his beloved native city in Spain. For my research, the city was significant in that it was one of the transit points for Che Guevara and his rebels in 1966. I visited many of the city’s key sites and interviewed a number of locals in preparation for my journey south.

(above) The inner courtyard of Santa Cruz de la Sierra's city hall.

(above) The Metropolitan Cathedral in Santa Cruz stands in front of the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

(above) Interior view of the cathedral, which was built in the late 19th century.

After my second day in Santa Cruz, it was time to head south to find the "Che" trail. I left in a tired clunky taxicab and spent the next three hours conversing with the driver in my broken Spanish (being fluent in Portuguese doesn't always mean you can say much in Spanish -- I can understand almost everything said to me, but can't respond well). The road twisted around rocky, tropical terrain and skirted hillsides overlooking rivers and streams. It was a welcomed relief when my taxi finally brought me to Samaipata, where an SUV with an experienced driver would take me the rest of the way (thank goodness, since the roads are even more perilous further south!).

(above) The road to Samaipata from Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

After a brief stop in Samaipata, my driver and I headed through the rough highlands to Vallegrande to see various sites related to Che Guevara. In particular, I visited the Señor de Malta hospital, where Che’s body was flown after his execution at La Higuera. Frieden toured the airfield and nearby grounds where Che’s remains and those of his most loyal comrades were secretly buried in 1967.

(above) View of Vallegrande.

(above and below) The hospital laundry room where Che's body was shown to the public.


(above) Memorial built around site where Che's remains were secretly buried for over three decades.

For several days I ventured south from Vallegrande across rugged mountain roads to visit remote villages and trails connected to Che Guevara’s doomed rebellion.

(above) The winding mountain road toward Pucara and La Higuera.

After visiting the town of Pucara, I arrived in La Higuera (elevation of 1950 m) some 225 km by road from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and toured the schoolhouse where Che was executed in October 1967 by CIA-backed Bolivian troops shortly after his capture in the nearby canyon called Quebrada de Yuro. In La Higuera, I interviewed a village elder who had witnessed Che’s arrival into the village 40 years earlier. Today, La Higuera has a population of about 100, mainly indigenous Guarani people. Politically La Higuera is part of the Pucará municipality.

(above) The monument in Che's memory in the village center of La Higuera.

(above) The schoolhouse where Che was executed in 1967.

After my days in La Higuera and the Vallegrande area, I returned to Samaipata, where I toured El Fuerte, an archeological site (designated a world heritage site by UNESCO) that was inhabited by three populations over several centuries: the Amazonian, Inca and Colonial civilizations.

(above) The ruins of El Fuerte.

All photos and text Copyright © 2007 A.C. Frieden. No reproduction permitted without prior written approval by A.C. Frieden. For reproduction rights and higher resolution images, send email to afrieden[at]avendiapublishing.com.

Posted by AC Frieden 23:34 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)