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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, FEBRUARY 27, 2009 PAGE 7B l Vacation in Vietnam: A hot destination, ar d we don't mean the climate By Robin Friedman New Jersey Jewish News Land of contrasts. Vietnam evokes both stunning beauty and aching need; friendly people and anguished memo- ries. This S-shaped nation on the southeastern extremity of the Indochinese peninsula is where Melanie and Alan Levitan of Morris Township, N.J. chose to spend twb and a half weeks last winter. Melanie Levitan, 59, a specialty food broker and chocolate importer, and Alan Levitan, 65, a retired CEO of Kings Supermarkets who now consults and is active on the Council of the Arts for the Morris Area. knew their choice of vacation settingwould raise eyebrows. "Some people, when we told them. responded. 'Why?!'" says Melanie. "Other people saidYOh, yeah. I was there in October.'" Long considered a forbidden destination of controversial tragedy, Vietnam has been discovered by some tourists as a hot spot of gorgeous, yet complicated proportions. Still communist, the Asian nation has a paradoxically energetic, developing econ- omy. Its lush coastal plains. beautiful beaches, dramatic mountains, and redolent rice farms proverbially propagated by conical hatted workers and water buffalo draw visitors eager for an exotic adventure in sightseeing, history, and religion; even visitors who've already been there. "We had several veterans on our trip," says Melanie. "They would often go off on their own. 1 think thingswere particularly moving to them." The Levitans had visited the Far East previously; va- cationing in China. Thailand. and Japan. "We heard good things about Vietnam." says Melanie. "It was on our list." What cinched the deal was a serendipitous, irresistible invitation from a friend. "We have a Vietnamese friend who left in 1975. She's married to an American and was planning to go back for a visit." says Melanie. "We knew this would make the trip special. We'd be with someone whdcould obvi- ously speak the language." In the end, the trip grew to 12. launching with a full 24 hours of travel just to touch down in Saigon, or Ha Chi Minh City. "It's not that you can't say 'Saigon,'" Melanie says. From February 22 to March 9. we were "on the go every second. but it was really a great time." The French connection The group's introduction to the city, and the country, was its bewildering traffic of zooming motorcycles in incomprehensible patterns. "'Sometimes there were four people riding on them at a time." says Melanie. "I don't know how it happens, but somehow traffic moves." The group also absorbed the influ- ence of France on the country, most visibly in the striking architecture of its churches. squares, and palaces: more subtly in some of the exhibits in its war museums, where presentations on the harsh rule of the French outweighed any mention of the Ameri- cans. The group ventured into the countryside from Saigon, seeing Buddhist temples. riding a boat on the Mekong River. visiting a fruit orchard. and watching coconut candy and rice noodles being made. They visited a fishing vil- lage and vegetable market. toured pagodas, citadels, and mountains. Behind nearly every scenic spectacle was a reminder of gritty history. "We saw old air hangars, we saw China Beach, we saw caves where Vietcong had hidden. "" says Melanie. About a week into the trip, they arrived in the capital city of Hanoi. Hanoi Hilton Once again, the influence of the French was evident. And the group got their first feel- ing for American influence. At the "Hanoi Hilton. "or Hoa Lo Prison. "thousands of patriots and revolutionary fighters were imprisoned and tortured, both physically and spiritu- ally," according to a brochure that describes the treatment of Vietnamese prisoners by the French government. "Howev- er. from 5 August 1964 until 31 March 1973 itwas also used to detain American pilots whose aircraft had been shot down over Hanoi Whilst bombing or attacking the north Vietnam- ese people. It was during this period that the Americans gave Hoa Lo the nickname 'Hanoi Hilton.' Between 1964 and 1973 the prison's inmates in- cluded Douglas 'Pete' Peterson. Americas first Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and John McCain." "It was a horrible place, "" says Melanie. "They showed the terrible treatment of their people, but the wonderful treatment of the Americans: eating, playing cards. And they had John McCan's uniform and equipment i,n a kind of 'here's one of our graduates' display, as if they were proud of where he was now, a sena- tor running for president. We knew it was propaganda." A bowl of oatmeal But in a continuing nar- rative of contradiction, the Levitans found the Vietnamese people to be gracious, hospi- table, and downright doting. "I usually had corn flakes for breakfast, or rice porridge, or noodle soup, "' says Melanie. "But I asked for oatmeal one day. They didn't seem to under- stand that and brought me a bowl of co_ttage cheese. I told them it was okay, that I'd eat something else, but they tried  again, bringing me a bowl of uncooked oats. I tried to tell them that. really, it was okay, but they just want to please you in every way possible. They're going to do it till they get it right! In the end. they brought me a bowl of fabulous oatmeal." And though Vietnam is no big-box suburbia, you can get a cinnamon dulce latte if you need one; it has its share of.Wal-Mart, Starbucks. and Kentucky Fried Chicken, she says. The group traveled to neighboring Cambodia as well. seeing floating fishingvillages, palaces, and Angkor Wat an enormous, preserved temple, and learning about the barba- rous revolutionary regime of the Khmer Rouge. the basis for the 1984 movie, "The Killing- Fields." Then it was back to Saigon and Vietnam for more reflection on the country's role in the American story. "It was a demanding trip, but a special trip," says Melanie. "It wasn't just seeing sights and eating great food. We're connected to their history. Itwas sobering." Reprinted with permission from the New Jersey Jewish News, www.njjewishnews. com. "Swift swallowsand spring days were shuttling by...young grass spread all its green to heaven's rim...--"The Tale of Kieu," 19th century Vietnamese epic poem. This iconic shot shows Halong Bay, whose name means "descending dragon." ....  .......... "Now, as the sun was dipping toward the west, the youngsters started homeward, hand in hand..."--"The Tale of Kieu" The Intercontinental Hotel, at right, opened last year in Hanoi. photos courtesy of Melanie and Alan Levitan and NJJN Translation from Nguyen Du's "The Tale of Kieu" by Huynh Sanh Thong, published by YaleUniversity Press, 1987 "Fine men and beauteous women on parade: a crush of clothes, a rush of wheels and steeds...'--"The Tale of Kieu" An elephant boy rides outside the entrance to bustling Angkor Tom, south gate, at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Nature From page 5B Paul also sees Nature Day as being consistentwith his work at the Reform synagogue. Nature Day and synagogue life complement each other, he says. "It's amazing to read prayers about the grandeur of creation, and then to be in the places the prayers are reminding us of all the time." His colleagues have been supportive, including the synagogue's senior rabbi, Steven Chester. "I'm not one to judge what anyone does in terms of their observance, but I do think that what they're doing is absolutely wonderful," Chester says. "There is a difference be- tween a Jewish family who goes for a walk on Saturday because everyone is free, and a Jewish family who specifi- calty says, 'This is what our Shabbat is going to be. and we're consciously doing this because it is ShabbatY The Geduldigs are not alone in feeling that they spend too little time outside. Californiahas more state and national parks than any other state. And yet, accord- ing to studies, only a small number of children here play in the wild with any regularity. In 2007, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found three times as many children who use playgrounds or play sports in the summer- time than children who hike or camp in the woods. Nationwide. children today spend more time inside, with computers oi" other electron- ics. than outside. And it's not just teenagers. Half of all toddlers watch TV daily, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Parents are less likely to let'their children roam free, without scheduled activities dictating how that outside time is spent. And more and more Americans (81 percent) live in urban areas, often far from open spaces. But in the Bay Area. na- ture is at our fingertips, Paul and Laura say. For them, the playgrounds near their Oakland home aren't enough for Elijah and Gabriel. They want to expose them "m the natural world in the truest sense--without the plastic of a playground or the structure of supervised activities. "There is a culture of fear of letting kids be free outside," Laura says. "It's a huge prob- lem, and it's really a bummer, because it means kids don't get to run wild." But during Nature Day, Elijah gets to be in charge (Ga- briel would help lead. but he's not yet walking on his own). One recent Saturday in Oakland's Redwood Regional Park. Elijah shimmies across logs, marvels at banana slugs and wanders ahead of his parents. While Morn helps Gabriel practice walking across fallen leaves on the damp trail, Elijah and Dad discover a narrow, shallow stream behind a big rock. "Let's go show Mommy," Elijah shouts. The parents switch roles so Mom can see the hidden stream; Dad proceeds to teach Gabriel how to toss stones into a puddle. The toddler squeals in delight and shouts "More, more!" after each stone falls into the water. "It's amazing to see your own children be so inquisitive about nature." Laura says. Later, they come upon a fallen tree. unusually bright orange. Laura squats; Elijah leans against her leg. "How beautiful, I can hardly believe it," Laura gushes. The parents explain that fallen trees eventually decompose and become dirt "just like our compost pile at home," Paul says. "Ohhhh," Elijah responds. as though he's just realized that red and yellow make orange. The family takes the quiet moment to nosh. They pass out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut in quarters, challah and hummus, car- rots. apples, pears, Sun Chips, edamame. "The No. I secret of Nature Day? Snacks. Readily available snacks you can eat on the trail," Paul confides. On their first Nature Day, theybrought onlywater. Elijah complained the whole time. "Hiking 3.2 miles is tough for a 4-year-old, but it's a misconceptionthat you can't hike with kids." Laura says. So far, the family has ven- tured to parks as far away as Davis and Half Moon Bay, and many trails in between. "Sometimeswe have aplan, but sometimes we get in the car and ask, 'Should we turn left or right?'" Paul says. "There are so many places I've been that I never would have seen had it not been for the intention of Nature Day." The potential for Nature Day is infinite as the boys grow older. Laura and Paul believe. They might all read the Torah portion each week together, then discuss it along their hike. And they hope to expand Nature Day into an overnight camping excursion. Laura understands that as her sons grow up, they might not always want to spend Sat- urday afternoons hiking with their parents. Nonetheless, she and Paul are certain that some variation of Nature Day will always be in their lives. Perhaps they will encour- age their sons to bring a friend along, or compromise on an occasional Saturday when their sons have a conflicting activity. It's an ever-evolving pursuit.., Laura says. "This is not easy," she says. "But because it's so fulfilling, and because we're so commit- ted to it, it feels so doable. It feels so right ... It's not an , option to not do it." Reprinted with permission from j, the Jewish weekly of northern California, www __ jewishsf.com.