Buy Now at
In 1986, I visited my first lost city. I had an assignment to write about the opera in Santiago de Chile, a revolutionary Rigoletto that has long since been forgotten. I routed my return through Lima, and from there booked a flight to Cuzco and the train to Machu Picchu. The night before I left on the trip, the Shining Path guerrillas bombed the train to the ruins, killing seven tourists. My mother called me up and begged me not to go, but it was too late. I had managed to get a reservation at the only hotel at the ruins, which had just twelve rooms, and I wasn’t about to give it up. At that time most tourists to Machu Picchu took the train up for a day trip; no more than twenty-four visitors could tour the ruins by moonlight and see the sun rise behind the mountains. I would be among them.
My previous foreign travels had followed the path of most postcollegiate wanderers, to London and Paris, Tuscany and Rome; this would be my first visit to a truly exotic place. At Machu Picchu, I learned my first lesson in how fragile the romance can be. The hotel was clean and comfortable, but it had the thereless feeling of a motel on the interstate. Dinner was included; there was nowhere else to eat. I was seated with a couple from New York, jolly socialists of the City College variety, a species now nearly extinct. Comparing notes over mystery meat and mashed potatoes, we soon discovered that we were near neighbors in Greenwich Village. Very near: my rear apartment on Morton Street looked out on the same courtyard as their place on Commerce Street, just opposite. We feigned delight at the coincidence, but I think they were as disappointed as I was. The fantasy of a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu doesn’t include meeting your back-fence neighbors. We resolved to resume our friendship in New York with a hallo from one fire escape to the other, but when I got home, I kept the curtains drawn.
A year later, I wrote a magazine profile of David Soren, an archaeologist who was directing an excavation of a Roman city in Cyprus that had been buried by an earthquake. He asked me to co-author a book about his dig. It was my first book, Kourion: The Search for a Lost Roman City. My toehold of an archaeological niche became more secure after Kourion was published, when my agent arranged an introduction to a paleoanthropologist named Russell Ciochon. Ciochon and his colleague the archaeologist John Olsen had been invited by the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi to collaborate on a dig in Vietnam, on the border with Laos. It was the first joint program of field research carried out by scientists from the two countries since the end of the war, twelve years before. I got a contract to write a book about it.
Hanoi itself was something of a lost city in those days. We stayed at the Hoa Binh hotel in the Old Quarter, the only part of the city that was continuously electrified, at least in theory. At night, the city’s residents sat on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes and playing dominoes by lamplight. It was a quiet place, scarcely like a city at all. You rarely heard music, and television almost never. The only traffic noise was the whirr of bicycles. In 1988, there were no more than a few dozen passenger automobiles on the streets of Hanoi, and all of them belonged to party officials or foreign ambassadors. There were no tourists. We were admitted to the country on humanitarian visas, which entailed bringing in cases of vaccines from Thailand. The three of us were the only guests at the Hoa Binh apart from some lugubrious Bulgarian electricians and an Iraqi “diplomat,” who was a fixture at the hotel bar. He plied us with questions about what we were doing, where we were going, who was paying for the expedition, but he was better company than the electricians.
On our first day in the city, after lunch at the hotel (bamboo rat, which tasted nothing like chicken, stuffed with white rice), we saw the city’s sights: Ho Chi Minh’s house, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the Hanoi Hilton, and the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. We found the only private restaurant in the city that catered to foreigners, a small cadre of marooned journalists and burned-out philanthropists, which served a reasonable facsimile of French bistro food. The specialty of the house was duck à l’orange, which savored of Tang.