Vietnam, Sailing Partners, Paraguay

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

James Sullivan, a New England native and graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, had a problem. He had fallen hard, almost deus ex machina, for a lovely-looking Vietnamese woman whom he saw in a shop in the ancient city of Hue. Jim was a writer on a magazine assignment about a bicycle trip he and a friend took that involved cycling from Saigon to Hanoi. Returning by train, he made a sudden decision to leap into the unknown -literally - and, while it seems improbable at first, ended by writing Over the Moat: Love among the Ruins of Imperial Vietnam (Picador/St. Martin's, $15, 369 pages), a book about where his pursuit led and how love conquers all.

Sentimentality is kept at bay by the author's ability to describe the incredible adventures he had fighting off the woman's other suitors and overcoming the resistance and corruption of bureaucratic officials opposed to such a match. If all this sounds somewhat mawkish, almost a novel for the lovelorn, what saves Mr. Sullivan's tale is its open-hearted honesty. He indulges a little too much in the details of his mind and mood, perhaps, but there is no denying that the reader wants to let out a fine old-fashioned cheer at the end. The author is especially good in rendering the subtle and often not so subtle cultural differences between American and traditional Vietnamese worlds - useful tips for the wayward traveler and a moral lesson for anyone contemplating a similar commitment.

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Commitment of an entirely different sort is part of a more traditional traveler's tale in An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude (Doubleday/Broadway Books, $24.95, 299 pages). As told by author Ann Vanderhoof, the female half of a marital partnership, the unspoken pact between the two is staying together whatever the weather until the end of their journey. And what a trip it is: cutting out and sailing two years, for 7,000 miles, from Toronto to Trinidad and back in a rehabilitated sailing vessel just for the fun of it.

Husband Steve Manley was the sailor; his wife, the cook and part-time navigator. If they ever came close to a split, details aren't revealed here. The reader is told mainly about the lighter side of a relationship lived in such close quarters. The author writes that at one point they actually grew closer, but then they appear to be two very resourceful and sympathetic grown-ups. Her descriptions of local islanders and cultural traditions encountered along the way are top-rate. For readers with wanderlust eager to escape a chilled winter world, she very helpfully touts Grenada - her favorite - in detail. Stay-at-homes get recipes interspersed through most of the chapters.

Full of humor and insight, "Mangoes" easily reminds a reader of some of the true pleasures of travel - and how travel writing at its best indisputably pleasures the reader.

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For sheer bravado, however, the prize goes to John Gimlette, a British lawyer who is a contributor to Conde Nast Traveler magazine. …