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Nov. 8 – Nov. 23: Hanoi –  Halong Bay – Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – My Tho – Mekong River – Phnom Penh – Tonle Sap – Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)

mao.2(Thanks to Larry Makinson, cartographer)

Drawing too many conclusions from spending a couple of weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia is foolish.

However, Ellen’s pictures give you a good sense of what we saw. (If you haven’t seen those pictures, stop now and go to: Through Ellen’s Eye: Vietnam & Cambodia.)

A few takeaways from not only what we saw but also what we did:

Comparing this trip to Vietnam to what I remember from being in that country 15 years ago, I was struck by how much had changed in a few short years.

For example, no longer is it a battle between bicycles and motorcycles. Now it’s all motorcycles and cars, especially in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Also, the westernization of both Hanoi and Saigon, especially the latter, is breathtaking. Making money was the mantra 15 years ago. Clearly, much money has been made. Restaurants, stores, hotels, buildings of all sorts…you could be in almost any city in the world.

Just outside both cities are large factories and international companies, employing massive numbers of workers. None of that existed (or was evident) on my previous trip.

The amount of rice and fish farming in Vietnam has grown, with some areas having up to three crops of rice a year, and the number of fish ‘farms’ is stunning. Vietnam is now one of the world’s largest exporters in the world of both rice and fish.

Halong Bay, an hour’s drive west of Hanoi, is every bit as glorious as I remembered it. For me, this area surpasses one of my favorite Asian scenes, China’s Li River and Guilin. Spending the night on a boat in Halong Bay is a must if you go to Vietnam. The scene changes every few seconds, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

No one talks about the “American War” (what we call the “Vietnam War”), and when asked about it, the most frequent answer is “That’s in the past. We’ve moved on.” But with a bit of probing, it’s clear that there are generational differences, with the older Vietnamese not so quick to put it all in the past.

One of our best half days in Saigon was a three and a half hour cooking class, just Ellen and myself with a young chef. That’s where we learned to make Pho and three other dishes. If you ever happen to find yourself in that part of Vietnam, check out the Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc, near the Park Hyatt Hotel in an area that was once used for opium processing.

The Communist Party remains in control of the governance of the country and the countryside and seems to have made a strategic decision to bend so it will not break (i.e., allow private enterprise to flourish – and it certainly has).

(A wonderful book I read while we were in Vietnam that I can highly recommend is Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton. It added immeasurably to my enjoyment and understanding of what we were seeing and experiencing, and it also explained some things we weren’t seeing but that were present.)

It was terrific to travel on a boat on the Mekong and see both countries from that vantage point. The amount of ‘industry’ connected to the river is amazing in the Vietnam portion of the Mekong.

Not so much in Cambodia.

Cambodia, in contrast to Vietnam, seems stuck in the past. Although Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (Angkor Wat area) have some of the modernity you see in Vietnam, much of the rest of what we saw seemed poor and struggling, subsistence farming at best, and only one rice crop a year, for example. Nor did we see any foreign industry.

In Phnom Penh we spent some time at the Killing Fields and at S.21, the jail where prisoners were tortured before being taken to the countryside to be killed and buried in mass graves. (How similar it was to a trip I made to Lithuania where there were also large pits dug, and Jews were shot and pushed into mass graves.) The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh were just one of 300+ such mass grave locations around the country. Those in Phnom Penh only account for a small portion of the almost two million people who were killed by the Kymer Rouge between 1975-79.

(Similar to the book mentioned above about Vietnam, my understanding of what I was seeing — and not seeing — in Cambodia was helped immeasurably by a book I consumed while we were in that country, Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley.)

I loved observing the life in the floating villages of Cambodia, where every aspect of daily life takes place on the water. Some of the places we reached had never seen visitors, and some of the schools reminded me of the school where I taught in Sierra Leone 50+ years ago.

Seven days on the boat was a bit much for Ellen and myself as we’re not overly social people, but we enjoyed the two-a-day outings — trips to fishing villages, to floating markets, to silk weaving and to silversmith cooperatives, to a mat weaving island, and to a pottery and palm wine cooperative. The two Vietnamese and the two Cambodian guides on our boat, the Aqua Mekong, were delightful and endlessly patient with our questions and knowledgeable about what we were seeing. And we enjoyed the luxury of hot showers, air conditioning, and generally good Asian food each day.

The temples of Angkor Wat attract large crowds, and we’re told the area had more than a million people at the height of the Angkor Kingdom, more people than any other city in the world at the time (9th-12th century).

But I am not much of an archeological enthusiast, and so for me these visits were not the height of the trip. I much more enjoyed our journeys into the countryside and to the markets and villages away from the temples. How people are living today holds more interest for me than how they lived in the past (tho in some instances there may not be such a difference).

Most intriguing, I think for both Ellen and myself, were the stories we heard, both in Vietnam and Cambodia, when we were able to get people to talk about their lives. Whether it was individuals who lost family during the American bombings in Vietnam and Cambodia, those who had family destroyed between 1975-79 in the Khmer Rouge genocide, or those who suffered the following ten years when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, the stories we heard were mesmerizing, and often chilling.

The younger generation now coming of age in post war Vietnam seems to have a very different life than did their parents and grandparents. They seem to be thriving.

In Cambodia, on the other hand, that is not the case. There does not seem to be the same optimism. The country is poor and struggling. While on paper there is a more democratic form of government, in reality, it seems as if the current leaders (in power for the last 35 years) are more concerned with enriching themselves than enriching the country.

For us, the trip was a captivating look into two countries that have suffered intensely over the past several generations.

To see and learn of the remnants of those struggles and to observe how Vietnam and Cambodia have responded so differently to them was fascinating.

To experience, albeit superficially, what life is like in those two countries today and to wonder what the future may hold for each country made for a wonderful and intriguing trip.