by Meera Kamra-Kelsey, November 2018
Planning for worthwhile long distance travel begins well in advance of departure. Husband and I enjoy moderate physically challenging itineraries that engage, enrich and remove us from our comfort zone. Off the beaten path and personal bucket list ticks are desired.
Scouring brochures and discussions with friends drove us to look at Vietnam and Cambodia. Many tour companies operate in this region. We selected an adventure travel company we had used once before, known for enhanced cultural and anthropological enrichment programs. Though one can arrange travel segments separately, we wanted everything booked and looked after by one entity. Their 18-day itinerary to and through Vietnam and Cambodia would include Hanoi and Halong Bay in Vietnam, Siem Reap, Cambodia for Angkor Wat and other temple complexes, 7 night Mekong River cruise with several stops along the way to experience nature, life and culture of locals, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City.
More than a year before our departure at the end of October 2018, basic air, hotel, and river cruise bookings were initiated via the tour company. Later, we obtained mug shots, appropriate travel visas for both countries, vaccinations, currencies, antibiotics and medications, attended to clothing. Latter became interesting as we opted to travel just with carry-on luggage. We turned to previously acquired, drip-dryable gear for most clothing, rain, foot and head gear. As there would be evenings when we would want to look ‘nice’ on the river cruise, selected items would co-ordinate, mix and match. Fellow passengers would just put up with us in what they had already seen. Essential liquids such as toothpaste, hand sanitizer, insect repellent and sunblock would be in flight-approved sizes. We obtained Vietnamese Dong from our bank (100,000 = $5, more or less). Cambodia uses the Riel but US dollars are readily accepted and welcome. We were told to take clean small denomination notes for tipping and purchases as crumpled or torn notes could be declined. Banks do not provide US notes in low denominations, so asked and received a small bundle from brother (thanks D!).
Some country background and history (source – tour guides and internet):
Both are socialist/ communist governments currently attracting much investment from prosperous neighbours and native bigwigs. Corruption is rampant. Big cities are glittering and bustling, construction cranes are everywhere, rural life is tough, agrarian. Majority of populations are under 30. Most urban travel is by scooter and motorbike, sometimes transporting seemingly unwieldy loads. Everyone driving in all directions, traffic signals and rules ignored. It works, we saw no accidents. Rice paddies, banana trees and coconut palms galore. A major use of land, large and small farms, men and women in conical woven ‘Asian rice hats’ sow, tend and harvest ‘wet’ rice in paddies dotted with burial crypts. Dearly departed are ‘planted’ right there! Rice is spread out to dry outside homes and on sidewalks. Hammocks are ubiquitous for resting and sleeping. A lot of garbage and plastic is strewn about but both countries plan a cleanup and to ban plastic in the next few years. Overhead tangled wires in all urban areas require constant maintenance. Again, there are future plans to bury wires and cables but this will require massive, disruptive effort. ‘Hello’ is ‘xin chao’ in Vietnam, ‘suasdey’ in Cambodia. Both countries were colonized by France, have been in and out of conflict with each other, France, China, USA, Soviet Union, Japan – or supported by them. Both have had long brutal civil wars. Most of these numerous conflicts are well-documented. Gentle reader, for more info than I can provide, consult your library or favourite search engine.
Vietnam is easternmost in what was once called Indochina. South of China, east of Laos and Cambodia, near Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Around 3,000 miles long and about 30 miles at its narrowest. A similar length highway runs from the China border to the south of the country. The Ho Chi Minh Trail featured in the Vietnam War to move troops and supplies south under heavy forestation cover, led to use of Napalm and Agent Orange to remove vegetation. Population about 95 million, 70% living in rural poverty. Capital city is Hanoi. Has a president and a prime minister. Religions are Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and many are atheist. Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice after Thailand. There is current dispute with China over oil from bordering ocean waters. Place names may be shown in 2 parts, e.g. Viet Nam, Ha Noi, Ha Long, Sai Gon.
The Kingdom of Cambodia, once known as Kampuchea, people are the Khmer. Thailand to the north and west, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east/ SE. Population about 16 million, 95% Buddhist. Has a prime minister and mainly figurehead king. A large exporter of rubber, peppercorns, jackfruit, tobacco, dragonfruit, pomelo and bananas.
On our way:
Some hours into the flight, just where we were headed sank in! We knew we would be surprised and thrilled by new sights, culture, food and languages. Flights and layovers totalled about 24 hours to Hanoi with a 12 hour time difference ahead of home. A minor snafu at the airport – though expected, no one to meet and take us to our hotel. Adventure began, a helpful stranger ordered up a ‘Grab’ ride, South Asia’s answer to Uber. Our first experience spending hundreds of thousands of Dong!
In our tour group of 48, the two of us were the only Canadians. All others were American. There were a few single travellers, ages were roughly late 50s to early 80s, a few with slight mobility issues. We were split into 2 groups and would have our own ‘Adventure leader guides’. Following a comfortable night in Hanoi, we departed by motorcoach for picturesque Halong Bay. Seen and learned en route – Samsung, Canon and Foxconn have huge assembly facilities employing tens of thousands. ‘Secret’ policemen’s assistants use radar and cell photos to catch speeders. It’s cheaper to pay fines under the table. Teachers make a lot of money on the side by mandatory tutoring, teachers’ day gifts. Rest room stops called ‘happy room’ stops. Houses are built on concrete stilts to protect from floods, crawling insects, termites, snakes. People and cattle stay cooler under the house in summer.
Halong Bay (descending dragon) is a UNESCO world heritage site 165 km from Hanoi in NE Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin of the South China Sea. An important 1964 marine aggression incident here escalated the Vietnam War. There is much construction in the area aiming for more tourism, hundreds of tourist and fishing boats. The bay covers an area of about 600 square miles with more than 1,600 limestone karst islands and islets, mostly uninhabited due to sheer cliffsides and dense forests. There are numerous caves. We had an overnight cruise on a lux ‘junk’, enjoyed the photogenic landscape, visited an historic fishing village, archaeologically and geologically significant Surprise Cave, did tai chi on deck, tried squidding, a tea ceremony and a cooking class to make spring rolls.
We returned to Hanoi for a proper lookabout. A colourful 7 Km tile mosaic wall commemorates Hanoi’s 1000 year anniversary in 2010. Architecture is interesting. Residential buildings are tall and narrow due to steep urban real estate cost. Sides are concrete-bare as abutting buildings are erected in due course. All have at least one, often steel, water tank on top. City water comes to the lower level, then is pumped up and stored for upper level use. A bridge purportedly designed by Gustave Eiffel, yup that one! Bombed by the US during the war, American prisoners were used to fix it. McCain Memorial is at the site where he parachuted in and was taken prisoner. Visited Temple of Literature. Revered and reviled, Ho Chi Minh (HCM) lies in state at his Mausoleum. Long lines, silence and respect required, HCM looks much like a wax figure having been embalmed and retouched since death in 1969. Visited a Buddhist monastery and orphanage, met with serene nuns. Explored Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a warren of narrow alleys full of vendors, colourful and varied products and tangled wires overhead. Snails and Vietnamese ‘egg coffee’ are popular. 50-year old native son billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong made it big in packaged instant noodles in Ukraine, repatriated his funds and has built the ‘Vin’ empire – residential neighbourhoods all over SE Asia (Vincity), markets, schools, hospitals and the Vinfast auto recently introduced at the Paris Auto Show.
Next, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia for 3 days to explore Angkor Temple complexes. Astounding Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage site on the list of most-ancient wonders and considered the 8th wonder of the world. It is a vast site covering hundreds of acres. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple to Lord Vishnu, preserver and protector of the universe. The complex is surrounded by a moat which we crossed via a floating bridge made and donated by Canada! Many bas relief galleries depict daily life, wars and the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Thousands of tourists, many Chinese, visit here every day, so screens, posed snaps and selfie sticks rule! Angkor Thom, last capital of the Khmer empire. Statues of 7-headed ‘naga’ serpents and lions. Strangler fig and kapok trees, storied large roots that rise from and wind around temples, ‘tomb raider’ tree. Restoration is being funded by India. Gorgeous temple of Bayon encompasses Hinduism and Buddhism as a later king married a Buddhist. 4-faced towers depict both religions, good and evil. Four tenets of Buddhism – charity, compassion, sympathy and equanimity.
The Might Mekong River:
At Kampong Cham we boarded the river cruise ship Tonle Pandaw ‘Phnom Penh’ for 7 nights on the Mekong River. It was a steep 86 steps to the river and across a rickety woven bamboo gangplank. But the ship was lovely, comfortable and service marvellous. The Mekong River (Mother of Waters) rises in Tibet, runs through China as the Lancang River then Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It has many tributaries and branches, is muddy brown with silt carried down from meltoff, terminates as the Mekong Delta. It is 12th longest in the world and 7th longest in Asia. It provides livelihood through fishing and farming but there is now much environmental stress. The water is supposedly clean but many thousands discharge effluent of their lives into it. Garbage, plastic and styrofoam float downstream from all countries it passes through. Environmental issues cause tension among neighbour countries, escalating as many dams are planned upstream. We saw dozens of large container ships dredging the river and shoreline for soil. This soil is shipped to Singapore to enlarge its land footprint. Causes immense harm to the locals, ruining fish farms and homes have tumbled into the river.
For all excursions, we carried much around our necks or in pockets – nametag, tour listening device, water, camera, hat, sunblock, bug spray, a little cash. We set out daily to observe life and culture along the river and on islands. Oxcart and tuk-tuk (Bajaj brand from India) to a school on Koh Trong island where sweet kids showed off their English skills. They want to be doctors and teachers as are aware of generations wiped out by the Khmer Rouge (KR). We planted a tree each as the plan is ‘one tourist, one tree’. Took fishing boats to view shy freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, saw around 12. Visited ‘Silk Island’ and viewed the completely handcrafted process from moth to woven products. Survivors of landmines and KR campaigns work here. Visited a dance school striving to carry on Apsara traditional dance and music.
We reached Phnom Penh, a complete contrast to the slower pace of village life along the Mekong. Took a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw with one passenger in front) tour to sumptuous royal palace and silver pagoda with a floor comprised of 5 tons of silver tiles. Just chanced upon a military parade rehearsing for the impending 65th anniversary of independence from France. Visited the National Museum’s collection of Angkor period antique Hindu and Buddhist sculpture.
That afternoon, we toured the Killing Fields Choeung Ek Genocide Centre and S21 Genocide Museum. A most heartbreaking experience but another one to bear witness and ‘lest we forget’. The first is a mainly undisturbed mass grave site, one of many, where Pol Pot’s brutal Marxist-Leninist Khmer Rouge regime carried out mass murder against educated intellectuals. Evidentiary tower of skulls. Fabric and bones are rising and revealed by rain and erosion. The second was once a school and later detention centre where many atrocities and killings took place. We met a survivor and some descendants of survivors. Learned that men tried to rough up their hands to prove that they were rice farmers, not teachers, landowners, educated or wealthy elite of any sort.
Pol Pot (said to be taken from ‘Political Potential’) was born Saloth Sar, studied and lived in France where he adopted Chinese and Russian communist ideology. He returned home as a revolutionary politician aiming to create an egalitarian agrarian society. He involved Cambodia in a long civil war and social engineering projects. 2-4 million lives may have been lost and and the horror of land mines continues to this day.
From Wikipedia: ‘The Khmer Rouge had a policy of evacuating urban areas and forcibly relocating their residents to the countryside. When the Khmer Rouge took the town of Kratie in 1971, Sar and other members of the party were shocked at how fast the “liberated” urban areas shook off socialism and went back to the old ways. Various ideas were tried in order to re-create the town in the image of the party, but nothing worked. In 1973, Sar decided out of total frustration that the only solution was to send the entire population of the town to the fields in the countryside. He wrote at the time “if the result of so many sacrifices was that the capitalists remain in control, what was the point of the revolution?”. Shortly after, Sar ordered the evacuation of the 15,000 people of Kampong Cham for the same reasons.’
We visited these 2 towns from the Mekong. Pol Pot was never brought to justice, died in 1998. Just 2 days after we returned home, two Khmer Rouge officials were tried and convicted by an international tribunal of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The current prime minister holding office since 1985 is said to have been a KR commander. Others with KR ideology hold government posts, so mistrust and fear continue. The PM’s Westpoint-educated son is expected to be the next PM. Communist ideology clearly clashes with the commerce, investment and construction going gangbusters.
Crossed back into Vietnam which has it’s own brutal history of genocide during the Land Reform Policy period. Hundreds of thousands died as the wealthy and landowners were wiped out in social equalization schemes. And there is the war that wiped out much vegetation and countless people in the USA/ Soviet Union proxy war. Homeless orphaned Amerasian ‘dust children’ are still around despite US ‘baby lifts’.
Continuing life on the river, we visited Buddhist temples, a Catholic church, another sweet school, floating fishing villages, spring onion and coriander farms. Coconut candy, marble statuary, clay pot, furniture and basket making communities, a grafting nursery, another silk operation, a lacquer workshop. Visited some private homes, saw a multitude of chickens and ducks, ancestral graves right in front courtyards, experienced our first torrential rainfall. We were first time tourists to ever visit some villages. 2-passenger dugout canoes through 2-3 ft wide waterways took us to a lovely bird sanctuary revealing a treetop visual feast of storks, egrets, herons, a single colourful kingfisher (photo source: Wikipedia). The next day, 4-passenger dugout canoes took us through dense Nipa palms and mangroves. Sampan boarding from our ship and shore were all tentative, some improvised using a narrow plank ‘monkey bridge’.
Our last stop was Ho Chi Minh City (HCMS, formerly Saigon), a bustling chaotic city of 12 million people and 7 million motorbikes, fewer cars. Again a shocking contrast to preceding days. Glittering skyscrapers dominate the skyline, notable ones are Vincorp’s Landmark 81 and Bitexco tower with its jutting helipad. We visited Reunification Palace with diplomatic meeting halls above, war rooms, bunkers and tunnels below. The gorgeous French colonial, still operating Post Office, also said to be an Eiffel design. Viewed Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera house and famous CIA building where a helicopter landed in 1975 to evacuate Americans and sympathizers. Had dinner at US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.’s ‘secret house’.
Traffic does not stop for pedestrians. We were urged to make like ‘sticky rice’ when crossing streets. We saw graceful Apsara performers reminiscent of Indian dancers, a shadow puppet show, a water puppet show and unique musical instruments. Sweltered in high temperatures and humidity for the whole trip. Dining was interesting. Myriad tropical fruit and veggies, ubiquitous rice and noodles, ‘family style’ sharing platters, Vietnamese Banh Mi and Pho. French colonizers left both countries with a legacy of superb baking, baguettes, croissants and excellent strong coffee. Some fellow passengers experienced digestive illness, treated well at international hospitals in cities. We were all mildly affected, unavoidable due to different water and food. Light switches, taps, showers, push/ pull doors operated differently than home. We had good WiFi at hotels in cities and so-so on board ship. But look at where we were!
This memorable journey to and through Vietnam and Cambodia was quite demanding due to distances involved and complexity of travel within the countries. We found the required stamina. Took 15 modes of transport in all! Met some nice people in this well travelled group. Incredible jet lag has us thinking no more long distance travel, but we already know it will happen. Adventure clothing is washed and put away but within easy reach!
As Mark Twain aptly put: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
everywhere a sign…