Vietnam & Cambodia

10/12/13 - Greetings from Vietnam (Xin chao) & Cambodia (Sou sdey)!

We spent an exciting two and a half weeks traveling through these countries in early September and we have so much to tell you about! It was a large group of women vacationing with Olivia Travel – there were about 100 of us, broken into smaller groups of 20 to facilitate touring. The tour was booked through Ama Waterways, who specialize in Mekong River cruises with assorted land tours. Most of the trip was spent on the river cruise & a visit to Siem Reap in Cambodia, but it was bookended with visits to Vietnam cities – Hanoi in the north & Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) in the south.

After traveling for 30 hours and adjusting to a 14-hour time difference, we began our trip in Hanoi. Though we spent just a short time there, we were able to get a taste of life in this capital city. The street vendors sell everything from their stalls or bikes or shoulder poles. Many women carry shoulder poles with a basket of food on one side and a small cooking stove on the other. People sit on really short stools or squat to eat food from the many street vendors. Everyone wears conical hats (called “coolies”) which protect them from sun and rain. The street scenes are a cacophony of sights, sounds, colors & odors! The traffic is legendary – most people travel by motorbike. They carry all of their goods and families on the bikes. Helmets are required on everyone over 6 years of age (?!). We saw many families of 4 or more people squeezed onto one bike, with the small children sandwiched in between the adults.

Most people wear face masks to avoid breathing in the fumes and many of the women cover as much of their skin as they can in order to prevent sun exposure. There appeared to be no traffic lights or stop signs – everyone just merges or gives way. As pedestrians trying to cross the street, our guide advised us to “stay together like sticky rice” and “walk with a purpose, don’t pause or stop – the traffic will flow around you.” And it did…!

We visited some tourist destinations, like the Hanoi Hilton Prison (where American POWs were kept & tortured during the Vietnam War) and the Temple of Literature (Confucian temple which hosts the Imperial Academy for the elite). We toured the Old Quarter town center on foot & by cyclo (a carriage for one pushed by a bicycle contraption operated by a skilled Vietnamese driver). Navigating the traffic in the cyclo was a thrilling experience! We were also fortunate to attend a traditional water puppet show in Hanoi, where the wooden puppets move around on a pool of water, with the puppeteers standing in waist deep water behind a bamboo screen. The show is accompanied by live traditional musical instruments & singers.

While in the Old Quarter market we were able to purchase my new favorite fruit, mangosteens. They are the size of a tennis ball, with a thick woody purple rind encasing white sweet-tart segment shaped like garlic bulbs. We introduced lots of fellow travelers to the addictive fruits, but unfortunately they cannot be imported into the United States. For the sake of comparisons I’ll jump for a moment to where we ended our trip - a brief visit to Saigon. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 once the communist North took over the South after the Americans & allied forces withdrew. It is the largest city in the country & is considered the industrial & cultural hub. Here we encountered major highways & skyscrapers (which we never saw in Hanoi). Traffic was much more orderly, though motorbikes were still the major mode of transporting people & goods.

At the War Remnants Museum we were exposed to the Vietnamese view of the “American War”, highlighting war crimes & their consequences. Understandably this was from a different perspective than we Americans had heard before…

But, back in the North at the beginning of our trip… We spent one night on a traditional wooden junk boat in Ha Long Bay, one of Vietnam’s most treasured landmarks & a UNESCO World Heritage site. This “Bay of the Descending Dragons” is made up of thousands of inlets & islands, with dramatic limestone cliffs and is especially stunning in the morning mist. Our junk was classic yet luxurious, with modern conveniences. We visited the floating villages in 4-person sampans, with local women standing at the stern rowing us about.

At this point in our trip we decide to skip a few side trips. Although a climb up one of the limestone cliffs & a descent into a series of caves before ascending to a phenomenal vantage point over the bay seemed tempting, Candy was feeling well but still needed to reserve stamina. We skipped that adventure so that she could fully participate in future ones. She did really well by pacing herself throughout the trip.

After a short flight to Cambodia, we arrived in Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Archaeological Park, another UNESCO World Heritage site. The stone Angkor temples were built & rebuilt between the 9th & 16th centuries. Angkor Thom was built as a royal city & the last capital of the Khmer (Cambodian) empire in the 12th century. The Bayon & the Terrace of the Elephants were just two of the features there that displayed giant stone faces & elaborate bas-relief carvings. A short distance from Angkor Thom was Banteay Srei, the Citadel of Women. We visited this pink sandstone temple in the pouring rain (it was the wet season after all) & the beautiful carvings & ornamental work were made all the more mysterious by the downpour. Angkor Wat is the most iconic of the Angkor temples. It is the world’s largest religious temple complex, with five lotus-shaped towers and a massive moat surrounding the buildings. The carved stones and bas-reliefs cover many surfaces of the stone. They tell stories of epic battles and feature many dancing apsaras (mystical female beings). We climbed to the highest tower by ascending a 70-degree stairway (yup, 90-degrees would have been a verticle ladder) & had spectacular views of the complex from that vantage point. The engineering feats displayed in building these temples were astonishing.

The last of the Angkor temples we visited was Ta Prohm, the temple famous for its overgrown trees intertwining themselves with the crumbling stone (featured in the film “Tomb Raider”). During our visits to the temples we received several Buddhist blessings at small altars scattered throughout the stone buildings. The only thing that marred our visit to these sites was the ever-present harassment by children & adults trying to sell postcards, books, trinkets & clothing every time we got off a bus or came out of a ruin. “One dollar, one dollar” was the constant refrain in the air as they followed us about.

At the end of one of our days in Siem Reap we visited an orphanage for local children who were training to be artists. The founder was orphaned himself by the genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. We had brought school supplies to donate, as well as toys & clothes. The kids entertained us with some local dances & then showed us their home & their artwork. Needless to say, we were all very impressed by their talent & they sold a lot of art that day! We were also entertained by dancers at our resort. Khmer dancing is very graceful, with elaborate hand gestures. The dances re-enact stories & at one time were also considered a form of prayer.

Now we were ready to head to Tonle Sap Lake to board our ship for the Mekong River cruise portion of our trip.

Our ship, the AmaLotus, was a luxurious 120-passenger vessel. The crew was mostly Cambodian, with the captain and some officers being Vietnamese. Each day we would disembark to visit villages and learn about the customs & culture. We traveled down the Tonle Sap River into the Mekong River. The first four days were spent on the Cambodian side of the border and the last three on the Vietnamese side.

In Kampong Chhnang we got our first deep exposure to the lives of river people, who depend on the river for everything. Whether they live on small boats or in houses built on stilts, their lives are hard. They sleep on straw mats on hard floors or in suspended hammocks. They are always bending or squatting, resulting in stooped posture. We met a 60-year-old woman who we mistook to be in her 90’s…

In Kampong Tralach we experienced 2-person ox-cart rides, with children running alongside laughing with us. The oxen are a crucial part of the lives of the people who farm the land just in from the river.

In Oudong (former capital of Cambodia) our entire group visited a Buddhist monastery, where novices, nuns & monks reside & worship. The nuns and novices dress in white robes and the monks dress in the saffron-orange. All shave their heads. A very special experience occurred when a group of three monks chanted a blessing for our group. We all sat on the floor in front of where they were sitting & received their blessing, followed by a sprinkling of lotus flowers. The taking of photos was only allowed after the blessing, and the monks were as curious about us as we were about them. One even used a smartphone to take shots of us!

In the tiny village of Koh Chen we watched coppersmiths hammering bowls, plates and vases. Entire families participate in the various stages of smithing – from pounding the metal to filing the edges & polishing the finish.

We spent two days in Phnom Penh (capital city of Cambodia). The French influence is just as strong here as it is in Vietnam, but this was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina in the 1920’s & was known as the “Pearl of Asia”. We motored about by “tuk-tuks”, four-person carriages pulled by motorbikes. We stopped at the Royal Palace where the king was in residence, and the Silver Pagoda, with its floor paved with silver tiles. At the National Museum we saw incredible pieces of ancient Khmer art.

Our visit to the S21 Detention Center and the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh was very emotional & somber. The field was one of many sites where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. In a social reform process aimed at creating an agrarian-based Communist society, they drove people from the cities to the countryside & worked them to death. They tortured and killed many intellectuals, professionals & government workers suspected of being traitors. They separated children from parents and indoctrinated them in communism. The genocide resulted in more than 2 million deaths, out of a population of 7 million. Every one of the tour guides that worked with our group had experienced the loss of at least one family member. At the fields we saw mass graves surrounded by fences upon which visitors had left string bracelets which are received at blessings. One large tree was covered in bracelets – it was the tree where infants were killed by bashing their heads against the trunk. There was a large commemorative Buddhist stupa (a monument which houses relics or remains) filled with the skulls of 8000 victims from this particular killing field. It is a testament to their peaceful Buddhist nature that the Cambodian people have managed to forgive and move on…

Our last two days on the river were spent visiting small villages in Vietnam. On a rainy day we walked around the village of “Evergreen Island” where the children were so excited just to walk around with us. In Tan Chau, we rode trishaws (small bench seating with no back to lean against, pulled by bicycle) to a rattan mat factory and a silk weaving factory.

In Sa Dec we walked through the village markets, marveling at how many different types of rice were being sold. In Cai Be we visited a rice paper making factory and a coconut candy factory. I use the word “factory” loosely here – these were small operations set up in large sheds, with one just person operating each of the major tasks. As we walked through the villages many townspeople came out of their homes to look at us. They were friendly & very interested in our differences. The children were a pleasure – throughout Cambodia and Vietnam they were curious & charming, with beautiful features. Often they wanted to walk along with us so they could practice their English.

We so enjoyed our first exposure to this part of the world. It was enlightening, exciting, interesting & quite outside of our comfort zone. Would we return? We both feel drawn to Cambodia and can see ourselves going back there again, especially to spend more time in the temple ruins of Siem Reap.

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