Exploring Vietnam and Cambodia (with a Bangkok Coda)

"Exploring Southeast Asia: Vietnam and Cambodia," The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, August 8, 2004, pp. 7-8, 12.

All photos by Marcia Jacobson

"Vietnam is like a watermelon, green on the outside and red on the inside," our Hanoi guide told us when my wife, Marcia, and I began our first full tour day Dec. 17, 2003 to launch our 17 day trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangkok.

Along with our 25 Smartours travelling companions, we landed in Hanoi, the political capital, and, after four nights, flew to Central Vietnam where we visited Hue, the ancient cultural capital but now a city in decline. We next visited Hoi An, something of a shopping mecca for tourists seeking to have clothes made or buy Vietnamese art, and Danang, which was the center of the American military presence. We completed the Vietnam portion of our trip south after flying to the former Saigon, the economic capital (now officially called Ho Chi Minh City but called Saigon by its denizens). While in Saigon, we took day trips to the remarkable Cu Chi tunnels which the Viet Cong used to bedevil the French and Americans and, on another day, visited the fertile Mekong Delta area. We then flew to Siem Reap where we saw the Angkor temples, especially focusing our visit on Angkor Wat. Our last stop was Bankgok, a thriving modern city which we had visited a few years ago.

Vietnam: Street in Saigon

Vietnam has a population of 80 million and lists its per capita income at $420, but that is supplemented considerable by unreported tourist dollars and the billions of dollars on and off the record that are sent back from the Viet Kieu, or "overseas" Vietnamese families that have left Vietnam, most of whom had been part of the South Vietamese-American wartime alliance. Notwithstanding barriers to their return, 300,000 Viet Kieu visit each year, and some have decided to stay, particularly as the government relaxes restrictions and realizes that the visitors and returnees might bring capital into the country in the form of both investments and assistance to family members still living there. Of course, anything that adds to tourist dollars is more than welcome. Yet, because a low per capita income convinces such organizations as the World Bank to give the government favorable loan terms, it is in the interest of the Vietnamese government to keep the unreported, underground economy quiet,

The Vietnamese have survived Chinese invasions, the French Colonial presence, and the American intervention on the side of the former South Vietnam government in the civil war that followed the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. After the American withdrawal in 1975, Hanoi consolidated its hold on the entire country and turned it in into a Marxist state. For eleven years it recused itself from most of the world and suffered economic deprivation. But in 1986 the policy of doi moi or "economic regulation" enabled Vietnam to join the Asian and world economy by introducing elements of a free-market economy."

Even now, as in only three other nations--China, Cuba and North Korea--the Communist party dominates every facet of political and cultural life, and most of its 2.5 million members live in the north. Newspapers are still censored, political criticism discouraged, and elections limited to choosing candidates of similar ideological views. It is accepted wisdom that the Communist party under the leadership of the late Ho Chi Minh--affectionately called "Uncle Ho," particularly in the north-- saved the country from foreign domination and is responsible, under the leadership of his successors, for the improved living standards in the past decade. Enthusiasm for Communism and Ho Chi Minh is far more muted in the South, no doubt in part because 400,000 people of the once South Vietnam who didn't leave after Hanoi's liberation on April 30, 1975 had to undergo severe re-education in camps established for that purpose.

Vietnam: Ha-Long Bay

The Vietnamese are a hardworking proud people. Notwithstanding the sacrifice of colonial wars--or perhaps because of it--they are oriented towards family and think in terms of improving the lot of the next generation. They value education and, according to our guides, actually have to pay for their children to attend school. In Hoi An, a commercial town with a strong tourist trade, shops-- often employing three generations of the owner's family--are open seven days a week from 7am to 9pm.

People who can't afford shops sell stuff on the streets. We saw poverty but not starvation. With the exception of an occasionally maimed beggar, no one looked hungry. On the streets the poorest, including children, sell trinkets, postcards, souvenirs, and pirated English books that they have xeroxed and bound. Adults who have nothing else to sell are lottery ticket agents. The food in local markets here and elsewhere not only seemed plentiful but inexpensive; indeed the variety, quality, and quantity of produce and fish in local markets were quite impressive.

As in China the early shoots of the capitalistic garden often means petty cheating. On occasion, vendors gave the wrong change. Particularly in Hanoi, we would agree on a price for a t-shirt or a trinket, and it would change when the transaction took place seconds later. Also as in China, one can shop and negotiate in English. We were surprised at the number of people who knew some English. But perhaps we forget that, with the fall of the Russian empire, English has become the international commercial and informational language taught in schools even in such places as China and Vietnam.

As in other Asian countries we have visited, the dollar is a much valued international currency and preferred not only by vendors but also by the official agencies selling local visas and departure taxes at the airport. These tourist fees comprise a considerable source of revenue for these developing countries.

Smartours used Korean airlines to and from the United States. We went to Hanoi on a six hour flight after a 14 and half hour flight to Seoul and a layover of a few hours and, on our return home, returned to Seoul on a redeye from Bangkok that took over five hours. But with the recent signing of a protocol between the US and Vietnam, soon there will be direct flights between the two countries andthe 30 hour nightmare of travel to and from Hanoi, will be a thing of the past.

Hanoi is a rather austere place with little indication of Western capitalism and only a handful of signs indicating the presence of international corporations.

That on the first day we arrived in Hanoi Tan showed us Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and Ho's house as central sights gives some indication of the way "Uncle Ho" remains a cult figure a quarter of a century after his death. As I was part of the river of people streaming past Ho's tomb under the watchful if not intimidating presence of armed soldiers, I realized that veneration of Uncle Ho is a kind of religion, perhaps partaking of aspects of ancient Vietnamese ancestor worship.

The first full sightseeing day featured another important political sight, namely the "Hanoi Hilton"--an old French prison (there is still a guillotine there!), where downed American flyers were imprisoned. The site is now fitted out with pictures of imprisoned Americans being well treated--John McCain is particularly featured-- along with signs honoring Vietnamese martyrs abused by the French.

Other than Hoi An, our central Vietnam highlights were the remnants of the Hue Citadel, mostly destroyed by war, and the Cham collection in the Danang museum. During their tenth century Golden Age, the Cham (or Champa) as they are sometimes called) produced magnificent stylized religious sculptures, depicting Hindu Gods understated in their facial features, yet large in size, as well as wonderful elephants, lions, and fanciful monsters.

The hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City took us into a more cosmopolitan world, one that had a traditional western department store and a few quite decent French restaurants. On Christmas Eve, the city was in a particularly celebratory mood, far exceeding what one might expect from a country where about 10 per cent are Christians, mostly Catholic. Hoards of adolescents and young adults--many with Santa Claus hats--were out tooling around on motor bikes which are the vehicle of choice for urban youngsters, many of whom dress as if they had been watching MTV. While we lost the military battle, we may have won the cultural war.

The most remarkable Vietnam site for me was the 250 miles of tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City centered in Cu Chi but stretching almost into Ho Chi Minh City. Begun in the Indo-China War with the French and vastly extended in the Viet Nam war, these tunnels enabled the Viet Cong to live underground during the day and infiltrate the South at night. (In the DMZ near Danang there is another tunnel complex that we didn't see).

Before tourists can explore the tunnels, they are subjected to a propaganda film emphasizing the destruction that America's military wreaked upon the Vietnamese people and how the Viet Cong fought back to defend their country. Some of the first level tunnels have been widened to admit Western frames larger than the trim Vietnamese. I was one of the few of our group who descended with a guide into the second of three levels; the tunnels there were so low and narrow that I could only crawl. Tourists are not admitted to third level because of the poor oxygen supply.

With small hospitals, dining quarters, and meeting rooms all underground, Cu Chi is a remarkable sight that speaks to the tenacity and courage of the Viet Cong as well as the American folly of thinking that the Viet Cong would give up. At night the Viet Cong set mines and other explosives to kill Americans who had little idea of the extent and sophistication of the tunnels.

While, on the whole the Vietnamese population did seem young and vigorous, on occasion we saw maimed older people who were in all probability wartime victims. Today even older people seem to separate their attitudes to American visitors from their anger at the American military.

General Giap, the choreographer of Vietnamese guerilla warfare and of the victories over the American and French, put little value on individual lives and spoke of being willing to lose ten men for every one that the US lost. In a culture where older means wiser, where ancestors are worshipped, where foreign armies had been repelled for two thousand years, and where time is measured in eras not moments, America had little chance of imposing its will on Uncle Ho's version of Nationalistic Communism.

We flew from Saigon to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the world famous temples of Angkor. While it would take weeks to see the entire Angkor complex, three or four days is a fine introduction. On the bas reliefs of these temples are narratives of daily life, including victorious battles, as well as episodes from classic epics; the monarchs wanted to link their human life to legendary figures like Rama and larger than life figures like Buddha. Thus the kings are depicted among sensual and passionate figures--supposedly celestial dancers--striking poses associated with Shiva.

Cambodia: Angkor Wat

The magnificent Angkor Wat is one of the world's great sites. The friezes on the outer walls are magnificently carved narratives of Cambodian history when the kingdom was at the height as well as of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. (A performance of the elegantly stylized Cambodian dance that night reinforced the centrality of the Ramayana in the temple culture.).The wonderful East Gallery contains the most famous panel of bas-relief stone sculptures known as "Churning of the Ocean of Milk" from the Hindu epic Bagavata-Pourana.

While the early temples were dominated by Hindu culture, Buddhism plays a larger role in the later ones. One sees hints of Buddhism even in those temples built first. The Buddhist temple Bayon, perhaps the second most impressive temple after Angkor Wat, stands at the very center of the city complex known as Angkor Thom, the last capital before the Khmer empire began to disintegrate in the 13th century. Huge faces, representing the king imagining himself as Buddha, decorate its 54 towers. Another striking site within Angkor Thom is the Terrace of the Elephants.

I shall treasure the memory of seeing--from the upper platform of the temple Phnom Bakheng--the stunning sunset hovering over the Ankgor complex. Nor shall I ever forget Ta Prohm which archeologists have left as if it were still embedded in the jungle. With roots entangling and moss protecting the temple, nature plays its role as destroyer and preserver.

Cambodian wedding at Angkor Wat

Cambodia, a poorer country than its neighbor, has a population of about 12 million. Once part of French Indochina, it is a constitutional monarchy with Norodom Sihanouk the nominal head of state. Cambodia has ambiguous feelings toward Vietnam. On one hand Vietnamese troops liberated Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge on Jan 7, 1979 as the climax a 1978 invasion. On the other hand, the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia for more than a decade and installed a puppet government, including Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge deserter who arrived with the invading army and has been part of every government since and Prime Minister since 1983.

Jan.7, once called "National Liberation Day," is now called "End of Genocide Day"--and "Vietnam Invasion Day" by some younger Cambodians who think Vietnam did to Cambodia what America did to Vietnam. Furthermore, Cambodians regard the entire Mekong Delta as theirs and regard the dividing line between Vietnam and Cambodia that gave Vietnam much of the Delta as the unfortunate result of colonial mapping. Our guides told us what while in Cambodia, we should not wear souvenir t-shirts or hats that we bought in Vietnam.

In Cambodia we saw more poverty and more wounded older men than we saw in Vietnam. The population seemed older than Vietnam, although we did again encounter children selling books and trinkets in the streets. While among these seemingly gentle people, one wonders how many of the survivor's families sympathized with the Khmer Rouge regime or took part in atrocities that killed 1.7 million people in less that four years. Everyone speaks of their losses during the period; our Cambodian guide told us that his family was decimated, but surely some of the perpetrators and their children survive.

Our return to Bangkok was a kind of coda which enabled us to re-visit the dazzling Emerald Buddha--really jade-- within the palace complex and to visit Wat Arum, a complex we had missed last time when our focus was on such wonderful sites as the Reclining Buddha, the Gold Buddha, and the Marble Buddha. Knowing the city from our past visit, we were comfortable getting around by water-taxi and Sky Train, essential for a city known for its traffic jams. Bangkok is one of Asia's major cities, but powerful memories of Vietnam's history and Cambodia's cultural treasures at Angkor are what will linger in our minds.

Suggested Reading:
Angkor, Dawn Rooney.
Vietnam Now, David Lamb
Catfish and Mandela, Andrew X. Pham