Morning Vietnam and Cambodia
These images might say it all. There are statues and artifacts from times past and there are children facing the future with smiles. It is a trip worth taking. For me it was an eye-opener; a pleasant surprise. It is vibrant, alive and developing fast and looking ahead.
It boasts a glorious but tempestuous past, with temples, conflict, and strong traditions. The streets are filled with vendors or working people on mopeds and tuk-tuks. The prices are staggeringly low and the choice plentiful. Many hotels are modern and rank with anything I’ve seen elsewhere…and all of this in lands where warfare and killing fields are reminders of a time we cannot dismiss.
Crossing the road is a constant hazard. People dart around mopeds and mopeds dart cars and trucks, while the sun beats down and a moment in the shade is a welcome relief. Indoors, there are fans and air conditioners. The restaurants are modern, clean, and the service is fast. And while the food is fresh and consists of that we would consider good nutritional food, the menus are almost identical. I was well fed but my stomach was happy to get home to my old eating standard. Six or seven course lunches and dinners always included deep fried spring rolls, fish or shrimps (often in curry or garlic), stir fried vegetables, sweet and sour pork or chicken (if you were lucky), a fish dish, rice and mostly fresh fruit for dessert. Sounds good? Well after 21 days of the same lunch or dinner, one looks for a restaurant with a different menu. Wine and beer are plentiful, welcome, and quite inexpensive.
The hotel chains like 5* Sofitel, Vinpeal in Na Trang, Ramada and Raffles Royal Phnom Penh (where President Obama recently stayed) offered wonderful service, spacious lobbies, rooms and exquisite swimming facilities. One hotel on the water offered soft sandy beaches, awesome vistas, and beautiful sunsets.
We flew via Korean Air to Hanoi, for a few days with city tours then on to Haiphong for a junk ride and lunch. To Da Nang and her beaches on the Han River that flows into the China Sea. A visit to Hoi An (a World Heritage Site) with its unique Tran Family Temple and Japanese Covered Bridge was a highlight. Then it was south to the Mekong Delta near Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Here we visited fishing villages. The old post office has souvenirs to consider and the nearby Notre Dame Cathedral conjures memories of Catholic interests of the 1880s. Intermingled were modern department stores and upscale coffee shops featuring cool mocha java and fresh muffins.
A flight to Cambodia’s large cities brought us to Phnom Penh and the great temples of the past and memories of French architecture and colonial mansions.
Then we flew north to Siem Reap and Angkor. Here we were taken to some of the great old temples dating back hundreds of years. We also saw the killing fields and war museum to better understand the historical past and atrocities of Pol Pot during the 1970s. It’s an eye opener but not easy for the faint of heart.
Siem Reap, Angkor Watt and Angkor Thom were memorable. Walking around some of the temples especially the splendidly preserved 12th century Angkor Wat allowed us to experience the best example of ancient Khmer architecture. It was the largest and most impressive site. The tree vines have practically engulfed the deteriorating buildings but the mood was historical as we walked through the fast glowing trees to see what remains from ages ago. Here, monkeys abound, as do children younger than 8, selling souvenirs of bright silk at unbelievable prices. They attend school until 1PM and then get to work as sellers of souvenirs to help their families.
They asked about Canada, knew about Ottawa, its capital, and showed us their tiny collections of American and Canadian coins and stamps.
But what you will long remember are some of the finest religious buildings in the world. Add to this the Elephant terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King and you will open your mind to the Cambodian past.
Dinner with Cambodian music and dancing brought our trip to a peaceful close even through a tempestuous rain.
Vietnam and Cambodia have modernized quickly and new buildings are in progress. Knowing what I do about their recent history I was pleasantly surprised. They welcome tourists and give as well as take. Many spoke some English and were helpful and always polite. It was appreciated.
This is not an easy trip with so much to do, but congenial co-travelers certainly helped. There are long bus trips, night flights that make one lose sleep, torrential rains in some seasons and, as I said, heat and mostly traditional food. November might be the best time to go but it will still be hot. Our tour was organizes by a Montreal agency SINORAMA, with three buses of twenty people each often moving in tandem. We had knowledgeable local guides and a hard working company tour leader who joined us from Beijing.
Check your air schedule before you go. Arriving in Seoul at the end and having to wait all night for a flight home a day later can take the steam out of anyone. I suggest an airport hotel.
Pictures by Dr. Andrew Mok
Story by Arnie Greenberg: email@example.com