Viet Nam and Cambodia

** Note: If you want to skip my rambling about the trip and just look at pretty pictures, scroll down. You can also see all of my Vietnam and Cambodia photos on Flickr.

So, we just got back (well, a week ago) from a trip to Viet Nam and Cambodia and we had a FABULOUS time. (One thing I learned on this trip is that all words in Vietnamese are one syllable, so it’s really Viet — which is one syllable kind of like “nyet” — Nam and not Vietnam, and Ha Noi not Hanoi. I did not know that!) We tagged along on a trip with about 40 students from the college we attended and they were both exhausting and a lot of fun. We had never been on a tour with a group before. This trip was custom-designed by the professor whose class it was for and his friend and professional tour guide in Viet Nam, as opposed to being some off-the-shelf packaged tour with a tour company. Two things I really liked about the tour thing were that we did not have to worry about where we were sleeping or how to buy tickets or make reservations for things, and second, that we could individually opt in and out of activities. This was nice because my husband and I don’t always agree on what to do, so one morning I went on the bike ride while he slept late. And we were both happy for a change! There are so many places that I’d like to get back to that I didn’t see enough of – like the Old Quarter in Ha Noi and pretty much all of Hue and Hoi An, but we did have a fabulous time and saw some fabulous things and ate loads of really WONDERFUL food.

The trip started off really well for us when we found out in Chicago that Asiana had given my husband and I complimentary upgrades to Business Class for the 13-hour flight from Chicago to Seoul. (We were also upgraded on the 4.5 hour flight from Sai Gon to Seoul on the way back.) I think that that upgrade was key because I actually slept about 4.5-5 hours *straight* on that flight and was much better off on arrival than I usually am (I recall not sleeping *at all* on the way over to Belgium in the spring, for example). Anyhow, this sleep was key as we arrived around 10:30 pm and proceeded to wait around in the airport for hours to get visas and figure out what to do about three people’s missing luggage (this is why we did not check any bags on this trip!). Finally got to bed around 3 am and got up around 7 am to start a day-long tour of Ha Noi. So, if I hadn’t gotten all that sleep on the first flight I would have been a miserable wreck of a human being. Oh — and we also had access to all the business class lounges in Chicago, Seoul, and Sai Gon, which helped as well!

People have been asking me what my favorite thing about the trip was and that is really hard to say. Ha Long Bay was beautiful, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum surreal, the Vinh Moc and Cu Chi tunnels clausterphobic, the cyclo ride relaxing (though some of the students were totally terrified by this, I found it much less scary than autorickshaw rides in Bangalore), bike riding in Hoi An restorative, and the Imperial Citadel and temples in Cambodia inspiring. Our tour guide, Quang, was absolutely fabulous, teaching us about the history of Viet Nam from a personal perspective that you can’t get from books. Oh, and the food. Absolutely unbelievable. Un. Be. Lievable. I have never eaten so well in my life. And for the first time in my life I can say that I really thoroughly enjoyed eating seafood. I always find the texture of prawns kind of chewy and unpleasant but all of the seafood was so fresh it just melted in your mouth. Spectacular.

Cambodia was really great as well — the temples were truly amazing and beautiful. Siem Reap is an interesting place, because despite the development that has taken place in order to support the tourist industry, there isn’t much more than a surface layer of modernity and a great deal of pollution and dust. The recent history of Cambodia is very palpable as well. It has been only 10 years since the end of their civil war, which was preceded by 5 years under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. A difficult past that feels much less like “history” than the war with the Americans feels like in Viet Nam. It all still feels very raw in Cambodia. The food was definitely not as good (in that large-tourist-group-buffet kind of way), and I ended up with a bug for a couple of days (nothing too awful, just mostly made me really exhausted. Oh, and nauseous of course). I can see how you could spend a week there (we were just 2.5 days) and I’m VERY glad that I went, but with all the places I would like to visit in this world, I don’t think Cambodia is going to make my “return to some day” list.

Though there are so many things I could mention about the trip, I want to be sure to mention Project RENEW. We had a chance to visit some of their operations and learn about what they are doing in Quang Tri province in the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). They are doing some really fabulous work cleaning up unexploded ordinance left behind after the war, educating children about the dangers, providing medical assistance to victims, and instituting micro-loan and assistance programs that allow victims and their families to provide for themselves. They are funded through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and plan to expand their operations to the entire province, but their funding from the US Congress has been stalled. To expand operations they need only 5 million USD over the next 5 years, a real pittance considering the lives they are saving and the good they are doing. You can check out their web site (see link above) and make a donation, or, better yet, write your Congressperson and Senators (I’ve written mine!) and ask them to support funding for this truly worthwhile program.

There is one other story I’d like to tell. Everywhere we went in Cambodia we were mobbed by people trying to sell things. Often these were children. There was a particularly wonderful group of children that found us outside of Angkor Wat. One boy and girl attached themselves to my husband and me and individually started asking us what country we were from and then rattling off some basic information about the US — what the capital is, how many states there are, how many people there are, who the President is and who the new President will be (this was pre-inauguration). (This isn’t entirely novel, as I had some kids do this to me in India as well a couple of years back.) The thing that really struck us about it this time was after they told us the new President was Barack Obama they added, “He’s my skin.” Even children in Cambodia know that we have elected our first African-American President. If you don’t think this is making an impression around the world, think again! We gave them each a dollar and took a photo but declined the post cards they were selling. We boarded the bus and were transported maybe 100 yards to the restrooms before departing. As soon as we got off the bus this group of kids accosted us again to buy things, many of them laughing so hard about trailing us to the restrooms that they couldn’t get a complete sentence out. But that little boy we’d given the dollar to found my husband and tugged on his sleeve and just said, “Thank you,” and ran off. If you scroll down you’ll see this little boy and girl in my last photo. Beautiful.

In fact, we liked Viet Nam so much that we are actually seriously considering going back next year. The same professor that ran this trip is doing an alumni trip the same time next year with a very different itinerary. The plan is to stay in Ha Noi, Ha Long Bay, Hue, and Hoi An and do some hiking and art gallery touring, with talks with the artists etc., as well as spending the night out on Ha Long Bay. It’s much more of an adult sort of agenda and would entail staying longer in most places than we did on this trip, allowing us to really check out some of the local atmosphere better. It sounds like tons of fun!

Scenes from Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh’s House on Stilts, Ha Noi
House on Stilts

Workers in a rice field.
Working the rice fields.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay 21

Kissing Cocks in Ha Long Bay
Kissing Cocks

Beautiful Embroidery, Hue
Phoenix embroidery

Imperial Enclosure, Hue
Railing

Mosaic at the Imperial Enclosure, Hue
)

Urns at the Imperial Enclosure, Hue
Dynastic Urns in Hien Lam Pavilion

China Beach
China Beach 2

Hoi An
Rice Field in the Hoi An Countryside 2

Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City) at night
Saigon at night.

Temples of Cambodia

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom
Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom 7

Banteay Srei temple
Banteay Srei 7

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat 9

Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple
Ta Prohm 10 -- the Tomb Raider temple

Phnom Bakeng
Sunset over Phnom Bakeng 3

Children of Cambodia

Cambodian girl

Little girl at Banteay Srei

Children play at Banteay Srei

Charming Pair

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7 comments to Viet Nam and Cambodia

  • Dave Zahniser

    Your pictures are amazing! Sounds like a wonderful trip.

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences and your lovely photos! My college offers a similar month long semester in January with a variety of different off campus travel trips. I would love to go on a trip as an alumni sometime.

    Off to check out Project RENEW

  • Wow, amazing. I love the temple pics in particular.

  • Rachel

    Sounds like a wonderful trip! Did you take all of those photos? If so–you could be a professional! Which did you like better–India or Viet Nam?

  • Your trip sounds so incredible and I especially love the “He’s my skin.” story. Wonderful!!

  • menlopup

    Hi Amy,
    I’m the CEO of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Vietnam, and we think that yours is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from blogs like yours (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at mike at ruba.com.
    Thanks! 🙂

  • Really beautiful photography — especially the pictures of the children.

    I’m jealous of your trip (never made it to Viet Nam), but I’m MOST jealous of all that wonderful food (lots of pho?) that you had. MMmmmmmm! I was the same way about seafood. I never ate it in the U.S., but during my stay in Thailand I ate it, especially shrimp and fresh fish, ALL the time. So good. Even now in New Zealand with all the mussels and oysters and stuff, I can’t seem to get back into it like in Thailand.

    Man, now I’m getting hungry. Great trip! I advise Laos next time — the most beautiful country in SE Asia in my opinion. 🙂

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