Category Archives: Vietnam

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 5

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The last two days of our trip were spent exploring places outside of Saigon. Unfortunately, I was so congested and miserable at this point that I really just wanted to go back to Kuala Lumpur to get some fresh air (that should put the pollution in perspective for you). Luckily for me, the day trips (at least one of them) ended up being worth the less-than-ideal traveling conditions.

Our first day trip was a packaged tour to visit the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels, two unrelated, yet equally fascinating destinations I knew very little about. Unfortunately, our guide was terrible. He could barely speak English but insisted on talking incessantly with the high-strung enthusiasm of a small bird (that I wanted to squash). Also unfortunately, neither the temple nor the tunnels had much to read about on location, so we were pretty dependent on our guide for information. (Thank goodness for guidebooks, the Internet and fellow travelers…).

Inside of Cao Dai Temple

The Cao Dai Temple was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Upon walking inside, I felt like I was entering into a Dan Brown novel. The whole building is huge and colorful with bright pink and yellow walls, a ceiling painted to look like a mystical blue sky and columns with bright, cartoonish dragons encircling them. What was most fascinating, albeit creepy, however, was that the whole thing is covered in EYES! Yes, eyes! Specifically, the temple is covered in individual left eyes that seem to be watching over everything and, apparently, represent the all-seeing eye of God. In the back of the temple is also a massive orb with a huge eye in the front of it.

Orb inside the Cao Dai Temple

If the building in itself wasn’t interesting enough, the worshippers themselves definitely were. Nearly all the men and women were dressed in pure white garments, though some of the men had more elaborate outfits in bright blue, yellow or red accompanied by tall hats with eyes on them. The men and women were separated from each other on either side of the temple and entered in straight corresponding lines with the colorful men first followed by everyone else according to rank. They then proceeded to sit down on their knees and perform a combination of chants and bows.

At this point, I was so confused. I had thought this was going to be a Buddhist temple but this was completely different than anything I’d ever seen, and I had been unable to decode the incoherent babbling of our guide. Apparently, Cao Daism is a monotheistic religion that is a mystic COMBINATION of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Islam and, as far as I know, is the only one of its kind in the world (though it has an international following). Like the Catholic Church, the religion has a hierarchical structure, including priests, bishops and a pope. Like Eastern religions, they believe in reincarnation, karma, ancestor worship and strive for the eventual attainment of nirvana like the Buddha. I found the entire thing unbelievably fascinating and plan to research it a lot more soon.

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After the temple, we headed out to the trip’s main destination: the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were part of a massive tunnel network throughout Vietnam used by the Viet Cong to win the Vietnam War. The whole system was quite complex, consisting of several layers of tunnels on top of one another full of trap doors, booby traps and airtight seals that allowed them to go undetected by the South and the Americans for a long time. Some of the tunnels were built right underneath American military bases, leaving them puzzled how the Viet Cong could so easily attack them. Apparently, the tunnels were like mini-cities, full of hospitals, schools and dormitories that allowed the Viet Cong to stay under for days (though the conditions were miserable).

Me inside a foxhole at the Cu Chi Tunnels

Unfortunately, the site had very little information available to read, and we were, again, woefully dependent on the “expertise” of our guide. The site is also full of more anti-American propaganda, and I distinctly remember hearing the words “those crazy American devils” in the introductory video. However, the cool thing about the site is that you actually get to go into some of the tunnels and explore. Like most of my group, I decided I would walk through the long tunnel open for tourists that ran throughout the site. It wasn’t until two minutes in when we were crouching underground in the dim light with increasingly thick air that I realized how claustrophobic I was and started to panic. All I kept thinking and saying was, “Where is the exit? I have to get out!” Luckily, there were escape stairs available periodically throughout the tunnel, and I ran out the first chance I could. I’m glad I did, because you apparently have to crawl on your stomach at one point, because the space is so small. What boggles me is that some of these tunnels have been EXPANDED to accommodate tourists, who, I guess, are mostly bigger than the Vietnamese. At any size, I can’t imagine anyone staying down in those tunnels for more than a few minutes, let alone a few days. The tunnels we saw were paved and lit, but when they were actually used they were full of insects and snakes. I also read that the Viet Cong would often put dead bodies in the tunnels to deceive the Americans and, therefore, they often smelled like rotting flesh. I cringe at the thought…

As interesting as our first day trip was, our second day trip to the Mekong Delta was unremarkable, mostly involving a boat ride along the river and a bunch of super-tourist destinations where you watch them make honey and coconut candy. Nothing life-changing there.

Thus concluded my Chinese New Year trip :).

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 4

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After four days in Cambodia, Karri and I headed over to Vietnam for four days in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). I must say, Saigon was…interesting. Despite being neighbors, Vietnam was really different than Cambodia. The food, the culture and the whole atmosphere were completely different. Cambodia seemed a lot more like Thailand to me, whereas Vietnam is sort of what I imagine China to be like…

We happened to arrive during the eve of Tet, Vietnam’s biggest holiday of the year when they celebrate Lunar New Year. It was a pretty exciting time. The whole city was covered in festive New Year’s signs with red decorations and cat images, since 2011 is the Year of the Cat (however, according to China, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit…). To our luck, Karri’s Vietnamese friend Michelle was home for the holidays and offered to show us around on her motorbike. I gotta say, at first I was scared. Traffic in Southeast Asia is crazy as it is, but Ho Chi Minh City was especially bad. The city in itself is crowded but in the streets motorbikes are SWARMING! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many motorbikes in my life, it seemed as if nearly no one had a car.  Anyway, not wanting to be rude, Karri and I hopped on and off we went on our Saigon adventure!

Michelle showing us how to eat Vietnamese food with rice paper

The whole evening was really fun. Aside from the rush of the motorbike ride (only a few near misses :)), we joined the rest of the city in an evening Tet promenade in the city center. The whole street had been blocked off and decorated, and people from all over got dressed up in their finest to stroll down it and meet each other. The atmosphere, though crowded, was extremely happy and festive, it was hard not to enjoy the positive energy. Afterward, Michelle invited us to her house for an authentic Vietnamese dinner. In front of us we found a spread of rice, sauces, meat and vegetables as well as this transparent paper-like food called rice paper. Michelle showed us how to dip the rice paper in water to make it clear and soft then wrap all the food inside of it to make a roll. Her rolls were definitely much tidier than mine, but in the end, they were still fun and yummy :).

Me and the Tet babies

Later that night, Karri and I decided to go to bed early, since he wasn’t feeling well and we wanted to be refreshed the next day. However, the spontaneous Lion Dance outside my window at midnight accompanied by a stream of never-ending firecracker sounds kept me awake well into the morning. Part of me felt bad for missing out on the fun, so at 1 a.m. I changed my clothes and decided to head out on my own only to find we had been locked in! Yes, as if it were a shop, our hotel had closed its doors with a big metal gate over the entrance. As I headed back to my room, stepping over the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen in my life, I just hoped there wouldn’t be a fire…

On the morning of day two, my friend Danielle flew in to join us for the remainder of the trip. Since we were planning on taking day trips outside the city the last two days, we decided to see as much of Saigon as possible while we could. Though many of the shops and restaurants were closed for the holidays, the three of us were actually able to see quite a bit. We walked all over, taking in the French colonial architecture, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Tet market and a cockfight on a sidewalk in broad daylight. By far the most interesting event, however, was the War Remnants Museum, where we spent most of the afternoon.

I must admit, before heading to Vietnam, I knew very little about the Vietnam War. I knew it was a very controversial war where many bad things happened that messed a lot of people up. I was really hoping to learn a lot at the museum. Boy was I wrong…

This was the most un-objective, propaganda-laden place I have ever been to! To start, the entire first floor is full of images of Vietnam War protests throughout the world and letters from American soldiers and political figures expressing their regret and sympathy to Vietnam. The second floor was basically a large exhibit on Agent Orange followed by dozens of pictures of deformed adults and children and their stories. I honestly can’t remember all that was on the last floor, I just remember seeing a lot of pictures of dead bodies and stories about the atrocities the “imperialist” Americans committed.

I know a lot of bad things went down in Vietnam and that history has a different perspective from the other side, but come on! From this museum, you’d think North Vietnam was some sort of angelic victim who was only defending its country. There was virtually no mention of the Cold War, the Communism/Capitalism struggle or anything else that led up to the war, nor was there any mention of the atrocities the North or the Viet Cong committed. The only real positive thing that I got from that museum was a desire to learn more about the war (objectively), and I am now reading up on it.

The whole experience was a real wake-up call for me. It scares me to think how much control a government can have over information and the power this control of knowledge has over its citizens. Though most of the people I met in Ho Chi Minh City were super nice and didn’t seem to have any anti-American feelings, it makes me nervous to think that this information is being shared with hundreds of people every day and spreading more hatred against us. The whole thing reminded me of “1984” which, if you’re read it, you know does not end very well…

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 3

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Our day-and-a-half stay in Phnom Penh was marked by two distinct sites that caused our hearts to further bleed for the country: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The two places hosted a significant amount of the horror that occurred under the Khmer Rouge and are now open to visitors to share that history with the rest of the world.

Holding cells in Tuol Sleng prison

Also known as Security Prison 21 (“S-21”), Tuol Sleng is a former high school-turned political prison that was a massive site of death and torture under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79. The prison housed a number of political “threats” including officials from the previous government, academics, teachers, students, monks, factory workers, engineers, and eventually, suspicious members of the Khmer Rouge itself and their family members. When brought in, prisoners were either housed in tiny cells (like bathroom stalls) or shackled with other prisoners in larger rooms and were forced to stay under the most inhumane conditions. They were fed four spoonfuls of rice porridge twice a day, forced to sleep on the bare floor and forbidden to talk to each other. Breaking any of these rules, even drinking water without permission, would result in severe beatings or other punishments. Ultimately, however, the prison was an interrogation center and the victims were electrocuted, hung up by their arms, nearly drowned or had their fingernails ripped out as some of the methods of torture used on them. Many ended up selling out their friends and family members (who often then suffered the same fate) before being killed.

Photos of victims after their death in Tuol Sleng

Today, visitors can roam around nearly the entire complex, which includes several blocks of buildings used for interrogation and holding cells. The rooms are eerily simple, holding remnants of the bed frame, shackle and metal box (for going to the bathroom) that made up most of the interrogation rooms. Nearly each room in the interrogation block, however, also contains a photograph of a dead body after it had been tortured, putting an eerie perspective on the whole place. Nearby, the holding cells block contains three floors of wooden or brick cells, all about the size of a bathroom stall. Each level has barbed wire covering the outside balcony to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide. In some cases, you can still see blood stains on the floor.

Topping off the whole museum, however, is the victim’s memorial in the last complex. The ground floors are full of photographs of the prisoners, remnants of the torture devices used on them and the stories of the seven lone survivors (out of 17,000) who were found when the prison was liberated in 1979. In the very last room is a large monument full of skulls and clothing remnants. It was quite an emotional museum, to say the least.

On the morning of day two, Karri and I visited Tuol Sleng’s sister site, the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where most of the prisoners were killed and buried after their interrogation. The site is a ways out of the city at the former site of a Chinese graveyard. The prisoners had to be killed and buried there when the Khmer Rouge ran out of space at Tuol Sleng. To save bullets, they were bludgeoned to death with basic farm tools and buried in mass graves throughout the fields.

Empty pits at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek from where thousands of bodies of Khmer Rouge victims were excavated

Today, people can still see the huge pits that fill up the grounds from where the bodies have been excavated. In fact, the site is set up so visitors can walk from the entrance around the grounds at different stop points to read about different aspects of the fields, including the grave of the headless bodies, a tree against which the Khmer Rouge smashed babies and several cases containing the clothes and bone fragments of the victims’ remains. What is still eerie, however, is they say they still find bits of clothes and bones coming up from the grounds after it rains…

Inside the Killing Fields Memorial, where the remains of some of the Khmer Rouge victims are held

The site also has a museum containing clothes from the Khmer Rouge, tools used in the killings, a video on the Khmer Rouge and photos from the excavation. One of its biggest draws still, however, is the large memorial located in the center of the fields. The monument is 17 stories high and contains the victims’ remains in open, glass display cases. The first few levels are full of human skulls while the upper levels contain different other bones and clothing remnants. The whole thing is really open, you can go right up to it and touch the skulls if you want (though probably not recommended) since the glass cases aren’t always closed…

Though we’ve all grown up learning about horrible atrocities that have occurred throughout history, especially things like the Holocaust, it’s very different experiencing the sites first hand. What was especially scary to me was the fact that this all happened in the late 70s, less than a decade before the year I was born… After these museums I kept staring at all the Cambodians I encountered, especially the older ones, wondering what they were thinking about, what memories they had and what their lives are like now. I just feel sometimes Iike I’ve grown up in a bubble, one for which I am very grateful, and I hope I never have to endure anything like they did during my lifetime.

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 2

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After much deliberation, Karri and I decided not to pursue more temples on day two. It was a really tough decision to make, but we were a bit “templed-out” after having spent an entire day looking at ruins, and there were a few other things in Siem Reap that I wanted to see.

The main event on day two was the Cambodia Landmine Museum, what would become the first of a series of heart-wrenching museums that made up the majority of our trip to Cambodia. The museum was quite a ways outside the city and near Banteay Srei, another temple that was described in my guidebook, so Karri and I decided to do both. It wasn’t until our tuk tuk driver took us to the lone ticket counter for the archeological park that we realized Banteay Srei was part of the whole ruins complex and required another $20 full-day ticket. Reluctantly, Karri and I decided to pass on the second ticket, convincing ourselves that we had seen enough temples and would now have more time to see the city.

People fishing off the side of the road in Cambodia.

Our driver, however, didn’t get the memo and somehow Karri and I found ourselves at Banteay Srei anyway, and I quickly began regret not purchasing that second ticket… Banteay Srei, from a distance, looked really incredible, and unlike other temples in the area, had information available to read about the temple’s history and architecture before going in. At this point, we’d already driven more than a half hour to get there and going back to the original ticket counter was not an option. Unfortunately, we soon found out that individual temples don’t sell their own tickets. It’s all or nothing, and if you want it all, you have to go to the lone temple ticket counter just outside Siem Reap.

But after such a long drive I was determined not to give up, so I decided to approach the guards and see if there was anything I could do to change their minds… At first I just played dumb and asked politely if there was any way we could buy just one ticket to get into this one temple. I tried to explain to the officer that we had already seen the main circuit the day before and had traveled a long way just to see this one temple today. He said he couldn’t but referred me to his supervisor, where I repeated my story. Again, I was told to go back to the ticket counter. At this point, I asked the guard if maybe we could pay him to see the temple. At first I offered $5 (well more than one temple is worth comparatively) but went all the way to the full $20 just to see this damn temple. But what do you know, a guard in a country where corruption is rampant still REFUSED to let me in! In fact, he made sure to tell me that people found at the temples without tickets get a $100 fine, despite the fact that he and his comrades were the only point of defense for the ruins and letting us in would be easily unnoticed.

(For the record, I do not support bribes and corruption and all that, but seriously, accepting a few dollars to let some tourists into a temple far away from the city center is not that big a deal, and he could have put that money to back into some preservation fund for all I cared, the whole thing was just ridiculous. Furthermore, the whole system seems like a bad business move. You could make a lot more money off the temples by charging for entrance at individual sites in addition to offering the all-inclusive ticket to accommodate the stupid tourists who find themselves stranded far away from the ticket counter and regretting not buying a second ticket…)

Anyway, with our tails between our legs, Karri and I left the temple site and headed off our original destination, the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Like it sounds, the museum is full of information regarding land mines, especially their presence and history in Cambodia. It also contains an orphanage/school for victims of landmines and other disadvantaged children. The founder was a child soldier under the Khmer Rouge and was forced to lay landmines as a child, watching many of his friends get blown away in the process. He eventually realized the harm he was causing and dedicated his life to removing landmines throughout the world and educating people about their danger.

Close-up of a painting on display at the Cambodian Landmine Museum

Though small, the museum is really powerful. There is a large collection of landmines and weapons on display, but what is more interesting is actually reading about the history of landmines and their presence throughout the world. There is also a really interesting documentary video on just how they work and how powerful they are. What is most impactful, however, are the stories of the child landmine victims who now live at the museum’s orphanage. An entire wall is covered with their little biographies, and you find yourself addicted to reading each one, never ceasing to be shocked by their stories. There is also an art therapy project on display where the kids were asked to take a box and paint their aspirations on the outside of it while painting what happened to them on the inside. Today visitors can find four boxes hanging from the ceiling, all with pictures such as teachers, doctors and office workers on the outside, with colorful visions of smoke, fire and missing limbs on the inside. Sadly, there are an estimated 6 million unexploded landmines remaining throughout Cambodia :(.

After that emotional rush, Karri and I decided to relax a bit and just enjoy the streets of Siem Reap during our remaining time there. Next stop: Phnom Penh!

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 1

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As I sit here, just a couple weeks after returning from my one-week trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, all I can say is that this trip was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Cambodia, a country that has been through so much political unrest, genocide and famine, was one of the most fascinating yet heartbreaking places I have ever been to. Likewise, Vietnam, the first communist country I have visited, also proved to be a reality check, as I saw firsthand how much control the government exerts on information. Additionally, both of these countries were the two most polluted I have ever been to (especially Ho Chi Min City), and I’m still recovering  from the cough I picked up from the three straight days of congestion I suffered as a result of the pollution aggravating my allergies.

So the trip came about after I found myself with nearly an entire week off work with the celebration of both Federal Territory Day and Chinese New Year in one week (gotta love the many cultures of Malaysia)! Since it was only a few weeks after the massive preparations for Thailand, I decided to join my Finnish friend Karri on his pre-planned trip, which included four days in Cambodia and four days in Vietnam, with my friend Danielle joining us for the second half.

I must say, in the (rushed) weeks planning my trip to Cambodia, I was pretty terrified and extremely anxious of what was to come. After receiving a typhoid vaccine and accumulating a mini-pharmacy including anti-malaria pills, anti-diarrhea pills, stomach medicine, anti-histamines and rehydration salts, I turned my worries more to the country’s lack of infrastructure, unsafe traffic and crime. Plus the image of the nasty scars on the legs of a New Zealand girl I met in Thailand due to a sink and mirror falling on her in her guest house in Cambodia left quite an impression on me.

But as we arrived at the Siem Reap airport and headed to the city, my fears mostly began to melt away. Cambodia is fascinating! To start with, it’s a lot like Thailand, except poorer and “Frencher.” Like Thailand, we rode around in tuk tuks, though the ones in Cambodia are simply motorbikes dragging the carriage as opposed to one, connected (stable) vehicle. Similarly, the food in Cambodia is like that of Thailand, though less spicy and with more French influence, like baguettes and croissants. Additionally, the country has a history of Buddhism and Hinduism with beautiful palaces and temples built with architecture similar to those of Thailand.

Cambodian Child

The country is, however, EXTREMELY poor. I’m not kidding, as we looked at all the children running around, some naked, nearly all barefoot, playing in the dirt and the dirty water in the ditches, I felt like I was looking at a Sally Struthers infomercial to adopt a child. Beggars are everywhere, especially in the city’s capital, Phnom Penh, where one child followed me for two blocks, begging me to buy a pirated book, while another waited for more than 15 minutes next to my dinner table at a restaurant to try to get me to buy one. In addition to the children, the country is full of land mine victims, some who beg on the streets and others who have formed a musical band where they play at tourist places and collect money in a basket.

Landmine Victim Band

Though I normally don’t give money to beggars, it was especially hard to refuse in Cambodia after seeing and reading about all the hardship these people  have endured during the past few decades,  especially under the Khmer Rouge communist government from 1975-79 where between 20 and 25 percent of the population died or was executed under the brutal regime. I found myself, instead, doing quite a bit of shopping, including buying two skirts, two books, earrings, a painting and a t-shirt, always justifying my spending that I was supporting this NGO or the local economy. (Plus, some of the stuff was really cool).

So the whole trip started in Siem Reap, Cambodia home of Angkor Wat, one of the most spectacular temples in the world, and an entire complex of ruins spread out outside the city. As some of the ruins are quite far away from each other, many guidebooks recommend spending at least three days to view everything, but since we only had two days, Karri and I decided to hit the ground running on day one and try to see as much as possible.

Angkor Wat

Our first stop was Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of the entire archeological park. The temple and its surrounding complex were built in the early 12th century for King Suryavarman II. Though now a Buddhist temple, it was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and built to resemble Mount Meru in Hindu mythology, including a massive moat that surrounds the whole thing. Though under some reconstruction at the moment, Angkor Wat was beautiful. The complex is quite large and contains several buildings including a few large entryways, two libraries and the temple itself (side note: make sure to cover your shoulders and legs before you visit, otherwise you will be forced to wait to borrow the temple’s lone scarf for visitors).

Ta Prohm

After Angkor Wat, Karri and I managed to see the rest of the park’s main circuit, and though exhausting, is quite incredible. Actually, despite the national icon that is Angkor Wat, I think I prefer some of the other ruins we saw that day. Ta Phrom, another 12th century temple nearby, was amazing. Most of the temple has already fallen apart and what remains doesn’t look like it will last much longer. What is really beautiful, though, is that the temple is full of huge, old trees which have grown around the ruins, sometimes framing them with their roots.

Karri, Me and the Bayon

Perhaps my favorite ruins, however, were those of the Bayon temple, which were definitely the most unique of all the buildings we saw. The entire thing is covered in FACES! I mean, really, it’s COVERED in actual faces carved into the stone, and they’re all the same face! There are 216 of them, which face all four directions of the building’s 54 towers. Some say the face is of King Jayavarman VII, who commissioned the building in the late 12th or early 13th century, while others say it is supposed to be the Buddhist essence of compassion, the Avalokiteshvara, while others say it is a combination of the two. Whatever the case, the faces are really interesting, albeit, a bit creepy. I’d hate to be stuck there at night…

After more than seven solid hours of ancient ruins, thus ended day one in Cambodia.