Tag Archives: Vietnam

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 5


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


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 1


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.