The halfway point of the grant is punctuated by a school vacation for the first two weeks of June. It is an opportunity to reconnect with friends and further our exploration of Southeast Asia. My cohort chose to spend our break in Cambodia and Vietnam. The plan was to only spend about five days in Cambodia, and the remainder of our time working from south to north in Vietnam. Although my school and students were missed, it was a pleasant break from the village lifestyle and a chance to hit the road, seeking new adventures.
To be completely honest I almost didn’t even make it out of Terengganu. I arrived 45 minutes early for a domestic flight, which takes about 5 minutes to check in and get through security. There was an issue with the automated check-in kiosk, and conveniently no one to assist us at the Air Asia desk. We didn’t quite yet panic since we were accustomed to Air Asia’s lack of customer service, incompetent website and procedures, and flight delays. We approached a man checking boarding passes and explained our predicament. His response was that we should’ve allowed more time and arrived earlier, and that there was nothing he could do. We insisted on speaking with his superior only to hear something similar. It ended with a relatively heated exchange about the in-capabilities of Air Asia, numerous mentions that we were teachers in Malaysia, and eventually a fee to have a late boarding pass printed. Phew.
We arrived in the sweltering heat of Cambodia early in the afternoon. The heat would be a common theme for most of our trip and I still maintain that I spent more money on water than anything else. The first day we explored the city of Siem Reap, which consists of a tourist town filled with souvenir shops, western restaurants, and bars. The next morning we were picked up at 430am to visit a Buddhist temple and watch the sunrise. It was an awe-inspiring moment. Afterwards we spent the remainder of the day among the temples of Angkor Wat. These 1000 year old temples were truly spectacular, and must have been a seriously intimidating sight during the height of the Khmer empire. We were fortunate enough to have a tour guide with us for the entire day constantly informing us of the history, legend, and meaning behind much of the architecture and carvings. I soaked it all up like a sponge.
The next day we took a six hour van ride south to the capital of Cambodia, Phenom Penh. Although still developing, PP at least hinted at the idea of an actual city. One of our first excursions was to the killing fields, a historical site where over 10,000 men, women, and children were killed during the genocide of the late 1970s. Scattered among the grounds are excavation pits, but in the middle is a towering reminder of the horrible events that took place there. It is a memorial that holds thousands of skulls and bones, each labeled with the age, gender, and cause of death. It was a haunting and powerful sight. This was the first place in my entire trip thus far that I did not take any photos. For one it was to respect the deceased, and second because I’m positive what I saw will forever be ingrained in my mind.
After five days in Cambodia we flew to Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam, which is still commonly called Saigon by the people living there (and me too going forward). Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam during the war that devastated the country; referred to as the ‘American War’ there. One of the first places we went to the was the War Remnants Museum. It was a fascinating, partially propaganda-filled, depiction of Vietnam’s darkest time during the 20th century. It wasn’t anti-American per say, but it definitely downplayed the guerrilla style warfare and torture tactics used by the northern army, and emphasized the civilian casualties caused by the Americans. The most sickening aspect, however, was an entire exhibit relating to Agent Orange. It is one of the only times in my life I have been ashamed to be an American. I don’t wish to pursue this topic anymore because it will overshadow the overall positivity of the trip, but I now see why the Vietnam War is conveniently glossed over in American classrooms. On the flip side of this my friend Max and I visited the Cu Chi tunnels located just north of Saigon. At one point it consisted of a 200km tunnel system where over 15,000 loyal supporters of the north lived underground. We saw the types of gruesome traps used against the southern enemy, and even crawled 100meters in one of the only remaining parts of the original tunnel (cue the claustrophobia). Even with all that I learned about the war, I still fell in love with Saigon; especially the people and the food (Pho- a famous noodle soup, and vermicelli).
Our second city that we visited in Vietnam was Hue, the former home of the Emperor from about 1800 until the 1940s. The complex is called The Citadel, but was also named the The Forbidden City. Significant portions had been destroyed during the war, and restoration efforts were still underway, but it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the life of an Emperor. A god-like status, hundreds of wives, and such respect from the people that they wouldn’t even raise their head to look at you when speaking. We spent the majority of one day sweating and exploring the grounds. From Hue we decided to rent motorbikes and ride to our next destination, Hoi An. The ride, with lush, uninhabited mountains on one side and the vast blue ocean on the other, was my favorite moment of the trip. It took us about three hours to reach our destination and I relished every moment of it. Our ride to Hoi An was the best event of the trip, and Hoi An ended up being my favorite city of the trip. We ate these famous barbecue banh mi sandwiches at least three times every day. The city was littered with souvenir shops, historical houses and temples, and custom tailor shops. My friends and I purchased Chinese-style dragon shirts, and spectacular floral blazers. The best aspect of this city was the friendliness of the people. Every day, with ease, we were able to make Vietnamese friends and go out for drinks with them. It was very hard to leave this place, and I hope I can make it back.
Our final stop on this trip was the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. Located in the north, it has busier, more compact feel than its counterpart in the south. Here lies the frozen body of the first leader and founder of modern day Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi also has a lot of architectural and cultural influence from the French who colonized Vietnam for over a hundred years. There are coffee shops on every corner, and even french-speaking Vietnamese. From Hanoi we drove a couple hours to the infamous Ha Long Bay for a two day boat cruise. Ha Long Bay is a must Google for those who haven’t heard of it, and I have trouble attempting to convey the unfathomable beauty, vastness, and uniqueness. It rained for both of the days we were out there but the cool weather was welcomed with open arms by everyone. It seems my mind changes with each new country I go to, but Vietnam is now my favorite place I have ever traveled to, and it will surely take a lot to dethrone it.
More photos from Cambodia: Here
More photos from Vietnam: Here