imaginings of vietnam & cambodia ….

Here I am, Tuesday, January 11, 2011, sitting in Daegu, Korea and finalizing the details of my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.  I leave this Thursday, January 13;  my plane takes off at 2:15 pm from Incheon and arrives in Hanoi at 11:15 the same evening, after a 5 hour layover in Guangzhou, China.  As usual, I am stressed out, as I always am before I travel; thinking of all the details makes my head spin. In addition to the regular stress, something has happened to my back; I didn’t do a thing, just got out of my bed after a nap on Sunday, and voila, I couldn’t move!  Why is it that I always get sick or get some physical pain right before I leave for a vacation?  So, in addition to being stressed because there’s not enough time to get everything ready, now I have to take the time to visit the hospital for physical therapy on my back!

I’m excited, as I always am, to travel to an exotic land.  But, I’m also feeling a little melancholy about this trip, mainly because of the extensive reading I’ve been doing to prepare. Vietnam and Cambodia are countries that have suffered unbearable trauma, some of this trauma in years that fall within my own lifetime.  I am a child of the Vietnam War-era; though I was too young to know & understand everything that was going on at the time, I remember the frightening images of the war on T.V.  I remember the student protests on U.S. college campuses, especially the Kent State massacre.  It seemed to me that the world was a crazy and scary place in those years of my youth.  In later years, in one of my writing classes, I read a great short story by Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried;” it told about the things American soldiers in the Vietnam war carried with them and the meanings behind these things, which in essence told the greater stories of the soldiers’ lives and the horrendous war they were part of.


There is still a lot I don’t know about Vietnam and Cambodia, but in the last several months, I’ve tried to immerse myself in the culture from afar, reading novels, guidebooks, memoirs, historical books and watching movies.  Before I started my recent reading binge, I had seen one movie about Vietnam that evoked a peaceful and slow-paced culture.  The 2000 movie, Vertical Ray of the Sun, was about 3 sisters and their families and their loves.  The movie is full of lush greenery, drenching rains, romantic scenes.  This movie has colored my imaginings of Vietnam since I saw it nearly 10 years ago.  Of course, when I was younger, I also saw violent Vietnam war movies, such as the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Good Morning, Vietnam, Born on the Fourth of July and others.

My Korean friend Kim Dong Hee had seen the movies Indochine and The Scent of Green Papaya, so she was determined that I should see those movies.  One night we went to the DVD bang and watched the 1992 French film Indochine, with Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Perez.  Set in 1930s French Indochina, it tells the tale of a love triangle between a rubber plantation owner, her adopted daughter and a younger French navy lieutenant.  The rising Vietnamese nationalist movement is the backdrop of the movie.   It’s a great movie that gave me a feel for Vietnam under the French Protectorate.

In that same vein, I’m currently reading a book by Uyen Nicole Duong called Daughters of the River Huong, that tells of 4 generations of women in the same family, beginning with the story of the Mystique Concubine of the King at the time when the French were in charge in Vietnam; the love story continues through to the modern-day.  I adore this book so far and am getting a feel for the beauty and the mystique of Vietnamese culture.

On the other hand, I read Catfish and Mandala, a memoir by Andrew X. Pham, a Vietnamese-American guy who bicycled all around Vietnam to explore his heritage.  He and his family escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975.  This book tells a true story of Vietnam from a victim’s perspective, with no gloss or glimmer.  The horrors visited upon families during the war are depicted here; when he returned to his home in 1989 for this trip, Vietnam was still a very poor country, rife with corruption and filth.  It’s a memorable and sometimes disturbing personal story of war and a search for roots and identity.  Some parts were difficult to read, but I’m glad I did, because I could really feel for Andrew’s struggles and the search for peace in his life.

When my son Alex came to visit in Korea, he brought me two movies, The Scent of Green Papaya and Three Seasons.  Finally, this past Friday night, Kim Dong Hee, who has been dying to see The Scent of Green Papaya for months, went with me to dinner at Little Italy across the road from my apartment.  We shared an entire bottle of wine and then took my DVD to 3 DVD bangs before we were able to find one that could play an American-made DVD.  We settled in to watch it.  It’s really a mood piece, depicting the simple daily lives of a Vietnamese family and a servant girl.  It has very little conversation and even less action.  After all the wine I drank, I’m sorry to say I fell asleep and missed parts of it!  Kim said it looked to her like I slept through the whole thing, but I think she’s mistaken because I remember a lot.   A lot of lush green leaves dripping with dew, green papayas, cooking, scrubbing of floors, and ants.  Taken from Wikipedia, here’s a plot description:

A young girl, Mui, becomes a servant for a rich family. The family consists of a frequently absent husband, a wife and two young boys. When the husband leaves, he takes all the household’s money. As Mui grows up, the family falls on hard times, and eventually she becomes a servant for a pianist who befriends the family. That man is engaged to be married, but he prefers playing the piano to spending time with his fiance. One night, after blowing off his fiance yet again, the pianist sleeps with Mui. The engagement is broken off. The pianist starts teaching Mui how to read and write. A pregnant Mui reads to her unborn child.

I read another book by Duong Thu Huong called Paradise of the Blind, the first Vietnamese novel published in the United States in 1988.  It is currently banned in Vietnam because of the political views expressed.  It tells the story of a girl whose family is torn apart by the Communist takeover, including the land reforms and the so-called Rectification of Errors.  The girl’s uncle is the primary culprit in the novel and is really the personification of the evils of Communism.  It’s a powerful book; it infuriated me to read it.

Last but not least, on Christmas Day, Myrna lent me her computer, since mine crashed two days before Christmas, and I watched the 1999 movie, Three Seasons, a movie that takes place in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, well after the war.  It tells intertwining tales of different Vietnamese characters in a changing Saigon, including that of an American ex-soldier who comes in search  of his lost daughter and a cyclo-driver who falls in love with a Vietnamese high-class call girl.  The movie may be somewhat romanticized but I found it also depicted the dark underbelly of the city, especially in the story of a little boy, Woody, who lived on the streets.  But the story was also a hopeful one, one that shows a Vietnam on the verge of a new life, caught up in modernization and globalization.

Finally, when I leave here on Thursday morning,  I will take along another book by Andrew X. Pham called The Eaves of Heaven, which I plan to read while I’m traveling, in between writing, seeing the sights, floating on a junk in Halong Bay, and eating some great Vietnamese food!


When I originally planned this trip, the only place I had in my imagination was Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap.  I had heard from various people that it could take 3 full days to see all the temple ruins, ruins that are engulfed by huge trees and their immense snake-like roots.  Pictures of this place have fired my imagination for years.  I really knew nothing about it except that it looked mysterious and beautiful.  Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.   It was originally a Hindu temple, then Buddhist, and is now the world’s largest religious building.   Restoration of the temples started in the 20th century, but was interrupted by civil war and Khmer Rouge control of Cambodia during the 1970s;  amazingly little damage was done to the complex during this time of upheaval.

I’m embarrassed to say I really didn’t know anything at all about Cambodia.  I remember hearing of America’s bombing of Cambodia during the war, but I didn’t understand Cambodia’s involvement or why we were bombing them.  My first introduction to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge was through the non-fiction book called First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, written by Loung Ung, Cambodian author and survivor of the Pol Pot regime.  It’s an intense and highly disturbing account of her personal experience during the years of Khmer Rouge rule.  I was so shocked by this book, and especially shocked by my own ignorance of what happened during these years of the 1970s.  These horrors were happening in Cambodia shortly after I graduated from high school and during my college years, while I was partying and studying and enjoying life to the fullest.  How could I have been so blind to what was happening in the world at this time?  Loung Ung was a mere 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge emptied the entire city of Phnom Penh and sent everyone to the countryside to work in the fields.  She saw her parents and siblings die in the Killing Fields of Cambodia;  she saw horrors no child should ever see, suffering starvation and humiliation under this terrible regime.

Here is Loung Ung’s personal website: Loung Ung

In the midst of reading this book, I became intensely curious to know more and so I watched another horribly upsetting 1984 movie, The Killing Fields, which I had never seen before.  The film opens in 1973 in Phnom Penh when the Cambodian national army is fighting the Khmer Rouge.  The story follows three journalists, two of whom include Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg. Later the movie moves ahead to 1975, when the international embassies are being evacuated in anticipation of the Khmer Rouge invasion of the capital.  When the Khmer Rouge demands that all Cambodian citizens be turned over, the other journalists try desperately to forge a passport for Dith Pran, identifying him as a British journalist.  Their attempts fail, and Pran is turned over to the Khmer Rouge; he barely survives the next years under the horrible conditions as a captive of the totalitarian regime.  He endured four years of starvation and torture before Vietnam defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1978.  Dith Pran died at age 65 in 2008, years after he managed to escape from the Khmer Rouge death camps. He coined the phrase “killing fields” to refer to the clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered during his 40-mile escape. His three brothers and one sister were killed in Cambodia.

Finally, I read another book by Cambodian author Somaly Mam, called The Road of Lost Innocence.  Somaly herself was sold into sexual slavery at a young age and endured a horrible existence in the brothels of Phnom Penh.  She managed to escape with the help of a French humanitarian worker who became her husband.  She has worked tirelessly in her adult life to help other Cambodian girls who have been sold, often by their own parents, into sexual slavery, and she founded the organization AFESIP Cambodia (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations): AFESIP

Here is an article written by Mariane Pearl about Somaly Mam in the August 2006 issue of Glamour magazine:  Global Diary: Cambodia

All of these books about Cambodia were intensely disturbing and opened my eyes to a part of history I’m sad to say I knew nothing about.   With so much depth added to my body of understanding and knowledge, I actually became more curious about Cambodia and decided I wanted to explore Phnom Penh as well as Angkor Wat.  Thus I changed my plans to spend 5 1/2 days in Cambodia and 4 days in Vietnam, as opposed to splitting my time evenly as I first planned.

The last thing that happened very recently was the mass stampede at the Khmer Water Festival that killed over 300 people in Phnom Penh on November 22 of this year.  Apparently, according to a Cambodian journalist, the panic was caused by police firing a water cannon onto a bridge jammed with people.  He said police fired the canon to get people to move off the bridge when it started swaying, which caused a panic.

So much sadness in Cambodia and Vietnam.  I am hoping to find more optimistic places on my journey.  Hoping to believe in, to find evidence of, the resilience of the human spirit!

Here is my itinerary:

January 13-14 & January 17-18: Hanoi Ngoc Mai Hotel: Address: : 07-17 Cua Dong str., Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Dist, Hanoi, Vietnam

Tel: (84-4) 3923 1931/39231932 – 3828 6236/38282605
January 15-16: Indochina Junk on Halong Bay (The Dragon’s Pearl Junk): Indochina Junk

January 18-20: Villa Langka in Phnom Penh: Villa Langka

January 20-23: Auberge Mont Royal in Siem Reap: Auberge Mont Royal d’Angkor

Categories: Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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