Halong Bay

fishing villages, the riff-raff edges of hanoi, and the green mango

Sunday, January 16: In the morning, we float among the descending dragon’s islets of jade.   My cabin gleams, its wood rich and brown and deep as the earth.  I’m in my down comforter cocoon.  The quiet is punctuated only by the lapping of tiny waves against the boat.  This is a time, this morning, when I savor  being alone, when I have moments to myself, but I know I can connect when I choose to.  I don’t mind being alone under these kinds of circumstances.  It’s only when I feel there is no one for me, no one to connect with, that loneliness haunts me.

Sunrise on Halong Bay

Sunrise on Halong Bay

Yes, I’m here on top of this water world, this bay of limestone and emeralds.  I love it.  Too much for words.  I lie in bed and soak it in, breathing the sea air, pulling the comforter close to ward off the chill seeping through the door.  I still taste the happiness I felt last night.  How, I wonder, can I have it again?  Why is it that I’m greedy?  Why can’t I just enjoy it when it comes without wanting it more, again and again?  Could Buddhism, I wonder, teach me to do this?

the morning after

the morning after

After breakfast, we go on bamboo boats through a floating fishing village.  In all of Halong Bay there are about 1600 residents of 4 fishing villages.  They live on floating houses and sustain themselves by fishing.  In this particular village, there are 59 floating houses and about 300 people.  They live here year round; they live with their children, who attend school at one little schoolhouse in the village, and their dogs, who protect what few belongings they have.  Ryan insists the dogs protect them from Somali pirates.

our bamboo boat operator

our bamboo boat operator

floating villages

floating villages

floating fishing villages

floating fishing villages

Most of the houses have generators for electricity, but they’re only allowed to use them from 7-9 each evening.  As we float past the villages in our bamboo boats, we can see flat screen televisions inside the huts, complete stereo systems.  Thanh has told us that generations live here, that their sole livelihood is fishing, that it’s a hard life.  I can believe it.  I can’t imagine living like this year round and rarely visiting land, or cities, or people outside this small community.

karsts and fishing villages

karsts and fishing villages

in the midst of the fishing village

in the midst of the fishing village

floating houses

floating houses

more colorful floating houses

more colorful floating houses

Before we came out on our boats, Thanh told us that there is a problem with the residents throwing “rabbits” in the water.  Several of us look at each other, baffled.  Rabbits?  Where would they get rabbits to throw in the water?  WHY would they throw these rabbits in the water?  I ask Thanh, probably with a “duh” look on my face: they throw rabbits in the water?  Thanh nods, Yes!  But one of our group knows what he is saying, “Rubbish, he’s saying they throw rubbish in the water.”  Ohhh.  That explains.  Thanh says Indochina Junk and other tour operators have a system set up to take away their rubbish.  To promote a green bay.  Bravo for them!

fishing villages

fishing villages

home sweet home

home sweet home

picturesque neighborhoods

picturesque neighborhoods

isolation

isolation

We stop near the little blue schoolhouse and go into a pearl shop where I see beautiful black and white watercolors of the fishing village for only $6, but since Thanh mentioned only that we should bring $3 to tip our boat operator, I have no other cash on me.  I have to pass up the watercolors, much to my regret.

kids who live in the floating fishing village

kids who live in the floating fishing village

bamboo boats

bamboo boats

a congregation of bamboo boats

a congregation of bamboo boats

more floating houses

more floating houses

I love the colors of the houses!

I love the colors of the houses!

rowing back to the Dragon Pearl

rowing back to the Dragon Pearl

me in the rowboat

me in the rowboat

boats docked at a floating house

boats docked at a floating house

We take a boat back to the Dragon Pearl, where we return to the dock and meet our van to return to Hanoi.

Ken, Ryan and Thea

Ken, Ryan and Thea

Christo and Julia

Christo and Julia

the two French boys

the two French boys

Ruth

Ruth

On the way back, we are all quiet in the van. Ken sleeps, Ruth reads, and I nap in between staring out the window, and closely observing, with clenched teeth, the harrowing chicken games on the road.  Out the window are the riff-raff edges of Hanoi.  Gray woolen skies.  Smoldering fires burning in open fields.  Women in conical hats bending over in rice fields with huge power grids in their centers.  Water buffalo grazing, oblivious to the slummy areas surrounding the fields.  Further along, more ladies in conical hats selling loaves of French bread hung on racks displayed along the highway, open to the elements, the pollution.  When the ladies make a sale, they bag the loaves in bright yellow plastic bags.  Many of these yellow bags have made their way into the unkempt patches of dirt and grass along the roadway, yellow blights yelping out to be noticed and hauled away.

All I know is that I feel a sore throat coming on.

Back in Hanoi we ride alongside the ceramic mosaic mural on the dyke beside Hanoi’s Red River.  The wall depicts scenes of the different periods of Hanoi, along with modern art work, children’s drawings, and paintings of Hanoi.  It is said to be the world’s largest ceramic mosaic.

the mosaic wall in hanoi

the mosaic wall in hanoi

the mosaic wall

the mosaic wall

I go back to my room at the Ngocmai, where I climb under the duvet and watch some TV, drink some orange juice, hope to feel better.  After a while, I go out to the fabulous Green Mango for a light dinner.   It’s an elegant and rich place, hung with draperies, dimly lit, with artistically stark dried flower arrangements.  Lonely Planet describes this place as having the feel of “an opium den.”

the green mango ~ rich and elegant

the green mango ~ rich and elegant

The wait staff all wear tee-shirts for a cause: Save the Cat Ba Langurs. The Cat Ba langurs are the most endangered primate species, with only about 53 individuals alive.  (Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project)

my waitress with the Cat Ba Langur T-shirt

my waitress with the Cat Ba Langur T-shirt

My dinner consists of beer, appetizer, salad, dessert, tea.  Grapes in goat cheese and cashew nut, Green Mango grilled prawn salad, lemon custard with strawberries and raspberries, chamomile tea.  The perfect ending to a perfect three days.

prawns salad

prawns salad

grapes with goat cheese and cashew nut

grapes with goat cheese and cashew nut

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Categories: Cat Ba Langurs, floating fishing villages, Green Mango, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Indochina Junk, Vietnam | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

junkin’ it on halong bay: the happiness cruise

Saturday, January 15: Winter in Hanoi is not winter in Korea, or even in Washington for that matter, but it’s cold enough.  Especially since I’ve brought only lightweight clothing.  Layers and layers, but cotton and knits, not wools and down.

some fellow junks on halong bay

some fellow junks on halong bay

Maybe because of this chilly and overcast weather, we are just three in the van cruising from Hanoi to Halong Bay .  Each on our own bench seat, we can stretch out like lazy cats and enjoy the ride.  Enjoy? Wait. We are driving slowly, as everyone seems to do in Hanoi, but the driver rolls across the center line and then lackadaisically meanders head-on toward the oncoming traffic.  At the last minute, he cuts smoothly  in front of the truck in the right lane, and continues on until the next time he repeats the same.  On this 4-hour drive, he plays chicken too many times to count. There seems to be some logical order to this kind of driving in Hanoi, but frankly, it doesn’t make for a very relaxing drive.

indochina junk

indochina junk

The road is chock-full of bicycles and motorbikes and slow-moving trucks piled high with all manner of tropical fruits, sugar cane, green leafy vegetables.  One couple whizzes by; the driver has a huge sack of rice between his legs.  Debris dots the roads, the businesses, the yards. Another motorbike scoots past with dead unplucked roosters piled high behind the driver. Weathered shacks and paint-chipped houses fly by.  At temples along the roadside, incense smoke spirals upward, prayers to the Buddha. The yellow haze of Hanoi follows and envelops us like an old ratty blanket, too threadbare to cushion any head-on collision.  Ruth comments on the ever-present haze: “At least it’s atmospheric!”

Ruth

Ruth

Ruth, a redhead who lives in Toronto but was raised in Australia,  is in the seat directly behind the driver.  She’s working in Hanoi for 3 weeks helping Vietnamese community colleges with strategic planning through a contract with the Canadian equivalent of USAID.  She’s close to my age and we immediately strike up a conversation, finding we have a lot in common.  She has teenage children in college, she’s been married and divorced twice, and she loves to travel.

Ken, the two French boys, Thea & Ryan

Ken, the two French boys, Thea & Ryan

Behind me, in the third seat, is Ken, a bearded New Yorker with a hearing aid who’s retired but traveling around the world, volunteering as he goes along.  Mostly teaching English, apparently.  He tells us that he was practically deaf for 5 years but had a cochlear implant.  Now he’s just “hard of hearing.”

We make a stop at a “happy room,” which is basically a shop for tourists that has a bathroom.  I buy a bunch of Vietnamese souvenirs, sucker that I am: a buffalo tusk bracelet, an alabaster box with a carved vine of pretty flowers, a leaf box, placemats, and a lacquer picture that looks like an impersonation of Gauguin.  Ruth buys some scarves.  We use the “happy room” and head on our way.

the dragon pearl III

the dragon pearl III

We arrive at Halong Bay and board a little motorboat that takes us out to the Dragon Pearl III, our own personal junk moored in the bay.  We luck out in that there are just 9 of us on a junk that holds 22.  We meet our fellow passengers, Julia and Christo from France, Pasqual and his friend (name forgotten), also French.  Thea and Ryan hail from Brooklyn; they’re a couple in their 30s who take one big trip every year.  Thea has her own public relations firm and Ryan works for a software company that enables online banking.  Ken, Ruth and I make nine.

halong bay ~ descending dragon

halong bay ~ descending dragon

cruising into Halong Bay on our junk

cruising into Halong Bay on our junk

When I first meet Ryan and Thea, they ask if I have kids and I say yes.  But I’m not the kind of mother whose life revolves around her kids.  Sometimes, I say, raising kids can be pure drudgery.  I think Ryan is taken aback by that and during the rest of the cruise, I feel he’s a little stand-offish, possibly judgmental.  They are in their 30s and of course see children in their future.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Underway on the boat, all polished dark wood and gleaming brass, our guide Thanh tells us there are 1969 islands in Halong Bay.  Its name means “descending dragon,” and it’s been recognized by UNESCO twice. As we cruise along, we marvel at the limestone karsts and isles that make Halong Bay famous. Legend has it that the gods sent a family of dragons to defend the land of Vietnam.  The dragons spit out jade and jewels which became the chain of islands that served as a blockade against Chinese invaders.  Later, the dragons settled here to live peacefully.  The place where the mother dragon descended is called Halong Bay.  It’s quite lovely looking out from our little junk, as we cruise along, at rock formations shaped like slit-eyed monster faces and other imaginary notorious creatures.

Thanh, our guide on the Dragon Pearl III

Thanh, our guide on the Dragon Pearl III

Our phenomenal 9-course lunch, which Thanh introduces to us by reading aloud the extensive menu, includes: soup with red beans and lotus seeds, slivered vegetable salad with carrot juice, Halong clam with fragrance smooth fruit and cilantro, oyster cakes with garlic sauce, deep-fried prawns with garlic and butter, steamed sea bass with soya sauce and vegetables, cabbage with garlic, steamed rice, and tropical fruits for dessert: passion fruit, watermelon and oranges.  I add a beer and a glass of red wine for good measure.

steamed sea bass

steamed sea bass

At lunch, we all share our travelers’ tales.  Thea and Ryan have been to South Africa; they loved Cape Town but not Johannesburg.  Ken went to Zimbabwe and Tanzania and loved Peru with Machu Pichu and its huge sand dunes and rain forests.  Ryan also loved Peru.   Thea and Ryan spent a couple of days in Tokyo on their way to Vietnam. They have often done home exchanges and say they did one with a couple in Montreal, which they loved.  Montreal is where Ruth’s kids go to college. Ruth tells about hiking the mountains in Morocco.

After lunch, we try to sit on the cushioned lounge chairs on the top deck, but it’s downright cold.  I walk around on the deck, shivering and taking pictures; I come across Ryan and Thea huddled under royal blue towels on the lounge chairs.

the lounge chairs on the deck ~ too cold to lounge!

the lounge chairs on the deck ~ too cold to lounge!

on the good ship dragon pearl

on the good ship dragon pearl

Wanting to be warm for a while, I retreat into my cozy cabin where I write a while and take a short nap.

my cabin on the dragon pearl III

my cabin on the dragon pearl III

After lunch, we are given the keys to our cabins and told we can settle in.  A little later, the crew instructs us to put on the rubber slippers in our cabin closets because we’re going to explore caves on a little island.  My slippers are about twice the length of my feet, so I feel like some kind of cartoon character harumphing about in them.

I feel like a little girl wearing my father's shoes

I feel like a little girl wearing my father’s shoes

the captain

the captain

ken, thea and ryan

ken, thea and ryan

the little island where we lay anchor

the little island where we lay anchor

another view of the junks on the bay

a view of the junks on the bay from the little island

our fearless group of nomads from dragon pearl III

our fearless group of nomads from dragon pearl III

the view climbing up the island

the view climbing up the island

view from the side of the island

view from the side of the island

the view of our junk, and others, from the path to the cave

the view of our junk, and others, from the path to the cave

On the little island, we climb a path to reach caves filled with, alas, stalagmites and stalactites.  Of course as in all things natural, rocks & clouds, we see familiar-shaped formations such as sea horses and dragons.

inside the cave

inside the cave

After exploring the cave, we clamber back down the path to the beach, where we don life vests and get into kayaks, promptly heading out into the rough and cold seas.  Ruth and I are not experienced kayakers. We zigzag through the choppy water, waves jumping into our boat at every opportunity.  Around the islands we go, paddling hard to keep up with the others, getting soaked and cold.

soaked and cold after our zigzag kayak trip

soaked and cold after our zigzag kayak trip

About halfway through the trip, Ruth and I see a path through the islands that looks like a shortcut back to our origination point; we ask if we can take it and then plow through.  Funny thing is, when we get back using the shortcut, the others, who have gone the long way, come in for a landing right behind us.  On the beach, we are welcomed by a rock formation shaped like a whale against the setting sun.

the whale on the island beach at sunset

the whale on the island beach at sunset

Another extravaganza at dinner.  Thanh again reads the menu aloud and tells us to get our cameras out as we will have much to see.  Ruth and I prepare to enjoy by ordering a bottle of red wine.  First, we’re served another fresh vegetable salad, covered delicately in some kind of spring-fresh sauce, cilantro abounding.  Then out come the spring rolls, accompanied by two herons carved out of turnips.  Prawns in a delicious sauce decorated by a dragon carved out of a pumpkin.  Crayfish, very messy to peel, but delectable.  Chicken, mackerel, rice, and more tropical fruits.  And the grand finale carving: a sailing junk carved from a watermelon.  Apparently, the chef spent three hours of his day carving these showpieces.

spring rolls with carved swans

spring rolls with two herons carved out of turnips

a dragon carved from a pumpkin ~ with prawns :-)

a dragon carved from a pumpkin ~ with prawns 🙂

At dinner, we’re all drinking wine and enjoying lively conversation.  Ryan marvels at Ruth’s eyes, tells her they are stunning.  Ryan and Thea tell how they met on jury duty where neither of them were actually chosen, but in a random twist of fate, they found they lived five doors down from each other on the same street in Manhattan.

Ken tells us he went deaf from being a child of the 60s: too much loud music and too many drugs!  We laugh about the drugs, questioning him as to what kind, and he replies:  “There are not many I didn’t know…”

the chef with his sailing ship carved out of watermelon

the chef with his sailing ship carved out of watermelon

We talk at great length about India, where Thea and Ryan went last year, and where I’m planning to go in March.  They say they hated Delhi: “It’s so in your face!”  But they adored Kerala, taking a house boat in Allepey: “it’s SO chill.”

the watermelon sailing ship :-)

the watermelon sailing ship 🙂

After dinner we go out to the deck, me wrapped in my black sweater and a royal blue towel ~  a fashion statement.  Ruth and I sit with the French couple.  Julia, short and squat and wrapped in a cream pashmina, has short blonde hair poking up in spots like a punk hairdo; she smokes and speaks French in a raspy voice.  She doesn’t know much English, but Christo does so he translates.  Ruth also speaks French quite capably and is able to carry on a halting conversation with both of them.  Julia has that French classiness and elegance about her, despite her age and being out of shape; she’s really quite chic in an old world sort of way.

Julia & Christo ~ the French lovebirds

Julia & Christo ~ the French lovebirds

Earlier they had mentioned their kids were 42 and 45; I can believe her kids can be that old, but not his; he definitely looks younger, but then men often do.   I say, I can’t believe you have 40-something kids!  You look too young!  Christo proceeds to tell us that there is a huge age difference between them; he is 51 and she is 70!! A 19 year age difference!  They’ve been married for 33 years;  he was 21 and she 40 when they got married, she a university professor and he her student, and they’ve been happy ever since.  We can all tell they are still madly in love, the little French lovebirds.  He is protective of her, like when we walked up the hills to the caves, he held her arm the whole time; he told Thanh that Julia didn’t care to go into the cave, so he wondered if we would exit through the entrance or through another exit.

When Christo tells me of their age difference and their long marriage, I say, Good for you!  I’m so impressed that you have lived your lives outside the box, outside of what is socially acceptable.  Bravo!  I comment that they have a “joie de vivre” that’s quite obvious and infectious.  I love the French lifestyle; as with most Europeans, they know how to truly enjoy life.

One of the two French boys (I know one is named Pasquale, but I don’t know which one, and the other’s name I don’t know!) is very quiet and the other is friendly and talkative and even a little flirtatious.  I’m thinking he’s quite cute.  But I’m unclear if the two are gay.  I can’t tell as I don’t see any physical affection expressed between them.  The one who’s quiet is such because he can’t speak much English, while the other (I’ll call him Pasquale) can speak English quite well.  The two boys go fishing for squid off the bow of the boat, coming up every so often to show off their tiny slimy catches.

Meanwhile, I am disappointed in my own inability to speak or understand the French that is flitting about in the night air, especially considering the years I spent in half-ass study.  It’s funny, I can understand Ruth’s Americanized version of French more than I can understand the French people’s speaking, in which all the words blend together in a string of unintelligible but lilting chatter.

happiness on halong bay

happiness on halong bay

Later, back in my cabin, I write a while, as I left my book behind in my suitcase at the Ngocmai Hotel.  I realize that today I feel quite intoxicated, high, not only from the bottle of wine I drank, but from life.   From two days surrounded by interesting and adventurous people.  From immersion in a fascinating culture.  I haven’t felt happy in a long time, and now at this moment I can claim true happiness, in this time and space, as my own.  I love meeting fellow nomads, soul-mate adventurers, sharing stories and our love of cultures.  I love sharing new experiences with other vagabonds.  We have a spirit connection, a thread of whimsy and a lust for life connecting us, dreamers all.

I’m floating, anchored, in the midst of whales and turtles and sea monsters in this bay of descending dragons.  My cabin is toasty and pristine, and I’m under a white-cloud duvet, on a bed of pure white, rich paneled walls surrounding me.  I try to draw the happiness I feel in my little notebook, but how does one draw happiness when one’s artistic ability is limited to stick figures, star doodles, hearts, musical notes, and smiley faces?  How can I capture this happiness, bottle it, and take it with me back home, to Korea, where happiness is elusive as a firefly?

Categories: Asia, Halong Bay, Indochina Junk, Vietnam | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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.

Vietnam

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!

Cambodia

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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