About the trip
Al and I have been blessed with many great opportunities and have traveled to some Amazing places. People always ask “what is your favorite place?” And that is always really hard to answer- Everywhere (and including all the places we haven’t been to yet!) But this trip to Vietnam and Cambodia touched my heart unlike anywhere I have ever been. I don’t even know if I have the words to express it all. The trip was filled with love, beauty, sadness, struggle, inspiration, and Hope!! Above all HOPE!!!
We were blessed to work with AmaWaterways to capture the true spirit of their Vietnam, Cambodia Mekong River tour. I never imagined seeing either of these places and I am ashamed that neither were on our list of “must see places” WOW!! we were we wrong!!! Being a US History teacher for several years, all I knew about these countries were from what I knew about the Vietnam War and the the dictatorship of Pol Pot (and it turns out I knew VERY little of him!!) I have watched all the war movies and The Killing Fields. I taught about the war from the use of primary documents. But being there, seeing this beautiful land, knowing how much blood was spilled on both sides, is a totally different experience. Knowing the struggle the people of Vietnam suffered during the “strict” Communist era and hearing some of our guides personal stories were heartbreaking. But hearing of life under Pol Pot caused so many tears and a pain in my heart I have never had. and of course hearing of the personal effects of all the US bombing caused me shame and sadness. Please take a moment and read about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. This short description is a good place to start. Visiting a Killing Field was a difficult part of the trip but such an important part too. There is an overall sadness to the place and their are still pieces of bone and clothing that come up from the ground along the walking path. Getting to know our Cambodian guide Fin was definitely one of the Highlights of our trip!! Go Blue Group!!!
The trip begins
We arrived after over a day of travel (driving to NY, flying out of JFK to Tokyo, changing planes to Hanoi!) to our hotel in the heart of Hanoi! The next morning we set out to explore this strange new city!! WOW!!! We LOVED it!!! So much character, people everywhere, motorbikes going every which way with no traffic lights, weaving our way across the street, people watching, eating noodles high above the city, the fresh foods being sold, cooked, eaten on the streets, the huge clumps of electrical wires, very few signs in English, everyone smiling back as we tried to say “hello” in Vietnamese -Xin chao! (sin chow!). Everywhere we looked we were in awe!! Never had we been in a city like this (not NYC, not London, not even Istanbul!) As part of the tour we took a rickshaw ride during “rush hour” through the old quarter. I don’t think I have laughed and had so much fun in a long time!! It was better than a ride at Disney Land!! CRAZY!!!! Just wait till you see the video Al is putting together!! and it was great to walk the night market and see how alive everything is at night! It is hard to tell this is a communist country except for a lot of guards around (though guarding what I am not sure) and what our guides told us about how the government works. (at least in the Northern part of Vietnam- things are different in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon it seems less conservative). We visited The Hanoi Hilton where John McCain and other POW’s were, an old temple, and Ho Chi Minhs memorial with the tour guide Bell. But mostly Al and I just walked and walked the city. Weaving our way through narrow streets and down rail road tracks that seem like no trains go down (they do- people just move everything!!) ad taking pictures of the real moments of life in Hanoi.
After a few days in Hanoi the group made its way to Ha Long Bay. This is a very well know place and is a big tourist area. It was really nice and great to spend the night on a Junk Boat and explore a cave!
Being able to see one of the world’s greatest sites was Awesome!! Angkor Watt (and the rest of the temples in the area) are really cool!! We got up early to see the sunrise at Angkor Watt. It wasn’t a great one (and I didn’t travel with a tripod) but still seeing the sun come over such an ancient site was Amazing!!! and I felt so blessed to be an eye witness to it. We Loved getting to see Angkor Thom (the one with all the faces) and Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider was filmed) as well. They were both pretty crowded, making it harder to get some of the photos I wanted. I really thought Ta Prohm with all the trees growing out of the tombs was awesome. This is what the other areas had looked liked – they kept this area in the natural state it was found. While in Siem Reap we went into town as well. It was so easy from our Hotel- The Sofitel Angkor Watt which was the BEST hotel we have ever stayed at!! Gorgeous!!! We even got some time to take a dip in the pool and enjoy a relaxing drink!! We hired a rickshaw (one of them even had a batman symbol on it!!) for $3 for 3 of us (plus we Always tipped!!) We wet to the market place and later the night market. I even got a 30 minute foot massage for $5!!!! I could get used to that!! We had a Fantastic dinner at a place right on the sidewalk. Grilled prawns for only $2.50!!! Chad (a really cool man who was traveling by himself- he was a Vietnam Vet) joined us and it was one of those “cool moments” in life. Sitting on the very busy and loud street, sweating from the heat, drinking coke out of a bottle, and hearing American Rock playing somewhere on a loudspeaker! It is THESE moments that I love most about travel- just soaking it all up in a local hangout! I just felt so invigorated, so relaxed!
Traveling down the small roads on the way to the Ama sponsored English school gave great insight into village life in Cambodia. Everything is different than home- all the houses are multi family units most without electricity and often with a rice paddy behind it or beside it and if lucky a well. and Lots of dogs! Fin told us that most people have dogs and use them for security as well. And when you see variety of bottles with a yellow liquid- thats the Petro for the motorbikes! Little stands selling it and other things are dotted along the road. It seems everyone runs some kind of small shop (again showing the more relaxed form of Communism than they had in the past). Visiting the school was another major highlight of the trip for me. We brought with us a carry-on suitcase filled with school supplies. I wanted to make sure we had enough for everyone. I had 50 boxes of 8 crayons and a TON of colored pencils and lollipops to hand out to each kid! Plus a bunch of general supplies to give the teachers. They we all so cute. They sang us an alphabet song and then “What a Wonderful World”. Of course I broke into tears (as did several others- also because this was one of our wedding songs) They all were smiling and truly having fun and so excited to meet us. It is hard to see those who have so much less than we do. Seeing people filled with such hope and gratitude that things are on the pathway to better ways fills me with such emotion. It is hard to put into words these particular experiences. But I will be forever touched! and will forever be thankful to Fin for opening up to us about his own life. and to know that 1 man from Brooklyn, whom he met while working in a restaurant, gave him $70 to go to school Proves the Power each of us has an individuals. (this man continued to pay for his education all the way through college- his first son is named Michael after him and he attributes his success to him!!)
We Love traveling with AmaWaterways. This is the same company we traveled form Prague to Budapest on the Danube in April! We were Thrilled to capture the Mekong River! We arrived at the boat in Cambodia and would be there a couple days as we traveled via the river back to Vietnam. The boat was great. Lots of room in our cabin, a great sun deck and pool and fabulous food! We saw so many cool things on this part of the trip. The floating village and the floating market show how important the river is to the people who live along it. And the various markets that sell the most Beautiful looking fruits and vegetables and all kinds of fresh fish and different kinds of rice. We certainly don’t have such fresh diets. We were blessed by Buddhist at a gorgeous temple, saw silk and ratan mats being made, took an ox cart ride, saw silver and copper handicraft work, ate rice candy and drank snake wine, met lots of kids while walking in villages (who I continued to hand out colored pencils and lollipops to),and enjoyed the company of many of the really great people on our trip. There was so much we saw just floating down the river. It was hard to do anything else but check it all out. This area is so lush and green and it was great seeing all the different boats on the river and how people live off it.
The boat was docked in Phnom Penh for a couple of days. This gave us the chance to do some exploring on our own. We walked all around, again a TON of motorbikes and no stop light or signs! Besides seeing the Royal Palace and another beautiful monastery this is when we went to one of the Killing fields and then to a “security” center called Tuol Sleng (S21) that used to be a school. When Pol Pot first came to power he cleared over 2.5 million people out of the city and into the countryside. It was crazy seeing so many of the old buildings and know that they sat empty as he cleared out the whole city. According to a film we saw from the Biography Channel- it is estimated that it will take till the end of the century for Cambodia to get back to where they would have before his reign of Terror (where 1 out of ever 4 people died either due to execution or starvation). But seeing the city thriving and the country becoming a great tourist destination is certainly hopeful.
The trip ended in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
In case we thought Hanoi or Siem Reap were crazy with all their motorbikes- we hadn’t seen Saigon yet!! WOW!!! I though Saigon was Awesome! Our hotel was right in the heart of it all!! All the traffic, noise, organized chaos EVERYWHERE!!! Add to it a Ton of Christmas lights (yes all the countries we visited this trip LOVED their christmas lights!!!) and kids in santa suits. All taking photos!!! So many cameras! It was lively and such a great city! We wondered around on our own and went to this super tall building, ordered drinks from the bar and looked out over the city. (We had done this in Phnom Penh too and Tokyo but I will talk about that next blog post). We had $15/hr massages, ate great food, saw a great show, and visited the Cu Chi Tunnels these were a stronghold for the Viet Cong).
The memories from this trip will be forever in my heart. We are so thankful and feel so blessed to have been given this opportunity. I hope you enjoy my photos I put in the blog post. (and if you want to see them all go to my ONLINE GALLERY HERE
See more photos from our Vietnam & Cambodia trip!