Vietnam and Cambodia 2013

Table of Contents

Authentic Vietnam and Cambodia: A Journey

“We who have seen war will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young” – Joseph L. Galloway

I felt a bit of fear entering Vietnam for the first time, wondering if the Vietnamese carried anger or hatred towards Americans. After all, two million Vietnamese died in the name of American freedom and democracy to counter the evil threat of a world dominated by Communism. History proved that the American reading of the situation in Vietnam was wrong. Although the U.S. thought the Vietnamese were simply an extension of Communism, we failed to see that they were fighting for their freedom from centuries of domination by the Chinese and French.

Was the war pointless from the start, just a brutal historical episode that had nothing to do with survival or moral values? In “The Vietnam War,” a documentary series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the American Undersecretary of Defense admits that the real reason for the U.S. ground invasion in March 1965 was “70 percent to avoid humiliation.” In another interview, a Marine officer said, “You’re killing people to protect your male ego.” 

The Vietnam War has profoundly shaped the American psyche. Without it, there would have been no “sixties.” No draft, no draft dodgers, no protest, no protest music, no hippies – just a lot of people taking LSD and complaining about their parents. In “The Vietnam War,” a North Vietnamese Army veteran says, “People sing about victory, about liberation. They are wrong. Who won the war and who lost is not the question. In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.” 

As an Israeli, these reflections make me wonder if war is Israel’s inescapable destiny, if we are doing enough to challenge this assumption, and if there are realistic alternatives. I tend to be with the school of thought that war is Israel’s destiny and that other options are yet to come. However, just like the Americans made mistakes about Vietnam, I am open and willing to be proven wrong. I wish Israelis and Palestinians would be as friendly as the Vietnamese and Americans.

Vietnam Travel Route: Hanoi – Halong Bay – Quan Lan Island – Cua Van – Hanoi

The Magnificent Halong Bay: Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea

Halong Bay is a stunning destination in Vietnam known for its beautiful limestone karsts, caves, and beaches. Its name, which translates to “where the dragon descends into the sea,” is fitting given the area’s majestic beauty. Located in the bays of Bai Tu Long and Halong, there are approximately 2,000 limestone islands and karsts of various shapes and sizes, all covered in lush vegetation. These breathtaking natural wonders are often included on lists of must-see places, alongside other renowned destinations like Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. I had the opportunity to visit Halong Bay for a few days and take a cruise to appreciate its beauty fully.

Exploring An Ancestor Worship Tradition in Vietnam

Located on Quan Lan Island in Bai Tu Long Bay is a graveyard where I learned about the Vietnamese tradition of ancestor worship. According to this tradition, the dead are buried twice. The first time immediately after death, and the second time within 3-5 years, depending on the size of the body. This second burial is meant to honor the ancestors and ensure that their spirits are at rest. It is a deeply held belief in Vietnamese culture and one that is reflected in the care and attention given to the deceased during the burial process.

Cua Van: Life on the Waters

Cua Van is the largest among the four floating villages in the bay and rests approximately 20 km from the main harbor. This remarkable village is nestled beside the awe-inspiring limestone mountains that emerge majestically from the sea. It has been the ancestral abode for countless generations of fishing families who reside in quaint floating houses. Presently it is inhabited by 100 families.

Vietnam Travel Route: Hanoi – Sapa –  Bac Ha – Ha Giang – Dong Van – Meo Vac – Bao Lam – Hanoi

Sapa: A Glimpse Into the Vibrant Culture of Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities

The Vietnamese government recognizes 54 ethnic minority groups, each with a unique cultural identity. Some consist of a few hundred people; others are more than a million. The proximity to neighboring countries affects cultural beliefs within groups and sub-groups. The Hmong people, originally from China, are well-represented in northwest Vietnam’s mountainous regions, particularly around Sapa’s market town, where terraced rice fields melt over the mist-covered valleys and slopes surrounding Mount Fansipan. Hmong people make their clothing, often out of hemp. Tribes will distinguish themselves with multicolored headbands, tassels, and beads adorning traditional long dresses specific to the sub-groups, which include Red, White, Black, and the rainbow-colored Flower tribe. 

The Colors of Bac Ha Market: A Motorcycle Tour Through Rural Vietnam

During my trip to Vietnam, I traveled by motorcycle for part of the time. Sitting in the backseat, listening to music and taking in the stunning scenery, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement and freedom. The rural areas of northern Vietnam are characterized by mountainous terrain, with beautiful rice terraces and paddies resembling a topographic map.

The local people in these areas are unique, with many ethnic hill tribes living in relative isolation and maintaining their traditional ways of life. One highlight of my trip was visiting the Bac Ha market on  Saturday, where these tribes gather to sell handicrafts and fresh produce in a vibrant display of color and cultural traditions. The sights and sounds of the market were so captivating that I stopped trying to compose my photos and simply reveled in the feast of colors before me.

Ha Giang Province: A Land of Eternal Beauty

Ha Giang province borders China and is less frequented by tourists. To visit the area, one must obtain a permit. In Ha Giang province, almost 90% of the population are ethnic minorities, each with their own culture and lifestyle. During the last 20 years, while other Vietnamese regions and cities experienced economic development, Ha Giang province seems to have stood still in time. The main reason for this has been the political situation and relations with China.

The farthest and most beautiful place in Ha Giang province is Dong Van Karst Global Geopark, designated by UNESCO as one of 77 sites with important geological and cultural heritage. Ethereal karst formations of nearly 400 million years ago are scattered in the geopark.

1979 Chinese Invasion of Vietnam: Forgotten but Never Fully Resolved

The Chinese invasion of 1979 is mostly forgotten, but tensions between the two communist neighbors never subsided. In the early hours of February 17, 1979, at least 200,000 Chinese troops poured into northern Vietnam all along the border. China aimed to punish Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia to oust the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge.

Two months earlier, in late December 1978, Vietnam launched an invasion of Cambodia to remove Pol Pot. Two million Cambodians had died at the hands of his Khmer Rouge regime, and Pol Pot’s troops had conducted bloody cross-border raids into Vietnam, massacring civilians and torching villages.

China and Vietnam have since worked to improve their diplomatic and economic ties. However, the two countries remain in dispute over territorial issues in the South China Sea.

Motorcycling Tour through Northern Vietnam: A Journey Through Curvy Bumps, Narrow Trails, and Local Culture

The roads are curvy, bumpy, very narrow, unpaved, and generally more like a trail than a road. My excellent and careful driver, Mr. Mguyen Khac Minh, used to be a cook and now takes tourists on this drive couple of times a month. My Vietnam experience would not have been the same had I not traveled with a local Vietnamese. With his imperfect English and friendly personality, my driver educated me about Vietnamese culture, food, sites, and experiences I would have missed otherwise.

The highlight of a trip is always the people you meet along the way. One happy family, sitting on their porch, shouted at us to stop. We did and enjoyed some local moonshine and beer. We had some small talk, exchanged family information, etc. They wanted me to stay, but we had 120 more km to our destination. The journey was even more beautiful after that stop.

Along the way, we passed a few Flower Homang villages. I heard that wife snatching is widespread among the Hmong people when facing wedding obstacles. With the help of some “good” uncles, aunts, and friends, the boy snatches his wife as a first step to formalizing their relationship. She, however, has the right to refuse his assertive, so to speak, proposal.

Cambodia Travel Route: Siem Reap – Angkor Wat – Kompong Pluk – Sihanoukville – Koh Rong Island – Phnom Penh – The Killing Fields

Angkor Wat: The Largest Religious Monument in the World

“When Angkorian society began, Paris and London were not much more than elaborate villages. Europe was crawling with barbarians, and here were the Khmer engineering sophisticated irrigation systems and constructing the biggest temple in the world.” – Kim Fay

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Nowadays, it’s also one of the busiest tourist destinations on the planet. The name Angkor Wat in Khmer, the Cambodian language, means “City Temple.” A Khmer King built it in the early 12th century. First, it was a Hindu temple dedicated to the deity of Vishnu. Later, when the Khmer converted to Buddhism, it became a Buddhist shrine.  In the 15th century, the Khmer kings abandoned the city and moved to the coast. They built a new city, Phnom Penh, the present-day capital of Cambodia. More than 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants participated in the construction of Angkor Wat, yet it was never fully completed.

I first met Ahmad, a tourist from New York City, on a cruise boat in Halong Bay. It was a surprise to meet him again at Siem Reap. Together we hired Mr. Batman, a three-wheeled taxi (tuk-tuk) driver. Our taxi driver is the wildest and happiest driver in town.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the size of Angkor Wat, but Mr. Batman made it a delight. We toured the temple’s middle circle and inner circle over two days. The visit’s highlight was waiting with hundreds of tourists early in the morning for the sun to rise over the temple’s silhouette. I have never been so impatient for the sun to rise; it was hilarious to be caught up in the anticipation.

Kampong Phluk Floating Village: A Surreal and Fascinating Lifestyle

Kampong Phluk Floating Village can be reached only by boat and is about two hours away from Siem Reap. The village is a cluster of houses suspended by 16-foot posts. It’s a surreal sight reminiscent of a circus’ wild act. During the rainy season, the water level rises to the height of the structures. It is a fascinating lifestyle, utterly dependent on the lake’s mood and whims. As one might expect, its economy is based on fishing, primarily in shrimp harvesting. The river that passes through the village ends at a lake that provides stunning sunsets to end any day.

Paradise and Adventure on Koh Rong Island

I arrived at Sihanoukville early in the morning after a night ride on a sleeping bus, which was not precisely sleepy for me. A local taxi driver suggested an island 2-3 hours away as the best touring destination. I double-checked with a couple of other tourists and headed to the island.

The boat ride was quite an adventure as the ocean was very choppy; some of us got soaked and vomited. The Lonely Planet book describes the island like that: “This is paradise the way you dreamt it: endless crescents of powdered, sugary soft sand, hammocks swaying in the breeze, photogenic fishing villages … It seems too good to last, so enjoy it while it does.”

It is a romantic place; unfortunately, I was alone. Instead, I did five deep water dives and got the advanced PADI certification (Professional Association of Diving Instructors).

A group of young Westerners fills various jobs on the island, such as bartending and deep water diving instructors. They share some features: a scent of youth, freedom, possibilities, and many tattoos. Among them are many young Israelis. We celebrated Chanukah’s candle lighting together. On the boat ride back, the engine stopped mid-way. It was nerve-racking. A second boat arrived two hours later and towed us to shore. It was another little adventure in Cambodia. 

Phnom Penh: The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace of Cambodia is a complex of buildings that serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. It is located in Phnom Penh and was constructed between 1866 and 1870 after King Norodom relocated the royal capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh.

The Banality of Evil: The Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields

“I remember my mother taking me as a very little kid to the roof of our home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to look at the bombs exploding in the distance. She didn’t want us to be scared by the booms and the strange flashes of light. It was her way of helping us to understand what was happening.” – Tammy Duckworth

There are many myths about the Khmer Rouge’s bloodthirstiness and brutality, but there was one place where all the tales were real:  S-21, the infamous prison and torture center, now famously known by the name: The Killing Fields.

Between 1975 and 1979, the Cambodian people were subjected to some of the worst 20th-century atrocities committed by their rulers – the Khmer Rouge and their deranged leader, Pol Pot. Approximately 1.5 million people (nearly 25% of the entire population) died during that time, either by execution or indirectly through starvation or disease.

Pol Pot’s big idea was to create an agrarian society that lived solely off the land. Anybody who potentially stood in his way, such as the intellectuals, was murdered, along with their entire families. The intellectuals were often identified as such by only wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language. 

The official slogan of the Khmer Rouge was: “To destroy you is no loss; to preserve you is no gain.” This slogan, in my mind, is the ultimate manifestation of the expression coined by Hannah Arendt, “The banality of evil.”

Banal evil is a person’s belief that what they are engaged with is a behavior that is, or has been, normalized by their society and that it is not evil doing. Arendt used the phrase to describe Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who hastened millions to their deaths. There are striking similarities between Eichmann and many of the Khmer Rouge officials, indicating just how universal the propensity for evil is.

The book “Cambodia – Stricken Land” by Henry Kamm helped me understand all of that.

Vietnam Travel Route: Hoi An – Da Nang – Hue – Khe Sanh – Vinh Moc Tunnels

Discovering Hoi An: A Timeless World Heritage City of Canals and Boutiques

Hoi An is a coastal city in central Vietnam that boasts a well-preserved old town and a network of winding canals. UNESCO has recognized the city as a World Heritage site. The atmosphere in Hoi An is relaxed and peaceful. Walking around the old town feels like you’re stepping back in time. The old town has the appearance and feel of a large boutique store. Hoi An has made preserving its historical character a priority, and as a result, it is a popular destination for shopping. Visitors can also rent bikes to explore the city, getting lost for hours while listening to Morcheeba’s music.

A coastal city in central Vietnam has an amazingly preserved old town and canals that wind and weave their way through the city. UNESCO recognizes it as a World Heritage site. Hoi An has a laid-back ambiance; I felt lost in time walking around. The old town looks and feels like one big boutique store.   The city preserves and banks on its old characters – it’s all about shopping. I rented a bike and got lost for a few hours listening to Morcheeba’s music.

Exploring Da Nang: A Spontaneous Motorbike Tour to Hidden Sculptural Gems

While waiting for a train at Da Nang station, an opportunity presented itself for an impromptu motorbike tour of the city. Not fully understanding the destination, I agreed to the offer and hopped on the back of the motorbike with my backpack between the driver’s legs. These types of unplanned experiences can often be the most enjoyable. The tour included a visit to the Marble Mountains, where I saw pagodas, but what stood out to me were the hundreds of intricate marble sculptures at the base of the mountains. These sculptures were a reminder of the hard work and skill that went into carving and shaping the marble.

Discovering Hue: A Journey Through Vietnam’s Rich History and the Arrogance of Power

Hue is a city located in the center of Vietnam, known for its rich history, particularly from 1800 to 1945. The city is situated near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), established in 1954 as the border between North and South Vietnam.

During the visit, I listened to the books “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow and “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan. Both books detail the centuries-long struggle of the Vietnamese people for freedom and independence against foreign invaders and the abuse of power in general. I also hired a tour guide to take me to some of the historically significant locations mentioned in the books. I felt that visiting these sites would give me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the events that occurred there. Although the American military bases and the Ho Chi Minh Trail are no longer present, the jungle and the landscape remain unchanged.

The Siege of Khe Sanh: A Decisive Engagement in the Vietnam War

The Battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968, when forces from the People’s Army of North Vietnam carried out a massive artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, located in South Vietnam near the border with Laos. Cut off and surrounded, about 5,000 Marines successfully defended the base from being captured by an overwhelming North Vietnamese Army of 20,000 soldiers.

The siege lasted 11 weeks. The original combat base is long gone, but the history is still there, along with a few left-over helicopters, tanks, and aircraft the Americans left behind. The broader context of the Khe Sanh battle was to divert the American commanders’ attention and the president away from the goal of the Tet Offensive, which aimed to strike a blow in urban areas and end the war.

The Vinh Moc Tunnels: A Symbol of Courage and Resilience During the Vietnam War

“Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The village of Vinh Moc, located near the DMZ, constructed a network of tunnels to protect themselves during the bombings between 1966 and 1972 by American forces. The American military believed that the village was providing support to the North Vietnamese troops and aimed to force the villagers out.

To begin with, the villagers dug tunnels 12 meters deep underground. However, in response, the Americans developed bombs that could reach 12 meters below the surface. The villagers continued to dig deeper and eventually got 15 and 23 meters deep.

As a result, every single inhabitant of Vinh Moc survived the war. This place is a place of reflection and contemplation on the courage, sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears of the people who lived there during the war.

My Books Recommendation

Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan

Cambodia, Report from a Stricken Land, by Henry Kamm

The Vietnam War, An Intimate History, by Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden

Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan

Down with Colonialism! by Ho Chi Minh and Walden Bello

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, by Barbara W. Tuchman

Up Country, by Nelson DeMille

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

The Sympathizer: A Novel, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden

Dispatches, by Michael Herr