This week I am featuring Vietnam and Cambodia.
For those of us that lived through the Vietnam War, you might ask, “why in the world would I want to go there?” We all have bad memories of the war, whether it be the loss of loved ones or the memories of what we heard and saw from the media. I was a senior in high school when President Nixon announced that the Paris Peace Accords ended America’s direct involvement in the war. That was 45 years ago and long enough that I was ready to see this mysterious land and its history for myself.
In the spring of 2017 the perfect opportunity presented itself and I decided it was time to go. I was able to explore this region on an Amawaterways river cruise down the Mekong. I added pre-nights in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia followed by post nights in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in South Vietnam – all offered and packaged together by Amawaterways. I was surrounded in luxury with accommodations in Sofitel hotels and on the beautiful AmaDara river ship with its French Colonial décor and richly carved wood furniture inspired by the history of the region. The food was top notch and so fresh. The fish was caught daily and when you saw pork or chicken on the menu, you could be assured it was butchered no more than 4-5 hours ago. And the same for the fruits and vegetables, everything was super fresh.
Something I have to share and also one of the most unusual experiences of the whole trip was when we stopped at ports and got off the ship. There are no docks. The ship floats over to the side of the river then one of the crew jumps off and ties a rope around a tree. Then the crew builds a dock with platforms and planks for the passengers to disembark. They do this at every port stop. Talk about an authentic experience!!
And as a helpful tidbit, one of the first (and most important) things to learn when visiting Vietnam is how to cross the street. Getting from one side of the road to the other feels almost impossible in the beginning. They told us there were approximately 39 million motorbikes in Vietnam, and they weren’t kidding. Each motorbike had as many as 5 people on it – all piled on top of each other. When we first arrived in Hanoi, the people at the hotel told us that in order to cross the street safely, we needed to just start walking and to not stop - keeping the same pace until you get to the other side! If you’re moving at a predictable rate, the motorcyclists will move around you. And it worked!! If you hesitate or stop, they don’t know what you’re going to do and that’s when accidents happen. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can really appreciate the beauty of organized chaos.
I could write pages and pages about this trip but since I need to keep it short, I thought I’d give you some insight into things that really stuck out in my mind about the whole Vietnam/ Cambodia experience:
Vietnam’s history is tumultuous and complex, the country having been occupied and divided by various other countries for decades. The worst conflict and the one they talk about the most is the war with the French. It ended right before the war with us started. The aftermath of War is apparent - in the museums and monuments but also in the faces and stories of the people. Its past is not only fascinating but also important to learn about.
The Vietnamese people couldn’t be any friendlier. They love everyone, including the Americans. As I said, they were constantly at war for so many years and are now happy to finally be at peace. They hold no grudges. They are kind, thoughtful, industrious, optimistic and generous. They are the heart of the country and if you should be fortunate enough to visit, you should take every opportunity to get to know them.
You will be wowed by the floating markets. They have existed for hundreds of years and have been a vital part of the local life in the Mekong Delta. But, because of environmental reasons, they must now adapt or fade away. As many as a dozen floating markets still remain where boats, houses, and markets float upon the maze of rivers and canals. If you want to see and experience this vibrant atmosphere, I strongly suggest you consider booking your trip sooner rather than later.
One of my favorite landscapes was Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO Work Heritage Site in the Gulf of Tonkin. It is every bit as spectacular as people say. The 1600+ islands jut out of sea, seemingly one on top of the other, creating a dramatic scape of mountains, sea and sky.
Another one of my favorites was the Angkor temples of Siem Reap. They are the heart and soul of Cambodia and true masterpieces of Khmer architecture.
I have traveled extensively for years and people always ask what my top 3 trips have been. This one has made that list. It was by far one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever been on and I highly recommend this itinerary to anyone that has interest in seeing and experiencing this area of our world. Vietnam and Cambodia both have dramatic landscapes, fascinating history, epic food and a pulsating energy. It’s crazy, thrilling, serene and relaxing all at the same time. I truly hope you someday take the time to experience it for yourself and not just take my word for it. I promise it will touch your heart and soul and present you with memories you will never forget.