Sunday, July 5, 2009


As the colorful spinning top of the Mekong adventure starts to settle, I realize that several thoughts keep resurfacing in my head.

I had done my pre-trip homework by studying the history of Vietnam and the history of Cambodia. I also had visited sites on YouTube which captured in pictures the lush Mekong delta and the amazing temples outside of Siem Reap. I knew that each country would offer its own separate, but enticing experiences. Therefore, I was unprepared to come away from visiting each country with a vastly different emotional response. The impressions were formed primarily by the urban areas and tour guides.

Ho Chi Minh City gave me my first impression of Vietnam. It is an exhausting city where my senses were constantly bombarded. While traveling by foot in the city, I found myself wedged between a sidewalk packed with parked scooters and the street alive with moving motor scooters. Shop fronts the size of garage doors lined the never-ending city blocks selling a very small stock of beverages to very few customers. Slung between poles, I observed resting shop owners and children. Interspersed between the shops stood the stalls of fruit sellers where mounds of exotic fruit of all colors and scents (both good and bad) blasted the passersby. Fruit rinds and garbage were strewn every which way. Masses of telephone wires hung between poles. Under the rooftop of the central markets hundreds of sellers stood in dark hot stalls poking customers and hawking their wares with, “Madam, madam, for you?” Open parks were rare. In this bustling city, there appeared to be no green spaces or buildings that offered tranquility.

Our guide in Vietnam, Mr. D, shared a lot of valuable information, but there was an edge to him. What was his real take on the American involvement in the Vietnam War? Did he appreciate his country’s economic system where every family member contributed to the household, and cash, not credit, bought your extended family a house? Did he really believe that it was okay when children didn’t attend school because their parents didn’t work hard enough to pay for the education? Was this communism or conservatism?

In contrast, Cambodia felt like a reprieve to the over-stimulating life in Ho Chi Minh City. Although Phnom Penh had some rough areas, there was room to breath. Flower-planted boulevards and parks graced the city. Families happily congregated at playgrounds on Sunday. Large and small shops lined the streets adding variety, not monotony. Shop owners and city workers were busy sweeping sidewalks and pruning weeds. When garbage was visible, it was swept into a pile to the side. The central markets were just as crowded as in Vietnam, but the sellers were more relaxed, less intense. Striking Buddhist temples were sprinkled everywhere.

Our guide in Cambodia, Rith, was an icon of gentleness. With the voice and poise of Sidney Poitier he shared information about the Cambodian culture. I was struck by the fact that he could maintain this presence in spite of being a victim of the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970s. The love for his country and children was evident, and he supported his government’s decision to give amnesty to the Khmer Rouge people.

Was it just the luck of the draw that we landed two very different guides? Would more time in Vietnam and more visits to urban areas have given me a different feeling about the country? Having observed the death and destruction caused by the Vietnam War on the nightly TV news in the late ‘60s, I believe I was hoping in 2009 for the Vietnamese to be surrounded in a peaceful, heavenly environment. Perhaps they were.

For me, the most difficult experience of the trip was spent at Tuol Sleng Cambodia, the detention center for the families of intellectuals, business people, and enemies of the Khmer Rouge. In this museum courtyard under the branches of the trees that produced simple white flowers, Rith told the story of the families that were victimized by the Khmer Rouge. Torture, separation from family, reeducation and eventual murder were institutionalized. Rith told us his own story of being separated from his family from age nine to 11. He remarked that it was his older sister who recognized him after a long absence and how they needed to hide this familial bond in front of the Khmer Rouge. Visitors to the Tuol Sleng Genicide Museum strolled through the buildings absorbing the horrors of this holocaust, weeping in silence. This event occurred just 30 years ago. How did it happen? How was it allowed to happen? How can we prevent other acts of genocide?

And then there were the children. The children who attend the ACIS schools without electricity. The children who smile and respond in spite of the heat. The orphaned children who live on the love from their community care-givers. The children whose only possessions are a change of clothes and a well-worn doll. The bright children who live 500 km from home, hoping to learn everything and give back to their countries. Out of our four visits with children’s centers, my most vivid memory with the Cambodian children was at the orphanage center. Here, the main care-taker had spent 30 years supporting orphaned children. These 15 or so children had a parent with HIV, had been struggling to survive and had been found and transferred to the orphanage. Prior to life at the orphanage, one boy of 12 had supported his three younger brothers and sister on tiny cakes he could sell at a profit of 2 cents each. Our USM team taught American games to the children on the dried mud in the blistering heat. The children caught on easily and there appeared to be glee in their hearts as we chased each other in “Duck, Duck, Goose” and waggled to the chicken dance. Why was no one whining? How is it that they could play so cooperatively? Where did this indomitable spirit come from?

My last most memorable experience was touring the temples outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was impressive to discover how this 10 year-old government imposed a system of preservation in the enormous park that housed the temples. Entering the 400 square km of Angkor Archaeological Park, tickets were purchased from efficient park employees. Rules governed the park, one of which allowed the long-standing villages and people to remain in their modest ancestral homes. No new construction was permitted. A significant amount of park employees kept the Ankgor Wat moat clean and the walkways free of weeds. The temple ruins were surreal. Giant silk-cotton trees grew in and out of the Ta Prohm’s temple crevices creating dreamlike facades. Did the trees’ roots hold up the walls or did the walls hold up the trees? How was it possible that there was so much consistency in design throughout the temple? Did a general contractor race from one end of the 500 square acre temple of Angkor Wat to another, ensuring consistency in wall height and uniformity in the carvings of the apsaras? What else can we learn about ordinary life from the Angkor period based upon the carvings?

One strong indicator of a trip’s success is the interest that it continues to generate long after the experience has passed. I am deeply grateful that I was given the opportunity to experience Vietnam and Cambodia. My curiosity and questions continue. I look forward to learning more about these countries and sharing my experiences with the USM community.

Lori VanderVelde

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