Vietnam & Cambodia travel blog

So my impressions from our first week.

A reserved warm and generous hospitality seems prevalent in Vietnam. It’s polite and a little distant, at least with tourists, and constrained by the language barrier. It’s been about five years, we’ve heard, that Americans and Europeans have started coming here. Two of our guides have talked about how they contrived to learn English, from TV and the internet, and from their tourists. it’s not only the langauge of world business but one of the languages of the travel industry. And Vietnam has jumped into the travel industry in a big way, building up their Airline and airports and investing in the tourist infrastructure. They need the revenue. But, getting back to the interpersonal level, no one has been rude, not one person. Except in crowds – in such a crowded life, and in this culture, there seems to be no second thought about pushing your way through a crowd, to the front of a line, through traffic, and no compunction about standing in the middle of a busy street to greet a friend answer a call or take a picture. Just like Manhattan.

Our guides have been founts of knowledge, a little much for me about the royal dynasties, but they’ve deepened our experience of everything, and nothing they’ve chosen to show us has been a waste.

Although the past two days we saw two exceptions.

Two days ago, in Hue, we took rickshaw rides on the streets and through paths to a nearby village. We were told we would be given lunch and learn a bit about Vietnamese cooking in a local home. We ended up in an upscale little compound, greeted by an older man whose family owned the property. He gave his name as John, so who knows what it really was, and he was dressed formally and traditionally, in a long black silk gown, embroidered with black threads, and buttoned up the front from chin to knees, with white pants and a black silk round cap. We saw a small group of men outside the house, sitting on the usual low plastic chairs with a plastic table, laughing and yelling and drinking and talking, like a bunch of Greeks. We learned that we were there during the observation of a death anniversary, for which families gather from all over. (In Vietnam these anniversaries are the occasion for family gatherings more than birthdays or wedding anniversaries. A funny sort of simcha. And coincidentally, it’s the week of my daughter’s birthday and my mother’s yahrzeit – death anniversary.) Under a canopy, there was a group of three women cooking. Neither by physical similarities nor by familiar interaction did any of these folks look related. As Robin said, it seemed more like a local tea house. And in conversation it came out that neither the old gentleman nor the guests and women working lived there. So whatever it was, it wasn't lunch with a local family, but it was a fascinating experience. We got to soak our feet in a cool herbal bath, we met the cutest little mangy puppy, we ate a decent simple meal, and the women showed us how to make sesame candy, which was quite good.

Back 36 hours later. The pace of these days, and the experience packed into them, is almost too much for me. But what I’ve realized is this: when we decided last year to come to Asia, and Vietnam and Cambodia in particular, I knew that the only way I could do this is by just being open to the experience, whatever it was. Because I am, conservatively speaking, a picky eater (if it’s not Wheaties or Heinz Vegetarian Beans or a corned beef sandwich, or one of a few other standbys, I’m not sure it’s really food), food was a big concern. And Asian culture felt too different to me, for no good reason. I think about it now and I’m a bit ashamed of that. I know better. But nevertheless, I am going through these packed days without too much thinking or analyzing or reflecting. I do a lot of looking around sometimes with my camera. I don’t have a lot of words for this experience. It just is. And of course by the time I sit down to write, so much else has happened, my sensory impressions of everything else has vanished. But I try.

Food. Today’s lunch was a good example of my meals. We were brought by our guide here in Cambodia (Siem Reap, near the Angkor temple complexes) to the Khmer Palace. The menu, like most menus catering to tourists ranges across Cambodian food, Chinese food, Italian food (Spaghetti Bolognese everywhere), and some grilled and fried American food. I had the stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts, a Cambodian version of the dish, with onion rings and a Diet Coke. Vegetable curry with a green salad and a coconut milkshake. Local food. I have not sat down for a meal anywhere unable to find anything to eat. Our last night in Vietnam we went to one of four places run by the man our hotel called the best chef in Hoi An. This one, his menu said, showed off the comfort food of his Vietnamese childhood. Pickings for Steven looked slim, but the stir-fried long beans with onions and the twice-cooked eggplant (baked we think then pan-fried, no breading) was perfect, the eggplant butter-soft and delicately spiced. And yes, I’ve had the spaghetti twice. Both excellent. A lot of fresh fruit juices too. Lemon, pineapple, watermelon.

Hoi An. Recommended to us, and in the guidebooks, as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cheek-by-jowl combination of Vietnamese, French, and other architectures, we were there for a night and part of a day. Wandered the night market, a display of garish made-in-China junk (keychains, bowls, scultptures, bric-a-brac, chotchkes, find any euphemism for junk) carefully perused by tourists from China, Europe, China, the US, other Asian countries, China, Europe, etc. It’s a seafront town and so we realized, it’s actually a World Heritage site as one of the tackiest of the world-wide specimen of honky-tonk tourist trap beach towns. And quite an impressive example.

How we got there. Right up there with my picky eating is my dislike of speed. I tried riding a bicycle in my adulthood. I’d rather walk. But there on our itinerary it said “ride on motorbikes over the mountain from Hue, the ancient capital city, to Hoi An. Apparently I had agreed to this. I knew I did. And when the motorbikes arrived, I got on behind my driver, a padded seat over the rear wheel, with footrests, and off we went. Again, I had decided to just do it, whatever it was. This was amazing! First of all, we got to see Vietnam as most Vietnamese do, on a motorbike. Our drivers were great, one of them our guide in Hue, Quang, a young man with a wicked sense of playfulness. We made several stops along the way, about once every 90 minutes. To see the mountain we were climbing on a long series of two-lane switchbacks, to see yet another rice field, to see the drab Danang waed and totally unofficial wooden camp built on platforms and paths over a steep river flowing through a bouldered steep mountainside, used by Vietnamese families and groups of young men and women, cooking, sleeping, drinking beer, swimming, playing loud Vietnamese pop music. Great fun. We’re listening to the music, watching people, sitting with four drunk Vietnamese men in their mid-20s, and Quang asks me what my favorite song is. I thought fast and came up with Higher Love, a Steve Winwood hit with Chaka Khan singing backup, a great old rock song. Half an hour later, Quang stick a karaoke mike in my face. Robin has pictures. I don’t think my voice drove any people away but my eyes were closed, who can tell? Despite that fiasco, we got to the mountain pass. I would like to tell you how awesome the view was, but it was covered in a fog so thick, large trucks appeared about a yard or two in front of us as we passed them. I never batted an eyelash, never whitened my knuckles, never screamed, not once. We were in control! And here of course I use the royal we, since I just sat on the padded seat over the rear wheel. And smiled.

Today. The Bayon and Ta Prohm temples. Words cannot describe this. Our guide was terrific, made it come alive. The walls of Bayon, a temple designed to combine Buddhist & Hindu woeship, are carved with stories of King Jayavarman 7 but the stone carvers also included scenes of everyday life – children playing, pigs running around, men drinking rice wine and smoking some herbal something, midwives attending births, healers treating the sick, women cooking fish on skewers, a man getting a massage with heated coins rubbed over his back (whatever tension he had been having in his muscles felt like nothing after the burns to his skin!) huge faces carved into the five towers represented both Buddha and King J7 (as he is called.) He was a Buddhist by the way, but his wife was Hindu. The combination became a bone of contention, and there are ghostly outlines on several walls where the Buddhas had been removed. At Ta Prohm (meaning The Old Brahmin), huge trees have thick roots snaking around and into the sandstone, so tree and stone form one monument, and the trees terfront. But best of all, we stopped for lunch not at the travel agency’s planned national preserve at Elephant Falls, a waterfall, but at an unnamcan’t be removed because the stability of the stone now depends on them.

Enough for today. Resting in our room after a 95 degree day in the hot sun. Going out for dinner in an hour. I think spaghetti or fish and chips. Maybe stir fry. Not curry. And definitely ice cream tonight, I think.

I will post pictures soon. So many to sort through!

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