And just like that, Vietnam and Cambodia have come and gone. The last two months or so have been a constant hustle and I must confess I haven’t had much quiet time for reflection (or haven’t utilized it as such). I now find myself in the south of Thailand. And my eyes are set on Nepal in the near future. But before I get to that, I want to look back on the last two months and actually reflect on my experiences.
When I last wrote about the events of my travels, I was contentedly wandering the streets of Tet-time Hanoi. I found myself stumbling across bunkers from the American war and even older fortifications dating back to before the French invasion of the 1800’. I was visiting war museums, while trying as many bahn mi shops and bun cha places as I could find. Since then I’ve traveled nearly 6,500 km (4,039 mi) by bus, ferry, plane and taxi through three countries.
Immediately after my time in Hanoi, I traveled to Hạ Long, a port city in the north, where I spent three days traveling with the Vietnamese family of a friend I had made while in Peru during my travels in 2017. With them I was lucky enough to try plenty of incredible home-made Vietnamese food including a plate of fried sea worms. My friends father only told me what it was after I had finished the whole thing. With them, I got to practice the Vietnamese language a bit, but I became much better at reading and writing than speaking. The spoken words that I learned from them in the north of the country were essentially useless as I made my way further south and the dialect changed significantly. I think my “please”, “thank you”, “sorry”, and “hello” were all decently understood, and you can get by abroad a lot of the times with just those.
I traveled with her family all the way to the cloud-covered mountain town of Sapa in the northwestern region of the country. After a day her family returned home and she and I and one of her friends from Australia remained behind for a trek. The three of us connected with a German doctor whom I had become acquainted with during my time in Hanoi, and in the company of a fantastic guide the four of us climbed and swam in the waterfalls of one of the tallest and most remote mountains in Vietnam, Pu Ta Leng. It was a challenge to say the least and a trek rarely undertaken by Westerners. Along the way we stayed in mountain huts, and ate food prepared by our guide and the two local porters he brought with him. Their prowess in the mountains put all of us to shame. We couldn’t help but laugh at our relative weakness as, locals galloped past us on the trails, toting homemade air rifles, out hunting for the small game that inhabit the mountainside.
After three days of trekking, tired and sore, our guide took us to a bathhouse where we relaxed in herbal baths meant to sooth the aches and pains of worn out muscles, and also (I imagine) to make us smell better for the hot pot dinner we had afterwards to celebrate the completion of our climb. Hot pot is a very common meal in Vietnam where a pot of boiling broth is placed on a burner at your table and an assortment of raw vegetables, meats, and noodles is placed aside it. You add the ingredients as you desire to the pot and cook it right there. Everyone shares the food and serves themselves out of the same pot. It’s a nice communal experience and helps bring people together.
After Sapa and a nine hour sleeper-bus ride back to Hạ Long. In the storied Ha Long Bay, I caught a cruise boat for a couple of days to float between the famous karst mountains molded by millions of years of water wear. It was a beautiful place, or it would have been. Unfortunately, unchecked tourism and poor environmental regulation in the bay has resulted in destruction of its natural beauty. I saw the devastating effects of plastic pollution on our oceans first hand, as we passed trash flotillas interspersed between the Islands. Our guide told us that it wasn’t from the tourist boats that crisscross the bay. He said that it floats in from elsewhere. I don’t know if that’s true, but regardless, it’s a sad sight to see.
After Hạ Long, following the path of historical places, I made my way to my first city that saw active combat during the American war. In the Imperial City of Huế, I roamed through the palaces and temples and fortifications of the Nguyen dynasty, many restored and made to look new. I marveled at the dragons adorning the tops of buildings and the water lilies through which giant golden bass darted to chase fish food thrown by tourists. I wandered through the throne rooms where for 100 years Nguyen emperors held audiences with foreign dignitaries and their own suppliants, through the esteemed quarters of Queen Mothers and of royal concubines. And when I escaped the cameras of my fellow visitors, I felt myself transported back to that time. I was briefly a lone traveler in a forbidden city steeped in tradition and foreign laws and festivities. But then I moved beyond the restorations, where neglect by the French protectorate and bombing campaigns by the American military targeting anti-aircraft guns mounted on the walls of the city had destroyed so many relics of the past and left bullet holes in the walls that still stood. I was reminded that we were in different times. And that that place was only a ghost of what it once was.
From Huế, I headed south, through the Hai Van Pass where I stopped and marveled at the country’s coast line from its highest point. The range which the pass travels over is the topological separation of North and South climate zones. Until the early 1800’s it was also the division between the kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt. In many local’s eyes the range is the true dividing line of the country. Old French and American bunkers spot the hillsides as remnants of the country’s bloody past. The pass connects on the north to a stretch of highway that was known to the French as the “Steet without Joy,” for the frequent ambushes that troops experienced traveling along it and the complex tunnel and fortification system established by the Viet Minh close by during the French Occupation. On its south is the city of Da Nang, the site of both the French invasion of 1858 and the American invasion of 1965. Descending from its peak I could see all of Da Nang and the beach that lines its eastern boundary where all those troops landed. After a night in Da Nang, a failed attempt at surfing, and a trip to some mountain temples hidden in caves that were once Viet Cong hospitals, I made my way to Hội An.
Hội An is a tourist trap in every sense of the word, but deservedly so. It was in Hội An that I found myself surrounded, surrounded by lanterns of all colors and shapes. Hội An is famous for its lanterns, which lazily illuminate its remarkably well preserved port town architecture dating back to the 1400’s. Situated at the mouth of the Thu Bon River, Hội An was the old gateway to Vietnam centerlands and an incredibly important strategic location. Considering its close proximity to the fighting of the 60’s and 70’s its remarkable that it’s there at all. I have to say though, that my favorite thing about Hội An was the food. While I was there, I ate a dish called cao lầu. It blew my mind and will never forget it. Perhaps one of the best meals of my life. It consisted of thick noodles made with a solution that only comes from trees on a local island, which are cooked in water only found in a specific well in Hội An, with specially made barbeque pork and herbed. I ordered it three times in the two days that I was there. But my visa was running out and I needed to keep moving, so I made my way Ho Chi Minh City, formerly (and for some locals, currently) known as Saigon.
In Hoi Chi Minh City, I had limited time, only two days, but I knew I wanted to learn more about the war. I managed to make it to the War Remnants Museum, which I found far superior to its sister in Hanoi, because it felt far less like propaganda.
This museum actually featured the protests of the American people to the war, whereas the one in Hanoi showed the protests of every other country in the world aside from the United States. This one featured accurately labeled weapons. Where as the guns in the other museum were often improperly labelled and featured claims like “this rifle was used to kill 200 imperialists and 3 tanks!”. Those inaccuracies took away from the power of the museum in Hanoi, but they weren’t present in Ho Chi Minh City’s version.
The War Remnants museum itself was powerful, but what was even more impactful was the reactions of veterans, both American and Vietnamese visiting the museum, who had actually lived through it. Watching the men who were there point to maps, and say to their families, “that’s where I was”, “that’s where this happened.” Gave the war a realness that I’d never experienced before.
The next day, on local busses, using instructions from a blog I found online, I made my way to an expansive tunnel system used by the Viet Cong during the war. After an early morning wake up and a 3 hour ride to the site, I paid the park entry and a guide took me through just a few of the 250km of meter-high tunnels, pointing out bunkers, meeting rooms, storage rooms, operating suits, and mess halls, all concealed beneath the Earth. As he ran along the tunnels, well practiced in the craft, my larger European frame struggled to keep up, often having to fall to my hands and knees to avoid hitting my head. I can’t imagine what it was like to live and fight in such a tiny place and how terrifying it would have been to climb through the tunnels in the pitch black not knowing if an enemy soldier or booby trap awaited you around the corner.
The park where the tunnels are on display also features a memorial which I hadn’t expected to see. It honored those who had died fighting for the Vietnamese independence/communist cause in the wars against the French and Americans in that region. Just as the Vietnam War Memorial in the US bears the names of over 58,000 men and women who died during the war in Vietnam, this memorial honored people fighting for the North Vietnamese, and featured the names of more than 53,000 people killed in the conflict. Of course no memorial stands for the 250,000 South Vietnamese who died fighting for country which John F. Kennedy described as America’s “offspring”, in fact, it was only in 2006 the Vietnamese government allowed people access to ARVN cemeteries to tend the graves of their decease. This is even more distressing when the tradition of reverence for ancestors and the dead in Asia is understood.
I had a plane booked to Cambodia the next day, and I confess, I almost didn’t make it. I had a problem with my Vietnamese visa. Though I had paid for a thirty day visa, due to Februarys peculiar length, I had actually only received a visa for twenty-eight days. The day I flew out was day twenty-nine. Before I could check into the flight, I had to get approval from the supervising immigration officer who of course demanded that I pay a $60 fine (my online research told me the fine should only have been $10). Imagine my panic as I realized I only had $20 in my pocket, and no access to any money in my bank account (I had lost one of my debit cards the week before and a money transfer to my other card hadn’t gone through yet). Fortunately overdrawing my checking account by buying the immigration officer $40 dollars worth of cigarettes with my only debit card and paying a $20 fine in cash was enough to keep me on the road, skip the immigration line, and make my flight by 5 minutes. I totally kept the receipt for the cigarettes. Something for the scrapbook. And I was so close to making it out of Vietnam without having to pay a bribe!
From here I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the millennium-old ruins of the Khmer empire and marvel at its stone temples where trees now grow out of the faces of devatas yet the creations of gods and man still intersect into something more beautiful than can be described in words, where timeless architecture rivals that of the Romans, and structures stand in alignment with the cosmos and solar cycles. Angkor Wat is truly one of the pinnacles of human achievement, art, and religious fervor. I spent three days exploring the temples and learning the histories of a culture that we don’t really ever talk about in the West. And yet, in the early 13th century, while London hadn’t even scratched 20,000 people, the Agro-urban center of Angkor boasted hundreds of thousands.
Three days here came to be enough as I discovered that I was never designed to spend long periods of time in 100 degree temperatures with high humidity, and so with an Ankor Wat guide-book in hand, I headed south towards the Ocean to cool off.
To escape the sweltering heat. I flew to the ocean-side city of Sihnoukville, Cambodia, a place that I’ve heard described by more liberal minded people as an “actual shit-hole”. Others have called it “a cesspool of Chinese investment” and to be fair, it isn’t a pretty place. Trash and plastic pollution lines the streets and the ambiance could best be described as “jackhammer”. The Khmer culture has been completed replaced by Chinese, in the restaurants, on the signs, and in the people. This is because Sihnoukville is one large construction site bankrolled by China. And unless you’re involved in that construction, it isn’t a nice place to be. That being said, I think it is a good example of what modernization looks like, especially for small countries like Cambodia. To have the amenities and comforts of the rest of the world, they need the rest of the world’s money, and China seems to be a happy investor, especially in places in its own back yard. When you travel through Asia, you wonder how places like Singapore, become modernized so quickly. I imagine this is how. Though Sihnoukville isn’t nice to look at now, in 5 years when all the resorts are built and the construction is finished, its blue water beaches, Chinese casinos, and beautiful islands will be a touristic destination for years to come.
This rapid development saddens me some, though I hope it is good for the people of Cambodia. But I didn’t travel to Sinhoukville to see the city, but to Koh Ta Kiev, a tropical island in the south of the country that is almost untouched by development. I wanted to experience life with no data, electricity, or water systems and escape the world for a bit and I was able to. But, In five years, I don’t think that will still be an option there. Already a Chinese developer has cut the beginnings of road into the island’s jungles, and purchased half of it’s land from the government. It seems only a matter of time before this hidden paradise becomes a new Thailand with hoards of tourists flocking there, and the tiny bungalows are replaced by 4-star hotels.
I explored the island on foot, and found my way to a stilted fishing village that both is and is not on top of the water, depending on the tides. I sat down at a small restaurant where I ate freshly caught crab, and watched as man conducted a controlled burn on his small farm fanning the flames with an enormous jungle leaf. I walked and looped around the island attempting to find an abandoned airstrip from the days of the Khmer Rouge regime, to no avail. At night, I was caught off-guard by the presence of bioluminescent plankton in the ocean waves that washes ashore and subtly illuminates the beach. Swimming through it I watched as it followed my hand through the water and chuckled as I wrote my name in the blackness. Stars above and a glowing ocean below, on my last night there I found myself submerged in a dream. But the next day, I made my way back to real life in the harshest way possible.
Almost immediately after landing in Phnom Penh, I made a trip to Khmer Rouge prison S21, the most notorious of the Regime’s 150 secret political prisons, where nearly 20,000 people waited to be sent to their deaths between 1976 and 1979. And then to the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh where these prisoners were brutally executed and buried in mass graves, in a place where what was supposed to be “never again,” happened only 40 years ago. I couldn’t help but think about my time in Rwanda, and the genocide memorial there. It was a reminder that we are often blind or apathetic to what is right in front of us. The US and numerous other countries allowed the Khmer Rouge to have a seat in the UN for the entirety of these atrocities. Even today, there are active genocides taking place in Yemen, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Syria. And the stage is being set for others elsewhere. They’re taking place currently, all over the world, yet the prevailing wisdom is that they are a thing of the past. Many of us still need to open our eyes. After Phnom Penh mine certainly are.
From Cambodia, I arrived in my current country, Thailand. A nation with nothing but mixed reviews from my fellow travelers. I’ve met both people that love and hate this place. Those that love it, do so for its combination of relaxed vibes by day and wild party culture by night, those that don’t, hate it for the same reason, and for the hoards of tourists that the country harbors.
I feel that the culture here, at least in the places that I’ve been, has been so heavily influenced by western ideals, that it is hard to access, and so I’ve been taking solace in the natural beauty of the country. I was lucky enough that my girlfriend, Tess, came out to visit me (and saved my butt by bringing a replacement debit card, credit card, and important insurance paperwork all the way form the US). And we managed to get some trekking, sunset watching, hot spring bathing, rock climbing, and scuba diving all done in the week that she was here. Now, I am on my own again, in a dorm at what can best be described as a “dive camp” in Koh Tao, Thailand.
I’m getting my PADI Open Water Certification here, a dream of mine since I was 9 years old and found out that it was a thing that you could do. Unfortunately when I was younger my health made it so that I couldn’t, but my lungs are in better condition now, a doctor signed off on my safety to dive, and I knew that if I didn’t do this now, I’d probably never get around to it.
I’m excited to see what doors this opens for me, what new weekend trips are on the horizon when I get back to Ann Arbor. When I buckle down to start applying to med schools, I need some sort of weekend solace, and I’m thinking that diving and exploring the underwater world of the Great Lakes might end up being it (at least for part of the year).
Five days from now will mark exactly three months since departing on this second leg of my Bonderman Fellowship experience, and in ten days my formal 8 month commitment to the program will come to and end. But my travels won’t, and neither will this blog. After my certification. I’m heading to Nepal to see Kathmandu and Pokhara in the spring. I can’t wait to share my experiences with you along the way.
Thanks for reading,