Vietnam and Cambodia: Trip Impressions

Two Middle Age Muddlers on a SE Asian Adventure

My dear Middle-age Muddlers,

Handsome Hubby and I are back from our 16 days in Vietnam and Cambodia. The laundry is whirling away in the washer and dryer. So, I thought I’d sit down and respond to the request from a number of readers asking for a recap of our travels.

Honestly, I’m still feeling wonderfully overwhelmed by all we saw and experienced. We covered a lot of territory in a short period of time, saw landscapes and flowers that were breathtakingly beautiful, and learned about ancient cultures. We also saw signs of poverty and pollution. And along the way, we met many gracious people.

Most of all, I was most struck by the contrasts we observed between modernity and things that endure. So, by way of a recap, here are a few contrasting images.

Explosive Economic Growth vs. Enduring Spirituality

Traffic Congestion, but also Beauty

… even in hotel ashtrays transformed into flower displays

Ho Chi Minh, a hero for nation-building, and Buddha, a hero of the soul

Fast Food, American-style vs. Fast Food, Vietnamese-style …

hop off your motor scooter, get something cooked – your way, jump back on your scooter and go back to work!

Buddhist Monks, Adhering to Strict Schedules of Work and Prayer, but also Taking Time to Travel to Angkor Wat and Snap a Few Photos!

Itinerary Highlights

Days 1-3: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

The same size as my hometown of NYC, we toured the former Presidential Palace – now named the Reunification Palace, drank Vietnamese coffee, and saw where Viet Cong tanks first rolled into Saigon. We also drove outside of town and toured the Cu Chi tunnels constructed by the Viet Cong during the war. Most of all, we marveled at the traffic. In this city of 8.5 million people, there are 7.4 million registered motorbikes. We saw families of five on motorbikes and pictures of motorbikes being carried on motorbikes … and even a water buffalo being carried on one!

Day 4-5: Hue

Serene Hue is the former colonial capital of Vietnam during the Imperial years of 1800-1945. After the traffic and congestion of HCMC, Hue was an oasis of calm and relaxation especially since we stayed at the lux La Residence Hotel, the former villa of the French governor.

We toured the sprawling 19th-century Đại Nội Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Citadel includes multiple palaces and shrines. Much of it was destroyed in the war, but enough remains or has been rebuilt to provide a sense of its majesty.

Day 6: Hoi An

Historic Hoi An, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located on Vietnam’s central coast. It is noted for its well-preserved Old Town which is cut through with canals and is a mix of Chinese, French, Japanese, Vietnamese architecture.

We also visited the farming village of Tra Que, famous for herbs and vegetables and the Duy Hai fishing hamlet, where we went out on a round bamboo fishing boat. It’s a very touristy thing to do, but we had an amazing conversation with our young boatman who told us the history of his village and its 700 residents. I teased him about getting along with everybody in his village and he answered in complete seriousness that he did. Then he stopped rowing and pointed out that we were in the middle of a bombed-out crater.

After all that (!), we drove to modern Da Nang, another booming city, catering to industry and building massive resorts with casinos along its shoreline.

Day 7: Mỹ Sơn and Da Nang

Mỹ Sơn, our third UNESCO World Heritage site of the trip, is an area of abandoned and partially destroyed Hindu temples in Vietnam, constructed between the 4th and the 14th century by the kings of the Champa empire who ruled in southern Vietnam and parts of Cambodia.

From there, we returned to Da Nang and made to two stops on the way to the airport, seeing the astonishing 31-story Lady Buddha and a beautiful museum dedicated to the Champa and the artifacts of Mỹ Sơn.

Day 8-10: Hanoi

Hanoi was the surprise of the trip. I expected to find a drag Communist governmental center of the nation. Instead, I discovered a lively cosmopolitan city with parks, a wonderful art museum, great food, and a charming population that gathers around the Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the city to talk, play with their children, eat ice cream, and practice their English with willing visitors!

We visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum; saw the superlative “My Village” theatre production with lighting, staging, performance and music to rival the best of the West; the Fine Arts Museum, and visited the ancient Temple of Literature – where we watched joyful students pose for graduation photos, honoring centuries of learning and their present-day teachers and families.

We toured the Old Quarter and saw fresh food stalls filled with delights to make your mouth water and your belly rumble. Supermarkets are well-established in the big cities, but people still prefer to buy fresh food off the streets – lower prices plus electricity and refrigeration are expensive and unreliable.

Day 10-11: Ha Long Bay

We next traveled northeast for an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay, famous for thousands of beautiful limestone islands. We saw a fishing village of about 15 homes including this one, complete with Communist flags AND a solar panel on the roof!

Day 12-13: Siem Reap, Cambodia, site of the temples of Angkor

What can I say about the temples of the Angkor region that you cannot imagine? Stunning, amazing, unbelievable. All those words apply. We visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom … seven temples in all.

Just as in Vietnam, we saw signs of explosive growth, but we also saw much poverty – small children hawking souvenirs; mosquito infestations …

Yet, as visitors, we walked everywhere and were welcomed everywhere. The Cambodians we met or just walked by were all gracious and kind. Angkor is the spiritual center of Cambodia and truly we felt that.

Day 14-15: Back to Vietnam

We ended our trip back where it began, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – with two delightful experiences, both involving food! First, we had lunch at the restaurant Noir, where you dine in complete darkness and the servers are blind. The meal was an 11-course gastronomical treat; the brief encounter with “blindness” intense, but what made it most wonderful was the fact that Noir provides employment opportunities for handicapped people in Vietnam which are otherwise limited.

Then, we had a farewell, home-cooked dinner with my good friend – Kien Pham. Kien and I were White House Fellows together 34-years ago and he arranged our entire SE Asia adventure. To be with his family was the perfect way to mark the end of our trip.

And everywhere we traveled, flowers, flowers, flowers!

One of our best trips ever – even better than that time in Hawaii in a hotel overlooking a Costco parking lot!

8 replies
  1. Judy Keele
    Judy Keele says:

    What a wonderful trip, absolutely incredible! Loved the photos with your comments. Thanks for letting us live it a bit too.

  2. Miriam Maes
    Miriam Maes says:

    Dear Karen, What a great way to describe your experiences in Cambodia and Vietnam. Many thanks and I am reliving the trip Jean-Pierre, Javina and I did 6 years ago. We only did it the other way around. Lots of love and A Happy Thanksgiving to you and Hubby!

  3. Kathy @ SMART Living
    Kathy @ SMART Living says:

    Hi Karen! Thank you so much for your brief introduction to Vietnam and Cambodia. As I mentioned on FB my husband I I will be traveling to the same places in TWO WEEKS TIME!!! Obviously we are very excited. We will spend 4 days in Hanoi, 2 in Halong Bay, 4 in HCMC and then do a cruise up the Mekong Delta ending in Siem Reap. You photos we perfect for getting us in the mood and also for reminding us that travel can often be paradoxal. We can choose the beauty or we can look at other things. My husband and I love to immerse ourselves in different cultures and experience the BEST of any country. Thank you again for your view. ~Kathy

  4. Andrea Serra
    Andrea Serra says:

    Vietnam is next on our list, so thanks for the recommendations! Glad to hear you had such a lovely trip. The flowers everywhere reminded me of Bali.


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