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Sunday, 01 November 2015

Impressions of Indochina

Written by Mona Thomas
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   East of India and south of China, lies Indochina. This is the exotic tropics of Frangipani lined streets where people cool themselves with pankhas in the jasmine infused air and where the colors of life are reflected in the mouth-watering food. Romantic images indeed. I have had the pleasure of visiting Thailand and Laos and have walked into Burma or Myanmar as it is now known, with the Indian Army from north-east India. When the allure of the Orient beckoned again, it was time to travel to Cambodia and Vietnam.

  In the not too distant past, Cambodia and Vietnam found themselves to be the arena where proxy wars fueled by the insecurities of the 20th century and the quest for new ideologies was played out. Apocalypse Now, Platoon and the horrifying Killing Fields are some of the references from popular culture relating to Cambodia and Vietnam that may be familiar to you. The consequences of these events shaped nations and generations. I echo the words of Colonel Kurtz from the movie Apocalypse Now, which are in turn borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ‘The horror! The horror!’, when I think of man’s universal and remarkable capacity to inflict pain on its own kind. However, I know that there is more to Cambodia and Vietnam than conflict. This is what I wanted to discover.


   There is much to see but time constraints meant that the bucket list had to be slashed, ruthlessly. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the commercial hub of Vietnam and this is where most international flights arrive. It was known as Saigon before the Vietnam War or American War as it is called, depending on whether you are speaking to a Vietnamese or a non-Vietnamese. Its name was promptly changed in April 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army, led by the vision of Ho Chi Minh, overcame the South Vietnamese army and united the country. This event is now symbolized by the world famous images of a tank storming the wrought iron gates of Independence Palace, the President’s residence, in Saigon. The name of Independence Palace was also changed to Reunification Palace. Reunification Palace is a compulsory stop on the tourist trail. It’s now silent and long corridors are eerie because of the contrast between its peaceful atmosphere and the tumultuous events it witnessed.    


   Continuing with the legacy of war is the War Remnants Museum. It takes a strong person to visit this museum and I would give a parental guidance warning if you are traveling with young children. The museum drives home the brutality and atrocities of war but to balance it out there is a dedication to the anti-war movement. The grounds of the museum also hold replicas of the notorious prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands and that most infamous of French inventions, the guillotine.


   Notre Dame Cathedral, The Opera House and the Central Post Office hark back to Saigon’s colonial past. Many locals still refer to HCMC as Saigon. The Post Office was designed by Gustav Eiffel and I can imagine that its cavernous hall with tiled floor and green painted wrought iron would make posting letters a particularly genteel experience. Beyond coming to terms with its past, Saigon is an energetic city that appears to be resolutely heading into the future. It has its modern buildings, tree lined avenues of designer shops, and restaurants of all levels and variety. I was quite pleasantly surprised to discover Tandoor, a long running Indian restaurant full of Indian diners. No city in South East Asia is complete without a market and Ben Thanh Market is where you can find kitsch and some steals and where transactions are conducted with a smile and flattery. 

Central Post Office


    Saigon also gives access to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the mighty Mekong River. Cu Chi Tunnels are the underground network of tunnels that the Viet Cong constructed in the heart of South Vietnam to attack the enemy and to also escape from the indiscriminate bombing above ground. You can even crawl through a few tunnels to experience life as a Viet Cong guerrilla. Believe it or not these tunnels have actually been slightly widened for tourists! Originating in the Tibetan Plateau, you can sail along the Mekong from Burma to Vietnam via Thailand, Laos and Cambodia but if a day is all you have, you can also make a quick trip from Saigon and experience the vibrant commerce that carries on in this river.     


   There is a popular saying in Vietnam that people in Saigon first think and then act but people in Hanoi first think and then they think again! This I suppose is a result of the socialist heritage of northern Vietnam but Hanoi is an atmospheric city of lakes, a well-heeled French Quarter and a very zippy Old Quarter. You could very easily leave Hanoi having spent your entire time in the Old Quarter. It is a labyrinth of streets where shops selling wares from clothes to Vespa seats co-exist with hotels and guest houses, street vendors, tourists and a lot of two-wheelers. Do not be put off by the very basic appearance of the street food stalls. Just push your way in, find yourself a seat and cook your own food. Most stalls will offer two meals to choose from, usually a hot pot and a grill. Pho, the Vietnamese soup noodle is also delicious and you can eat it anytime from breakfast to dinner. This sumptuous food is best washed down with a cool glass of Bia hoi, the local drought beer.

Hanoi Old Quarter 

   Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho as he is affectionately referred to is the father of the nation. We missed the opportunity to visit the mausoleum where his embalmed body is housed as it is only open on certain days of the week. Instead we took a ride out to Ba Vi National Park and walked up 2000 steps to his temple at the top of the peak. A visit to Thay and Tay Phuong Pagodas on the outskirts of Hanoi took us off the main tourist map and it was worth the effort simply to witness the local village boys frolicking around the water puppet stage in the pond in front of Thay Pagoda.


   A few hours away from Hanoi is Halong Bay, a World Heritage site of limestone karsts rising out of emerald green waters. As expected it is a popular destination and if you want to witness the same beauty but in a more private manner, head to Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay. You can hire your own boat which will come with a guide, driver and chef, kayak through caves into peaceful lagoons, choose your dinner from the floating fishing villages and at the end of the day go to sleep on the boat, gently rocked by the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.  

 Floating Village Lan Ha Bay


    If you only have the chance to visit one place in Cambodia, it has to be Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor. If Vietnam has been influenced by China, then Cambodia has had more of an Indian influence.  Hence, these two countries although entwined by history and location, have very different vibes. The Temples of Angkor are a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism and in the Khmer language you will find traces of the ancient Indian languages, Sanskrit and Pali. 


   You will huff and puff and wilt in the intense heat and humidity as you walk through the temples but the hard work is worth it. The complex of Angkor is the remains of the political, social and religious center of the ancient Khmer empire. Most of us have seen pictures of Angkor and it is as grandiose in real life if not more. There is Ta Prohm, often referred to as The Indiana Jones Temple where nature is running riot over the ruins and it is surreal to see enormous trees and their roots growing out of and over the temples. Then there is Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire where gigantic faces, called Bayon, smile down at you in a beatific manner from all sides. There are a total of 216 of these enigmatic faces. Angkor Wat is the star attraction of the complex as it is the best restored and is also the world’s largest religious building. My personal favorite is Banteay Srei, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, for its intricate and delicate carvings in a pinkish hued stone. It is a fine example of Angkorian art. As I stood staring at this majestic evidence of ancient human enterprise and creativity, I could not help but wonder how long our modern architectural wonders would remain standing without continuous human assistance.


Ta Phrom Siem Reap


   Siem Reap is the town that supports Angkor. It has the inevitable hustle and bustle of tourism but is still charming. Pub Street is the main strip. Khmer cuisine is somewhat similar to Thai cuisine and for those who are not too good with their chilies, it is usually offered less spicy to tourists in most places. However, if you are after the hot stuff, you can easily amp up the taste by asking for more chilies on the side. Cambodia and its people have gone through hell and back but the spirit of the people and their smiles will humble you. 


   Two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia gives you a wonderful taste of Indochina and whets your appetite for more. Our world is vast and beautiful and there is too much to see in too little time. But who knows, maybe I will be lured back and find myself once again on the streets of Hanoi sipping Bia hoi! 

 Ben Thanh Market

© April 2015

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Last modified on Sunday, 01 November 2015