As the stars fade and the colours of the sky slowly begin to change, the dark shadows of the immense temple walls gradually emerge. The anticipation builds among the hushed crowd as the temple’s towers and their reflection in the moat surrounding the vast complex become increasingly clear. And then, this visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking scene reveals itself in full glory, rendering viewers speechless; its a truly amazing moment. Seeing Angkor Wat was just one of many such 'pinch me' moments I had during my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Journeys Within, an award-winning Southeast Asia tour company. I actually stopped counting them after just a few days into my fascinating cultural odyssey; they came so fast and furious, one after another, all I could do was continue to pinch myself to ensure I wasn’t dreaming.
My adventure began in Hanoi, the bustling capital of Vietnam, where modern meets ancient in many ways, including the architectural, traditional and cultural. This charming, yet chaotic city overwhelms the senses. The Old Quarter is a congested maze of narrow streets offering a wealth of cheap shopping and delicious, exotic eats from street stalls and sidewalk cafes. Persistent vendors implore you to check out their goods, from Chinese knockoffs to lacquerware and fine silk shirts, in what is akin to one giant open air marketplace. The area is jam-packed with pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, cars and tuk tuks, the motorized rickshaw or pedicab that is a popular form of transportation in many Southeast Asian countries. The pace of traffic is frenetic, and vehicles come from all directions with total disregard for civilized rules, making the act of crossing the street an extreme adventure sport. The stakes are high, the risks are great and those who hesitate (or veer suddenly) are toast!
There are numerous sights to explore in this lively city, from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the famed One Pillar Pagoda landmark to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, the penitentiary built by the French in the 1880s and later used to house American POWs, who nicknamed it the “Hanoi Hilton”. One must-see attraction is a water-puppet show at the acclaimed Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry is a traditional Vietnamese art form dating back to the 11th century. Wooden puppets are mounted on long bamboo poles, which remain totally hidden under a shallow pool of water. Experienced puppeteers manipulate the puppets, making them appear to be dancing over the water. They perform numerous vignettes of everyday village life, as well as act out age-old legends and myths. Shows are accompanied by singers and a live orchestra that sits to the left of the stage and plays a variety of traditional instruments. It’s a highly entertaining experience and definitely one for the memory books.
From Hanoi, I headed to Halong Bay for a three-day trip on a classic junk boat. A visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site is an incredible treat, to say the least. The bay features nearly 2,000 limestone islands of various sizes and shapes that rise up from the crystalline emerald water, creating one of Vietnam’s most spectacular natural wonders. The isles appear as monoliths or pillars and together with a variety of coastal erosional features such as arches, caves and grottos, combine to create a haunting seascape. Kayaking in and around these formations, especially on a misty late afternoon, is deliciously eerie, qualifying for yet another one of those 'pinch me' moments. The follow-up, a spectacular cave dinner, provided the icing on the cake. Surrounded by candles and tea lights, my fellow passengers and I ate at a long table within a massive cavern that we reached after trekking up steps carved into the side of a large rock formation. We were all bewitched by this enchanting setting, not to mention fully sated by the grand feast of beautifully presented fresh seafood.
In addition to kayaking and lazing on the deck while watching the bay’s mystical scenery pass by, we also visited a local fishing village. The residents, about 200 total, live in houses that float on the water with the help of plastic barrels. There’s even a floating school for the children. It’s a way of life for nearly 3,000 people who call Halong Bay their home.
Vietnam is full of World Heritage Sites from north to south and all places in between. In the central zone of the country lies the old capital city of Hue, which contains a number of historic treasures. Located on the banks of the picturesque Perfume River, the city is notable for its temples, royal tombs, palaces and pagodas. One of the prime attractions is the Imperial Citadel, an extensive complex that once contained a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines and those closest to them were granted access. South of the city are the Tombs of the Emperors, each with a different style, offering excellent examples of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture. Khai Dinh, the best preserved of the lot, is completely over the top with opulent, detailed mosaics.
Dinner at Tha Om Ancient House offered up another 'pinch me' opportunity. Located in a small village near Hue, the 100-year-old home is owned by an architect who is a descendent of a mandarin royal family. At night, the compound’s stone lanterns are lit up, displaying its numerous ponds and gardens, which exemplify the use of Feng Shui in ancient architecture. The menu for the evening’s meal was cleverly written on a fan and included such sumptuous delights as spring rolls, pumpkin soup, green papaya salad, fish, grilled beef on tiles and a host of tropical fruits, among other delectable dishes. The experience included a tour of the property, provided by the owner who enjoys regaling guests with intriguing historical information and details about the house, as well as its original occupant, his eccentric grandfather.
Getting off the beaten path occasionally is important to me when I travel, as I feel that some of the best sights and experiences can be found in out-of-the-way locales, far from the madding crowds. Journeys Within has a reputation for crafting itineraries that build in such unique opportunities. Take Truoi Lake and Truc Lam Bach Ma Zen Monastery for example. The monastery, with its traditional pagoda gates, bell towers and halls for Buddhist practice, is reached via a short boat ride across lovely Truoi Lake. Surrounded by the Bach Ma (White Horse) Mountain Range, with its amazing white clouds that look like horses on the mountain peaks, the lake is a well-kept secret. Those who know of it, often use it as a tool for Buddhist practice, as the water is regarded as a place to wash the guilt from one’s body before seeing Buddha. Once on the other side of the lake, the climb uphill to the monastery begins. In Buddhist theory, one of the ways to see Buddha or to achieve Zen is to clear the mind. It is said that keeping count of the number of steps and breaths as you mount the 173 stairs allows you to completely “blank” your mind. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with an unparalleled scenic view and an impressive pagoda complete with a kindly old Buddhist monk who warmly greets visitors.
The south of Vietnam, which is considered the tail of the country’s dragon shape, holds its own when it comes to memorable sights and experiences. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is the largest and most populated metropolitan and economic center in the country. Located near the Mekong River Delta, this city - like Hanoi - is a melding of Old World charm and modern influences, and bustles with life 24-7. Examples of colonial French architecture, such as the stately Opera House and the grand Central Post Office, remind visitors of the French Indochina period in the country’s history.
For Vietnam War buffs, the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum provide insight into the conflict primarily from the perspective of the Vietnamese. The Palace, formerly the presidential quarters for South Vietnam’s president, has been left largely untouched from the day before Saigon fell to the North. A replica of the tank that crashed through the gate, officially ending the war on April 30, 1975, is parked on the lawn outside the building. Inside, there’s a kitschy rec-room and an eerie basement full of vintage 1960s phones, radios and office equipment, supposedly left exactly as it was found when the North assumed power. A photo gallery and propaganda film recounting the domination of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary forces against the South and its American allies completes the picture. The War Remnants Museum is a much heavier and disturbing walk down memory lane, with halls of gruesome photographs and jars of deformed fetuses attributed to Agent Orange contamination.
Outside Ho Chi Minh City, in the Cu Chi district, are the famed Cu Chi tunnels, which are worth a visit if only to get a full understanding of the ingenious underground network that aided guerrilla fighters in their resistance to first the French and later, American forces. At its height, this intricate multi-layered system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border and consisted of innumerable trap doors, living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, kitchens and command centers.
Via Journeys Within, I was able to meet and have dinner with a Vietnam War veteran. Mr. Binh Tron was only twenty years old when he joined the Viet Cong to fight against the South Vietnamese and eventually, the Americans, in an effort to help unify his country. He viewed Communism as a means to a better life and fully supported the views of his hero, Ho Chi Minh. Over the years, he rose within the ranks of the military to become a Colonel General. Today, at 83, Tron speaks of Vietnam’s future and hopes for his people. Through a translator, he explained that he encourages visitors to come to his country in friendship and in peace.
Though war sites, museums and memorials are in abundance in the south, there are also other non-military-related points of interest, including the Cao Dai Great Temple. Definitely off the usual tourist route, this center of worship for the religion of Cao Daism is remarkable. It closely resembles a Christian cathedral in its architecture, but is extravagantly decorated with a host of symbols, abstract designs and images of saints. Cao Daism is a unique religion that worships Jesus, Confucius and Buddha. Its most important symbol is the Divine Eye, which represents God. There are four ceremonies with chanting each day, and an orchestra and choir lead the service in prayer and hymns. Timing your visit to the temple is essential in order to catch sight of the sea of faithful who dress in flowing white, yellow and blue robes and assemble in orderly rows during the ceremony with men on the right and women on the left.
Cambodia, like Vietnam, contains countless cultural jewels. In Siem Reap alone, there are scores of magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries, including the renowned Temple of Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious complex. Though Angkor is an unquestionable must see, make sure you venture further out to some of the other temple sites including Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and the lesser-visited Preah Khan. The latter two were most fascinating to me, as they depict a battle between nature and architecture, and its clear that nature is getting the upper hand. The jungle is basically devouring the remains of these ancient structures, as the trees have taken root in loosened stones and wound their way through the buildings. Determining which root belongs to which tree becomes a mesmeric puzzle for the viewer, as does the question of why an entire population abandoned these sites umpteen years ago. Preah Khan, which was built in 1191 CE, originally served as a monastery and school, and at one time, hosted 15,000 inhabitants. Some archaeologists postulate that possibly severe climate conditions forced inhabitants to leave, but the actual reason for their departure will always be a mystery. As I walked among these masterpieces, I could almost hear the voices of the past within the crumbling walls of the ruins. It was truly a mystical and spiritual 'pinch me' moment.
In addition to its temples, Siem Reap has much to offer, with a myriad of cultural and culinary forays. Food plays a front and center role in Cambodia, as it does in all of Southeast Asia for that matter, and a cooking class is a wonderful way to learn about the different spices and ingredients that comprise the many flavorful dishes. Siem Reap is also a great place to get heavenly foot massages after a long day of temple trekking. You’ll see foreigners with ecstatic looks on their faces, splayed out on recliner chairs that line the streets, getting their tootsies worked on by an army of efficient and entrepreneurial Cambodian massage practitioners.
For an up-close and personal view of rural life, take a tour of a nearby village with a local guide, who will show you his community of houses built on sticks and explain how residents eke out a living with their small rice farms and various cottage industries, such as rice distilleries and bamboo basket making. There’s no electricity so people use car batteries, candles and lamp oil. An average family has six kids, who attend school until sixth grade at the small village school. If they want to continue their education, the children must go into Siem Reap. The tour motivated my desire to further interact with the local people. Journeys Within gladly facilitated this opportunity via its nonprofit organization, Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC). Founded by Brandon and Andrea Ross, owners of Journeys Within Tour Company, the organization works at the local level to be an active force for change. While living in Cambodia, the couple saw firsthand the needs of a population struggling with poverty and also saw the desire of their guests, friends and family to provide support. They realized they could work as intermediaries between those who needed help and those who wanted to give it, and thus, JWOC was born.
The organization invests in future generations by offering scholarships to students who have the ability to succeed, but are unable to afford the tuition fees and course materials. In return for their financial assistance, the students give back to their community by volunteering weekly in various activities under JWOC’s umbrella. The nonprofit also offers a micro-finance program aimed at addressing the major problem of credit and debt in Cambodia. By enabling people to begin or expand small businesses at fair and sustainable rates, they have the chance to break free from the cycle of poverty. Additional programs include the Clean Water Project and the Free Schools Program, the latter which offers a variety of English language classes, training opportunities and skills development for children and adults.
I chose to volunteer one afternoon in an English conversation class for adults. The group met at JWOC’s center in a building adjacent to the Journeys Within Boutique Hotel, where I was staying during my time in Siem Reap. Three other volunteers from the hotel joined me in assisting the teacher with different speaking activities. The students were delightful and as curious about us as we were about them, which spurred an enthusiastic and stimulating exchange. Their hearty appreciation for our time was genuine, but I know that I got much more in return than I gave. Yet another 'pinch me' moment to treasure from this incredible trip.
For more information on the countries, visit their main tourism sites at www.vietnamtourism.com and www.tourismcambodia.com, and for more on Journeys Within, visit them online at www.journeys-within.com.
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Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.