I stood in front of my hotel room’s panoramic window, gazing out through the haze at the vast expanse of Saigon and rubbing my eyes, still weary from 24 hours of travel. It didn’t feel real to be standing here. I was in Vietnam, a place I had only read about in history books or learned about in documentaries, many of which centered around the war in the 1960s. But I was convinced there was more to this beautiful country and its neighbor, Cambodia, and I was itching to discover its heart for myself.
Saigon proved true to my initial impression, but it was so much more. It is an immense city, teeming with vibrant colors and lively characters, all swirling together in a blur that makes up daily life. The locals here often fight for daily needs; yet, they’re intensely proud of their country, culture and history. Surprisingly, this pride includes the era of the Vietnam War and the American presence during that time. Shops all over the city are filled with antiques for sale that were left behind by soldiers on both sides, and many sites of historical significance have been preserved for visitors to experience. It felt surreal as I ran my fingers over a shelf filled with Zippo lighters left by American GIs, all the while the shop’s proprietor chattering in my ear about the war, the Viet Cong, and how things are today. There’s no doubt about it – though tensions have settled and the country is once again united, the people who make up southern Vietnam will always have a love for Americans and their culture. While incredibly foreign, it felt strangely familiar, warm, and welcoming.
After experiencing Saigon’s assault on my senses, it felt like another world when I left the bustle of the city aboard the Aqua Mekong and ventured deep into the heart of the delta to explore the country’s more subdued side before crossing the border into Cambodia. Villages along the river were much quietier and more remote, with locals selling goods out of their homes to their neighbors and the rare tourist like myself. As we rode bikes down narrow muddy paths, through the center of markets and across “bridges” that consisted of a single board only inches wide, I marveled at the simplicity and seclusion of this place. It was clear that few ventured here, and I felt privileged to do so, as if I were getting a glimpse into a private world that is precious to those who live here.
As we crossed the border into Cambodia, the scenery changed dramatically. Gone were the houses built on stilts that hugged the banks for miles in Vietnam. Instead, the jungle crowded close, and vines overhung the calm waters gliding by. Barely visible above the tree tops, I could see the pointy roofs of Buddhist temples, and I quickly came to understand its importance to the Cambodian people. Unlike the Vietnamese, the Cambodian culture is almost synonymous with the tenets of Buddhism.
Our first stop was Pnomh Penh, where we first came face-to-face with the harsh realities of how war has impacted these peaceful people. During the same time the war was ending in Vietnam, Cambodia was laboring under its own devastating and lesser-known crisis. A powerful and sadistic dictator, Polpot, had risen to the highest authority, which he then used to annihilate a large percentage of the population. Today, the overall population is quite young, with an average age of 30-35 or younger.
As much of the populace was systematically murdered, they were disposed of as quickly as possible in open mass graves, which are known as the killing fields. There are many of these areas throughout the country, but we were taken to one near the city. As I walked through the field, carefully keeping to the narrow path marked for visitors, I was humbled to silence and then overwhelmed with sadness. Every few feet a piece of clothing or even the jagged edge of a bone was protruding from the ground. Cambodians are adamantly respectful of the dead and are making efforts to exhume these bodies properly, but have few resources to do so. As I listened to our guide giving us the horrifying history of this place, I tried to absorb all that was around me. Being here, meeting these benevolent and kind people, I just couldn’t understand how this could happen in our modern world. Suddenly it wasn’t just a documentary on TV. The people I were interacting with at every turn had been directly affected by this mass genocide – they had all lost loved ones dear to them in a most unfair, cruel way. I was so humbled by this place, and the optimism of the people who had lived through such horror.
Leaving Pnomh Penh, we boarded a short flight to Siem Reap. Here, I began to understand and make sense of how these people could maintain their kindness and happiness, even after the injustices and tragedies of war. We visited numerous temples in Siem Reap, including the famous Angkor Watt. But it was the smaller, less crowded temples that made the biggest impact on me. As I sat alone at Ta Prohm, observing the gnarled vines twisted around its ancient façade, I began to understand the Buddhist religion and the impact it has on the Cambodian people. Here, these people are united by their faith, and they adhere to its principles without question. It has created a peaceful society, one that will hopefully be spared such tragedy in the future.
As I boarded my flight for home, I mulled over all the experiences of the past week, and how different this world is than my own. In many ways, with its colorful chaos and humanity, my own daily life may seem plain and mundane. But this is one of the most important lessons travel can teach us–there is always value to another way of life, a different culture than our own. We–those of us brave enough to step out and explore the other side, to peer through the lens of another’s perspective– are the ones who are enriched. Vietnam and Cambodia have certainly done that for me. I can truly say that I will forever recognize beauty in chaos, and priceless value in the warmth of another’s heart.