Vietnam & Cambodia — Travel Impressions (Part 1/2)

I felt a bit of trepidation entering Vietnam for the first time, wondering if the Vietnamese carried anger or hatred towards Americans. After all, two million Vietnamese were killed in the name of American freedom and democracy, and to counter the evil threat of a world dominated by Communism. History proved that the American reading of the situation in Vietnam was wrong. Although the US thought the Vietnamese were simply an extension of Communism, we failed to see that they were fighting for their freedom from centuries of domination by the Chinese and French.

Was the war pointless from the start, just a brutal historical episode that had nothing to do with survival or moral values? In “The Vietnam War”, a documentary series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the American Undersecretary of Defense admits that the real reason for the U.S. ground invasion in March 1965 was “70 percent to avoid humiliation.” In another interview, a Marine officer says straightforwardly “You’re killing people in order to protect your male ego.”

Beauty is all around in Hanoi
Beauty is all around in Hanoi
Beauty is all around in Hanoi

The American psyche has been profoundly shaped by the Vietnam war. Without it, there would have been no ‘sixties.’ No draft, no draft dodgers, no protest, no protest music, no hippies — just a lot of people taking LSD and complaining about their parents. In “The Vietnam War” a North Vietnamese Army veteran says, “People sing about victory, about liberation. They are wrong. Who won the war and who lost is not the question. In war, no one wines, or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.”

As an Israeli, these reflections make me wonder if war is Israel’s inescapable destiny, if we are doing enough to challenge this assumption, and if there are realistic alternatives. I tend to be with the school of thought that says war is Israel’s destiny, and that alternatives are yet to come. However, just like the Americans were mistaken about Vietnam, I am open and willing to be proven wrong. I wish that one day Israelis and Palestinians will be as friendly to one another as the Vietnamese and Americans.

Motorbikes in Hanoi

Hanoi — Bai Tu Long Bay — Halong Bay

Hanoi is a 1000-year-old city with Chinese and French influences from past invasions, but it is transforming itself into a modern city with all that it entails. Most Hanoians ride motorbikes or buses rather than cars, and the flow of traffic in the city is a remarkable and frightening sight. Pedestrians walk out into the traffic like forging a stream with a continuous flowing motion of vehicles around them. Maybe it says something about the way Vietnamese seem to approach life in general.

Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay

The limestone karsts of Bai Tu Long Bay and Halong Bay are sites of outstanding natural beauty. There are about 2000 limestone islands and karsts of different sizes and shapes in the two bays covered with vegetation. Many of these islands have caves and beautiful beaches. It is on many lists of “places one must see,” on par with Macho Picchu and Angkor Wat. I boarded one of the many cruise boats for a few days and enjoyed the stunning view of this place.

“The key to knowing joy is being easily pleased” Mark Nepo

Cua Van floating village in Halong Bay

A graveyard on Quan Lan Island located in Bai Tu Long Bay. I learned something about ancestor worship tradition, the Vietnamese bury the dead twice, first time immediately after death and second time within 3–5 years depending on body size.

Halong Bay in Vietnamese means “where the dragon descends into the sea.”

Cua Van floating village in Halong Bay

Cua Van is a floating village in Halong Bay, inhabited by 100 families.

Sapa — Y Linh ho (Black H’mong Tribe) — Laochai — Tavan (Dazy Tribe) — Giang Ta Chai (Red Dazo Tribe)

The Vietnamese government recognizes 54 ethnic groups, each with its own unique cultural identity. The proximity to neighboring countries affects cultural beliefs within groups and sub-groups, as is the case for Vietnam’s Hmong communities. The Hmong people, originally from China, are well-represented in northwest Vietnam’s more mountainous regions, particularly around the market town of Sapa, where terraced rice fields melt over the mist-covered valleys and slopes surrounding Mount Fansipan. Hmong people make their own clothing, often out of hemp. Tribes will distinguish themselves with multicolored headbands, tassels and beads adorning traditional long dresses specific to the sub-groups, which include Red, White, Black and the rainbow-colored Flower tribe.

Dazo Woman in Giang Ta Chai

Sapa — Lao Cai — Bac Ha

A bulk of my trip in Vietnam was on top of a motorcycle, sitting on the backseat, listening to music and paying attention to the mesmerizing scenery. It was the first time I traveled on a motorbike, it’s an exciting way to experience freedom. The rural areas of the north are mountainous with many rice terraces and paddies. The curved lines of the terraces make the scenery look like a topographic map. It’s not the only location in the world with this kind of scenery but when it come to the people, it’s unique! The ethnic hill tribes are living away from the modern world, in much the same way as they have always lived. Bac Ha market on a Saturday is the place to be as surrounding hill tribes bring handicrafts and freshly picked produce to sell in a whirl of color and tribal custom. I took a lot of photos, at one point I stopped looking for composition, and the photos taking became a feast of colors.

Flower Hmong women at Bac Ha market
Flower Hmong women at Bac Ha market
Flower Hmong women at Bac Ha market

At the Bac Ha Market of the Flower Hmong ethnic group I came to a point where I stopped looking for a photographic composition and everything became a big feast of colors.

Ha Giang Loop: Ha Giang — Dong Van — Meo Vac — Bao Lam

Ha Giang province is bordering China and is less frequented by tourists. To visit the area, one must obtain a permit. Ha Giang is the place where almost 90% of the population are ethnic minorities with their own culture and lifestyle. During the last 20 years, whilst other Vietnamese provinces and cities experienced economic development, Ha Giang was the place which seems to have stood still in time. The main reason for this has been the political situation and relations with China.

The farthest and the most beautiful place of Ha Giang province is Dong Van Karst Global Geopark, designated by UNESCO as one of 77 sites with important geological and cultural heritage. Ethereal karst formations of nearly 400 million years ago are scattered in the geopark.

Dong Van Karst Global Geopark

The Chinese invasion of 1979 has been forgotten now but tensions between the two communist neighbors never subsided. In the early hours of February 17, 1979 at least 200,000 Chinese troops poured into northern Vietnam all along the border. China was aiming to punish Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia to oust the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. Two months earlier, in late December 1978, Vietnam launched an invasion of Cambodia to remove Pol Pot. Two million Cambodians had died at the hands of his Khmer Rouge regime and Pol Pot’s troops had conducted bloody cross-border raids into Vietnam, massacring civilians and torching villages. China and Vietnam have since worked to improve their diplomatic and economic ties. However, the two countries remain in dispute over territorial issues in the South China Sea.

My excellent and careful driver Mr. Mguyen Khac Minh

The roads are one lane, curvy, bumpy, in part unpaved, and in general more like a trail than a road. My excellent and careful driver was Mr. Mguyen Khac Minh. He used to be a cook and now takes tourists on this drive couple of times a month. My experience of Vietnam would not have been the same had I not traveled with a local Vietnamese, who hardly spoke English yet opened to me facets of the culture, food, sites, and experiences that otherwise I would have missed.

Sharing local moonshine and beer

The highlight of a trip is always the people you meet along the way. This happy family screamed at us to stop. We did, and enjoyed some local moonshine and beer, exchanged family information etc. They wanted me to stay but we had 120 more km to our destination. Needless to say, the journey was even more beautiful after that stop.

Along the way we passed a few Flower Homang villages. I heard that Wife snatching is a popular practice among the Hmong people when facing wedding obstacles. The boy, with the help of some ‘good’ uncles, aunts and friends snatch his wife as a first step to formalize their relationships. She, however, has the right to refuse his assertive, so to speak, proposal.

For additional photographs please check my site

To be continued in Part 2/2

David’s writings are self-reflections of an Israeli living in Los Angeles since 1987, through the lens of art, travel & culture.

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