Vietnam & Cambodia – The Reality
As I sit here in Singapore International, I can’t help but reflect on what has been an incredible journey into not only the land of Vietnam and Cambodia but into my childhood soul. For so long I have longed the freedom of exploration, the desire for the little things, to see if the air tasted different, if the sights were really that memorable, did the small things that others seek from day to day really differ that much from my own?
This trip definitely gave me a slice of what I hoped to seek. Prior to leaving I thought to myself I wanted to focus my attention on those things I thought I would accidentally miss on the trip… like trying to see things from the locals point of view or the way they interacted between each other, you know the little things tourists can sometimes miss.
Preempting what I was heading into, I had a hunch there would be some simplicity to it all. Their way of life, their priorities, their goals. However I guess it is the extent of their simplicity and the underlying truth that really stood out to me in the end.
I can understand how so many can miss these important elements while travelling…. It can really be hard to see the small things in amongst the rawness of the streets. Continual beeping from a mirage of tuk tuks, the rush of scooters coming at you from all directions, the countless motorbikes and the odd motor vehicle that passes while you fear that all it would take is any one of these to accidentally swipe you as you cross.
The madness of the roads morph into one. The abrupt sounds of locals buying for your attention desperately seeking a sale, the smell of pure heaven of new flavours that beg your attention, to within seconds a sense only a Westerner could have of utter disgust and the need to gag. No wonder the countless distractions can make us miss out on the smaller qualities while being abroad.
My thoughts on their way of life were a mixture of feelings. Travelling through Hoi An, the unique Ancient Town of Vietnam made me feel as though, despite the countless tourists that seem to engulf the streets from late morning to evening, without the presence of them, not too much had changed by the locals way of life… this was so nice to see.
When you look past the hustle and buzz of all the tourists and locals buying for your attention, not too much has changed in the Old Quarter of Hoi An
There is a sense of true heritage that seems to live on in the culture here. Yes the buildings have a beautiful French influence to them (we are talking about one of the most heavily travelled silk routes of ancient time) but it was more than this. It was the strong presence of women bearing bamboo hats whilst balancing food from their shoulders, it’s those little wooden carts that dawn the streets, the non existence of automobiles. It’s all the small things within the old quarter that made it seem so special.
We arrived in Hoi An the day after a Typhoon had passed. The town itself was flooded, electricity was out, many shops had mud all through their stores and the river itself seemed slow to reside. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. It gave me such a different experience to what I would have experienced otherwise. It was the people. Be this Australia or New Zealand (the only other two counties I have lived in long term) it would have been labeled a national disaster… But here, life goes on and spirits remain high.
The people here are humble, happy and thankful to have what they have. Their daily life continues, no frustration, no fuss, they simply just get on and clean up the mess that Mother Nature has left. The locals were fascinating to me, especially the old. The lines in the elderly faces speak a thousand words to me, all of which I can only assume the hurt they have seen. I couldn’t help but hold gazes with them. And once I locked eyes, after about 5 seconds the most magical thing would happen… their pained faces lit up with a smile that would fill any soul with fulfillment.
I’m not sure if it is my cheesy grin, maybe my overwhelming happiness of being where I am that they can sense in my eyes or could it be they don’t necessarily have people be so smiley and hold gazes with them for a long period of time, but to see worn eyes turn so youthful again would have to be a highlight of my trip.
Another highlight of mine, one that you may think only a photographer could enjoy, would have to be the rain! Although three weeks of rain can be a bit much after a while… if you have eyes like mine there is so much beauty to be seen. The colours are more vibrant… the puddles that form in the cracked pavement to the reflections in the water, even the beads of water that gather on the windows, it’s a photographers paradise.
Moving from town to town after two or three days in each was an experience on it’s own. For there are only so many 12 hour bus rides you can do with Asian Opera Karaoke so loud that the speakers on the bus rattle… even my headphones struggled to drown out the noise ha!
However it was amazing how each town seemed to differ from one to the next, these subtleties I noticed the most while out for my morning runs. Being up that early in the morning, before any tourist had stepped foot outside, you immerse yourself in a locals reality without the taint of foreigners – it’s an incredible thing. The ease of their morning pace which compared to home still seems to be full speed, the streets are almost silent, be the odd toot there are no voices, just a rare smile from local to local.
Watching the locals and how they interacted between each other was an interesting one. I’m a very open person. I like to make people feel welcomed, inspired and free to be their own. And watching the locals it made me feel as though I wouldn’t be able to live here long term. The interesting thing was, as the trip progressed, my perspective of why they are like this changed, I guess my frame of reference had grown.
At first I thought it would be due to the share volume of people that live in some of these cities, each fighting for basic needs. When someone calls there is no time for a ‘Hello, how are you?’, small talk among these people is non-existent. But it’s also the PDA (Public Displays of Affection) that doesn’t seem to exist. I was watching husbands and wives, mums and dads with their children, close friends – all of them, although you could tell they were close, they didn’t seem to do all the small things I’m so used to, a simple hug, holding of hands, riding on your parents shoulders.
I also sat back and watched how people would interact with those begging on the streets, not only foreigners but also the locals. During my time I had noticed many locals with disabilities, more than I thought was a normal rate. Some with missing limbs, some with deformities. I felt for them, I really wanted to know their stories however also knew it would be too invasive for me to ask. I naturally felt too invasive to even take photographs of them.
However as I sat watching their world pass them by it also made me realize there was a side to the locals that I hadn’t seen prior. Some what typically, foreigners would pass by those begging for help by going out of their way to get some distance between them, most trying not make eye contact and those that did would quickly give a small nod, eyes filled with uneasiness and move on briskly. It was the locals however that made me feel they have more compassion than what I gave them credit for.
I watched for some time this one particular man begging. He had suffered from what I thought was Polio, legs deformed to be as small as arms and bent in about five different ways, his arms also bent unfairly. He was perched on the dirty sidewalk selling bracelets with a beautiful big smile and a sense of self. Foreigners were scared to talk to him; locals however would greet him as their own.
They sat next to him giving indication they didn’t actually know him, they laughed, spoke and even shared affection by cuddling as they watched the world go by. It was refreshing. Something I wouldn’t even see with the locals in my hometown.
It wasn’t until I had been to the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh that I realized what this man had been through. Like so many who suffer in this country, they had all innocently fallen victims to Agent Orange. I’m sad to admit I didn’t know the true detriment of what happened during the Vietnam War prior to this.
It was horrific. Walking through the museum everyone felt it. The ambience in the air was of an airy disgust in the human race. There were masses of people but all were silenced. Tears were rolling down the faces of some. Everyone was feeling heavy with disgrace.
The way the innocent were treated during this war was the saddest thing I had ever seen. Horrendous.
And then being educated on what Agent Orange is and how it still affects those today, this was gripping.
It is a topic that I think everyone needs to understand and be exposed to. We all need to learn from history so it doesn’t repeat itself. I could talk about it for a while but I would rather move to a positive I seen out of all this. It was how the locals have essentially accepted what has happened and dealt with it as best they can.
Their support to those who are affected by the lasting genetic deformities from Agent Orange is something we could all learn from. They all have a sense of empathy to exemplify.
These virtues seem to be built into the locals everywhere, not just in the cities where those affected were so evident. Moving from town to town I felt the important things between the people remained consistent, their values and desire of necessities were always persistent although the pace from town to town and the architectural influences differed dramatically. Da Lat was full of colour, from within the buildings to even the neons that lit up all the street stalls… it was a beautiful thing especially at night.
Although the streets were always busy and there seemed to be an abundance for most, I couldn’t help but think of the struggles these people go through behind closed doors. Seeing the way the Vietnamese people live made me think of a discussion I had a few months prior to this holiday.
I had always been a firm believer that you make your own luck. I believed you make it because you are prepared for an opportunity when it may arise; the hard yards have already been put in, and when that so called lucky opportunity arises the ‘luck’ is only because we know what to do with it rather than let the opportunity slip by.
I always thought equal opportunities were always there, we only consider some opportunities as lucky when we are ready for them.
The opposing view that was shared with me was something that I couldn’t necessarily comprehend until spending some time in a country where ‘luck’ is so hard to come by. The truth is, luck does exist, but in a different mean to what I originally believed. Luck is to be born in a country where basic needs are met. Luck is to have easy access to food, water and shelter and the privilege to work for these necessities. Luck is to be born into a home with people that facilitate your basic human needs. And it is this ‘luck’ that then allows you to spare your time to focus on preparing yourself for those opportunities you seek, those ones I once called lucky.
The reality is the systems in place don’t make it easy. It’s sad. There are so many good people out there who have so much potential for greatness yet they can’t fulfill their worth because the lack of luck that was given to them as a foundation. They say the cure for cancer is waiting to be discovered in a refugee of the world. They say we all have infinite ability if we put our minds to it and actively develop ourselves, if only we each had the equal opportunity to do just that.
It makes me think those that have the chance to seize this opportunity really must not take it for granted. One must do it for those that can’t. One must take the time to define what purpose they have here in this life and try above all to push through the boundaries and restrictions placed upon us to put this in place.
Some causes are bigger than others. Some dreams are more elaborate. Some thoughts take time to develop and some seem to be at the forefront of ones mind. I couldn’t help but think while on this trip, a deeper level to why am I here. Yes I know the surface level things I want from life, to take photos, travel, live an active and healthy lifestyle while above all inspiring others to take their leap of faith, however for some reason I can’t help but think there is a deeper meaning to the reason of why I am here.
Standing next to something as momentous as Angkor Wat, one can't help but wonder what their part in this thing we call life is
I guess it’s a question that people of every generation have wondered be it now or in the past. Travelling through the incredible remains of the Cambodian temples, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the lasting impression these artifacts leave. The way the forest encapsulate the moss covered stone, how the corridors and are lined with incredible detailed descriptions, the way the sound travels through the walls… it all has a prominent reasoning.
But then to see how the trees have cracked the stone like bursting veins, how they don’t stop at anything until they breathe the fresh sun-kissed air high in the sky. It’s awe-inspiring. Mother Nature really is an incredible feat. No wonder Angkor Wat is Lonely Planet’s top must do attraction of the world. There’s something really remarkable about humans leaving a temple as a mark they believe destined for eternity only for the earth to swallow up their efforts. It’s a beautiful thing.
I could have spent a lot more time here exploring; I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to walk around here with no tourists, or to be apart of such a unique civilization, apart of something bigger. I felt such an incredible sense of exploration that sadly wasn’t fulfilled.
I felt heavy hearted leaving, for so long I had longed to see this place and I didn’t get to see my full share. I could have easily got hung up in my emotions. However with a peak of the sun emerging through the rain clouds, only to blossom into the most amazing day of sunshine, it was hard not to feel happiness with sun-kissed skin after three solid weeks of rain. I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness for all the little things come over me.
As I sat on a café windowsill, watching the world go by with the best coffee I had found yet (I had to order two incase it didn’t last ha) I was counting my blessings along with the beautiful hard shadows that would roll on past me, I felt myself on my typical high on life buzz again.
Sitting on the windowsill, I recall all the little things that made the moment so special, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin while thinking to myself I'm so blessed to be living my dream. Its a small moment in time I'll cherish forever
Chasing the locals I ended up in the meat markets of Siem Reap; my lord what a fascinating place – the noise and rush of it all! Amass the sensory overload, the one thing I couldn’t get over is how there was no smell. No smell at all! All this raw meat and fish.. if was anything like we experienced in Ho Chi Minh, it was hold your breathe while you try not to gag material. Furthermore everywhere I looked all I could see were women. It was the women who used the machetes to cut up carcasses; it was women who were doing the wheeling and dealing. It honestly felt like a women’s world in there.
Zig Zagging our way through Cambodia, we ended our trip with several days on Koh Rong and Koh Samloem. What a beautiful part of the world to enjoy some rest to recoup for the realities of life waiting for us back home. Even a goodbye dose of heavy rain couldn’t hold us back from enjoying ourselves in the water.
What an incredible trip. The insight it gave me to a whole different perspective is something you truly have to experience. The conversations with the locals, the nomads and the expats – each providing lessons one could never learn from a book. The laughs, the stories even the tears we each shared. To those countless sunrises I spent with fulfilling runs on the streets and beaches, they are each happy moments I’ll never forget.
To my high school friends and my dear cousin who I travelled with, this trip wouldn’t have been the same without you all.
May we all remain Forever Young. Forever Curious. Forever Strong.