Of temples and wars, of paddy fields and night markets

“There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, A race that can’t sit still.
So they break the hearts of kith and kin, And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and rove the flood, And they climb the mountain’s crest; Their’s is the curse of the gypsy blood, And they don’t know how to rest.”

— Robert W. Service

There’s nothing quite like a tanned body and a rested mind, endowments of a vacation. This time, our wanderlust took us to Vietnam and Cambodia, two countries whose cultures lie at the intersection of the two largest geo-cultural entities in their proximity — India and China. It was an interesting deviation from the ‘traditional’ tourist locales of the West and the rather over-commercialized destinations in Thailand and Indonesia.

Vietnam had been painted red with these lanterns for the lunar new year celebrations

It was a great time to visit as well, with the lunar new year celebration preparations in full swing — the sights of myriad red lanterns and people carrying festive plants for new year gifts, were a cultural novelty for us. However, as during all travel, my ‘wow’ moments come from observing the culture and learning about the history of the places I visit, as opposed to the visual and gustatory features — those tend to be Pritha’s areas of expertise. This time was no different.

Vietnam is a country with a long, violent past. Having been ruled by the Chinese for ~800 years, attacked by Japan, colonized by the French and ravaged by a two and a half decade long civil war, it is remarkable to see where they are right now — there are some parallels to be drawn in the way modern India has emerged, albeit at a much larger scale. The Chinese and French influence is visible in the Vietnamese culture — the Vietnamese are predominantly Buddhist but followers of the Mahayana Buddhism (same as the one practiced in parts of China) as opposed to the Theravada Buddhism (practiced in India, Myanmar, Thailand and others). One can also spot the French influence in the Vietnamese architecture as well as cuisine (use of butter and wine) and see Parisian style cafes in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Warmth could be the middle name of the Vietnamese people. And the closer you move to the coast, the more easygoing the folks you encounter will be. However, the cultures, climate and cuisine in North and South Vietnam are fairly different (much like India). Two things unite the Vietnamese though — their shared love for rice (the sight of a Vietnamese farmer, with feet immersed in a paddy field, with a conical bamboo hat atop his head, is common folklore) and their shared hatred of the US (on account of the Vietnam war).

Canoeing on the Mekong River — the ‘mother’ river that irrigates most of Vietnam’s paddy fields

The only thing I knew about the Vietnam War before this trip was the fact that it was one of the rare wars where the US ended up on the losing side, with the guerilla warfare tactics of the Vietnamese completely foxing them. I learnt more about the war, visiting the “War Remnants Museum” in Saigon (and got a chance to see some of the actual weaponry and heavy artillery deployed in the war). The tactics used by US were not pretty — the worst example being chemical warfare using Agent Orange, a chemical agent that destroyed crops and led to lasting biological damages across generations. Being the underdogs, the Vietnamese communists mustered every bit of ingenuity possible — the smartest being the Cu Chi tunnel system — an underground 3-level tunnel system that mind-bogglingly stretches over 200 kilometres. Much like jiujitsu, in wars, strategy and tactics matter more than brute strength. But as I read through the exhibits in the museum, I also realized the strange reality about history — it is always subjective. As Robert the Bruce says melodramatically in Braveheart — “History is written by those who have hanged heroes”, the narrative of any historical event is in the hands of the narrator. And while the truth is often complex and multi-sided, a story needs to be simple and compelling. As a famous McKinsey dictum goes — “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story”. I diverge.

Ho Chi Minh memorial in Hanoi — Ho Chi Minh was the de facto ‘father of the nation’ having led Vietnam through the independence struggle against the French and the US

My other big takeaway from Vietnam was how they, despite striking similarities with India in terms of population density and per capita GDP levels, have figured out a way to keep their cities cleaner and more pedestrian friendly. It was a common site to see their key recreation zones being made into no-vehicle zones on weekends and one could walk without a care on the ‘pub streets’ and enjoy a cold beer sitting on a low chair in the middle of the road. The idea of a town center or town square seems to have been borrowed successfully from the West as well — an area proximate to most tourist spots and eateries. If one tries to create a geometrical center from tourist attractions and main markets in an Indian city, chances are it will be somewhere in the middle of a road choked by traffic. Maybe our cities have grown too big.

Hanoi’s Ta Hien Street — a famous hang-out place for backpacking tourists

On our way back to India, we took a short detour to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Cambodia, while similar to Vietnam in many ways, was a different experience — if one plots the two on a line with India at one extreme and China at the other, Cambodia would be closer to the Indian edge. Cambodia was home to the Khmer empire for ~600 years, the dynasty that built the Angkor Wat — now renowned as the largest religious site in the world. They’ve also had their share of wars and French colonization, but have not been as resilient as the Vietnamese in terms of being able to bounce back to build an economically strong nation. Tourism to Angkor Wat remains their economic mainstay, and they’ve learnt how to milk that to the maximum. From US dollars being the currency of norm for transactions across town to strategically created night markets and pub streets to allow for bar hopping in the night, after temple hopping during the day, the city has all the works.

The largest attraction, though, is the Angkor Wat archaeological park, housing a plethora of temples across a 150+ hectares area. Originally built as Hindu temples across 800–1200 AD, most of the temples were converted to Buddhist (the Theravada Buddhism, in this case) temples by successive kings. The remains now carry influences of both religions. The architecture is breathtaking in terms of its longevity and one can’t help but marvel at the intricacy of detail captured in sculptures — from the Samudra Manthan in the Angkor Wat to the Ramayana depiction in Banteay Srei, it was a treat for the eyes all along. The high point, however, was witnessing the spectacular sunrise in the backdrop of Angkor Wat — it was worth every bit of jostling with the thousands who thronged with tripods and SLR cameras.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat — yes, it was as good as it looks in the photograph

While I thoroughly enjoyed whatever Vietnam and Cambodia had to offer, I couldn’t resist myself from thinking how India, despite having as rich, if not richer, history and culture, has not succeeded in building tourism as an industry as effectively as smaller nations. But there’s hope and there’s scope — states like Rajasthan and Kerala stand as strong examples. I do hope, even if for my selfish motives of wanderlust, that things do change for the better.