Binh Phuoc

I ran away from the Cambodian new year; I had already overstayed, and if I had let the new year celebrations grab me, I'd stay for another 4 or 5 days. I was glad to be back in Ho Chi Minh, and soon after on my way to Binh Phuoc.

A young vietnamese lady, Cherry, invited me and an English traveller to spend the weekend in her home town, a quiet village 3 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed at her family's house, far from the center, in a sort of almost rural area - big gardens where people keep their own animals and grow their own vegetables and fruits. Apart from Cherry, no one Vietnamese I spoke to understood any English. I communicated the most with the little girl, who really didn't care if I understood her or not, and was not really worried that she couldn't understand the sounds I produced. Unfortunately, this was also the very first time I felt sorry for a cat - she seemed to love it alright, but had no idea it was crying because it was desperately trying to run away. Instead she thought it meant it liked it, and that she should squeeze the poor animal harder.

There was not much to see in the area, but it was quite interesting to share a couple of days with a local family. Of course, I tasted a few new flavours during those 2 days: watermelon seeds, boiled rooster head (brain included), duck blood soup and fried cicada, which they catch in their own garden - very nice. That, my friends, I recommend. When asked 'what does it taste like?', my only answer is 'like fried cicada'.

We ate those meals sitting on the ground, no table between us. After dinner, they cleaned that spot and prepared it for sleeping. Only the guests had mattresses - the rest of the family slept on the ground. The Grandmother had a folding bed in the kitchen, and they had a couple of hammocks which were tied to something that must be quite common, but I saw for the first time: a hammock holder that can easily be transported.

The town itself was quite nice, clean and spacious, with a beautiful and well lit park, which displays spotless, grand statues of communist heroes. The parks and squares were crowded until late, and the children played freely, not unlike Ho Chi Minh City.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Cherry told me that behind the wall that limits their garden, there are U.S. soldier graves. If we had been there 5 years earlier, we could have taken a walk, but since the wall was built, the field is left to grow and it's impossible to see through barbed wire and thick vegetation. The father said he had to hide in the tunnels during the conflict and the grandmother explained that her husband was not really in with the United Stateans - they threw her in jail, releasing her a week later, when her husband enlisted to fight against the North.

In practical terms, I am being led to the conclusion that there are only few minor differences between a socialist country and the rest, at least when it comes to everyday life. I've seen rich and poor and I've seen happy and hungry, but all that I have seen in each country. The main difference I see as a tourist between Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, as far as law and customs are concerned, is that roads are cleaner (not always, unfortunately) and prostitutes are less abundant in the country run by the communist party - whereas the Monarchies kinda stink and are filled with mildly aggressive hookers walking around exaggerated tourist areas. Many people also told me that the Vietnamese will try to rip you off at every turn, and charge you a lot more than what they should. My experience so far leads me to consider two possibilities: people were wrong, or they have become so good at it that I'm not even noticing. Whenever you buy something, anywhere, you are being ripped off. Coming from Brasil and then a period in Italy, you get really used to identifying those moments, and I honestly think I have had very few of them in Vietnam. And on top of that, all the Vietnamese people with whom I created the tiniest of bonds of friendship have offered me drinks, food, rides and even their full hospitality.



After some time in Ho Chi Minh City, I realized I would not have time to see all the other countries I had in mind: Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and all the rest will have to wait for a second Asian trip. For now I will focus on what one may call "the communist trip"; Vietnam, Laos and China (and I was hoping for North Korea, but that sounds quite far-fetched at the moment) before I reach my oh-so-desired period in Mongolia.

But, before I dive into it, I had to go check out something I have been curious about for a long time: Angkor.

Thus I bought a ticket to Siem Reap (it was sold to me as a direct bus trip), the small town next to the ancient temples, in the Kingdom of Cambodia. They call themselves "The Kingdom of Wonder".

Of course the direct trip became a trip with a change in the capital, Phnom Penh, at 14.30. That was not a problem, even though the day was incredibly hot and the roads were dusty. There as well, I had the impression of being in a big dirty city, and I didn't really feel like going around to check it out. On the way to Siem Reap, I tried some fried spider, which was disappointingly similar to shrimp. That doesn't mean it was bad at all, but I was hoping for a unique flavor. I still didn't feel like eating the grasshoppers or beetles. Maybe later.

Siem Reap is my only impression of Cambodia, and that is probably a very poor one, because the place is filled with tourists, from all over the world. The Cambodians seemed to be a nice and open people, but it was hard for me to be in an environment that had no tourists. And whenever I managed, conversation was a difficult task. I did talk to some locals, of course, and their main theme is still the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. It's amazing how young the country is, because of that conflict. And though I had a great time, and prices were very comfortable, it was not the best place to be. Apart from the dust and the dirt, the incredible heat was killing me - for a couple of days, I was officially at the hottest place on the planet, according to some weather reports. But what is more; there still is something quite dark about Cambodia - the prostitution, the child-beggars asking for milk (which is actually quite expensive there), and the many orphanages are just a part of that. Pub Street, while a very western and exaggerated party-like part of town, can be fun for music and drinking, and other parts of town were not bad at all either, including the Night Markets. It is a place on the rise. Great numbers of tourists visit it, so they can see those fabled temples, which I had the opportunity to explore:

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

While they are impressive and it is a beautiful scenery, I honestly expected a bit more, both from size and from 'vibe'. Unfortunately, there is not much 'holy' or 'spiritual' left in those temples. The vast quantity of tourists changes whatever buddhist or hindu atmosphere it had into a regular tourist attraction. Nice to look at, though.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Food was also quite good there, and very cheap. I specially liked their bread and their banana pies, and fish amok was a great dish to find out. It was also interesting to meet quite many travellers who have the intention of staying there for a longer period, teaching english and crafts; German, Cuban, Valencian, English, South African... it seems the whole world took an interest in these children, and want to help build a better Cambodia. I wish them all the luck in the world!


Mekong Delta

I apologize for skipping a beat last week. I had problems with the internet connection. In two days I will publish another post, for I have accumulated experiences enough for a week with two posts. This, for now:

My second week in Vietnam has been a slow one, but filled with delight. I have seen little other than the center of Ho Chi Minh, but that is not a problem - the trip is long, and this place is pleasant. The food is quite interesting: I have recently tried (for the first time) duck fetus and dog meat. I prefer the duck - quite tasty and unique. Dog meat was very similar to pork, but much fatter. Not bad at all, but not special as I had hoped. In the coming days I hope to try serpent and turtle, and I've been told pregnant spiders make for a delicious snack.

At the beginning of last week, I was introduced to a Vietnamese tradition. While I worked in my room, I heard a marching band play outside. As any good curious tourist, I took advantage of my balcony to take a look and enjoy the show. It was quite a good band. Later that day, celebrations continued to happen at the street I was staying in. I thought nothing of it, and went to bed. Next morning, I woke up to some loud Vietnamese sounding Blues-Rock; good stuff. And the celebrations continued throughout the day. At a certain point, I had to check out the precise spot where that was coming from, and to my surprise, there was a coffin there. It was a Funeral Party. Monks dressed in white prayed, people left offerings and musicians played, all day long. For 1 day. 2 days. 3 days. On the third day, when I was starting to get tired of the whole thing, they played some Deep Purple. I couldn't believe it - I too want Deep Purple on my funeral, that's the kind of goodbye party I'd be happy with.

Later in the week, I made great trip to the Mekong Delta - I met some girls who were going there to escape the big city vibe, and I rode the free seat on one of their motorbikes. We travelled for almost 3 hours to get there, and despite the uncomfortable bumpy road and the effect it had on my behind, the trip was worth it. I also had some sugar cane juice on the way, which is as good as the Brasilian one. The delta is a beautiful place, and the boat ride was pleasant, despite the blistering heat.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Finally, the third and main moment of the week was going to the War Museum, which has exhibitions on weaponry, photos, the effects of Napalm, and about the schools and children during the war against the U.S.
It was heavy. I felt filled with sadness and anger, and of course, again, more admiration for the Vietnamese. Certain quotes exhibited explain the whole thing magnificently. Parts of Eisenhower's Domino Theory include these passages -
"... two of the items from this particular area that the world uses are tin and tungsten. They are very important. There are others, of course, the rubber plantations and so on." He goes on to finish his explanation with "it takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go--that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live.

So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world."

Lyndon Johnson also said something quite interesting: "Tell the Vietnamese they've got to draw in their horns or we' re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age."

So, the 'free world' needed tin and tungsten, and they needed Japan to have a nearby trading area which was not communist (in theory, 'communist' means a strong state that manages resources for the people, instead of private organizations doing that). The 'free world' needed communist dictatorships to fail, otherwise the whole world would eventually become an evil place where states are corrupt, and keep their tin and tungsten for themselves! How dare they! Well, I ask you, is Vietnam doing any of that? Did the communist victory (which was expensive in terms of lives) do any harm to the world? And what is more - why was the Vietnamese communist government a dictatorship that had to be bombed back to the stone age unless they gave up, but the Khmer Rouge genocidal dictatorship, also communist, had sponsorship from the U.S.? Anyone with half a brain can understand why.

But what impressed me the most about all of this was the Vietnamese attitude. They hold no grudge against the French or the United Stateans. They have truly forgiven all those sins, threats, killings and napalm spraying - even in the museum, where they show the cruelty of the enemy, the main message is "this is in the past, let us look to the future together and try to bring peace and happinness to the world". They are indeed one of the happiest people I have seen, in general. And that does not come from religion or financial wealth either - they claim that 90% of their population is non-religious, and they are quite clearly in a bad financial situation, having one of the least valued currencies in the world. Even so, they forgave the Chinese, the French and the United Stateans. Even at the photos you see in the museum, of the fighting during the war - the United Stateans usually have two expressions - anger or mockery. The Vietnamese usually show sadness, fear, or pity. It's hard to find anger in a Vietnamese face. And that I cannot relate to - I am an American as well, and when I see those images, and the result that that war had on this country, I cannot forgive. Just as the United Stateans on those photos, my reaction is to feel anger towards their evil motives, and to mock their incompetence and their defeat.

Maybe in time I will be able to learn this from the Vietnamese.