Hindsight is often the best lens to evaluate good travels. What do you remember vividly, fondly or, occasionally, a place you don’t need to revisit?
Just a year ago we flew to Incheon, South Korea, an intermediate stop on our journey to Southeast Asia. (As we see the pictures of North Korea’s Kim Jung Il’s funeral, we think back to our gray, icy cold day in South Korea, just a few miles from the demilitarized zone. Our trip would soon take us to Vietnam and Cambodia including a cruise on the Mekong from Tonle Sap Lake near Angkor Wat to a river port not far from Saigon.
Coming of age in the 60s, in the midst of the Vietnam conflict, I could not imagine every visiting Hanoi. (And thoroughly enjoying the experience.) From our base at the classic Hotel Metropole with its French-Vietnamese style, we explored this vibrant city. Built around a series of lakes and the Red River, we filled our camera’s memory cards with hundreds of photos. We think back fondly to our cooking class at the Hanoi Cooking School (including a great market visit and a great lunch.) We enjoyed our visit to the old city where each street is named after a particular craft or trade – we would gladly return for more. Our guide took us to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum where we were instructed not to talk or put our hands in our pocket as we visited the embalmed hero (the years in the refrigerator have not been kind to him).
As much as we liked the city, we were not prepared for the heavy-hand of the communist government. Patriotic posters filled the streets. In some places community loudspeakers broadcast party propaganda twice daily. While the people were often very kind, one should avoid any provocation of the unsmiling police.
Long high on our wish lists, we enjoyed the opportunity to board a ‘luxury junk’ (quite a pleasant experience) for a 24-hour cruise through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Unfortunately our weather was cold and the skies gray — not the best time for Kodachrome style postcard photos. Still it’s a must see in this part of the world.
We really enjoyed our visit to the massive temple complex of Angkor Wat. For me, the visit was enhanced by a private guide that took us to the temple complexes before dawn to watch the sun rise on the various monuments. Though pretty crowded with visitors, Angkor Wat really captured our imagination. I’d like to see it again. We also enjoyed the surrounding city of Siem Reap. Generally modern and clean, Siem Reap surprised us. While here, we suggest a stay (or at least a good meal) at the Hotel de la Paix. Overall our visit to Siem Reap and all of Cambodia was enhanced by the charm of the Cambodian people. We felt very welcome. Furthermore, Cambodia offers exceptional value for our travel dollar. There aren’t many more places where we can say that these days.
I was intrigued by the young boys and girls. Well-groomed and polite, these attractive young people would approach us and practice their English. Some were probably hoping for a little donation but many were just anxious to meet foreign visitors and practice their language. In spite of the many visitors that come to Cambodia, generally hospitable Cambodia remains pleasantly unspoiled.
When many visitors think of Cambodia’s capital, they cannot separate the city from the genocide committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. During our visit we went to see the site of the Killing Fields as well as the notorious prison in the city’s center. Just as visiting World War II concentration camps gives travelers an important and jarring perspective on life and inhumanity, these visits in Cambodia make one question how such tragedies can happen. How can we become so evil? On the positive side, the magnificent Royal Palace complex will stun you with its architectural beauty.
A final note: except for Hanoi, we suggest a visit between December and March. “Steamy Hot” just barely describes heat and humidity that pervades this region for the remainder of the year. With its more northerly location, Hanoi is more like Hong Kong with wonderful spring and fall seasons.