Our first tour, and hopefully our last, ends tonight. It has been amazingly full - of people, activities, learning and a sense of being overly protected. We have been spoiled, delighted, irritated and stimulated, usually all at the same time. So, a few highlights...
Cambodia (actually Kampuchea) is a remarkable country of friendly, resilient people who have endured a great deal yet still carry on with broad smiles and a proud sense of their long history. The Champa kingdom that extended so many kilometres south of Angkor was a marvel of ingenuity and creativity, yet only remains as the minority Cham people in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta region of Viet Nam. They're the only followers of Islam in the area, as far as we have worked out. The Cham reign ended as the Vietnamese just kept pushing south from their original homeland in the north until they had their current long skinny dragon-shaped country to themselves ('they' being some 90% Viet and 10% another 53 ethnic groups). Of course, they also endured 1,000 years of Chinese occupation and carry a strong sense of that influence even now, particularly in the north, and the final purge of the Chinese took place in 1978 in Hanoi, when the Communists forced them out. There's still a sizable population of ethnic Chinese (Hoa) in Saigon, though that city boasts a stronger Khmer influence culturally.
Back to travel banalities, though, a highlight of the cruise on the Mekong Pandaw was the morning they took us to the floating market at Cai Be (in Viet Nam) and then conceded to let the intrepid amongst the group (ie six of us out of some 40-odd) actually stay ashore for a couple of hours to wander around the market onshore. The floating market serves as a sort of wholesale market, whilst retail takes place ashore. And what a glorious early morning marketing scene it was! The abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables (think cassava, coriander and Chinese cabbages flanked by bananas, betel nuts and bitter melon) was matched only by the extensive selection of fish (eels escaping their oversized containers next to skinned frogs still hopping limply next to unskinned wide-eyed fellow prisoners of circumstance) - the fish section, by the way, that didn't smell at all because all the fish were still alive. Of course, the cages of rats for somebody's dinner were less of a highlight, but interesting in that exotically appalling sort of way. A divine breakfast of pho at one of the stalls-cum-cafes followed by our first Vietnamese coffee (ca phe - and excuse the utter lack of diacritics here as I am too lazy a the moment to cut and paste) topped off our idea of the perfect morning. And then it was back to travelling in the 'safety and comfort' of a horde of lovely people who made up for the stifling environment of this style of travel by sharing their fascinating, long and adventurous oral histories with us as we all wiled away the heat of the afternoon up on the sundeck.
Along with all the fascinating tidbits learned about these glorious ancient cultures by wandering amongst their foodstuffs and basking in their collective warmth has been the dark side we've witnessed in places like Tuol Sleng (otherwise known as S-21) in Phnom Penh, the high school converted to a place of torture for opponents of the Khmer Rouge. Whether it was intellectuals or their own party cadre they were torturing, the place is a scene of horror that reminds one of how dangerous people can be when power and fear intermingle in large doses. The nearby killing fields at Cheung Ek were peaceful in comparison, even with the tower of skulls imposing its intensely physical memorial in the centre. Approximately 2 million people died in the mere four years the Khmer Rouge were in power, in a country that only had about 7.5 million at the time, by execution, starvation and disease. How how how does the world stand by while these atrocities take place in our midst? How can we learn from our horrible mistakes of apathy and save future victims all around the globe from similar acts of genocide? I only wish I could begin to answer the questions of which so many of us are full.
The Cu Chi tunnels north of Saigon hold their own horror, as we confronted the reality that living in tiny airless spaces deep underground was actually more appealing than attempting to survive the defoliated landscape above. While our American comrades have struggled to come to terms with their presence in this beautiful country that was so deeply damaged by their government’s actions (and ours, and both of mine, and who are ‘they’ and ‘we’… ?), the Vietnamese we’ve encountered have continually reiterated what a vibrant and dynamic country they are, and how no animosity lingers to hold them back in their drive towards peace and prosperity. Uncle Ho reigns supreme and I can easily accept him as the hero to lead us all out of the darkness of colonialism, imperialism and violence, even if only as a symbolic figurehead of idealism.
Sitting now in the sublimely colonial surrounds of the divine Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, one can understand the appeal of being the ruling class. Conversely, in such luxury lurks a cold divide from everything local, and sheltering in the cold divide is power’s old friend, fear. In the not knowing, in the protective gestures, and in the home-away-from-home creature comforts is where I sense that which seems most destructive – the fear to engage. If you strip back all this protection, these buffers and masks, people will quickly discover that there is nothing to fear, and that there is much to be learned. Tomorrow, when the others depart, I look forward to slipping out of the silk robes and into something a little more comfortable.