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a southern yankee abroad

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southeast asia

From Vietnam to Peru

It’s always hard to say goodbye, and I found this to be especially true as my time in Asia drew to an end. I won’t miss the heat or the crazy motorbikes almost mowing me down each time I walk down the street, but everything else I will definitely miss! Even after 3 weeks, I was not yet tired of the food, the culture, the history, and the friends I had made. On our last night in Vietnam, our group had a farewell dinner at Cau Go in Hanoi, which turned out to be quite the posh spot (posh is another word I’ve adopted from my British friends!) I spent the next day packing, saying goodbyes, doing a bit of last minute shopping around Hanoi, and sitting by Hoan Kiem lake one last time.

 

By a fortunate twist of fate, my closest friend from my Asia trip, Nat, was on the same flight as me from Hanoi to Doha, Qatar. It was so great to have a friend on this flight! 🙂 IMG_8529We said our “see you laters” in Doha around 11pm, as he was continuing back to London that evening. I was so happy to learn that Qatar Airways would provide me with free 5 star accommodations for the night before my 8am connection to Dallas. This was by far the “poshest” accommodation I’ve had yet on the journey! Thank you Qatar Airways! While I had initially been nervous to spend the night alone  here, everyone in Qatar was extremely hospitable, helpful, and nice. I highly recommend Qatar Airways! After showering and catching a few hours of sleep in a big, fluffy, clean bed, I returned to the airport for my 16 hour flight to Dallas.IMG_8549IMG_8545

 

Despite some turbulence over Iran and Russia (which I of course freaked out a bit over…hyperactive imagination?!), the flight went very smoothly. I watched several movies and listened to some Bob Dylan on their entertainment system (so on point!), then touched down in Dallas. I had not anticipated how good it would be to be back in the USA even for a few hours!! I even found a special soundtrack for landing 🙂IMG_8567

 

Once in Dallas, I walked around the airport for a couple of hours to stretch my legs and made calls to family and friends. I also realized how completely exhausted I felt, so I stocked up on Airborne tablets and Tylenol. I boarded my flight to Lima at 10:20pm, but we didn’t take off until around 11pm (typical for my experience with American Airlines! Why can’t all airlines be like Qatar?!) The plane did not even have a TV/entertainment system, but it was ok as I finally caught a few hours of sleep. After about 7 hours, I was in Lima, and the sunrise was beautiful from the window.IMG_8580

 

I was so happy to find my checked backpack had made it all the way to Lima from Hanoi, as I had my doubts about all the crazy connections. I made my way through customs and quickly found my driver I had booked transport in advance through my hostel). My driver did not speak English, so I spoke with him the entire drive in Spanish. I was relieved to see how quickly it came back to me (gracias to Senora Sephore from high school and Senora Botero from Vandy!), and I am excited to see how much I will improve over the next 3 weeks.
I arrived at my hostel and checked in, and am now enjoying some coffee on the porch with my new friend Pisco. IMG_8595Sarah arrives at 11pm tonight, and I absolutely cannot wait to see her!! She and I will be traveling together for the next 3 weeks here, and our friend Rachele (also from NYC) will be joining us about halfway. I am so happy to be in South America! Encantada!!

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Hanoi: Ups (Temple of Literature) and Downs (Hanoi Hilton)

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Hmmmm… really?

I’ve finally arrived at my last stop in southeast Asia–Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. I can’t believe how quickly these 3 weeks have flown by, and how much I’ve seen and experienced. As soon as we arrived in Hanoi yesterday afternoon, I was struck by how busy, narrow, and winding the streets are. Hanoi is only slightly smaller than Saigon (and NYC) at 7.5 million people. And as in Saigon, everyone seems to drive motorbikes and there are very few traffic signs.

 

One of the first things we did in Hanoi was visit a water puppet show. While a few weeks ago I didn’t think I would be interested in this, I am so glad I decided to go last minute…it was so cute! The play was conducted in Vietnamese, so I tried to follow along as best as possible. The traditional music was really nice too. The dragons breathing fire over the water and the story involving the war general and the turtle were my favorite parts.IMG_8448.JPG 

 

After getting a late start to the day this morning after a late night last night, a few of us went to the Temple of Literature. This was by far my favorite part of Hanoi! The temple was the first university in Vietnam and was built in the 11th century as a temple to Confucius. Students would travel from far away to take the entrance exam given once every 13 years (meaning if you failed, you had to wait 13 years to try again). Once admitted, students lived at the temple and studied the theories and philosophy of Confucius, as well as literature. Math, history, and sciences were added to the curriculum once the French arrived in Vietnam in the 19th century.

 

The temple features rows and rows of stone turtles with names engraved on tablets on their shells. These names represent the graduates of the university. If any graduate did something to shame his family, his name was removed from the tablet. Sadly, women were not allowed to attend the university. Apparently, one brave girl dressed like and pretended to be a guy for years, and graduated with honors. Only after accepting a position in the king’s court did she reveal her gender. The king was furious, but allowed her to keep the position. However, he still did not open the doors to women to study (women were allowed to attend in the 19th century).

 

Legend holds that it is good luck for scholars to visit the temple of Confucius and the statue of the turtle, which is a sacred animal in Vietnamese culture, before their exams. As I walked throughout the temple, I couldn’t help but think about my decision to go to law school and how the next 3 years of my life will be so completely different and challenging. I felt a lot of peace about my decision to go to graduate school, and I hope the good vibes I felt in the temple will carry me through 3 years worth of law school exams and the bar exam! Especialy after the visit here, I feel excited and ready for this next page in my life.

 

In the afternoon, I struck off by myself to enjoy some solo wandering around the city. I enjoyed sitting in a tiny child-size chair (which is the norm in Hanoi) and sipping tea, as well as walking around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. I also had some traditional Vietnamese coffee and green tea cake for lunch (so nutritious haha). Vietnam has amazing coffee, and it should be a destination for any coffee lover.

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Kiddie chairs on the sidewalks of Hanoi!
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Hoan Kiem Lake ❤

 

The most shocking part of my visit to Hanoi was the Hoa Lo prison. This prison was used to imprison Vietnamese rebels during the French war, but was also used by the Vietcong during the US war. This is the famous “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain was held captive after his plane was shot down over Hanoi, as well as many other US soldiers. I have very mixed feelings about my visit to this prison. A good portion of the exhibit focused on the sacrifices of the Vietnamese prisoners during their war of independence against the French. Many exhibits had lifelike statues of prisoners in the dark cells and rooms, and I found myself wishing I had not come here by myself! It was really creepy.

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“Hanoi Hilton”

Towards the end of the exhibit, the materials focused on the US war and the treatment of US war prisoners. According to the museum exhibit, American soldiers “deeply appreciated the humane treatment of the government of Vietnam.” The exhibit claimed “their privacy and personal time were also well respected.” I really had to bite my tongue. The torture that so many American soldiers endured in this prison was not mentioned a single time. It was tough to stomach reading such a one-sided representation of history. Even though most would agree the US made some terrible policy decisions in Vietnam, it seems unjust for the suffering of US soldiers who were willing to fight for their country (even if it was a flawed calling) to be so glossed over. 

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According to the exhibit, US POWs led a life of leisure in the jail.

It was extremely interesting to see John McCain’s flight suit and parachute from when he was captured near Hanoi in 1967. McCain was notoriously tortured at Hoa Lo by the Vietcong, and to this day cannot raise either arm above 80 degrees because of the torture he endured. However, I learned through outside research (not at Hoa Lo of course lol…) that he has spent part of his political career to work towards improving relations with Vietnam, which I find extremely admirable.

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John McCain’s flight suit and parachute on display in the same prison where he was tortured

 

Sadly, Hanoi is the only place on my trip thus far where someone has tried to rip me off. It’s happened twice so far–once in the bar where the bartender just did not bring me my drinks after I paid (he finally did after I insisted), and a second time with a rigged taxi meter (my friends and I paid about 4x what we should have because the meter was running so much faster than it should have been). Although all of my other experiences here have been positive, this of course leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. However, there are so many other things about Hanoi I loved, like the Temple of Literature and Hoan Kiem Lake (but not so much Hanoi Hilton!), that overall it’s been a very positive visit.

 

Tomorrow, I leave Hanoi for Lima, Peru, with layovers in Qatar and the US. It will be great to be in the US for a few hours!! To everyone who has made my time in Asia so special, I say khob khun ka, arkoun, and cam on…thank you in Thai, Khmer, and Vietnamese 🙂  

I’m Hueeeee Up (I Feel Blessed) + Halong Bay

After leaving Hoi An, we made the 4 hour drive north to Hue (pronounced hway). Hue is the former capital city of Vietnam, and is full of history. After checking into the hotel and having a banh mi for lunch (so delicious and only 20,000 dong, which is less than 1 USD!) I went on a motorbike tour of the city and surrounding countryside. Riding through the rice fields with the mountains in the background was one of the most peaceful and reflective moments I’ve had on this trip. IMG_8280.JPGWe stopped at several interesting places along the way, including a Japanese bridge, the Tu Doc tomb, Bunker Hill, an incense shop, a coliseum where elephants and tigers would fight in front of the king, and Thien Mu pagoda. We also stopped at the Citadel that surrounds the Imperial City on the way back.

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Bunker Hill was my favorite stop that afternoon. Both a French and American bunker remain on top of the hill from the French and US wars respectively, and the view of the Perfume River below is absolutely beautiful.

 

13243874_10207632280217584_738241066493255562_o.jpgThe Tu Doc tomb was also interesting. The king who was buried here apparently had 104 wives but 0 children, and his exact location of burial on the grounds is unknown so as to thwart grave robbers. The Chinese symbol for longevity appears throughout the complex.

 

The Thien Mu pagoda was also a really unique experience. The monks were having a ceremony when we arrived, so it was special to see how they did this. Also, the pagoda has the car driven by the monk Thich Quang Duc in Saigon the day he publicly set himself on fire in protest of Diem’s regime in 1963. Diem was the leader of South Vietnam at the time and was supported by the US. Diem heavily discriminated against Buddhists in his governing policies, thus prompting Duc’s infamous protest. Several monks followed his example to protest in the following weeks.

 

IMG_8373The next day, I chose to sleep in instead of visiting the Citadel (being a tourist can be exhausting and I need to pace myself!), and then our group set off for a 14 hour train ride from Hue to Hanoi. The stay in Hue was a little too brief for me, but I’ll hopefully visit again at some point!  

 

After a 14 hour train ride to Hanoi and a 4 hour bus ride north to Halong Bay, I was definitely ready to relax and take it easy! Ha Long Bay is located in the northern end of Vietnam and is quickly becoming a top tourist destination. It was interesting to visit the town and see how it is still developing, as it seemed a little empty at first. However, the biggest highlight here is the natural beauty of the over 3,000 rocky islands scattered throughout the bay. After a quick dip into the bay at the beach, we headed to the harbor to get on a junk boat, the Song Bien, for an afternoon cruise. As soon as we boarded, we were served a full lunch of fish, spring rolls, rice, noodles, vegetables, squid, fries (or chips as the British call them and I’ve found myself saying), and stir-fried morning glory. After lunch, we spent some time hanging out on the sundeck and looking at all of the beautiful scenery. Perhaps the highlight of the sightseeing was passing the famous “kissing chickens” islands.

 

13316946_10207645766394730_398667877638307660_o (1).jpgThen, we arrived at the Ba Hang lagoons and went kayaking. You can only reach the lagoons by kayak and it was really peaceful! Then, we hopped back on the junkboat and went to the Thien Cung cave. Our guide explained all the legends around the rock formations and the shadows. Apparently, the legend is that a dragon prince married his bride in the cave and all the animals in the jungle attended the wedding (you can see them in the rock formations…really cute!)


It’s hard to believe my last stop in Asia is next up…Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. It’s gone by way too quickly.

Hustling in Hoi An

IMG_8167.JPGHoi An absolutely swept me away. It’s a beach town in central Vietnam, but the main attraction is the “Old Town,” which consists of several preserved houses and temple, shops, tailor shops, bars, and restaurants along the Thu Bon River. The charming bridges and architecture and cultural vibrancy of Hoi An reminded me a lot of Florence, Italy. After arriving the first day, I relaxed by the pool for a bit before joining my trip friends for a walk through the Old Town.

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Hoi An is well-known for its tailor shops. Before coming to Vietnam, I had decided not to have any clothes made because 1- I already have way too many clothes, 2- I really wouldn’t have room to carry it in my backpack, and 3- I’m on a student budget these days 🙂 However, my resolve was weakened by a little Vietnamese lady named Loi who just wouldn’t leave me alone as I was walking through the main market. After I spoke to her for a few minutes and she showed me pictures of her kids (so cute!), I followed her to her tailor shop in the center of the market. I told her and her colleague I couldn’t buy anything, but then they started showing me pictures of all the beautiful dresses they had made for *tourists* just like me. I gave in…they took my measurements and I had 2 dresses custom-made for just $60. I tried them on the next morning and they fit perfectly! I also bought a bag and another romper from two other shops. While I know I need to pay more mind to my budget for the rest of the trip, I am very happy with my purchases. After all, I am helping the Vietnamese economy, right?! Also, I really admire the hustle of these women…they are doing good business in the streets of Hoi An.  

 

After shopping in the morning and visiting some preserved structures in the Old Town, I joined my group for a bicycle ride through the countryside of Hoi An. We biked through rice fields and a few surrounding villages, with a few stops along the way. First, we stopped at the home of the oldest farming couple in Vietnam. This couple has been married for over 65 years and they still tend their own farm! The husband was a Vietnamese soldier imprisoned by the U.S. They were very gracious and even let us water some plants with them. Then, we stopped at a home to see how rice wine is made and to have a taste (pretty strong stuff…be warned). Then, we biked to a bamboo forest and took some bamboo rowboats for a ride before hopping back on our bikes and returning to town. My favorite part of the ride was giving high-fives to all the children in the villages who would greet us as we rode by! They were absolutely adorable.

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After revisiting the tailor shop the next day, my group learned how to make five different types of Vietnamese noodles (cao lau, banh cuon, pho, bun, and mi quang) with an organization called Streets, which provides English and job skills training for local youth in Hoi An. We were able to meet several of the students, and one taught me how to count to five in Vietnamese (mot, hai, ba, bon, nam…san sang!) I spent the afternoon by the pool again before heading to a cooking class with Hai at Green Mango. Hai was Bill Clinton’s personal chef during his visit to Vietnam, and he was absolutely fantastic! The class was very different from the class I took in Thailand…not only because Vietnamese food is very different, but also because of Hai’s unique interpretation of Vietnamese cuisine as a professional chef. Hai was extremely efficient and gave everyone “jobs” to do in order to prepare large shared dishes. We made fresh spring rolls, banana leaf salad with fresh papaya (my favorite!), bun cam tim tron, pan roasted sea bass, and mango sticky rice for dessert. It was delicious! We sampled every single herb we used (my favorites were holly basil and shisho, and I learned the difference in cilantro and culantro!), and Hai was very thorough in explaining how the herbs could be combined to add fullness and flavor to each dish. Hai is truly a master at his art, and I highly recommend his restaurant Green Mango to anyone traveling in Hanoi, Hoi An, or Saigon! IMG_8267


Hoi An was one of my favorite places so far because of its ideal blend of history, culture, and countryside. I definitely feel like I could spend another week there at least. But, there is more to see before I leave Vietnam in a week’s time. For now, it’s onward to Hue!

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Vietnam: Sleeper Trains and Beautiful Nha Trang

IMG_8132.JPGAfter the miracle of meeting up with my group in time for the train ride to Nha Trang, I had my first overnight sleeper train experience. While it was cold and dirty, it was also a fun experience and somehow the best sleep I’ve gotten in awhile. Maybe I was just so exhausted from a few long nights and then the craziness of trying to find my way alone through Saigon traffic that night, but I crashed hard, despite the conditions on the train. There are only two temperatures on the overnight trains: extreme hot or extreme cold. I had extreme cold for my first ride. Also, I definitely used my sleep sack as the sheets had several sketchy stains. The train brought all 10 members of our group together into a tiny cabin to play games and chat, until we all returned to our 4 person cabins for sleeping. I’d say you really get close to people when you’re together in a sleeper train cabin.

 

I awoke the next morning to the sound of Vietnamese music playing over the loudspeakers and a beautiful view of the Truong Son mountains outside of the train window. Watching the sunrise over the mountains and rice fields as our train barreled through the countryside was a special experience.

Then, we were in Nha Trang! Nha Trang is a beach town in Vietnam that is known as a vacation hotspot for Russians. In fact, almost everything in the town is written in Vietnamese, Russian, or maybe English. There were Russian people everywhere. Upon arrival, we went to the hotel and prepared for a day out on the boat in the East Sea (otherwise known as the South China Sea, but the Vietnamese prefer to call it the East Sea!)

 

The snorkeling was much clearer in Nha Trang than in Sihanoukville. I saw a large variety of beautiful fish, and even two starfish (one blue and one orange). I also saw a larger fish that I thought was a barracuda, but my guide said it was likely a gar. After snorkeling, our guides prepared a huge meal for us on the boat, including spring rolls, rice, noodles, prawn, fish, chicken, green beans, omelets, and baguettes. Then, we headed over to a nearby island to relax on the beach before heading back.

 

Once back, we decided to buy tickets to play on a set of inflatable in the water just off the main beach (only 60,000 dong!) This is the best 60k dong I’ve spent on the trip. The inflatables were a giant floating playground, and I felt like a kid again!


The next day was spent relaxing on the beach and bumming around the town. It was so nice to have an “off” day, as I’ve been traveling now for 17 days and I feel each day has been packed with activities. I was also very sore from climbing on and falling off all the inflatables! Later in the evening, we boarded another train for an 11 hour overnight ride from Nha Trang to Danang. The ride got off to a crazy start when they did not turn on the lights or AC for about 10 minutes after we boarded. I am not one to ever faint, but being on a crowded, hot, dirty sleeper train with stale air brought me close to that point. However, once they got the air on it was freezing cold by the end of the night! Like the first train ride, this once was also cold, dirty, fun, and full of good sleep. I have very mixed feelings about Vietnamese sleeper trains, but I think my overall opinion is that they are useful and good for the adventurous person. The next stop is Hoi An!

Adventures in Saigon

My visit to Saigon was a whirlwind. With 10 million people, it is larger than NYC in population (8 million). The first thing I noticed in Saigon is it seems almost everyone drives a motorbike, and there are almost no traffic rules, which can make crossing the road a life-or-death experience! The motorbikes actually turned out to be a very important factor for me during my time here (more on this later).IMG_8058.JPG

The first thing we did in Saigon was eat at Pho 2000, which apparently is a place Bill Clinton ate at during his visit to the city a few years back! IMG_8042.JPGThen, I and a few trip friends checked out the War Remnants Museum, which documents the “American war.” I was definitely prepared to read about the war from the communist Vietnamese perspective, but as an American it was still really hard to see and learn more about the atrocities committed during the U.S.-Vietnam War. In particular, I learned about how the use of Agent Orange is still affecting many Vietnamese today. It really struck me to see a picture of a girl my age who was born with several birth defects because of her parent’s exposure to the chemical weapons, yet who maintains a positive outlook on life. I had learned about this in high school, but not in this level of detail.IMG_8049.JPG

On the second day, I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and learned about the fighting tactics of the Vietcong during the war. I even crawled 50 meters through a tunnel…not for the claustrophobic! That afternoon, I got lunch at the Ben Thanh market and then met up with my good friends Chau and Will, who happened to be in Saigon from NYC! It was so great to see familiar faces from home in Vietnam. 🙂 We visited the Independence Palace, which was like the Vietnamese version of the White House during the war. Then, we went for a swim on their hotel rooftop. President Obama happened to be visiting Saigon that day, and we could see his motorcade and hear cheering of people lined up along the street from the rooftop. It was a very interesting experience to be this close to the U.S. President on the other side of the world!

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President Obama’s motorcade from the Sofitel Saigon rooftop…lots of people gathered and cheered when he passed by!

Then, I almost got stranded…

My traveling group planned to leave the hotel that evening at 6:30pm to catch an 8 hour night train to Nha Trang. I left Chau and Will’s hotel at 5:30, giving myself an hour to get back to the hotel and meet my group to leave the city. However, the traffic in Saigon (which is already insane) was even crazier than usual due to President Obama’s visit. After 15 minutes, I finally hailed an empty taxi that could take me to the hotel (as printed on a map on a business card from the hotel’s front desk I was carrying). My taxi driver spoke no English, and after sitting in traffic gridlock for 15 more minutes, I knew my chances of making it back to meet my group by 6:30 were growing slimmer. As we sat still in traffic, I kept noticing motorbikes weaving in and out and around traffic, and even over pedestrian sidewalks! I knew this was how I could get back in time. I paid the taxi driver, then hopped out to ask a random (but friendly-looking) Vietnamese lady if she could give me a ride on her motorbike to the hotel. I handed her the printed card, and she motioned for me to hop on. I couldn’t believe I was sitting on the back of a random motorbike, in the rain, weaving in and out of crazy traffic with a woman who didn’t speak English, in a huge city where I was completely lost on the other side of the world.

Despite weaving around cars and over sidewalks, traffic was so congested that we had barely made progress in 20 minutes’ time. My phone now read 6:20…my group would be leaving Saigon soon. I realized I would have to find a hotel and book a train for tomorrow by myself if I did not make it to the train on time. We were moving along so slowly on the motorbike at this point. I recognized the road we were traveling on was the road that would take me back to Ben Thanh market. From there, I felt confident I could find my hotel. I thanked the lady, offered to pay her 50,000 dong (she refused), and hopped off the bike to start running down Le Thanh Ton Road. At this moment, my long distance running skills really came in handy!

After running about ¾ mile in the direction of the market (dodging motorbikes all the while), a kind Vietnamese man on a motorbike flagged me down and offered me a ride. I had a good intuition about him, so I handed him the card and off we went. About 5 minutes later, we were in front of my hotel. I thanked him profusely and also offered 50,000 dong (he also refused) and rushed in to find my group had already left. I frantically grabbed my items, caught a taxi, and took off for the train station, praying I would make it in time. Fortunately, traffic had cleared up and I made it on the train with a few minutes to spare.

I learned a few key lessons from this incident: 1- Never underestimate Saigon traffic. 2- Motorbikes are handy. 3- Despite our best planning, we sometimes find ourselves vulnerable. The humanity of helping someone else who is lost and desperate crosses all language and cultural barriers. I will forever be grateful for the woman and man who gave me rides on their motorbikes that evening. Without them, I could have been stranded by myself and had to pay a good bit more out-of-pocket to meet back with my group. I really feel like they were guardian angels to me!
I am taking away so many great memories and lessons from Saigon. I love the energy of this city, and as I find myself saying a lot these days I hope to return someday.

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The Mekong Delta and On to Saigon

After crossing the border at Phnom Den in Cambodia into Vietnam yesterday, we stopped for lunch in Chau Doc and then continued on to the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta was one of the places I was most looking forward to on this trip. Last night, our group spent the night at a “home stay” in a typical Vietnamese home outside of Can Tho.

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Home stay in Can Tho, Mekong Delta

We had a home cooked meal of Vietnamese pancakes, pumpkin soup, tofu, clay pot pork, green beans, rice, and the best spring rolls I’ve ever had. It was delicious! Later in the evening, we all settled into our beds complete with mosquito nets. It was actually very comfortable. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of very hard rain, amplified by the tin roof. I don’t remember hearing rain that hard in a really, really long time. It really was raining so much that I thought it was going to flood! Some water came through the cracks onto me and my bed, so I made sure to cover up my phone and computer with a blanket. Despite thinking we would get washed away, I woke up in the morning with the house still intact.IMG_8004.JPG

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IMG_8008Early the next morning, we went to the floating market on the Mekong River. The floating market is comprised of vendors on their boats in the middle of the river, with customers weaving through on their own boats and then hitching to whichever boat they want to shop from. The boat shops display what they are selling on tall bamboo canes on their boats (like a flagpole). The first boat to approach sold Vietnamese coffee, and it did not disappoint! We then hitched to a pineapple boat, where a lady cut and sold fresh pineapple. I learned the vendors live on their boats 24/7 until it’s time to go back to the farm to work and restock, after which they return to sell on the boats. Most locals visit the markets a few times a month to shop for food. It was a really unique place. IMG_8037.JPG
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Floating market, Mekong Delta

After the market in Can Tho, we drove about 4 hours to Ho Chi Minh City (otherwise known as Saigon). I am slightly anxious about this visit, as I know a lot of what I will be seeing relates to the U.S.-Vietnam War. I know there are two sides to every story, so I am interested in learning about the war in this context and from the Vietnamese perspective. So…we will see how Saigon goes! 

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On a pineapple boat in the floating market!

Cambodia: Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville

 

I’ve spent the last few days visiting the Cambodian cities of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia. Here I visited the killing fields and genocide museum (which you can read about here). In the afternoon, I explored the city for a while on my own and ended up visiting the National Museum of Cambodia. It reminded me of the Met in NYC except much smaller and with only Khmer artifacts. There is a beautiful garden in the middle of the museum, where I spent some time reflecting. I also met an older British man here who was visiting Cambodia on “holiday” (what the Brits call vacation…I’m adopting this phrase!) and he ended up giving me some good life advice!

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National Museum of Cambodia

After meeting back up with my group at the hotel pool, we went to happy hour drinks at F.C.C. (Foreign Correspondent’s Club), which is apparently a well-known ex-pat bar. I really liked the neo-colonial vibe here. The bar featured riveting photography documenting the recent history of Cambodia.  Also, the sunset over the Ton Le Sap River was very nice! After cocktails, we went to dinner at Friends, a local restaurant that supports non-profit work in the city (thanks for the recommendation, DJ!) and then on to a rooftop bar with a great view of the city!

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F.C.C, Phnom Penh
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Rooftop, Phnom Penh

The next day, we traveled to Sihanoukville, which is known as a backpacker’s beach town. The vibe here was very chill.IMG_7951

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Otres Beach, Sihanoukville

We spent the first afternoon on Otres Beach, and then took a boat out the next day for snorkeling, swimming, and barbecue on Bamboo Island. While the snorkeling was not as clear as some times I’ve been in Florida and Mexico, it was still very cool to see so many large sea urchins in the crevices of the coral. My favorite part was the boat ride back to Sihanoukville from the island–the water was super choppy and everyone got soaked over and over again!

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Girl picture on Bamboo Island!
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The sticky rice family on Bamboo Island

Alexa’s and my hotel room in Sihanoukville was very…interesting, complete with lizards and an earthworm in the bathroom (I definitely wore my shower shoes) and a door handle that fell off on our last night. Fortunately, the hotel sent a guy to replace the our knob in the middle of the night…quite the adventure.

Now, it is off to Vietnam with the first stop being the Mekong Delta. Cambodia has been both beautiful and heart-breaking. I would love to return to this country at some point in the future. It has definitely made an impression on me.   

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Adventures in Sihanoukville!

Genocide in Cambodia

On Thursday morning, I visited the Chueng Ek killing fields and S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. I cannot put what I witnessed and learned into words, but I feel like it’s crucial to attempt to share this information. This post is quite difficult to write, and please be warned that some of the information shared is graphic and gruesome. However, in the words of Chum Mey, one of the survivors I met, it is important that the world knows what happened.

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Between 1975 and 1979, 3 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime. 1.7 million were murdered, and the rest died of starvation. The effects are evident in the demographics of the country today–only 5% of the people are over 65 years old, with 50% of the population under 20 years old. Only 15% of people with an education survived the genocide.

 

In 1975, a man known as Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia. His regime was known as the Khmer Rouge, or the Angkar. He won over the people in the countryside by delivering food and supplies to their villages, and promising a better life through communism for his people. However, his leadership soon turned into a reign of terror, as people were forced out of their homes and into hard labor camps in the countryside. Food was severely controlled and restricted, and many people died of disease and starvation as they labored under the control of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

 

“There are no diplomas, only diplomas one can visualize. If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams or canals,” stated one Khmer Rouge slogan.  Although Pol Pot himself had been educated at a university in Paris, he banned all schools and arrested, tortured, and murdered educated people. If one member of a family was educated, the whole family was taken to prison, including the elderly, babies, and children. Teachers, doctors, policemen, and other professionals who could read and write were all targeted, as well as their families

 

From the prisons, the people were taken to a killing field, where they were brutally murdered. Because the Khmer Rouge thought bullets were too expensive, they used hammers, bamboo sticks, and cleaning rods to murder their victims. They would blindfold the victims and have them kneel in front of a mass grave, and then hit them from behind before pushing them into the grave. Many were buried alive. The murderers would bash babies against trees to kill them as their mothers watched. If the murderers noticed a victim was still alive, they would slit their throats with a tree branch.

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I visited the killing field at the Chueng Ek Genocidal Center outside of Phnom Penh, but there were 343 such “killing fields” across Cambodia. Despite excavation, there are still human bone fragments scattered throughout the field, even in the walkways. When it rains, bone and clothing fragments still come to the surface of the soil. There are still blood stains on the tree where babies were murdered. As I walked through, I found myself without words and then asking how God could allow this to happen.

After the killing field, we visited the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. This is where 17,000 prisoners were held during the Khmer Rouge regime. Out of 17,000, only 7 survived. The guards tortured prisoners with electrical shocks, acid, beatings, and salt water over wounds in an attempt to extract information that would aid the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners were forced to use a small metal box for their bodily waste, and it was only emptied once every 2 weeks. If it spilled before then, they were forced to clean the floor with their tongues. Prisoners often ate bugs and rats that crept into their cells to avoid starvation, and many starved anyway.IMG_7898

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Of the 7 survivors, 2 are still alive today. I was able to meet both Chum Mey and Bou Meng, who have written books about their experiences and now work to educate visitors about the genocide and seek justice. Bou Meng, his wife, and their 2 children entered S-21 in 1975, and he never saw them again. Bou Meng was an artist, and he was able to survive because the Khmer Roge commissioned portraits of Pol Pot and other communist leaders from him. Every day, he was tortured and wondered if it was his last day to live. He did not learn his wife’s fate until 2008, when he confronted his torturer face-to-face at the ECCC trial. He there learned that his wife had been murdered at the Chueng Ek killing field. He still carries her picture in his wallet.

Bou Meng’s story was published as part of a dissertation by a Rutgers student.  The following excerpt stands out to me: “Now, he said, the ghosts of those who died follow him, hovering over him in the dark, still skeletal from starvation, still wearing the black clothes that were the uniform in Khmer Rouge times. They gather in front of his home, calling out to him to represent them and to find justice for them.”

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Meeting Bou Meng

Justice is still lacking. Many former Khmer Rouge leaders and soldiers are part of the modern government. In fact, the US, Britain, and other democratic countries still recognized Pol Pot as the leader of Cambodia until 1991, despite his evil atrocities. Him Huy, who was the head guard at S-21 and personally tortured Bou Meng, still accepts money to give tours of the prison and to talk to journalists. The history of the genocide is not taught to Cambodian students at all in school, because the government is still trying to hide what happened as much as possible. It is our job to be educated about this, to seek justice for these victims, and to ensure that this never happens again in our world.  Cambodia is still recovering from this period of history, and it is very evident in the infrastructure, healthcare, and education systems in the country. We need to do everything we can to help this country move forward and heal, and to ensure its future includes hope and justice.

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