Travel #5: Travel to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand:  2010

March 27, 2020


I joined an OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) group to Vietnam and Cambodia. Our group of 15 was very compatible as we experienced the geography, history, and culture of Vietnam. I had done a lot of reading highlighting the people, their beliefs, their historical struggles with Chinese influence, French colonialism, and the “American” war. The complexity of Viet Nam as a communist totalitarian state with market capitalism acting within dynamic forces of American and Chinese influence and Vietnamese patriotism created another dimension to experience. This trip gave more understanding of the war as an anti-colonial struggle whereas we as Americans saw Viet Nam as one more country becoming communist and therefore a mounting threat to our survival.

Hanoi people are firm about traditional life. Everything takes place on the street. Things you cannot discuss in public are the government, sex, and religion, but we speak about them on the bus. We visited the Hanoi Hilton where the French jailed the revolutionaries, and then the North Vietnamese jailed American pilot shot down in North Viet Nam, including John McCain.

Ho Chi Minh lived a modest life, especially in comparison to the French colonial president’s palace.

I particularly enjoyed the water puppet show which originated as entertainment for the royal family depicting the everyday life of farmers. Floating on our junk on Halong Bay allowed us to cruise past an enormous cave, see floating fishing villages, and enjoy the mist along the Bay.

We took the dragon boat on the Perfume River to the Buddha Pagoda and then to a Buddhist orphanage housing 200 children.

A long bus ride through Danang headed to Hoi An where the landscape changed to   hills, rice paddies, and then China Beach with casinos and a marble factory. We walked around Hoi An, a colorful city of 300,000 people with its river, jungle-like stilt houses, Buddhist temple and pagoda, and Japanese bridge.

We bussed to My Son into the dense wet and dank underbrush, past craters from American bombs, joined a wedding feast, and  had  a rickshaw ride through villages with canals, fish farms, and peanuts and taro patches.

Visiting Nha Trang, we relaxed in the South China Sea with its delicious water, perfect temperature, and fine sand  creating some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Unfortunately, they are beginning to be covered with resorts. Along the way we stopped to harvest rice, more difficult than imagined with the blade of the knife being like a saw. We spoke with the head of the village who had been a South Vietnamese soldier working on an American base at Camron Bay. After the war, he went into Re-education and then became a dentist and communicator. When asked what quality of the Americans did he find most interesting, he responded that it was Human Rights as the Americans would rescue any injured soldier no matter whom they fought for. When we asked whether it was right that America came into the war, he couldn’t say because a soldier has to fight for his side.

We held our breath during a five-hour bus ride winding its way into the mountains to Dalat, followed by a cable car to the top of the mountain. What a stunning view with a Zen Buddhist temple serenely set among flowers. The French influence was very strong here- French hotel, French breakfast, French hotel room, and French elevator. In the evening, we visited with a mountain tribe with musical demonstrations of songs and dances related to everyday life, which felt similar to Hawaiian culture.

Saigon: When we visited the American War Museum, it was quite an experience to see captured American helicopters and tanks, and to read the negative captions about U.S. involvement. It was poignant to see how many international journalists were killed in the war. Nearby at a rubber plantation, we took turns cutting into a trunk with latex seeping out into a bowl. Here was the origin of Michelin tires. Under the ground in this area are the CuChin tunnels. On the surface, there was a major American base guarding entrance to Saigon and Cambodia, but underneath the VietCong had dug three levels of tunnels covering over 150 miles. During the day, the South VietNamese and Americans ruled the hamlet, but at night, the Viet Cong came up and ruled, making surprise attacks on Americans. Going down into the tunnels we crawled through to a medical bunker for dining, cooking, weapon manufacture facility and medical facility. Traps were set with bamboo spikes. Over 50,000 North VietNamese died here. Americans tried all kinds of ways to destroy the tunnels, by flooding, smoke bombing, poisoned water, napalm, and Agent Orange, but were not able to do so. An Australian soldier had discovered the tunnels by accidentally sitting on some spikes. The diet of the Viet Cong in the tunnels was tapioca and ground nuts.

The MeKong Delta with its rice paddies, stilt houses along the river, warehouses, and merchant markets, farm fisheries, barges carrying yellow sand for construction in Saigon, dark sand for land fill gave way to dense jungle with islands, mangroves, egrets, kingfishers, and hyacinths. The climax was a tropical paradise for lunch with elephant ear fish rolled with noodles in rice paper, dipped in tamarind sauce, rice with bits of pork, and pineapple.


Cambodia: We arrived at Siem Reap. Our guide was a child during the Kmer Rouge killings, was in a refugee camp for thirteen years during which his father was killed. We took an ox cart and bumped along the rutty road through poor villages, ate with an ox driver and his family. A great part of this trip was connecting with Tucker Baldwin, one of my former high school students, who was teaching there. He drove me by moonlight onto the grounds of Anghor Wat which we visited again the next day. It is the largest religious monument in the world, built at the same time as the Gothic Churches in France. The temples were built to show the power of the king (in a similar way to the Egyptian pyramids and tombs), but those were 4,000 years earlier. One side has carvings illustrating the Ramayana and the other the Mahabharata, showing the struggle between the demons and the gods pulling on a snake to release the ocean of milk which would bring the possibility of eternity.


We visited a school and a home on stilts, as well as Tonle Sap Lake, the largest body of water in Southeast Asia. Our boat chugged past bamboo houses floating on the lake. Children ran around naked. Older children and adults were busy doing chores. Men and women paddled by with some boats loaded with fruits and vegetables and others taking the children to school.

As crafts are one of my great interests, we went to a silk fair and enjoyed the process from moth to eggs to worm to cocoon, a three-day life cycle. The worm spins the silk into a cocoon which gets smaller and smaller until it dies. Then the spinner drops the cocoons into boiling water. Internal silk of the cocoon makes the finest silk. Then it is wound on a bowl, dyed, and woven. We visited a craft workshop where handicapped and homeless people developed skills for their livelihood.

One of the most painful experiences was visiting the Killing Fields memorial, with skulls  piled high, where the Khmer Roughe massacred thousands of Cambodians. Pol Pot was connected with Stalin, Maoism, and Ho Chi Minh. Nearby was the memorial to those who died fighting the Khmer Rouge.


It was a relief to fly to Bangkok, Thailand where I was going to give workshops to parents and teachers at the Waldorf School.




By that time, I was sick and having a hard time enjoying the temples, the remarkable reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, and the stupas.  I got through the next two days thanks to the help of Peggy Fok, one of my former teacher training students at Rudolf Steiner College. Peggy acted as my agent and got the rooms arranged and set up with fans in the intense heat. An interesting experience was that a box arrived with my book Adolescence, the Sacred Passage, translated into Thai. It was rather embarrassing since I had never been asked to give permission. Although the heat and humidity were exhausting, we still looked at ancient ruins. A great relief was that I spent the next day in our hotel keeping cool. After that, I was ready to give Bangkok a try, and we visited the Jim Thompson House, magnificently decorated with teak houses, collection of Burmese statues and China Porcelain. Thompson is a mysterious figure, had been in the U.S. army, sent to Bangkok to open up a consulate when the Japanese left in 1945, and began to collect art. He discovered the silk weavers and realized how beautiful the quality was. He created an international business with a Vogue model wearing one of the silks. After that ad, the silk became in high demand, and a silk industry developed. However, Thompson disappeared, and his body was never found.

Concluding our last day, Peggy and I walked along both sides of the canals, past a Muslim village, crowded dwellings, a workshop where a family was still weaving silk, and to a final evening performance portraying Thailand’s history and geography with dancers, animals, and foods of the regions.