Like every American of my generation, I'd grown up with the Vietnam War, when everything we heard about that exotic land was associated with conflict and destruction. But the war ended more than 40 years ago, and ever since, I'd been curious. What is Vietnam like today? What are its people like, its culture? This year, I finally got to find out for myself. Our Travel Leaders International Summit would be held in Japan, and my group of travel friends decided to explore Vietnam and Cambodia. I didn't require much persuasion.
Wednesday-Thursday, April 18-19 -- Minneapolis to Saigon via Seoul
If you want to visit Vietnam, you have to really want to go, because the trip is long, very long. Joining me in Minneapolis for our first two legs was my good friend and colleague, Laurie Glomstad Passard from Grand Rapids, Minn. Our first flight wasn't bad, 3 1/2 hours to Seattle. We left late in the morning of the 18th, and by evening we were heading west over the Pacific. This leg was the longest, 11 hours to Seoul, the capital of South Korea.
Flying across the Pacific takes you across the International Date Line, so it was Thursday when we arrived, mid-morning their time. We had never been there, and we were duly impressed with Incheon Airport, the largest airport in the country and the one that serves Seoul. It's very modern, spotlessly clean and pleasant not only to the eye but to the ear, with music playing, a live combo with native Korean stringed instruments known as gayageum.
|Our flight path from Seattle took us over Siberia and|
then the Sea of Okhotsk, covered by ice.
Laurie and I shot a short video in the terminal, which really gives a great sense of the beauty of the place: Where are we now?
Our layover was only a couple hours long, although we wouldn't have minded staying longer; we were so enamored with the airport we almost missed our connecting flight to Saigon. But we had joined up with three of the remaining five people in our party: Denise Hanson Petricka from Eau Claire, Cindy Tyo from Fargo, N.D., and Kim Gorres from New Richmond. By mid-afternoon we had begun our final leg, a five-hour flight to Saigon, giving us nearly 9,000 miles in the air from start to finish.
Officially, the name of the city that was once the capital of the Republic of Vietnam was changed to Ho Chi Minh City after North Vietnam conquered the country in 1975, but we were to find out that most of its people still refer to it by its original name of Saigon. In fact, the airport's IATA code is still SGN. It is the largest city in what is now the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with 12 million people in its metro area.
It was 9:35pm local time when we arrived, which was 9:35am the same day back home in Wisconsin. We had been traveling for some 24 hours, so we were glad to get to our hotel. We had contracted with EXO Travel for our visit to Vietnam and Cambodia, and they were waiting for us at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Our car whisked us directly to our five-star hotel, The Reverie Saigon. We were a tired bunch when we checked in and went directly to our rooms for a good night's sleep. The next day, our great Indochina adventure would officially begin.
|Our room at the Reverie was a welcome sight after such a long trip.|
|The beds sure looked inviting to me and Laurie.|
|Before turning in, we got a good look at the city's nightscape,|
with the Saigon River winding through.
Friday, April 20 -- Saigon, Vietnam
Part of our reason for making this trip was for our friend Denise, whose father served in the U.S. Army and was killed in action in Vietnam when she was very young. We were curious to learn about the Vietnamese perspective of the war, and today we would see the famous Cu Chi Tunnels.
During the war, Viet Cong insurgents dug a vast network of tunnels around Saigon and in many parts of South Vietnam, using them as hiding places for fighters and their equipment and supplies. Malaria was widespread in the cramped, damp tunnels, along with insects and other vermin. Oftentimes the fighters would spend days at a time underground. The tunnels were bombed many times by American B-52s but U.S. and allied forces were never able to wipe them out completely.
The Cu Chi complex has 75 miles of underground tunnels. Some of them have been enlarged slightly to accommodate tourists. Of course I had to go in: Sue in the tunnel.
|Despite the jet lag, Denise and Kim enjoyed our speedboat ride.|
|The Cu Chi tunnels are now part of a war memorial park.|
|One of the tunnel openings.|
|Some of the tunnels were booby-trapped with punji sticks, which|
were often coated with poison or fecal matter to make them even deadlier.
|Captured U.S. weapons were on display.|
|The tunnels had been bombed heavily during the war, but|
some of the bombs were duds. We were assured these had been checked out.
|A U.S. tank. When the North Vietnamese invaded South Vietnam,|
they used Russian-made tanks.
|Laurie examines a crater left by a B-52 bomb.|
We returned to the city by speedboat for lunch, and our afternoon was filled with touring historic buildings.
|Captured American military equipment, like this Huey helicopter,|
can be seen in many parts of the city.
|One of the ornate rooms of Reunification Hall, which was the Presidential Palace|
during the era of South Vietnam's independence.
|The Central Post Office was built by the French in 1891. France ruled Indochina|
from the late 19th century until the 1950s.
|The interior of the Post Office, with a portrait of the late North Vietnamese leader,|
Ho Chi Minh.
After our city tour, we went to the Rex Hotel, which was built by a French businessman as a two-story car dealership in the 1920s. It was expanded in the 1950s and opened as a hotel in 1961. Its first guests were 400 U.S. Army soldiers. During the war it was often used by American and European reporters, as well as military officers. Denise's father visited here often during his tour. The rooftop was especially popular with guests and remains so today.
Here's a photo by Vietnamese photographer Ngo Trung:
EXO had arranged for us to meet two men who were in Vietnam during that era, a Vietnamese and an American, who has been living here for many years and working as a photographer. The Vietnamese gentleman, who had grown up in what was then South Vietnam, was pretty interesting, but the American seemed more interested in advancing his own agenda about the war.
The day was capped by a Vespa tour of the city. The popular scooters are much in evidence in the streets, and we saddled up and prepared for our outing, although in the actual ride we rode behind native drivers: Vespa!
I had passed on the Vespa tour; I'd hit the wall at the Rex, and went back to the Reverie. The rest of the gang didn't get in till about midnight. It had been a very full day indeed, but a great introduction to the fascinating country of Vietnam. The next day we would journey into the Mekong Delta.
Saturday, April 21 -- Into the Delta
Today we would venture inland to explore the great delta of the Mekong River. The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world, stretching over 2,700 miles through seven countries from Tibet into southern Vietnam. Second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity, the Mekong is home to more species of large fish than any river system in the world, and its mammal species include the very rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphin and the fishing cat.
A two-hour bus ride took us to our first stop, where we boarded a riverboat. During our cruise we would see many fishing boats; fishing the Mekong is a crucial part of the Vietnamese economy. We also saw how people live on the banks of the river. Just like back home along the Missouri and the Mississippi, the river is an important part of local culture in just about every way.
|We passed through several small towns and villages along the way.|
|The bus ride flew by, and soon we boarded our|
boat, the Mekong Queen.
|The river traffic was varied and always interesting.|
|One of the many houseboats we saw. Many people live on board their boats|
rather than on shore.
|One of the several villages we passed by.|
|After coming ashore, I made a new friend! I think he's a friend, anyway.|
It wasn't long before we stopped for lunch at the Victoria Restaurant, and to say it was unique would be an understatement. Here are a couple videos showing our chefs preparing the meal: Popping rice! and Fish for lunch!
|Ready to enjoy our lunch! Kim, Margo and Tim, Laurie, and Cindy.|
|Back on the boat after lunch, it's nap time for Denise and Laurie.|
We cruised away the rest of the afternoon, enjoying the ambiance of the boat and the Mekong itself. There's something relaxing about being on a river. Back home, we have lots of them in Wisconsin, particularly the St. Croix and the Mississippi on our western border with Minnesota and Iowa, and I've cruised the Rhine and the Danube in Europe. The Mekong, though, is far more exotic. Drifting past these villages and watching the boats, it was almost like going back in time.
At one point, we were asked if we wanted to take a spin in smaller boats, sporting what are called long-tailed outboards. These small motors aren't very powerful, compared to those we see on our lakes and rivers back home, but they move these shallow-draft boats along at a pretty good clip.
|Laurie and Denise hitch a ride, wearing traditional Vietnamese|
Sunday, April 22 -- On the Mekong, and on to Danang.
We had an early wake-up call this morning to check out of the Victoria and board our next boat for more cruising on the Mekong. Today's journey would take us back to Saigon, but first we got to experience more of this exotic river delta.
|Breakfast is served, on the Mekong!|
|The Cai Rang floating market is the largest in the Delta,|
with an amazing variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables.
Here's a video that really gives you a sense of what it was like on the river: Cai Rang floating market.
We came ashore at Ninh Kieu pier and visited the local market of Can Tho. This reminded me a lot of the famous Night Market of Lanzhou, China, which I'd visited two years before.
|So many varieties of seafood! Here's a video: Jumping Salamanders.|
From Can Tho, we hit the road for Saigon and caught a flight north to the city of Danang. This is the fourth-largest city in the country and the largest in the central region, as well as being an important port for both sea and air travel and commerce. During the war, the Danang airport was heavily used by the U.S. and South Vietnamese air forces, at one point averaging over 2,500 air operations daily, making it the busiest airport in the world. Since the war, it has returned to civilian use, although the Vietnamese Air Force has a small presence here. It's busy and getting busier; in 2017, Danang International's passenger traffic was up 24% from the year before, with 11 million passengers passing through its gates.
Our hotel for the next two nights was a 5-star property, the Hoi An at Anantara, about 40 kilometers from the airport.
|It had been another busy day for us, and after our early call, turning|
in this evening at the Hoi An was a pleasure indeed.
The next day we would begin our exploration of the city of Hoi An, one of the most historic in Vietnam.
Monday, April 23 -- Hoi An
Today we went on a walking tour of this historic city of 120,000 people. Since medieval times it has been a center of commerce, originally with the spice trade, welcoming traders from all over Asia and eventually Europe. By the 18th century, Hoi An was one of the most prominent ports in Asia, and Vietnamese ceramics shipped from there found their way as far as Egypt.
We had a walking tour of the market area and were entranced with the people and their wares.
|Hoi An's famous Japanese covered bridge.|
(Photo by Francois Guerraz)
Laurie and I wandered around to the point where we were separated from the group, so we hailed a rickshaw for a ride back to the market. It was pretty unique: Wild Rickshaw Ride. The rickshaw was originally invented in Japan in the late 19th century and was a two-wheeled vehicle pulled by a human, usually a man. These days they are all over eastern and southeast Asia and powered by a person on a bicycle.
The shopping was something else, and that included personal services, like this facial, in which we were introduced to the concept of "threading." This technique is available in the States but costs at least $50. Here we spent $9 each: Yaly Couture.
We'd had a wonderful day exploring this intriguing city, and more was in store tomorrow. We would complete our tour of Vietnam and head to our next country: Cambodia.
Tuesday, April 24 -- Hoi An to Danang to Siem Reap, Cambodia
Our final morning in Vietnam would be spent on bicycles, but in the countryside. After the bustling cities of Saigon and Hoi An, we certainly enjoyed getting out in the country. And what countryside it was!
Jack Tran Tours was our provider today. We rode past rice paddies and vegetable fields, saw water buffalo and other domesticated animals, and stopped to meet the locals.
|The water buffalo, related to the cow, is relied upon for farm help more|
than any other animal in the world.
|The Mekong Delta of Vietnam has 17 million people in its 12 provinces,|
and 80% of them are engaged in rice production. Vietnam is the
world's 2nd largest exporter of rice, after Thailand.
|The Jack Tran folks put on a little show in their round boats.|
Of course, Laurie and I had to try the rocking boats: On the Rocking Boat!
|Our official touring boat.|
|I'm getting the hang of it!|
|Cindy and Denise get a lesson in rigging.|
Our final day in Vietnam had been a busy one, but it came to a close with our boat ride back to Hoi An. From there we transferred to the Danang airport for our flight to our next stop, Siem Reap in Cambodia. We'd really enjoyed our time in the Land of the Blue Dragon, but we were really looking forward to visiting the mysterious country of Cambodia and one of the world's most exotic historic sites, Angkor Wat.
Wednesday, April 25 -- Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia
We were up early for our first day in Cambodia. Like Vietnam, none of us had ever visited here and we were anticipating a place even more exotic than our first stop. We wouldn't be disappointed.
Our hotel was Raffles le Royal, a fine property that would host us for both of our nights in Cambodia. Like many of the countries in southeast Asia, Cambodia's recent history includes armed conflict and attacks from neighboring countries. The Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975 but were ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979. The present government, a constitutional monarchy, regained control in 1993. Today, Cambodia is a peaceful nation with friendly people, as we quickly discovered.
Like most visitors from abroad, we were there to see the famous Angkor Wat ruins, which are featured on the Cambodian flag. This morning we were up early enough to see the sun rise over the site.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, covering over 400 acres. It was built originally as a Hindu temple early in the 12th century. Today, Cambodia is 95% Buddhist, and the temple complex transitioned over to Buddhist control by the end of the 12th century. It is built mostly of sandstone in a unique Cambodian architectural style known as Khmer. Europeans first visited the site in the 16th century, and by the late 19th century the French had pushed the Siamese (now Thailand) out of the country. Cambodia became independent in 1953. Like a lot of ancient religious sites, nobody today is really sure what its original purpose was; some speculate that its Hindu creators intended it is a funeral monument.
We spent most of the day exploring the site, which is visited by more than 2 million people a year. It was hot, about 106 degrees with high humidity, so by mid-afternoon we were ready to head back to our air-conditioned hotel. But what a visit it was.
The picture above is from the Ta Prohm temple nearby. This is often referred to as the "Tomb Raider" section, because it has been left exactly as it was found, overgrown with vegetation, which attracted the producers of the 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. Much of the structures are crumbling, unlike Angkor Wat itself, which has been going through restoration in the past 25 years or so.
The original itinerary of our tour included visits to the ancient city of Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple, but the heat and humidity had done us in, so we retreated back to the hotel, spending the rest of the day and evening cooling off and relaxing. This would be our last night in Indochina. The next morning, we would check out and head to the airport for the final leg of our trip, to Japan.
Thursday, April 26 -- Cambodia to Japan by way of China
The Travel Leaders International Summit was scheduled for Kyoto, Japan, beginning the day after our scheduled departure from Cambodia. We almost didn't make it on time. Our flight from Siem Reap to Osaka had a scheduled layover in Guangzhou, China, but our inbound flight was delayed, and we were very concerned that our Osaka flight would leave without us. Not having visas for staying in China, we would not be able to leave the airport for an overnight hotel visit, but would have to spend all day and night in the airport until the next flight would leave the following morning. Needless to say, there was more than a little anxiety present in our group when we were in the air, but the Osaka flight was held for us, airline reps ushered us personally through customs and we were soon back in the air.
It was a long day of travel for us with over 4,000 air miles, and although it wasn't even half as long as our first day from the States to Saigon, it was long enough. When we arrived at our hotel in Kyoto it was already evening and we had just enough energy left to check in and relax for a bit before turning in. Our three-bed room at the Westin Miyako Kyoto was very inviting indeed.
Early arrivals in Kyoto for the Summit were able to take a tour of the city in the evening, but we didn't get there in time. Instead, we rested up for the next day, set aside for attendees to more fully explore the city.
Friday, April 27 -- Kyoto
Kyoto was Japan's capital for more than a thousand years until the imperial government moved to Tokyo in 1869. Like all of Japan, Kyoto is a combination of modernity and history. Its population today is about 1.5 million, packed into just over 300 square miles. That's a lot of people, but it's about 20% of the population of New York City for just about the same size in land area.
This morning many of the group chose to take part in a tour conducted by Context Travel, which bills itself as "Tours for the Intellectually Curious Traveler." The subject of this particular tour was "Beyond Zen." The afternoon tour was "Synchronized Spirituality," an exploration of Shinto culture.
Cindy and I chose to wander around on our own. Kyoto is home to many shrines, and we visited two. The first was Heian Shrine, which is relatively new, dating back only to 1895. It is dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors who reigned from the city. Shinto was Japan's state religion for more than 1200 years until 1945. It incorporates the worship of ancestors and nature spirits, and believes that there is a sacred power, known as kami, in everything, both animate and inanimate objects.
The second photo shows a torii gate, typically found at the entrances and exits of shrines. This one was at the entrance to the Heian Shrine. Traditionally made of wood or stone and painted like these, some Shinto shrines have many more torii than Heian Shrine. The torii symbolizes the transition from the mundane to the sacred as one enters a shrine. My husband and I train at a karate dojo back in Rice Lake, and like many dojos that teach Japanese or Okinawan martial arts, it has a torii marking the entrance to the mat upon which we train.
Our next stop was the Higashi Tenno Okazaki Shrine, also known as the "Usagi Shrine" because it is guarded by usagi, which is Japanese for rabbit. The rabbits act as messengers for the deities within the shrine. One theory is that this area was heavily populated by rabbits when the shrine was built more than a thousand years ago.
We made our way back to our hotel as the afternoon waned, in time to get ready for the summit's welcoming reception and dinner.
|The view from our hotel room as dusk approached, winding down|
our first day in Japan.
|At the reception, we were served sake, Japanese rice wine,|
in traditional wooden boxes. It was strong stuff!
It had been a busy but fulfilling day, and tomorrow we would actually have to go to work, spending the morning at the summit's business meeting. But in the afternoon and evening, there would be more of Japan to explore!
Saturday, April 28 -- Kyoto
Our business meeting took up the morning, but then we were off on another tour, sponsored by Japan National Tourism Organization. We had lunch and then visited the Gion District, Osaka's most prominent geisha district. Often misunderstood by Westerners, the geisha are women trained in ancient Japanese traditions of art, dancing and singing. They wear traditional costumes and makeup. In the Kyoto dialect, they are known as geiko and their apprentices as maiko. This short National Geographic video describes the geisha very well: The geisha of Kyoto.
The district is filled with wooden houses and shops built in the machiya style, whose facades were purposely made narrow because of the way property taxes were assessed, based on frontage. The district also has many teahouses, called ochaya, high-end establishments where diners are entertained by geiko and maiko.
|Our lunch was an exotic combination of seafood, served in the|
traditional bento box, where the food is layered and separated by different
floors in the box.
|The entrance to Sanjusangendo Temple. This Buddhist temple is|
also known as the Hall of the Lotus King.
|This beautiful garden surrounds the temple.|
|In the evening tour, we met a maiko.|
|One of the many ochaya (tea houses) in Gion District.|
|One of the stores specialized in chocolate. We didn't go inside,|
but took advantage of the artwork on the outer wall.
|The district at night had a special charm.|
|The beautiful lanterns outside an ochaya.|
|After getting back to the vicinity of the hotel,|
we opted for a late dinner of pizza in this place with
We had one full day left in Japan, allowing us to explore more of Kyoto's charms. By now we were getting anxious to get home, but our final day would take us to the nearby city of Nara, which was the capital of Japan in the 8th century and features some of the country's most beautiful Buddhist temples.
Sunday, April 29 -- Nara
Our final day in Japan took us to the nearby city of Nara, which houses a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes many ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Nara was Japan's capital in the 8th century before it was moved to Kyoto.
One of the big surprises of the day was encountering deer, walking freely throughout the parks of the city. According to the legend of the Kasuga Shinto shrine, a god arrived in the city riding a deer. Since then, deer have been considered sacred, and are allowed to roam freely. This particular species of deer is the sika deer, generally smaller than the deer we have back in Wisconsin. Laurie and I bought snacks, crackers known as sika senbei, from a vendor to feed the deer: Lunch with friends.
The shrines and temples were beautiful, each one with an amazing history.
|The sika deer were all over. Many have learned how to bow|
in order to entice food from visitors. It worked for us!
|The Great Buddha Hall of the Todaiji Temple. Finished in 1709, it|
is 187 feet long and 160 feet wide. Until 1998 it was the
largest wooden building in the world.
|The Great Buddha, in the main hall|
of Todaiji Temple, is just over 49 feet tall.
|Komokuten, one of the guardians|
of the Great Hall.
|Another view of Todaiji Temple.|
|The Kasuga Grand Shrine, a Shinto shrine, contains hundreds of toro, decorative|
lanterns. These are dai-doro, leading up to the shrine. Some of the oldest
toro in Japan are here in Nara.
|Inside the shrine are many more toro. These are tsuri-doro, hanging lamps|
made of bronze.
There was shopping, of course, after our tours of the shrines and temples. Eventually we made our way back to the hotel in Kyoto for our closing gala event, a gathering of all International Summit attendees. This one was outdoors and it was a beautiful evening.
|Moon over Kyoto.|
|Our last night together...for awhile, anyway. (L-R) Kim, Cindy, me, Denise and Laurie.|
This was our last night together. For many of our Travel Leaders colleagues, this was the last time we would see each other until our U.S. convention in Las Vegas next month, or perhaps not until next year's summit. Although we were happy to have seen all the amazing things we'd encountered on our trip, we were all ready to head for home, even though it was going to be another long day of travel. Our hosts in Japan had been truly wonderful, and if you're ever in Kyoto, make sure to tell the folks at the Westin Miyako Kyoto that you heard about them from us!
Monday, April 30 -- Across the Pacific to home
I had enjoyed Japan, but the highlight of my trip was Vietnam and Cambodia, two exotic countries with very friendly people. I would, however, recommend not going at this time of the year--the heat and humidity were pretty intense! But you should definitely go. It's only been in the last 25 years or so that many of these countries, including China, have been open to Western tourism, sort of like Eastern Europe. Once more or less closed off to non-Asians in varying degrees, they are now open for business and friendly to Americans. Yes, getting there from the States, even from our own West Coast, is a haul, but it's definitely worth the trip. I learned a lot about the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, and that's always valuable. As the Vietnamese proverb says, Đi một ngày đàng, học một sàng khôn. "Travelling widens one's horizons."