A Journey into Indochina: Cultural Learnings in Three Parts.
Part 1: Getting Oriented
Paul Theroux, in his latest book Deep South writes, “The classic travel story is a tale of risk, often a quest, a retelling in trekker’s gear of The Odyssey, and concerned with enduring the vicissitudes of a quest, and then getting home safely”.
Modern day advances in transportation have put an end to the classic travel story. Instead of risks and dangers, the traveler finds himself or herself at the destination fresh, relaxed and ready to explore a new place. Traveling to and within Indochina is, however, still an Odyssey with difficulty level hovering between Easy and Moderate.
Indochina, a name coined by the French1 to indicate the geographic entity between India and China, comprises of three modern day countries – Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Some include Burma and Thailand as well but these were not part of the French Indochina colonial territories. While it is a colonial name, for want of a better alternative, I am using this term as a collective name for Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam instead of South East Asia since the latter term includes many other countries which are part of this travelogue.
In the old days, traveling to Indochina from India was a maritime affair. Trading ships from the southern peninsula would cruise up to the shores of the Malay islands as well as mainland Asia on the way to China. They would often face pirates and it was the duty of emperors and kings, Sultans and Nawabs of the regions to provide adequate security to the shipping. This called for colonies to be set up in these parts and so it was that Hindu culture reached South East Asia, an influence that continues to this date2.
While ships sailed from port to port till they reached the Indochina coast, you have the choice of quicker air travel nowadays. There are no direct commercial flights from India to any of the three countries. So one has to hop to Bangkok or Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and from there hop to any of the big cities of these countries. The advantage of Bangkok is that you can cross into Laos or Cambodia by road, saving you one set of flights. However, for Vietnam one has to take another flight. I spent 24 hours across four airports3 as I went from Bombay to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
The Charm of Indochina
For those interested in landscape, nature and stuff like that, Indochina has its share of wonders. Vietnam has the world’s largest cave4 and has some beautiful coastline dotted with islands on the Eastern side. Laos has some beautiful network of caves and underground rivers5. Both Laos and Vietnam have extensive coffee6 plantations, one of the chief exports of these countries.
(Beautiful vistas like this one in Hue are available aplenty in Indochina)
I am a history and ethnography buff and Indochina has its own unique story which attracts the traveler in me. There are documented ancient (and still living) cultures in all the three nations – the Khmers, the Chams, the Lao, the Nguyens – but most narratives of these countries are dominated by events of the last 60 years – the American War as people of these lands call it. (In the rest of the world, we may call it the Vietnam War). Traveling to these countries, I am curious to know how these countries reclaim their respective identities.
Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness profiled the Congo river and forever condemned the landscape and the people in its title itself7. Francis Ford Coppola replaced the Congo with the Mekong, the jungles of West Africa were replaced with the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia but the wild savages and dangerous forests remained. Apocalypse Now made Indochina the new heart of darkness8. Such symbolism can go deep into a nation’s psyche and be a barrier for progress. Have the people managed to go beyond their recent history into a new world of sorts?
Moving on from war
On the streets of Saigon or Hue, the two Vietnam cities I stayed in, there is no mention of the wars and the suffering in the day to day activities. Talking to shopkeepers, restaurant owners, my hosts in the Airbnb homes, co-drinkers in the bar, taxi drivers – the conversation was always about the present and the future. Never once did anyone start a “when I was in the war” anecdote. One reason could be that most of these people I saw on the streets looked very young to me. It’s 40 years since South Vietnam and North Vietnam merged to form a unified nation. I did not meet too many 60 year olds (and older) for whom the war in the 1960s and 1970s were part of their childhood. Most of the businesses – shops, taxis, restaurants, hotels – all had young, exuberant staff with big bright smiles on their faces.
(In Saigon, the buzz on the streets is mesmerising)
In Cambodia as well, the focus of the people on the street is on moving ahead. It is a lot more difficult for Cambodians since relative peace and stability has come to them quite recently. Those born in the 1970s and are now 35-40 years old went through the worst of the Pol Pot years, those who are still alive that is. But tourism has given them an opportunity to move on – beautiful cafes, aesthetically designed boutique hotels, extremely professional tourist guides and travel companies line the streets. The traveler is well looked after in Cambodia. There is also a revival in various arts programs and the beautiful Cambodian art forms – both fine arts and performing arts – are coming back into the limelight9.
(Downtown Phnom Penh, the rebuilding has brought colour to the city skyline)
Never forget – Civil War
At the same time, the governments of both countries have made an industry of war memorabilia – war museums, cemeteries, tunnels, bomb displays, battle tank parks, the works, torture camps, execution grounds, prisons, etc. Tourists, especially Europeans and Americans, are led through these relics by enthusiastic guides who, without fail (and maybe they are taught that way), put stress on the killings by American soldiers and skim through the killings of the Viet Cong / NVA. In Saigon itself, there is a War Remnants Museum where ordnance left over by the Americans is displayed. Tanks, fighter aircrafts and statues of soldiers decorate the parks and traffic islands. North of Hue is the DMZ area along the 17th parallel – the de-facto border separating North and South Vietnam. A bridge on the river which runs along the border served as the only crossing point and the watch-towers on either side look as menacing as the ones in Berlin. Today, you can do a “DMZ tour” by walking along the bridge under the shadow of imagined snipers standing up on those towers.
Never Forget – Genocide
In Cambodia, the Pol Pot genocide is remembered the way the Jews remember the Holocaust. Genocide memorials (called The Killing Fields) dot all over the country with the largest one just outside Phnom Penh. It is not allowed to go out of memory. And it shouldn’t, really. Generations to come should know about the brutality that humans are capable of so that they can prevent such tragedies in the future.
Never Forget – Landmines
Another aspect which will always remind one of the troubles is the amount of land which is inaccessible to the public because of landmines. In addition to landmines, all these countries were heavily bombed – by the Americans mostly. There is a whole dump of unexploded bombs lying all over the place. Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have huge chunks of land lying in waste. De-mining operations have been going on for more than a decade now. Many of the people who help out in locating mines are former Khmer Rouge soldiers who have now turned approvers for the government. But it is a slow process. For tourists who like to wander into forests and fields, it is advisable to check with the locals before wandering off. On the other hand, there are volunteer travel tours where you can volunteer to help do the clean-up. Have fun.
I started my trip in Saigon and ended it in Siem Reap 14 days later. During this time, I overdosed on noodle soup, war memorabilia, genocide memorabilia, Angkor Wat and alcohol, details of which I will share in Part 2 and Part 3 of this travelogue.
- The French Indo China Union was formed in the late 19th century by consolidating territorial gains that the French had made over the years – Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos became French colonies. Vietnam was the most productive of these colonies with rice and coffee plantations and a very long sea coast. The countries became independent after World War 2.
- The Hindu influence manifested itself in the form of the Khmer civilisation among others. The Chams, one of the ancient dynasties of Laos and Vietnam were also Hindus. Thailand too has Hindu influence. You can see it in their names, the names of their gods and mythological characters. I will write more on this in my pieces on Cambodia and specifically Angkor
- Note for Travelers: If you complain about Indian airports not have enough mobile charging points, please note that airports in Bangkok and Saigon have less than 5% of the number available in India. I had to wait for the janitor to finish using his vacuum cleaner and the moment he unplugged his machine to go to the next block, I captured the plug point to charge up all my gadgets.
- Son Doong Cave in the central highlands is the world’s largest cave. Over 5km long, you can spend 2-3 hours inside exploring. I did not go here though it was accessible from Hue.
- Kong Lor, in Central Laos, is a lovely underground cave with some really magnificent stalagmite and stalactite formations. There’s a river that runs underground and the cave forms a tunnel of sorts. You take a boat from one end of the cave to the other end. I went there in 2011 and it was a very dazzling experience.
- The coffee culture in Indochina is a subject of discussion in its own right. For now you can read this.
- Chinua Achebe’s famous rant about the racism of Joseph Conrad is well known. “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.“
- Coincidentally, the 1965 film based on another Joseph Conrad book Lord Jim with Peter O’Toole playing the title role was filmed in Cambodia. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was unhappy with the pictures of Cambodia in the film. So he turned producer and made the Cambodian film Apsara.
- Recommended reading – Amitav Ghosh’s travel essay “Dancing in Cambodia“. This was written in the 1990s and focuses on the efforts to revive the beautiful Cambodian ballet styles which had entranced artists in France.