Friday, September 12, 2014

Nha Trang, Vietnam

Nha Trang was our second destination in Vietnam, after Saigon. We didn't know much about this destination before arriving, only that it was a popular beach town. Since I'm such a beach-lover, I was pretty excited to get here and taste that salty ocean on my lips. 

While Nha Trang does have some beautiful coastline, we were a little disappointed by the over-development all along the beach. The entire beach was really crowded with lots of construction going on, giant blow-up toys in the water, loud kids running around, and locals selling tours or asking you to pay to rent an umbrella. 

An interesting thing about this town and part of why it has been so developed over the years is that it is really popular with Russian tourists! At first, it seemed like a really odd connection to me, but then Bradford reminded me of the shared communist history. We learned that in 1979, the Russian Navy began using a port in Nha Trang and it became their biggest Naval base outside of Russian territory. Since then, Russians have felt more and more comfortable traveling to Vietnam and some have even settled there. Now, the locals have learned to cater specifically to the Russians--most of the restaurants we visited had their menus in three languages: Vietnamese, English, and Russian. There are tons of signs in Russian and there are loads of Russians just walking around and enjoying themselves! A couple times, we even got mistaken for being Russian and a local Vietnamese person would try to sell us on a tour or a restaurant and begin speaking to us entirely in Russian!

Overall, Nha Trang was an interesting town with some cool Cham-era ruins and a beautiful stretch of coastline along the highway outside the city (not to mention a pretty legit and cheap Mexican restaurant run by an Arizona native), but the thing I was most excited for (the beach) was a pretty big letdown being so crowded and overdeveloped. We did enjoy a pretty awesome day when we rented a scooter and drove up to the Ba Ho waterfalls. While the waterfalls themselves weren't nearly as high and flowing as the pictures we had seen online, the drive itself was worth it, with stunning views of the Vietnam coastline all along the way. 

Here are some photos we took while exploring the town, some less crowded areas of the beach, Cham ruins, and during our scooter ride to Ba Ho waterfalls. 

Everywhere in Southeast Asia, there are fruit shakes available. This shop had a mango, banana, passionfruit combo that was one of our favorites yet. 

{Trying on conical hats inside a convenience store}

We walked down the beach about a mile and found a nicer resort with a private beach that was much quieter and peaceful than the majority of Nha Trang. 

On our walk down the beach, we found some local kids having a blast running off this jetty and jumping into the water. It reminded me of good ole classic summer fun. 

On the day we rented a scooter, our first stop was to visit Long Son Pagoda, which includes a giant seated Buddha. Pretty impressive. (But the longer I'm here, the more I realize that these kinds of really impressive statues and structures are EVERYWHERE!)

{Loved this view from the top of Long Son Pagoda}

Our next stop on the scooters was Po Nagar Cham towers. These temples are built in the same style and during the same time period as the Angkor Wat temples, so they're a really worthwhile sight if you haven't been to Angkor Wat. 

{This picture was snapped from the top of Po Nagar and you can really see the fishing influence of Nha Trang. Check out all those fishing boats in between the two bridges!}

After Po Nagar, we enjoyed the most beautiful scooter ride of the trip. Growing up in Southern California, I have so many great memories of driving along the coast with friends in the car, windows rolled down, wind blowing in my hair. Never did I think I'd recreate that feeling on a motorbike in Vietnam with my husband but I did and it was wonderful!

{More gorgeous scenery from our scooter ride}

{Hiking up some fairly steep trails to Ba Ho waterfalls. Of course, it started raining when we got to the top, making our descent a little more slippery than I would have preferred but we made it safely down.}

{We were able to cool down and go swimming for a bit which was really fun, as long as you don't mind little fishies nibbling at your feet!}

{To cap off our adventurous day, we got a flat tire riding on some rocky roads. Luckily, this nice family helped us out and fixed it for a small fee.}

Next it was off to Hoi An, which ended up being our favorite stop in all of Vietnam. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Saigon, Vietnam

Saigon, Vietnam (also known as Ho Chi Minh City) is a bustling and vibrant city, and a great introduction to Vietnam. 

The first thing that stood out to me were all the motos!!! I've become accustomed to seeing motorbikes and scooters everywhere we go--they're such a common form of transportation in Southeast Asia--but Vietnam, and especially Saigon, took this to a whole new level. Wow. I'm talking hundreds of motorcycles waiting at a red light. Unlike cars, motos can creep up to the front of an intersection at a red light, so by the time the light turns green, there is a pretty good group of motos ready to take off at once. During our time in Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia, I started to call this little phenomenon a "motorcycle brigade". Wow, I've never seen such large motorcycle brigades as I saw in Saigon. It was awesome!

{Here you can see all the motos lined up at a red light, ready to take off the moment it turns green.}
{Our first night there, we ate Pho (pronounced "Fuh"), a traditional Vietnamese meal of noodle soup with beef. It was delicious, but by the end of our time in Vietnam, I started to get sick of this common meal.}

{Communist propoganda posters are found EVERYWHERE in Vietnam! It's crazy how old-school the graphics are. It's like they haven't changed anything since the 60s.}

{Maintenance worker at the Museum of Vietnamese History}

It was interesting to spend an afternoon at the War Remnants Museum, especially as an American. Vietnam tells the narrative that they won the war completely, but the truth is that America's goal for fighting this war was to prevent communism from conquering SE Asia, and they did just that. While Vietnam is technically a communist country, they have made so many reforms over the years allowing for capitalist practices that it definitely cannot be considered true communism. Despite this, everyone in Vietnam, especially North Vietnam, loves to tell Americans that they beat us in the war.

{One night we visited a pagoda and noticed lots of people gathering inside. We decided to stay and check out what was going on. It turned out to be a prayer/worshipping ceremony. We were sitting in the back and some nice ladies next to us passed over the book which allowed us to chant and follow along the prayers. It was a really cool experience to be able to worship with Buddhists. All the standing and sitting reminded me of the time I experienced a Muslim prayer ceremony in Nazareth.} 

{This is a statue commemorating Thich Quang Duc, the first Buddhist monk to burn himself (in 1963) in protest of South Vietnam's repressive policies against Buddhists. This photo was taken on that day and has become one of the more famous photos in history.}

{Brad, doing some weightlifting outside of the Ho Chi Minh City museum.}

{Saigon's Central Post Office -- of course with a giant painting of Ho Chi Minh in the center}

We visited the Reunification Palace, which was the home and workplace of the South Vietnam president during the Vietnam War. Many meetings and strategy sessions were held here to aid the South in the war effort, with US dignitaries visiting as well. On April 30, 1975 (two years after the US had withdrawn from the war), the North Vietnam stormed this palace, marking the official end of the Vietnam War.  

{Here I am, trying to recreate this historic picture.}

{This is the building made famous in this historic photograph, immediate following the fall of Saigon in 1975 when the USA aided evacuation of thousands of South Vietnamese seeking refuge from their now-communist country.}

On our last full day in Saigon (also my birthday), we spent the day exploring pagodas, which were among the coolest we've seen in all of Southeast Asia. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Club: First They Killed My Father

While we were in Cambodia, I picked up the book "First They Killed My Father", a firsthand account of a young girl's experience living through the four-year ordeal that was Pol Pot's communist and genocidal regime. She explains what life was like for her and her family living in Phnom Penh before the mass evacuation of April 1975 happened: she would go to school, ride a cyclo to the market with her mom, and play with friends in the street. Then, everything changed when Pol Pot's regime gained control and forced everyone in the country to live the life of a farmer and spend all their efforts working in the fields. When the country didn't produce enough rice, food was rationed and many, many people died of starvation or disease due to malnourishment. The author lost much of her family during these four horrific years. It's a really insightful and interesting story to understand the horror of this recent tragedy.

Stories like this are hard to learn about because they are so sad, but THEY ARE SO IMPORTANT for our society. Only if we know about the mistakes of the past will we be able to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Below are a couple insightful quotes from this book:

"Wearing colorful clothes is forbidden. You will take off the clothes you have on and burn those as well. Bright colors only serve to corrupt your mind. You are no different from anyone else here and from now on will dress in black pants and shirts. A new set will be issued to you once a month." To drive his point home, the chief paces around, looking the new people in the eye, pointing his long index finger at them. 

"Children in our society will not attend school just to have their brains cluttered with useless information. They will have sharp minds and fast bodies if we give them hard work. The Angkar cannot tolerate laziness. Hard work is good for everyone. Any kind of schooling carried out by anyone without the government's approval is strictly forbidden."

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Cambodia: The Killing Fields and S21

There is so much history in this world and it's important we know about it. Before I left on this trip, I knew I would learn things that would surprise, enrage, and enlighten me. This is one of those stories that enraged me. 

I have already written about our lovely time in Cambodia, exploring around the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and witnessing the resourcefulness and optimism of the people in Phnom Penh. Sadly, there is another side to Cambodia's story which is not so bright. 

What shocked me most about this story was how recently it happened and how in other parts of the world, at the same exact time, people were living peaceful, prosperous lives with no real knowledge of the pain and suffering that was simultaneously being endured by their peers in Cambodia. 

During the early 1970s, people lived normal lives in Phnom Penh. Kids went to school, parents worked, and government systems functioned properly. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, under the power of Pol Pot's communist regime, conquered Phnom Penh and immediately evacuated it's entire population. Within 72 hours, the city was completely empty and all of its residents were on their way to various camps or fields so that they could fulfill Pol Pot's dream of an agricultural-led nation of Cambodia. 

Pol Pot believed in Communism and believed that everyone in the country should be farmers. He believed that if the country focused solely on rice production they could build up their economy and become very prosperous. This vision also led to the killing of anyone who was educated or influential as he feared they could lead a rebellion against his regime. He even took wearing glasses as a sign that someone was smart and ordered them killed. 

While in Phnom Penh, we visited one of hundreds of killing fields in Cambodia (most are still undiscovered) that was used to perform mass killings of members of Pol Pot's regime that rebelled against the cause. It was sobering, to say the least. What hit me the hardest was that if one adult was considered "a bad seed" they would often kill all members of his or her family, even babies, thinking that their posterity would grow up with the same ideology as their parents and thus hurt the regime. 

{Here you can see the depressed graves in the ground where people were executed. The really sad thing is that the regime was so poor that they had to ration bullets so most executions were carried out by hitting people on the heads with farming tools or cutting their throats with sickels until they were dead.}

{This tree breaks my heart more than anything else. The men who carried out the executions would use this tree to kill babies. Babies would be picked up by their feet and swung against this tree trunk, their heads being whacked until they were dead. This makes me want to scream!}

{Mementoes left by visitors as a sign of respect for those killed here.}

After paying our respects (and shedding tears) at the killing fields, we made our way back to Phnom Penh, where we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly Office S.21). This was the prison, where people were incarcerated, questioned, and tortured before eventually being killed at the killing fields. The most ironic part about this place was that it used to be a primary school and high school before Pol Pot evacuated all of Phnom Penh. 

{"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." -- How this thinking can be good for a country or society, I HAVE NO IDEA.}

{Rooms like this were used for torturing members of the regime that were suspected of rebellion or espionage.}

{One of the many walls of photos of people imprisoned at S21}

{This used to be a classroom. Then it was turned into a hall of prison cells.}

{Photos of some of the tortured and some of the children imprisoned at S21}