I spent most of December in Vietnam and Cambodia, an experience that had a profound impact I am still processing. We were fortunate to find a Hanoi based travel agent who created a truly local experience. While we stayed in fine hotels, most of which had all the features of western hotels, the rest of our experience was local. And local included local “WCs,” as they called them in Vietnam.
While I’ve traveled to places before where I had to buy toilet paper on the way in and follow unfamiliar toilet customs, this is the first time these experiences were daily and throughout the day. Except for our hotel and one or two tourist restaurants, our guides took us to local places. We sometimes visited people’s homes and were graciously allowed to use their facilities.
We loved Vietnam; it’s a colorful, dynamic, high energy place. The growth is palpable. Hanoi maintains the charm of its history while becoming more modern. It was interesting to see the perspective of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Both were in favor of unity; the south isn’t happy about being part of a communist country, yet they accept it. And truthfully, with all of what they term “enterprise” in Vietnam (I guess they can’t call it capitalism), you don’t feel the communism or dictatorship at all.
We met a vet in Hanoi, an elite pilot who, together with three elite American pilots, wrote a book about the war. He has become friends with these Americans (they shot each other down), and they visit each other once or twice a year. I captured a quote on the back of the book that describes their feelings “We weren’t really enemies, just soldiers doing the best we could for our country.” In short, Vietnam has moved on from what they call “The American War,” and is a vibrant place.
Cambodia, on the other hand, is a very different place. This country has been under the same dictator since its civil war. After the war, nearly 50 years ago, the central government moved the people from the city to the country to become collective farmers, and that is how it remains. People farm so they can eat. They live on the land owned by the government, in “houses” made mostly of bamboo. A few shopkeepers are wealthy enough to have homes built of concrete. Most people don’t have electricity and the places where there is electricity, e.g., our hotel, it is unreliable (there are no electrical plants in Cambodia, they buy it from either Laos or Vietnam). Most people have water, but it is well water that is not necessarily safe to drink. Half the year, it is hot and arid and so dusty it is hard to breathe, and the other half it is hotter and flooded most of the time.
We don’t see news about Cambodia the way we do about Africa, e.g.Sudan and Rwanda, and yet Cambodia is similar. Although the Cambodian atrocities happened over 50 years ago during their 20-year civil war, they are still dealing with it today. Between 1.2 million and 2.8 million — estimated between 13 percent 30 percent of the country’s population at the time, was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Not to mention the nearly 4 million mines they told us still maim people regularly when they accidentally step on them.
During the trip, my husband and I just took it all in; we didn’t discuss what we saw and experienced until we were on our way home. I am still processing what I saw and how I feel about it all.
For me, toilets are a metaphor for the contrast between the industrialized world and the undeveloped in the case of Cambodia, and even the developing world of Vietnam. When we arrived at the airport in Tokyo, I was struck by how grateful I was to go to a clean bathroom with a clean toilet that flushed. I am still noticing this benefit in my life that I previously took for granted. I hope I continue to notice.
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