My semester at sea: Vietnam and Cambodia

Martha Bawn/Courtesy
Banteay Srey temple

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Before this trip, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Vietnam and Cambodia. On one hand, I had heard wonderful things about the natural beauty, the rich history and the fun people, all of which make this part of the world so special. However, there is also the fact that both of these countries have experienced some of the most horrific events in history, just in the past few decades. Even now, both countries are struggling with poverty and restrictions on individual rights, although their situations are improving all the time. My experience there, even though there were moments of intense sadness and horror, was overwhelmingly positive and hopeful.

My ship was docked in Ho Chi Minh City, previously called Saigon, which served as the capital of South Vietnam during the war. There is something very special about the city that I’m having difficulty putting into words. I do know it is the first city I have visited on this voyage where I could see myself living for an extended period of time. I had a wonderful time just walking the streets, talking to the people, bartering in the markets and enjoying the local cuisine. Everything feels new and exciting about walking along those streets, and your life flashes before your eyes every time you cross one because traffic laws are essentially nonexistent there.

The rest of my short time in Vietnam was spent visiting the sites dedicated to remembering the war, which is known there as the American War or the War of Aggression. Unlike the rest of the city, these places have strong anti-American themes, which is exactly what I expected. I visited the Cu Chi tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong as hiding and living spaces for months at a time. There are hundreds of kilometers of tunnels throughout the country, and whole communities lived in them for months at a time. I spent less than 10 minutes crawling through them, and already that was enough for a lifetime. There is no room to stand up or spread out, and light and fresh air are scarce — any wrong turn and getting back on track is almost impossible. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in there for months, particularly during the heaviest bombing in history.

My guide, Heiu, explaining about the tunnels.

My guide, Heiu, explaining the Cu Chi tunnels.

I also visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. I saw the headquarters of the U.S.-supported government as well as photos of all aspects of the war. The Reunification Palace had beautiful meeting rooms on the top floors, but the offices and communications rooms in the basements were as minimal as possible. Most of them had concrete walls and floors, with a metal desk and chair and maybe a map or two on the wall. There were also underground escape routes for when the city was eventually bombed. These weren’t labeled as such, but one of my professors on the ship worked closely with the Vietnamese government after the war, so he could provide some inside information. The museum was filled with photographs of soldiers and other victims of the war. The worst part was the section dedicated to the second-generation victims of Agent Orange. It definitely required a strong stomach, but it was a necessary thing to see.

I also spent a couple of days exploring Cambodia. I saw several huge temples from a couple of millennia ago, including Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument ever built. It is an incredible experience to climb through them, marveling at the meticulous carvings on every inch that hasn’t crumbled away. It’s amazing to think of the time that has passed since they were built and how long they’ll be around in the future.

Angkor Wat at sunset .

Angkor Wat at sunset.

Against the backdrop of these vast ancient temples, we also saw and learned about the horrific Pol Pot regime that controlled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. More than a quarter of the population was killed during those years, specifically the intellectuals, the educated and anyone with smooth hands or glasses. I visited a prison where these people were tortured and questioned as well as one of the many killing fields across the country. I even had a chance to meet one of only seven survivors of the S-21 prison and hear his account of the story. It’s difficult to describe the feelings these places bring about, but I think they are important feelings to have and acknowledge.

Skulls recovered from one of hundreds of killing fields across Cambodia.

Skulls recovered from one of hundreds of killing fields across Cambodia.

One thing I noticed while traveling in these places is how little I knew about them before I came. It doesn’t seem right that I, a UC Berkeley student who has taken american and world history courses several times over, did not know the specifics of the Vietnam War or almost anything about one of the most horrific acts of genocide in history. And I was certainly not alone; there were several students in my group who were surprised to learn that the United States did not win the Vietnam War. This certainly says something about the way history is taught in our own country.

Despite so many heavy topics, I had a wonderful time in Vietnam and Cambodia. The people are extremely welcoming and eager to show us what it is like to live in these countries. It was a very significant learning experience for me, and I would recommend it highly to anyone who has the chance to go there.

Bayon Temple: There are 54 columns, each with the four faces of Buddha.

Bayon Temple, with 54 columns, each with the four faces of Buddha.