A photo essay from Vietnam and Cambodia
My family and I just returned from a three week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. It gave us a peek into the lives of the people living there.
Both are war-torn countries, and almost all of the individuals we met have family members who were killed, injured, or displaced by wars. They told us that their governments are still corrupt with fixed elections, billions of dollars misspent, lack of basic infrastructure and living conditions below the poverty level.
They are a very kind and friendly people— tour guides, hotel staff, people in the cities and small villages all did their best to greet us with smiles and make us feel welcome. Children were very polite and would always smile and say “hello madam!”
Their main religion is Buddhism. There are elaborate temples called pagodas in even the poorest villages. They believe that each person is responsible for their destiny and do not look outside themselves for help with their daily lives.
Their food is delicious. There is a french influence due to the past colonization by France. On our first full day in Vietnam, our guide took us on a street food tour of Hanoi. We tasted meats, vegetables, noodles and sweets, all prepared on grills set-up on sidewalks.
There is a large variety of fresh ingredients and they are masters at seasoning. The prices are remarkably low compared to here in the United States. Our first night’s dinner for four was $17 and included wine and beers. The most expensive meal during our trip was $40 for everyone.
Vietnam has a Communist government and Cambodia has a constitutional monarchy. Although both countries hold elections, all votes are reportedly not counted and the same people are repeatedly “elected” to office. We heard many stories of government corruption which the people feel powerless to change.
In Vietnam in the 1980’s, the Communist party owned all the land, and the people were forced to work it and the money earned was supposed to be shared by all. Under that system, production of food and goods dropped dramatically causing a shortage of many products including their food staple of rice which they had to start importing. In the 1990’s, the government gave farmland back to the people. Within 5 years, production was back at healthy levels and they actually had enough goods such as rice to be able to export their excess. The government continues to own and manage many of the biggest businesses with billions of dollars lining the pockets of those in power.
Infrastructure needs in both countries are neglected and problems are readily visible. Water is polluted with trash and raw sewage. Throughout our travels, we observed the lack of effective sewer systems and general pollution of all their waterways. Road work is started but never finished, electrical systems are a confusing maze of exposed wiring and public transit is almost non-existent.
In spite of all of that, people have beautiful spirits and make good lives for themselves. Through education (which is free but not accessible to many because they can’t afford school uniforms and supplies) some are able to move up and live what they call a middle-class life although it would still be considered poverty level in the U.S.
The current generation of adults still feels the effects of the wars and has hope for improved conditions for their children. Many changes might take place in the next few decades.