A Journey to Discover Culture and Recent History in Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and India
Reflections on Asia
In late 2014, my wife and I embarked on a trip to the other side of the globe to visit Southeast Asia. This story is not so much a travelogue of the sights to be seen, but my impressions from the various places we visited.
Several cultural motifs stuck out that were more or less common throughout Southeast Asia. The first is the notion of reincarnation. The passing of a loved one is the most traumatic thing we incur in this life, and their approach is to remove some of the pain by believing that we all come back to live again, depending on how we have led this life. This has a second virtue of helping to encourage good behavior during this life.
Another motif was the modesty of dress. Virtually all of the women wear long sleeves and skirts, regardless of the heat. This is partly protection against the sun, but also seemed to reflect their attitudes towards public display. The newspapers and tabloids were similarly restrained, especially when compared to those in the United States.
The other thing that caught me completely by surprise was how many people, young and old, wore surgical masks — perhaps 20 to 30 percent. Pollution in Tokyo wasn’t that bad, but people were still masked. Our guide said it was a mixture of not wanting to breathe in fumes or to inflict germs on others.
Another common feature was the avoidance of hand contact. Instead, people clasped their hands in front of their chest and bowed. Our guide shook my hand when we met, but then bowed and said that was more appropriate.
Yet another interesting commonality was the dislike of the Chinese. We felt truly welcome everywhere, which was somewhat surprising given our nation’s recent history with Vietnam and Japan. But our guides were universal in expressing personal dislike of China and its tourists. It seems to be a combination of Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea (which the Vietnamese call the South Sea) and an apparent tendency of Chinese tourists to be pushy.
But each country we visited had unique features worth recounting.
Our trip started in Tokyo, which is extraordinarily large and efficient. What struck me most was the cleanliness of the city. Our guide told us most residents feel a moral compulsion to pick up any piece of litter, and apparently they do. The only exception was some graffiti, but this was rare. Second, the bullet trains are a marvelous work of engineering. They travel at speeds well over 200 miles per hour and will soon be exceeding 300 miles per hour!
I asked our guide what they teach in school about World War II, specifically about Pearl Harbor. She replied immediately, and without emotion, that Japan had no choice. They are a nation without many natural resources, particularly oil, and when they faced a crippling embargo, they were literally starving to death.
Later, I did some Internet research and was reminded that yes, we did embargo Japan — reacting to their invasion of Indochina, which our guide never mentioned. I’m sure the powers-that-be back then didn’t anticipate such a strong response. My wife and I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to the current situation involving Russia and Ukraine today.
And while most of the people in Southeast Asia seem to be very superstitious/religious, the Japanese people take it to another level. Shrines are everywhere. Before you go in, there is a spring where you pour water into your hands and then drink it. There was also an incense pot where people purify themselves by getting smoke to cover their bodies. Then, in the inner sanctum, there was a popular place to deposit money in exchange for the granting of wishes.
In Japan, respect for authority and seniority is obvious. When we checked into the hotel, a large number of businessmen were gathered, waiting to check in. They make quite a to-do about allowing the most senior member to check in first, complete with bows of deference. When Jeanne and I waited for the elevator, other, younger guests always indicated we should go first.
Our next stop was Vietnam, which I never expected to visit in my lifetime, specifically Hanoi. The ride in from the airport was eye-opening. Motor scooters were everywhere, with two, three, four, five passengers … whole hogs on the back, even a washing machine on one! The air quality was terrible, and the poverty we saw traveling in from the airport was worse.
But downtown Hanoi is beautiful. We stayed at the Metropole, which Joan Baez and Jane Fonda infamously visited in 1972. We took a walk along the main boulevard — five lanes, one way, with no traffic lights. The locals would start across the road assuming that it would all work out — and it did. Words can’t do justice to the experience.
One popular attraction, for the locals at least, is the monument to the downing of then-Navy fighter pilot John McCain. To have captured a future senator of the United States is high on their achievement list.
One of the major points of our Hanoi tour was the Ho Chi Minh monument. The man who brought communism to Vietnam is revered in the North. Our guide’s version of his history is that Ho was determined to rid Vietnam of the French colonists and found communism to be the most effective model to achieve this — i.e., he was more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. I’m skeptical, but that was our guide’s message.
Our guide was born in North Vietnam, right about the time the United States was getting out. His reflection on the “American War” was that we never really had a chance. He asserted that 60 percent of the South Vietnamese were sympathetic to the North and that the United States was fighting for a small minority. He was very upfront that we were welcome in his country because a) they won, and b) they need the money.
Ha Long Bay is magnificent. It’s worth seeing if you ever get to this part the world. But what is also noteworthy is the amount of overbuilding that has taken place around the docks. It reminded me of Costa Del Sol in southern Spain — mile after mile of abandoned, half-finished apartments and hotels. Some very aggressive investors are losing (or have lost) their shirts.
On to Da Nang, which is where the Marines first landed in Vietnam in 1965. On the flight over, I read “A Rumor of War” by Philip Caputo, who was one of those first Marines. It’s a brutal memoir of what life was like for those guys. Caputo’s main theme was that one’s humanity can be stripped away, as the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, snipers, booby traps and growing casualties wear soldiers down — until they reach the point that they can do things they couldn’t have imagined as civilians. But we were staying in a five-star resort, so far removed from what it must have been like five decades ago. Our guide said many of his groups are veterans who want to revisit where they were when they were in the field.
Da Nang is a port city in South-Central Vietnam, and it was clear that the attitude toward the reunification process was different from what it was the North. Life was relatively good under the French, and not so bad when the war was going on. But once the United States evacuated, things turned very quickly. The North Vietnamese were brutal, and basically everything was seized. But with the passage of time and a shift in attitudes, capitalism is reasserting itself. Downtown Da Nang is beautiful and glamorous, but not far out of town it quickly turned into very low-income housing and abandoned projects — a theme repeated throughout the trip.
Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City — although everyone there still refers to it as Saigon.
The prosperity of the city was striking compared to Hanoi, as was the hostility of the people (at least as reflected by our guide) toward the unification process. They clearly had it pretty good until the North Vietnamese showed up in 1975, when most successful people either fled or were killed. Our guide’s family was personally affected by this, and he still is bitter. But Vietnam has adopted the Chinese version of communism, and capitalism and the city seem to be flourishing again. High-end stores and hotels abound, and the downtown is relatively attractive. Affluence is obvious.
On our second day, we headed out toward the Cambodian border to a complex of tunnels used by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regular army. It was an incredible warren extending in all directions, including to Saigon, roughly 50 miles away! We took a quick walk down into the tunnels and watched as a local disappeared down into a tunnel, only to reappear 50 feet away in the blink of an eye. The main takeaway was that these people were very adept at guerrilla warfare and we weren’t. Our soldiers would take territory by day and cede it back at night.
I asked our guide whether or not he agreed with our Hanoi guide that 60 percent of people in the South supported reunification. He dismissed it as nonsense. It seems one’s view of the evolution of Vietnam depends on where one is living. Clearly our guides from the North and South had diametrically opposite views.
On to Cambodia. At the airport, no fewer than 15 officers of the state sequentially reviewed our passport and visa before proclaiming us welcome. Siem Reap is another must-see-in-your-lifetime site. Natural wonders aside, the devastation of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on the population is one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our time. Killing every professional who could be identified, the “agrarian society” took everything from everyone, including lives, in the interest of everyone living on exactly the same plane. Our guide’s brother starved to death under the extreme conditions.
According to him, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror collapsed from within. Their system of extermination relied partly on betrayals — people turning in their friends or relatives. The guide’s cousin did this in an attempt to save his own life. But one day he too was chosen for “re-education.” Our guide remembers (quite emotionally) the look on his cousin’s face when he realized all his betrayals were for naught. Evidently, this self-purging continued until the leadership was decimated, and a very peaceful transition of power back to the non-violent Khmers took place — in stark contrast to the North Vietnamese assumption of power in the south.
We traveled to Bangkok and took a tour along the canals. (The water was very dirty.) We were struck by the extremes of poverty and wealth — living right next to each other. Our guide said that in their culture, there was no stigma to have a shack right next to your very nice house — which invariably was surrounded by wrought iron, 8-foot-high gates. The other interesting thing was that, unlike all its neighbors, Thailand has never been a colony, avoiding the prolonged conflicts other Southeast Asian countries endured to escape colonialism.
Our final stop was India’s Taj Mahal, which completely lived up to its billing as one of the great wonders of the world. However, we had to travel to Delhi and down to Agra to see it, and the poverty of India is equal to the northern part of Vietnam and Cambodia. But the country is vibrant, and the economic development over the past decade or two seems to be trickling down — slowly.
One lasting impression from this trip is that the violence of ruthless people is not distant; the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields were not that many years ago, and the decimation of South Vietnam was not that far before then. When times are good, we can be quite civilized, but when our humanity is stripped away, we are still a violent species.