Cambodia and Hanoi
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
Cambodia and Vietnam offer rich culture, amazing archaeology, excellent food, and friendly people. They also offer a look at the tragic recent history. In this entry we will visit the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the fascinating temples of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, and the historic Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. This pre-pandemic trip was in mid-March; it was very hot and humid in Cambodia but quite comfortable in Hanoi.
Phnom Penh is the entry point to Cambodia for most visitors; you can register for a visa in advance or wait to do so at the airport. I spent an enjoyable two days here ending with an early evening short flight to Siem Reap.
It may be an unusual way to start the trip, but I began with a five-hour Killing Fields Tour with Phnom Penh Shuttle Bus. This harrowing morning began with a visit to the Tuol Sleng prison, which is now the Museum of Genocidal Crimes displaying the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, followed by a visit to an actual killing field, Choeung Ek, outside of the city. The tour was deeply moving, profoundly disturbing, and always contemplative.
The rest of my time in the city was spent at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, which were quite beautiful; the major Buddhist temple, Wat Phnom; the National Museum, and the Wat Ounalom, finishing at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for a short break. Friends The Restaurant offered good food in a friendly setting, served by former street children as a means of transition and support.
During my two days in Siem Reap, I visited nearly all of the temples of the Angkor Wat complex. I began the first day at the temple of Angkor Wat at sunrise, followed by Angkor Thom with the Bayon and smaller temples, and Ta Prohm with the small temple of Ta Kao.
In the evening I attended a traditional and enjoyable Aspara Dance performance in the city. On the second day I visited the temples of Preah Khan, Preah Neak Poan, Ta Som, Banteay Samre, Eastern Mebon, Banteay Kdei, and Sra Srang. These temples, large and small, were as fascinating as I expected and filled with amazing images, with each a little different. I enjoyed my stay in Siem Reap at the friendly Memoire Siem Reap Hotel. The food in Cambodia was excellent and I especially enjoyed several variations on the traditional Amok fish dinner.
I would like to offer some caution on safety and logistics. It is difficult to walk around in Phnom Penh, and tuk-tuks are a safer option; however, keep a close hand on your personal belongings while on the ride. In Siem Reap I hired a kind tuk-tuk driver to take me around the temple complex. Be cautious, however, with tuk-tuks after dark; a different driver made a dangerous assumption based on my demographic status that I might wish to participate in the trafficking culture that is sadly prevalent throughout the cities of Cambodia. As a final note of caution, I found that the English of hired guides, such as at the temples and in tuk-tuks, was limited, and on two occasions these guides did not provide the service that I believed we had agreed to in advance; each situation may have been a scam, but more than likely they were miscommunications. In spite of these experiences, most everyone I met in Cambodia was welcoming, friendly, and helpful.
A highlight in Hanoi, a short flight from Siem Reap, was touring with the wonderful organization Hanoi Kids. College students offer free tours to travelers in order to practice English and act as cultural ambassadors. I took a walking tour with a student for a few hours the first morning, and on my second evening I took a “food tour” with another student to explore her street food recommendations. Both tours were very fun and were examples of the kindness I experienced in Hanoi, with both guides explaining that in spite of the effects their families experienced, the younger generation sees the war horrors as the past and that they want to move on and, as one put it, “be friends with everyone”.
Sites in Hanoi included the Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple, the Hoa Lo Prison (where US prisoners of war were held), the Temple of Literature, the fascinating Military History Museum, Ba Dinh Square with the One Pillar Pagoda and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the National Museum, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the Opera House, Quan Thanh Temple, and Bach Ma Temple. I also attended a water puppet show on the first evening, which was very culturally unique and worthwhile.
I very much enjoyed my time in Hanoi visiting these wonderful temples and historic sites. The food in Hanoi was very good. The best ways to get around are by taxi and on foot. The only safety issue I had was a taxi driver who tried to overcharge me fivefold after dark.
As you visit Cambodia and Hanoi, you will develop memories to last a lifetime, with much to contemplate on the recent history of these fabled lands. I know you will enjoy your trip.
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