The Magical Mekong

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River cruise offers unique glimpse into Vietnamese, Cambodian cultures

The Arizona Republic — February 18, 2018

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – “Can you please pass the tarantula?”

Deep-fried tarantula

Deep-fried tarantula is a Cambodian specialty

I was joking – sort of – at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, after the waiter brought two of the large and hairy deep-fried arachnids to the table following the main course.

At first, I mainly just wanted to photograph the dish popular in rural Cambodia, attractively presented on a serving plate with a lime and spicy dipping sauce.  But the rest of our group dared me into taking it a step further.

I bit.  Literally.  In two bites, I downed the creature – eight legs and all – to the laughter and applause of the group.

Welcome to the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, which offers an unvarnished and fascinating glimpse into the fabric of an exotic and welcoming culture that has changed little over the centuries.

Scenic Spirit

The Scenic Spirit anchored on the Mekong River near Tan Chau, Vietnam

I recently spent a week cruising the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia aboard the Scenic Spirit, a 2-year-old 68-passenger ship owned by Scenic Cruises, an Australian-owned high-end line with a growing presence in North America.  Most of our passengers were from Australia and England; I was one of five Americans on the trip.

Mekong cruises offer a chance to sail past ancient hilltop pagodas, floating villages and seemingly endless fields of rice, fruit plantations and sugar cane.  And you’ll do so in relative solitude compared to cruises on more heralded rivers in Europe like the Danube, Seine and Rhine.

Indeed, during the Vietnam portion of the trip, we didn’t encounter even one other cruise ship, a pleasant difference from river trips in Europe where there are often so many ships parked in port at one time, you need to walk across several other vessels to reach your own.

View of Mekong River

View of the Mekong River from the Wat Hanchey Monastery in Cambodia

Known as Southeast Asia’s “rice bowl,” the Mekong is the lifeblood of hundreds of millions of people in the region, who use the river for trade, transportation, farming and fishing.  The river traverses six Asian countries – starting in China’s Tibetan Plateau before meandering through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.

We leisurely covered about 180 miles over seven days on a small portion of the river, sailing upstream from My Tho, about a two-hour bus ride southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, and disembarked in Kampong Chan, Cambodia.  Most of the ship’s passengers also booked post-cruise land tours of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, in northwestern Cambodia.

Aside from the tarantula, I sampled rice wine infused with a venomous cobra snake (the locals call it “Vietnamese Viagra,”) and a fiery red chile-pepper I picked right off the vine that made a jalapeno from back home taste like a bland cucumber in comparison.

As most of the villages we visited didn’t have docking facilities for large boats, the Scenic Spirit would drop anchor in the Mekong and we would take sampans – long, narrow wooden boats – into towns along the river.  Once on land, we rode rickshaws, tuk-tuks and ox carts to see the sites.

Cambodian monks

Monks chant a blessing at the Oudong Monastery in Cambodia

We visited an outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam, where they peddle everything from live roosters to fresh red snapper to roasted rat meat.  It’s where the locals go to buy their dinner each day, unlike the touristy floating markets you’ll find in Thailand.

There was a trip to a rural school, a silk factory and the opulent Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where the country’s 64-year-old King Norodom Sihamoni resides.

I especially found meaningful a visit to the home of a 70-year-old man who had fought in the South Vietnamese army alongside Americans.  After the war, he was sent to a “re-education camp.”  It was a stark reminder of the region’s tragic past.  Despite all they have endured, I have found the Vietnamese some of the friendliest people on the planet, always quick with a smile.

As far as any lingering anti-American sentiment from the war years, we never experienced the slightest hint of it.  Duc Ho, one of our Scenic tour directors, says attitudes of the Vietnamese people changed dramatically in 1995 when – thanks in large part to the work of Arizona Sen. John McCain — the two countries re-established diplomatic relations.

Sa Dec market

Produce vendors at the outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam

“Before, people were really angry toward Americans,” says Duc. “The younger generation now thinks differently.  It’s over.  It’s history.”

While we waited on the Mekong to clear immigration at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, Scenic brought onboard a local dance troupe, which performed a traditional acrobatic Vietnamese lion dance. It’s believed the dance brings good luck and fortune, not to mention a chance for the ship’s passengers to admire some delightfully animated costumes (see video shot by the author: Vietnamese lion dance).

At Phnom Penh, we veered off the Mekong to the Tonle Sap River to visit Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia and home to the country’s largest monastery.  Cambodia is a devoutly Buddhist country and it was fascinating to learn about the lives of the hundreds of monks and nuns who live in Oudong.

In fact, one of our Scenic guides, Mao (nicknamed “The Chairman,”) had spent six years himself as a monk and offered our group unique insights into the faith and the integral role it plays in Cambodians’ lives.

Mekong sunrise

Sunrise on the Mekong River in Vietnam

At the monastery, we sat on the floor of a temple for a private blessing as two monks wearing traditional saffron robes chanted Buddhist prayers and tossed jasmine flower petals at us (see video shot by the author: Buddhist monks chant blessing).

We also visited a monastery on a hilltop overlooking the Mekong called Wat Hanchey, home to novice monks, most of whom are teenagers.

The Mekong is ideal for travelers looking for a less-crowded, more authentic experience than is found on many other river cruises.  This year just 19 ships catering to foreign tourists are cruising the river; most hold well fewer than 100 passengers.

As for the tarantula, I survived without even a hint of a stomach ache.

More importantly, after a week on the Mekong, I’ve had a memorable taste of rural life in a culture so remarkably different from our own.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Photo Essay: Rural Vietnam — Cue the Water Buffalo, Stage Right

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Vietnam rice fields

Putting on a show for the tourists in Nha Trang

At first glance, it’s an idyllic scene — farmers in rural Vietnam tending to their rice fields with primitive tools while a small herd of water buffalo peacefully grazes in the foreground.  If it weren’t for the electricity poles visible in the background, it’s a scene that one would have imagined in the Vietnamese countryside centuries ago.

But pictures don’t always depict reality.

In this case, what I photographed was a scene staged just for us — two busloads of tourists who had paid about $100 each to tour rural Vietnam while our cruise ship was docked near the port city of Nha Trang.

As we filed out of the buses in the middle of the afternoon, we were told by our guide that we would be seeing a “demonstration” of what life was like for local farmers.  However, afternoons in Vietnam can be stiflingly hot and humid and the locals typically do their outdoor work early in the mornings, at about the same time we were stuffing our faces at the breakfast buffet on the ship.

So, our guide explained, the farmers would be reenacting their daily routine just for the benefit of us and our cameras.  As far as I as could tell, they weren’t really accomplishing anything other than looking good for the photo-op.  With some farmers wearing traditional Vietnamese bamboo hats known as non la, their hoes banged aimlessly against the ground while our group clicked away.

I remember reading in the tour brochure that we would also see water buffalo, an iconic symbol of rural Vietnam.

“Where are the buffalo?” I asked the guide, thinking it would be nice to have something eye-catching and quaint to add to the foreground of my photos.  Plus, it was in the brochure and I was determined to get every penny of my $100 investment in the tour.  The guide was silent but gave me a look as if to say: “Relax, you uptight American.  You’ll get your silly picture.”

Nha Trang market

A more “authentic” scene at a Nha Trang market

Right on cue, I heard the jingle of bells and a small herd of water buffalo was paraded across the field and began grazing right in front of us.  Our cameras clicked away at an even faster rate than before.

I had my coveted photo.  But it’s lack of authenticity left a sour taste in my mouth and swayed me not to include it in a batch of pictures I submitted to a newspaper, which published an article I wrote about the cruise.

As a travel writer and photographer, I often come across scenes that are less than authentic.  This is increasingly becoming a problem for seasoned travelers as places that used to be off-the-beaten-path are now becoming overridden with visitors.  It can sometimes be difficult to determine what’s real and what’s staged to make the tourists happy.

In this case, the scene was clearly staged.  That’s not to say, though, that the entire day had been a southeast Asian fairytale.  We also had visited a local market in Nha Trang, a city of about 400,000 people on the country’s south-central coast.

If you want authenticity, visit a local market and watch the locals shop for locally grown fruits, vegetables and the indeterminable body parts of all sorts of animals you’re not likely to see on the shelves at your local Safeway.

As our time at the rice fields concluded, our guide asked us to board the bus so we could head to our next stop on the tour.  We had to be back on the ship in time for dinner.  Lobster-tail was on the menu.

As our buses drove away, I could see the farmers drop their hoes as the water buffalo were led back to their corral.

Exit, stage right.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2016

vietnam smile

Photo Essay: Smiles in Vietnam

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Smiling street vendors; Vietnam

I’ve never met a people as quick with a smile as the Vietnamese.  For a country that’s endured so much turmoil and tragedy in the past half-century, its people seem remarkably upbeat and cheerful.

Vietnamese fruit vendors

  Vietnamese fruit vendors

I took the photo above of a Vietnamese woman selling baguettes along the road in a village in the Mekong Delta.

Of course, baguettes are a vestige of French colonial rule; the French colonized the region in the mid-19th century and didn’t leave until 1954.  Their departure left Vietnam divided into two states – North and South Vietnam.  Conflict between the two sides intensified, foreign powers got involved, and you know the rest …

A Vietnamese baguette, known here as bánh mì, tends to have a thinner crust than its French counterpart, and is sometimes made with rice flour.  I had bánh mì for lunch one day and don’t remember anything particularly distinctive about it.  It tasted like bread.

But I do remember well the genuine warmth – and smiles — of the Vietnamese people.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

Vietnam War remnants museum

Museum tells a vitriolic story of Vietnam War

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Government dogmatic, but the people are welcoming to Americans

The Arizona Republic – February 12, 2011

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam –As the old saying goes, “History is written by the winners.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than a museum dedicated to the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of South Vietnam that was known as Saigon when it was America’s military headquarters during the war that ended 36 years ago.

War Remnants Museum in Vietnam

U.S. Air Force plane displayed in front of the War Remnants Museum

Henry Stein, a friend from Tempe, and I had long wanted to visit Vietnam. We are both old enough to remember how the war divided American society in the 1960s and early ’70s, but were too young to have been drafted.

We were interested to learn how the Vietnamese people feel about America today as well as seeing some of the sites devoted to the war in which more than 58,000 Americans died.

Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum, a 20-minute walk from our hotel in Ho Chi Minh city. To give you an idea of the tone of this highly vitriolic museum, operated by the Vietnamese government, it’s instructive to know what it was called when it first opened in 1975 — “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government of South Vietnam.”

The title was later shortened to “The Museum of American War Crimes,” and then took on its current name in the mid-1990s when diplomatic relations between Vietnam and America were normalized.

Regardless of its title, the museum is full of over-the-top propaganda about the alleged atrocities committed by American troops, whom the museum calls “the foreign invaders,” on Vietnamese civilians.

Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam

The Cu Chi Tunnels north of Ho Chi Minh City

There was almost a full floor devoted to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military to defoliate jungles that enemy troops used for cover. There were numerous photos of choldren born with birth defects the Vietnamese claim were the result of exposure to Agent Orange and even a grusome display containing deformed fetuses.

In a yard outside the museum, there were so many American tanks, airplanes and helicopters on display — weaponry that had been abandoned when the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973 — it almost looked like a U.S. military museum.

As an American, it was painful to see how our troops and government were portrayed. There were even comparisons made to the Nazis.

Yes, there wre civilian casualities during the Vietnam War, including the well-documented My Lai massacre. But I believe an overwhelming majority of our troops acquitted themselves bravely and honorably during the conflict, which was lost not because our military was defeated on the field of battle, but because the American public had grown weary of a war that seemingly had no end in sight.

Vietnamese bread vendor

A bread vendor flashes a big smile at a Vietnamese market

The following day, we visited the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels north of the city, which the Viet Cong used as a base to attack Saigon.

At the end of the tour, a Vietnamese government propaganda film from the 1960s was shown, in which it referred to Viet Cong fighters as “American killer heroes.”

Despite the anti-Americanism we witnessed at government-run sites, we found the Vietnamese people to be friendly, welcoming, and always quick with a smile.

“We forget the past,” a tour guide told us.

Indeed, it’s a chapter of American history that many of us from that generation would like to forget but never will.

© 2011 Dan Fellner
Vietnam Jewish Chabad

Homemade challah in Ho Chi Minh City

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Chabad meeting the needs of Jews in Vietnam

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 14, 2011

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Carefully following the directions I printed off the Chabad-Lubavitch website, I set off on foot in Ho Chi Minh City in search of the sole outpost of Jewish communal life in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Chabad in Ho Chi Minh City

 Chabad’s new facility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I passed the InterContinental Hotel on Hai Ba Troung Street and made a right turn at the heavily guarded French consulate.

Each street crossing was perilous with throngs of Vietnamese motorbike drivers seemingly paying no attention to pedestrians.  Even the sidewalks offered little respite from the chaos as food stalls, newspaper hawkers and parked scooters left scant room for walking.

Continuing on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street past a soccer stadium, I turned left at alley #12 and walked another 200 yards. There, on the left side of the alley, across from a row of vendors selling everything from fresh fruit to stir-fried meals of rice and meat, was a three-story villa marked “5A” with a large blue sign in Hebrew and English welcoming me to “Chabad Jewish Center Vietnam.”

It might have been a rather unusual setting for a Jewish house of worship. But as I learned when I stepped inside and met with Rabbi Menachem Hartman, Judaism in this Southeast Asian city of 9 million people is surprisingly robust.

As we sipped papaya shakes prepared in Chabad’s kosher kitchen, Hartman, a 29-year-old Israeli, told me about Jewish life in Ho Chi Minh City. He and his wife arrived here in 2006 to establish the first permanent Chabad center in the country.

Hartman said 150-200 Jews – “it’s up and down” – live in Ho Chi Minh City year-round.  They are drawn to the country for its growing economic opportunities, warm climate and relatively inexpensive cost of living.

Rabbi Menachem Hartman

 Rabbi Menachem Hartman in the Chabad sanctuary

There is also a group of businesspeople whose work brings them to the country on a regular basis, as well as Jewish travelers coming for a one-time visit.  I fit into the latter category, as I was on a 10-day vacation in Vietnam and Cambodia with my friend Henry Stein of Tempe.

Wherever they come from and whatever brings them to Vietnam, many feel compelled to connect with fellow Jews and visit Chabad House.

“Each has their own reason for coming here,” said Hartman. “Some come for the kosher food. Some want to hear Hebrew. Some are just missing home.”

He said 40-50 visitors attend Shabbat services every Friday evening. Afterward, they sit down to a meal of homemade challah, Israeli salad, soup and kosher meat imported from nearby Thailand.

To keep up with the growing number of visitors, Chabad moved to a new facility in October, twice the size of its previous location. The kosher kitchen and a spacious restaurant occupy the first floor. The second floor houses a sanctuary and library.

Motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City

 Motorbikes are popular transport in Ho Chi Minh City

The top floor hosts Sunday school classes and an everyday kindergarten with six children enrolled. During my December visit, the school was closed because Rachel Hartman, the rabbi’s wife and one of the school’s teachers, had temporarily returned to Israel to give birth to the couple’s third child.

There also are plans soon to build a mikvah, or ritual bath.

It’s beautiful,” Hartman said of the new facility. “People who are coming feel more comfortable. We feel very happy being here.”

During his tenure in Vietnam, the rabbi has presided over seders, High Holiday services, one bris and three bar mitzvahs, one of which was for a family that stopped in Vietnam while on a cruise.

“You need an open mind for different things, different ideas,” he said of being a rabbi in Southeast Asia. “For me, everything looks normal. For some people, this looks unbelievable.”

When Chabad first opened in the country, Hartman said there was some reticence on the part of the Vietnamese government, which was concerned that there would be an attempt to convert the local population to Judaism.

“They know that’s not what we do,” he said, adding that relations now with the government are positive. “They are OK with us.”

The Vietnam War ended in 1975 following the withdrawal of American troops. Saigon, which had been the capital of South Vietnam and the headquarters for America’s military during the war, was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the former leader of North Vietnam. Most locals, though, still refer to the city as “Saigon.”

Vietnam fruit vendors

 Vietnam fruit vendors

Hartman said he has met several dozen Jewish war veterans who have come back to visit the country in which they fought 40 years ago. One veteran – a doctor and regular Chabad visitor – returns each year to volunteer at a medical clinic.

“He told me he comes every year because he wants to give back to Vietnam what America took during the war,” he said.

Hartman said there is hope that it won’t be long before there is a formal Jewish presence in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Another Chabad facility recently opened in Phnom Penh, the capital of neighboring Cambodia.

“If there are Jews, there is Chabad House,” he said.

Before I left, Hartman showed me Chabad’s guestbook, which was full of glowing comments from recent visitors. One note was written by an American woman who had visited in December. She was traveling with her husband, who adheres to a kosher diet and would only eat fish at local restaurants.

“My husband was starting to look like a fish after three weeks in Vietnam,” she wrote. “Thank goodness Chabad was here and we could meet extended family and eat meat.”

© 2011 Dan Fellner