Exploring the old town, relaxing by the beach, a very successful cooking class and lots of shopping
After an extremely long journey, consisting of a 4 hour bus between Da Lat and Nha Trang and then a sleeper bus, we arrived in Hoi An at 6am. Being unable to check in until 11am, I slept on a sun lounger by the pool until 9am. I then ended up walking into town to explore with a German girl called Sarah who had also been on my bus. We went for coffee and had a look around some tailor shops. Hoi An is known for it’s tailor made clothing with a turn around of less than 24 hours for some pieces. We headed back to the hostel to check in and have some lunch but hired some bicycles and headed straight back into the old town to explore. I loved cycling through tiny side streets having to navigate between street vendors. The old town is painted yellow and filled with many lanterns which light up the streets at night.
On our second day, Tilly, Lucy and I (along with Olivia who we met whilst canyoning) went on a day-long cooking class. We started off wandering through the morning market and buying fresh produce that we would later cook with. Once we had everything we needed we got onto a dragon boat which took us up the river. After 30 minutes we were transferred into what I call ‘coconut boats’ as they look like giant half coconut shells. We paddled further upstream before being dropped off at the location of our cooking class. We spent the next part of our day learning how to make fresh spring rolls (my absolute favourite), crispy pancakes, banana flower and shrimp salad and Bun Cha (beef with noodles although we made BBQ pork instead). We also turned out hands briefly to fishing. We each caught and fish which we released back into the river but not before our hands were sliced by the sharp fins as we removed the hooks from their mouths. I have to say that for me this was the least enjoyable part of my day. There was no skill involved with the fishing – we attached bait to bamboo sticks and everyone caught multiple fish – and so I felt like the whole activity was rather pointless and cruel to the fish. At the end of the day I said goodbye to Tilly, Lucy and Olivia who were headed to Hue the next day and I moved hostel to Under The Coconut Tree on An Bang Beach.
The next day I hired a bicycle and headed back into town through the greenest rice padi fields that you ever will see! I bought some leather bags and had them shipped home (even though this cost almost as much as the bags themselves)! The following couple of days were spent relaxing on the beach until I got sun burnt and had to retreat inside to the safety of the shade.
On my last night in Hoi An, I stayed with Paul and his lovely, extremely hospitable family. They have built a gorgeous home (Song Em Hoi An) on the bank of the river and have recently added a beautiful swimming pool which you can watch the sunset over the river from. I was able to preview the video that we filmed in Ho Chi Minh City. As usual, I cringed hearing the sound of my own voice especially now that I know I will never be able to say the word ‘excursions’ whilst being recorded. The video hasn’t been signed off yet so unfortunately (or rather fortunately for me) you cannot see me stumbling over my words just yet. I will begrudgingly keep you all updated on this.
On my final day, I went for lunch with Paul and his family before hopping on a bus to Hue. I would like to say a massive thank you again to Paul and his family for hosting me for the night. It was the first time since Bangkok that I have had a room to myself – complete luxury!
An extremely brief summary of Vietnam’s hugely complicated history
I’m sure many more of you will have heard about the Vietnam war that occurred from the 1st November 1955 to 30th April 1975. Like the last post I wrote about Phnom Penh, I thought I would start by briefly explaining Vietnam’s history (which gets extremely confusing – I am still trying to get my head around it).
Vietnam was conquered by the Chinese in the 2nd century. During the 1000 years that the Chinese occupied Vietnam, the Vietnamese adopted Taoism and Buddhism. In 938 AD, Vietnam finally gained independence from the Chinese. In 1858, French and Spanish military stormed Da Nang. By the next year the French had seized Ho Chi Minh City then known as Saigon. In 1941, Ho Chi Minh leader of the communist party, gathered troops to fight for Vietnam’s independence from the French – later known as the Viet Minh. In 1946, France tried to regain control of Vietnam starting an 8 year long battle between the French and Viet Minh. The Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954 and the country was divided into the communist-ruled North and a republic in the South. Ho Chi Minh became President of the North and remained so until his death in 1969. In 1959, communists supported by North Vietnam began causing conflict in the South. The United States sent 60,000 combat troops to Vietnam in 1965 to try and stop the spread of Communism into the South. Vietnam was invaded by the US because of geo-politics. If the US could secure a position in Vietnam then it could have a strategic position against its Communist neighbors: China, Korea and Russia. However, in response to protests at home in the US, American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973 and the US signed a peace accord with North Vietnam.
During this time, soldiers from the north established a huge network of tunnels to aid the transport of troops and supplies. One of the most famous of these networks are the Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City. The village of Cu Chi ended up living underground for 20 years throughout the war, only returning to the ground during the night. Americans realised the how valuable these tunnels were to the communists so launched operations to bomb the tunnels which were unsuccessful. The complex network of tunnels and rooms were so cleverly designed that the completely outsmarted the American soldiers who tried to find them. The underground village had kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. Staircases were designed so that rooms could not be flooded and the rooms were ventilated so gas sent down by Americans did not have an effect on those living inside. Bamboo was used to make chimneys leading from fires in the kitchen and terminating in termite mounds that wouldn’t be searched for obvious reasons by Americans. The Vietnamese guerilla fighters would collect the uniforms of dead American soldiers during the night and rub them near entrances so sniffer dogs recognised the scent as friendly. All Vietnamese wore shoes with reversed soles so that it appeared they were walking in the opposite direction. Life in the tunnels was extremely difficult though. The tunnels were so narrow that you had to army crawl through them. The tunnels opened up for tourists are now more than double the size of the original tunnels and are still a tight squeeze for most.
South Vietnam surrendered to the North in 1975 and in 1976 the two states were reunified under Communist leadership. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of Ho Chi Minh.
During the war somewhere between 800,000 and 3.1 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed alongside 58,000 US soldiers.
I am somewhat confused by the history despite a lot of research. I have missed out huge chunks simply because there is so much to learn about I could be here for years.
I went on a tour around the city in the morning which involved a stop off at the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office and the War Remnants Museum. The War Remnants Museum was extremely biased towards the Vietnamese and although I didn’t have enough time to fully explore it I was happy to leave after feeling extremely uncomfortable reading what was basically communist propaganda.
During my time in Ho Chi Minh City I ended up acting in a film produced by the British Consulate about keeping safe in Vietnam. The film hasn’t been signed off yet but I have seen a preview (very embarrassed to hear my own voice) and I will update you when it is ready. It ended up being a really fun afternoon and I got a beautiful conical hat as part of the deal.
I really enjoyed my time in the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh city but I’m really looking forward to my next stop, Mui Ne, which is a relaxed beach town.
On my first full day in Phnom Penh I visited the infamous Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (commonly referred to as “S21” standing for Security prison number 21 – there were over 150 of them). It’s been more than 12 days since I visited these two places and everyday I seem to think about them more and more.
I thought I would start by briefly explaining what led to the use of the security prisons and killing fields before reflecting on how they affected me. Be warned that this may be quite a long post – the visits have had more of an effect on me than I ever could have imagined.
A brief history
Cambodia’s Civil War that started in 1970 ended in 1975. On 17th April 1975, under the command of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was evacuated and its 2.5 million residents were sent to labour camps in the countryside. Those evacuated quickly became known as the 17th of April people. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge wanted to turn the country into a communist agrarian utopia. The year they came into power became their ‘Year One.’ Pol Pot wanted agricultural output to double in 4 years, a completely unrealistic goal, and banned private properties turning them into collective farms to enable this. With no experience of harvesting crops many failed to produce the amounts they were required to grow (3 tonnes of rice per hectare). Most of the workers worked for 19 hour days and many thousands died from starvation and heat exhaustion whilst working in these labour camps. In these labour camps family relationships were banned as the Khmer Rouge believed that parents were exploiting their children.
The Khmer Rouge also banned religion and anyone found to be practicing Budhhism was immediately executed. Those Cambodians who were educated, could speak French or other foreign languages, were rich or wore glasses were sent straight to the security prisons to be tortured before being sent to the killing fields. The Khmer Rouge thought these people may have connections with foreign governments and had the potential to overpower the Khmer Rouge and so must be killed after being tortured to find out what they knew.
When people were thought to be a threat they were taken to security prisons to be tortured. Their photo would be taken on arrival and meticulous records were kept of prisoners. Prisoners were often forced to write false confessions that fitted whatever crimes they had been charged with which were often thousands of words long and mostly fabricated. They would name family and strangers alike and make up the names of political parties they supported and had connections with. The methods of torture are painful to think about. S21 (Tuol Sleng) was a high school before it became a prison. As such the guards used what had been a climbing frame for pupils as a way to torture prisoners. They would be suspended upside down until they passed out and then dipped into a barrel of human faeces until they regained consciousness when the whole thing would be repeated again. In some respects this was not that bad. Other methods included water-boarding, ripping out people’s fingernails whilst simultaneously dousing their fingers in alcohol, routine beatings by often 4 or 5 guards at a time and the use of electric shocks. Guards sometimes raped female prisoners but as this was against policy if they were found out they too would be executed. If a prisoner died before their confession was signed then the guard deemed responsible would be imprisoned. As the Khmer Rouge had most doctors executed, some guards were given basic medical training to try and keep prisoners alive. At the same time though, prisoners were experimented on much like the Jews were in WW2. They were cut open and their organs were removed with no anaesthetic and some prisoners were attached to IV pumps and every last drop of their blood was removed to see how long they would take to die.
Much to my surprise some foreigners were also imprisoned at S21. One of these was New Zealander Kerry Hamill, who along with fellow sailors Canadian Stuart Glass and Englishman John Dewhirst, were captured by the Khmer Rouge when their boat sailed into Cambodian waters during a storm. Kerry’s confession is laced with humour and clues for his family. He wrote that Colonel Sanders (of the chicken fame) was one of his “superiors”, the home number in Whakatane was his CIA operative number and scattered through as members of the CIA are family friends – Colonel Perram was Miles Hamill’s gliding instructor, Captain Dodds was an old friend of Kerry’s from Whakatane. The public speaking instructor, “Mr S. Tarr”, was Esther (his mother), Kerry says. Kerry’s youngest brother remarks “He was sending a message to our mother. A message of love and hope. And it was as if whatever the final outcome, he would have the last say.”
When confessions had been collected, and sometimes straight from their homes, Cambodians were taken in jeeps in the dark of night to the killing fields. They were told that they were being relocated to new homes to prevent them from making any noise. They could never have imagined what atrocities lay ahead of them. When they arrived they were all marched into a dark barn. They could not see each other and were ordered to make no noise. Sometimes they were held in there for a day when the capacity of the fields were at their limit. The number of prisoners executed on a daily basis varied from a few dozen to over three hundred. When they were all in the barn, a light powered by generator was shone on them to verify prisoners against the guards lists making sure that no one had escaped on the way. Music was played at full volume to disguise what happened next. Prisoners were led in small groups to ditches and pits that had been dug in advance. They were told to kneel at the edge of the pit before the were brutally killed with various tools; a cart axle, hoe, stick, wooden club or whatever else was around. Sometimes their throats were slit with the rough edges of palm leaves. Bullets were deemed too expensive and the sound may have aroused suspicion outwith the high walls. Babies were killed by having their heads smashed against trees after which they were thrown into a pit with their naked, dead mothers. The reason Pol Pot gave for killing children was this;
“To dig up the grass, one must remove even the roots.”
He believed that the children of those he killed would inevitably seek revenge on those who were responsible for their parents deaths so he removed this possibility entirely.
When you visit now you can still see fragments of bones in the ground. When the fields were first discovered skulls and large bones such as the femur were removed from the ground to be examined. The skulls are now housed in a memorial stupa with tags to show how each individual was killed. Every time it rains, new bones and clothes are brought to the surface of the ground. It has been decided to now leave these clothes and bones as they appear. It is haunting to look at.
3 million people were killed during this genocide. At the time the population of Cambodia was just 8 million (it is now 15.7 million). More than 1 in 4 people were killed in a 4 year period. Another of Pol Pot’s “mottos” was this
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than to spare an enemy by mistake.”
In 1979, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot escaped and did not die until 1998.
In 1997, the Cambodian government asked for the UN’s assistance in setting up a genocide tribunal. It was 9 years before judges were sworn in in 2006. 5 suspects were presented by the prosecution on July 18th 2007. On September 19, 2007 Nuon Chea, second in command of the Khmer Rouge and its most senior surviving member, was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He faced Cambodian and foreign judges at the special genocide tribunal and was convicted on 7 August 2014 and received a life sentence.On July 26, 2010 Kang Kek Iew (aka Comrade Duch), director of the S-21 prison camp, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. His sentence was reduced to 19 years, as he had already spent 11 years in prison.On February 2, 2012, his sentence was extended to life imprisonment by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
One of the most shocking parts of this story for me was that no where else in the world knew this was happening. Dignitaries from many countries visited Cambodia during this time and had no idea what was happening just a few hours from them. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge disguised this genocide from the world and Pol Pot even represented Cambodia at a UN meeting.
What scares me most is knowing that this isn’t the only genocide to have happened in the world and it almost certainly won’t be the last. As you leave the killing fields, the audio guide says something along the lines of “Now you have learnt about the genocide here, it is your job to educate those you know about it and it is your responsibility to make sure it never happens again.” I think that’s what really left me stumped. A few days after, I was talking to my Dad on the phone and I was saying that I don’t understand how I as an individual can prevent something so atrocious from happening. I thought maybe you could be an aid worker but then you’re only really patching up the damage, you aren’t stopping the cause. If anyone has any ideas on how we as individuals can prevent genocide then I would love to hear them because right now I’m really struggling with my place in the world and my new found responsibility to prevent such things happening again.
I’m sorry that this post has been so long and potentially difficult to read. I hope that those of you who knew little or nothing about the Cambodian genocide have learnt from this post.
I will leave you with the most haunting expression I heard whilst at the killing fields. I will never forget it and it has been playing repeatedly in my mind ever since. It was first said by Pol Pot and became a motto for the Khmer Rouge. I think it is the worst possible thing that one human being can say about another.