There is no better way to learn about the history and culture of Vietnam and Cambodia than a Mekong River cruise through the Mekong Delta. This is a journey that will illuminate the influences of India and China on this region, touching on topics of politics, religion, war, art, farming, food, and more.
Beginning in the 2nd century B.C., the Chinese occupied what is now known as Vietnam for approximately 1,000 years, greatly influencing the culture and introducing systems of irrigation for rice cultivation. The Chinese also introduced Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism at this time to the occupied Vietnamese, who succeeded in a number of isolated rebellions throughout the occupation, finally throwing off Chinese rule in 983 A.D. The nation remained independent for 900 years, until France and the Philippines invaded in 1858 in response to the killing of western missionaries. Vietnam was a French colony until 1954, when communist Viet Minh forces defeated French forces and Dien Bien Phu. French influence endures today in the food, architecture and performing arts in Vietnam. In the early 1960s, armed conflict arose between the Ngo Dinh Diem, the anti-communist leader of the South, and the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, of the North. The United States committed its first combat troops to push back against the Viet Cong, and spent the next eight years engaged in combat, withdrawing in 1973. The country reunified under Communist rule in 1975; after the fall of the Soviet Union, Vietnam has re-opened its doors to Western investment and trading, and the United States now enjoys diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which remains under Communist party rule.
In Cambodia, the Angkorian Empire dominated Southeast Asia from 802 to 1432, founded and fed by rice cultivation and fisheries, and responsible for the many mesmerizing temples that endure in the region. Near the decline of the empire, as the storied irrigation system began to fail, Angkor was twice raided by Thai forces. After a subsequent 200 years of weak monarchs, Cambodia saw the arrival of the French in 1864, who propped up the monarchy under a Treaty of Protectorate, signed under duress by King Norodom I, and assisted Cambodia in securing the return of Battambang, Siem Reap, and Sisophon from the Thais. Cambodia declared independence in 1953; after a period of economic prosperity and optimism, the nation became embroiled in the Vietnam War, whose battles spilled over into Cambodian territory. A leftist rebellion against the military gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, which wrought unimaginable devastation in its quest to establish a peasant-controlled agrarian cooperative. It is estimated that 1.7 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who killed intellectuals and anyone who disobeyed or disagreed with its harsh doctrine. Starvation and rampant disease also played a role in the devastating loss of life during this period. The Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, though a final peace accord between Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, and the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was not signed until 1991. Incredibly, today the Cambodian people are welcoming and optimistic overall, though the majority country remains quite impoverished and at a political crossroads.
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