Vietnam and Cambodia
Although neighbors with plenty of intertwined history and intermixing, Vietnam and Cambodia are two distinctive and very different countries that should be visited and experienced in the context of their own tumultuous histories and the distinctive geographies that shape each of them. But visited together, they unveil the extraordinary and complex history and development of the entire region that the French eventually came to control as 19th and 20th century French Indochina, and that is today defined by two separate countries emerging into the 21st century with two different religions, philosophies, and views of the future.
Cambodia is predominantly a lowland country, with most of its population of 15 million living from a combination of the aquatic resources of the Mekong River and adjacent Tonle Sap Lake, rice cultivation in the floodplains, and subsistence agriculture in the low terra firma beyond the floodplains. The golden age of Cambodia is long gone, but the great Temple Complex of Angkor that was built by the Khmer in their dominance between 8th to 14th centuries is one of the world’s greatest architectural achievements, and serves today as the main reason that the world knows or cares about Cambodia. But Cambodia today is fascinating and best seen from the water. A Cambodia cruise on the Mekong River is a glimpse back into that age, as the means and methods of scratching a livelihood from the river’s bounty have changed precious little since the Angkorian times. From the decks of a Cambodia cruise boat and the easy gangplank landings on the riverbank, one sees the fishing traps and nets, stilted houses, sugar palm and coconut trees, and of course the water buffalo and the rice paddies that have been the nutritional foundation of Cambodia for 1,300 years.
Cambodia is not wealthy, but the river and soils have provided enough food, which fits the grateful, submissive, but unambitious philosophy of their orthodox, old school Theravada Buddhism. Cambodians are a kind and gentle people who accept their fate and the beautiful Buddhist temples that rise out of the rural landscape are a testament to their true Buddhist priorities.
Vietnam in contrast, is mountainous and diverse, twice as big as Cambodia, but with six times the population! Vietnam does not have nearly the arable land that Cambodia has, being defined by short steep rivers that plunge down the narrow width of the country into the South China Sea. The population of 90 million has its origins in the north, and its history and culture are closely intertwined with its arch rival China. The mountainous landscape means that Vietnamese people have to be innovative, creative, and ambitious, and this is evident in the incessant activity that one sees in every direction in Vietnam. Its economy is far more diversified than Cambodia’s rice, fish and textile base, and the varied landscape gives rise to a mosaic of cultural and ethnic diversity.
To tour Vietnam, expect an overland adventure on trains, buses, autos, motos, and sampans, as one negotiates the many river crossings and mountain ridges. To tour Vietnam, expect a climate diversity that can take you from the very temperate and even cool and misty landscapes of Hanoi and Halong Bay, south through the wonderfully moderate ancient capital of Hue, and down into the tropical lowlands of southern Vietnam and the Mekong delta. And to tour Vietnam, expect a range of religions and temples as diverse and widely interpreted as the multitudes of ethnicities themselves.
Cambodia is peaceful and relatively homogeneous, with deep-rooted influence in ancient Hinduism and orthodox Buddhism from the west. Vietnam is an adventure, with its industrious ambition coming from its northern influences from China. The two countries and cultures mix and mingle in the Mekong River delta, which is why a Cambodia cruise on the Mekong is such an exceptional introduction to both. But to really know the area, one has to step off the riverboat and tour Vietnam by land to experience its spectacular diversity.
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