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Thinking that a trip out of the country would be a great way to exit a 40-plus year career in politics (I was founder of three different nonprofits focusing on money, power, politics, and accountability in Washington, DC), my husband Richard and I planned a two week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. It was December, the weather was still hot there, but it was an ideal jumping off point for life-after-work.
We built the trip around two cruises: the primary one was aboard the Aqua Mekong, which left from the small town of My Tho, just south of Saigon (everyone calls it that despite its proper name as Ho Chi Minh City) and traveled for seven days on the river into Cambodia. First, however, we spent two days and one night on Ha Long Bay (northwest of Hanoi) with a Paradise Peak cruise. Both of these were top notch, perfect in accommodations, cuisine, and knowledgeable guides.
Much of the photography from the trip was enabled from these boats or in the small villages along the way where we had an opportunity to meet local people, visit pagodas and local markets, observe Buddhist monks, and talk politics. We found the Vietnamese people warm and welcoming and as interested in our world as we were in theirs.
For me, this trip was the perfect combination of things we love when we travel: great food, beautiful scenery, lively cities, spectacular countryside, local culture, and politics. As one who in the 1960s had vigorously opposed the Vietnam War (note in Vietnam it was called the American War), the opportunity to talk with local guides and others about how they and their families survived the war, and what they think of America today, was fascinating and eye opening.
Memorable for both of us, too, was Ha Long Bay, where a seemingly endless array of rock formations magically rise out of the water, reflecting the sun on the quiet waters of the bay. Richard had seen this place years before on an earlier trip with our younger daughter, and he was right to insist I visit it, too. We went deep into a cave, learned a little Thai Chi on the boat, and soaked in the picturesque environment.
One of the more memorable things about the cities was the buzz of the traffic — literally taking our life into our hands to cross the mélange of cars, motorcycles, and bicycles that thronged the street. People were happy, busy making money, enjoying a good life, and ignoring, to a large degree, their government. We saw some interesting sights: the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh's residential compound inn Hanoi, and museums, and notable churches left by the French. There were few signs in either city of the war that had raged there.
The trip along the Mekong was unique. We would get off our boat at regular intervals to visit with local villagers as they worked to weave mats used for building houses; had a private audience and prayer ceremony with Buddhist monks at the Long Son Tu Temple; watched silk weavers working and learned how some of the local silk and silver jewelry cooperatives were created for war widows to draw people back into this area after the war. We observed the fishing farms that lined the Mekong, with family houses, schools, shops, and community centers built on pontoons floating over extensive fish farms. And delightfully, we had a chance to visit, unannounced, one of the classrooms. We floated out of Vietnam into Phnom Phenh and later up to Siem Reap. (See my Cambodia Visual List.)
We found Vietnam country beautiful, thriving and hopeful. But at times we were in turn saddened, amazed and delighted by how the country has moved into the 21st century.
Updated from an earlier version.