Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Reflections on Vietnam and Cambodia

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Vietnam and Cambodia were eye opening.  A good friend said that the experience would change me, and she was right.  First off, I’m always fascinated by the customs, dispositions, world views and general demeanor of people in other countries. I found the people of Vietnam to be warm, inviting, curious and friendly. Children and adults alike yelled out “Hello” from the small villages as we biked through.  Even some in larger cities like Saigon and Hanoi, and school children from elementary to high school age made it a point to say hello, and when we responded, they’d laugh either at us or with us, (we couldn’t be sure). 

We were curious if the Vietnamese people had any bitterness about the Vietnam War. When we asked our guides,  they said it was the government, not the American people who made the decisions about the war. Just the same, viewing the war museums and going through the Cu Chi tunnels which the Viet Cong used near Saigon made my skin crawl and I felt a heavy burden of shame about our past involvement in the war. 

The landscape of Vietnam is partly what you may expect, with lots of rice paddies, fishing villages, and people living cheek by jowl in densely populated, spartan conditions. However,  Ho Chi Minh city, still called Saigon by its countrymen, is like New York on steroids, with hundreds of thousands of motor scooters whizzing around the city In totally chaotic patterns. Bicycle riders, (whose numbers are much reduced from 10-15 years ago) cars, trucks, buses, and tourist vans also sped around any obstacle, including pedestrians, in their way. Every time you crossed the street it felt like a game of chicken, and you’d wonder who would stop or swerve first. 

There are many shrines and pagodas from the tiny and simple to large, elaborate structures that are dedicated to deceased parents and other relatives who have died. The Vietnamese dedicate a sizable part of their income, often more than they spend on their primary dwelling, towards building and maintaining these structures.  Elders are revered, always live with their children and work as long as can, well into their old age. 

Most Vietnamese people are very industrious,  from the very young to the very old. We saw many men, women and children fishing and repairing fish nets, much the same as it’s been done for centuries. We rode past farmers working in their fields, some still with water buffalo, but most with tractors, and other motorized equipment. People of all ages could be seen planting in the rice paddies, and in orchards of dragonfruit, melon and lichee fruits. 

Plastic for everyday use became common in the 1980s, and since then, Vietnam has developed a major problem with discarded trash that can be seen strewn across the countryside. A major environmental initiative is sorely lacking in this country.  Although we saw thousands of people living in poor conditions, we never once heard a baby crying or saw a child who was upset. We realized that even though we saw a lot of dogs everywhere, in the middle of the road, in farmers’ markets, in the fields, and in the cities, very few were barking . None of them were on leashes, but all of them were well behaved, like the children. I asked our tour guide about this, and he said, they’re all happy to be here on this earth and they appreciate their lives. So simple, but so meaningful and instructive. That really impressed me, especially when it comes to parenting, and happy babies! I think that the Buddhist belief of doing the best you can in the current life so that your next life will be even better is communicated to children from a very young age. I’m still not sure how they communicated that to the dogs!

There are a few lifestyle and fitness points to relate. One is that the country people were all very small, thin and muscular from doing many hours of physical work a day. Needless to say- no exercise class or health club was necessary! The city people were bigger and better nourished, and that’s where I saw some health clubs and yoga  classes. 

There is a uniquely Asian practice of organized group exercise in the public squares in both Hanoi and Saigon.  I had the pleasure of going to a laughing yoga class in the central square of Hanoi, in the shadow of a huge statue of Ho Chi Minh. He is venerated as the father of Vietnam, because he united the north and the south in 1945. Picture hundreds of Vietnamese people divided into about 4 large groups within a very large public square. One group is doing tai chi, another is doing an aerobic class, another is doing laughing yoga, and another is doing ballroom dancing beginning at 6:00 am. I joined the laughing yoga group with a few people from my tour.  We went ahead with the large body movements, chanting, yelling (I still don’t know what, but we did our best to mimic what they said), laughing and enthusiastically following their lead, not knowing where it would end up. The leader apparently had had very bad joint problems, limiting her walking before she took up laughing yoga.  She was now cured and leading the class; this was told to me by another yoga teacher who translated a lot of what was going on. The teacher then began leading a traditional Vietnamese dance class, which was a load of fun. They asked if there were any dances that I wanted to show them, but I did not have my music available. Instead  they played their music and I improvised some Zumba dances and about 15 of them danced along with me, and commented that it was “interesting”. They were very friendly and receptive and wanted to know more about the USA.  Hanoi was not full of tourists, the way Saigon, a much more modern and progressive city was. 

The communist influence could be felt much more in the north and central parts of Vietnam.  We heard communist propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers as we rode our bikes along the roads on the central part of the country, but not the south, a reminder that this is still a communist country, but one that is moving quickly toward capitalism. The middle of the country, Hoi An and Da Nang, have beautiful beaches, and very nice village vibes.   

The only challenging bike ride of the trip was over a mountain pass that was a 6 mile climb up, and a very fun ride down the other side, despite the rain that made the switchbacks tricky. The view was beautiful from the mountain and it was a great downhill run despite a close call as a small truck passed a bigger truck on a curve as we were biking around the bend. 

We extended our trip to include Cambodia, which was what I expected Vietnam to be like, but I learned I was about 15-20 years too late. In Cambodia, the preferred form of transportation is the Tuc-Tuc which until recently was a cycle drawn carriage, but now is pulled by a scooter. The people are uniformly lovely, smile a lot, and are very interested  and helpful  to foreigners. Our tour guide explained that since Angkor Wat and the other intricately carved and ornately decorated temples were made into a UNESCO heritage site, tourism has boomed, and the quality of life for many Cambodians has improved. Of course, this comes at a price. Many traditional ways of life are changing rapidly, along with depletion of the environment with large resorts, restaurants and even a conference center where small businesses once stood. 

We had a unique opportunity to crash a traditional Cambodian wedding. Our tour guide said they would welcome us, and they did. We became part of the party, and gave wedding gifts as is the custom. We clambered up, a few at a time, onto a bamboo ladder leading to a deck made of rush and bamboo.  This was connected to the main house, which consisted of a room divided by fabric panels to make smaller rooms for privacy. We sat with the bride and groom and wedding party while the wedding photographer took pictures.  It was quite an experience. We communicated by sign language to the invited guests, and they seemed happy to have us there. I had to laugh when I imagined a similar scenario in the USA; – imagine a group of tourists who are curious about music they hear being invited to the wedding they crash and take pictures with the newlyweds. The differences between our cultures are very thought provoking. 

Floating communities, houses on stilts, small shacks without running water or clean wells, and marginal living conditions characterized the area around Siem Reap. This is a the region where the ancient temples were built, and since it was made into a UNESCO site, it is now a bustling city of 1 million .This is all part of this wildly varied landscape. The urban center includes Pub Street, which is akin to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I could go on, but I’ll summarize some major lessons and reflections I had during these unforgettable 2 weeks.

  • Wealth has very little to do with happiness. 
  • Tourists can make a big difference in the lives of others, especially when basic and essential things like clean water are needed. If you want more information about this, go to The man that began this project, Phal, was our above-and-beyond tour guide.  He’s helped hundreds of families in the community who have been able to provide better for their families through finding funds to build wells. This greatly improves health, productivity and children’s consistent attendance at schools through providing clean water for life.
  • Travel compels rethinking of preconceived notions about second or third world countries by learning about their customs and ways they go about life. This enhances respect for people around the world.
  • The veneration of the Vietnamese’ past ancestors and their future lives figure prominently in the way they live their current life, with patience, kindness and understanding at the forefront.
  • I struggled, along with our son Dana who met us there from India, with what at times can feel like voyeurism vs. observation and learning.  We took so many pictures and at times felt like interlopers, although the vast majority of Cambodians and Vietnamese smiled and seemed to enjoy their picture being taken.
  • You don’t have to work out if your daily job requires many hours of manual labor!
  • The cuisine, although seemingly every meal was served with rice and/ or noodles, had minimal amounts of bread and had virtually no dessert, and what sugar they did eat was in very small portions. The vast majority of Vietnamese, and especially Cambodians have small frames, but also are slim because their diet is rich in vegetables and fruit, with a little beef, pork, or chicken, and a lot of fish.
  • Air quality in the cities is quite poor due to the millions of scooters and lack of public transportation.  Overfishing, trash, and poor sewerage is causing a reduction In their fish catches which is a primary livelihood and food source. If we don’t care for our environment, it can’t take care of us, and these countries are experiencing these dramatic changes now. Most Hanoi and Saigon residents and a sizable number of other city and country dwellers wear face masks for protection from the sun, pollution and germs.

Some of the most lasting results of travel is appreciation of other cultures as well as our own, the lessons we learn, and how it changes us. If you’re thinking of a trip to Vietnam and/or Cambodia, I’m happy to point you to some excellent guides and potentially life changing experiences. One of our very own group members, Sue Brown from the COA Monday and Wednesday group was on the same bike trip, and she can likely attest to this. Thanks for reading and I welcome your comments.

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