Good Morning, Vietnam! (Cambodia/Vietnam Border)

Kampot – Vietnamese Drivers – Distinct Culture – S. Vietnamese History – Fortunate Son
My Lonely Planet guidebook described Kampot as being a pleasant riverside town with “fine French architecture.” I now know that “fine French architecture” is a euphemistic phrase that really means, “There is absolutely nothing to do here.” Therefore, I did nothing for a few days.
Like so many Cambodian towns, Kampot has seen better days. And like much of former Indochina, her crumbling French villas are steadily being converted into posh coffee shops, complete with L.A.-priced WiFi and Parisian-priced café-au-laits. One must give credit to the ambitions of these entrepreneurs, who expect, at these prices, annual revenues exceeding Cambodia’s GDP!
After a few days in Kampot, I was ready to leave Cambodia. Other travelers had told me, ‘two weeks is enough time for Cambodia.’ I agreed now agreed with them, but for different reasons. My visit from Athena had renewed my sense of purpose and Hera’s message pushed me forwards towards my new life in Spain. I was no longer an aimless wanderer – I had a job waiting for me halfway across the world.
I made my way out of Kampot to the border and caught a motorcycle taxi into Vietnam, then hopped on the first local bus heading towards Saigon. The bus sped along the banks of the Mekong, honking the horn incessantly and playing Vietnamese pop music at full volume. Our bus was at the front of a six-bus convoy that drove down the middle of the road, plowing through a sea of motorcycles with hundreds of bikes going each direction.
About twice a minute our convoy would encounter another line of buses also driving down the middle of the road, but going in the other direction. I gripped my seat with white-knuckles and watched my life pass before my eyes each time. Then, moments before collision, the bus drivers would flash their hi-beams and honk their horns in some South Vietnamese Morse Code unknown to me, and at the last possible second they would swerve to the side of the road – literally, within inches of the Mekong river – narrowly dodging water buffalo, children, and bikers, and then cut back to the center of the road, as if nothing happened.
But beyond the crazy bus transportation, there were other distinct aspects of Vietnam. I had entered a new part of Asia, for Vietnamese is culturally closer to China then of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. While the other SE Asian countries were influenced by Hinduism and subsequently Theravada Buddhism, Vietnam was dominated by China for 1,000 years, so the Vietnamese adopted Confucian beliefs and follow the Confucian and Taoist-influenced Mayahana Buddhism.
The Chinese imparted many of their values on the Vietnamese, particularly a respect for hierarchy, an emphasis on an individual’s social obligations, intense family loyalty, and a reverence for education and scholarship.
Despite the strong Chinese influences, Vietnam has retained its identity. Though Laos Thailand and Cambodian cultures blended together in many ways, the same was not true in Vietnam – immediately upon crossing the border I knew I was in Vietnam.
The first part of Vietnam I entered was the Mekong Delta region, one of two major civilizations built around river deltas in Vietnam, the other being the Red River Delta in the north. The Mekong Delta was taken from the Khmer kings of Angkor Wat, something the Cambodians will never forget.
The original Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta arrived as settlers from the overcrowded north in search of land. These settlers were exposed to other cultures and religions and became increasingly independent from their more conservative northern brothers. In the 17th century these differences came to a head and the country was split between the Trinh dynasty in the north and the Nyugen dynasty in the south.
This division became more pronounced during the French colonial period, as the French broke the country into three administrative regions, put most of their energy into developing the economy of the south (Cochin China), while they neglected the north (Tonkin and Annam). Through irrigation, water control, and land reclamation, the French transformed the Mekong Delta from a lightly populated swamp into one of the world’s leading rice exporters. The French claim to have boosted rice production by 420%, but many of the farmers still remained sharecroppers and the economy become increasingly dependent on rice exports.
Meanwhile, the northerners were suffering from over population and heavy indebtedness. By the time the French colonial period came to an end, the divisions between the struggling north and prosperous south had become deeper and the stage was set for the conflict that would eventually divide the country during the American-Vietnamese War.
But enough facts for now, the history lesson is finished for the day. If you want to watch an interesting movie illustrating the end of the French colonial period in southern Vietnam, I recommend IndochineSo let’s just say I was in Vietnam, a place culturally distinct from the rest of her neighbors, deep in the Mekong Delta, a place culturally distinct from the rest of Vietnam. Distinct was the theme for a few days.
After a few hours of riding along the Mekong on that crazy bus, I alighted in a small city called Can Tho and searched for a place to sleep for the night. I had endured enough of Vietnamese public buses for one day. It was time to sleep.
As I walked through the streets of Can Tho, I smiled at the irony of my situation. In 1969, Vietnam was the last place a 23-year old American wanted to go – as the Credence Clearwater Revival song said, only the college-educated Fortunate Sons were able to avoid the draft. But in 2009, this fortunate college-educated kid was on his way into ‘Nam with a huge grin on his face. Oh, the times they are a-changing, are they not?

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