I just completed a 2.5 weeks trip to Vietnam to Cambodia. Before I go into the specifics of my trip let’s dive into the history of Vietnam and Cambodia so we have an understanding of how they came to be, where their paths crossed, and where they stand now.
Vietnam has a long and rich history dating back to nearly 2900 BC. Vietnam has a history of tribes uniting to form strong dynasties. The very first dynasty that many consider to be the start of the Vietnamese state was the Hong Bang Dynasty which was ruled by the Hung kings. In 111 BC, the Han Dynasty from China absorbed Vietnam into their empire. Vietnam would remain part of the Chinese empire for just over 1000 years. In 938 AD Ngo Quyen battled and defeated the Chinese and gained independence for Vietnam. Vietnam was then ruled by a multitude of dynasties including the Ly, Tran, and Le dynasties. Vietnam reached its peak under the control of the Le dynasty by expanding to the south and conquering a portion of the Khmer Empire. The French came to Vietnam in 1858 and in 1893 the French incorporated Vietnam into French Indochina. France continued to rule until it was defeated by communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh in 1954. The country became divided into Communist North Vietnam and the anti-Communist South. The Vietnam War raged for years between the two countries with the US supporting the South and communist countries supporting the north. In 1975 the North eventually won uniting the country under communist rule. It is estimated roughly 3.6 million people died during the war between 1954 and 1975. That’s an extremely sobering statistic. In 1977 Vietnam was admitted to the United Nations.
Vietnam became involved with Cambodia in 1978 when the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia made attacks on Vietnam. This all came to an end when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978. Unfortunately, Pol Pot escaped and he did not die until 1998, but it did put an end to this terrible tragedy that occurred in Cambodia, which took the lives of roughly 1.5 million Cambodians.
In 1986 the Vietnamese government introduced market reforms (called Doi Moi), which resulted in the rapid growth of the Vietnamese economy. A new constitution was adopted in 1992 which allowed for even more economic freedom. In 1994 the USA lifted an economic embargo on Vietnam and in 1995 diplomatic relations were restored. Today the Vietnamese economy is booming. Vietnam is becoming more and more prosperous and is one of the fastest growing SE Asian countries, with tourism playing an extremely important role. The Vietnamese stock exchange opened in 2000. A few US presidents have since visited Vietnam since then including Bill Clinton in 2000 and Obama in 2016 when he shared a meal with Anthony Bourdain at Bún chả Hương Liên in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. We ended up visiting this restaurant due to its nostalgic factor. Vietnam’s population recovered since the war and is sitting at roughly 96 million people.
Cambodia’s history is rich and rather fascinating. People first inhabited Cambodia in the Stone Age. Farming was introduced around 2300 BC, and used stone tools until around 1500 BC, when bronze was introduced. Fast forward to 500 BC and they began to use Iron. In 150 AD the first major developed area arose in the Mekong River delta in South Vietnam, also known as Fu-nan to the Chinese. The settlements and kingdoms grew larger once Fu-nan was trading with the Chinese. By the beginning of the 7th century AD all of Cambodia was becoming highly civilized. At first Cambodia was divided into rival states, however at the beginning of the 9th century a king named Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. The Khmer Empire was an agricultural society, with many people becoming farmers. The staple diet of Cambodia was rice. Khmers were a bit strange and believed that spirits inhabited natural phenomena such as the earth and trees. The rich and powerful built temples that were decorated with fine stone carvings. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat which was built in the early 12th century. Cambodia was considered prosperous and powerful. In 1000 AD King Jayavarman V was killed. Civil war followed until Suryavarman I founded another dynasty. By 1011 he was in control of Cambodia, however his dynasty only lasted until 1080 and then was replaced by another dynasty.
In 1177 the Chams from Champa invaded Cambodia, but King Jayavarman VII managed to drive them out. By the mid-13th century the Khmer kingdom was in decline. In 1431 the Thai’s captured the Cambodian capital, Angkor. Afterwards it was abandoned and new capital was founded at Phnom Phen. By the mid-16th century Angkor was overgrown by the jungle and it was accidentally re-discovered by a Cambodian king. During the 16th century Cambodian power continued to decline and at the end of the century Cambodia fell under Thai suzerainty, which stands for loose control. In 1594 the Thai’s captured the capital, and started the dominate the region. From the middle of the 17th century the power of Vietnam grew. In the early 17th century the Cambodians controlled parts of what is now South Vietnam. They held a port called Prey Nokor, later renamed Saigon, and then again to Ho Chi Minh City. In the late 17th century Prey Nokor fell under Vietnamese rule.
During the 18th century Cambodia found itself stuck between its two powerful neighbors of Thailand and Vietnam. The Thai’s invaded Cambodia several times in the 18th century and in 1772 they destroyed Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese also invaded Cambodia in the last few years of the 18th century. The Cambodian king was forced to look to the Thai’s for protection and in return Thailand took over Northwest Cambodia.
Between 1806 and 1834 King Chan turned to the Vietnamese for protection from the Thai’s. In 1833 a rebellion occurred in South Vietnam and they took advantage by invading Cambodia, but the Vietnamese king crushed the rebellion and the Thai army retreated in their footsteps. The Vietnamese emperor strengthened his control over Cambodia. When Cambodian King Chan died in 1834 one of his daughters was installed as Queen and Vietnamese people settled in Cambodia. The Vietnamese viewed the Cambodians as uncivilized barbarians and tried to civilize them by teaching them Vietnamese customs, which led to a rebellion between 1840-1841. The Thai’s once again invaded to re-assert their control of Cambodia, however in the 1850s French missionaries arrived in Cambodia. The Cambodian King Norodom turned to the French to protect him from both the Thai’s and the Vietnamese. In 1863 Cambodia became a French protectorate. Unfortunately King Norodom died in 1904. His two successors, Sisowath and Monivong, continued to allow the French to control the country. Under French rule some significant economic development took place in Cambodia; roads and railways were built and in the 1920s, and a rubber industry grew up, however the Cambodians were forced to pay heavy taxes and from the 1930s Cambodian nationalism grew. In 1940 France was defeated in a brief border war with Thailand, and they forced to surrender the provinces of Battambang and Angkor (although the ancient site of Angkor itself was retained). King Monivong died in April 1941 and the French delegated Prince Sihanouk to be king. The problem with this was they believed that the inexperienced 18-year old would be a better fit than Monivong’s middle-aged son, Prince Monireth, which led to some chaotic times.
In 1949 Cambodia was declared semi-independent by treaty. In 1952, King Sihanouk decidedly dismissed the government and took personal control of the country. In November 1953 the French finally allowed Cambodia to become fully independent, but in 1955 King Sihanouk fulfilled his fathers wishes by holding elections and forming his own political movement. Between 1955-1970 King Sihanouk’s political movement dominated Cambodia; which was often referred to as the “Sihanouk era”. King Sihanouk’s father died in 1960 and he announced himself chief of state. King Sihanouk called his movement the Buddhist Socialism, however it was not socialist at all. Sihanouk’s reign began to fall apart in 1968 when the communists began a civil war, and in 1970 Sihanouk left the country. While King Sihanouk was away the National Assembly voted to remove him as chief of state and Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic.
Between 1975 and 1979 the country was devastated by the reign of the Khmer Rouge, a rural communist guerrilla movement led by Pol Pot. During the Khmer Rouge’s period of power, an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians were killed or died. In 1975 Cambodia was mainly an agricultural country. Pol Pot decided it should be completely agricultural, which meant all the people from the towns and cities were forced to move to the countryside. Pol Pot also decided that agricultural output should double in 4 years, which was a completely unrealistic and unobtainable target. Private property was banned and collective farms were formed. The people were supposed to grow 3 tons of rice per hectare, which was unrealistic, which meant that people were made to work extremely long hours to try and grow the extra rice. They were also given insufficient food and many became ill or died. Religion was also banned in Cambodia, and people caught practicing Buddhism were executed. Family relationships were also banned, and even the smallest infringement of any rules resulted in execution. This all came to an end when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978. Unfortunately, Pol Pot escaped and he did not die until 1998, but it did put an end to this terrible tragedy. Afterwards negotiations began among several different parties, resulting in the Paris Peace Accords of 1991. Communism was eventually abandoned in Cambodia, with a provisional government ruling until 1993 when elections were held and a constitution was framed. Sihanouk was made a constitutional monarch. Khmer Rouge refused to take part in the elections and they continued their guerrilla war, and fortunately in 1996 Pol Pot’s second in command Leng Sary abandoned the party in 1996 with many of Khmer Rouge troops following him. As stated previously; Pol Pot died in 1998 and peace finally returned to Cambodia. In 1999 Cambodia joined Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN is comprised of ten countries in SE Asia and promotes intergovernmental cooperation and facilitates economic, political, security, military, educational, and sociocultural integration among its members and other countries in Asia. Cambodia currently has a population of 16 million people.
Travelling To Ho Chi Minh City
More than likely you’ll be arriving in Vietnam by air. You’ll need to obtain a Visa On Arrival letter before you even venture towards Vietnam. Airlines are instructed to not even let you board the plane to Vietnam unless you have the Visa On Arrival letter. The letter costs $18 USD. I used www.myvietnamvisa.com and had no issues. One thing to note is if you end up pre-booking a tour (i.e. Halong Bay, Cu Chi Tunnels, etc.) most of those companies will actually give you a free Visa On Arrival letter. I wish I had learned about that before obtaining mine, as I would have saved the $18 USD.
When you arrive Vietnam you’ll have to clear customs and pay an additional $25 USD single-entry Visa stamping fee and provide a passport sized photo. They can take a photo for you there for a small charge if you forgot to bring your own photo. The fee is $50 USD for a multi-entry Visa, which is what I chose as I went on to Cambodia later on, and then came back to Vietnam before flying home. This process can take as little as 15 minutes to upwards of two hours depending on the time of day that you arrive. It took us roughly 40 minutes. The Vietnamese government still officially uses the USD for transactions, but the remainder of the country uses the Vietnamese Dong.
Ho Chi Minh was my point of entry for this trip. I arrived at 9:00pm at night after 3 flights spanning 27 hours. The flights took me from Calgary (YYC) through Los Angeles (LAX) and Tokyo (NRT). The flight from YYC to LAX was on an Air Canada Airbus A320 and took roughly 3 hours. The flight rom LAX to NRT was on an All Nippon Airways (ANA) Boeing 777-300ER. ANA arranges their seats in a unique fashion on their Boeing 777’s so that family’s and couples can all have a seat to themselves. Most airlines will arrange the seats in a 3-3-3 or 3-4-3 configuration; where as ANA arranges their seats in a 2-4-3 configuration. I chose the two seats by themselves which made for a more comfortable flight. The flight from NRT to Saigon (SGN) was on an Air Japan Boeing 767-300ER. The food provided on the ANA and Air Japan flights were some of the best economy class food that I’ve had.
Ho Chi Minh City, also known by its former name of Saigon is the most populous city in Vietnam, and in some cases Prey Nokor when it was under Khmer ruling (see previous post). This bustling city has a population of nearly 13 million people in the metropolitan area. Saigon was the capital of French Indochina from 1887 to 1902 and again from 1945 to 1953. It would again become the capital of South Vietnam during the Vietnam war from 1955 to 1975. On July 2nd 1975 Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after revolutionary leader Ho Chí Minh.
After obtaining my Visa and clearing customs it was time to find some ground transportation. You essentially have three options; a bus, a taxi, and Grab (similar to Uber). The bus can cost as little as 5000 to 20000 Dong depending on the buses taken, but that takes a considerable amount of time since you have to walk away from the airport before getting on the bus. You can also take a Taxi, which can cost roughly 160000 to 180000 Dong ($10-11.25 CDN). A third option is taking a Grab, which can cost as low as 100000 Dong ($6.25). I opted to take a Grab since I don’t speak Vietnamese and it’s easier to just enter your address into the app. Since I arrived at a peak time it cost me 225000 Dong ($14 CDN).
My Hotel; Papaya Saigon Central Hotel, is located in District 1; the central urban district. The drive to District 1 was roughly 40 minutes. After arriving at our hotel, I was ready for bed as I had already been awake over 24 hours.
Check back tomorrow when I explore the beautiful city of Ho Chi Minh City.
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