The nearly three-week-long expedition was through tour operator Overseas Adventure Travel. Known as O.A.T., they are dedicated to cultural immersion experiences through small groups. The result is that we got to meet many people in their homes and villages. I sought out the children who seemed fascinated by my blonde hair and video camera. It was rather emotional for me to have so many groups of little kids surrounding me everywhere we stopped. Huge brown eyes greeted me and took in my every move. I began videotaping them and sharing the camera shots, which resulted in hysterical giggling, shoving, laughing and more giggles. The children demanded rewind after rewind. Sometimes I filmed their mothers and then showed them the movies. Shy smiles were my reward.
The days were filled with fascinating experiences from predawn almsgiving to the monks, to a Hmong chief who danced for us in his hut. This was especially meaningful to me because my husband I both taught Hmong refugees who came to the U.S. as illiterate children in the 1970’s. We joined school children at their desks and met a blacksmith pounding out his wares on an old shell casing. We met an educated man whose life work is to teach organic farming and the importance of using adobe bricks over bamboo for housing.
Reminders of the long war were everywhere, from dilapidated old jeeps rotting in the grass to bomb shells sitting in nearby doorways. One day our bus parked on an abandoned air strip that had been used by the American forces. At night it becomes an impromptu marketplace. We learned that in both Laos and Cambodia, there are millions of active land mines buried in the fields and hills, a constant threat to the children playing nearby. Seeing people with missing limbs became a common sight, as did bullet holes in the walls of temples. I was particularly shocked to find that Communist controlled Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon) is not only vibrant, but affluent, with designer shops lining the wide boulevards as thousands of young people dash about on motor scooters.
The Killing Fields of Cambodia and the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon where 16,000 Viet Cong struck at our military forces from below, were a grim reminder of what has transpired in these war torn countries. The Genocide Museum and the War Remnants Museum left a tragic resonance in my heart. I have come away with a new understanding of Southeast Asia, an appreciation for the harsh realities of a political system where one is not safe to express an opinion, and I have gained a deep respect for these modest people. So many millions of them have so little, but yet all I had to do was take a simple photo to be engulfed in giggles and laughter. This adventure showed me the warmth, the kindness and the joyful souls of the people of Southeast Asia. It was my honor to visit them.