My wife and I returned about a week ago from a terrific month-long trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I was very proud of myself for planning the entire trip. We were on our own, hooking up with a couple of mini-cruises on the Mekong River and personal guides along the way.
My nominations for the three greatest inventions of our times: 1) Penicillin. 2) Airplane mileage. 3) Trip Advisor. Penicillin is an easy one, of course. We all–that is we all that were born in the 1950’s–learned that it saved millions of lives a year.
The other two because it is just hard to imagine planning and executing a great trip on a reasonable budget without those two items. OK, so I had to knock the atom out of the top three in order to fit airline mileage on the list. I will admit it’s close.
Overall impressions and reactions from the trip: Beautiful part of the world. Wonderful, welcoming people. Grand, tragic histories. Particularly tragic for Cambodia. Unfortunately corrupt governments.
After 30 days in Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, and the Mekong Delta, in Phnom Phen and Ankgor Wat, in Pakse and the Four Thousand Islands, in remote villages of the Laotian north, and in the beautiful city of Luang Prabang, the question that kept going through my head: why exactly did we Americans see these people as a tremendous threat and feel the need to bomb the living daylights out of them?
They, particularly the Vietnamese, seem to be the most industrious, capitalistic people one can imagine. They appear to have the same deal with their government as the Chinese have: We’ll let you one-party Communists have the power and generally run things, and you’ll leave us alone and let us make money and try to improve our lives.
They certainly did not seem intent on knocking dominoes down and spreading Communism throughout the world. Which does make you wonder: how do you know when the threat is real enough and requires standing up to it? We thought the dominoes would fall. The Red Scare or Red Menace was real. The Communists wanted to take over the world. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Ho Chi Minh. They were the bad guys. We had to stand up to them.
Scores of thousands of American lives later, millions of Southeast Asian lives later, land mines and bombs still blighting, chemicals devastating vegetation, and despite the years that have passed, you ask: for what purpose? Why?
They just don’t seem like people that were going to fall like dominoes and spread Communist domination throughout the world. Perhaps the Soviet Union. Perhaps even China at one time. But not the folks of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Fight to throw out the imperialist colonialists? Yes. Conquer the world? Nah.
So, how does the world know when we are facing real evil that will overrun us if we do not stop it, such as a Hitler, and when we are facing, as President Obama described ISIS, a Junior Varsity evil doer that, while engaging in despicable acts of death and torture, does not threaten our very existence and, therefore, does not justify engaging with the full force of the U.S. and the rest of what we used to call the “free world?”
Of course, ISIS, or Islamic State, is a barbarian force, the latest example of its evilness being the issuance of “guidance” that endorses the enslavement of non-Muslim women and the use of pedophillia against non-Muslim children. ISIS certainly threatens the existence of some people.
But will we look back 30 years from now and wonder why we ever believed the predictions that they were on a credible campaign to take over the world and enslave us? Will we ever know whether they actually might have done it had we not stood up against them? Assuming, of course, that we do stand up and stop them.
It is hard to believe that Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues would have tipped the dominoes but for our bombing the region to smithereens, sacrificing the lives of thousands of young Americans, and tearing America apart. On the other hand, could the Soviet Union have been emboldened to be even more adventuresome had we not stood up in Southeast Asia and other regions where the Cold War played out?
Vietnam has opened itself to capitalism, development, and outsiders, and the people–at least those in the cities, we did not make it far into the remote country– seem determined to advance themselves and to enjoy the conveniences of modern life. We took two students out for dinner through a terrific people-to-people program called Hanoi Kids. In the words of one, with the nodding agreement of the other: “Vietnamese parents think Vietnamese kids were born to study.”
I asked one of the students how the Vietnamese could be so nice to and welcoming to Americans and the French after all that we did to their country. Her response: “We are taught to know the past but to look forward. Also, you Americans were here for 20 years. The French were here for 100 years. The Chinese were here for 1000 years and want to come back. It’s the Chinese we don’t like!”
The real domino theory: the Vietnamese hate the Chinese. The Cambodians hate the Vietnamese. In fact, China is the elephant in the region. Their military might is projected. Their economic might is everywhere. They are buying, investing, giving. Their largess is needed, wanted, and resented.
Cambodia is a sad case. Nice people wanting to please, but one gets the sense of a crushed, crippled people. Many are literally stunted. Like Jews, they will be dealing with the impacts of an unfathomable genocide for generations, but with an added twist: their own people did it to them.
A young guide we hired to guide us around Angkor Wat fairly nonchalantly told us about his family. All grandparents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. His parents were young at the time. They are illiterate and survived in the jungle. He has managed to get some education. When he was in his early teens his father took him out to the jungle to teach him how to live on bugs, weeds, and rodents, just in case. Because, in his father’s mind, it could happen again. The scars last for generations.
Laos is a beautiful country with kind people, many of whom are dirt poor. Villages two hours up in the mountains, accessible only by foot, with no electricity and no running water. Over 60% of the population still in agriculture, many in subsistence agriculture.
All three of these countries have great promise. But besides checkered and troubled pasts, they are burdened with governments that stifle freedom and that perpetuate and benefit from corruption. In Vietnam a guide told us that no one believes what the government says and that the government will take potentially valuable property from the non-connected, pay little in compensation, and then turn around and give it on very favorable terms to someone who is well-connected.
All but the hapless, non-connected victim come out well. His view, shared by others, is that pay-offs pay off. I referred to the China Sea in a conversation. With a bit of scorn in his voice, a Vietnamese man told us that, because of territorial disputes with China, the government has decreed that the China Sea is no longer the China Sea, and so he would not use that terminology.
As painfully detailed in Pulitzer Prize Winner Joel Brinkley’s Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, Cambodians, while no longer subject to the irrational murder and subjugation campaign of the Khmer Rouge, continue to suffer terribly from an utterly corrupt government and society, a virtually non-existent health care system, and stifling repression.
But amid the poverty and pain there is hope and determination. People trying to get an education. People working hard. One young Cambodian told us that he and his friends are not afraid of the government; they will say what they want to say, no matter the consequences.
In Laos, on a trail in the jungle out of earshot of anyone and everyone, a guide pointed and told me: “If there is a cat over there and the cat is black, and we all know the cat is black, but the government says the cat is white, then the cat is white, and we all know to say the cat is white, and we all say the cat is white, all knowing that the cat is black.”
Then, out in the middle of the jungle, seemingly far from any other human, he looked around, and admonished me not to tell anyone he had said this because it would get him in trouble. As with Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, it is hard to grasp how an entire people can be forced to live lies, and how they do so and survive, albeit not without costs and scars.
One unexpected benefit of traveling in Southeast Asia: no one knows about or cares about Israel and Jews. When we travel and people ask where we are from, our typical response is “California, but we live a good part of the year in Israel and are citizens there also.” Then you brace for a reaction.
In Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the reaction to California is excitement and some envy. The reaction to Israel and Jews is virtually exclusively ignorance and a shrug. A vacation from engagement and contention.
Our two Vietnamese college students from Hanoi Kids did get excited, however. What did they know about Israel and Jews? One of their professors at the College of Foreign Trade had assigned the book Start-up Nation. They just thought we are all smart and innovative and they liked that.
We did meet quite a few Europeans on our Mekong Delta and Halong Bay mini-cruises, so I did expect some blow back when they heard where we were from. But, lo and behold, there appears to be an unspoken agreement among tourists that politics, religion, and national origin are taboo. Stick to talk of wine, good restaurants, and other places to see. A bit boring? Yes, but nice.
We did have an interesting encounter with a British couple at a lovely riverside restaurant along the river in Vang Vieng, Laos. He was from an eighth generation British military family and had spent years, both as a military man and as a private-sector consultant, as an advisor to the then prince, now king of Saudi Arabia.
When I made mention that lately many Brits have not exactly been terrific supporters of Israel, our new dinner companion hastened to assure me that, in fact, “99% of the British think Israel has a right to exist; we just wonder about the settlements and how you survive with all those hostile Arab countries around you.”
Interesting. Is there any other nation in the world where a discussion of whether one is in support of it would devolve immediately, if ever, into a discussion of whether it has a right to exist? Is there ever any other country ever subjected to a question? Why is it only the one Jewish-majority nation in the world the one where an otherwise reasonable and well-educated person would think its right to exist is the litmus test of whether one approves its policies or not. A telling but not, unfortunately, a surprising commentary.
One thing is clear from a trip through these three Southeast Asian countries: When compared to other countries that face development challenges, that have had threats from outside powers, that have resource issues, that have large numbers of minorities, i.e. modern emerging nations, Israel is not doing too badly. When it comes to governance, infrastructure, respect for minority populations, yes, Israel has its challenges and deficiencies. But we are doing pretty well.
Jews question. We ask why this or that cannot be improved. We strive. Israelis complain. Find another country where a minister actually told people to quit whining. But, all in all, a little looking, a little talking, and some reading goes a long way to make you feel pretty good about what has been done here.
Alas, our respite from the daily up-front onslaught of news and battle came to an end. Israel, particularly our home of Jerusalem, had had a rough month of deadly terror attacks, the beginning of a bitter political season, and, of course, continued world focus and condemnation.
Some things never seem to change. Unfortunately.