by Carol Rose Hall
Crowded, cosmopolitan cities; quiet, misty rice paddies; ancient temple ruins: these were part of the lure of exotic Southeast Asia that drew us to the Northwestern Alumni Association’s Treasures of Indochina tour. For two weeks last February we explored the wonders of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, staying in luxurious hotels, sampling a variety of Asian cuisines (even learning to cook a few dishes) and being charmed by the friendly, gracious people we met.
We began in Bangkok, Thailand, a vibrant city on the Chao Phraya River. Our hotel, the Bangkok Peninsula, was located along the shore, and we quickly learned the ferry system to the shopping district on the opposite riverbank. That evening we enjoyed our first taste of Bangkok on a relaxing get-acquainted river cruise.
Bangkok is a city known for its pagodas and temples, richly ornamented and fascinating to visit. But it is also a city of stark contrast, the ancient temples, stilted houses and old shops squeezed between the massive new luxury high-rises that dwarf them.
Most travelers have a list of places they’d like to see before they die. My list included our next stop, the fabled Angkor Wat, a temple in an ancient Khmer city hidden in the jungle in northwestern Cambodia.
After flying to Siem Reap, we headed to Angkor Thom for an extensive tour of the Bayon temple and its elaborate carvings, as well as the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. The presence of orange-robed Buddhist monks, who still live near these ruins, reminded us we were in a holy place.
The next morning we left early for Angkor Wat to avoid the heat and the crowds, and for several hours we had this marvel largely to ourselves. By the time the sun was high we were at the final level; there, the hardiest among us scaled a steep staircase to the top and its view, while the rest of us remained in the shade.
The most spectacular site, in my opinion, was the brooding temple ruins of Ta Prohm, left largely as it was when it was found: the roots of banyan, fig and kapok trees breaking the stones in two and growing through and over the ruins. Ta Prohm is hushed and mesmerizing, almost otherworldly, in its remoteness from time and civilization.
Cool, misty Hanoi, Vietnam, was a welcome relief from the sultry weather of Thailand and Cambodia and a surprise to me. Instead of the dour, drab city I was expecting, I found tropical greenery, elegant French architecture and wide avenues — a lovely city to stroll and explore. This is also, of course, a city dominated by the memory of Ho Chi Minh, and our city tour included his mausoleum and home among other sites of historical and cultural interest, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the Hoa Lo Prison where U.S. soldiers were imprisoned during the Vietnam War.
Traffic in Hanoi is an experience in itself, with cars, cyclos (bicycle taxis) and hordes of motor scooters playing a giant game of bumper cars to a continuing chorus of horns. We learned to “walk slowly” when crossing the street to let traffic (hopefully) flow around us. Our second day we became a part of the game as we set off from our hotel for a cyclo tour of the city, careening through the French Quarter, dodging pedestrians. We ended up at the Long Bien market, which we toured with our personal chef from Seasons of Hanoi restaurant; later we donned aprons for a cooking class using the food we had purchased.
Back to the sun and heat in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, which is not as lush as Hanoi and much larger, busier and more commercial. Although our suitcases bulged with Thai silks and jewelry, Cambodian carvings and spices, and Vietnamese clothing and art, we managed to find a few spaces where we could stuff one or two more things.
One evening several of us had drinks atop the Rex Hotel, a favorite hangout of U.S. military officers during the war. On our last day we traveled to the Cu Chi region, where we visited the underground tunnel system, originally built as a defense against the French and later used against U.S. forces. We even had an opportunity to enter a section of the system and crawl along the narrow, dark tunnels.
Our stay in Vietnam had an especially poignant tone because one of our tour members, Thanh Cohn, was returning to see her former country — and her family — for the first time in almost 32 years. Thanh was in a U.S. Agency for International Development scholarship program for statisticians in Washington, D.C., when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Unable to return home, she completed her education, got a job with a consulting firm, married Henry Cohn (L72) and had a son. Thanh subsequently learned that shortly after the fall of Saigon her father, a high-ranking South Vietnamese government official, was imprisoned by the new regime. Thanh managed to send money home to provide support for her mother and younger siblings, allowing them to remain in their home. Thanks to Thanh’s efforts, her father found his family upon his release from captivity after 15 years. Sadly, he died about three years later.
Thanh’s long-awaited reunion with her surviving family members was a joy we all shared! We were especially pleased that Thanh’s younger sister, Xuan, was able to join us for dinner on our next-to-last evening in Saigon.
Years ago, we ended special events at Northwestern with the song “To the Memories.” It is still my favorite Northwestern song and seems a fitting way to end this account. To the terrific group of alums who shared this remarkable journey with me, “To the Memories.” We’re still making them!
Carol Rose Hall (SESP64) lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz., with her husband, Edward Hall (McC65, GMcC70).
For more information on upcoming NAA trips, visit www.alumni.northwestern.edu/travel/index.html or call 1-800-NU-ALUMS.