A Memorable Trip to Cambodia and Vietnam

Growing up, I always waited for my Life magazines, but more especially the monthly National Geographic. My father had a cousin who traveled all over the world, mainly on freight boats as she didn’t mind how she spent her time after losing her husband. Sort of like us during COVID-19. At least she knew she’d eventually get home. We have no idea when this pandemic will end. She, along with the National Geographic, inspired me to want to travel. Three places I dreamed of going were Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, and the Great Wall of China. Machu Picchu is still a dream. I’ve been lucky to travel to China and Tibet (June issue of Attraction magazine) as well as Angkor Wat, which I detail here in Attraction magazine.

Angkor Wat, an UNESCO World Heritage site, is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the early 12th century. Photograph courtesy of Jane Holly.

Four years ago, I worked for Delegate Johnny Mautz when he received an email from Maryland Public Television (MPT) about an upcoming trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. MPT had recently made a documentary on Vietnam and was interviewing Vietnam vets. The trip was the culmination of this project. My former husband, who had served in Vietnam during the war, never wanted to return. I now had an opportunity to visit and I quickly signed up. The Sunday before leaving, Jane Holly contacted me about upcoming dates for our church dinner groups. She noted we were going to be away at the same time – both of us heading off to Vietnam and Cambodia. What a coincidence! Jane and Bruce who live in Easton, have now become very good friends of mine.

Our flight to Cambodia took us from JFK to Seoul, South Korea to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Arriving in the evening, we could smell strange odors and then realized as we approached our hotel, they were burning garbage right in the middle of the city. Everywhere we looked was poverty. It was over 90º with an early morning wakeup call so we could tour Wat Phnom the next morning. Walking, we visited the palace and Buddhist shrine complex where the floor is solid silver and many Buddhas are everywhere. The Genocide Museum is located in a former prison known for its torture. If you have seen “Killing Fields” you will know what I am talking about. We were able to meet with an older gentleman who had been tortured during this devastating period.

After an easy flight to Siem Reap we stayed at the Royal Empire Hotel with an elegant inner pool. Finally, I got my first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the UNESCO World Heritage site. It is so huge and beyond anything I could have imagined. Originally built as a Hindu shrine and later Buddhist, much of it dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Everywhere are stone carvings. Trees and jungle swallow up the stones, water buffalo, monkeys, and an 80-step steep climb up to the tower, which I decided not to attempt but five of our group did. The next day’s visit to Tonle Sap Lake allowed us to see floating villages that included homes, churches, stores, schools, and in the muddied waters crocodiles, drinking water, and fish. Rice is the staple food, augmented by fresh vegetables, fruit, and whatever else can be found, even rats.

Leaving Cambodia, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. It is a new city – new airport, building everywhere and over eight million people and just as many mopeds. Just try crossing a street. Finally, a young man took my arm and got me safely to the other side! The elegant Saigon Central Post Office (built 1896-1901), Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon (1877-1883), the Saigon Opera House, the market teaming with fresh fish, vegetables, exotic fruit, and animals; a lacquer factory; and the Independence Palace filled our day. After dinner, about 10 of us headed to the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel, famous for the photographers who frequented it during the war and the views of the city. We danced a lot, enjoyed a Mai Tai, and saw the Times Square Hotel in varying colors.

Ho Chi Minh is home to over eight million people. Photograph courtesy of Aaron Joel Santos.

The next day we flew to Da Nang to visit the ancient town of Hoi An, a World Heritage site and the trading center for Southeast Asia in the 15th century. Our guide had arranged banh mi sandwiches for each of us. It was delicious on fresh baked French bread. Motorcycles are everywhere and sometimes you can barely see the driver overwhelmed by flowers, food, windows, or whatever he is carting around. The city is lit up by lanterns at night and is an enchanting place.

In 1964, U.S. Marine troops landed in Da Nang, with much of the area sprayed with Agent Orange. Until recently, no trees could even grow. Here we learned the dragon is the symbol of power (on bridge), the tortoise for longevity, the phoenix for good luck. Many people still chew beetle nuts, the red juice is good luck, but it does a number on the teeth. We toured the Marble Mountain marble shop, a little too touristy for me, and no way was I going to carry back a chunk of marble. Our special treat was a cooking class to make rice pancakes and a boat cruise to Kim Bong where we toured the village and boatyard. Now, instead of a wartime base, Da Nang is famous for golf and a beautiful beach.

We continued on to Hue, the once Imperial capital modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing. We saw the Hoa Palace and enjoyed a Cyclo (bicycle pushed rickshaw) ride through an open air market on our way to dinner. In Hue, we took a boat trip on the Perfume River, visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, an incense factory, and ate an enjoyable lunch prepared by Buddhist nuns at a monastery.

I had only seen Halong Bay in photographs, but with its huge rock outcroppings, limestone islands, and underwater caves, it was more than enchanting and more beautiful than I ever could have thought.

Halong Bay was more than enchanting and more beautiful than Katie Barney ever could have imagined. Photograph courtesy of Christian Berg.

Venturing on to Hanoi we found a city filled with cafes (child sized chairs and tables) and young ladies trying to whiten their skin to be more American. The Museum of Ethnology highlights the different ethnic groups of this diverse country and includes recreated villages.

Try navigating through the mopeds in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Photograph courtesy of Christian Berg.

The French quarter in Hanoi has lovely villas, now mostly embassies and government buildings. We visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but the most moving place to visit was the Hanoi “Hilton,” the prison where Vietnamese were once incarcerated by the French, and later U.S. prisoners held by the North Vietnamese. Tears rolled down as I thought about John McCain, but also two dear friends who had been held here for seven plus years. I didn’t know I could be so emotional, but it hit hard. I am thankful I could visit a place I had heard so much about. At the water puppet show we were given puppets, of which I still have one, the other given to my grandsons.

The next day we traveled to So Village where we met an 87-year-old woman making small brooms and watched as the villagers made vermicelli from taro tubers, two souvenirs I brought home. She served us tea, pommelos, and we also sampled rice wine.

I can never forget the impression the trip made on me. In our group were seven people who had served in various capacities during the war – a diplomat, a bridge designer (who was able to visit the bridge he built), a nurse, and someone who was wounded there and vowed to never return. His daughter, who persuaded him to go and traveled with him, hoped his healing from his bitterness of the war would continue.

Larry Unger, President of MPT, also was a fellow traveler. A year after our trip, those of us who could reunioned at MPT in Owings Mills, getting a tour of this incredible facility, and once again enjoying each other’s company. As much as I was opposed to the war, I cannot forget the sights, the smells, and food of two ancient civilizations that I found in Cambodia and Vietnam. Angkor Wat will no longer be a dream, but forever in my memory. Maybe someday I’ll get to Machu Picchu?

Amok (catfish with kreoung)

Amok is the national dish of Cambodia

Serves 4

2 lb. catfish or other type of fish, filleted

1 cup coconut milk

1 cup coconut cream

2 eggs

Kroeung (see below)

Banana leaves

In a bowl, combine the coconut milk, coconut cream, and eggs. Stir in the Kroeung. Place the fish in several banana leaves. Pour coconut mixture on top. Pin the leaves together. Steam in a lan sin (Cambodian steamer) until fish is tender 20-30 minutes. Serve with rice.


4 red chilies, soaked, drained and mashed into a paste

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 shallots, minced

2 tbls. lemon grass stalk

1 tsp. tumeric

1 tsp. galangal

10 kaffir lime leaves

1 tsp. salt

1 tbls. sugar

1 tsp kapi (shrimp paste)

1 tbls. fish sauce

1/4 cup baby spinach

Zest of 1 kaffir lime

Combine the ingredients by pounding them in a bowl, or with mortar and pestle.

Spring Rolls (Not the deep fried kind)

4 people

4 oz. pork loin

8 medium shrimp

Rice vermicelli (a fistful)

4 lettuce leaves

1 cup bean sprouts

Fresh mint leaves

Asian chives

Bean and peanut dipping sauce

Cook pork in boiling water until done. Drain and slice thinly. (As a short cut, this could be substituted with thin slices of store-bought turkey or ham, or thinly sliced pork sausage from Vietnamese grocery stores). Soak rice vermicelli in water until soft for 15 minutes and drain. Dip rice paper in lukewarm water, one sheet at a time; lay on a flat surface. Slice shrimp lengthwise; place sliced shrimp, then pork; then 1 leaf of lettuce and a pinch of mint leaves, and finally the chives. Fold two ends of the rice paper, then roll the mixture tightly. Serve with hoisin and peanut dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup hoisin sauce

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup chopped onion and garlic

1 1/2 cups water

2 tbls. peanut butter

Combine all ingredients except peanut butter in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until onion and garlic become soft. Stir in peanut butter. Serve cool.

Recipe courtesy of Phi Fostvedt, Washington, D.C.

Katie Barney is a local author and world traveler. She is the author of The Enchanting World of Food by www.conduitpress.net.

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