Vietnam is more than you know (and reaching Cambodia the hard way)
Day 2,045 since October 10th 2013: 181 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
Is the last thing you heard - the first you remember?
Egypt: Pyramids. Syria: conflict. USA: Trump. Japan: Sushi. UK: Brexit. Rwanda: Genocide. France: Eifel Tower. Brazil: football. China: wall. Russia: snow. Switzerland: chocolate. Vietnam: war. How wrong do you think you might be about most things you think you know?
They say that ignorance is bliss. They also say that perception is reality. They also say that people are lazy. They say a lot. Sometimes they are right. You might still be in school. It might also be many years since you left school. How many of the topics which you were taught did you stay updated on? They say that 50% of what a medical student learns will be proven wrong over time. But which 50% then? Well, that is the question isn’t it? So you are probably not a doctor or a medical student. However the same kind of applies to your life too. Much of what you think you know and much of what you have been taught is now outdated and in some cases simply not true. On top of that our world today now has a layer of disinformation so it can generally be really hard to know what is true and what is not. Your first impression is important but you can recover from a poor first impression. Often we might find that we are no better than our last results. My personal accomplishment of having reached this far within this project (with a lot of support from many of you) are no better than my last posts, blogs or country visit. So many new followers reach out to me and have no idea of what I have been through to get to this point. And so many people around the world have no clue about what the planet they live on is like. I have gained some insight over the past five years but I far from know it all. And yet I know a lot more than most. The world has changed. So much has changed. Some stayed the same. Are you aware? Are they?
Peoples Committee of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City.
Bitexco Financial Tower.
I first came to Vietnam fifteen years ago. That means I was twenty-five years old and not the same man I am today. I listened to different music, I had different world views, I had different plans for my life and I had friends I no longer see. However elements of me from back then still exist. I still like the Beatles and a handful of my friends from back then are still my friends today. What I’m trying to say is that if you met me fifteen years ago and meet me today thinking that nothing has changed then you are in for a surprise. That is true as well regarding the 2013 me and the 2019 me. And yet I am the sum total of my experiences. B.J Neblett wrote:
“We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.”
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
View from the Sky Deck at the Bitexco Financial Tower.
Vietnam has felt the wrath of war several times over its millennia long history. The region has been far from peaceful however the richness of culture and tradition has been ever growing. Vietnam was occupied by China no fewer than four times throughout history, however the Vietnamese managed to fight off the invaders just as often. At various points during these thousand years of imperial dynasties, Vietnam was ravaged and divided by civil wars and at various times attacked by the Songs, Mongols, Yuans, Chams, Mings, Dutch, Qings, French, Japanese, and the Americans. Yup! Our pale blue spinning dot has never been as peaceful as it is today no matter what the media might lead you to think. Europe used to be one large battle field in the past but mostly enjoys peace today. The world has changed and so has every country on it. Vietnam can pride itself in Water puppetry dating back as far as the 11th century and in 938 CE the Vietnamese developed a trade system to exchange animal skins, ivory and tropical goods for Chinese scrolls on administration, philosophy and literature. If you want to head further back then their famous Dong Son drums are a relic of the sophisticated Bronze Age culture between 500 BCE and 300 CE. And yet the key note reference seems to be of the Vietnam War which lasted from 1954 to 1975. My entire life came after that…and so did life for most Vietnamese. In my opinion that wars continual portrayal in movies, TV shows, songs and magazines completely dominates most people’s thought of this remarkable country and what’s truly significant in Vietnam. It was however formerly America’s longest war until it was surpassed by the war in Afghanistan and an important part of recent Vietnamese history so how can I not mention it…
Vietnamese food is good food.
Nah…you are better off remembering that traditional Vietnamese culture revolves around the core values of humanity, community, harmony, and family. And if you’ve ever been to Vietnam then you are likely to confirm that the street food culture, which is quite popular, is considered by many to be one of the best in the world. And then of course: so much had changed between my first visit fifteen years ago. Like anywhere else, smartphones have found their way into the hands of the Vietnamese. You even order a motorcycle taxi or food delivery via an app. And the driver naturally has a smartphone or even two. It seemed that the preferred app was “Grab” which is dominant in the region. I first came across it in Myanmar. However “VietGo” is giving it some competition in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). HCMC was formally known as Saigon and continues to be so for many. While it is the largest city in Vietnam with some ten million people it is Hanoi in the north which is the capital. I did not head up there this time. There was no need for it as logistically it made no sense and I could handle everything from HCMC. Hanoi is very nice though…at least it was fifteen years ago. And the culture is vastly different in the north compared to the south. In my opinion diversity makes a country strong when managed right. It should not be a reason for separation.
Incense at Thien Hau Pagoda.
An alleyway after the rain.
The Saga is so full of routine and obligation that I can hardly breathe sometimes. It is my own fault as I believe that all of this work will benefit me and many others in the long run. But me oh my how I do regret getting involved with this project from time to time. And I hear you: “don’t give up. You are nearly there. You have come so far”. It is true…however you cannot ask a marathon runner at the finish line to run an additional 20%. Well, I’m not know to quit and I’m not about to…but man!! This has got to get easier! It is however always great to meet up with Maersk – a company which has kept my head above water in more than one sense. Maersk has no obligation towards the Saga but has yet become a part of the very fabric it is made of. And it makes sense! Why would this logistical masterpiece of mine not be related to the world's largest container shipping company? The Saga has been called our times toughest project in modern travel history.
Great team, great questions, great fun. Great! ;)
Lunch with Lam Bui and Giang Nguyen from Sealand and Maersk :)
The Red Cross is a different story. Throughout the Saga I act as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross which in itself is a great honor. However apart from the tittle the Danish Red Cross (DRC) is hardly involved in any way I can think of. They are not supporting financially which I fully agree with. I mean…how could I possibly take money from the Red Cross? They are not offering any logistical support from HQ in Copenhagen which I find peculiar. However the DRC is not in possession of unlimited resources so I write their lack of engagement off as simple resource management. You will not find anything across the DRC social media which relates to Once Upon A Saga. The Saga is however successful on a local level where National Societies most often thoroughly enjoy my visits, the benefits it brings and the accomplishment thus far. I argue that the Saga is the greatest attempt in history to unify the entire movement in a single journey. I do so on the basis that Gerard Stark completed visits to 148 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies before dying in a tragic motorcycle accident back in 2003. I have as of Vietnam reached the Red Cross or Red Crescent in 176 countries. Unfortunately for the Saga the organisation is fiercely independent and my efforts are not spreading on a global level. As such a visit remains a local success within each country. The DRC, the International Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent (IFRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appear uninterested and unimpressed even after all this time and the routine of establishing contact, scheduling a meeting, paying a visit and afterwards creating an online promotion is tiresome and time consuming. But what can I do? I am fairly interested in the accomplishment of completing a visit to the Red Cross in as many countries as possible. It feels like the right thing to do. And on and off my efforts do inspire people to volunteer or make donations. Every little bit counts.
Beautiful how the VNRC placed the Vietnam and Danish flags together ;)
Bloody Red Cross!!! Nah, that’s just a play on words. Because the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Branch of the Hội Chữ thập đỏ Việt Nam (Vietnamese Red Cross (VNRC)) has a mighty impressive Blood Transfusion Hematology Hospital in which they receive over 260,000 blood donations every year!! And they are looking for new professionals to join the team!! I was greeted with much kindness at HCMC branch office where we talked about their major impact on society. They enjoy support from 215,000 members and 27,000 volunteers in HCMC alone! No small thing!!
The VNRC was established in 1946 and the HCMC branch which I visited is represented in every district. They operate ten hospitals and are well known for their humanitarian engagement. They are involved on so many levels: providing first aid training, handing out first aid kits, sponsoring medical support, free meals, sponsored eye and heart operations, 4,000 scholarships/year, provide cows to poor households, construct households, arrange for large scale support marches (10,000 ppl), support with international humanitarian aid and A WHOLE LOT MORE! Mighty impressive!! Three major areas of work for them are:
1) The blood center!
2) Awareness of first aid within the public!
3) Protecting the population against air pollution and ensuring a supply of safe drinking water!
Dinner with the VNRC management from HCMC. Fun people :)
I was invited to join the Red Cross celebration with speeches, parades, dancing and music. It took place on Sunday May 12th.
No lack of rain during my visit.
I reached Vietnam just as the rain season began to set in. So on some days it would rain every hour for ten minutes. On other days it would rain afternoons. I did have some extra time on my hands than usually. For the next few countries I do not need to apply for any visas so that’s a load off my back. The visas I need are available at the borders. And I’m not looking to board any ships for a while so that saves me time as well. SIM cards are cheap here in Southeast Asia and Wi-Fi is plentiful and good. That also saves me time as I do a lot of online work and the faster the internet is the better. It is easy to get around: trains, buses, taxis, tuktuk’s, motorcycles etc…and to top it off distances are relatively small now. The distance from HCMC to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) is merely 202 km (126 mi). Phnom Penh to Bangkok is only 334 km (208 mi) as the crow flies however more than three times as far by land. Overland travel does not compare to flying. But you know that. I’ve said it before.
Can you spot the rat?
With the extra time on my hands I had some spare time for walking about in HCMC which has really changed a lot. Many high-rises are now towering above the city, there are far more cafes, lots of the colonial architecture had been renovated and I generally found the city to be cleaner as well. I ended up staying at a really nice and clean hostel for $5.5 USD per night. I frequently dined on the street for $1-2 USD and I mostly just walked wherever I needed to go. But a short ride on the back of a motorcycle wouldn’t be more than a dollar and often less. In a park I found some tranquillity from the hustle along the roads and I also spotted a great many squirrels. I like squirrels although they are somehow just cute rats. But then I saw some less cute squirrels…no…what…that was a rat. And another! And another! There were plenty of them throughout the park. I wonder if the rain had pushed them out of the sewers but a second opinion told me that people leave so much food in the parks that they are always there.
Noah takes great pictures! Find him on instagram: @NomadicNoah
I also had time to meet with both Luke and Noah who independently reached out over Instagram. Two very different people. I met Noah at noon and we sat down to talk about travel and life. Noah has been to 131 countries which is an enormous amount!! He’s from Texas in the USA but is really more a man of international wonder. He travels the way I think travel should. He is free of most obligation and stays as long as he pleases. He explores the countries and tries to experience life as it is for the locals. That’s how traveling should be. And that is also why the Saga is not really a travel project. The Saga is an achievement in which a lot of travel is required. Good man Noah! :)
In the late afternoon I met up with Luke from Plymouth in the UK. He has been living in Vietnam nearly as long as I have been away from home. He came to Vietnam to teach English and now works at the British International School. He brought me to a super cool café in a renovated colonial building which had been brought back to life with cafes and restaurants on every level and several on each level. Quite an interesting use for an old apartment building. Luke happens to be a phenomenal photographer so you might want to check him out on Instagram. Just follow this link and enjoy: @LukeNeville123
Luke then asked if I was interested in speaking at his school?
Have you ever told 300 year 5 and 6 students, that you’ve reached 180 countries in an unbroken journey completely without flying...and then asked them if they have any questions?!? It was simply amazing getting to interact with these bright students at the British International School - Ho Chi Minh City (BIS)! My great appreciation goes out to Luke and Chris at BIS for organizing this. Luke has been following the Saga for years and pitched it to his Deputy Head Teacher. High fives all around! And as such it became the 94th speaking event throughout the Saga. Closing in on the big 100!
Tân Định church is a church built during the French colonial period in the 1870s and completely built in 16th December 1876, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina.
It didn’t take long before I was off again. The Saga does not complete itself and there are more countries up ahead: Cambodia, (Thailand), Malaysia, Singapore etc… I dropped in on a few temples, ate some food, took some photos, did some research, and before I knew of it I was on my way to Cambodia. But before letting go of Vietnam I must stress that if you think there is nothing more to Vietnam than a war which ended in the 70s then you are in need of getting an update. Schools, Universities, companies, businesses, markets, cafes, selfies, trekking, waterfalls, beaches, mountains, caves, farms, colour, taste, texture, invention, football, games, rice, noodles, traffic, rats, squirrels, shipping, humanity, libraries, museums, love, anger, peace and everything in between. Vietnam is a funny mix of culture from USA, China and Vietnam. Legend has it that the people of this land originated from a union between an immortal Chinese princess and “The Dragon Lord of the Seas”.
Bus number 312 since I left home.
I went to bed at 01:00am and got up before 06:00am in time for my 06:45am $12 USD bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I sat down to a man close to his 70s and we began to talk. He was originally born in Vietnam and lived there throughout much of the war before leaving for Switzerland. Now he has spent the past forty years in Australia. He was on his way to visit family in Cambodia. We both had a Vietnamese ice coffee as the bus took off. A few hours later we reached the border and it was no issue crossing. However there was a tendency in Cambodia which I had not seen in Vietnam. Some teenagers were on the bus and the steward on board tried to scam them while waiting for our visas at the border by saying that the bus would leave without them and that they had to pay more. He didn’t try that with me. Maybe it’s my big bushy beard. Maybe it’s the distance in my eyes. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe something else. As we came across the border the bus made a stop and we had thirty minutes to use the toilet and/or get something to eat. I got a hold of a local SIM card and an instant soup.
Casinos were lining the roadside just across the border. I hear that the Chinese are investing heavily in Cambodian tourism and that they have bought up large stretches of beaches and have built hundreds of casinos and hotels. It soon enough began to rain again. The outside temperature was something! 32 degrees C (90 F) with a humidity of 64%. I soon made it to Phnom Penh and pushed my way past all the tuktuk drivers fighting for my attention. Then I found a restaurant and had a green curry which looked a lot better than what it tasted. It was slightly watery. Usually food tastes better than what it looks? However as I got to the bottom the taste was good and strong. Then I downloaded “PassApp” which is the leading app in Cambodia for booking a tuktuk. Yeah – Cambodia has changed too. My driver had two smartphones attached to his vehicle. I had also been to Cambodia fifteen years ago and to the famous Angkor Wat twice. Cambodia is famous for a few things. One of them is certainly Angkor Wat. I’ll touch upon another in next week’s entry. However if you are interested then Cambodia has been declared as having the world’s best rice thrice before and the Kampot pepper is world renowned for its taste.
My first few days in Cambodia were as good as they could get. Kent had reached out to me long ago across social media and offered me a home once I reached country number 181. As such we had been in touch for a while. I arrived at his home and met him for the first time…or did I? Let’s get back to that in a bit. I was introduced to his lovely wife Christina and their FOUR children Asger (9y), Carola (7y), Magnus (5y) and Elias (3y). A really warm and loving family from the Kingdom of Denmark in the high north of Europe! ;) I served in the Royal Danish Lifeguard some twenty years ago and when us soldiers needed a break from the army barracks we would head across the road to KFUM's Soldiers' Home, where we could play board games, have some decent food, hang out, wash our clothes and breathe some civilian air. The KFUM's Soldiers' Home is a Christian mission which offers guidance and support to the soldiers if required. For me it was however just a place away from the army barracks. It turns out that Kent used to work there twenty years ago and that he actually remembers me?!? My first question was: “for something good or bad”. Kent doesn’t really remember me as much as he recognizes me. He is really good with faces and sort of remembers that something once happened in the line for food and that I was standing nearby. That is pretty vague but it was twenty years ago.
I was given my own room on the third floor of their house which lies a little outside of Phnom Penh city center. My room was equipped with air-conditioning, a fan, WIFI, towels, water, mint candy, a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and a long line of other accessories. Amazing! We sat down and had a delicious home cooked meal and talked until late into the evening. The Andersen’s are a really nice family. Both Kent and Christina speak some Khmer which is the local language and some of the kids do too as well as both English and Danish. It is the benefits of growing up abroad. Kent and Christina are Christian Missionaries (Evangelical Lutheran (Protestant)) and are doing great work as far as I can tell. Kent has studied theology and works as Faculty Teacher at Phnom Penh Bible School (PPBS). Christina works with girls whom have been sold to or otherwise end up in prostitution. She is changing lives for victims of human trafficking at Daughters of Cambodia (DoC). The School of hard knocks is prevalent for many in Cambodia and whether you are religious or not a friendly hand is always worth reaching for. I have seen enough of this world to know that many people have a strong need for hope.
First (real) meal in Cambodia in fifteen years.
That brings us to the end of this entry and the next one will be entirely from Cambodia. I am expecting a special guest to arrive on Saturday. You might even be able to guess whom ;) Cambodia is a super easy country to reach from Vietnam. A few hours on a bus and then $30 USD for a 30 day visa at the border. Tourist take that trip all the time. It’s a piece of cake. But yours truly didn’t “just” do that. Nope! In your company we left Denmark on October 10th 2013 and visited EVERY COUNTRY on four continents...and then some...before coming here. And in an unbroken journey completely without flying!!! That last part is pretty important too. And that is the how you reach Cambodia THE HARD WAY! ;)
I was awarded this pin during my stay in HCMC. The local government gives this as a recognition for individuals who have contributed to the city. The VNRC presented me with it.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - twenty-two countries from home.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga