Above: Monumental limestone formations rise from the depths of Halong Bay, one of the most popular attractions in Vietnam.
Writer: Kelly Roberson
When Kenneth M. Quinn met his future wife, Le Son, in Saigon, South Vietnam, he was a newly minted diplomat working as a rural development adviser in the Mekong Delta. “It was November 1968,
I was 26 years old, and I had been dreaming of a post to London, Paris or Vienna,” he recalls.
South Vietnam may not have been in his plans, but it was a fortuitous spot for his future. He and Le Son, whose family had fled south from North Vietnam in 1954, married in 1974. Future postings took their family from Southeast Asia to Washington, D.C., then to Cambodia in 1996, where Kenneth Quinn served as ambassador until 1999.
Later the couple returned to those distant outposts, albeit as vacationers, not residents or diplomats. Here they share insights for travelers to these exotic lands.
Planning a Visit: It’s possible to get a good overview of both Cambodia and Vietnam in one trip; the Quinns suggest starting in Ho Chi Minh City as a base. On their journey, they drove south to
My Tho and boarded a boat, which traveled up the Mekong River and made stops along the way, including in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, before returning by plane to Hanoi and then
Ho Chi Minh City.
Cultural Influences: Although the countries share a border, Vietnam and Cambodia differ in key ways. “Vietnam has more of a feel that resembles China,” the former ambassador says. “There’s a rush of economic activity, and people look different than they do in Cambodia or Laos. The language is tonal—sort of sing-song.”
Cambodia, however, shows more of the Indian subcontinent influence. “There’s a different kind of Buddhism and different look to the temples,” he says. “Houses look different—they’re built on stilts, particularly in the countryside—and the traditional dress is sort of a colorful sari worn by women.”
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City: When the career diplomat journeyed back to Vietnam in 1977 as part of the first post-Vietnam War delegation sent by President Jimmy Carter, Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) retained its hustle and bustle, but Hanoi—capital of the North—demonstrated little economic energy. But the intervening decades have leveled out the economies of the two. “Hanoi is like Saigon used to be—a hub of motorbikes and activity,” Kenneth Quinn says. “In 1977, you couldn’t find a restaurant in Hanoi, and now they are everywhere.”
Hanoi’s old quarter remains well-preserved, the Quinns say, with Ho Hoan Kiem Lake at its center. The centuries-old art of water puppetry can still be seen at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi, too.
In Ho Chi Minh City, take a peek at the Rex Hotel, the Quinns suggest; it was the American officers’ club during the war. The Rex and the nearby Majestic Hotel have rooftop bars with sweeping views of the city.
Not to Miss in Cambodia: There are historic sites that draw many visitors to Phnom Penh, including the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and the National Museum; all are worth a visit, the Quinns agree. But none stand out against Angkor Wat.
First a Hindu and then a Buddhist site, Angkor Wat is a temple complex on more than 400 acres in Cambodia; it is the country’s most famous cultural and historic site and should not be missed, they say. “It’s the experience of a lifetime, and one of the two things that you’ll never forget,” says the former ambassador. “The scope of the society that existed is breathtaking.”
The other thing that’s unforgettable but necessary, say the Quinns, is visiting sites that mark the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. Their genocide killed up to 3 million people between 1975 and 1979. “When I was at the embassy in 1996, I had 150 employees and asked them who [had been] in a Khmer Rouge camp; every hand went up. Cambodia culture came this close to being eradicated,” says Kenneth Quinn. “I asked who had an immediate family member die, and every hand went up.” The museum site Choeng Ek, close to Phnom Penh, commemorates the lives lost.
Not to Miss in Vietnam: Vietnam doesn’t possess similar cultural sites to Angkor Wat, but there are several scenic and historical sites that are must-visits, say the Quinns. Tour the Cu Chi Tunnels, the underground network that the North Vietnamese used to move troops and weapons. And drive north several hours to Halong Bay, a top tourist draw, which “is the most distinctive scenic place in all of Vietnam,” says Kenneth Quinn. “There are limestone mountains that jut out into the sea.” From there, “you can book a ship to take you out for the day and even sleep overnight on it.”
Worth Bringing Home: Silk and embroidery stand out in Vietnam, says Le Son Quinn. “You pick out the silk and they can make a jacket in a few days,” she says. In Cambodia, silver is a good choice, although be sure to work with someone who demonstrates the metal’s purity, she suggests.