Ao Dai

The ao dai is the national costume in Vietnam worn by women typically during special occasions, including weddings, holidays, and any formal occasions. The attire includes silk form-fitting tunic worn over a trouser. The word ‘ao dai’ was originally attributed to the outfit worn at the court of the Nguyen dinasty in the 18th century. It was modernized in the 20th century to be the style typically seen today, which took some cues from Parisian fashions at the turn of century. I think today when you see a woman with ao dai, it would be as recognizeable as a national costume like the sari for Indian women and the kimono for Japanese women. One thing unique about it is that it’s pretty much custom fit to the individual since it’s form-fitting. Since most of the Vietnamese women are pretty small and slim, generally this looked very good, elegant, and graceful on them. I’m not sure how that would look if you have some of the large-sized women from the western countries try to wear these costumes…

I first saw women wearing ao dai in the United States at the Vietnamese culture centers (like a Vietnamese strip mall I occasionally visit), especially around important holidays (like Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year) or when there is an important ceremony (like a wedding). When I was preparing for the Southeast Asia trip, I read information blogs about the destinations. One of them was a very informative guide on travelblog written by a Vietnamese lady with the username theRedRiver (taking the name from the Red River that passes through her hometown city of Hanoi). In the travelblogs not only she gave information about Vietnam and the cities and culture there, but also she wrote about her adventures traveling to other countries. One of the things she liked to do when visiting places is to get her photo taken in her red ao dai costume.

When we visited the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, since it was the 2nd of January, we saw signs to celebrate the New Year there. And since it was also a Sunday, we also saw many visitors, and among them were some Vietnamese ladies in ao dai that came with photographers. It looked like they came to get their photos taken with the traditional architecture as background. You can see in the photo below two of those ladies walking by in their ao dai costumes after they finished with their photoshoot.

Girls in Ao Dai

Ho Chi Minh Museum

The last building one would see in a tour of the Ho Chi Minh Complex in Hanoi, Vietnam, is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. This big, imposing building was built in the late 1980s and it was inaugurated in 1990 to mark the birth centennary of Ho Chi Minh. The building was built in a shape of white lotus flower. At the center of the building there is a large auditorium that is used for meetings and conferences. The main exhibition floor shows documents and show pieces that highlight Ho Chi Minh’s life and his revolutionary cause.

By the time we reached the museum, I think we’ve gone through enough displays on Ho Chi Minh that we were not that interested in spending more time there. We decided to rest a little bit, and took photos outside the museum, and then looked for the entrance where we came from to find the place where we could claim our backpacks that we left there before coming in.

I’m not sure what the Vietnamese government officially promoted this museum to be, or what the Vietnamese people think of the content of the display. But considering the stereotype of a communist government, and given everything else that we could see that promoted Ho Chi Minh as a national hero (or even higher status than that), I couldn’t help to think that this place might be part of a propaganda campaign to promote the communism values. It’s still interesting to think that even with such government control in place, life in Vietnam (especially in Hanoi as we saw it) seemed to be nothing different than what we see elsewhere — the signs of economic progress and capitalism could be seen everywhere and it didn’t seem that the local Vietnamese felt oppressed by the government.

The photo below was taken outside the museum. I thought it was interesting to note the sculpture at the front of the building prominently showed the hammer and the sickle, the symbol of communism, and there was also the Vietnamese flag in the front (red flag with yellow star). Not that often you would get a picture taken with such symbols in the background.

With hammer and sickle

Wealth Equals Happiness?

While waiting at the foot of the Bakong temple when my cousin Kristi went up to the top of the towers, I had an interesting discussion with our tour guide Vanna. He asked me at one point about my background, and I told him about growing up in Indonesia but then continuing my education and now living in the United States. He said I must be very fortunate and it must be ‘living the dream.’ He also said that it must be nice living in a wealthy country like the United States as you don’t have to deal with the poverty like in Cambodia. That when I told him that while I certainly agree that I feel blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to get to where I am today, life in the United States may not be as ‘nice’ as it might seem to be to those looking from the outside. It has its own set of problems.

I told Vanna about some contemporary issues that we’re dealing with in the United States. I live in the area of the country that was ranked highest in the list of counties in the United States based on the median household income (in comparison, that number is almost 40 times the average annual income of people in Cambodia). On the surface, it’s a very nice area with many single-family homes, well manicured lawns, nice cars on the street, and people seemed ‘happy.’ But the reality is that a lot of the people here are living beyond their means, and their under heavy debt to finance such nice living. About 1 in every 1,000 homes in the area received foreclosure notice in the last year (and Virginia is actually not doing as bad as many other states in the US like California or Nevada). When I asked Vanna if he’s ever heard of the term foreclosure, I drew a blank stare. Even after I explained the concept of people borrowing money from the bank to purchase a home, and then if they couldn’t pay up, the bank would reposess the home, that idea was such a foreign concept to him that he was very surprised to hear that such ‘wealthy people’ would be in financial trouble like that. I also told him about one of the executives of a large company that manages the home mortgages committing suicide after being under heavy stress on the job. Also, the fact that there are so many broken homes in the United States — divorced parents, the concept of ‘blended family’ with the step parents/children/sibling — a lot of things that was foreign concept in Cambodia. Basically, my point was that even in ‘wealthy country’ like the United States, there are problems, and simply making more money does not really make it problem free — just different kinds of problems.

So what was the point of all of these? I think it shows that sometimes we think ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ and seeing life is better elsewhere. After seeing the difficult life that they live in Cambodia as they are rebuilding from the years of civil war, I can’t fault them for wanting to have what others elsewhere in the world have. However, it’s important also to think that having the material riches does not make life trouble free, and there are also other things in life that contributes to the sense of happiness like the relationships one have, the belief that one has about the meaning of life, etc. In fact I thought it’s interesting to hear frequent comments from visitors to Cambodia about coming to the ‘land of smiles’ where they seem to be greeted with friendly faces everywhere in the country, even when meeting people who may not have much materially. You don’t hear that kind of comment from people visiting to a ‘powerhouse’ city like New York City, for example (in fact my initial impression of New Yorkers from the first business trips I made there was that they are very cold, individualistic, and it didn’t seem to be a friendly place to be around).

As a visitor who is fortunate to have the means to be able to travel and visit places like Cambodia, my lesson learned is to appreciate the gift of life that I have and be grateful of the circumstance I’m in (even though at times life is also challenging/difficult even when you have things materially). I think it’s also important to not be a snob, feeling entitled, and looking down at the locals who may not have as much materially. These folks may have other things that we don’t have (for example, a closer-knit family, or wisdom and contentment that come from perseverance through hard times), and in general I think we should respect the people we’re visiting as we’re merely guests at their home. Also when considering such difference between the income level there and where we come from, I think we should be generous especially when we’ve been provided with great service. And sometimes the gratuity does not have to come in the form of money — it can be in the form of souvenirs/keepsakes from our home country, or even just simply doing something nice for those who serve you, like inviting them for a meal during your trip. You’ll make wonderful friendship (and memories) that way.

The photo below was taken by Kristi from the top of the Bakong temple tower. You could see some locals — looked like they’re female monks — coming to the temple as a group to worship. It’s probably a good example of something rich that they have (culturally, spiritually) that you may not see in other places where the emphasis is more on material things.

Worshipper at Bakong

Vanna the Tour Guide

In many of the previous posts I mentioned our tour guide’s name, Chea Vanna. Having him as our private tour guide definitely made a great difference to enhance our experience exploring Siem Reap. He was very knowledgeable about the history and cultural background behind many of the places that we visited, and he was quite personable and engaging. I thought I would write a blog post about him as I’m closing in to the conclusion of the Siem Reap part of my Southeast Asia trip.

When we started our sightseeing on the first day, Vanna introduced himself and told us a little bit about his background. He grew up in a village near Phnom Penh. After graduating from the university, he worked in an office job for a couple of years, and then decided to switch career to become a tour guide. He learned English and read a lot on the Khmer history, and then he went through the certification process to become an official tour guide (you have to be licensed in order to serve as a tour guide in the Angkor Archaeological Park area). When he guided us, he had been a tour guide for around three years, and he said he loved his job as it allowed him to meet people from around the world and learned about other cultures from his customers.

I asked Vanna if he was employed by Derleng Tours, the tour company that arranged our visit to Siem Reap. He said he did tours for Derleng quite frequently, but he was actually an independent guide. He worked with a couple of other tour companies in addition to Derleng Tours. He said he liked working with Derleng as it was a locally-owned company; he preferred that than some big tour companies that are foreign-owned.

During our tour there were times when Vanna excused himself for having to check his phone for text messages. That’s how he arranged bookings for future tours. Typical engagement was similar to ours, about three days. Sometimes it’s as short as only a day trip, or as long as a whole week. The size of the group he led varied from small group (2 people) like ours to larger group (15 people). I asked him if that pretty much made it a full-time job. He said yes, though there were days when he purposefully left open on his schedule so he could rest and volunteer teaching English at a local school. I thought that’s great that he used his knowledge and skills to help others to also improve their lives.

During the three days that we spent in Siem Reap, I enjoyed visiting to the places and having conversations with Vanna along the way and learned a little bit about life in Cambodia. In turn he also asked me about how life is like in both the United States and Indonesia, and it’s quite an interesting conversation comparing and contrasting the life and culture as we knew them.

I took the photo below when we were exploring the Terrace of the Elephants inside Angkor Thom. Here was Vanna explaining about the three-headed elephants to Kristi.

Vanna the Tour Guide


When visiting Cambodia, one thing you will notice on the street is the popularity of a Toyota Camry. It seems that if you go anywhere, if you go on a sedan, it’s likely to be a Toyota Camry. Not really sure how that came about, but these days a lot of used Camry, mostly five years old or older, are imported from other countries like the United States and sold in the used car market in Cambodia.

During our visit in Cambodia, when we were in Phnom Penh we had two separate drivers who took us around on the first couple of days there. Both drove Camrys. When we were in Siem Reap, we went around in passenger vans, so those were not Camrys. But we still saw many of them around also in Siem Reap. On the New Year’s Eve night, while waiting for our hotel shuttle to arrive, Kristi and I looked around for the cars passing by to see if indeed Camry was the most popular car in Cambodia, and sure enough, I think more than half of the cars we saw that were not buses or passenger vans were all Camrys. We also noticed another model that was pretty common, Lexus RX300. Knowing that Lexus is made by Toyota mostly for the US market, my guess is that these cars were originally used in the US, but then in its later part of life it was sold and brought into Cambodia.

I asked our tour guide Vanna about this. He said, yes, Camry definitely is the car of choice in Cambodia. He said there are three brand names that are household names in Cambodia: Nokia, Honda, and Toyota. Most people own a cellular phone, and while you might find Blackberrys and Apple iPhones occassionally, the most popular brand of phones was undoubtedly Nokia. Not many people can afford to buy cars, so for personal transportation it’s more common that people would buy a scooter, and the most popular brand for scooters in Cambodia was Honda. And for those who have enough money to purchase a car, the popular choice was a Toyota Camry. Vanna said one day he wished he would have enough money to get one.

I looked for a photo among the collection I took during our trip in Cambodia for one that best used for this post. Below is one that didn’t make it to my photojournal album for the trip, but I think it’s a good example of what you see in Cambodia. This was taken from the back seat of our car (a Camry) during a drive in Phnom Penh after we visited the Killing Fields. The scene that caught my attention was the motorcycle on the left carrying bags full of lime, a key ingredient in Khmer cuisine. But you can also see on this photo in the background on the opposite side of the street several other people in scooters (quite a common sight in Southeast Asian countries), and on the right, another car right in front of us, and you guessed it, it’s a Toyota Camry.

Bags of lime and Camry

King Father Norodom Sihanouk

I wrote a post last month about the Thai King. Cambodia is also a Kingdom, and it has a King as well. The King’s role is mostly ceremonial, but similar to the Thai people, the Cambodians also revere their King. Their current King is King Norodom Sihamoni, who became King in 2004 replacing his father King Father Norodom Sihanouk who abdicated his Throne due to health reasons. If King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand is the longest reigning monarch in the world, King Father Norodom Sihanouk held the world record for the number of positions that he held during his lifetime. The Guinness Book of World Records identifies him as the politician who has served the world’s greatest variety of political offices. These included two terms as King, two as Sovereign Prince, one as president, two as prime minister, and one as Cambodia’s non-titled head of state, as well as numerous positions as leader of various governments-in-exile.

When Kristi and I visited the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, we saw an exhibit at the museum dedicated to the life of the King Father Norodom Sihanouk. He was born in 1922 (so he’s 90 years old this year) and first became King in 1941. At the exhibit, there was a photo of him with the first Indonesian President, Soekarno, not long after Indonesia gained its independence. That’s how long he’s been around. People in Cambodia revered him, as evident to him being restored to his position as the King of Cambodia in 1993 after years of being in exile during the Khmer Rouge era.

The photo below was taken when we visited the Banteay Srei temple near Siem Reap. It was the photos of the current King Norodom Sihamoni on the left, the King Father Norodom Sihanouk in the middle, and Queen Monique on the right.

Cambodian Royal Family

Khmer Empire

The most popular place to visit in Cambodia is the Angkor Wat. While in itself it’s already quite impressive being the largest religious structure in the world, it’s even more impressive to learn that it was only one of many temples in an area called Angkor that at one time was the largest pre-industrial city in the world (about 1,000 square kilometres in area — more than 10 times the size of Manhattan). This was during the heights of the Khmer Empire, between the 9th and 15th centuries. The Khmer Empire at its height spans all the way to modern day Thailand in the west, the modern day Laos in the north, and the modern day Vietnam in the east.

During our visit to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, we also saw some museum display that showed artifacts from the Khmer Empire era, and particularly interesting to me was seeing a map of the Khmer Empire superimposed on the geographical map of the modern world — clearly showing how vast that empire was. I couldn’t help to think of the contrast between seeing this map that in a subtle way saying the Khmer culture is more superior than its neighbors the Thai and the Vietnamese, and seeing the model of Angkor Wat at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, which was built to commemorate the time when the Thai conquered the Angkor area. It’s interesting to think of these two cultures that are both deeply rooted in Buddhism (thus advocating peace and not being confrontational), but they still have the nationalistic pride when comparing themselves with their neighboring countries.

The photo below was taken at the museum in the Royal Palace. It was the Khmer Empire map I mentioned above.

Khmer Empire map