Boker Tov Indochina

The author in a cyclo - bicycle rickshaw

Me in a cyclo - bicycle rickshaw


Comparing Vietnam, Cambodia and Israel:
Traffic, Catastrophes and Salesmanship†

6 June 2011

As I write, I’m sitting down to what my local Aroma café calls a Jerusalem breakfast, tomatoes, cucumbers, humus and a bureka with Bulgarian cheese. The counter table, with its confusion of coffee and laptops, is quite a change from the hotel buffets I had become used to last month in Vietnam and Cambodia, where most of theorganized tour skipped over the noodles and clear soup to eat exactly the same as they were used to at home – tomatoes, cucumbers, humus and something resembling burekas.’ Good Morning’ it made me think. What, if anything, can an Israeli learn from a superficial visit to these very dissimilar countries?

When one reaches Hanoi, our first stop, the first impression to hit you is the traffic. Only later, when you realize how unlikely it is to actually hit you and confident enough to raise your eyes do you see the pretty remnants of a French colonial past and much later do you notice the frightening birds nest of electrical wires – a Bezeq technician’s worst nightmare. I can only surmise that when there’s a problem they can’t find whose line connects where. So they add a new one – leaving the old like last year’s dead foliage. As often as not the tangle of wires is further complicated by a tangle of tree limbs growing under and through the wires.

Saigon traffic

Saigon traffic

Motor bike straight flush Siem Reap Cambodia.

Motor bike straight flush Siem Reap Cambodia

Thousands of motorbikes, mopeds and scooters move with a fluency that resembles nothing so much as inside a hive of bees. There are beeping horns a plenty but somehow the emotions they convey are not Israeli. In Hanoi a beeping horn is a warning, ‘I am in immediate danger of hitting you. Get out of my way’. In Israel the same horn, deeper and louder coming from an automobile is much more aggressive and emotional. ‘Hey you, five vehicles ahead. I don’t care if you are stopped because there’s a truck blocking the road. You’re delaying me’ or ‘the traffic light will turn green in 10 seconds, why aren’t you moving yet’? Wasn’t it Danny Sanderson who said that no Israeli could write ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ because they’re all in too much of a hurry?

There are helmet laws in Vietnam but only for the driver, mostly. Two on a motorbike, often including an unprotected young child crammed in what to Israeli eyes is a suicidal position between driver and handle bars is normal. Three riding is common. For most of the tour I tried for the photographer’s Straight Flush of four travelling on the same two-wheeler but only succeeded on the last day, in Cambodia where traffic is much less hectic. I snapped four adults, trumping the Vietnamese flush of two adults – two children. I even saw the legendary Royal Flush of five but camera and reflexes were too slow to provide evidence.

Traffic regulations keep the maximum and enforced city speed to 40KMH but flowing smoothly. This is about speed that allows a traditional pedal-powered bicycle to cope with the pressure. I don’t think it would work in Israel where drivers believe that 10 KMH above the limit will never gain the attention of a traffic cop and 20 KHM still leaves room for argument.

Hanoi commuters stay in their lanes although the footpath occasionally becomes an extra lane. Still, I never saw the daily Israeli event of drivers taking the straight lane to reach the top of the turning lane and then forcing their way in. On the other hand, I never saw a Vietnamese bully their way into a lane and then excuse it with a smile.

Telecom technician's nightmare. Saigon

Telecom technician's nightmare

Beyond the traffic, Vietnam, Cambodia and Israel share a common history of holocaust and war trauma but handle it differently. In Vietnam, one should never forget that the South and the North are in an ongoing process of becoming psychologically one state. Thirty-five years after the South’s fall even the baggage tags for internal flights still say SAI, not HCM. Except for government buildings one still almost never sees the name Ho Chi Minh City, only Saigon.


Saigon Centre in Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon Centre in Ho Chi Minh City

It should be a sobering thought for any Israeli visitor that many of the same states, who now form the Quartet, imposed the 1956 Geneva ‘two state solution’ on Vietnam. We can see how well that turned out.

Vietnam has its Yad Vashem equivalent or rather several and like Yad Vashem, they are compulsory stops for tourists. I have a close‑to‑personal connection with the war that is always portrayed as the War against America. Australia, my former home and birthplace fought together with the Americans, Thais, Koreans and we should not forget hundreds and thousands of South Vietnamese in this arena. Had Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party not defeated Bill McMahon’s Liberal Party in 1972 and ended Australia’s commitment it was not unlikely I would have been conscripted and sent to Da Nang. The events portrayed were not, as to Israelis, a vague news story somewhere else but news to be discussed at breakfast or at morning recess at school. Exactly as Israelis discuss the latest news from Lebanon or Gaza.

Abandoned American equipment Ho Chi Minh War Remnants Museum

Abandoned American equipment Ho Chi Minh War Remnants Museum

There is a triumphalism in the Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum about the War that is missing in Jerusalem. It is as if Yad Vashem had somehow been combined with the Hotzerim Air Force Museum, complete with captured enemy equipment. The Americans are portrayed as one-dimensional criminal aggressors while they, the North Vietnamese were both the innocent victims and simultaneously the heroic victors. That after the American War (1954-1975) the Vietnamese broke their commitments under the Kissinger-Tho negotiated Paris treaty and went on almost immediately to fight Cambodia and then lose against China is glossed over. The attacks on civilians, murder and intimidation of Southern villagers committed by the North nowhere gets a mention. Not that I really expected it. It’s hard to imagine even a Communist Party opening up to the West to tolerate a local Betzelem.


As a budding photographer, the Capas, Griffiths and Jones whose photographs were a major feature of the museum were my inspiration. Clearly the North Vietnamese saw them as important weapons in the Public Diplomacy War which is why they honour them here.

Capa, Jones, Griffith and other war photographers. Ho Chi Minh War Remnants Museum

Capa, Jones, Griffith and other war photographers. Ho Chi Minh War Remnants Museum

Former Nebraska Governor and US Senator Bob Kerrey has his own wall celebrating his disclosure of a massacre he claims to have witnessed. Others maintain his role was far more active. One wonders, does every second person mix him up with his namesake US Senator, Presidential candidate and Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts and aplogiser for America’s role in Indochina, John Kerry?

Will some future Museum of Palestinian triumphalism devote a section to honour Achmad Tibi or some Jewish ‘peace activists’ for their contribution to eventual Palestinian victory?

Tourist guide Dat Phan demonstrates Vietnam size entrance to the tunnels Chu Chi

Vietnamese size entrance to the tunnels Chu Chi

For all their understandable modesty about the North’s contribution to the carnage, particularly the killing of South Vietnamese, there is one tourist draw that doesn’t sanitise the reality that wars involve killing.


The instructional video at Chu Chi Tunnels, close to Saigon openly and perhaps honestly celebrates the winners of ‘medals for the Killing‑of‑Americans’. Wars are usually won by killing enemy soldiers. One wonders if Israeli soldiers won medals for the’ Killing‑of‑Arabs’ would the world and visitors be quite so understanding?

In Cambodia, by contrast the Tuol Sleng (Hill of Strychnine) Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is deceptive in its ordinariness and much more convincing in its sadness. You approach the former high school, renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge, surrounded by villas that makes one suspect this is the Savion of the capital city. As an Israeli you don’t pay attention to ordinary barbed wire around a school. Many (all?) schools in Israel have it. One wonders if it’s there to stop terrorists entering or prevent school equipment leaving.

Razor wire and elegant French villas. Tuol Sleng (Hill of Strychnine) Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng (Hill of Strychnine) Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

Was it not for the notice on the remains of sports equipment pointing out how they were converted to improvised gallows the impression of a public building needing a bit of renovation and a paint job would remain. Even the impact of coils of razor wire just below the height of the outside walls only hits you from the prisoner’s side of the fence.


'Photo Retza' Identity photographs of the innocent dead Tuol Sleng (Hill of Strychnine) Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

'Photo Retza' Identity photographs of the innocent dead Tuol Sleng (Hill of Strychnine) Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh Collection of victims skulls

Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

It’s only when faced by the torture equipment, classrooms divided into tiny cells barely wider than a prisoner’s shoulders and hundreds of ID photographs that the horror dawns. I couldn’t help thinking that in Israeli terms they were literally photo retza. Not photographs of murderers but of the murdered. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, were obsessed in documenting their crimes for posterity. The last room, as if to confirm this was reality and not merely clever display contains a cabinet of real, anonymous skulls, a tiny remnant of the thousand who were murdered here.

If Auschwitz-Birkenau or Madjenek was situated in Gush Dan rather than Poland how would the Jewish memorial to genocide be presented as a glossy audio visual or a as a drab memorial to the banality of evil? What if we had won?

Always ready. Raincoat/umbrella peddlers, Hue

Always ready. Raincoat/umbrella peddlers, Hue

Lotus fruit and seeds

Lotus fruit and seeds

Not all in Indochina is death related. There is one very promising area where it’s my impression that Vietnam and Cambodia have the advantage over Israel. At every tourist attraction, tourist hotel and bus stop known for tourists the peddlers come round at all hours, selling food, drinks, local handicrafts, souvenirs and knock-off Polo™ and Lacrosse™ shirts. When the weather turns inclement, which in Central Vietnam is most days, the umbrellas and raincoats with the famous 12/12 warranty come out. That’s twelve minutes or twelve metres whichever comes first. That’s long enough, in most cases.

In Cambodia the children come around with lotus flowers. The seeds are edible and taste something like ful. That said, I think I’ll put a tick around the experience and not eat them again. That won’t disappoint the sellers too much. There are plenty of lotus fruit to pick and the tourist buses keep coming.

The markets are even more packed with Israeli friendly goodies. Those who know how to bargain, and here aggressive Israelis seem to have a distinct advantage over the more demure English, Americans and Swedes, can pick up real bargains. If the price isn’t right it will be at the next ‘shuk’ down the road.

In the interests of copyright and piracy protection I will not admit to buying Docker™ pants. I will, however, warn you that the buttonhole on the waistband is missing.

Pineapple seller waits for tourist. Cambodia

Pineapple seller waits for tourist. Cambodia

Wasn’t that the way the pre Hi Tech Jewish millionaires made their fortunes, from a pushcart? Vietnam and especially Cambodia have a long way to catch up with Israel but their industriousness, emphasis on education and unbeatable urge to sell suggest they that is far from impossible. If we are not careful, they might even pass us!


Tour boat masseur Cambodia. The standard $US1 buys a couple of minutes

Tour boat masseur Cambodia. The standard $US1 buys a couple of minutes

GOOD MORNING VIETNAM & CAMBODIA we’ll see what happens in the afternoon!

†This is a piece unlike anything I have ever written in Five Minutes for Israel. I had high hopes that it would be published in the MSM. Apparently not to be. So rather than let it disappear into memory …
Click on the pictures for larger images.

About David Guy

B.A./B.C.A. (Communication and Media Arts) University of Wollongong, AUSTRALIA M.A. in Government (Diplomacy and Conflict Studies) Inter Disciplinary Center, Herzliya, ISRAEL Twitter @5MFI
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