There is no doubt that each of the countries we have visited that make up the area once known as Indo-China has had a gruesome recent past.
Those of us old enough to remember participating in student anti-Vietnam war demonstrations will need no reminder.
But some of the worst atrocities happened after the Americans left. Cambodia entered into year zero from 1976 to 1979 under Pol Pot and the Khmer rouge. The most extreme form of social engineering of modern times, to be compared only with the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, led to the death of over two million people.
Despite the fact that the majority of the population of these countries is too young to remember these facts young people will be reminded of what happened from their surviving parents and grandparents. As visitors to these countries we have to constantly remember that these areas were more intensively planted with land mines that even Angola, that three times as many bombs were dropped on them than in the whole of WWII in Europe and one’s got to be aware that when trekking in the idyllic Indo-chinese hill country, with some peaks reaching in excess of 10,000 feet, there is constant danger, despite large-scale schemes to rid the area of these insane abominations, of returning home with, at the best one leg missing (as not a few of the inhabitants we met were witness to.)
Deforestation is a real problem in Laos with loss of natural habitat for such animals as tigers and rhinos. Child exploitation and prostitution is an ever present disgrace and we all know about the golden triangle which covers the area where these countries meet.
Perhaps the worst hazard is the over-exploitation of the tourist industry – not a bad idea if equably managed but clearly prone to uneven wealth distribution and even more environmental degradation if left to itself.
Eco-tourist projects are increasing and poverty is decreasing. Certainly, Laos doesn’t feel like it was the poorest Asian country just twenty years ago and Vietnam shows no economic slow-down like China has recently displayed.
The big problem is that super powers like nearby China (who wants to built a high speed rail link to the area) and even Russia (who was holding a trade fair in the same hotel we stayed at in Hanoi) have got their sights set on vast investments in the last areas of Asia to retain something of the charming seduction of the east.
We’ve visited craft centres for young people disabled by preventable diseases or the aftermath of wars. We’ve seen a prosperity in some areas which is astounding but we’ve also read in today’s Hanoi times that urban pollution is at its highest and we’ve invested in mouth masks.
So what else can I add? Enjoy this magical part of the world while you can and while it can too!