When the French ruled Indochina, they had a shortage of white collar workers in Cambodia and Laos, so solved it by bringing in many thousands of Vietnamese, which, understandably, didn’t please the Cambodians and Laotians too much. Most of these Vietnamese would be kicked out in waves, sometimes violently, as happened in Cambodia during the 70’s.
Still, many Vietnamese have returned to both countries, and the primary reason is population pressure, for Vietnam has 96 million people, while Cambodia and Laos only 16 and 7 million. It’s also why China and Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to export people.
Although there are certainly rich illegal immigrants, most tend to be poorer than the locals, so in Cambodia, which is even more impoverished than some Sub-Saharan countries, many Vietnamese are in truly sad shape.
A Vietnamese settlement in Svay Pak, north of Phnom Penh, became infamous internationally as a center of child prostitution, and in an American documentary about it, there’s a glimpse of the neighborhood church, so some prayed to Jesus, then sold their daughters. Fortunately, that situation has pretty much been snuffed out.
Just after six one morning, I took a ferry from Phnom Penh to Akreiy Ksatr, in search of its Vietnamese. Forgetting how much it cost, I handed the fare collector 1,000 riels (25 cents), but he gave 500 right back. There were only two cars on the old boat, with the rest pedestrians or motorcyclists, with one lady hitching her Honda to a truck that was laden with cucumbers, carrots, cabbages, lettuces and ginger.
Maybe I’m actually English, for nothing calms me more than a pint or to be on water, but crossing the Mekong didn’t last too long, and as the dismal houses of Akreiy Ksatr came into view, it was clear the capital’s wealth didn’t even splash across the river.
The village’s main drag wasn’t even paved, and though it was early, there was plenty of activities on the street. I passed a full restaurant, then a café that was filled with men watching European soccer. Shops abounded, with many already open. Pausing at the I Trust International School, I admired its colorful mural of wild animals, with this caption, “LET US PROTECT THEM FOR THE NEXT GENERATION.”
So far, I was not sure if I had seen a Vietnamese, for many Viets are dark enough that they are indistinguishable from lighter skinned Cambodians. Walking on dirt and dodging puddles, I soon reached the main market, which was just setting up. Hungry, I approached a lady selling rice gruel, pointed to the pot, smiled then cupped my hands to resemble a bowl. Frowning, she lifted the lid to show her food wasn’t quite ready, so I stretched my smile even tighter to indicate I would eat it anyway, but she would not budge, such was her culinary integrity. Starved, I would have slopped up her dish water. After a nod and a wave, I moved on.
Spotting a woman eating something at another stand, I went straight for it and, again, pointed to the pot, but the proprietor wasn’t quite ready to ladle up her chicken rice gruel either, so I simply sat down and waited until she granted me my bowl a few minutes later.
To my right, a fishmonger had set up her carps, catfish and anchovies on a dirty piece of canvas, placed right on the ground, so a hundred flies, at least, were buzzing all around her, like some kinetic nimbus, but there were flies everywhere, including over or on the plastic basket of mint leaves, in front of my face.
It’s well known that Cambodia’s street food is inferior to what’s found in Thailand or Vietnam, so I didn’t expect much, but my soup was even sadder than what I had eaten in Phnom Penh, though I was within easy mortar range of the capital. To chase away the taste, I bought two hard donuts from a young lady who was radiant with mirth, so surprised was she to see an obvious outsider at her provincial market.
Fortified with chicken, rice and processed sugar, I walked back to town. From afar, I could see a woman making bánh xèo, the Vietnamese stuffed pancake, so I approached her and asked, “Chị làm bánh xèo?”
“បាញ់ឆែវ,” she answered. Cambodians call the same dish, “banh chao.”
To blend in better, many of the 600,000 Viets in Cambodia won’t speak Vietnamese in public, so maybe she was one of those, for she could have been my cousin. Desperate to achieve legality, some Vietnamese are even claiming to be ethnic Cambodians who have fled from Vietnam to escape discrimination. Heading in the general direction of the church, I eventually found it, and suddenly, I was surrounded by Vietnamese speakers.
Through open doors, I could see Catholic icons in most of the houses, then I stopped at the modest yet beautiful lime-colored church, with its watchtower-like belfry and a raised, open-sided and covered structure sheltering a Madonna. Another Madonna had her own flowered shrine near the doors. The church’s roof profile, cornices and decorated columns all echoed Cambodian or Thai temples.
When Pol Pot ruled, the Communists killed all priests, many monks and destroyed many religious statues, or threw them into rivers. They dynamited Phnom Penh Cathedral. In 2008, a Cham Muslim found a heavy chunk of metal at the bottom of the Mekong, and since it was too heavy for him to pull up, he sold its location to eight Vietnamese Buddhists for $7.50.
After two days of hard work, the Buddhists recovered a statue of a woman on April 16th, 2008. On shore, it was recognized by a Vietnamese Catholic as the Virgin Mary, so he advised them to neither break it up nor take it anywhere. Alerted, the dirt-poor Vietnamese parish of Akreiy Ksatr agreed to buy it for $500.
Before delivery, one of the Buddhists dreamt that the statue flew over his boat three or four times, which he interpreted as a reprimand for their eagerness to cash in on their sacred find. Terrified, the eight Buddhists agreed to take no money, but over the years, the parish has bought them enough rice and instant noodles to make up for the lost amount anyway.
On November 18th, 2012, a Vietnamese Buddhist saw, in a dream, a bronze statue of a man with arms spread out, saying, “You must fish me out from the bottom of the Mekong. I’m lying near where you found the Virgin Mary.” With his two sons, he then found a statue of Mary holding a baby Jesus, which he donated to the Akreiy Ksatr church.
Phan Van Hum “When I recovered the Virgin Mary, I didn’t feel that it was a statue but a person who was alive, like us. I was both happy and trembling from fear. At that moment, I silently prayed to the Virgin Mary to cure my wife of her illness.”
Since the day of its finding happened to be the 21st ASEAN Summit, the ferries weren’t running, making the operation easier. This, too, the Vietnamese Catholics of Akreiy Ksatr attribute to providence.
Sitting on a church step, I could see a woman sweeping its yard, then kids in school uniforms entering, so there was also a school there. Before class, a few boys played soccer with a grapefruit-sized plastic ball.
Across the street, there was a café where men were fixated on a Vietnamese movie. I shared a table outside with a small girl doing her homework, and soon, two more kids joined us. Looking at her workbook, I saw that she was writing one simple sentence over and over. Across from her, a boy did the same.
I asked, “Do you study Cambodian also?”
“No, sir,” they answered. (It’s actually, “Dạ, không,” which is the deferential form of “yes,” then “no,” thus untranslatable, but equivalent to “No, sir.”)
“Do you have Cambodian friends?”
Hmmm, I thought, then, “Have you been to Vietnam?”
“Would you like to go?”
“No, sir!” the boy blurted, nearly laughing, so outlandish was my suggestion. He had probably never been ten miles from home.
His backpack was a Vietnamese brand, MrVui, and featured Captain America. Though he was much bigger than the girl, his practice sentence was just as basic, “chị kha nghỉ hè ở sa pa” [“sister kha took a vacation in sapa”], so either he was huge for his age, or just dim.
To both of the other kids, he would say, “Get away from me! Your breath stinks! Did you brush your teeth this morning?”
“Yes, I did,” and the girl opened her mouth to show her clean, straight and white teeth.
During recess, I noticed that half of the kids streaming out from the church’s gates were barefoot. They went into the café to buy food, with the richer among them splurging on a 25 cent cup of instant noodles.
Inside the café, there was a young man who was different from the rest, for he had tattoos on his arms and neck, stretched earlobes, dyed auburn hair, all black clothing and stylish sandals. Was he the local pimp or drug dealer? No, sir, the soft spoken young man was actually an aerobics instructor, as I would find out when I suggested we had a few beers together, which he declined, for he wasn’t keen on alcohol in the morning.
“Do you know where the Vietnamese Cambodian Friendship Monument is? That’s where I work. I teach hip hop.”
“I’ll be there this evening, at six.”
“How much do you charge?”
“1,500 [38 cents].”
He and his partners would set up two booming speakers, and the exercisers would come. They’re mostly women above 40, for those younger are still effortlessly svelte and lovely.
A Vietnamese identifies with his original village, so even if he was born in Saigon, he’s likely to say he’s a Soc Trang person, for example. Recently, I was asked if I was from Nam Dinh, simply because I had absorbed its accent from my father, so yes, in a way, I am a Nam Dinh person, although I had never been there. My new friend couldn’t name his “quê,” or original village, however, and knew nothing about his parents, besides the fact that his absent or dead dad had been a Vietnamese Army soldier.
Settling here in the 80’s, the Vietnamese started out as fishermen, but have branched out into many other professions, and nearly all speak Khmer fluently. Sitting in a dingy coffee shop, I witnessed a Viet woman conduct her business in Khmer when necessary.
All this time, there was a faint smell of rot in the air, and I discovered its source when I strayed into a dirt alley, leading to the river. Though used to all things unpleasant, I nearly retched, for the sweet stench was overwhelming, but only for a moment, then my system adjusted. It was clear most of the houses here had neither indoor plumbing nor trash pickup, so the river shore was a festering dump. I goofed around with a bunch of laughing kids. Across the Mekong, Phnom Penh’s best buildings gleamed, but on this side, all the boats were decayed, and much more miserable than anything I had seen in Vietnam.
Back in Phnom Penh, I’d run into a 64-year-old Vietnamese who had managed to survived in Cambodia for 35 years as a practitioner of gua sha, cupping and massage, “In Saigon, I cut and dressed hair, but I had so many customers, my electricity and water bills got so high, I got cut off all the time, so I came to Cambodia.”
The math didn’t make sense, but I kept listening, “First, I carried water for hire, then I got into gua sha. You have to understand, the medical care here was practically nonexistent, so I got a lot of customers. If you go to Orussey Market, they all know me.”
On a good day, she can make $40, and that’s enough to send her three kids back to Saigon, where they have all graduated from college, “I have 22 relatives in the US, but they don’t stay in touch with me, because they know I’m poor, but I don’t need them!”
Fiercely, she spoke of the discrimination Vietnamese have endured in Cambodia, “They used to cut our throats, you don’t know. They would kill one of us, then say that another Vietnamese has done it. Sometimes they’d say ‘youn,’ but slightly off, so I’d shout at them, ‘Who’re you calling a youn?!’”
“With all your kids back in Vietnam, why don’t you just move back?”
“But I owe a lot to this country! I’m attached to it. It saved me when I was in deep trouble!”
A Buddhist, she converted to Caodaism, partly because they had given her a place to sleep, but mostly because here was a Vietnamese community in the heart of Phnom Penh. Tucked in an alley off Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, the Cao Dai temple is not easy to find, and I only stumbled across it by accident. It was founded in 1927, just a year after the religion’s establishment.
Caodaism’s garish architecture and syncretic pantheon have provoked bemusement or derision from foreigners. Norman Lewis said that its cathedral in Tay Ninh “must be the most outrageously vulgar building ever to have been erected with serious intent.”
In Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese Caodaists provide a curious charity. They’ll provide a free coffin and burial to any corpse within the capital area, and will even come in an ornate hearse, decorated with dragons and an all-seeing eye. If you’re too broke to go under, just get your old and/or illin’ ass to Phnom Penh, OK?
Cambodia lost a third of its land to Vietnam, and another third to Thailand, and the Vietnamese and Chinese keep coming, as they have for centuries. Although many aliens intermarry and assimilate, these foreign influxes can’t help but change Cambodia. To various degrees, a similar process is happening worldwide, and it’s a cause for celebration to those who worship change.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party had two key enemies, the Vietnamese and Hun Sen, a Vietnamese puppet in its eyes. Campaigning in 2013, Sam Rainsy declared:
If we are not careful, Cambodia will become a Vietnam, Cambodia will become Kampuchea Krom, we will be a province under control of Vietnam […] This is the last opportunity, if we don’t rescue our nation, four or five years more is too late, Cambodia will be full of Vietnamese, we will become slaves of Vietnam.
This rang truer than ever when the party was dissolved by Hun Sen in 2017, and Sam Rainsy again sent into exile. Hun Sen, in turn, charged the CNRP of being a tool of Washington, out to foment a color revolution, since Hun Sen was getting too chummy with China. In small country politics, everybody is always accusing everybody else of being a foreign lackey, and most of the time, all of them are at least partially correct.
Though no place can remain static, a population should have a say regarding modifications to its identity, yet in the end, it’s not a question of morality, but the leveraging of power, and on this side of the globe, one giant towers above all.
One morning, I chanced upon a dissolute, middle-aged white guy sitting on the curb, confusedly counting his money. His stars and stripes top hat was nowhere to be found.