5 Ways to Survive and Thrive (and Help Others, Too)

A trip to Vietnam and Cambodia provides lessons in hope and reinvention


Ho Chi Minh City

Photo by Donna Sapolin

It can be difficult to cross the street in motorcycle-filled Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). This is an area near Dong Khoi Street, which is lined with upscale boutiques.
The Mekong River's floodplains

Photo by Donna Sapolin

The Mekong River's floodplains nurture the agriculture that feeds the surrounding villages. Much of the local commerce is conducted along the Delta's canals and backwaters via "floating markets."
A woman sells a variety of local fruits

Photo by Donna Sapolin

A woman sells a variety of local fruits along the banks of a Mekong canal in Sa Dec, Vietnam.
Delectable Vietnamese treats

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Delectable Vietnamese treats sold in the Sa Dec market: steamed sticky rice wrapped in banana and other plant leaves.
Sa Dec, Vietnam

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Sa Dec, Vietnam is home to a thriving market along the Mekong waterways. It's also where the residence of the protagonist in Marguerite Duras' famed novel, The Lover, is located.
Khemarin Palace in Phnom Pehn

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Khemarin Palace in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia was built in the 19th century by the French Protectorate but was inspired by the centuries-old architecture of the Khmer. It is part of a large complex that includes the Silver Pagoda and Throne Hall, still used for royal ceremonies.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center: A somber memorial containing over 5,000 skulls of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime in the surrounding Cambodian "Killing Fields" between 1974 and 1979. The site includes mass graves from which many, but not all, victims have been exhumed.
Buddhist monks

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Buddhist monks take lunch together in the dining hall of the imposing Udon Monastery — one of 14 major Buddhist monasteries in Cambodia.
Vietnamese and Cambodian motorcyclists and bikers

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Vietnamese and Cambodian motorcyclists and bikers cart enormous loads of every imaginable kind of product. This man, spotted on the streets of Phnom Pehn, is transporting fresh breads.
A weaver plies her ancient craft beneath her humble wood home

Photo by Donna Sapolin

A weaver plies her ancient craft beneath her humble wood home located in a Khmer river community dedicated to silk weaving. All homes in the Mekong floodplains are built on stilts to protect them from rising waters.
A village elder walks along a riverside path

Photo by Donna Sapolin

A village elder walks along a riverside path wearing a skirt and scarf crafted by local weavers.
A young girl shows off the fabrics created by her family

Photo by Donna Sapolin

A young girl shows off the fabrics created by her family in the silk-weaving village that hugs the banks of the Mekong.
Buddhist temple near Cambodia's Twin Holy Mountains

Photo by Donna Sapolin

An elderly monk tends to a Buddhist temple near Cambodia's Twin Holy Mountains Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei.
Buddhist temple near Cambodia's Twin Holy Mountains

Photo by Donna Sapolin

The garden of the Buddhist temple near Cambodia's Twin Holy Mountains features gigantic golden statues of the Buddha and disciples.
Enormous spong trees

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Enormous spong trees and strangler figs curl their roots around and push through the walls of the 12-century temple Ta Prohm, one of Angkor's most notable structures. The temple has been left largely as it was when discovered by French explorers in 1947 — with the jungle growth overtaking the ruins.
Ta Prohm Temple

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Constructed without mortar in the 12th and early 13th centuries, many of the structures of Ta Prohm Temple have managed to withstand time's passage and invasive jungle growth. Built as a monastery and university, the temple once housed 12,640 people. The movie Tomb Raider was filmed here.
Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Built in the late 12th or early 13th century, Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom is known for its giant, smiling stone carved faces on the towers of its upper terrace and pristine bas-reliefs.
UNESCO world Heritage Site

Photo by Donna Sapolin

The crown jewel of Khmer architecture and a UNESCO world Heritage Site, the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat features intricate stone carvings and a beautifully proportioned layout.  
Angkor Wat

Photo by Donna Sapolin

The topmost (third) level of Angkor Wat, one of the largest of Khmer monuments, provides spectacular views of the entire complex, known for its exquisite composition and beauty.  
Hanoi's Old Market district

Photo by Donna Sapolin

Young people gather for afternoon conversation and drinks in Hanoi's Old Market district.
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I spend a fair amount of time thinking about ways my peers and I can build on our experiences and interests to ensure a fruitful path forward. For me, and many of my generation, this not only involves figuring out how to have a second (or third or fourth) act but one that also enriches the lives of others. 
 
There are woefully underserved and afflicted people everywhere. Poverty and its ugly ramifications run rampant on our shores and the present political realities make many Americans feel the country is divided among haves and have-nots and that racism still has a stranglehold. Yet few would deny that among the nations of the world, America enjoys unparalleled freedoms and opportunities.
 
However, for the majority of us, the gnawing needs of people outside our immediate circle of family and friends remain mostly abstract and we may not feel inclined or empowered to address them. We read articles and watch post-disaster televised specials (until the media moves on to a fresher topic) that shed light on others’ travails and perhaps, for a moment, we're motivated to do something about them. But then, more likely than not, we turn to the problems that impact us most directly and appear more urgent.

These, too, can seem intractable. Some people may feel that they can barely keep their head above water. Others may not believe they have the means or know-how to make a difference in someone else’s life.
 
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Whatever our reasons for feeling that forward movement on either front is impossible, I think direct exposure to the ways others live and contend with difficulties can provide insights and inspiration that can help spur us to action — in our own spheres and outside them. By witnessing firsthand the challenges others grapple with, we can feel more motivated to help and also learn what it takes to more effectively tackle our own issues.  
 
Travel Reveals the Keys to Survivorship
 
Over time, I’ve learned that travel beyond our immediate environs is a powerful way of gaining this kind of eye-opening, transformative purview.
 
Over the holidays, I took a trip to two countries that figure prominently in every American boomer’s past —  Cambodia and Vietnam. Both countries are now safe for travelers and offer a wealth of intriguing sights, fabulous crafts, delicious cuisine rooted in exotic fruits and vegetables, fascinating markets, verdant fields and extraordinary relics of long-gone kingdoms.
 
But these nations are also still plagued by a difficult legacy — successive foreign occupation, despotic leaders, war and decimation. They're dealing with political structures that produce occasional civil unrest; the lingering menace of landmines (relics of decades of war); a high rate of illiteracy; a backward infrastructure, including a lack of such basics as safe drinking water and plumbing; rural-focused populations and trade barriers.
 
While the demographic construct of these developing countries is the opposite of our own — there are more young persons than old ones (in Cambodia, the sinister Khmer Rouge regime wiped out vast numbers of people and shortened the lives of those remaining through malnutrition and disease), the youthful majority is ill-equipped to harness the potential economic and social benefits due to lagging educational opportunities.
 
The good news is that Vietnam and Cambodia are receiving substantial international governmental and NGO support — foreign investment and trade support are required for the restoration of cultural sites, construction of bridges and highways, clearing of land mines and industrial development, from agriculture (rice, fish and produce) and garment production to native artisanry (e.g., silk weaving, lacquerware production, wood and stone carving, silversmithing and basketry). The two nations are also launching many critical initiatives to spur education, healthcare and trade options.
 
Assuming ongoing political stability, all these efforts will go a long way toward ensuring future economic growth and opportunity. But what is even more vital is the positive will and attitude of their populations. Fortunately, Cambodia and Vietnam seem to have these in spades.
 
(MORE:  Why Pessimism is Hazardous to Your Health)

5 Requirements to Pull Yourself and Others Up by the Bootstraps
 
The people of Vietnam and Cambodia bear testimony to the possibility of individuals and nations rising from the ashes and building something meaningful. In my travels along the Mekong, I witnessed incredible industriousness and an open-armed, welcoming spirit along with incredible respect for the environment and natural resources, ancestors, elders and religious traditions — keystones that can help anchor populations that have faced upheaval.
 
In traveling to these iconic destinations, I gained important perspective about how one can survive and thrive after any kind of onslaught. My trip underscored that there are five key things, wherever one lives, that are foundational to personal and group healing and evolution:
 
1. Tranquil surroundings and sustained peace

2. An intense desire and will to create a better situation

3. A willingness to unearth and pursue every option for improvement, followed up with diligent and continuous effort

4. A deep and abiding sense of hope 

5. An understanding that it's best to shape a broad network of support
 
My trip guides embodied all of these attributes. One fellow was a "boat person," captured as a child while trying to escape war-torn Vietnam and held in a refugee camp in Hong Kong for many years. During this time, he was separated from everything familiar to him, lived in oppressive conditions and received virtually no education. After he was released, he started life all over. As a young man, he went back to school while assuming full responsibility for his four younger brothers and seeing to it that every one of them would get a career-track education and become self-supporting.
 
Another Cambodian guide was able to pursue a higher education after primary school by entering a Buddhist monastery for eight years. In addition to guiding visitors, he now runs a non-profit NGO — Homestay Volunteer Teachers Org (HVTO), an extra-curricular program that will help poor children living in villages outside Siem Reap lead a more independent life. 
 
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Everywhere I went, I saw incredibly hard-working, friendly and positive people. Western-world versions of industriousness (including maniacal traffic comprising motorcycles, cyclos, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, buses and cars) bumped up against more primitive iterations — but all were profoundly inspiring. 
 
At the end of my trip, I stayed in the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, a lovely French colonial-style facility with an illustrious history. Built in 1901, past guests included Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham. Today, trees sprout from brick-rimmed circles in the pavement in front of its outdoor café. Looking at them now, one could never imagine that they once served as hatches to a below-ground bomb shelter that was rediscovered in 2011 by construction workers who were adding a bar to the hotel’s luxurious pool area.  
 
Depending on one’s point of view, those sidewalk circles are either grim reminders of an unspeakably terrible chapter in both America’s and Vietnam’s history or heartening symbols that speak to mankind's drive to move on, rebound and reclaim humanity.
 
I choose to see them as the latter — a physical encapsulation of five principles for surviving and thriving.

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