Indochina: A Delicate Balance

In Vietnam and Cambodia, ancient Asia lives side by side with colonial ghosts, the scars of war, and postmodern progress. John Powers sets out in search of the region's elusive, eternal spirit.

One sultry late summer afternoon when the sun was playing hide and seek with the thunderheads, I stepped from the air-conditioned cool of the Continental Hotel and into the pulsing metropolis that is officially named Ho Chi Minh City but that everyone either calls Saigon or, if you're young and hip, HCMC. As I turned up elegantly tree-lined Le Duan Street, a six-year-old boy in a faded Adidas T-shirt greeted me with a cry: "You wan' Grangree? You buy Kwai Mari Can?"

I didn't have a clue what he was talking about and was about to walk on when he forced a plastic package into my hands. Inside was a bootleg paperback of The Quiet American, the 1955 novel that became famous for predicting the United States' debacle in Vietnam before it had even begun: The title character, Pyle, is an idealistic do-gooder whose naiveté about the world leads to disaster. Grangree. Ah, Graham Greene.

I smiled at how worldly Saigon has become. During my last visit, ten years earlier, the only English book I could find was a battered wartime language guide that taught the locals to say such common phrases as "There is a mine explosion at street," "Two persons are broken heads, and one is dead," and "I promise I will be faithful to you." Now street kids weren't just selling knockoffs of Penguin Classics but selling the right one, the novel whose ideas about Vietnam were recycled by a thousand foreign correspondents and helped to shape our myth of that country to this day.

None of us goes to Indochina clean. Our idea of these countries is cobbled together from famous books, operatic war films with apocalyptic titles, old newsreel footage, clichés about tragic-faced Asian women. The images are varied: plantation-owner Catherine Deneuve frantically embracing her young lover in Indochine, Robert Duvall saying he loves the smell of napalm in the morning, Marguerite Duras exploring sexual mysteries with a handsome older Chinese in The Lover. Maybe you think of saffron-robed monks and slim women in flowing white ao dais; maybe you remember the actual protagonist of The Quiet American, a cynical British reporter sucking on his opium pipe and craving the attention of his paid mistress, Phuong. Maybe all these images come at you in one supercharged, kaleidoscopic swirl. It's not for nothing that writer Stan Sesser dubbed this part of the world "the lands of charm and cruelty."

Early last century, Indochina's intermingling of corruption and splendor made it a magnet for discerning travelers like Noël Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, and the great British travel writer Norman Lewis. Twenty-six years after the Vietnam War, 22 after the Killing Fields, Vietnam and Cambodia—whose temples at Angkor are perhaps the essential travel destination of our day—strike the almost perfect balance between the exotic Old Asia of squalor and colonial splendor and the postmodern Far East of impeccably renovated vintage hotels, gracious restaurants serving foie gras infused with cinnamon and truffles, and magazine stands that carry Vogue. This is an adventurous Asia that, for the most part, you can no longer find. But it too will soon vanish.

"Don't quote me," said the manager of a big Vietnamese hotel, "but in five years this place will no longer be magic."

Hanoi: The Girl on the Motorcycle

Back during the war, we often heard Vietnam described as a small country on the other side of the world. But in truth it's rather large, with 78 million people—far more than France or Great Britain—and has a coastline nearly 1,800 miles long. Look at it on the map, and Vietnam resembles a skinnier reflection of California on the other side of the Pacific. And like California, there's a natural rivalry between northern Hanoi and southern Saigon that echoes the spat between San Francisco and Los Angeles: Hanoians freely express their disdain for the shallow materialism of Saigon, while Saigoners roll their eyes at the smug, P.C. moralism of those in the capital city.

Vietnam's long coastline and fertile Mekong Delta have long made it an alluring target for invaders. Indeed, this nation's history is the story of the Vietnamese struggle—which ultimately succeeded—to escape foreign rule. China dominated Vietnam for a thousand years, mainly in the north, but was eventually thrown out. Shortly thereafter, the Khmers (now known as the Cambodians) conquered the Chams of southern Vietnam, but the Chams fought back and eventually killed the Khmer king in his palace. Over the years, the Vietnamese turned back the Mongol hordes (in 1284), helped chase out the Japanese during World War II, and then threw out France: Less than a century after the mighty French seized Saigon in 1859, they were routed by the Vietnamese in the famous 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu.

The country was split in two, and would not be unified without another war, this one involving the United States. That war began in the mid-1950s, kicked into high gear with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, and reached its grand finale on April 30, 1975, when Communist tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. As you land at Noi Bai Airport you can still see the craters, created by the bombs dropped on Hanoi, from your airplane window.

Ten years ago I was dazzled by Hanoi's ravaged beauty, touched by its poverty: chickens scrawny as Giacomettis, shoddy goods in the shop windows, magnificent French houses rotting into miasmic disrepair, citizens biking mile after mile along rutted muddy roads; a cycle driver would pedal you around for four hours and be grateful for a buck. North Vietnam had been a client state of the USSR, and you could feel the Soviet influence everywhere. Bureaucrats tooled around in Russian-built Volgas and Ladas, automobiles built with no concessions to comfort or style.

America and Vietnam still lacked diplomatic relations (they were finally restored in 1995), and while the ordinary people couldn't have been friendlier—inviting me to their homes, asking me to speak at a school—Communist Party officials were less welcoming. I got called in by the secret police, who accused me of committing various "serious" offenses and forced me to buy a new visa to replace my perfectly valid one (where the money went I can only guess). I was put on the next plane to Bangkok by an officer who whistled the chorus of "Hey, Jude" as he filled out the deportation notice.

Today, Hanoi is one of the most charming places on earth, a city that recalls pre-Castro Havana (but without the runaway vice) or '60s Bangkok (when the city wasn't a giant traffic jam). The Hanoi Hilton has been replaced by high-rise apartments.

Although still poor by Western or even Saigon standards, Hanoi's three million citizens are trilling with optimistic energy. And why not? The place is sexy. Hanoi is now a city of cafés and shops with names like Rebirth of the Cool, a city of gleaming new buildings and lovely lakes where, before 6 a.m., hundreds of thousands of people are already jogging, doing tai chi, and playing badminton—with or without a net. I've never seen so many beautiful women riding motorcycles, and when you catch their eye they respond with a gaze filled with innocent delight in their own attractiveness. This isn't the commercial come-on you get in Bangkok, but the sheer exuberance of women who feel they're being permitted to blossom.

Next to Saigon, which was a small Khmer village as late as the 15th century, Hanoi is positively ancient. Emperor Ly Thai To made it Vietnam's capital nearly a thousand years ago, and the city has the historical weight one associates with old European capitals rather than Southeast Asia's megacities, many of which seem to have been built last week. In Hanoi you can peel back one historical era and find another lying beneath it.

The most seductive area of Hanoi is the old colonial quarter, and the most comfortable place in the quarter is the Hotel Metropole, a fine piece of vintage architecture with a pure-white facade, green shutters, and finely filigreed wrought iron. Originally built in 1901, this has always been the place where VIPs stay when they come to Hanoi. The Metropole has hosted visitors as varied as George and Barbara Bush, Stephen Hawking, Robert DeNiro, and "Grangree" himself. It was here that Jane Fonda stayed during the trip that got her dubbed "Hanoi Jane" (naturally this champion of the people was staying at the poshest place in town), and it was here that Joan Baez serenaded frightened guests in the hotel bunker during a protracted bombing raid. When the French were chased out in the mid-1950s, it was renamed the Thong Nhat, or Reunification Hotel, and became the official government guesthouse. But apparatchniks have no gift for providing luxury, and the Thong Nhat slipped into a deep decline from which it was eventually rescued by Sofitel, which isn't shy about selling colonial fantasies along with its rooms:

The hotel has a 1930s Citroën Traction visiting car that lets you ride around the city just as the toffs did in the old days.

But Hanoi Opera House, whose Vietnamese name, Nha Hat Lon, is winsomely translated as House of Big Sing, may be the finest piece of colonial architecture in the city. Built by the French in 1911 with characteristic amour propre and modeled on the Palais Garnier in Paris, it is at once firm of line and ornate as a wedding cake. Its sheer confident Frenchness made it a symbol of foreign domination to the Vietnamese. When Ho Chi Minh's people took control of Hanoi in 1945, they pointedly announced their victory from the balcony of the opera house. The message was clear: This is our place now.

It's only a couple of blocks from the opera house to perhaps the loveliest spot in the city, Hoan Kiem, a placid lake bordered by feathery willows and featuring an 18th-century temple.

Far more than Saigon, Hanoi is involved in a tug-of-war between the past and the future. Even as the city's future lies with the high-rises springing up outside the downtown area, many of its most memorable features are positively ancient. There's no place in Asia quite like the mazelike Old Quarter, right next to Hoan Kiem Lake, a neighborhood which goes back a thousand years. Plunging into the Old Quarter is like entering a different era of civilization, where dark, narrow streets travel in unpredictable directions, storekeepers live deep in the bowels of their narrow, centuries-old shops, and everything is organized so rationally that it incongruously feels like Wonderland. You start down a street that sells only shoes, then turn left onto a block where the shops all do tombstones with the faces of the deceased spookily photoengraved onto the stone. There are streets for jewelers and toy sellers, herbalists and lacquerists.

But the young in today's Hanoi are more excited about what's new. They relish the fact that Pho Hang Hanh (which means, drearily enough, Onion Street) is now nicknamed Coffee Street for the hip cafés where they can watch the inescapable Britney Spears on MTV, smoke 555 brand cigarettes (its slogan: "A brighter future"), and give foreigners their e-mail addresses, nearly all of them at because they can't afford to own a computer. Eager to connect to the outside world, they find it maddening that their government is run by old men whose ideas were all shaped by the war.

Ten years ago, it was hard to get a good meal in Hanoi. Today one can eat extremely well—from the humble street stalls that serve pho (the rice-noodle soup that is a national obsession) to elegant, high-end restaurants like Indochine with refined neo-Vietnamese dishes like beef fillet in toasted coconut and banana-flower salad. Cha Ca La Vong in the Old Quarter is one hundred years old and still serves only one dish, cha ca—boneless chunks of fish that is marinated in turmeric, fried on a brazier, then eaten with dipping sauce, rice noodles, and a tray of herbs like basil and sweet dill. While there's nothing romantic about the restaurant itself (unless you find romance in the seediness of low ceilings and ancient fans), this is where I had my favorite meal in Hanoi.

Another Hanoi institution is Café Lam, the city's leading boho hangout for the last half century—for years this was the only place where artists could show their work.

Any trip to Hanoi demands a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Stilt House (the minimalist counterpoint to Saigon's old Presidential Palace), and especially the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a grim cubicle where the embalmed Ho lies in a glass sarcophagus.

Communism's strange pseudoreligiosity has always included an addiction to icons, cult objects, and relics: Moscow has its pickled Lenin, Beijing its Mao. Even though Ho had requested to be cremated, he hadn't even died before the Soviet Union's top embalmer arrived in Hanoi eager to do his work.

One doesn't know how much credit belongs to Ho's example, but the idealism and hardship of Hanoi's past have given its citizens something I do not find in Saigon—an almost palpable sweetness and decency. These are deep people, you might say. And open-hearted. I've never traveled anyplace where so many locals came up to me wanting to talk, and talk seriously. One night at a fancy villa restaurant, my waiter spilled the story of his life as I ate my coconut ice cream. The next morning I went to the new Museum of Ethnology, devoted to Vietnam's minority tribes. As I examined an ancestral altar, a computer specialist came up and followed me from exhibit to exhibit, asking about America and capitalism, and posing the deep-dish questions you'd expect from a student in a Dostoyevsky novel. As we neared the gift shop, he blurted out, "Do you believe in God?"

He didn't. But if you wanted to make someone a believer, you could do worse than send them to Ha Long Bay, a spectacular scatter of 3,000 islands in the Gulf of Tonkin that provided the most dazzling scenery in the Oscar-winning film Indochine. The drive takes three hours along often tortuous roads. The vast majority of Vietnamese still live in the countryside, and the trip to Ha Long showed me their Vietnam, where water buffalo stop traffic, women in conical hats stoop over ridiculously short hoes, a Vietnam where rice paddies stretch toward the horizon like miles of green Velcro, and farmers buzz along on their Hondas with as many as ten squealing piglets bound behind them. The villages outside Hanoi are all famed for individual specialties—there's the pottery village, the green-bean-cake village, and the dog village, whose restaurants specialize in dog. "You are American," smiled my guide, an amiable man named Hai. "You will not want to go there."

You travel Ha Long Bay by boat, and everywhere the views are magnificent. The locals earn their livelihood by fishing (and through tourism, of course), and we passed a green-tarped vessel perhaps five feet by ten, on which a whole family lived with its dog and tiny TV that is their lifeline to the world—a jerry-rigged antenna angled toward the sky. This is one of the most sheerly gorgeous places on earth. For now. Soon it too will be overwhelmed by tourists.

Ha Long means "descending dragon," and according to legend, Ha Long Bay was created by the movements of a giant dragon, which shifted both the land and the ocean as it made its way from the mountains to the bottom of the sea. The islands themselves are huge outcroppings of limestone and dolomite that leap from the sea in harrowing verticals. It would take a rock-climber to go ashore on many of these isles. Utterly useless, their only purpose is to be ravishingly beautiful; their extravagant solitude is surreal.

Saigon: The View from the Roof

It's a two-hour flight from Hanoi to Saigon's Tan Son Nhat Airport, which was used by the U.S. Air Force during the war. Tan Son Nhat! Decades later I can still hear Walter Cronkite intoning those syllables. In its day this was one of the two busiest airports in the world (along with O'Hare), and even ten years ago your jet would taxi by the rusted hulks of American-built warplanes. But present-day Tan Son Nhat seems little more than a small, drowsy, slightly decaying provincial airport—like Des Moines', say, 20 years after the bottom fell out of the corn market.

For all its exotic allure, Saigon is not a beautiful city. "[It] is a French town in a hot country," Norman Lewis wrote 50 years ago in A Dragon Apparent, the single best travel book ever written on Indochina. "It is as sensible to call it—as is usually done—the Paris of the East as it would be to call Kingston, Jamaica, the Oxford of the West Indies. Its inspiration has been purely commercial and is therefore without folly, fervor or much ostentation."

These days Saigon is a Vietnamese town in a hot country. If the nation's soul is Hanoi, Saigon is its cash register. It's loud, fast, greedy, prodigal, incandescent in its energy. But not beautiful. In the winter dry season, the leaves are coated with coppery dust; on hot summer days, the air seems filled with a never-ending supply of exhaust. There are six million people in Saigon, and they all seem to be out and about nearly all the time. Life is lived on the streets, and you need only step from your hotel to see the human pageant in all its multiplicity—people eating and drinking, railing in anger, smooching with their lovers, urinating against public walls. What an assault on the senses! You're bombarded with the scent of fish sauce, charcoal, gasoline and joss sticks, your eyes bedazzled by the roads teeming with vehicles: an endless stream of bicycles, motorcycles, cyclos, vintage Hondas, spanking new SUVs. You keep waiting to see massive pileups, but miraculously everyone just weaves in and out. The triumph of inspired anarchy.

Only the architecture remains to remind you of French rule. But it is worth adding that the loveliest buildings in Saigon are the colonial buildings on Dong Khoi: the Hotel Majestic, with its air of exhausted elegance; the ornate 1891 post office, all cornices and vaulted ceilings, with colonial maps on the wall (and a FedEx window at the counter!); and above all, the Continental Hotel, a triumph of lavish style with high ceilings and a marvelous courtyard where you can sip cocktails amid redolent frangipanis. Thick with atmosphere and character, the Continental should be one of the world's great hotels, and it tells you something about Saigon's recent history that it's not: Rather than having the renovation done by people who knew how, the bureaucrats at Saigon Tourist settled for a low-budget job. You'll rarely see worse fixtures and furniture in finer rooms: "All that cheap chinoiserie," moaned a hotelier I met later.

Saigon is a city of rooftops, especially rooftop bars, where one can sit above the streets and look down on the life below. There's the rooftop bar at the Majestic, where you can watch the sampans and hydrofoils move up and down the river. There's the breezy rooftop bar Saigon Saigon, at the Caravelle Hotel, where many of the correspondents stayed during the war. And then there's the rooftop bar on the fifth floor of the Rex Hotel, America's wartime base of operations, where the infamous "five o'clock follies" press briefings were held. The Rex is something of a castle of kitsch, but sitting at the bar along with the topiary dragons, you have a great view of what may be the most extraordinary single sight in Saigon: On weekend nights, tens of thousands of young people, all astride motorcycles, do the circuit of downtown, up Dong Khoi, across on Le Loi, and down Nguyen Hue. The locals call this song voi, living fast.

While Saigon's great allure for most tourists lies in its war remnants (the Reunification Palace, the underground labyrinth of tunnels called Cu Chi), the people of Saigon are tired of the whole thing—especially the young: Over half of the city's population is under 25, which means they hadn't even been born when the war ended. For them it's a dead letter. Still, deep feelings linger, especially in the attitude toward the United States. America's relationship to the South was like a failed marriage that left both spouses disillusioned and heartbroken.

On my last day in Saigon I wandered down Le Duan Street to catch a glimpse of the U.S. Embassy, which housed a Soviet petroleum company the last time I was in town. But the city is developing, and instead of the embassy I found a new U.S. consulate, and outside its fortified gates a gray-haired Vietnamese woman who told me, "Old embassy gone." She handed me a packet of bleary snapshots, carefully annotated, chronicling that ugly white bunker's demolition. She told me that the whole set cost three dollars, and I cheerfully paid it. In its day the roof of the U.S. Embassy was one of the most famous places in the world. Now all that's left of it are these photos in the hands of a gentle old woman.

Phnom Penh and Angkor: The Glorious, Inglorious Past

The flight from Saigon to Phnom Penh happens so quickly that you start to understand how Cambodia got sucked into the Vietnam War. It was simply too close to the action to escape unscathed—especially as none of the participants cared what happened to the Cambodians, who were just, as political writer William Shawcross put it, a "sideshow."

While the Vietnamese see that war in triumphalist terms—the culmination of a 2,000-year march to independence—the Cambodians see only the triumph of entropy. For the six centuries between 802 and 1432, the Khmers owned a vast empire that, at its peak, stretched west from southern China and Vietnam all the way across Thailand and Burma, and built the astonishing temples at Angkor, probably the most spectacular ruins in the world. Now Cambodians live in a country that is still recovering from one of the last century's touchstone horrors—the Khmer Rouge's attempt to send Cambodian history back to "Year Zero," a process that killed up to two million people and left the country with fewer teachers, doctors, architects, and artists than it had in the year 1000. For most of us, the word "Cambodia" still calls up some ghastly scene from The Killing Fields, perhaps the most potent anti-tourism advertisement ever made. So potent that many tour groups go straight to Angkor and skip the rest of the country—including its capital city, Phnom Penh. Yet before the war reached Cambodia, Phnom Penh was perhaps the most exquisite city in Indochina, a perfect little gem at the confluence of three rivers.

"Phnom Penh in early 1970 was ravishing," writes Jon Swain in his touching memoir River of Time. "Buddhist monks in saffron robes and shaven heads walking down avenues of blossom-scented trees; schoolgirls in white blouses and blue skirts pedaling past with dazzling smiles, offering garlands of jasmine to have their pictures taken; lovers strolling in the evening along the placid riverbank by the old Royal Palace; elephant rides in the park; tinkling bells coming from the shrine. . . . [T]here was a curious sensation that time stood still." Today the city reminds me of a handsome young couple who lost their children in a car crash and, after years of mourning and shell shock, are bravely learning once again to embrace life. Although still pretty, and working to get prettier, Phnom Penh is more of a Wild West town than in the prewar days, when the corruption wore a patina of civility. Back then opium dens were gracious and social life combined local charm with the sophistication brought by years of French rule. Today foreigners pop into Cambodia hoping to make a fast buck.

The city's most crazily grandiose attraction is the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace, first built in 1892 and rebuilt 70 years later. The pagoda takes its name from its floor, which is composed of 5,000 tiles of silver, each weighing one kilogram. Yet this precious-metal tiling is only part of the commitment to excess. The pagoda is filled with Buddhas of all kinds—silver, bronze, Baccarat crystal—but its centerpiece is a life-sized Buddha made of gold and adorned with 9,584 diamonds. It's an amazing sight, but not an altogether encouraging one. As Norman Lewis wrote, "Here one glimpsed the East of the traveller's tales; prodigious, garish and wasteful."

Like Saigon, Phnom Penh is another of those cities that made being a war reporter glamorous. That's why nearly every visitor makes a pilgrimage to the legendary Foreign Correspondents Club on Sisowath Quay, a comfortable joint with a huge bar, ceiling fans, and geckos skittering along the wall. Although the menu has been updated to offer the likes of taco salads, it remains a good place for lunch and a great place to have a late-afternoon drink and watch the sunset. The FCC provides a perfect view of the Tonle Sap River and its shockingly undeveloped far shore. A decade from now, people sitting in these same seats will be looking at high-rises instead of an alluring green horizon.

When I first came to the club almost four years ago, a man from the U.S. Embassy told me that if you sat at the bar long enough you would meet every foreigner in the city worth knowing. That remains true, but you may find an even richer mix at Hotel Le Royal's Elephant Bar. Le Royal may be my personal favorite of Indochina's renovated vintage hotels—it has a casual, effortless elegance. During the war, many reporters lodged at Le Royal (in fact, part of The Killing Fields is set here), but its aura is purely colonial. This early 1930s gem features lofty interior arches, a magnificent courtyard swimming pool, even carpeting that echoes a motif at the Royal Palace. From your window you can look out on lush greenery. Like the Metropole, Le Royal is perhaps a tad too eager to flaunt its colonial heritage. With the sublime loss of memory that is part of nostalgia, it has named rooms after French President Charles de Gaulle, who resisted Cambodian independence, and writer André Malraux, who looted Angkor and then wrote a book about it. Still, Le Royal does have every right to present itself as mythic. Its moody Elephant Bar has, at one time or another, seen just about everyone in Cambodia who makes any noise—royals, ministers, generals, journalists, renowned diplomats, big-time CEOs, young idealistic workers, and, of course, international swindlers.

Phnom Penh endured some of the 20th century's greatest horrors; no trip here is complete without visiting at least one of its dark sites. About ten miles from town is the memorial for the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, an extermination camp where 17,000 men, women, and children were killed in the mid-1970s. Nearly 10,000 bodies were exhumed, and the memorial's glass panels display close to 8,000 skulls. Bits of bone and cloth can still be found underfoot.

In contrast, the temples at Angkor are extraordinary. The hour's flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap deposits you in a sleepy provincial town whose citizens still build houses on stilts to keep out the snakes and give their animals shelter under the floorboards. The short drive from Siem Reap to Angkor brings a miraculous transformation—it's as if you were driving in the poorest reaches of dirt-farmer Mississippi and suddenly stumbled across the cathedral of Chartres, but not just that, also the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and the Taj Mahal.

The experience is heartstopping. And we know it's coming. Think how it must have staggered Henri Mouhot, the French explorer and naturalist who became famous for "discovering" Angkor. He stumbled across the place in the midst of an expedition in 1860. "Suddenly, and as if by enchantment," he wrote of first seeing Angkor Wat, "[the traveler] seems to be transported from barbarism to civilization, from profound darkness to light." Over the next decades Angkor witnessed the arrival of international conservation teams and intrepid travelers who would arrive by sampan, bullock cart, on the backs of elephants, and lodge at the small Bungalow des Ruines.

Of course it's all much easier in the 21st century, when we can jet into Siem Reap and check into opulent lodgings like the aptly named Grand Hotel d'Angkor, a hotel so grand that it dwarfs the royal palace across the road. Originally built in 1929, the hotel was recently renovated and enlarged by Raffles International with a superb sense of luxury and detail. Everything's first-class, from the huge swimming pool and original caged elevator to a superb spa and two huge villas which give one the feeling of dwelling in a fabulous tropical mansion.

Angkor is so rich and vast that it repays a stay of any length. Most visitors come for two or three days. After that, they become what some call "templed out." Others, though, get hooked.

Noël Coward sang that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Visitors to Angkor are wise not to. The temples are best in the early morning and late afternoon—many were built in alignment with the sun—and savvy travelers breakfast at dawn, explore the ruins for a few hours, and then return to their hotel for a nap, a swim, or a massage at the spa until midafternoon.

Frankly, few things are duller than reading about ruins in far-off lands, especially when they're the legacy of lesser-known kings, like Suryavarman II. Still, it is worth pointing out that the vast cluster of temples known as Angkor was actually built over several hundred years and sprawls over several miles; one casually walks past phantasmagoric ruins that would be a major attraction almost anywhere else in the world. Each of the most famous sites has its own distinct atmosphere and power; each, it must be said, also suggests something of the cruel vanity of the kings who had them built. The nation's resources were drained and thousands died so that their monarch could build a hugely elaborate temple honoring one of his dead parents.

Angkor Wat is the largest, most startling, and best preserved of the ruins. This great funerary temple is the first thing you see on arriving, and it's staggering. The place is enormous. A vast multitowered structure, it is surrounded by a moat that's 600 feet wide; the walk from the gateway to the main building is nearly half a mile. As you head toward the temple you'll be approached by kids selling T-shirts and soft drinks (but no Graham Greene), and if you say, "Maybe later," they'll cry, "I'll remember you!"—and they always do.

Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu, the Hindu deity with whom Suryavarman II identified. The king wasn't exactly a minimalist, and every inch of this huge building is painstakingly worked—the walkways are lined with statuary (some defaced by looters), there are 750 yards of bas reliefs on mythological themes, each doorway seems to lead to another holy statue or monk burning incense. Although some of the stairs up the towers are unnervingly vertiginous, your courage wins you extraordinary views. Sitting here at sunset you feel the distinctive character of this temple, whose perfectly measured symmetries evoke the search for a worldly order to match the divine.

By comparison, Ta Promh is sheer hallucination. Visitors to Angkor have always adored the romanticism of great stone edifices devoured by jungle, and here that has been allowed to happen. This is a place of crumbling towers, shattered statuary, and gigantic banyan trees whose freakishly broad roots rise from the earth and wrap themselves around the temple buildings like so many pythons. No ordinary temple, it's like a Hollywood fantasia of a vast Eastern ruin.

If Ta Promh is the most delirious of the temples, the most exquisite is Banteay Srei, a small 10th-century temple made of pinkish sandstone and dedicated to Siva. It is about 20 miles from Angkor Wat, and for years it was off-limits because of Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Now it has quickly become one of Angkor's most popular attractions, thanks to its intimacy, to the incredible delicacy of the stone carving that covers its walls like a tapestry. After all the overwhelming grandeur, it seems a relief.

"It is so peaceful," sighed my guide, basking in the scene, and I politely agreed. But I fear I may be too much a Westerner to be completely at ease with those serene, half-smiling—or are they sinister?—faces.

In fact, standing among those 200 stone faces, all wearing their cosmic, enigmatic smiles, I kept thinking about how life in Indochina so often strikes me as profound but also elusive. I thought back to a night in Hanoi when I was walking to dinner at Nam Phuong, the gorgeous old villa restaurant. As I made my way toward the restored colonial opera house, the streets were quieter than I had ever known them. A pretty young Vietnamese woman stood on the corner talking softly into a cell phone. An old man burned paper money to placate hungry ghosts. The occasional bicycle would glide by, its spokes whispering in the dim streetlights.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of singing. Out of the darkness a truck emerged carrying a pagoda-shaped stage that was filled with performers in radiant silk costumes who were putting on some kind of traditional opera. Behind them trailed hundreds of people slowly stirring the night air with floral bouquets. Everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion. The performers sang, the marchers waved their flowers—I felt as if I could see every individual petal shudder—and then the procession rounded the corner and vanished. Like a ghost or a miracle.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the young woman with the cell phone; she was smiling. She met my eyes and said: "It beautiful."

"Yes," I said. "Very."

I was going to ask her what it all meant, but before I could find the words she straddled her Honda, and then she, too, disappeared into the night.

Vietnam comes at you with a flood of sensations and images. You can find romance and old-world elegance at Saigon's Mandarin, a cool, hip modernism at Hanoi's Indochine, and big-city bustle and energy in Saigon.

Here is an adventurous Asia that, for the most part, you can no longer find. But it too will soon vanish.