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.
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.
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 ba'nh xèo, the Vietnamese stuffed pancake, so I approached her and asked, "Chị lm ba'nh xèo?"
""ាញ់ឆែវ," 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.