We flew just an hour from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), but it felt like a time warp. Phnom Penh reminded me of African cities I’ve been to, with lots of large, dusty SUVs transporting NGO workers around the city. To help with the recovery from the genocide, Cambodia, like Rwanda, has received, and continues to receive, a lot of foreign aid. HCMC, on the other hand, is a booming, thriving metropolis with a million motorbikes, and it glows with the bright lights of the many skyscrapers going up.
We focused our sightseeing in HCMC on visits to Vietnamese memorials that commemorate what they call the American War. We just had two days in the city, so we spent most of our time visiting the Reunification Palace, where the South Vietnamese conceded defeat to the Viet Cong in 1975, the War Remnants Museum, with many terrifying photos from the war, especially of the damage caused by napalm and Agent Orange, and the Cuchi Tunnels, a hand-dug network of about 75 miles of tunnels where the Viet Cong hid out and from which they also launched attacks. Neither of us learned very much in school about the Vietnam War, and it was really interesting, and saddening, to learn about it from the Vietnamese perspective, and right where much of the fighting actually took place.
The highlight of our visit to HCMC, though, was a big night out with our friends Scott and Cesar. Scott and I went to college together, and although we haven’t really kept in touch, I knew from Facebook that he and his soon-to-be husband Cesar were living in HCMC. It was amazing and so fun to walk through the door of their beautiful home and hug Scott after more than 11 years since we’d last seen each other, and it was wonderful to meet Cesar, too. We had fun swapping travel stories, but best of all, as locals they showed us a side of HCMC we never would have found on our own. We had dinner out in a lovely old renovated home with plate after plate of yummy Vietnamese food–fish in passion fruit sauce, beef cooked in a clay pot, crunchy fried tofu, and stir-fried greens with garlic, among others. Out of all of the places we’re traveling to, I was most looking forward to the food in Vietnam, and our dinner out with Scott and Cesar did not disappoint.
After dinner they took us out for drinks at Chill Skybar, a swanky outdoor place at the top of one of HCMC’s new high rises. Scott pointed out all of the new buildings added to the skyline since he and Cesar first moved to HCMC several years ago, and Cesar snapped a picture of Scott, John and me with the skyline in the background. From our smiles you can see that we were having a great night!
One of the most perplexing things we learned from Scott and Cesar that night is that Vietnam is a Footloose kind of place. Except for a few bars and clubs that have the necessary permits, in most public places dancing is prohibited. Scott pointed out that many people still “table dance,” which is definitely not dancing on top of a table but rather people standing around their cocktail tables individually bopping in a white man’s overbite from When Harry Met Sally sort of way. I wish we’d gotten a picture or video of it.
It was a great night out! Next up, Hoi An…