Last week on a business trip to Vietnam, I delightfully indulged in two of my favorite foods ever: banh mi and pho. I blame it on my bloodline.
Over this past weekend I visited my “home land”, Vietnam, for the first time in my life.
Allison needed her visa renewed so we thought it was an excellent excuse to get out of town, mark another travel spot off our list, and have some much needed pampering. Starting Friday, King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s funeral procession and mourning period began. His cremation was this past Monday and marked a point of sadness and loss in history for the people of Cambodia. Knowing the city would be shut down for four days with streets closed, restaurants paying respect by not playing music, and the city sardined with millions of the people of the Cambodia coming in from the provinces, we decided it would be a perfect time to plan our getaway.
I had never had much of a draw to visit Vietnam, I have never lived there, spent time with Vietnamese, or had much of a cultural connection in any sense (other than my passion for Pho and Banh Mi) but the thought of taking a trip there to traipse the city for a day or two was intriguing. I knew we wouldn’t have time or energy to visit many of the country’s real history, but even the thought of being in a place where my birth mother once lived started to creep into my mind and it was a strange feeling. I would love to return for a longer period of time in the future, in a mindset of exploration and with a desire to learn. Any fears of the country hurting me were assuaged by the friendly residents, beautiful architecture, and bustling life that welcomed us.
Ritchie, Allison, Nico and I took the somewhat uncomfortable (we were seated in the back right next to the toilets and above the hottest part of the bus, but had quite a bit of space to spread out) eight or so hour trip across the border into Saigon and checked into the Alagon Hotel. It took quite a bit of convincing (towards Nico, really) that this was not going to be a “backpacker” trip and that a proper shower, room service, and air conditioning would be necessary. I think I’ve become even fluffier since living here when it comes to vacation, I really don’t want to spend vacation time puking into a cockroach infested bathroom while listening to bad Top 40 from a beer soaked hostel bar. Call me spoiled.
I am lucky enough to have friends who enjoy food as much, if not more at times, as me. And when I say foods I don’t mean delicately arranged, small tapas plates including words like “reduction” and “aigre-doux”. I’m talking cheesy, melty, greasy, American, fat -ass inspired comfort foods. Some (many?) think it’s a waste to be in Vietnam and track down a Dominos Pizza for the first meal, but when you’re living in the land of rice and bland fare(Khmer, in my opinion, offer some of the most boring cuisine I’ve encountered…where’s the spice? What is all that gristle?) and don’t have Ranch regularly, a good old starchy pizza rimmed in orangey oil is exactly whats on my mind. We dined on the most delicious Banh Mi my mouth has ever had the pleasure of meeting at Le Banh Mi, a minuscule cafe with excellent music and indulged in saliva inducing cheese platters, $10 steak and mashed potatoes of a normal texture (note: Cambodian potatoes are glutinous and weird) at Le Steak de Saigon, a much needed dosage of iron. Burger King had our attention at our last lunch but perfectly seasoned Pho made its way into our bellies at 11pm the first night we arrived and the decision to never allow Snake Wine into our lives again was decided all around.
On the more pleasant bus ride home, it felt as if a magnet were pulling me back towards Cambodia. Although Vietnam gave me experiences and pleasures I’ll never forget, culinary, personally, and culture-wise (and I’ll be returning soon for some serious tattoo work), there is something about Cambodia that feels something like home. The draw of the quaint side streets, easy pace, and lovely, rickety tuk tuks in comparison to the air conditioned and steely dispositioned taxi drivers, the short, squat buildings and lack of usable sidewalks brought me back with an enormous appreciation for Phnom Penh and the place its in currently. People who have lived here for the past five, ten, fifteen years share their amazement and sometimes sadness at the changes the city has been through even recently. Roads are paved, we have adidas, French bakeries and a multitude of chain coffee shops when it used to be dirt roads and small shanties of restaurants. From what I’ve picked up on, market changes, the ASEAN Summit strategy, strong Western influence, political shifts, and money are going to continue to change this place until it will likely mirror other big cities in Southeast Asia within the next decade or so. Although I am truly happy to hear of the steps Cambodia is taking towards something new and shiny and look forward to witnessing the changes to come, I hope to never forget the Cambodia I experience today.
Cambodia isn’t the only thing going through a lot of change at the moment. I feel a shift in lifestyle, friendships, family, and overall viewpoint as February wears on. I understand that my mom may not be in Cambodia long term, she is taking things day at a time and if by July she finds something back in the States she may just do something a wild as take back to her roots and become a cattle rancher or something equally bizarre and awesome. My social circles have changed, who I spend the most time with and what we do. Gone are the weeks of staying out five hours past my bedtime and feeling like death warmed up the next day or the hazy Friday nights trying to grasp a connection with any other foreigner trying to make a life in Southeast Asia. Almost forgotten are the thoughts of moving back to Washington by the year 2014 and fresh are the ideas of starting a life here, a real existence with responsibilities unfathomable but nonetheless thrilling. It’s a calming place to be, to be able to step into a schedule that you’d never have the chance to experience during your life back “home”, yet feeling the happiness and repose of someone finally finding those creature comforts in a new place. I remember some of my best writing coming from tear soaked nights, confused and questioning with dry bottles of wine and sometimes feel as if I’ve lost that sad passion in my writing because I’m in such a place of overall peace. I was told that maybe I’ll have a new audience, one that can feel the ease and satisfaction of my day to day. I won’t jinx myself though, my next entry may just be one borne from frustration.
For now, let’s just hope for the best, and expect…the best.
There are pivotal moments in one’s life that arrive that you just know are going to change everything.