Written by Robert, photographed by Julie
After Edith, Emmanuel, and Clara left, Julie and I managed to get through our longest time separated from each other, which came to a conclusion when I met her in Chicago. We spent a wonderful week seeing friends and family (though not Willow — sad face); visiting our favorite neighborhoods; and generally enjoying being outside and on sidewalks (this is a luxury people in the US take for granted).
That trip — our first back to the States since moving — was a wonderful reminder of what we love and miss about our home country, and how certain and excited we are to return soon. But it also made us realize we have more to do and see in SE Asia. And it served as a perfect bridge between our first and second guests in KL.
Just a few days after returning, we greeted my parents who spent their 42nd anniversary in the air for 24 hours for a two-week tour of Vietnam, Cambodia, and KL.
Ho Chi Minh City
Less than a day after Mom and Dad arrived, we headed back to the airport to board the plane to Ho Chi Minh City (the trip to the airport alone was an epic 2.5-hour journey in rush hour filled with debate about turning back and booking a flight for the next day only to have us arrive at the check-in curb 10 minutes before take off … and still we made it).We got in late and hungry and set out to find banh mi. Struggling to order at the street market that seemed to have already closed, we landed on some mysterious but delicious looking food. We passed beers and sandwiches around on the sidewalk nearby and once our bellies were full, we strolled back to the hotel, observing the city along the way.
One thing was immediately clear: we would always have to be on our toes. Stop lights don’t mean the same thing in HCMC that they do in other places and the right of way is nothing more than a theoretical concept. The constant game of Frogger was something we learned, but never totally adjusted to.
Our first full day was an emotionally-taxing tour of the damage done by the Vietnam War. The complicated mix of guilt for the colonialism perpetrated by our homeland combined with the memories my parents have of their lives during the war mixed with the propaganda and pride of the locals created a lot of sighs, head shaking and quiet tears among the group.We started at the Cu Chi Tunnels, an elaborate underground maze 45 km outside the city where Vietnamese defended their homes and farms against the French and then the Americans for decades, using rudimentary weapons, cunning, resilience, and the power of surprise. They burrowed 10 feet underground for months at a time, avoiding bombs and attacking when the enemy dared to come on foot. We lowered ourselves into these man-made caves, and crawled on our hands and knees. The claustrophobia made a crowded rush-hour L ride feel like a breath of fresh air.
From there, we returned to Saigon for a tour of the War Remnants Museum, a three-floor chronicle of the war as a triumph of the Vietnamese over the West. It was complete with graphic images of the effects of Agent Orange, monuments to heroes, and no mention that we saw of any internal conflict about the war.After all that, we needed a beer.
The next day and a half, we walked through oppressive heat and equally oppressive streets, talking through my parent’s memories of the war, stopping at pagodas, the church where Ngo Dinh Diem was captured, and markets.On the morning we were set to depart, we searched for and (eventually) found a commissioned art district where the walls were covered with graffiti, serving as a backdrop for the groups of millennials with selfie sticks.A trip back to the hotel to pack, a brief stop for pho, and it was time to head north.
We landed in Hanoi in time for a quick check in at the historic Metropole — where bouquets of lotus flowers and a painting by Joan Baez greeted us — and headed for a late dinner at a speakeasy around the corner that’s run by a former NPR reporter.
The difference between the two cities was clear from that nighttime walk. The streets were walkable, the pace slower. And unlike HCMC, which bangs you on the head with the frenetic relics of Saigon, there is a calm pride encircling Hanoi. If Saigon was Jackson Pollock, Hanoi was Monet.
The next morning started with a clockwise walk around Ho Hoan Kiem, the pond/lake that marks the epicenter of the city’s Old Quarter. Our two days were leisurely, marked by stops in silk shops and cafes as we dodged the rain. We sat on the balcony of the Metropole for evening cocktails, banged our knees on the metal bar at Pho Thin while slurping the amazingly complex local cuisine, toured the prison that housed John McCain and other POWs, and moseyed through temples.Of course there was the requisite trip to visit Uncle Ho as well. After attempting to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum one day, only to find out that Uncle Ho only sees guests in the morning, we took in his museum in the giant Soviet structure nearby. The exhibits were inexplicably inexplicable. There was a room-size brain that was supposed to symbolize something and a giant abstract kids’ table with oversized fruit that looked like it would be more appropriate in a Van Gogh painting. Whatever the intended meaning of the exhibits, we learned nothing from the experience and left laughing.
We made it to the mausoleum the next day where Uncle Ho was waiting for us and the forcefully silent, single-file line of tourists, quickly marching around the room where he lies in a transparent casket. The absurdity of the process almost matched the impressive display of idolatry.Yes, there’s more. Cambodia awaits.
From the landing strip at the Siem Reap airport, it was clear we were in a different corner of SE Asia. The honking scooters on wide paved roads were replaced by three-wheeled tuk tuks on narrow dirt roads. The poverty of the area caught us all by surprise.
The town is built around the stunning temples, anchored by Angkor Wat, with dozens of others surrounding the area. The city itself is a monument to Cambodia’s heyday, a 900 year-old display of Khmer power.
We opted for two days of guided tours, starting early in the morning at Angkor Wat. Like the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall, the scale of Angkor Wat is indescribable. We walked through the center of the temple, climbed to the top of one of the recognizable corn-cob towers, and heard the tales of the 40,000 elephants and 10 million sandstone blocks (each weighing 1.5 tons) that make up the structure. From there, we went to Ta Prohm. None of us counted, but I’d wager that our tour guide said “Tomb Raider” 47 times as he showed us around the temple that was used in the movie. Unlike Angkor Wat, which has been restored and analyzed at great length, the thrill of Ta Prohm is the feeling that you just walked into the woods and found something no one has seen in centuries. Stones dot the perimeter, having fallen from years of storms; trees grow through the structure, their roots interconnected with the man-made temple.On our second day, we started at Bayon, which stands at the center of what was the empire’s capital city in the 13th century. Buddha faces (no less than 216 of ’em) surrounded us as we climbed and weaved our way through. We saw five or six temples in all, but I think we were all most impressed by Bayon.There wasn’t much else to do in Siem Reap. We had a memorable dinner at a small, family-run restaurant and drank coffee at a shop owned by an Australian couple who traveled to Siem Reap five years ago and never left. By the end, though, we were all ready to be done with the trip.
Back in KL
Since we left KL so quickly after my parents arrived, it was nice to have a few days to show them around our home. We celebrated Mom’s birthday with a gin and tonic and dinner in Bangsar, went up the Petronas Towers, took a tour of the Groupon office, and everyone but me saw the Bird Park.It was an incredible couple of weeks. We got to see new countries with a pair of great travel partners. It was also a rare time to spend one on one with my parents. At a time when Julie and I are discussing and learning what we want to do with our lives, we felt lucky to spend time with two of our role models.