Phnom Penh: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

In contrast to its sunshine and smiles, Cambodia's recent history under the control of the Khmer Rouge is nothing short of horrific.
https://photos.uncorneredmarket.com/Asia/Cambodia/Phnom-Penh/i-w7LcdvtTuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Phnom Penh
Tuol Sleng, originally a high school in downtown Phnom Penh, was transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979. It's estimated that close to 20,000 people were imprisoned here; only seven are known to have survived.

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Phnom Penh – First Impressions

During out first night in Phnom Penh, two bank guards shared their dinner with us after we showed curiosity in what they were eating. They invited us to take a few bites, told us the name of the dish in Khmer, and indicated how much we should pay for the dish to avoid being ripped off. Not quite what we were expected from a city from which we heard reports of “dark and dangerous.”

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Floating Life Along the Mekong

Mekong Delta Floating Market, Vietnam
Cai Rang Floating Market
Cai Rang Floating Market – Mekong Delta.

Like other destinations in Vietnam, Cai Rang dials up the activity, color, and sound a notch to the point of overstimulation. Duelling long-tail boats float by and sell everything from turnips to steaming hot soup. At the Mekong Delta's bazaar on water, transactions take place at every turn and boats jostle for the next deal.

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Preparing for Tet, Vietnamese New Year

Pig Decors - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Year of the Pig! Saigon, Vietnam

We were fortunate to be in Southern Vietnam just prior to Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year (February 18, 2007). The Year of the Pig was being ushered in with an unassailable enthusiasm, as markets burst with flowers, sewing machines in tailor shops buzzed with the new year's wardrobe and shops overflowed with green rolls of Bahn Tet (sticky rice, pork fat and soybean paste rolled in a banana leaf).

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The American War

Given our nationality and the fact that the Vietnam War ended just over 30 years ago, we were surprised that Vietnamese people showed us no animosity or resentment. In fact, when we told people that we were from America, they very often smiled – and genuinely so. We'd score even more points when we mentioned that we used to live in California, home to a large Vietnamese community. Cynics would argue that the Vietnamese are shrewd businesspeople, but we're certain that our treatment wasn't all about business.

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Saigon First Impressions

We were aware of the difference in population between Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, a.k.a. Saigon) and Hanoi, but were surprised to find such a difference in wealth and sophistication between the two cities.

HCMC, is a bright, bustling cosmopolitan city. Even with its glitz and splash, it maintains a distinctly Vietnamese feel as street food stalls press up against 5-star hotels. You can still see the French colonial thumbprint in HCMC with buildings like the People’s Committee building (formerly the Hotel De Ville) or the cathedral just a few blocks away.

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Snackin’ in Saigon

Sit down Hanoi, watch, and learn from your southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon or HCMC). Though we unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to dive into Saigon as deeply as we did Hanoi, we can safely say we prefer its street food scene, hands down.

Here’s just a wee taste.

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Talkative Tailors in Hoi An, Vietnam

Our forays into the tailor shops in Hoi An left us with more than just extra (or superfluous) clothing for our wardrobe. Even when a business deal was clearly not involved, we found that shop owners were often open to sharing their lives and their opinions with us. These unprotected moments provided us with insight into Vietnam's diversity, the legacy of the Vietnam War (or, “American War”, as it's called here), and opinions on the impact of Vietnam's breakneck speed development is having on Vietnamese tradition and culture.

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A Story at My Son, Vietnam

We hired a car to take us at 5:30 AM from Hoi An to the Hindu temple complex of My Son, about an hour’s drive away. We arrived in such good time that the ticket office had yet to open and used our available time to share a coffee with our driver as we waited for the ticket office to open.

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Hungry in Hoi An

After you've settled into your new Hoi An custom-tailored wardrobe, hit the streets in search of food and burst a few buttons on those new duds of yours. Your well-dressed taste buds will notice a flavor that resembles a blend of Chinese, Vietnamese and fusion (i.e., experimental and not traditional). Some dishes even purportedly (and oh so exotically) call for water from a local well. Anyhow, it's all fairly satisfying, if questionably authentic.

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