While waiting for a connecting flight to Vietnam at the Narita International Airport in Japan, a Vietnamese-American chatted me up. Like me, he was from Wisconsin, where he owned a chain of nail salons in Milwaukee.
The businessman was going to Ho Chi Minh City to visit family and offered to show me around.
I appreciated his kindness but felt disappointed, too. The world was too small. Everybody, it seemed, was from Wisconsin. If I wanted familiarity, I would have gone to Las Vegas. Turns out you can get Las Vegas in Vietnam, too, at the Ha Tien Las Vegas Casino.
Another American in the same waiting lounge showed me a picture of his Vietnamese bride. After two years of long-distance courtship, he was going to bring her back to Oklahoma.
From the picture, she looked to be at least 20 years younger than him, like a high school cheerleader standing next to her principal. Their relationship seemed doomed. He was so pleased with himself.
My cynicism was unprepared for the pleasures coming my way. I need not have worried about a trip too ordinary or more gimmicky than genuine. Going to the other side of the world gave me the travelers satisfaction of a fresh perspective.
As an introvert, I liked a culture that values understatement, that is not so in your face as America.
As a vegetarian, I appreciated restaurant menus where everything is not laden with meat and cheese. Some favorite meals included pumpkin soup, a traditional Cambodian wedding dip made from curry and coconut, and South Indian dosas, which in American terms are veggie wraps with spicy dipping sauces.
But I never understood the fascination with durian, known in Southeast Asia as the king of fruit. To the unappreciative Westerner, the durian is a thorny fruit that smells like sweaty gym socks. In Kampot, Cambodia, there is giant sculpture of the fruit in a town square, illuminated at night by French-style street lamps.
I bring it up to show theres another side to Cambodia and Vietnam if all you know are the killing fields and war. Life seems to have moved on, but the tourism industry does a good job of educating anyone interested in the regions history of violence. The museums were surprisingly edifying.
Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former Khmer Rouge torture prison in Phnom Penh, was pretty horrifying as you see the bones and mug shots of the victims, not to mention the barbwire, prison cells and different torture devices.
On the other hand, there also were exhibits of the ongoing trials of the accused organizers of the genocide. Two survivors of the prison sign autographs and pose for pictures with tourists.
I found humanity in the darkest places, such as the basement of the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. This was the last stronghold of the South Vietnamese government. Because its now a museum, you can see the South Vietnamese leaderships bunker apartments and get a feeling for the last days of the war.
I could not imagine a government ministers getting a good nights sleep with a dedicated telephone line next to his bed for reports from the battlefield. Yet I was impressed that a museum in Communist Vietnam could make me feel empathy for the vanquished regime.
Of course, many of the interpretive signs were filled with anti-American rhetoric, but these sentiments were belied by the Pepsi vending machine in the hallway.
As for junk food, my French aunt teased me for eating a chocolate croissant after watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat, one of the biggest religious structures in the world. My aunt thought the croissant was tacky for such a sacred place. It would be like eating a corn dog at St. Peters Cathedral in Rome.
Because Cambodia and Vietnam are former French colonies, you are never lacking for pastries or coffee, but you do feel like you need to take off your hat and lower your voice as you tour Angkor Wat and surrounding temples.
I spent most of the day following Buddhist monks in saffron robes as they climbed the ancient ruins of the archaeological park. The temples pay homage to both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It was difficult not to feel reverence for Buddha and Lord Vishnu.
I cant say I exited through the gift shop, but I bought an Angkor Wat snow globe from a vendor for less than five American dollars. The same globe would cost me an additional $25 in the United States. Because of the liquid in the snow globe, the Transportation Security Administration would not let me take it into the cabin of the plane. So I had to pay extra to stow it as luggage.
Such stringency made me long for chaotic Cambodia and Vietnam, where crossing the street can feel pretty dangerous because the traffic never stops. It always seemed like the cars were bound for a head-on collision.
Yet, I loved the energy, the hustle and big-city vibes of both Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. Everybody, it seems, was out every night, enjoying a drink at a sidewalk cafe or exercising in a city park.
For better or worse, life in America seems so sterile by comparison.