I cannot believe it’s been 20 years.
Two decades ago, I ate one of the more memorable Thanksgiving dinners of my life. It wasn’t that the food was all that great. It wasn’t. It was the place. And it was the big-hearted spirit of the people serving it that made it so special.
In November 1989, some journalist colleagues and I boarded vehicles in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for what would be a grueling daylong road trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was Thanksgiving Day. We were touring Southeast Asia on a factfinding trip that began in Bangkok, Thailand; it took us to Hanoi, then to Ho Chi Minh City, then to Phnom Penh and then back to Ho Chi Minh City (which used to be called Saigon). It was thrilling beyond belief to be there at that time.
Cambodia had just come out of a decade-long war with Vietnam, which had invaded Cambodia to rid that nation of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge butchers who eradicated a fourth of that country’s population. Cambodia’s infrastructure had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror — and the war that followed — and we were among the first foreigners to see it up close.
That Thanksgiving morning, we headed back to Saigon. Our caravan stopped at the Mekong River, where we rode a rickety raft/ferry across — along with villagers traveling with goats and pigs. I actually feared the ferry would capsize and that headlines around the world would announce the deaths of this traveling group of Americans. It didn’t, so our trip continued.
We eventually crossed the Cambodia-Vietnam border after a considerable delay.
We arrived that evening in Ho Chi Minh City, and checked into our hotel.
And then we gathered for dinner.
The hotel staff had prepared a Thanksgiving meal for their American visitors, knowing that we were celebrating this uniquely American holiday. It consisted of what my dear friend — and former Amarillo resident — Tommy Denton describes to this day as “road kill duck,” mashed potatoes, peas (that had a kind of rubbery texture), and a kind of cobbler for dessert.
It wasn’t a gourmet meal. But we all were moved by the wonderful intentions of our hosts. The United States didn’t yet have diplomatic relations with Vietnam; that would come years later. But our hosts rolled out the red carpet for us and showed us an amazing bit of sensitivity and compassion, serving up a meal to mark a holiday that only we celebrate.
My personal journey to Vietnam would reach its climax a couple of days later, when Tommy and I ventured to Da Nang, where we each re-traced paths we had traveled two decades earlier as young soldiers.
But that particular Thanksgiving holiday, half a world away from my wife and sons, remains one of the highlights of my life.
The people who served us that meal have my everlasting gratitude.