I felt like I was lying.
For months, I’ve told friends I’m going home to Vietnam. But “going home” isn’t exactly right.
I’ve never been to Vietnam. I’ve wanted to visit my mother’s country for as long as I can remember. But life happens and the next thing I know I’m a 35-year-old mixed-race Asian guy who hasn’t experienced the culture outside of eating pho on University Avenue and listening to my mom tell her old stories.
Home for me is Minnesota. I look a bit like my mom, but my dad’s strong Scandinavian blood shows through in my height (6 feet) and my complexion (a little pale). He was a soldier in Vietnam during the late 1960s; she was a peasant girl working on the army base. They met, fell in love and made a life back in Minnesota starting in 1973. My half-brother, who was 6 at the time, came with her.
Fast forward to 2017. Our parents are long divorced. My big brother, Van, and I are on a plane to Vietnam — my first time and his first since leaving as a child. Our mother, Ninh, has only been back twice in 44 years, the last time to see her dying father.
I prepare to feel like a stranger in a strange land.
Looking out the plane as we touch down at the Ho Chi Minh City airport, my mom yells out:
“It doesn’t look the same. It looks bigger. It looks like America.”
We spill off the plane and into the embrace of my aunt and cousin. They don’t speak English, so my mom translates through the tears.
The first thing my 63-year-old aunt, Kim Anh, says to my brother: “You look like your father.” His dad, a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, died from friendly fire when my brother was only a baby.
Kim Anh and her daughter, Hoang Anh, 39, both work in cramped, open-air markets, selling children’s clothes. They are going to travel with us on this 13-day trek north as we explore the entire country. My brother, who is 14 years older than me, is funding much of this trip, which includes hosting our long-distant relatives. Traveling with us is his wife, Heather, and her parents Carol and Dennis. My wife (bless her heart) is staying back in Minnesota to care for our two small children.
On the rooftop of Hotel Majestic, the city’s first five-star hotel managed by Vietnamese (only $120 a night), we see glass skyscrapers growing right on top of the metropolis’ old colonial architecture. Ho Chi Minh is the south’s former capital and still the country’s largest city at 10 million people. Most call it by its former name: Saigon.
Below, mopeds and scooters rule the streets, zipping by with a symphony of honks and beep-beeps. My cousin tells me to quit taking so many photos, for fear someone might run up and steal my iPhone.
She teaches me the easiest of Vietnamese words, mostly to describe the delicious food we’re eating. In fact the word delicious, or ngon in Vietnamese (pronounced “nong”), becomes a common refrain at every meal.
Eating our first bowls of Vietnam’s famous beef noodle soup together, I ask, “Does it taste good?”
“Ngon!” she responds with a smile.
In stark contrast to slurping noodles with Hoang Anh is the War Remnants Museum, four stories dedicated to the “American War of Aggression” — and one of Ho Chi Minh’s biggest tourist attractions.
Inside, the exhibit walls are covered with graphic photographs depicting Agent Orange’s aftermath. Outside, the machinery of war — old tanks and planes — cover the grounds. My aunt and mother seem numb to the whole experience.
“I don’t like to think about war,” my mom says, “and how many people got killed. I don’t really care who is the good side and the bad side. They just killed people.”
For the first time
On the ride to my mom’s hometown, I sit next to Nga, another aunt whom I’ve just met for the first time. We communicate with hand gestures and a little translation from my mom. Nga points at my forearm, then shows me her slim legs and arms. I think she’s saying I’m big, and she’s skinny. Soon we pass miles of rice fields. She points to them and then to her dark skin, making a harvesting motion.
My mom chimes in, telling me she’s been a rice paddy worker for years.
Tay Ninh is 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh, home to massive, ornate temples and a small concrete house where my grandparents lived. The highway is lined with an unending number of storefronts, entrepreneurial businesses selling duck, electric fans, pho, Hello Kitty pillows, mobile phones and caskets. When my mother left more than 40 years ago, her father told her to never look back.
When we arrive at the family home, two dozen of my relatives come rushing out, crying as they hug and kiss us. My mom, 66, is the eldest (with her twin sister) of her 10 brothers and sisters, but many of them look older than her. The house has no plumbing, and just three rooms — the largest dedicated solely to two wood-carved altars honoring my grandparents and great-grandfather.
We all pose together, snapping photos. They are poor, but as is the case throughout Vietnam, everyone has a smartphone. Several of them even “friend” me on Facebook.
My brother wants to take the whole family out to eat. So we dine on catfish, fried rice, salty shrimp, Heineken and whiskey at an outdoor banquet hall.
They cook the fish right at our table in a hot pot. Hoang Anh looks to me for my take.
“Ngon!” I yell out.
For almost 30 people the bill comes to $100. Incredible. One of my uncles insists we take shots of whiskey with him. He talks about postwar life under the communists and the re-education camps. As my mom translates, he holds her hand and places his palm on my brother’s back.
He says he makes $3 a day.
This will be the only day we spend in Tay Ninh. My mom has never seen the rest of her country, so we’ll travel north, taking Kim Anh and Hoang Anh with us.
Enter the ancient city
A few days later, I’m bartering with a street vendor over a pair of sandals for my 3-year-old daughter back home. We’ve moved onto Hoi An, the ancient city of central Vietnam and a popular tourist destination.
The rows of little red sandals are laid out on a mat at this night market. Hoang Anh insists she do the bartering for me; her sweet demeanor slipping away as the shoe seller becomes agitated with our offer. My cousin is persistent in her quest to protect us from getting overcharged. The woman swears at her: “Why are you helping them, they’re rich!”
After a few more instances of these intense showdowns over $5 trinkets, I tell Hoang Anh she doesn’t have to barter anymore. We can afford it.
Hoi An is a maze of mouthwatering street food storefronts, a comforting oasis without the incessant honking of the bigger cities. The relaxed nature of these cafes give my mom more time to reflect. She can’t help but reminisce about physical and emotional scars. At an ice cream shop, she tells a story of her father tortured by the Japanese in the 1940s. Over lunch, she tells the story of how Kim Anh wanted to be a doctor. My aunt adds to the story: the communists wouldn’t let her because my mom lived in the United States. My mom didn’t know that until this moment.
“It’s very sad. But that’s life,” my mom says.
Today the communists like that we live in the States, Kim Anh says, because we come back as tourists. They call us “Viet Kieu,” meaning Overseas Vietnamese.
The heart of communist Vietnam
Every day in this Hanoi alleyway, a 50-something woman sits on a tiny stool in front of a boiling vat of duck soup. She cuts the duck meat into small pieces with a scissors, dishing it all into bowls sold for $2 to an endless line of customers.
It’s the best thing I’ve eaten here: “Ngon,” without a doubt.
The alley packs in five other food stalls, a massage parlor and, believe it or not, our hotel ($50 a night).
This part of Hanoi is called the Old Quarter, the oldest commercial district in all of Vietnam. People have been selling their wares here since the 13th century.
Nearby is the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, five floors devoted to female war commanders who fought in the North’s guerrilla army (their personal pistols are on display).
We’re surprised to see another floor dedicated to the country’s agricultural laborers: Instead of handguns, the harvesting blades of field workers hang behind glass displays.
“My sister Nga said she could have been dead 100 times!” my mom says, referring to the danger of working in the paddies during lightning storms.
We ask my aunt and cousin if they’d like to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, without a doubt the city’s busiest landmark. I expect them to decline, but they seem genuinely excited. (Uncle Ho is a bit of celebrity in modern Vietnam.)
Arriving at 7:30 a.m. there must be close to 10,000 people gathered in lines that snake around the compound for blocks. Half of the crowd is grade-school classes. All this simply to see the venerated communist leader’s embalmed body. He died in 1969.
Three hours later, we finally make it to the front of the line, his tomb an ominous granite fortress. Inside, the temperature drops and the line of people falls silent. Four armed guards surround his glass casket. You can even see his long, darkened fingernails.
The 220-foot boat glides through the teal-green ocean with ease, the winds of Ha Long Bay blowing through our hair. On Vietnam’s northeastern coast, these otherworldly waters are punctuated by thousands of massive rock formations rising right out of the sea — ancient lore says they were created by dragons to keep out foreign invaders.
We’re capping off our two-week journey with an overnight cruise on a 24-cabin vessel called the Dragon Legend (the ship’s bow is actually shaped like the head of a massive serpent).
This family-owned operation is impeccable, a true reflection of Vietnamese hospitality. The food is some of the best we’ve had — oversized prawns, succulent fish, and my mom swoons when they bring her extra sticky rice.
With every bite, I look to my cousin as if for the last time: “Ngon!”
At night, I stand on the deck as the ship rushes past those stone behemoths. The breeze is cool, the waves loud as they crash against the hull.
Minnesota is my home, but Vietnam is — finally — a part of my soul.
It’s a feeling realized not by this amazing boat, the delicious food or the beautiful hotels. It’s Kim Anh and Hoang Anh. It’s the joy of seeing my brother walk through the streets of the country that bore him. It’s hearing my mom speak her language with her countrymen.
Driving to the airport the next day, we prepare to say our goodbyes. My aunt and cousin will take a domestic flight back to Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
At the security checkpoint, my mom gives Kim Anh the last of her money. My aunt will go back to work at 5 a.m. tomorrow in the markets.
Kim Anh asks my mom: “When will we meet each other again?” And they cry together.
After a final embrace, my aunt and cousin disappear into the huge lines of Vietnamese heading toward the domestic terminal. We wave and then scurry off to our plane, walking in silence, back to America.