Returning to Vietnam was something that I’ve wanted to do since I left at the tender age of two. I have absolutely no memory of the first two years of my life. For all I know I could’ve been in Djibouti during that time, but my mommy tells me that I was in Saigon so I’ll take her word for it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in Vietnam since my mother and my aunts and uncles seem to hate it, but my cousins who have been back love it and return every year. I won’t go into detail about why my mother’s generation isn’t crazy about Vietnam, but it has a little to do with a traumatic fleeing from a new Communist regime that stole all of their life’s work, separated them from their families and threatened their lives. Something like that. That’s all water under the bridge now so I really didn’t have any major concerns about returning to the land of my birth.
After we landed in Saigon and breezed through Immigration, we hopped in a taxi and went to our hotel without any problems. I was expecting to have to bribe an immigration official with a crisp $5 bill, or pay off some baggage handler to give me my fancy first-world backpack, but everything was above the board. No funny business at this airport!
The first thing I wanted to do in the motherland was grab a bowl of pho. I thought I’d be blown away by the authentic flavors that only the homeland could produce and overwhelmed by the rush of emotion that comes with the memories that only a good dish can evoke, but I wasn’t. The pho was bland and didn’t have the intense and complex mixture of spices that I used to smell throughout the house when my mother would make it on those days when she didn’t have work and was able to get a hefty portion of beef bones and just the right cut of beef.
Even though the pho did nothing for me, sitting at a stainless steel table on a small plastic chair with no air-con I felt like I had come home. It’s a strange thing to feel at home in a place I might as well have never been to since I have no memory of it, but maybe somewhere deep in the folds of my big brain (cuz I’m smart) a part of me remembers the sounds of motorbike-congested streets, the scorching Southeast Asian heat, and the funky smells of an overpopulated, underdeveloped city. I can’t say exactly what it was, but I felt like I belonged there and when I told Kanako after we were there for a few days, she gave me a look of horror. She quickly realized how insensitive that was and tried to force a smile, saying that it’s ok if I wanted to move there. What a good wife. She changed her mind about that after her second bout of Uncle Ho’s revenge though.
We originally applied for a one month visa, but decided that one month wasn’t enough so we extended for another month while we were in Da Nang. Having that extra month really allowed us the proper amount of time to appreciate this land that is so different from what I’m used to, yet so strangely familiar to me. I did enjoy the rest of Vietnam, but I only had that feeling of home and belonging in Saigon. I don’t know if I can live in Saigon because I left NYC to get away from the big city life, but home is where the heart is and a part of my heart is still in Saigon.