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.
“Keep Calm and Carry On” is a good motto to live by in Saigon. When crossing the street here, a safe crossing is determined by how calm and collected you are as you make the walk of potential death. Crossing signs are scarce, so it’s up to you to dodge oncoming traffic to make your way through town. The trick is to not think too much about it. “It”, as in your body colliding with a car, bus, or more realistically, a moped (none of which will slow for you) and being crushed under the dozens of mopeds following closely behind the one that snagged you.
On a particularly busy street, we hesitated and watched as an ancient old lady casually tai chi-ed* her way across the street. While our version wasn’t nearly as graceful as we jerkily zombied across, we did it. Multiple times. In humid, 97 degree heat, with the sun beating down on us. I’m kind of proud of us.
A blogger had mentioned that walking through Saigon is a stressful rather than a pleasant experience after the first hour of it being somewhat thrilling, and unfortunately, it’s true. The sidewalks are almost always blocked off by mopeds parked in a jumble in front of storefronts, forcing pedestrians to hug the curb and walk in the street. And right when you think you’ve made it safely across to the other side, a moped driver will gun it down the sidewalk at you. No, not even the sidewalks are safe.