As children, we think we know everything there is to know about our parents. Our parents have always been parents and before they were parents, they were preparing to become parents. As adults, we begin to grapple with the reality that the people who raised us lived full, sometimes unbelievable, lives before they even considered us. It is something that I have come to terms with in recent years of learning more about my mother’s life before she was my mom. It led me to book a flight for a whirlwind, one month trip to her native country of Vietnam, the place she knew as home until the age of 15.
In March, my best friend Anna and I were living on a beautiful subtropical island off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand. Our days included working nonstop in a popular tourist restaurant while taking every free opportunity from work to relax on the beach, visit one of the local vineyards, or party with our friends. While this was the most fun I have ever had in my life, our lives lacked balance and calm, as we never had any down time.
After deciding that we both deserved a break from our wild 20-something lives in the South Pacific—that most people back in our home countries of France and the United States would call a constant vacation—we booked a ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam for June.
Only two of my mother’s six siblings have visited Vietnam since escaping from war in the 1970s. I felt a sense of responsibility toward my mother and my aunts and uncles, all of whom I knew would be watching eagerly through social media. Hoping to be inspired by adventure’s spontaneity, Anna and I agreed never to plan anything further than a day in advance. Our only concrete plan was that we would fly into the north and out of the south. Everything in between was unknown.
Our adventure blasted off from Auckland to Hanoi where we met my cousin, who, like myself, is also half Vietnamese. My cousin has been living in Hanoi for over a year, teaching English and working toward language fluency. We zoomed through the city streets on the back of his motorbike, hopping from little cafes for a cold glass of cà phê sữa đá–Vietnamese iced coffee–to street restaurants for a refreshing bottle of Bia Hanoi. Meeting him there was the perfect way to ease into the crazy city scene that neither of us were used to. After two days, we set off north on our own for Sapa.
After three days of trekking through the rice fields and remote villages of Sapa, I had reflected immensely on my life and the journey before me. I wondered if it were possible to learn more about myself and of the relationship I have with my mother by interacting with the culture that bore her. Our northern wanderings continued to Halong Bay, where we both loved and hated taking a two-night Halong Bay Cruise. After various fun and efficient overnight busses, we found ourselves in the old imperial city of Huế. We embraced our fears by navigating the winding and, at times dangerous, central coast on the backs of our own motorbikes, without a single scratch I might add. In this area of the country we partied with what felt like all of England’s 20-year-olds.
By the time we reached the south, we were exhausted from our time in the world of drunken backpackers. As we sat for dinner, eating a myriad of different dishes as we always did, I found something. It was a taste, a flavor. For the first time, I faced familiarity. We were eating flavors reminiscent of my childhood that my mother and her mother fed me while growing up. I reached out to feel the link.
Anna and I hold the title of being the only people in the world who had the absolute worst time on Phu Quoc Island. This was all due to an unfortunately dreadful four hours spent on a single motorbike that I could go on a 1,000 word rant about. Instead I will describe floating through the Mekong Delta at five in the morning to participate in the famous floating markets. In the cities, I could feel the buzzing of the country, but on the water I felt the energy. Boats clipped onto one another to trade, buy, sell, eat breakfast. The delta beat like the country’s heart. It was an experience unlike anything I have ever had. Our small boat continued further down the river for over two hours passing no one and nothing, but endless shades of green.
After all that, we entered Ho Chi Minh City though for my mother and her siblings who grew up there it is and always will be Saigon. Beautiful, bustling Saigon. I awaited this moment, my final four days, for months. I wondered if I would enjoy it, hate it, recognize any of it. I fell in love with it. Saigon is alive and I felt alive instantly.
Up until this point in our journey, not one single person I had met thought that I was Vietnamese. It was as if I were on a journey of discovery and recognition without being recognized. To the city, I may have been merely another foreigner on vacation. To my family, I was a beacon of hope, a telescope that would bring news of their former home.
We did walk to District 3 to find my mother’s old home. No longer recognizable, it functions as a bar and restaurant now. My mother’s cousin lived next door until recently. When we found that she had passed away and the house had been demolished, my heart broke while my mother was in tears.
I felt like a failure. I had let down my family and proved incapable of making a tangible connection with my culture. The hope they placed in me was crushed. The questions they always had about the house they left behind were finally answered with reluctance. Then I realized, that though I had not brought the good news they hoped for, I opened their eyes to the reality they never expected. Through me, my mother was able to see that her former country is no longer scary or unsafe, but beautiful and alive. The streets of Vietnam felt safer to me than any American city. The people were friendly and nurturing. I sent her breathtaking photos of Sapa, Halong Bay, and Huế, places that she was never able to see or allowed to visit because they were unsafe. Over the course of one month, I went from crossing the busy streets in complete terror to crossing them with confidence. After eating phở for breakfast every single day, I found the best bowl I had ever tasted. The familiarity I searched for presented itself to me. Though I grew up identifying myself as Vietnamese, I discovered Vietnam for the first time.