Spring Break brings writer back to homeland in Saigon

Pictured is Saigon glowing golden at sunset. The author took this photo from the back of her cousin’s motorcycle; she reports that the main mode of transportation in Vietnam is motorcycles. / Courtesy of Kimberly Nguyen

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Ho Chi Minh City. The current time is 10:13 p.m. and the current temperature…”

I sobbed when I got off the plane. For the first time in 12 years, I was home. Despite how long I had been away, I still remembered my house with the blue walls and the staircase my mother said she hid behind to scare her sister when she was a kid. I still remembered the blue gate and the grey couch and the balcony with the hammock. When my uncle picked me up from the airport to take me home, I was ready to see my home again, except it wasn’t there. My house had been remodeled.

It turns out a lot can change in Saigon in 12 years. I was a little taken aback by how much had changed. Things have certainly gotten more expensive; there are millions more cars and traffic jams and there are way too many Starbucks that I don’t remember seeing the last time I was there. Yet a lot has stayed the same. My neighbors are still the same people, the food is still phenomenal and Saigon is still the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

Within 24 hours, I had settled into Saigon like I’d never left. At 5 a.m. every morning I would climb up to the roof to watch the sun rise. The street I live on is most beautiful on the edge of the sunrise. Right before dawn it’s cool enough that the neighbourhood cats are still out and about, the breeze is light and refreshing after a good night’s sleep and the roosters crow every five minutes to welcome the morning light. And as the sun rises, so do the people. Around 7 a.m., I would take my coffee in the doorway of my house and watch the kids walk to school. Soon after, the peddlers would start walking by with their bells and whistles. At 9 a.m., I would soak in the Saigon sun on the balcony and listen to the hustle and bustle of my neighbourhood.

I also saw my family for the first time in 12 years, and the reunion was emotional. They all told me I’d gotten so big and that I looked like my mother. They said I was beautiful and asked if I had a boyfriend. I showed my family pictures of myself and my friends and my life in America (mostly snow because they’d never seen it before), and they showed me pictures of everything I’d missed while I was gone. One of the most moving things about seeing my family was how willing they were to immediately include me (and feed me) even though I was basically a stranger. One of my cousins gave me his poetry books because he knew I liked poetry, and my other cousin was very excited to hang out with me, even though I’d hit her 12 years ago.

I truly believe that returning to Vietnam as a Vietnamese-American is incredibly special. When you’re a Vietnamese citizen, saying “I am Vietnamese” is something rather ordinary. There is no doubt, no document or geographical divide that says otherwise. There is no questioning or need to return to your roots. But as a Vietnamese-American, saying “I am Vietnamese” is a statement of identity and displacement all at the same time. But saying those words as a Vietnamese-American in Vietnam became a statement of power, and ultimately, survival. On my last night, my neighbour reminded me that Vietnam was my motherland, and I couldn’t help but cry. It was moving to hear that all this time that I was doubting whether or not I belong to my people, they never once doubted that I belong to them.

Nothing can beat the feeling of being exactly where you’re supposed to be, the feeling of absolute belonging, and that was the best part of the two weeks. Even as I was encountering things completely new to me, I never felt like a stranger. I felt at home, peaceful and content. My family was around me, the weather was perfect (some say Saigon’s too hot, but I disagree), and I was completely soaked in my motherland. I spent two weeks eating non-stop with my family, basking in the sun and viewing the city from the back of my cousin’s motorbike.

On my last motorbike ride through Saigon, I pulled out my phone and recorded a voice memo of my ride through the city so that when I’m sad I can close my eyes and listen to the sound of the city and see myself there: happy, with the sun on my skin and breeze running through my hair, on the back of a motorbike riding through my most beloved city. I didn’t want to leave, but alas— spring break was almost over. When my uncle dropped me off at the airport, I cried so hard I forgot to read my boarding pass and boarded the wrong plane, but I made it onto the right one eventually and I’m already planning the next time I’m going to visit my family again. It’ll be a little while, probably December, but I can’t wait to go home again.

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