I sit and hear the millions of things that come together and fade
Swaying towards the peak of existence
Grasping at what seems to be the constant ripples of meaning in
Gentle turbulence lifting the intangible shades of Truth with expressions painted by momentary faces
Hoping for clarity in stillness and movement
Depth in waves
Heaviness that just is.
“Are you the granddaughter of the woman that used to sell fish noodle soup?”
Nha Trang is amazing. I love that around my grandmother’s home, there’s this sense of community and familiarity with one another; a couple of shopkeepers have asked this question to me and I can’t help but grin and give them a funny look for knowing that. There’s this small town vibe in my grandmother’s neighborhood, and it’s something I’ve never experienced before. A lot of the neighbors aren’t just strangers; they’re people that my aunts and uncles grew up with and that’s something that’s pretty spectacular to me.
Aunt Thuy asked if I felt sad leaving Nha Trang to start my “Roam Vietnam” tour, and I respond that I’m actually feeling the opposite because as much as I feel comfortable here, I’m ready to experience something entirely different! I think that when people start to recognize you in an area, that’s a sign that you’re living there instead of being another passing traveler and for me, it’s a sign that I need to change things up. I’m ready to experience Vietnam and to also gain a cultural and historical understanding from a “tourist” perspective by traveling to different cities because comparing my experiences as a “tourist” and as a “local” is something that intrigues me—especially because I’m a Viet-kieu that knows the language and culture.
It’s interesting; I feel like I could spend my entire six months in Nha Trang staying with my family and teaching English, but that would be contrary to everything I want to do because I would simply stay comfortable in what I know. It’s really unfortunate that I know far too many people that are like that, especially when it’s so crucial to constantly strive to learn. The greatest form of learning comes from individual growth and that means being able to question “the comfort” of one’s life; in order to do that, there needs to be new and different experiences that can initiate the questions.
I feel ready for my journey through Vietnam and as I take the overnight train from Nha Trang to Saigon, my heart’s pounding for what’s in store. I have a few days of downtime at my aunt’s place before my tour starts on the 22nd, and all I can think about is how foreign the country of my birth will be to me.
I feel like an outsider and even though I’m surrounded by so many relatives, why do I feel like a disconnected spectator of the festivities? This sentiment is a reflection of what it’s like to be a Viet-kieu and how I want to be considered a “true” Vietnamese even though I will never quite belong in Vietnamese society. Everyone that I meet and interact with immediately coins me as an outsider so how do I belong when I’m always looking in from the outside? It’s ironic; Tet is the biggest holiday in Vietnam where families can come together and have a week-long celebration but as I start to pry into my emotions, I’m realizing that Tet is a time where I’ve never felt so alone in Vietnam. Perhaps I’m missing my own family back in the States because as tiny as our celebration was in my family’s home, at least I felt like I had a sense of place during Tet. As eloquently as possible, all I can say is that the first real pangs of homesickness truly suck.
The hustle and bustle of the holiday is insane, and it’s as though I’m watching an intense movie with my aunts and other relatives rushing in and out of the composed commotion that is the kitchen.
“Do we need to buy more banh mi?”
“Is there enough beer and cola?”
“Did you forget to add this to the soup?”
“How does this taste to you?”
I watch all of this from the staircase, stuffing my mouth with occasional pieces of banh mi to hush my eager stomach. As I try to help out with simple prep tasks like chopping vegetables or plucking various herbs from their stems, I think that I do more damage than good because the women in the kitchen basically tell me to sit and watch as they do my tasks perfectly while having one hand tied behind their backs. Well, not really… But those women have got some dexterity like you wouldn’t believe!
With all of this uproar, what are the men in my grandmother’s home doing? I know I shouldn’t judge considering that I’m doing absolutely nothing, but it’s quite irksome when the men in my family are just sitting pretty in the living room drinking beer and smoking cigarettes while the women are doing everything. My aunts were already up at five in the morning for the food preparations and have been working painstakingly hard as the men simply wait to be fed.
More family members and friends arrive at my grandmother’s, and it’s a cram-packed house. In fact, after my aunts are done spreading out the food and all of the men and other family members have taken their spots on the floor, there’s no more space for my aunts to sit and eat in the living room. They have to take their meal in the kitchen eating whatever food was left behind, and I find that offensive especially when no one offered their spots, or even thanked the women that spent all morning cooking this amazing spread. After the meal was finished and my aunts were left with the mounds and mounds of dirty dishes and utensils and pots and pans to wash, not once did they ever complain.
And that’s just the way it is.
Five words: Bob Marley on a boat.
And what in the world do I mean by that? I mean that it’s an absolutely glorious day for a boat ride out on the glistening waters of Nha Trang. In fact, it’s even more glorious when you’re actually on a boat which is the profound conclusion I’ve come to as I cruise through the turquoise blue waters to some classic Bob Marley tunes on my islands tour.
Life is awful. Not.
I’m surrounded by mostly young foreign tourists dressed in swimwear and shades, the official wear of Nha Trang. The boat crew are pure entertainment as they tell crude, sexual jokes and pull off crazy shenanigans for the crowd; if they weren’t having a good time doing it (or so I hope), I would have been a tad embarrassed for them.
Towards the end of our full-day islands tour, the crew put on a makeshift karaoke game as they whipped out an electric guitar, a drum set, and a microphone—the makings of a hilarious time for karaoke. They went around asking where everyone was from and then they would play a song from its country of origin as people from that country would have to get up and sing it. For example, “I Want It that Way” by The Backstreet Boys was the chosen song for America, and “Down Under” by Men at Work was for Australia. It was hilarious, and when they called for people from Vietnam to get up and sing, some of the new friends that I made on the tour egged me on to go and represent my country. Considering that I can’t even understand Vietnamese music, the idea of singing a Vietnamese song had bad news written all over it…
BUT with pressure from my friends and liquid courage in my belly, would I rise up to the occasion?
Definitely not. I mean, I did get up and grab the microphone hoping that a miracle would hit me in the form of a magnificent, lyrical bellow in Vietnamese, but that didn’t happen. Far from it. I stood awkwardly in front of everyone as the crew asked me if I knew any Vietnamese songs.
“Uhhh not really…” I replied in the microphone, scratching my head. After a few more minutes of an awkward twiddling of thumbs, one of the crew members told me to sit back down again. The crew then asked for someone else to get up as a “REAL” Vietnamese came up and bellowed out a song of his choice. My friends asked me what happened and I answered that I didn’t know any Vietnamese songs to sing so it was only sensible that the crew wanted me to stop embarrassing myself in front of the crowd. They felt awful for pressuring me, but I really didn’t mind; I just wished I knew any Vietnamese song to proudly sing.
At our final destination before going back, we stopped at an island where you had to pay 20,000 dong or $1.00 to lay on the beach… One of the tourists that I met stated that she wasn’t going to pay even if it was just a dollar because of the principle of the matter; why should she have to pay to lay on a public beach? I agreed whole-heartedly with her because of how ludicrous it was. I doubt that the beach was even privatized since there was a huge amount of Vietnamese people and vendors that were there. Since we’re foreign tourists, however, we’re seen as a means to make a profit in any circumstance, and I’m frustrated by that because the principle should be worth more than anything. There’s segregation between locals and tourists and from a tourist perspective, it makes it difficult to feel connected to the people and the land when one is treated partially.
England, Norway, Canada, and the States.
My “Roam Vietnam” tour, which will be stopping in Saigon, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, and Hanoi, consists of twelve people from the countries I listed above with half of the number hailing from England. Everyone is super friendly and sociable, and all of the qualms that I initially had about the tour were immediately squelched when I realized I would be spending the next twelve days with people that I would actually want to get to know in “real life”. I’m the second youngest person on the tour and it’s nice to be surrounded by people that are older and more experienced than me; the majority of the people all have jobs and a steady life back at home and for them, their reason for doing the tour was to travel in a more structured fashion that didn’t consist of having to plan out a headache-inducing itinerary—much like part of my reasoning. The convenience of the tour was way too difficult to pass up especially when I’m on a time constraint in having to be in Hanoi in early March for my next volunteering experience at a medical facility for kids and veterans that were affected by Agent Orange. The tour also allowed me to focus more on my experiences in a more streamlined kind of way rather than having to plan out “what’s next” or “where to”, which definitely was not on my to-do list when I had so many other things on my mind. Like I mentioned in my earlier entry, my biggest reason for doing the tour is because of my interest in comparing my experiences living in Nha Trang with my family for almost three months to my experiences visiting all the “tourist-y” destinations in Vietnam as a Vietnamese-American traveling with a Western tour company.
It’s been such a long time since I’ve been surrounded by Westerners, and to be honest, it was really nice to just have conversations without a language barrier where everyone could understand each other easily. As much as I love Nha Trang and my friends and family, I missed the simplicity of having conversations where I could speak freely and say exactly what’s on my mind…
With the start of our tour, we went to the Cu Chi tunnels today which are an extremely popular destination for all tourists that go to Saigon. The underground tunnel system is extensive, and by extensive, I mean that it’s more than 200 kilometers long. Cu Chi is a couple hours away from Saigon, and was an important site during the Vietnam War for Viet Cong guerrillas to use strategic warfare to fight American soldiers. The Cu Chi tunnels were also the Viet Cong’s base for operations during the Tet Offensive in 1968. We got to go through the dark, humid, and narrow tunnels (which had been widened for tourists over time) and it made me wonder how people had actually lived in these tunnels; kids were even born and raised here! After we were finished, we watched a tedious propagandist film basically stating the contempt for Americans and expressing the “great patriotism” of the guerrillas which, all in all, was so unnecessary. A lot of the people watching with our tour had walked out during the film, and for good reason. There was an obscene amount of scenes that showed how evil the Americans were, and as a tourist, it’s extremely uncomfortable to watch especially when the entire tour was very informative and interesting. If the film was more factual and stayed neutral more or less, its viewers would have a greater response rather than saying that “The tour was really interesting! Well… besides that ridiculous film”, which was the sentiment from everyone in our group and from other people that I had spoken to.
Our tour guide of the tunnels used to be a Communications Soldier for Americans during the war and has now been a guide of the tunnels for more than twenty years. I was in disbelief that our guide was a soldier for the old regime and that the government hadn’t penalized him by forcing him into society’s bottom as I had thought. Phil, our guide for our “Roam Vietnam” tour, even stated that most men that fought with the old regime and weren’t able to leave Vietnam could only find lowly jobs like the men that rode around with their cyclos (which is like a bicycle carriage taxi). When Ben, one of the English guys on my tour, asked our guide what happened to him after the war ended, he responded very vaguely and said that soldiers like him had to go through reeducation camp and afterwards, they were allowed back into society. Just like that.
His response seemed a bit… off, and when I had spoken to Ben and some of the other people in my tour about it later on, they all agreed that our guide seemed to act far too casual about “reeducation camp”—which should be called more appropriately as a prison. I know our tour guide couldn’t truly speak about his experiences and had to give us a simple answer, but he was far too lax about “reeducation camp” when many older Viet-kieus (who were actually able to leave Vietnam) are still resentful of. It makes me wonder how many people our tour guide had to cross to get to his position…
It’s my last day of teaching and I’m really going to miss the students. Their kindness and generosity is what helped me to feel more at home in Nha Trang, and I’ve learned so much about myself and the Vietnamese people because of the friendships I’ve developed here. I really do believe that the people make the place and the intimate connection I feel to Nha Trang is because of my family as well as my friends and students.
The class decided to end early so that they could go around sharing kind words about me and to say their goodbyes. I felt so awkward to have everyone focus their attention on me in that way, but I was also incredibly touched by the gesture. One student even drew a picture of me! If there is anything I can wish for the students, it’s that they can be happy in their lives doing what they love and if they’re not, they’re at least able to question the inadequacy in their lives. Old and young, the students have broadened my entire perspective on life itself—something that’s so crucial in not only learning, but living. To be honest, I’m so motivated by them and to have committed, willing people come in every day to learn. I still can’t believe how the time has flown since I first stepped into Crazy Kim’s, and how the next several months are going to go by just as quick as my time here.
After class, the majority of the students took me out for coffee and then presented me with a seashell lamp that said “Nha Trang” on it. Wow…. I constantly am having my heart touched, especially when I see how much the students care for me in the brief time I’ve known them; they go beyond what anyone would expect with their selflessness and generosity, and that’s inspired me even more so in how I want to treat people.
Tet! I can’t believe that it’s today and even though I knew it was coming as each day passed, I’m still bewildered by all of the family festivities. In the best way possible, I feel overwhelmed by the amount of family surrounding me at my grandmother’s place and the unfamiliar commotion is something that I’m adjusting to; the fact that there’s an abundance of food and treats is definitely helping and one might just say that I’m eating my way through the holiday. All of my cousins and aunts have been telling me how much they look forward to Tet every year and the greatest way to explain the magnitude of the biggest holiday in Vietnam would be equating it to an amalgamation of Christmas, July 4th, and western New Year’s Eve. In the next few days, even more family will be coming to stay at my grandmother’s place and I’m excited to experience this family chaos.
Early in the morning, I went to Long Son Pagoda, the biggest temple in Nha Trang, with several of my family members to pay respect to my grandfather’s ashes that are stored there. I don’t know why, but I was nervous as I stared at my grandfather’s engravings and small etched photo on a stone drawer among hundreds of other drawers that held the ashes of loved ones. He was a stranger to me and although his blood runs through my veins, I have no idea who this man was. The few stories I’ve heard were never about him; they were more about what happened to him and this disconnection feels so odd… What tops it all is the fact that I don’t even know my grandfather’s name. As I stand in front of my grandfather’s photo, I think about all of this in the context of my brother and sister; they have never been able to go back to Vietnam, they have never met our huge family, and I wonder if they feel as though our family members are absolute strangers to them.
I know I keep saying this, but I can’t stress enough how fortunate I am to have this opportunity to not only go back to Vietnam, but to actually get to know my family and culture; although I could show my brother and sister all of my photos and tell them countless stories about my experiences, it wouldn’t be the same unless they were able to experience things for themselves.
It’s customary to visit relatives and close friends on the first day of Tet and after going to temple, I went with my grandmother, uncle, and my cousin Vi to visit my father’s two half-sisters—one of whom has Alzheimer’s and is unable to speak or move freely because of a stroke she had last year.
We first visited Bac Diem, my father’s older sister who I never met before. I instantly felt so welcomed when I saw her as she gave me a huge, warm hug. She stared at me for a long time, in awe of how much I looked like my father and the fact that I was one year old when she last saw me. In all seriousness, she states that daughters who look like their fathers will be very successful when they’re older, and I laugh wondering if there’s any truth in that. She also gave me my father’s original birth certificate for me to bring back to the States, which I’m not sure is the wisest decision considering my horrible memory and my track record of losing things. As soon as she handed the valuable paper to me, I instantly gave it to my grandmother for safekeeping since I trust her so much more than I trust myself. We stayed there for a while in my aunt’s home, drinking tea and eating Vietnamese treats as everyone reminisced about the past and told me stories about my parents and siblings before we left to the States.
Afterwards, we visited Bac Sinh, my father’s oldest sister who lived with her sons that took care of her since her sickness. I remember meeting Bac Sinh when I first came to Vietnam when I was seven. At that time, she had her own restaurant and for just my mother and I, she had laid out a huge spread of food in the restaurant for us. I don’t know why, but I remember being really scared to eat and when she kept insisting aggressively that I have some food, I had started to cry until I eventually cried myself to sleep right there in the restaurant. She was such a strong, intimidating woman back then and when I saw her now, I cried because of this frail and tiny woman I saw lying in a cot, her wrists tied to a rope so that she couldn’t unintentionally hurt herself.
How could this be the same woman that I was so afraid of more than fourteen years ago? I was stunned.
My grandmother and I held her soft hands as my grandmother asked if she knew who we were. I don’t know if Bac Sinh was aware of our presence, but I do know that she just had this beautiful, genuine smile the whole time we were there. My grandmother just kept murmuring “tội nghiệp”, which means “so sad or heartbreaking” as we left, and I couldn’t help but keep looking back at my aunt, wondering if my brother and sister would ever have the opportunity to meet her…