The past few weeks I have been taking a break from blogging, studying, and responsibilities to travel with my boyfriend. One of the stops on our journey was Saigon, Vietnam (also referred to as Ho Chi Minh City).
Saigon is the birthplace of my parents and the place where they grew up. They eventually left Vietnam to pursue greater opportunity and the American dream in the United States. I went back to Saigon with my family when I was around five years old, but since then my family has not been back.
Part of the reason is that we couldn’t afford to go back. The other reason is that our family members in Vietnam expect us to return from America with success and fortune. To return without attaining the American dream that everyone expected us to attain already after 20+ years in the US is a shameful and disappointing realization for both my parents and family members.
“We can’t go back empty handed,” my mom said. Some of our family members who never left Vietnam are better off than we are currently and it’s hard for our Vietnamese relatives to believe that we, the ones living in America, are struggling more financially compared to them.
Remnants of Home
Choosing to travel back to Vietnam without my parents was a difficult decision. They have wanted to travel back to their hometown for years but was unable to. It was difficult for me to process the guilt I was feeling for doing something my parents yearned so long for. Nevertheless, my parents encouraged me to go and lived vicariously through the pictures I sent them.
Our trip to Saigon was definitely exhilarating and special. For me specifically, I felt an odd sense of nostalgia and familiarity with a city I haven’t seen in over 15 years.
The city has definitely become more modernized since the last time I visited. My aunts were no longer living in the home we had as it was claimed by the government after my grandfather passed away. Instead they were living in high rise apartment buildings. Motorbikes filled the streets and it was literally 人山人海 (A sea of people; people mountain people sea). Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the stimuli I had to process.
Aside from eating food and visiting popular tourist areas like Bến Thành Market, my aunts spent time taking us around to where my dad’s family’s noodle shop was and where my mom’s family’s hair salon was.
My parents didn’t meet when they were in Vietnam, but rather after my dad made it to the US. My mom worked in her family’s hair salon and my dad’s family operated their noodle shop a few stores down the street. One day, my paternal grandmother went to my mom’s hair salon for a haircut and (after confirming my mom was single) offered to introduce her son to her. From then on, my mom and dad communicated via snail mail from the US to Vietnam. The rest is history and I am the result of my grandmother’s match matching.
Knowing this story now and seeing the physical locations of where the hair salon used to be and where the noodle shop is currently makes me super nostalgic. The romantic in me can see the story play out step by step and I can imagine my grandma walking over to my mom’s salon. It’s as if I was right there watching.
We also visited various temples with my aunts and also participated in releasing live animals — a buddhist practice to bring good karma. It was interesting to see how intricate and complex the temples in Vietnam were compared to the temple I often visit at home. Visiting temples was something my mom did a lot when she was my age, and it felt surreal to put myself in my mom’s shoes and imagine what was going through her head when she was visiting these temples.
Coming from a country where I am the minority, it felt comforting to be in a place where I blended in with the majority. People would speak to me in Vietnamese and treat me as a local and it felt comfortable. It felt like home. It made me want to visit Vietnam with my parents even more as I can imagine how alienated and alone they feel in a country where they don’t know the language and culture. For them, Vietnam is the home they hope to return to, and the home where they feel welcome and comfortable.
Food, Food, and More Food
In the middle of planning our trip, my boyfriend and I came to the realization that this trip is mostly a food trip. And of course during our time in Vietnam we ate lots and lots of food. One meal was home-cooked by my aunts and that made the experience so much better.
After visiting both Hanoi and Saigon, I had a few people ask me which I preferred. It is a biased answer but I would definitely say I preferred Saigon. It is my parent’s hometown after all and no meal is better than a home-cooked meal. I also found the tastes and flavors of Saigon to align with the flavors I was used to eating at home with my parents. Adjusting to the flavor of Hanoi Phở and bánh mì was difficult for me as I preferred the tastes I was acclimated to.
Now that this journey is concluded and I’m back in my hometown, I look forward to visiting Saigon again in the future with my parents when our family can be united all together.