It’s only been a day and I’m already learning more about my mom than I ever knew in my 27 years.
We are in the south in Ho Chi Minh City, which my mom always refers to as Saigon still, because that’s what it was when she lived here.
She and her family are originally from the north, though. She was born in Hanoi, but when she was only a baby, her father decided it was best to move to Hong Kong, as the communists were taking over the north. So she, her parents, and three of her eight siblings moved.
The remaining five siblings, who were much older decided to stay put in Hanoi, as they didn’t want to leave their lives: friends, school, work, etc. I wonder what I would have done. I asked my mom what she would have done if she were old enough and she says she doesn’t know.
They hoped to be gone from their home in the north for only a few years, but it didn’t end up panning out that way. So when they moved back to Vietnam, they moved to the south. Here, in Ho Chi Minh.
Her five siblings who stayed in the north never rejoined them. One of her brothers was drafted to fight in the war and died in combat.
My mother tells me that her father woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night from a nightmare while her brother was away. In the nightmare, her brother was killed and came to him. They are certain that was the night he was taken. Their parents grieved until the day they died that the body was never recovered.
The story breaks my heart. My mom used to tell me that at night, while lying in bed as a teenager, she could hear the loud sounds of explosions off into the distance. It always scared her.
“War is sad,” is all my mom would ever tell me when I used to ask questions growing up. “War is sad for everyone.”
So while my mother was born in Hanoi, she spent most of her young life here in Saigon. This is where she went to school. This is where she met her best friends. This is where her memories live.
For most of this trip, the plan is for my mom’s friends to take us around with a car. But for today, we were on our own and decided to explore by foot nearby. It being my mom’s old stomping grounds, we were eager.
The first mission was to find the place she used to live.
The weather is not as humid as it can be in other times of the year, but it is definitely hot. The heat hits you right as you walk outdoors, and instantly the little buds of sweat form on my nose.
There are a range of smells on the streets. Sometimes it is rice and food, other times sewage and God knows what.
The concrete sidewalks are broken and there is constant chaos of construction you have to weave around.
Outside the many food joints on the streets there are little plastic stools and tables, which appear to be children’s play furniture on first glance due to the bright colors and tiny size. But at lunch hour they are packed with students off school and workers on break, enjoying a cold drink or bite to eat.
I am so reminded of parts of Bali, as well as parts of India. And it makes me so happy.
It is loud. Aside from the chatter on the sidewalks, the traffic is probably the main contributor. There are motorbikes everywhere. Being sold, being ridden, about to run over your foot. Literally all over.
The traffic is as mad as you’ve heard, and it weaves and merges in seeming disarray, yet absolute harmony. Definitely reminds me of India, but somehow, more eloquent.
I got a bit cocky from my experience on previous travels in Asia, namely crossing huge, four way, multi-lane intersections in Bangalore. No zebra crossings intended for pedestrians anywhere. A free for all.
The trick is to slowly make your way forward, and allow a few bikes behind you, and most of them ahead of you, as you slowly but surely ease your way across. As if making your way across a river–the currents surge ahead and behind you, surround you, and never stop. They keep moving forward, and it’s up to you to find a place in the madness. To be aggressive, but cautious and tactful. A mad sort of dance you engage with, you and the traffic.
But I made the error of looking just one way. Though technically it was a one way, it was a rookie mistake: no one follows the rules here. There are no rules. So coming from the opposite direction, a motorbike zoomed on by and almost took off my foot. Mom pulled me back, then freaked out. Damn it.
It didn’t take long for Mom to get right back into it. She crossed those streets like a champ.
We went through the grand market, Chợ Bến Thành. Damn my dyed blonde hair for completely distracting from my already subtle of Asian features. Of my sister, my mother, and myself, I was the target for street vendors. The tourist. The sunglasses vendors wouldn’t leave me be. I had to hold onto my mom and not let her go for protection. Quite a stark contrast from when I traveled in Nepal.
It didn’t take long before mom, going off of pure memory, (and a little asking around) finally found her way to it.
Here we were, standing in front of her home of 12 years, on what is now, the most expensive street in town. Down the street from the President’s Palace, a few blocks from my Auntie Nancy’s old home, and just a mile walk away from her all girl’s Catholic school.
They had it split into three separate apartments now.
One was a retail store where they made beautiful custom suits and dresses. We walked inside and my mom talked to the lady as if she were interested in the clothing, but I knew she wasn’t. As the lady spoke about the prices and fabrics, Mom was quiet, just scanning the room beyond the clothes hung in a row.
She looked all around with this bittersweet kind of look in her eye. I know she was putting pieces together, replaying memories, reminiscing on home as she knew it.
We decided to wait to visit her school until our sister arrived and to wait for Dad, as well.
So instead we wandered. And my mother, who just a day prior told us “No street food, I don’t want you guys to get sick!” – was too nostalgic and excited to care.
We bought her favorite fresh fruit. We stopped at the spots she used to eat at when she was a little girl with her friends. We had to stop, she said, at the sugar cane cart she comes to every time she is back.
I saw that little girl in the black and white photo in my mom today, and I hugged her just a little tighter.