When I found out that I was going to Thailand with very short notice, I didn’t realize how close Vietnam was until a quick Google Maps search. $100 and a one hour flight seemed way too good to be true, especially to get down to the business of meeting my immediate family, including my grandpa, for the first time in sixteen years.
The last time I saw my mum’s family was when I was seven years old – sixteen years have passed and I remembered nothing about them outside of what their faces look like from photos and a vague memory of being bathed via a cold bucket in a dark room. My mum’s family is from China – they immigrated to Vietnam when she was really young. My dad is from Hanoi, the Northern part of Vietnam, and he fled in the 60s just before the Vietnam war swung into full tilt, escaping with his entire family (14 brothers and sisters) by boat to live in Australia.
My mum left Vietnam in her early 20s following a failed long distance romance, knowing not the language or a single soul in Sydney. I’ve heard from so many people about the food, the people, the color and the noises that Vietnam is famous for – having never been there as an adult and barely being able to speak the language, I had mixed feelings before going. Would they still remember me? Would they like me? Would the language barrier be awkward? Will traveling with my mum for a week be terrifying? In short, yes. To all the questions.
Stepping off a 30+ hour journey from New York (that included a poorly booked layover in Bangkok that required me to take a two hour taxi to a DIFFERENT airport and then sit in the airport for 8 hours at midnight), the humidity was the first thing that I noticed. A sticky molasses-like wall of moisture making it impossible for my skin to stay unstuck to anything it touched – car seats, my clothing, my mum’s arm. The second was the ridiculous tango of cars, vans, taxis, motorbikes – often with families of four or five (and one or two animals for good measure) balancing precariously on the handlebars. Everyone seemed to be wearing a face mask, and were fully covered in fleece jackets despite the fact that it was THIRTY FIVE DEGREES OUTSIDE and I could barely manage wearing the clothing equivalent of a bathing suit.
We stayed in District 10 – an area of HCMC mainly lived in by locals and a few expats looking to avoid paying too much while staying close-ish to the city center (around a 15-20 minute cab ride). The tangle of free-roaming livestock, shirtless men sitting on stools outside cafes and restaurants, the smell of rotting produce and diesel and the concrete walls stained with god knows what actually reminded me a lot of the medinas in Morocco – similar chaos and incomprehensible jumble of living things and detritus in a small space, all the similar smells. There was one particular smell that I recognized – although I did not remember my family’s faces or even some of their names, I immediately remembered the smell of their restaurant.
It was the smell of pork bones broiling in water, of mince meat sitting in the sun, of incense. It’s extremely uncanny to feel like you know a place with your nose but no other sense. It was also deeply gratifying to meet a whole family of people who are related to you by blood but essentially strangers. Despite the language barriers and the distance between us, my family went to the utmost lengths in order to make me comfortable. My grandfather fed me with herbal tonics and food until I was able to burst, nothing had changed from when I was 7.
We stayed in District 10, a district on the fringes of the city, about a twenty minute cab ride from District 1. I haven’t been able to find out what District 10 is known for, but it seemed to be segregated into different streets grouped by types of businesses – there was a street dedicated to car number plates, another one to fabric, another one to bowls of tapioca noodles in crab soup.
My family’s house also serves as a business – my 84 year old grandfather works every day in the family noodle cart – it’s set up at 4am (5-6AM is average breakfast time, I was told after waking up at 11AM and requesting breakfast), and their living quarters are attached to the building at the back. Three stories high, four families live in one building, and my uncles and aunts lived and slept with their families in single rooms, often in one crowded bed.
It put everything in perspective for me. My life is incredibly full and I have so many luxuries, yet I always find something to complain about, despite not having much to complain about in the first place. My first realization of self-entitlement happened in Bolivia, when I saw the poverty on the outskirts of the city. That’s one of the main reasons why I love travel – being able to check yourself and acknowledge the gifts and luxuries you’re given by just existing at the right time and place, and gaining a new sense of understanding about the huge spectrum of experience that happens on a daily basis at all far flung corners of the globe.
It was an amazing trip. The people, the smells, the buildings, the food. The food. I’ll compile some short lists on where to eat and shop but I needed to write down how I felt about being in Vietnam, being surrounded by the people and history of my culture.