Return to Vietnam
The sky over Hanoi is cloudy and gray, almost drizzling. Below the lush green fields expand over the horizon, and every once in a while, the wind sweeps through, swaying trees, coconut palms and rice plants. This is my first trip back in more than 20 years. In my rational mind I feel I should be jumping with joy as my plane descends to Noi Bai Airport. Instead, a strange and quiet numbness overcomes me.
I never thought then, nor later, that someday I would actually be in Hanoi and befriend a city that once was my enemy. And the truth is, even now I probably wouldn't have gone on my own as my feelings are still so torn. But recently when a trade delegation invited my husband and I to go Vietnam, we agreed.
Still, as we land at Hanoi, the capital since the south fell and the first stop on our official trip, I feel a growing sense of uncertainty. Am I prepared for this? How will I be treated? Should I even be here? The plane lands and my heart thumps faster.
But within hours of being in Hanoi, my fears begin to fade. It's a beautiful city, much more than I have imagined. Yet it's a simple kind of beauty-natural, almost innocent. Like the fields and lakes that surround Hanoi, life here seems to flow uninterruptedly everywhere you look. At one street corner there's a young woman with baby in hand bargaining for some fresh water spinach. A delivery man arrives on a bicycle, with freshly butchered pork in an old basket strapped on the back. And, across the street, a lottery customer checks on his fortune as the traffic behind him zooms by.
Though I am terribly jet-lagged, I tell myself I must stay awake. There's so much to see.
It's my first morning in Hanoi. My alarm clock hasn't sounded, but a new day has. A damp breeze enters my hotel room and I rush to look out the window. The rain has glossed the dark street making it slippery, but no one seems concerned. Men, women and children alike crisscross on bicycles and motorbikes, all honking, all rushing to their destinations. Even the women who balance soup pots on their shoulders-pots so heavy that they can barely lift their feet-are rushing to the market. Sometimes I can still hear their worn-out plastic thongs shuffling against the hard pavement.
This is the character of Hanoi, I decide, that I admire the most. Even after all the years of endless bombings, the people here remain resilient and hopeful as do their children. Interestingly some even speak of America as a friend they haven't seen in a while.
My first cyclo driver is a friendly man with a well-groomed beard. I want to walk but he's quite insistent. What the heck, he wants to be my tour guide and I really don't know where I'm going. Plus his face has such character.
I climb into his old, squeaky cyclo which must be even older than the ones I used to ride in back in the 70's. Take me to the market or anywhere where there's lots of food, I ask. As a Vietnamese chef and restaurateur living in the U.S., it's natural that food is one of my main curiosities. For years I have cooked out of longing memories and now I want to see, smell and taste the real thing right here in my homeland.
We head off to one of Hanoi's many restaurant neighborhoods where the narrow streets are packed with rice shops and noodle shops, one after another. The aromas are so tantalizing that signs and menu boards are hardly necessary.
My eyes suddenly light up as I spot two oversized pots in front of a tiny eatery. My driver stops the cyclo and I quickly jump out. The young girl sitting behind the pots is making one of my favorite dishes, banh cuon thit, or steamed rice crepes with shrimp and pork. She gently pours a ladle of rice flour batter and spreads it on a cloth stretched over a big pot of boiling water. Seconds later when the crepe is cooked, she slips a long, slender bamboo stick underneath and lifts it onto a tray. The crepe is cut into smaller pieces and filled with the meat mixture. Working deftly, she times it so that one crepe is being filled while the second is cooking.
After watching her make several batches, I am ready for my first real bite. Using my chopsticks I pick up a piece, along with blanched bean sprouts and herbs, and dip them into nuoc cham or Vietnamese fish dipping sauce. My mouth erupts with great sensations-sweet, sour and spicy all intertwined with the refreshing herbs.
The next day I find myself searching for more local favorites such as cha ca, or fish cakes, and banh tom (shrimp cakes). The fish cakes are cooked table side, then wrapped with greens and herbs and dipped in mam tom, a pungent sauce of fish paste and spices. Made from a rice-flour batter with prawns still in their shells, banh tom is deep fried, then eaten in a similar way.
As I savor these simple street foods, I am reminded of writers and poets who have depicted them with such great affection. Cha ca has special meaning when it's enjoyed with old friends on a rainy day, when the northern dialect is leisurely spoken and the sharing lasts for however long it needs to. Likewise, banh tom is more memorable when eaten along the banks of the romantic Ho Tay Lake, a place where anyone who's ever been in love in Hanoi knows all too well. Food can evoke such memories.
It's love that sends me off next, on a private journey of my own, down to the Mekong Delta. The ferry has just docked in Quoi Son, a small village east of My Tho on the other side of the Mekong River, about 50 miles south of Saigon. The fields are green and lush, with zigzag waterways bouncing silvery reflections across the plains. During the war, battles were fought nearby and one would never dare to venture here since one flag would fly during the day and another at night. Although Quoi Son is my ancestral village-both my parents were born here-I was forbidden to come. By the time I was a teenager, it was considered too dangerous.
But now, as far as I can see, it's a peaceful village with fields of coconut, longans, custard apples, mangoes and pineapples. The sun is scorching hot and I'm wearied from the more than six hours of driving on potholed highways and dirt roads. My damp hair hangs in my eyes and my shirt sticks to my skin. Yet I am elated, for in a few minutes I will see my beloved 97-year-old grandmother. It's the moment I have been waiting for. Maybe it's why I really came to Vietnam.
My uncle and aunt who are traveling with me eagerly point to my grandmother's house, the one with the pomelo tree in front. We pull over but before the van even stops, a crowd of relatives runs to greet us. We embrace, then laugh and cry. For a moment it's like a dream, until I look again at their wrinkled faces and graying hair and realize that this is all quite real.
I dash into the house where my grandmother has been waiting for me since dawn. There she is, sitting on her bed. She murmurs something, throws her skinny arms into the air and beams with a big smile. Though frail and weak, her eyes sparkle and her skin shines pink. It's hard to tell if she's smiling or crying. Perhaps both. While others watch in tearful silence, we hug each other until the moment seems awkward.
Co Bay, the aunt who lives with my grandmother, embraces me and tells me I look just like my father. She then hurries off to the back to finish preparing the meal she has been cooking since the crack of dawn. The kitchen looks exactly like I remember it. There are no walls, just a thatch roof supported by large beams. Coconut husks fuel two brick stoves large enough to cook banquets for the entire village. The burning husks create a lot of smoke, but the delta breeze just blows it right out to the fields. Nothing has changed in twenty years.
The food hasn't changed either. Every dish has been prepared the way my grandmother would do it if she were cooking. There are freshwater lobsters, grilled hours after being caught. Farm-raised chicken is slowly braised in coconut juice and flavored with pandan leaves, lychee nuts and raisins. A spicy cabbage salad with steamed duck accompanies a wonderful rice soup made from the highest quality rice. Large, golden rice crepes called banh xeo are sumptuously filled with shrimp, pork and mung beans. This is not the typical country fare, but a menu chosen especially for me. As I savor these delicacies I realize that my grandmother, who's a vegetarian, isn't even eating. But somehow, I can tell from the look in her eyes that she, too, is thinking this is one of the best meals of her life.
Finally, near the end of our trip, we arrive in Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City, now-my home for much of my childhood. My memory of Saigon is of a vibrant and lively place. It's still like that, maybe even more so now. The streets are narrow and shaded by tall trees. The architecture is predominately colonial French with pastel hues of yellow and beige gracing homes as well as storefronts and buildings. Restaurants, food stalls, food carts and many outdoor enterprises-from bicycle repair to barber shops-dot the sidewalks. There's a market in every neighborhood and everywhere you go, it's hard to escape the aroma of food. In my humble southern opinion, pho bo, though originated in Hanoi, is best here. In fact, on the way into town from Tan Son Nhat airport, my first stop is at Pho Pasteur, reputedly one of the best noodle shops.
And it still is. My pho arrives in a large steaming bowl. Slices of beef brisket and rare beef, along with soft rice noodles are bathed in a piping hot, rich broth garnished with cilantro and scallions. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The smells of roasted ginger, star anise and cloves permeate the air.
But before I start, I must add my personal touches. A little squeeze of lime, fresh chilies, bean sprouts and saw-leaf herbs and basil. My chopsticks and spoon dive into the pho and a wonderful medley of aroma arises and embraces my face. The soup is delicious, even more than I remembered. I eat pho almost every week back in California, but here it tastes better. Maybe it's because the herbs are more intense, the freshly butchered beef more aromatic and my senses more acute this time around. After all, this is the very same noodle shop my parents used to take me to many years ago.
For the next few days, I would walk every chance I got, trying to get reacquainted with the streets as most have been renamed.
Today Saigon is at peace. The streets are still packed, though motorcycles and bicycles outnumber cars and trucks. The population has doubled, but the streets seem better kept. Landmark buildings, some terribly rundown, still grace the center of town. The French colonial feel is evident but the skyline is changing as new construction takes place.
My old favorite dining spots are long gone but in their place a whole new group has emerged. Impressive restaurants, some with the style and aplomb of the West, have sprung up. Trendy night clubs and bars-some featuring bands and light shows not unlike those in L.A.- keep well-heeled locals and foreigners humming and dancing way into the night.
As I stroll the streets of Saigon on the last days of my trip, I can't help thinking how glad I am to have made this journey. This is only my first visit, but I can feel the change sweeping through. People tell me there have been marked improvements in the economy, thanks to doi moi-the economic liberalization policy-and the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations. In larger cities such as Saigon where foreign investments and tourism are major factors in the economy, the spirit of capitalism and free enterprise is very much alive.
To me, what's particularly exciting is the way this new energy is triggering changes in the economic, social and cultural life of Vietnam. You can see it in the arts. You can hear it in the music. And you can even taste it in the food.
My grandmother doesn't talk about changes in those terms. But she believes life is better because she no longer has to fear the changing flags. In fact, when she thinks about it, this is the first time since she was born-and that's almost 100 years-that Vietnam has ever been free of foreign occupation or war.
My grandmother exudes this new energy. On the day of my departure, she and a dozen relatives travel all the way from Quoi Son to the airport in Saigon to see me off. She looks exhausted but as usual, still happy. She can't stand or walk for very long so I help her to a folding chair that she has brought along.
Then we all gather and visit right on the sidewalk as no one can enter the terminal except ticketed passengers. After chit-chatting for an hour, it's time to say goodbye. My voice starts to crack and my body trembles. Tears stream down my face as I stuff away all the gifts and letters that my relatives want me to take to my parents in the U.S.
But as I walk toward the plane, I actually feel good. At last, my curiosities and trepidations have been answered. At last I have found my peace with Vietnam. Yes, I will be back again. Only the next time will be much sooner.
Published on 6/1/97