(from the song Sài Gòn Đẹp Lắm)
I’ve traveled to Vietnam three times now, almost a decade passing in between each visit. In 2001, I was nine and experienced many “firsts”: I’d met my grandmother whom I’d never met before, saw my father cry, and discovered cây mắc cỡ, a plant whose leaves close at the slightest touch. The second time, I was in my first year of college, still finding myself. I vomited after drinking a mango daiquiri, in the very street of my mother’s childhood home. Now I’m twenty-seven, more reassured in who I’ve become but yearning to find more about my roots.
We landed in Saigon after a nineteen-hour plane ride: fourteen hours from New York to Seoul and five hours to Saigon. It’s a city of haphazard streets, packed with motorbikes and cars who consider traffic lights mere suggestions. The traffic kicks up the dust and dirt, and the motorbikes don’t slow, even at the sight of passerby crossing the street. Saigon, to me, is incongruous. Women in high heels drive motorbikes. This city was colonized by the French in the late eighteenth century and some buildings still follow Western architecture, though graffiti disfigures many of its facades. Businesses like H&M and Starbucks are common now, along with countless Korean and Japanese businesses packed into tight streets.
We stopped by Chợ Bến Thành, or Bến Thành market, to find the right fabric for our áo dài, traditional Vietnamese dresses to wear to my sister’s wedding later next year. The market is a maze, the aisles so narrow that you have to squeeze by–a task made more difficult by the vendors who aren’t afraid to get handsy, pulling you by the sleeve of your shirt to buy clothing, houseware, food . . . anything.
I’m sure we were ripped off, a fact that my mom didn’t acknowledge until today (as I’m writing this), when we visited another market, Chợ Tân Định, and bought more dresses, mine included, at a better price.
The food is, of course, delicious. I’ll write more in future blog posts 🙂
It’s funny: my idea–and I suppose my parents’ idea of Vietnam–is still quite backwards, without much reasoning! Or maybe I was still remembering Vietnam from when I was nine. I kept imagining no access to Wi-Fi and bathrooms in outside stalls. But, of course, technology moves faster than we expect, like a puppy morphing into a dog. People are just as buried in their technology as the people in the states.
I’m eternally grateful for the privilege to step back and take this trip with my parents, aunt, and uncle. Between writing my novel, my job as a book editor, and personal chaos that felt perpetually insurmountable these past months, I’ve felt removed from the act of living. But now, for about a month, I can truly focus on being present in every moment.