"Sài Gòn ơi! Sài Gòn ơi!"

(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.

Vietnamese Folk Poem #1

Photo_Vietnamese classYeah, I take Vietnamese classes on Wednesday nights.

But . . . aren’t you Vietnamese?

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At first, I thought learning Vietnamese in a class setting would only further embarrass me. It’s gonna be full of non-Vietnamese people and they’re going to look down on me. They’ll think, “Why is she in this class?” I always felt self-conscious speaking in my mother tongue. Even worse: I couldn’t read it! Me, a reader and writer who couldn’t read or write in Vietnamese?! The shame!!! Just as shameful as using three exclamation points in one sentence. 

I was glad to discover that my classmates were like me: Vietnamese-American adults who spoke the language as children, then lost it along the way. After taking level one and level two, which will, sadly, conclude in two weeks, I’ve steadily grown confident. And that’s something I want to celebrate.

I appreciate the camaraderie inside the classroom—we easily trade American jokes mixed with some typical Vietnamese craziness—but most of all, I love the cultural aspects that inevitably come from our lessons. Our teacher is young and more modern, and I’m learning how some commonly used words may seem outdated to younger Vietnamese people. One example is the word for hospital, which is bệnh viện. When I told my teacher that I’ve only used nhà thương, he kind of chuckled, saying that gave away my parents’ ages (mine are older than most of my peers’ parents). Other times, the vocabulary varies based on region, and your word choice will out you immediately. 

The class remains especially enlightening because it’s giving me a taste of what my parents had learned as children. In Vietnamese schools and homes, children are taught ca dao, or folk poems. These pieces teach life lessons, and some sound as rigid as one would expect, while others are quite lovely. A common subject centers on the child’s duty to his or her parents, a notion that’s entirely absent in the American school system, where students are mostly taught to obey teachers.

But for Vietnamese people, the real teaching starts at home. I want to share one ca dao just to give you a taste of my language!

Vietnamese

Cá không ăn muối cá ươn

Con cãi cha mẹ trăm đường con hư

English (translated roughly word-for-word and disregarding syntax)

Fish that don’t eat salt goes rotten,

You (child) argue with us (parents) in a hundred ways you are bad. 

Essentially, the poem says children who don’t listen to their parents or take their lessons to heart will turn out unruly. As someone who’s still navigating the language, I can’t quite confirm whether the author was trying to be playful . . . BUT I noticed the use of đường, which means sugar: muối and đường, salt and sugar. At the same time, đường also means road or path. 

Next up: I’m attempting to translate a song I’ve been listening to non-stop: “Thành Phố Buồn.” Even my mom says this might be hard to translate correctly! Challenge accepted.