Tuesday, May 8, 2007

back 2 nam | day 1

begin at the beginning
the first time i went home to Việt Nam--for though i was born in honolulu, for diaspora vinamese, no matter where you scattered on this earth, VN is our mecca, our magnetic orientation, when you go, you
đi về, go home, anything else is ungrammatical, inconceivable--it was the new millenium and the 30th anniversary of the fall/liberation of Sài Gòn--depending on your perspective.

The Importance of Being Nguyển

i was anxious jittery insomniac, by myself, on a southeast asian studies travel grant downing gin&tonics as fast as the stewardesses could bring them (hey, they were free and the quinine in tonic has anti-malarial properties and didnt induce psychosis like cipro, ya savvy) on my way to reunite with the family i had never met having left VN in the safest passage--in utero. relative strangers, strange relatives. in a fit of brooding energy, i had shorn all my hair and dyed it rambutan red a few weeks prior with the consequence that i (with my first world lanimoo milk growth proportions) was depressingly taken for korean or russian throughout my trip. mostly the former. sigh.

i had had a w
indow seat so i could witness the ocean waters recede and the landmass swell along with my hushed tears. inexplicable to my seatmates neck bent to see around me who probably wondered why this drunken krean girl was crying during descent. fragments of inherited memories and wartime documentaries, the visual dissonance of steel wings over verdant tetris mosaic landscape bringing not burning death to my people, but me. and then being thrust in the middle of a story--disoriented, woolly and exhausted in the gritty urban cacophony cement grist of Sài Gòn and the urgent sticky hands of taxi drivers hustling for a fare and of family members trying to grasp my newly emerged reality of flesh and bone after 30 years of imagining me from womb to now. not my romanticized home of origin. not Sài Gòn. Sài Gòn where my younger aunties and uncles had relocated to start a third life, to seek refuge in urban anonymity, after escaping the re-education concentration camps where life was so harsh that bà nội in her drunken haze dulling the pain of losing another child, this one to war's aftermath, tried to rat-poison the family gruel rather than see them suffer a laborious death from commie education... but then, where pray tell is home to a nomad from a many times uprooted refugee family scarred by memory?

in Qui Nhơn, after a lifetime of not physiognomically belonging to my Phạm-ily, i found pieces of myself that didn't belong anywhere else for 30 years, lost in an interminable railway cloakroom without semblance
, parts that i could now label and say, oh i have cô Cẩm's cheekbones, cô Dung was my baby twin, that's bà nội's eyes, lips, calves and feet, i'm not a water-buffalo, i have ông nội's face shape and nose, oh i must look like dad, and oh i'm not adopted. i'm normal. i belong. i belong to these people. in their faces, i see myself. my kin. flesh and blood. con ta, i am their child. i am Home. crying during descent.

there and back again--
san francisco to hà nội
i guess you could say that was The Hobbit trip of solitude, daring & bumbling outside my comfortable known world while the second was the Fellowship trip of companionship and adventure and ale. it's a stretch, i know. literary allusions are so tricksy.
this second trip at the onset of april, was hurried and decided upon only two weeks prior. the new year had brought us many sorrows--my husband's bà ngoại passed in january; after lunar new year, my niece died at birth and within mere days both my bà ngoại & bà nội had heart attacks, and my uncle-in-law was having ptsd post-VN war flashbacks triggered by a near-death experience. not the most auspicious of beginnings to the journey-of-a-lifetime.
so i was accompanied with my best friend spouse by my side. and we were to meet up with my best friends siblings Hoàng & Uyên in Hà Nội who arrived the day before. T's parents were our farewell entourage at SFO. so vinamee. except, where was the bánh mỳ ổ?
the flight was sober. having just returned from San Diego, abruptly deciding to do this, i had not pondered & obsessed. i did cut my hair just prior but in a proper fashion. i was considerably less agitated with existential angst than seven years ago. i slept obediently when i was supposed to though free movies are like crack to an occasional self-induced insomniac former latch-key-kid-TV-junkie. i am reformed in my 30s; the defiance my dad cultivated in me at a mellow ebb. though i can still hock a mean loogie. travel pillow and eyemask are my 30s travel must nowadays rather than gin&tonics. boring.
we left Sơn bay Nội Bài (airport) instant nouveau riche millionaires with đồng heating our waist belts and Bác Hồ smiling benignly on capitalism and third world depreciation. Nội Bài is located in the countryside 35km outside of HN. The taxi drive into HN is one of startling contrasts to a first worlder--modern highway flanked by lush ricefields being plowed by water buffaloes and farmers wearing nón lá as it was since time immemorial. concrete multi-level houses replaces the wood nostalgia of yesteryear. as we draw closer to the capitol, the billboards increase both in size and density. my favorite by far was the ginormous HONDA DREAM moped billboard with the little cartoon vinamese riding a xe máy with the bubble caption "I love Việt Nam".

the journey into
HN had a beginning and an end. it had a story of economic development, privatization of state-owned lands, growing wealth disparities, and then expanding urbanization, unfolding for the eye/mind to take in and to ease the timezone spanning traveller into a semblance of presence.

we quickly checked in the Red Hotel just outside the central city and then met my siblings at the Vietnam Airlines office to purchase the next legs of our trip to QN and
SG. i was heartgladdened to see them, both eyes brighter and somehow fresher for their temporary respite from reality--my bro emancipated from his wife and recently immigrated in-laws, and my sister on recess from her grieving. After the DMV number ticket game and musical chairs, we had our million-đồng tickets with third world tên lót glitch. there are a lot of Nguyểns in VN. bureaucrats are bureacrats the worldover. trivial details matter.

Second order of business: bún chả Hà Nội. it's just called
bún chả while you are in HN. kinda like bún bò Huế. in Huế, i am told, it's just referred to as bún bò. duh. though i can normally eat only one or two pieces of deep fried anything before my gag reflex kicks in. i think i ate five. maybe more. somehow it was less greazy and the pork lighter. perhaps it was the freshness of locally raised morning slaughtered meat. yum.

though the imperial edict (Hoàng means emperor) was that the 4th & last day in HN shall be reserved for souvenir shopping, almost immediately, Hoàng and Uyên commenced haggling over lacquered chopstick sets. go figure. we got a good deal and a marble carved Đồng Sơn box. and then were suckers for having to drag them around all day. after admiring a sacred marvellous banyan tree, incongruously wedged between shops, within 30 seconds, my bro charms a street vendor into letting him borrow her yoke of fruit. pulls his vinamese abbey road stunt with the resulted in him having to buy the pineapples which tumbled from the baskets. mmm pineapples.

my sibs were creatures of habit and mindful of digestive constitution (we discussed our BMs alot) and so for the first two to three days, trung and i accompanied them to the same haunts. next in order, City View Cafe for our first delicious cà phê sữa đá (and even Trung who never drinks coffee enjoyed one every morning. metabolism runs different in VN) with a stunning panoramic view of Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, the heart of the city and watery home to the Golden Turtle who blessed VN with an Excalibur-like sword to deliver yet another liberatory victory against China in the 15th C. sense a historical theme and potential foreshadowing? yeah, keep in mind how iconic and sacred turtles are. they are one of the Tứ Linh/4 sacred animals--Rồng|dragon, Phương|phoenix, Rùa|turtle and Lân|unicorn. certainly not something you'd want o eat. but then boys will be boys.

i don't know if it was just the weather or the perpetual diesel fuelled smog over the city, but there were no sunsets or sunrises. just differentially lit grey.

in VN, palato-alveolar consonants identify a person's province (the general truism is that northerns have odd beginnings, centrallers have odd middles and southerners have odd ends. in a monosyllabic language that's the whole word in variation.) we ended the day with a seafood feast and giggly northern girl waitresses with sweet hummingbirdsong voices with their capitol-ist monopoly on being Northern that makes my ông bà ngoại's Nam Định dialect sound provincial--but then ông bà ngoại are rather proud of being country. overseas vinamese folks say the new HN accent is the coarse rural one from all those peasants who took power. bitter. its funny after growing up around southerners who fake a refined HN accent in elocution and our familial NĐ-QN mishmash, to hear the contemporary HN dialect and its soft and tinkly.

i could imagine how the West would get lulled into complacency by it and assume they could squash the spirit of a people who speak in the cadence of song, their cu li|coolies and congaïe*|con gái, le carte postale exotique du Indochine.

to them i say, Điện Biên Phủ suckah!

*anthro note: vinamese word for daughter or girl that the french corrupted to mean "a vietnamese concubine, mistress or wife". don't take my word for it, google that sh*t. my ông ngoại taught me the one word i needed to know--ghét with the most velar of fricatives that hocks a loogie.

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