Retracing Steps

Followed this man as he hobbled down the alley. He turned. I turned.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go?”

I remember asking my mother that the day before I left for Vietnam.  This was going to be my first time returning to Vietnam.  I was going to be in a foreign country, a different continent, and alone for the first time. Not for a day or a week, but for a month.  I was nervous, excited, and scared.

“Yeah, I’m positive. Go and see it for yourself.  You’ve seen it through my eyes.  Now it’s time for you to see with your own eyes.  Then come home and tell me what you think of it.” 

She assured me.

Growing up, my understanding of Vietnam and its culture originate primarily from my mother.  Although I am fluent in Vietnamese, I never had a formal language lesson.  As if it was her way of refreshing memories, I grew up listening to stories told in vivid details of old times in Vietnam.  She would tell me about the different regions and their different dialects.  Stories of the people and the different regional characteristics.  They were definitely not your typical children’s bedtime stories.

Highway One_Bettman_Corbis_Hue April 4th_BE021616

Folks fleeing the battle zone on Highway 1, one of the main routes connecting North and South Vietnam. Do you think the kid in the basket is having fun? (Copyright – Bettman Corbis. April 4th. BE021616)

My favorites always pertained to her childhood, the 60s and 70s.  She would tell me about her school days at the “French hospital-later turned into a French catholic primary school” down in District 5.  Stories about how well she did in French and the personalities of her many foreign teachers.

She would speak of the “war.” Descriptions of places and events that took place.  All from a primary school age child’s point of view.  You would think that running from war is a scary thing? Well for her, it was fun!

Sacks full of rice were looped together into a belt.  When it was time to run for it, she would be told to slip on the belt.  She would run out to the countryside and hide, in the pre-“Đổi Mới [Renovation] Construction Boom” era, this was not too far away.  From her hiding spot, she described people dressed in funny clothing, with leaves sticking out from their heads and strange markings, carrying guns.  Pretty lights. Loud sounds. You were told to stay still and be quiet.  These recollections were like a guerilla-themed version of “hide and go seek.”  My bedtime stories were pretty sweet.  I definitely did not get this in the history class textbooks.

On my first trip to Vietnam in 2008, I had a personal goal to connect understandings/images based on my mother’s stories to what they are in present day Vietnam.  I wanted to go “ah, so this is what she was talking about.”  I have many pretty puzzle pieces, created at different points in time from different stories, that I have to put together.  I left Vietnam as a wide-eyed child [or so I’ve been told] and returned to it the same.  I am eager to soak up anything that came my way.  I want to experience it with no pre-conceived expectations and to enjoy it for what it is.  There is so much left of the country, the people, the culture, that I have yet to see, learn, and understand.  I still have not completed my goal.  Who knows if I ever will.

This post will be the first of my new subsection about Vietnam.  A place for me to store my puzzle pieces and shuffle through them.   I hope to use it as a place to post  about what I have learned from my recent trip there and new future findings.  Snippets of memories I do not want to forget.