I’m standing in a well-kept kitchen, inside a tidy Vietnamese home off a side-street of a large, totally local suburb of Ho Chi Minh City’s local district 7. It’s 7:00 in the morning, and I’m about to have my first ever breakfast in Vietnam.
In my travels, I’ve had excellent luck using Airbnb. Airbnb allows people to list their homes, and for travelers to reserve one room in their home, one section of their home, or even their entire home, depending on the listing. For the right situation, it is a fun, exciting, inexpensive and oftentimes more rewarding alternative to a hotel or hostel.
For my first ten days in Vietnam, I booked an Airbnb room complete with my own bathroom, AC, breakfast, and an instant group of local friends, all for about $13 USD per night. The Vietnamese family includes mother, father, son, auntie, and maid (daughter away studying high school in San Jose. Small world!)
Mom and Dad work, but Auntie cooks, cleans and maintains the house. Naturally, she’s the boss.
When I first arrived the night before, she presented me with my own pair of “house slippers,” and made it very clear with hand gestures and foreign words that I was to take my flip-flops off at the door, and always wear my house slippers inside.
Now, I’m standing respectfully at the kitchen breakfast table, still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes from the prior-day’s travel from Bangkok, and realize she is asking me to sit down.
I take my place, and the first thing she does is pull out a wonderful, foreign contraption: the Vietnamese coffee maker.
The thing is clever in its simplicity. The metal apparatus uses gravity to pull the essence of the coffee through a fine mesh filter. More like an American coffee percolator than a steam-based espresso maker, the grinds are placed within a cup-like chamber on top of your actual coffee cup. Hot water is then added on top of the coffee grinds, and over the next five to ten minutes, the hot water slowly makes its way down, pulling flavor from the grinds, through the saucer-like filter at the bottom, and into your cup.
Once percolated, traditional Vietnamese coffee is served with sweetened, condensed milk.
Auntie takes an open can of the classic Carnation Condensed Milk out of the fridge and puts it next to the coffee contraption. The color scheme and layout of Vietnamese metal can is identical in all respects it its American counterpart, except that all the words have funny little accents and dashes and make no sense.
Once the coffee fully drips into the glass, Auntie removes the top portion, leaving just the glass, and gestures towards the condensed milk with a grunt. I take a spoon, tentatively scoop about 1/3rd of one tablespoon of the viscous substance, and look up at her for approval.
She grunts again in abject disapproval, shakes her head, grabs the spoon from me, and proceeds to dole out not one or two but three overflowing tablespoons of sweetened, condensed milk into the 3 or so ounces of highly concentrated coffee.
Needless to say, the fatigue quickly left my eyes.
That first morning, exploring Ho Chi Minh City, I might have been superman!
Lighthearted Adventures: Out and About in Vietnam:
Ok, enough of the fluffy bullshit. Let’s get real. I’m in Vietnam.
I am proud to be an American.
I truly am.
There are times when I question my country’s wisdom, its direction, its uses of power. There are times when I see another group of rowdy, obnoxious Americans in a foreign country, and want absolutely nothing to do with them. But deep down, I love my country.
I generally consider myself “American” first, and “Californian” second. Most traveling Californians skip the America part and jump strait to California. It’s cool. Its sexy. It always sparks smiles, thoughts of fame, celebrities and culture. One New Zealand ranger goggled at my “American” first ordering choice.
“Ya know, in 15 years of being a park ranger, meeting foreigners from all over the world every day, you’re the first person from California I’ve ever heard say “United States” as where they’re from.”
And so, apparently contrary to normal boastful Californian convention, I generally tell people that I’m from America. The land of the brave and free.
Two weeks ago, for the first time in my six months of travel, I faltered. I stumbled. I paused.
“Where are you from?” came the routine, most common question I’m asked.
“I’m from…. I’m from…. I’m from…. California.”
I’m in Vietnam, and all of a sudden, for the first time, perhaps in my life, a flicker of shame and doubt stops me from proudly, thoughtlessly sharing my country of origin.
I retreat to California, as if the glitz and glam and bright lights of pop culture could outshine the unsettled ghosts of a not-so-distant past.
After two weeks in Vietnam, I’ve felt no outright hostility, or resentment, or persecution, towards Americans. There exists, however, an undercurrent, a slight tension that prevents an American mind from resting completely at peace. Whether this is a real, palpable tension, or the result of my own historical knowledge and the resulting ghost of national shame, I cannot tell.
History is generally fashioned by the victorious, and the American recount of the Vietnam war differs dramatically from that of Communist Vietnam. A visit to the stomach-churning “War Remnants Museum” in Saigon paints this disjoint into stark relief. While American textbooks refer to the global and political complexities surrounding spread of communism, the disjoint between North and South Vietnam, and America’s attempts to aid the democratic south against the radical north, Vietnamese history sees things differently.
There is no talk of civil war, or North versus south, no democratic versus communist. The entire affair is simply referred to as “The American War,” a conflict between defensive Vietnam and offensive, imperialistic, cruel America. The museum is light on political, historical and global background, but heavy, painfully heavy on war crimes, destruction, and American brutality.
A real-life reconstruction showcases the barbarous atrocities committed at war prisons. The first floor exhibits photo after photo of war destruction, of families massacred and lands raped. The second floor showcases photos of different military advances, and figures on casualties, weapons, guns, money, foreign involvement, etc. The third, and very difficult to stomach, floor is filled with photos of war victims. Victims of napalm, fire, bombing, Agent Orange. Victims whose disfigurations endure for generations.
It’s a somber, sobering experience and the smiling, posing tourists I saw next to the massive US military tank on my way out did nothing to settle my already turned stomach.
Now, I’m not trying to attack or defend America or Vietnam here. I was born decades after the war, and I’m sure everything I’ve ever learned of it is merely a watered down version of reality. I did not fight, and I hold nothing but respect for those who did.
Any way you skin the apple, however , war is never pretty. Some wounds run too deep to heal. When I told my dad I was going to visit Vietnam, and asked if he had any interest in joining, the light manner left his voice. “No thanks,” he said curtly. “I’m sure its a beautiful country, but to be honest, too many of my good friends died there.”
Time may not heal all wounds, but enough time can help put some to rest. My impression is that the average Vietnamese person does not hate Americans, or begrudge us visiting their country, or dwell constantly on their past. I found almost all of the Vietnamese people I met to be open, friendly, welcoming and sincere. They are more interested in their families, their businesses and in their futures than in their pasts. And although people don’t have much here–the Vietnamese Dong is worth only a fraction of the US Dollar–the people are happy, open, and do the best with what they have.
Despite some awkward pauses, I’m trying to go back to my usual habit of answering the question I’m asked most frequently in my travels with “I’m from the United States” instead of “I’m from California.”
I risked this gamble to a taxi driver on the way to the airport in Hue a few days ago.
To my surprise, the driver shouted, twisted entirely around in his seat mid-drive, and shook my hand with big smile. He proceeded to tell me how he fought alongside Americans during the war, and wished that America had stayed and helped the south win. When he dropped me off at the airport, he shook my hand, then positively hugged me before jumping back into his cab.
I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.
I know my country has done shit things, and still does shit things, and is no where close to perfect.
But, despite all of this, even ten thousand miles away, I still love my country. I’m proud to tell people I come from America.
Third-wheelin’ in Da Nang and Hoi An
Almost six months into my adventure, I’ve hardly seen a familiar face. So, when my friends Julie Vu and Daryl asked if I wanted to meet up with them for a few days during their trip to Vietnam, I said, of course!
Julie Vu and Daryl were recently married in September of 2016 (a lovely wedding in Seattle, WA), and this trip is something of a delayed honeymoon. However, the trip is more than just a honeymoon. It is also the first time that Julie Vu has ever been back to her home country since her parents moved to California 26 years ago. Julie Vu comes from 100% Vietnamese American parents, and therefore has a massive Vietnamese family, speaks Vietnamese fluently, and is well versed in Vietnamese culture and tradition.
Bright-eyed and excited, the three of us meet after much anticipation in Da Nang, a lovely city in Central Vietnam. Over dinner and drinks, Julie Vi described the way she was feeling during her first return trip, her first experience, in Vietnam.
“It’s like, if I only had one parent growing up. Only growing up with one, but knowing there was another, far away, familiar but foreign. And now, full-grown, I get to meet the other parent for the first time. And so many things just click into place! Odd quirks don’t seem so odd, traditions that seemed meaningless now make sense. Who I am, what I eat, songs I know.
This big, mysterious gap that always seemed unexplained. The father you knew in theory–you’ve lived his traditions and tasted his favorite foods and smelt his sent. You know all the history about him. But you’ve never actually met him. You’ve never sat down with him, looked him in the eye, shared a meal or stayed up until 2 in the morning with him. And that’s what coming to Vietnam is like. Meeting a part of your identity, your past, your heritage, your being. Being somewhere new and foreign, yet old and familiar.”
Ok, Julie Vu will have to forgive me here; I may have elaborated a tiny bit on her original statement.
But, while watching her smile and jabber away in Vietnamese with the hotel employees, or the restaurant owner, or the temple worker, or the woman selling dessert on the street, I couldn’t help but be happy for her.
Imagine all of the people you, your parents, your grandparents, left behind. The family, the friends, the life that stayed behind, that never moved, that never came to America.
And that’s powerful.
Especially when coupled with the war, the lives, the deaths, the sufferings. The people who died, the people who wanted to take the boat, but did not. Maybe they were too scared to try. Maybe they tried, but were caught and imprisoned (like Julie Vu’s uncle). Maybe they wanted to leave, but refused to leave others behind.
Imagine the looks in their eyes, the feelings they felt as they stood on the shore, watching you sail away, escape, and know that they would stay behind. Know that nothing was certain–your life, their life, either future. Nothing was certain except that you were leaving and they were staying. Nothing probable except the likelihood that you will never see them again
And now, years later, decades later, generations later, you go back to visit. You see what you, your parents, left behind. You look people in the eye and recognize something familiar. Something filled with the weight of sacrifices and lives and deaths and difficulty. You look into their eyes and recognize family, ancestry, a belonging to something larger than yourself. You are not alone in this world, and the pain of the the separation, even though it may have happened generations ago, makes the beauty of reunion all that much more profound.
I’m happy that you got to come back to Vietnam, Julie Vu, and feel very blessed to have seen a glimpse of your beautiful reunion.
Shenanigans with Daryl and Julie Vu: