2001 & 2003 – Journal from 1st to 2nd Return Trip to Vietnam
"Not the North! Saigon feels like Home
On my first trip back to Vietnam, accompanied by my adoptive mother, I arrived in Hanoi and was immediately completely disorientated. We were both confused and lost amongst the crowded streets full of motorbikes and heavy exhaust fumes. And although the city was very beautiful, the mood of Hanoi was very serious affair as our itinerary had us visit numerous temples, official sites and history museums. Nothing was spontaneous nor was it overly welcoming. We finally arrived in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City for the Tet festival January 2001. What surprised us was the completely different atmosphere. Saigon seemed a much younger, welcoming and enthusiastic.
There seemed to be as many motorbikes, but the exhaust was no problem. The streets were sunny and the skies clear blue. Down here, watching the endless traffic of motorbikes from the cafes actually became a favourite pastime. The streets seemed more fun and friendly than in Hanoi. In a way it felt I’d finally made it home. Most of my time during this trip was spent with other adopted Vietnamese people (some who now make up the Vietnamese Adoptee Network in the US) and late night chats with the cyclo drivers and kids that sold postcards on the street. However, a considerable amount of time was spent bonding with my adoptive mother Annette who had for a long time promised to take me back to Vietnam. Finally I was ready to take up her offer and we had made it back.
Travelling with Adoptive Mother
The luxury of going to Vietnam the first time with my mother was that I could experience a tidal wave of emotions related to being adopted while having her constant support and understanding. She had watched me all my life grow from being a tiny waif to an all Australian teenage girl to an unsettled twenty-something curious about her Asian identity and Vietnamese past. Mum had been to Saigon in 1972 during the war to visit me and had stayed at the Caravelle Hotel (where the Australian Embassy had once been) just opposite the Continental Hotel made famous in The Quiet American. It was a special moment for both of us to revisit this historic area again twenty-seven years or so later and we silently let a range of wonderful moments in time wash over us. (Anyone knowing my Leo mother would also find it suiting that the Caravelle is now a 5 star posh hotel and incredibly tidy).
It was also a time to reflect how lucky we were to find the love of family between each other in a strange country and during a time of war when much sorrow and tragedy was unfolding all around us. We felt lucky too, to be able return together, from all we had to be grateful for and for being given happy moments in our lives as still much poverty and struggle existed all around us. We became closer after visiting Vietnam together and it is an experience that I will always treasure.
For my second visit to Vietnam I decided to go directly to Saigon for the Tet Festival January 2003. Visiting Vietnam during Tet has become symbolic to me as it is traditionally a time for locals to visit their family and since my orphanage was in Saigon and I do not know who my biological family are, I think of the whole city as my family. This time, from the moment I stepped out off the plane, I considered it like re-entering the front door of the family house at Christmas time – and it felt so nice to be visiting ‘home’ again.
Travelling with Fiance
This time I took my fiancée Chris with me (we were engaged January 1st)and we went to the Caravelle to buy my mother a photo of the hotel as it was before 1975. Next we went to the Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar on the 9th floor for a treat of an extremely expensive cocktail. For the view it’s almost worth it, at least for one drink (more expensive than Australian prices). Chris and I then went to Diamond Plaza near the old Post Office to watch The Quiet American with Vietnamese subtitles. It was funny seeing that they’d superimposed The Continental Hotel over the Caravelle in the film during several opening shots and a bomb scene.
Sticking to the City
Although most people when they visit Vietnam want to visit around the whole country including its beautiful beach towns and mountain regions and places like the Cao Dai temple (which for some reason looks too creepy to me), I find there’s a lot to see just around the city. After all, being from the city of Saigon (perhaps via Hue), I feel that it holds within it everything I want to know about my past and has the right vibes I’d like to connect with. This includes getting a feel for the places that my birth mother may have experienced, such as the river, the post office, the Opera House and the church that she too may have once walked by. Or sitting in one of the many parks that she too may have stopped at to spend time being lost in her thoughts. Many of these places have not undergone any great change since 1970s and would have looked similar when my mother was carrying me.
In contrast, large glossy buildings like Diamond Plaza with its great open roof top terrace restaurant overlooking all of Saigon on the 13th floor (next to the cinema) and the HSCB building with its New York style Highlander café on the ground are very new – I didn’t recognise these buildings when I last visited only two years ago. I think its great seeing the old and the new side by side. I absolutely love looking at the city and its contrasts. You can see traces of the French and Chinese with new doses of multinational ‘occupation’ all around town situated side-by-side old style Vietnamese and Communist architecture. Even on the roads next to a modern big 4-wheel drive SUV you can still see a chicken walk on by. There is a good depth of diversity in every block – even coke cans cannot yet over dominate the coconuts which are sold side by side at a lot of roadside stalls.
I absolutely loved looking at the people, their often too beautiful faces and outrageously cheeky winning smiles and hearing them talk naturally to me in Vietnamese with a wink and then trying to sell things to Chris in English. For once I look like the local and he (white) the tourist. They are certainly nicer to him than some of the racists back home that have mistaken me for a ‘bloody Jap tourist’ and told me to go home. I must admit however that sometimes I’m mistaken for a prostitute hanging out with a foreign customer as many mixed couples you see drinking around Saigon are this very combination. I realised during my first visit that Vietnamese women do not smoke or drink in public although a prostitute may. This time I tried my best not to smoke (I should quit anyway) but drank a little anyway. Saigon cocktails in many places are so watered down they are about as alcoholic as a coconut. At a few places people stared at me with Chris but in general I didn’t care
My more adventurous friend and adopted Vietnamese, Anh Dao Kolbe from Boston, favoured motorbikes as her form of transport although I was a little scared. Saigon traffic is something else and even crossing the road on foot is a test of courage and attitude. I learnt that as long as it’s not a truck, you can generally walk in front of whatever’s on the road and it will avoid you. Even though this was my second trip to Saigon, I still can’t get use to crossing the busy streets and walking in front of moving traffic. Anh Dao became so famous amongst the motorcycle taxis around my hotel that when my boyfriend went out to the pavement one of them called out ‘Anh Dao – I take Anh Dao around town. I know Anh Doa. You her friend – I take you to her anytime’. They knew her and her hotel and her friends.
Meeting up with Anh Dao was a great opportunity as I’d previously met her in New Haven and then in Boston. Each time I emailed her after that I’d said that it would be nice to have a coffee in Saigon together and we had finally made it a reality. She looked pretty confident around town (especially organising travel with her motorbike buddies), ordering the food and dropping Vietnamese phrases here and there. I was sad though as it was her first time in Saigon and she seemed for the most part unsettled and restless although this may just be part of her global nomad travelling nature. Luckily, after several unsuccessful attempts to find her An Lac orphanage were getting her down, a string of people came forward (including Betty Tinsdale and Susan McDonald) to help her locate not only her orphanage address but also people that were involved with it pre-1975. I’m sure this meant a great deal to her and it made me marvel at how the past, with the help of the community, is not necessarily always lost forever (as an adoptee this is all to easy to believe or disbelieve this with no balance in between).
During this visit apart from meeting up with Anh Dao I also met up with the ever-cool Brent (another adopted Vietnamese who came with me the first time to Saigon two years ago and has lived there ever since), his beautiful & sweet Vietnamese girlfriend Luan, a very soulful and wise Viet Kieu woman called Hung from Connecticut (who’d been back four times) and on my last night met up with another visiting adopted Vietnamese, a charming & good humoured bloke called Khan who was from New York (who was visiting Vietnam for the second time). It was certainly nice to socialise with such friendly English speaking Vietnamese people while I was visiting Saigon. This was balanced with some more private romantic strolls and dinners with my fiancé. I certainly felt an inner pride every time my fiancé said how wonderful Saigon was and I was so happy to be there with the person I love most in the world.
Trip Regrets & Blessings
My main regret was that I couldn’t speak Vietnamese this trip although I was beginning to understand certain phrases that I heard. It did help me to decide to study the language in Saigon next time I visit. The best thing about visiting Saigon this trip was that as it was to celebrate my engagement to my fiancé, there was no rush to confirm or finalise anything of a spiritual, emotional, adoption, academic or professional nature while I was there. I was able to just enjoy each moment spontaneously and felt very relaxed. I was overjoyed to find that Chris was also happy just being a lazy traveller too and not be under pressure to ‘visit this’ or ‘see the real and authentic’ that or wondering ‘is this too western?’ which almost dominated in my thoughts too much during my first trip back to Vietnam. The more relaxed I was the more I found everything I wanted to find in Vietnam. In most cases it even appeared right in front of me as if by magic and without me asking.
There’s of course always far too much to do and discover no matter how much time you have in Vietnam but the next time I travel there the first thing I want to do is learn Vietnamese, perhaps at a local school or university in Saigon. I can then discover more things about my past like meeting people from my orphanage and finding birth mother etc perhaps by joining the Motherland Tour as they specialise and excel in such journeys so I will see how my funding applications and savings go. This is a fortunate and beautiful life I’m lived so far and each moment I have had in Vietnam is really treasured. I think of Vietnam as a very complex and special part of who I am and I want to visit there again and again if I’m lucky enough too. Hopefully I’ll see you there too?