After the first two nights staying in District 1, we went to stay with my aunt, my mum’s only sister here in Vietnam — her other two sisters live in Sydney, near us. As it turns out, my aunt in Vietnam is extremely well to do, and has a huge, four storey house not too far from the centre of town. Most of the rooms upstairs are vacant.
It’s funny how I had been stressing about feeling obligated to give money to relatives in Vietnam — about an hour after I met her, she pulled out an absolutely massive roll of banknotes and handed me five million dong (a few hundred US dollars). I tried to refuse but she insisted! So that set the tone for my stay here.
There’s so much I can write about in terms of my experience, but I’m saving it all up for a long, reflective essay that I’ve started working on. As you can imagine, there is a lot for me to process. But in short, going to Vietnam was incredible, and a homecoming in a way I somehow never expected. Since I’ve been living in a foreign country for most of the year, I really felt like these are my people in a way I might have felt less had I come straight from Australia. But it really hit me when I was there: I understand the culture. There’s no getting away from it — I’m Vietnamese! And I felt proud of myself for being so fluent in Vietnamese. In some ways it’s a real miracle that I do speak so well, given how little I use it. I’m thinking of going back again in a year’s time to undertake some formal studies so that I can become even more fluent and have access to more complex terms.
Oh and the food was so delicious…truly, Thai food just doesn’t cut it for me when I compare it to Vietnamese. Banh canh cua (below) is my comfort dish, and one of the first meals I had. Vietnamese food also has a rich variety of influences from cuisines that I love — Chinese and French. It was so nice to be eating baguettes again, as well as all the different kinds of Vietnamese noodles which don’t really exist here in Thailand. We ate so much this time round, but there was just so much that I wanted to try…plus most of the time I didn’t have much choice, as my aunt would keep ordering food and insisting I ate it. We also had a lot of delicious home-cooked food too, and they cooked all my favourite dishes. I was completely spoiled. By the way, I thought everyone would tell me I was fat but compared to them I wasn’t! Which might suggest how well nourished my family are, to say the least.
However, there was one thing I wanted to write about: a momentous occasion on my first night at my aunt’s house — my aunt and my mum spoke on the phone for the first time in over 30 years. They had a little more contact during the 80s, by letter, but they haven’t actually spoken in all this time. My mum hasn’t been back to Vietnam and my aunt has never visited Australia. While they spoke, I sat next to my aunt, and could tell that it made my mum’s day. Having said that, it is completely ridiculous that they hadn’t spoken in so long, and had relied on other people to hear each other’s news. My family is pretty damn dysfunctional in some ways.
So it seems that I’ve set something in motion, and will continue what I’ve started by coming back to Vietnam for a weekend in early January to attend my grandmother’s 81st birthday. I don’t actually have much of a relationship with my grandmother (mainly because my mum doesn’t have a relationship with her), and maybe it’s time that changed. The irony is, my grandmother lives a 5 minute walk from my home in Sydney, and yet I am going all the way to Vietnam to connect with her.
This trip to Vietnam has determined what one of my big goals for 2011 will be: helping my family reconcile. It feels like it’s time that my parents came back to Vietnam to see their families again and come to terms with their past. It will be difficult for my dad in particular so I don’t imagine that this will be easy in the least; but I’m going to try my best.