For me, four years passing means that my family will visit relatives in Vietnam again. Every time I step out of the airport, I’m always baffled by how crazy the roads get in urban Saigon. Thanks to the lack of streetlights, an unending stream of motorcycles speeds down the street with nothing and nobody to stop it. Think of it as a flowing river, except much less graceful and you definitely don’t want to go for a leisurely canoe ride. The cacophony of honks and bantering citizens on the sidewalks makes the entire thing even more chaotic.
How do you cross? Well, my one tip for you: take the hand of your travel buddy and look both ways. Make sure to time when you cross just right because no one else will wait for you. It’s practically every man for themselves.
Things feel much calmer in the rural areas.
Out in the rural areas of Da Nang where most of my family lives, things feel much calmer. Though collectivist Vietnamese culture naturally raises social people, lustrous trees and shrubs separate each house so that they feel more distant from each other than houses in California do. If no one parties, the day feels quiet save for the occasional shout and dog bark. Not the cute kind of dogs, since dogs in Vietnam bite.
Outside the neighborhoods my relatives live in, 9 times out of 10 a small snack shop will quietly sit which I frequent with a few sheets of the local currency, Vietnamese dong, in my hands. Unlike the urban areas, the dirt roads feel rocky since they don’t renovate every so often like California does. On my last trip to Vietnam in 2019, I saw a pothole in front of my aunt’s house that I remembered from my trip 6 years before.
Roads aside, thinking of my last trip to Vietnam calls a few memories to mind.
I remember going to an evening festival with bright, colorful lights in Hoi An. People filled the place with souvenir stands trying to milk what money they could out of tourists. In the end, I got a cute little robot-esque charm that I attached to the pink backpack I wore all the time back then. When it got dark, we boarded a small boat, lit paper lanterns of all kinds of colors and let them out into the water. It felt like a scene straight out of Tangled. To conclude the night, we took a stroll by Da Nang’s breathtaking Fire Breathing Dragon Bridge that flashes a spectrum of colors. The way the light travels down the creature’s body almost makes it move like a real dragon.
Most of my memories from Vietnam come from that trip in 2019. When I reach back to before that, most of my memories don’t come from popular tourist locations. They all take place in quiet, unassuming locations with my family.
A few moments define my experiences in Vietnam.
I always remember spending time at a different relative’s house every few days. While we stayed in many different homes, every dinner felt like a constant that linked all my memories of each house together. We would spread out the chiếu, or mat, on the ceramic floor and eat a whole buffet of rice dishes while the adults boisterously clink beer cups together. When it comes to the food, I can assure you that home cooked rice straight out the cooker hits so different in a way that rice in California cannot match. I don’t know how to explain it. It just does.
I remember going on nighttime motorcycle rides with my relatives. I don’t get to do that in California. Whether we ride to get milk teas at cafes or to go shopping, I always look forward to feeling the invigorating nighttime breeze whip past my face. It feels like a refreshing splash of cold water because during the daytime, the humidity of the sauna-esque heat makes me long for nighttime to come again.
I can’t forget the lakes where, per tradition, my family always held big picnics with snacks, a whole buffet, beer and most importantly: a big speaker and microphone to sing karaoke. Keep in mind: I do not love singing with a mic in front of people. Maybe my Asian American culture raised me differently, but I’m no party animal. Yet every summer I visit, my relatives love to pressure me into singing an American song for them. They love the novelty of a song sung in English, I suppose. Call me a party pooper but I refuse every time. During a different trip earlier in my childhood, I actually cried before they would leave me alone about it.
Unfortunately for me, crying does not remain an option once you grow up. In the summer of 2019, it took lots of peer pressure and a sharp “Trần Nhật Hạ!”, my full Vietnamese name, from my uncle to finally get me to participate in my worst nightmare: I sang I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam. I don’t remember much after that. I stumbled away in a daze, and they didn’t pressure me into singing again for the rest of our picnic.
Some things never change.
Perhaps some things about me such as my avid hate for singing in public never change. Some things do, such as my new appreciation for Vietnam’s tourist spots now that I can remember more of them. Yet every time I come to Vietnam, the whole culture and people there never seem to change at all.
Every four years, my relatives would always stare in fascination whenever they see my siblings and I speaking in English to each other. They would always try their best to make the most of the month we have together, even if it means pressuring me to sing. Every time we see each other, our different cultures would leave me feeling disoriented but endeared by their efforts to bring us together, nonetheless. By the end of the month, I would step into Vietnam’s airport doing my best to hold back my tears as we make promise after promise to do our best to live well, study well, eat well and see each other in four.