First Trip Back to Vietnam

Coming Home

I finally wrote a blog after nearly six months to chronicle my first trip ever back to Vietnam to visit the village where I was born and lived for almost 8 years, and to visit my seemingly countless relatives, old and new. It had been 21 years since my family left in 1996. My mom and sister had gone back for their first visit in 2012 but my dad and I did not accompany them. I left as a 7 year-old and came back as a 29 year-old. I’m not sure when I would visit again, but I believe it will be much shorter than 21 years, and I hope within 5 years since we applied for 5-year visas. Now that I’ve visited once and got a taste of what to expect, I would definitely be more prepared next time!

My parents and I spent about two weeks in Vietnam, and my sister and her husband joined us for only a day; they had other travel plans in and out of Vietnam, so they did not arrive or departed with us on this trip. Our time in Vietnam began when we landed on May 4th and ended with our departure on May 16th. Based on the arrival and departure times on the tickets, we were able to spend 12 days, 18 hours, and 10 minutes in the country. Most Vietnamese who visit do so for at least three weeks. I wanted to do as many weeks, but I was concerned for my parents’ health so we agreed to reduce that to two weeks. We wanted to limit our exposure to adverse effects from eating the local food and water, being in extremely hot and humid weather, and getting thrown off our sleep cycles, among other things. In fact, we would always drink bottled spring water or, at the very least, boiled water. We also avoided eating fresh vegetables from unknown sources and would only eat them if they were grown locally by our relatives.

 

We landed at Tân Sơn Nhứt airport, and boy people weren’t kidding when they say Vietnam is hot and humid: I felt a big difference after getting off the plane and heading into the airport, and experienced a much more dramatic change in temperature and started sweating right after exiting the doors of the airport. Luckily, I anticipated this and carried a small towel, especially knowing that I sweat more easily than other people to begin with.

In the waiting area outside, we had a handful of relatives greet us, and I was able to recognize them right away, both from remembering their faces as well as having seen them in photos and videos when I was in the states. We got into a van that drove us north-west back to the village where we previously lived: Gia Bình, in Trảng Bàng district in the province of Tây Ninh. Below are some photos of our former home and what became the place where we stayed for most of our trip. In one photo, you can see my family picture, taken probably in 1996, for memories before we left. We hired a photographer since, like most of the villagers, times were too hard in the 90s to own a camera. In another photo, we staged the same scene to mark our first return as a family. It was a difference of 21 years between the photos: my parents grew older, my sister and I grew up, and the home we left behind transformed from clay and leaves to a fairly modern home equipped with toilets, showers, and electricity. It is now even possible to wirelessly make phone calls and access the internet!

What’s Changed?

I observed a number of noticeable differences in Saigon as well as the countryside. In Saigon, I did not see any “xích lô”, or cyclos, in the streets. These were typically 3-wheelers that could pedal a few passengers and are very well known to Vietnamese. However, for whatever reason (I’m guessing that it was due to a ban), these cyclos were nowhere to be seen.

Another element of Saigon that was commonplace but is now devoid is the sight of the homeless. I remember my family was eating at a restaurant in 1996, a time when the homeless would wait very closely wherever there was food, and homeless men would impatiently wait for customers to finish eating and they would immediately swoop in and take any leftovers. Now, just as with the cyclos, I did not see any hint of homelessness. I wonder if they too were banned and pushed outside of the city, perhaps in an effort to keep it tourist friendly, and if there were programs to help them survive?

In my village, living conditions improved greatly, although they are still far from ideal. Over the years, many villagers have accumulated enough wealth to rebuild their homes, just like mine was, from primitive housing to one with concrete and stone structures. Basic amenities were a priority in the reconstruction: toilets, showers, running water, and electricity. The more wealth a villager had, the better the amenities he could afford. It was every villager for himself, since there is no legitimate government program to regulate development. As you can see with the brown brick and tin roof building above, which is now inhabited by one of my cousin’s family and is only a few yards away from my reconstructed former home, the two homes exemplify the great separation in wealth, even among blood relatives. In contrast though, there were paved roads made possible by the pooling of money from villagers that live on those roads.

On the technology front, I was surprised to see the mass ownership of cell phones in the countryside. I could expect young and middle-aged people to have smartphones, and those who have not caught on to smartphones at least had regular cell phones. It is almost mind-boggling to think that farmers could now access the internet while in the fields! This is a great development because it is paving the way for citizens to become technologically savvy and brings a wealth of information to the masses.

In a case of the industrial tide lifting all boats, I was glad to see that there was now a shift from farming to factories. It is well known that running factories in third-world countries counters labor costs, but it was evident that doing this provided stable income (a few hundred U.S. dollars a month) rather than laboring in the fields where harvests could be a hit or a miss. I have a cousin on my mom’s side who is glad that he is earning an adequate income as opposed to relying on farming.

What’s Still the Same?

Beer. Beer. More beer. If there’s anything a man living in Vietnam does, it would be drinking beer. It is everywhere and everyday. I should know, I couldn’t escape them and it would have been extremely disrespectful and disappointing to my relatives if I had declined them. I can recall at least six occasions when we gathered for feasts, and feast meant beer. Lots and lots of beer.

Surprises

As someone who was revisiting after 21 years, I was definitely looking to be surprised at least a few times. I came away not being surprised as much as I thought I would, but there were some things that did leave a lasting impression.

Sometimes it may not seem this way, but Vietnamese people are friendly, especially within the circle of relatives. People who I hadn’t talked to in two decades interacted with me as though I had never left. People who were born after I left were so intrigued and friendly with me that it made my stay warm and welcoming. In one instance, one of my first cousins once removed (I had to look that up because I am super confused by family relations), who was a few years younger than I am, drove me on his motorcycle to a park, which he pointed out was where all the single girls would hang out to find their partners. He talked to me like I was a regular with him at the park. In another instance, another two of my first cousins once removed showed me things they would watch on YouTube, asked me about the simple things in my life like what I ate and when I arrived and left work, and couldn’t wait to play the Vietnamese version of Monopoly with me! These two would continue to make video calls to me and make me feel like we are siblings. My relatives were nothing short of down to earth, genuine, and real.

These two and another cousin of mine gave me another surprise that I consider to be a bright light for the future of Vietnamese society: knowledge. It is now common for families that could afford it to have their children study English, and those that do are extremely knowledgeable in foreign matters. The two aforementioned cousins knew about the American civil war, they knew about the political parties, they knew which candidates are hawks and which are doves, and they are merely 10 and 15 year old’s. The third cousin reportedly ran around the house screaming that Trump had won the election!

In the streets, I was surprised that almost everyone used their vehicle’s turn signals. I had assumed that, being a third-world country, Vietnam would be a place where people disregarded turn signals; after all, Vietnam is notorious for scenes of chaos where cars and motorcycles went whichever way they wanted. Not so, I witnessed. I do suspect, though, that the ubiquitous use of turn signals might have been triggered by the under-developed traffic laws themselves that have made the streets chaotic, thereby compelling drivers to signal their intentions if they wanted to leave the streets in one piece. On a positive note, one thing about Vietnamese traffic that I do think other countries could mimic is to install displays alongside traffic lights that would count down the number of seconds left before a light goes green or red. I think that was a very good investment to improve safety that has not been implemented in the United States. I’ve always disliked that I never knew when a green light would turn yellow so that I could slow down appropriately.

Food

One perk of visiting with Vietnamese relatives is that they’ll always make fresh food to eat with you. During my time here, I’ve had numerous fresh home-cooked treats, including bánh xèo, bánh canh, pork porridge, steamed shrimp, poached fish, fish hotpot, roasted pork, bitter black mushrooms, and many other dishes I cannot recall.

As far as eating out, all I want to say is that if you want awesome seafood at great prices, you owe yourself a trip to Vũng Tàu, the coastal city south-east of Saigon. I ate at a few places, but could only remember the name of one place to recommend: Hương Phong Restaurant at Hương Phong – Hồ Cốc Beach Resort. This place has absolutely delicious seafood, some of which you can see in the below photos with the light tablecloth. If I had more time, I would have wanted to eat exotic food and explore street food!

Sightseeing

Since we devoted much of our relatively short time to visiting relatives, we didn’t explore many places. We visited Vũng Tàu and Tây Ninh, and were supposed to hop on to Phú Quốc island, but we had to drop it from our plans due to not having enough time. I also visited several historic landmarks separately with my cousin in Saigon’s District 1 like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the iconic Saigon Post Office, Saigon Parliament Building, Bạch Đằng port, and the Independence Palace. Regretfully, I was only able to see the palace from the outside since tickets were not being sold at the hours we were present. We also went into the Bitexco tower, the tallest building in the city and formerly the tallest building in Vietnam. From there, I had a bird’s-eye view of a number of places that I recognized. There were many more historic places I wanted to visit but did not get the opportunity to: the former House and Senate buildings, Bến Thành market, and Biên Hoà national cemetery, to name a few. On my next trip back, I would definitely want to devote more time to exploration.

An Eye to the Future

Having visited Vietnam for the first time since I left, I felt that there were many more things to see and do that I would want to plan another visit. I can take this experience to better prepare myself for my next trip.

My cousin, who is dearly close to my family, wanted to cover all of our expenses while we were in the country. If I were to explore a few places on my own next time, I would want to exchange money in advance to the local Đồng currency (although, my family and I did do this to a smaller extent to cover for miscellaneous needs).

I would need to drastically reduce the number of mosquito bites. I had well over 50 bites, and probably closer to 100! A mosquito net to hang over my bed would be a definite must-have item.

I would spend more time eating local foods and exploring landmarks than visiting relatives, since I’ve already devoted most of my time to doing so on this trip. Would I want to travel far away from the places I’ve visited? I would love to, but not before being satisfying my heart’s desire to explore as many of the historic sites in Saigon as much as I can because it is the capital of the old Republic and it envelops a rich history spanning from the era of French colonialism to the surrender of South Vietnam, an event that triggered the mass exodus of Vietnamese to form the overseas diaspora, of which I am a part of. I wouldn’t want to be a lone wolf though; having local relatives join me would be great since they would know their way around and it would be merrier!

I originally gave no thought to blogging about this trip, but later realized it would be a good topic to write about, so I did not take notes about what I ate and where I went, and I was not careful to take photos and videos with quality in mind. Now, having written my first blog about a trip, I’m delighted at the prospect of writing my next travel blog, one with more care, thought, and quality. See you next time, Vietnam!