Before visiting in high school and this past summer, my perception of Vietnam was that it was a home to which my parents could not easily return. It was a place of heartache, war, history and danger. My mother and father are from the Hai Duong and Hanoi regions of northern Vietnam, respectively. Both sides of my family immigrated to North America in the mid-1970s as boat people — refugees who fled Vietnam. Although my family has been able to find their niche in the Vietnamese-American community of Southern California, I can still feel my grandparents’ wistful longing for the past through their memories.
Deeming me old enough to visit the motherland, my father and I embarked on the 18-hour flight for the first time in the summer of 11th grade. Nothing could prepare me for the exciting sensation of experiencing something new, yet familiar. Stepping off the steps of the airplane, I was immediately assaulted by the language of my ancestors and the brutal humidity. Summer in Hanoi is when the rainy season is at its peak and the sun is unforgiving.
The strangers who reconnected with my father turned out to be first, second and even third cousins who were all happy to share their stories and anecdotes with me. My younger cousins were eager to practice their English with me while I conversed back in my rusty Vietnamese. I am not ashamed of my ignorance of Vietnamese heritage, but rather I’m eager to dig deep into the roots of my ancestry. It wasn’t until we visited the family cemeteries that I realized how much sacrifice and tears both sides of my family had given in order to survive.
A significant landmark in Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake, or Sword Lake. Couples and elderly people walked around the lake’s shores to drink in the sight of its beautiful temple and to see if they could spot the elusive soft-shelled turtle. My great-aunt told me that long ago, a turtle rose from the lake to take back a sword the dragon king had given to a famous emperor. The turtles in the lake are the descendants who continue to protect the holy sword. Those who are able to spot the turtles are said to be very lucky.
Roaming the streets, it was easy to see that Hanoi is an amalgam of history and modernity. Alongside centuries-old lakes, temples and shrines were hundreds of motorcycles, towering skyscrapers and advertisements for soft drinks. Outdoor cafes and local street vendors were popular among tourists and natives alike. Tropical fruits such as dragon fruit, soursop, lychee and rambutan were sold by the pound for pennies and refreshing desserts called che drew in crowds with their vibrant colors.
The most majestic sight I’ve ever experienced was when I visited Halong Bay. Siting on the deck of a swaying wooden boat, I was awed by the mountain-like limestone islands that seemed to rise from the depths of the ocean. Families that have navigated these waters for centuries continued to sell their produce and fish. Halong Bay is an area of deep spiritualism among Vietnamese people. Halong translates to descending dragon, and as the story goes, dragons were sent to defend the Vietnamese people against their coastal invaders. The gems that were spat out became the islands, and the Vietnamese people believe that the dragons still reside in the waters.
Vietnam became no longer a place of fear for me, but a land of beauty and grace. I understood why my grandparents were always reminiscing about their past and about prewar Vietnam. Beneath the poverty and simplicity one faces in Vietnam lies a culture that is resilient and full of depth. The stories of the past that I’ve heard are not only recollections of a better time, but a reminder of the struggles that have allowed my people to grow.
Contact Angelina Nguyen at [email protected].