One Year in Vietnam — Part I: The Lost Soul

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. June 2016.

CONTEXT: I’m a Vietnamese who lived in America for almost eight years, first for school, then for professional career. Last year, I returned home. This is my recollection of that journey.

“To want to understand is an attempt to recapture something we have lost.” 
Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow

In June 2016, I left America for Vietnam. It was the unavoidable outcome of a relentless inner-battle between ambition and contentment, hopes and realities, success and wellness, and so much more.

For a long time, the only thing I could remember was how desperate I wanted to become American, in every facet of the word. I wanted to be proud of America’s achievements, of its political and military prowess, of its rich cultural slices of music, arts, theater, etc. I found myself looking at contemporary business and technology heroes, i.e. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates; admiring how they single-handedly changed their industry and, with those, the world; aspiring to become one of them someday. America was practically THE place to be.

At the same time, there was another calling, from far away. Vietnam was calling. Saigon was calling. Before returning home, I only visited Vietnam four times. FOUR times in almost EIGHT years. Yet, it was enough to make me long for the bike-ridden, honking noise-filled streets of Saigon, the hazy summer rains that come and go in eye blinks, the street vendors whose calls echo the alleys of Ban Co market. I found myself, from time to time, walking down Massachusetts Avenue, all the same while dreaming of a cup of Vietnamese-grown Arabica-bean cappuccino, sitting by the windows of the coffee place at the corner of Han Thuyen and Pasteur, spectating the streams of people walking and riding through the crossroads; walking along the beaches of Cape Cod, all the same while thinking about my bike ride past Thu Thiem bridge, listening to some folk tunes of the Mekong Delta; wandering the streets of Manhattan hoping from bars to bars, all the same while reliving my late nights going from clubs to clubs in a busy Saigonese Saturday, flinging around the tables chatting up beautiful ladies and joking around with my crew. A calling so primitive, intuitive, yearning, ardent, and pretty any other adjective in the English language that can be used to describe a hunger for the freedom of the soul.

In the end, none of that really mattered, though. The moment when my mind was made up happened not in America, but in Iceland. In February 2016, I took a spontaneous trip to Iceland, out of nowhere. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to see Iceland. To me, it sounded distant, like a good place to run away for a split second. So I went. There I was, sitting on a ski mobile in the middle of the Langjökull glacier alongside the guide, staring at the skyline that seemed to begin and end with ice, as if the earth was consumed by another Ice Age and ice was all that remained. I stared and stared at all this ice, and right there and then, my mind was made up. I had to go home.

Langjökull glacier, Iceland.

So, in June, I arrived in Vietnam, this time for real and forever. It was not just a homesick visit, or a quickie trip before heading over to Europe; it was real. I recalled standing there staring at the chaotic scene that was Tan Son Nhat Airport: People everywhere screaming for relatives, officials trying hopelessly to drive away the illegally parked cars and taxis, drivers angrily honking at each other to get spots. It was the Third World.

The ride home wasn’t much better. Bikes approached our car from everywhere, their riders yelling at cars and at each other while honking incessantly to try getting through traffic. I’ve been to concerts, protests, and pretty much all sorts of gatherings in the States, but these were brand new to me. Saigon, in my memories, wasn’t that meat-packed.

Meeting friends was weird, too. Months and weeks before I arrived back home, I already made the passages to all my friends in Vietnam, informing them of my returns; nonetheless, when we actually met up, something seemed different. They’ve changed, that much was obvious; I, however, have changed drastically also.

The scenes changed, also. The old coffee places were no longer there. That quiet coffee shop became a StarBucks; those clubs and bars I used to frequent closed down years ago. The sidewalks were full of tourists wandering around, haggling for souvenirs and taking pictures of random objects and people. Saigon has become a touristy spot.

There I was, a lost soul. I often found myself longing for Saigon, for Vietnam, and for everything that was here; yet I arrived and found myself utterly lost and disconnected from what was once my beloved city.

Saigon at night. Created with Prisma.

Coming Up: Part II: Picking Up the Pieces.

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