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Vietnam Part 7




Part 7: Revelation 

We ate like kings in Vietnam. Mai’s mother and sisters cooked homemade meals outdoors over a wood fire beside a low, L-shaped wall that served as the kitchen and protected the food from wind and dust. After the daily early-morning trip to the farmer’s market to buy fresh produce and freshly-butchered meat, the food was prepared and put into large pots where it simmered for hours over the flames, carefully watched from midmorning until late afternoon.  

 Most of the time I had no idea what we were eating, but everything was delicious, having flavors and aromas that slowly blended together throughout the day. At every meal, I ate until I couldn’t eat anything more, and yet I lost eight pounds during the 13 days we were in Vietnam (I wish I had brought home some of those recipes).

Many of our meals were eaten in restaurants. The family, knowing that the ‘wealthy’ Americans were buying, ordered multiple entrees that were served on large plates. Every inch of our table was covered with plates of exotic foods, and bowls of rice and noodles and cups of tea. When the check came, it was usually around seven or eight dollars in American money, or about 70 cents per person. There was always food left over, though no one asked for a to-go box because no one had a refrigerator at home to store the leftovers in.

And just like what happened at the Palace, I walked into a restaurant one day and a middle-aged man jumped out of his chair and offered me his seat. I didn’t know how to react, so I politely bowed and indicated with sign language that I was with a group of people. It was nice to be treated with so much respect, but I had no idea why I was being respected.

In between the sightseeing and the feasting, we spent a lot of time visiting Mai’s aunts and uncles and cousins. As in many Asian homes, it was customary for visiting relatives to light incense and stand in reverence before a small altar dedicated to an honored relative who had passed on. The altar (usually a shelf, or the top of a credenza) held a picture of the person and some personal items such as a watch or a pocket comb that they’d used during their lifetime. It was a solemn moment; everyone in the room waited quietly as Mai paid her respects, and then the conversations started up again where they left off.
Our visit to Mai’s grandmother’s house was an interesting cultural experience. She lived alone in a small house that was just up the hill from the family home. Quiet, serene, dignified, she sat on a wooden chair as Mai and her cousins shouted into her ear (Grandmother was hard-of-hearing). 

And right there in the sparsely-furnished living room, leaning against the wall, was a wooden coffin. Barbara and I, not used to seeing that kind of home decor, discreetly asked Mai why there was a coffin in the house.

 Mai shrugged her shoulders and replied, “They got a good deal on it, and, you know, it‘s inevitable.” I’m not sure what Grandmother thought about her family’s thriftiness, but she probably approved. Thriftiness is an admired trait in Vietnam. 

We went to an Uncle’s home, where I finally understood the respect we were given by so many people in South Vietnam. One wall held a framed  picture of a young man in his military uniform. Like military photos the world over, he was standing in front of his country’s flag, looking serious and brave, just out of training and eager to serve his country. 

The young man’s mother stood and watched me from a few feet away as I gazed at the picture. I sensed that this was an important moment for her. I suddenly understood that this was her son who had died in the war. I was almost overcome by emotion. Fighting back tears, I turned and looked at the soldier’s mother and nodded my head. I couldn’t speak her language, but I hoped that my tears and my respect conveyed the words that the mother of every fallen soldier needs to hear:  “Your son is a hero”.

I realized then that the people who had been showing us so much respect thought that I was a US military Veteran. And, just like the relatives who are honored and remembered with altars and incense long after they’ve passed on, the American soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the people of South Vietnam are remembered with a respect that has been nurtured for years. I’m certain there are many South Vietnamese people who would stand before our own veterans who fought in the Vietnam War and say to them, “Thank you for your service to our country.” 

When it was time for us to leave the Imperial City and return to Ho Chi Minh City for our flight home, the family gathered at the bottom of the hill so we could all say goodbyes. Looking around, I saw that Mai’s father was missing. I asked where he was, and she replied, “He’s on the roof. That’s where he goes when he needs to be alone.” 

This wasn’t an everyday goodbye for Mai’s parents. The family whose lives were torn apart in April of 1975 was separating again. For 13 days, the wounds were healed and joy was shared with neighbors and relatives, and now it was ending. Mr. Nguyen, proud father of nine children, the former entrepreneur, the family sensei, needed some time alone to compose himself.

 We waited for her father. After he arrived and we'd shared hugs and handshakes, we got into our rented van and drove away. Mai remained silent for most of the long journey home.

In the years since, Mai has returned with her husband and son to visit her family in Vietnam. With Mai’s help, her parents moved to America for two years and lived with Mai and her new family. Some of Mai’s brothers and sisters have applied for U.S. citizenship, but not too enthusiastically. After all, home is where the heart is.

The End.



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