The title is a conceit because in all truth, I've never been in exile. That would suggest that Vietnam is a country to which I am denied entry; but as I've pointed out previously, the country into which I was born does not exist any longer, has not been extant since April 30, 1975. Therefore, my entry into the unified Vietnam isn't a reprise from expatriation; it's a tourist stop.
Ovid. Now that dude was in exile.
Hung is my favorite cousin, not because I love him more than I do any of my other cousins (okay, maybe I do slightly), but because he gets me on a level few people do. I like to think it's because we have more genetic markers than first cousins commonly share. After my paternal grandmother died in childbirth, my paternal grandfather took as his third wife Hung's grandmother; she was the younger sister of my grandmother. Thus we joke that we are 3/4 related rather than the normal 1/2 that exists between first cousins. I grew up pretty tight with my maternal family, but when I met Hung sixteen years ago, it felt like familial tumblers falling into place and locking me into the last, shrouded part of my paternal family. Outside of the Bones, our beautiful adoptive family from Macon, my father's part of the family tree had always been somewhat obscure.
As with all my cousins, we refer to one another as "Cuz."
This is probably a good thing as he has this wicked predilection for introducing himself thus: "Hi, I'm Hung."
Innocent naiveté of an English-as-a-second language-speaker (or a really good impression thereof): "Whaaaaaat?"
When we get together, it plays out like a series of vignettes about two people in pursuit of food, alcohol, and music, while talking incessantly.
On the second day I am in Saigon, Cuz and I make plans to meet for lunch, after which we will spend the day together. He doesn't even ask me what I want to eat because he already knows, so he has my aunt and me meet him at Đông Phố, a restaurant in District 3 which specializes in Huế dishes. Its chef is from Huế, her husband a transplant from Paris, where he lived for nearly 44 years, having moved there from Vietnam at age 11. Đông Phố is the name for ancient Saigon.
Cuz orders for my aunt and me, a procession of Vietnamese tapas comprised of my favorite dishes and others I'm enjoying for the first time. They include: chả giò, bánh bột lọc, gỏi cuốn, bánh ướt thịt heo nướng, bánh lá chả tôm, and of course, bánh bèo.
He's already ordered the first of my three cà phê sữa đá, the sweetened Vietnamese ice coffee.
My aunt (not related to him as she is on the maternal side) wipes the table with her napkin, then tries to wipe the fish sauce that has spilled onto one of the plates. Cuz reacts viscerally. "Ack!" he exclaims. "No! Unsanitary!" It's so spot on, such an affirmation of our genetically immutable OCD that I laugh for a good five minutes. My aunt, who knew my dad's own hygienic predilections, shakes her head in perfect understanding.
"What are we going to do today?" I ask as we exit the restaurant. We part ways with my aunt and wait for his car.
"Let's drive around the city and eat."
It's a good plan and not without precedent. Hung's daughter is my cousin Wendy, who commands as much of my affection as he, and whom I've referenced many times previously. On one memorable trip to San Francisco, she and I food hopped for five hours, hitting up six restaurants for one course each.
We hop into his car, and he tells me: "We're right around the corner from where you used to live."
When we turn on the road, there it is, the home in which I spent my first five years, the home I left on April 28, 1975. The entire building has undergone massive renovations recently, and is now a luxury condo development; three additional stories have been added to the previous three floors. The courtyard below where I onced observed a mother and son arguing has been closed off, a garage having been expanded over that open space. But our first floor corner unit still has its wrap around balconies. They have not been altered and they are still just as I remembered.
Across the street is a dilapidated building which, in my mind's eye, looked oh so different nearly 40 years ago. Then it was pristine, a two story building that ran along the block. Now it's worn down, abused, neglected. This district is relatively desirable so I think that in another year or so, some enterprising Singaporean company will take it over and convert it into luxury digs.
But the streets...they are still lined with tamarind trees.
"Let's drive by your dad's old office. It's off an alley a few minutes away. It was a secret location. Looked pretty obscure from the street, but once you drove down that alley, security would swarm your car, check IDs, search your car, the whole thing. The only reason I know where it is is because I visited your dad a couple of times."
It's all I can do not to squeeze him to death. Of course he understands, has this absolute ken about the things that are meaningful to me.
Then it's really hard to see outside the car windows because you know, tears just have this stupid habit of blurring everything.
Saigon is surprisingly cosmopolitan and pretty. Shady, block long parks, tree-lined streets, and modern buildings densely packed against remnants of an earlier age. Some historical buildings remain - the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, a cathedral in the downtown established by French colonists, sits caddy corner to the Belle Epoque-designed Old Post Office; and the French colonial style Opera House on Đồng Khởi looks like its French counterpart on Rue de Scribe. High end stores - Chanel, Burberry, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Marc Jacobs cluster in the district, ready to serve moneyed Việt Kiều ("overseas Vietnamese") and successful entepreneurs in the city. It's a thriving city.
We drive past the old Presidential palace on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, now known as the Reunification palace. He points out the middle gate, the one Colonel Bui Tin drove a PAVN T-54/55 tank through; it's fixed now.
"Why would you call it a presidential palace?" I wonder aloud. "I mean, it seems like a contradiction in terms!" Ah, the extravagance of growing up in a democracy, to note such incongruities.
"We need coffee," he announces and we stop off at a little café off Đồng Khởi and Ngô Đức Kế in District 1. It's a westernized little shop and we grab what we need.
Walking down what was formerly known as Catina, one of the main thoroughfares in Saigon, he drinking cà phê sữa đá, me nursing an iced latte. It's an American, not a Vietnamese thing to do: traversing down the street with coffee in hand.
"What was it like on May 1?" There's no need to refer to a year. He understands my question. His answer is slow, gentle, measured.
"It was sad, cuz, so sad. It was quiet, the people were scared. And the streets were filled with uniforms of the South Vietnamese army. Soldiers were stripping off their uniforms and throwing them away, trying to get back to their families, to escape the inevitable punishment.
The image of the city streets littered with the regalia of a conquered and despairing army is haunting and vivid.
"And they marched the students out into the streets to cheer for Ho Chi Minh." He was eighteen then, a student. I try to imagine saying these same words and I know that they'd catch in my throat with razor blades and barbed wire.
"Bánh mi!" he screams after our jaunt to the Bến Thành Market where we played Good Cop/Bad Cop to get me a hat from one of the (extremely aggressive) vendors therein. Although in our case, we did Speaks Vietnamese/Doesn't Speak Vietnamese. The price was good, in my estimation. I know my mother and aunt will berate us for not haggling more vociferously. But for now, we're feeling smug.
And he takes me to what amounts to little more than a street cart sheltered inside the ground floor of a building, a couple of tables and stools set up to suggest the idea of a restaurant. But really, it's a cart and opposite it is a small oven in which one of the workers is toasting fresh baguette. The cart has a shelf piled high with sliced pork belly, sausage, grilled pork, pork patties, cha and other Vietnamese deli meats.
Street food requires a certain set of culinary brass balls and if you're lucky like me, built-in third world flora and biota from 1970-1975. Never mind the tub of pâté and the hotel pan of mayonnaise, exposed, unrefrigerated, and unchilled in 95 degree weather with near 100% humidity attracting every known microbe and bacteria. No, what bothers us instead is the that girl who makes the sandwich doesn't change her glove after she handles the money. For clean freaks, that is the slap in the face, not the likelihood of serious food poisoning.
But the bánh mi was every damn bit as good as he told me it would be. It's entirely possible that for the first time ever in my life, I've had bánh mi better than my mom's.
Dinner starts in District 2 with a plate of sushi, the fish locally caught, including ca núc (mackeral), the distinct taste of which always reminds me of my maternal grandmother. She used to make a caramel clay pot sauce for the mackeral and we'd eat it with rice on the weekends at her house.
Our cousin once removed, Chuong, arrives at the sushi joint to meet us. He was named after my dad and I am named after his grandfather, who was my uncle Chau.
"That was payback, though," he claims. There's this custom where you're not supposed to name a child after a living member of the family; but Chuong's mother named him after her uncle. According to cousin Chuong, my dad retaliated by naming me after his eldest brother. Uncle Chau was apparently incensed by the lack of propriety.
We're not done eating, but Chuong is not fond of sushi, a potentially fatal friendship flaw, except he's my cousin so he gets a pass.
"Let's go for mi," Hung decides. The restaurant, Mỳ Thiệu Ký, is legendary for its egg noodle soup, which it's been dishing out for almost a hundred years. It is 25 minutes away.
"So we're going to eat noodles that cost $1.50 but blow $20.00 in gas driving there?" Chuong says incredulously.
Hung and I in unison: "Damn straight."
What else would you do when there's good food to be had?
"Cuz! What the fuck?" I exclaim. Hung just laughs. It won't be the last time an alleyway figures in our hunt for good food on this trip.
The alley empties out into an tight little square, flanked by several storefronts with stalls and carts offering food to locals in the know. Not a single westerner do I see grabbing a stool at the flimsy tables set outside. The bowl, when it arrives, is piled with minced shrimp, pork, slices of roast pork and beautifully shaped hoanh thanh (pork dumplings).
The ubiquitous and suicidal motorbikes come down the alley and drive past us. We do not pay attention, consumed with a perfect bowl of mi.
"What next?" Chuong asks around a mouthful.
"There's a bar. Good live music," says Cuz.
At the bar, Hung settles us in the VIP section. A tray of appetizers and pastries appear along with a bottle of Shiraz.
"Dark and Stormy, cuz?"
I shake my head. "Gin and Tonic."
Hung goes to the bar and orders with a caveat: "I'll pay you whatever you want for the drink, but I'm going to make it." The bartender hands him a tumbler filled with ice, tonic water, gin, and a slice of lime. Cuz demands a whole lime. He's going to slice the lime himself.
That OCD thing about hygiene, remember?
“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.”
― Ovid, Tristia (The Poems of Exile).