Vietnamese American writer Andrew Lam at a dinner party with friends.
When I was 11 years old, I fled what was then Saigon, in Vietnam, with my family for America at the end of the Vietnam war.
Forty-four years later, I found myself moving back to the city now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
I discovered that I live in many different time zones all at once.
In the present: an energetic city where making money is the main preoccupation. I see it outside my very window. High-rises line the river, gleaming during the day and lit up at night with the promise of a prosperous future. You can also hear it, day and night, the din of construction and the roar of traffic.
If I once thought of Vietnam as backwards and America as modern, I now need to think of a new modern world versus an aging modern world.
In the coffee shop where I go in the morning to write, I spend quite a bit of time eavesdropping. The phrase — mot ty — is mentioned the most. It means one billion dong — or around US$42,000.
It is often used to describe prices of real estate, as in “that property is worth about 70 billion and you need to get it before it goes up in price.”
Most conversations somehow one way or another have to do with money, and money usually involves real estate dealings.
“Let me tell you how to get him to sell. I’ll get my company to back you,” is a sentence I wrote down after hearing someone saying it rather loudly at the next table.
I bask in this excitement. It’s an energy that is seductive and admittedly contagious. I watch with awe as the wealthy spend their money with such abandon at high-end nightclubs and restaurants.
Up the street from where I live, a shopping mall recently opened. It sells Lamborghini and Rolls Royce at its posh entrance. Always there are people taking selfies with the sparkly cars in the background.
Yet some nights strolling the darker alleys I am reminded that so many people are still mired in humiliating poverty — the hunched backs, the tattered clothes, the skin and bone bodies, squatters with cigarettes in mouth, a melancholic ballad on the radio.
Another time zone is the many memories I have of past Saigon, a sleepy town lost in time. Sometimes they arrive unexpectedly into the present.
A rush of memories
The other day on my way to a dinner party, my taxi drove past a building that I instantly recognized despite all the years.
“You came to this world at that hospital, in that room,” my mother had said many times whenever our car drove pass it during the war. There on that second floor, that room with its wooden shutters always wide open, I came to this world.
That moment in the taxi was odd — the past and the present intertwined. Old Saigon superimposed itself on New Saigon, and a rush of various memories of a tropical childhood overwhelmed and made me slightly breathless.
Vietnam is highly mobile now. The country is booming. It’s both a manufacturing hub and a hot tourist destination. And as it opens its doors wider many foreigners are making it their home, among them Viet Kieu — Vietnamese who live abroad.
Many have done well, too, investing and opening businesses, especially those who set up years earlier. To them I am a relative newcomer, and as such there is a lot of advice. Chief among them is: “Try your best not to live in the past.”
Easier said than done, of course.
Like many Viet Kieu, we are cursed with superimposed memories of this city. Sometimes we dwell on them.
The names of streets that have changed, which colonial buildings came down to be replaced by a high-rise, which restaurants once served the best pho during the war, which stalled the best Banh Mi, the dramatic evacuation at the end of the war, the bombs, the corpses.
The past can be a trap, a Vietnamese American friend who came back earlier admits.
The burden of memories keeps him from moving forward, from seeing and doing new things.
“I’m tired of the Vietnam story,” he told me over dinner one evening.
“Me too,” I said. Then we continued to talk about Vietnam.
Thus the future tense.
I carry memories of losses and exile — my childhood in old Saigon in wartime, my abrupt departure. I wear them all like a scar, or a medal.
But I am quite aware that I am also bringing the larger world back to my birthplace. Mine is after all a complicated sense of home.
Given that the bulk of my life was spent in America, writing in my third language (after Vietnamese and French), home is rooted in a sense of plurality.
And if there’s one set of self knowledge of which I am certain of after all these years, it is this: There is no such thing as coming home for those of us who were once exiled.
There is, however, something else the returnee can do — build a new one from scratch.
Diverse, pluralistic, complex is what Saigon has become. A “multi-verse.” A city of multi-ethnic enclaves. A city of immigrants. And a city full of returning Vietnamese. And it is full of young people, eager to surge ahead. Saigon is therefore both forgetful yet secretly longing for its history.
Growing more complex
In truth her nature has always been feminine and individualistic. Her power is alchemy. She turns foreign ideas into local fare.
She seduces stern conquerors and over time turns them into businessmen and epicureans with savior-faire. She takes in their ideology and idolatry, gives them back a tad of hedonism.
Standing in contrast to the public narrative of itself — the male version of events — are the stories of desires and ambition — thirst for knowledge, yearning to travel, wanting to better one’s self, dreaming of owning a house, working toward sending one’s child to study abroad, a kind of American dream.
Such as it is, Saigon, growing ever more complex, is in desperate need of a new framework.
That is my guidepost, my re-entrance. A professor at a college here recently asked me to give a talk about the history of the Vietnamese people in America. Another teacher at an international school asked me to teach a writing workshop to her students.
“Tell them how to think outside of the box,” she said.
A cafe owner who organizes talks invited me to read from my work. I tell listeners of my American life, my adventures abroad. I show images of myself as a child in this self-same city. I share my discoveries of the self. That it is multi-layer, and not etched in stone. Slowly, it feels that I am of use here.
Soon, I will make my pilgrimage. I will enter my old school. I will walk around the old courtyard, finding shade under the tamarind trees, and listen to echoes of my childhood.
I will stand in front of the old house, too, which have yet to visit, and in whose verandas I once read my books and whiled away the hot afternoons, my three dogs at my feet. I will mourn what’s lost and gone.
I will incorporate all this into a new story.
I will try to build bridges of all these fragments, across time zones and languages.
I will try my best to not recreate nor stay mired in the past. Instead, I will marry the tenses as if they are bricks and mortars and build a new home here.