The Motherland

One pitfall of this pandemic has been the effect it has had on the travel industry. While I miss flying to a new destination and having a fun getaway, it’s just not possible while Covid-19 is still spreading and causing havoc on communities around the world. So while I work from home in my safe bubble, I will reminisce about the first time I traveled to Vietnam: the Motherland. Hopefully someday soon, borders will reopen and international travel can be added back to the agenda.

I love to open my eyes to how people live around the world. Not everyone lives like we do in Canada. It’s good to experience diversity and understand other cultures.

One of my dreams was to visit the place where my parents grew up. I wanted to see their old stomping grounds, understand what it was like and how their messy childhood made them into who they are. I also wanted to eat all the food. Fresh custard apple, mangosteen and durian? Drool.

My grandparents were from Guangdong Province in China. They spoke Cantonese but my parents were born in Vietnam and lived in Saigon’s Chinatown. They became Boat People who fled their home after the North won the Vietnam war, in a search of a better life for their family. I can’t imagine that in their 20’s, they left all their possessions, secured passage on a small boat (my mom pregnant with me and my 3 young brothers in tow), not knowing the destination, or if they would arrive alive. Because Pirates. Yes, they’re real! After spending 8 months in a refugee camp (where I was born), we relocated to Canada. So not only did they survive, they thrived. We had a modest home, food on the table and most importantly, each other. My parents definitely had their struggles but as a child I struggled with my identity. I was a Cantonese speaking person from Vietnam, but I had never been there? Also, being a POC in a predominantly white neighborhood always made me feel excluded and at times ashamed of being different. As I got older, I became more accepting and curious about my family history. I wanted to go to Vietnam and see it for myself.

A few years ago, my family started looking for a way to make this trip happen. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be longer than a week with all of us needing to take time off work and I didn’t want to leave the kids with my in-laws any longer than that. Did I mention it was a kid free trip? A 20 hour flight is hard for me to handle, let alone being a functioning adult for my kids. I love them to death but I was SO excited.

Enter Groupon Getaways. They had a deal with #Gate1Travel. My family loves a good deal! We bought the 8 day Essential Vietnam Tour. We left from Chicago and flew Eva Air to Taiwan and then Saigon. There was a tour operator that would take you from place to place, but you could explore each city at your own pace. It was perfect for us. #NotAnAd

The flights were long and the time difference was tough to get used to. Unexpected rough turbulence took us by surprise. The captain announced there would be turbulence and a second later, we dropped so quickly my stomach flew up to my throat and our meals bounced into the air. My poor dad had gravy on his head. Wine spilt on the floor. People were crying, screaming and praying. It was literally the longest 20 seconds of my life. After it stopped, all was calm for a bit while people cleaned up. Then, the second wave of turbulence hit suddenly, not as bad as the first time. Some dude burst out of the washroom with foam around his mouth, toothbrush in hand and ran to get his seat belt back on. I’ve never experienced turbulence where it felt like a roller coaster drop. Don’t forget to buckle your seatbelt!

In no time, we were sipping coffee, wandering around the Ben Thanh Market and making plans to have dinner with our local relatives. The hotel was spacious and had a cozy rooftop bar and infinity pool. We loved getting out of the heat to cool down and the view of the city was beautiful. We were able to go see my parents’ old neighborhoods. They even bumped into the SAME neighbors they had growing up, who still lived in their original houses. Lost friends from 40 years ago. I may have teared up a little bit watching my mother reconnect with a childhood friend.

Vietnam has more motorbikes than cars on the road. The city has 9 million people and space is limited. Traffic flows like water pouring through the streets. Everyone honks but not because they’re mad, it’s more of a, “Hey, I’m here.” kind of honk. Imagine making a left hand turn, with no traffic lights and just slowly going for it when there are dozens of bikes coming at you. This is why we didn’t rent bikes in a city like this. We would’ve died. My husband said, as a pedestrian, it’s safer to just close your eyes and cross the street (please don’t really try this). Don’t hesitate because that’s when you’d get hit. It’s a very cool cultural difference and a little frightening. I had a lot of fun seeing how it was so bloody hot, yet people were fully covered (in layers) with their masks on, with multiple riders and even pets on a bike. Any people who want to complain about wearing masks because it’s hot? Please!

My cousin arranged one of our favorite excursions: the Back of the Bike Tour. I was a passenger on a scooter and a local university student drove around the different districts answering all my questions about life in Vietnam. We made multiple stops to sample the famous street food. It was phenomenal. We were like a giant biker gang with the red and yellow helmets. They even had a photographer take pics of the group and sent them to us afterward. We were so full and tired after our trip. If you ever go, this is a must. We could have spent our entire trip here but alas, we had to jump on a short plane ride to Halong Bay.

Halong Bay is a very touristy attraction and rightly so. The picturesque limestone pillars sticking out of the emerald water was a pretty site. We took a day cruise which let us explore some large caves and at night time we splurged on some Thai massages at the spa. Ironically the boat we were on was an identical match to the type my parents fled in. My father retold the story of their 11 day journey to a refugee camp in Malaysia and what life was like for the duration they stayed there. That’s a whole other story though! Next up was a bus ride to Hanoi.

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. We only had a couple days here and it was an eye opener for my parents, who had never been to the North (the land of the enemy). The dialect and the food was a different from the South. There was a lot of French influence in the architecture and food. Who doesn’t love a Banh Mi (A crispy baguette with cilantro, pickled daikon/carrot, cucumber, pate, mayo, hot peppers and some kinda savory protein). We visited the old quarter and walked about the museums. We really enjoyed the night market there where my husband tried to haggle between stalls for a cheap karaoke microphone. People watching was fun and we enjoyed the famous Egg coffee – Ca Phe Trung.

Spending time with my family was wonderful and learning more about where they came from by experiencing it was a giant check on my bucket list. I loved it so much I decided to go back in 2019PC (Pre-Covid) to visit Nha Trang beaches and Saigon for more family time. I’ll write about that another day because we did some pretty amazing excursions that I want to share.

Stay healthy and safe!

xoxo M

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