2016-06-30
My parents recently retired, and, as they feared might happen, their "idle hands made nostalgic minds." I urged a remedy, one that I'd taken: Go back to Vietnam and visit the old country.

My mother said, Why stir the ashes, it only brings dust down on our heads. I suggested that it might also banish the bad memories and bring back a few good ones. In Communist Vietnam, my mother had lost her life's savings, my father was tortured in a labor camp. Our family barely escaped to America with our lives.

Taking a different tack, my father said, We have a history in Vietnam, but you were only a boy then. Why did you go back? Wouldn't you rather have seen Europe? If you'd wanted to experience a communist country, you could have gone to Cuba and fished for marlin like Hemingway. If you'd wanted rice paddies and beautiful beaches, you could have gone to Thailand. Why, in the world, did you go back to Vietnam--to that hell-hole-- on a bicycle?

A few years ago, I set out my front door on a solo bicycle journey, a roll of twenties in my pocket and nothing else, no maps, no itinerary, not a single clue about where I was heading. Just a vague sense of looking for home, discovering new places, searching for memories. For a strange, miraculous year, I bicycled some four and a half thousand miles through Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington, Japan and, finally, Vietnam.

Besides the adventure, I had three reasons for making the trip. My brother Minh had recently passed away, and I wanted to revisit Phan Thiet, where we had spent some of the happiest days of our lives as children. As an immigrant, I also didn't feel America was truly my country unless I took a chance and explore it on my own terms. Lastly, I wanted to see my old country, neither as a returning exile nor a curious tourist, but as a traveler gazing upon a new place.

I didn't know if my father believed me when I told him I wasn't the only one to have made a pilgrimage for the sake of my roots. In fact, according to some studies, there has been a surge of interest in "heritage travel" where people journey--sometimes half way around the globe--to behold the place of their birth or the homeland of their ancestors. Some cite the homogenization of resorts, the commonality of "surf-n-turf" destinations, and the herd mentality of package tours, as their reasons for seeking a meaningful vacation, something they'd remember years hence.

As my best friend, Richard Vu, put it: "In the scope of my work life, if I'm a lucky, prolific traveler, I might have ten, maybe fifteen, major vacations. How many Club Meds and ski-resorts can I pack in before they all begin look the same in my mind? At least once, I'd like to make a trip to see my heritage."

During the tour for the memoir I wrote about my trip, people approached me to share their "homecoming stories." Some said they were dismayed by what they saw, others brought back conflicting emotions. A few regretted their trips, saying they preferred their tender memories over current realities.

One young Vietnamese-American man, frowning, said to me, "I have been back to Saigon twice, but I still feel strange about Vietnam. I don't like the heat, the smells, the poverty. I still feel like an outsider." An elderly Irish-American woman commented that she did indeed feel like an outsider when she went back to her old neighborhood in Dublin. "A few decades would make a stranger of anyone," she said, twinkling and smiling. "But I sure was happy to see the place where I grew up one more time before I die."

One of my taxi drivers, who ended up staying for one of my readings said he was stunned the whole time he visited his razed village in Ethiopia, but wept inconsolably when he came back to the States. Then, his house in Los Angeles seemed to him almost as strange as his long-gone hut in Africa.

It's true: You can never come home again. You never find the same place you've left. Things change, people change. No place is ever the way you left it, not when it is viewed in term of years, not when the traveler himself has grown.

I think most of those I talked to would agree that worthwhile travels are often journeys of discovery, and among discoveries, those directly pertaining to the traveler tend to be the most treasured, the most meaningful and lasting.

My father lamented that memories, routines and accomplishments are shelved like trophies in the golden years. All you can do is look at them. But eventually, you get bored of looking. He worried about my mother, who has little to do now that all her children have grown and moved away. Neither of them has a hobby so, suddenly, the luxury of retirement seemed like so many empty rooms full of shadows, past birthday parties, old disputes, things said, things forgotten.

I knew it was a lot of work, an emotional investment with uncertain returns. I had done it by writing my book. For me, telling the story proved cathartic. I was able to put many things behind me and go on with life.

My father hasn't had the time to make sense of his life, all the transitions. Leafing through a photography book of Vietnam one day, he asked me if they were still renting rowboats at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, his hometown. I said, "No, it's a tourist boardwalk now, but it is still beautiful, especially at night when they light up the pagoda in the middle of the lake. You should go and see for yourself."

He shook his head. "No. I'm afraid I'll leave myself open for disappointment."

"Yes, there is that. But do not come looking for old memories. Go there hoping for discoveries, or at most, closure."

My mother wanted to know if the fisherfolk of Phan Thiet, her birth-village, still cast their nets from the beach at dawn. No, I said, the shores have been over-fished for years. They have to motor farther out now. But your old neighbors still bake that special Phan Thiet delicacy you love so much. Those rice dumplings with scallion and fish broth. She smiled, thinking back.

My father, in all his seriousness, asked me, "So, what did you learn from your trip?"

I learned that I was both attracted and repulsed by my roots. And in the light of these conflicting feelings, I had never loved or hated myself more. Sometimes I could make sense of it, most times I couldn't. For me, the place I came to revisit changed the place where I belong. Somehow it made me feel less dislocated in my adopted country. Since then I've traveled to many lands to see numerous wonders, but nothing has ever stirred me as much as standing on the soil of my birth.

I'm not sure what finally changed their minds. Last week I found them packing their bags, stomachs aflutter, plane tickets and visas all prepared. They were taking the trip they had sworn never to contemplate. They could hardly sleep with the excitement, the fears.

I reassured them, "In the end, it may make you laugh, it may make you cry, it may bring back nightmares, it may rekindle old emotions. You may feel a thousand things, but the one thing you won't feel is ambivalence."


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