People often ask if I've returned to Vietnam since my family fled Saigon on April 21, 1975. For the record, I've returned 3 times in the past 5 years. Coincidentally, 34 years ago on this date, my family was suddenly living on the island of Guam. We stayed there for a week, then were flown to Hawaii for a pit stop, and finally to California’s Camp Pendleton Marine Base where we were among the first Vietnamese refugees to be resettled in the United States. The photo above is of our family, aunt, uncle, cousins and a photojournalist at Camp Pendleton.
It was an alien experience for my parents and all five of us kids. Like many immigrants throughout history, we gravitated toward food as a means to preserve our identity and heritage, as well as to ballast the rough times ahead. We eventually became Vietnamese Americans and through food, found ways to be Vietnamese in America. In 2001, Saveur magazine Editor-in-Chief Colman Andrews invited me to write about my family’s Vietnamese culinary experience in California.
Last year, the new (well, he’s not that new anymore!) Editor-in-Chief James Oseland suggested that we do a story on going back to Saigon. It turned out that two of my older sisters, Yen Chi and Tasha, were planning a trip so we all decided to go together. Photojournalist Ariana Lindquist joined us to document the experience. The story, entitled “Coming Home”, is in the new May 2009 issue of Saveur. (Look for “The Real Italy” cover.)
It was an intense week as we revisited our former family home, met with a family friend, ate treats of our childhood. One of my sisters hadn’t been back since we left. The Viet Kieu (Vietnamese expatriates) experience of returning to Vietnam is not a simple one. We’re not happy-go-lucky tourists. There’s a lot of baggage that gets unpacked, and I don’t mean physical luggage.
Above is the street by my family's old home. Below, is our family home,
appropriated by the government in 1975 and now a preschool.
Our house comprises about 2/3 of the turquoise building.
When I was in New York last week, the issue had just come back from the printer. James handed me a copy and we paged through it in silence. I’m often astounded to read my own work in its final print form, with layout, design, photography coming together to communicate a compelling story. This time, I was so touched by the cinematic presentation of the images and words that I could barely look at it. I was stunned by how lovely the piece turned out. The shots of Saigon (above) are mine. Ariana's images are of National Geographic quality!
Mind you, along with the provocative presentation, there are practical aspects too, recipes of the food we sampled in real Saigon (banh xeo sizzling rice crepes, for example), a Little Saigon shopping guide for the ingredients, and a drill-down of Vietnamese herbs. It all comes full circle, from Saigon to America, back to Saigon and back to Little Saigon. Things have surely changed in 34 years, haven’t they?
Take a read when you have a chance and share your thoughts and/or personal experiences with Vietnam (whether you’re Viet Kieu or not!).