Hoai Huong journeys to northern Vietnam to search for her father’s half-brother. In the process of tracing his footsteps, she discovers the precious gift of family and lineage. Her story was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Fall 2013 Story Contest.
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When the plane landed in Hanoi on a December morning in 2002, I searched for words to describe my homecoming to the country of my birth; it had been twenty-seven years since I left Vietnam. Should I feel overwhelmed with joy, I wondered, similar to a Muslim who has finally arrived in Mecca or a Christian in Jerusalem? On this momentous occasion, I thought my body would be covered with goose bumps or that I would, at least, bend down and touch the ground. Instead, I merely stifled another yawn while waiting to pass through immigration. Without fanfare, I stepped onto my mother’s homeland when the immigration officer waved me through, and soon after, I boarded a van courtesy of the Hanoi Hilton.
Prior to this trip, I had never set foot in northern Vietnam, so my first glimpse of my father’s birthplace came from the backseat of the Hilton van. I was born in a small town outside Nha Trang, a small resort town in central Vietnam about 800 miles south of Hanoi and about 275 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). My father, an immigrant from the former North Vietnam, moved to Nha Trang with his family in 1954 when the French withdrew from Indochina and Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel. He met my mother in college, and against the wishes of their respective families, they married. Because my mother, who was from the former South Vietnam, violated a social norm when she married my father, my siblings and I suffered the indirect effects of the prejudice against my septentrional father. Even in my mother’s family, we were called Bắc kỳ, a derisive term for those who were considered North Vietnamese. At the time, Bắc kỳ was used by the South Vietnamese very much like the terms damyankee and carpetbagger were used in the United States by Southerners for Northerners who had moved to the South. I had resented suffering needlessly during my childhood because the Vietnamese people were at war with themselves.
I arrived at the Hilton around noon, and after checking into my room, I went to lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. The place seemed bigger than it was and felt eerily quiet; only two tables were occupied. I sat at one, and a large Vietnamese family filled the other. “These people are northern Vietnamese,” I mused, eavesdropping on their conversation. “Like my father. Somewhat like me.” I listened to their accent, the same accent that I heard from my father most of my life. And my smile deepened when the young girl referred to her father as Bố instead of Ba or Cha as southern Vietnamese children would call theirs.
They must have been celebrating, for the men wore suits and the women were donned in beautiful áo dài. These are rich Vietnamese, I thought. Most consumers in Vietnam earned less than $30 per month, and the family’s meal at this luxury hotel next to the Hanoi Opera House would cost more than a typical family’s average monthly salary. The father had ordered a bottle of wine; I suspected that it came from France. The family was making an occasion of their lunch, but unlike them, I inhaled my food as soon as it arrived. Within forty minutes after entering the restaurant, I left the Vietnamese family to enjoy the whole restaurant themselves and went to take care of some family business.
I approached the concierge with the same eagerness that a prisoner with a death sentence approaches prison; I arrived at her desk with a name on a piece of paper. “This was a town where I was born,” my father had said. “Maybe my half brother still lives there.” I had been told that my grandfather was a rich landowner, and like many rich men of his generation, he had two wives. My grandmother was his second, and both wives had lived in the same household with their respective children. My grandmother, a former beauty queen, had been married twice before marrying my grandfather; she had a daughter from her first husband and another from her second. After my grandfather was executed in 1954, she, along with my father and his sister, escaped to the south with my half aunts. My grandfather’s first wife and their children remained in the north. It had been almost fifty years since my father, thirteen years old at the time, had left North Vietnam, and he hadn’t communicated with his father’s family since then. But I made a promise to try to find them, a promise that I intended to keep even though I believed that I had little chance of success.
The concierge was young and pretty, with big brown eyes and long black hair. She spoke English well enough, better than I spoke Vietnamese. I gave her my piece of paper, and, pointing to it, told her that I wanted to hire a driver. She looked pensive, and after a few moments, a frown appeared on her smooth face. “You want to go there?” she asked, her finger pointing to the name on the sheet of paper. “Yes,” I nodded. “I want to hire a car with a driver and go there to search for my father’s family.” She shook her head and tried to explain, “Hưng Yên isn’t a town; it’s a big province, about nine hundred square kilometers. It’s going to be expensive. Very expensive.” I blinked once; I blinked twice. My quest had become even more difficult now that the area of coverage had expanded to a province. I wanted to laugh but couldn’t. Instead, I nodded and said, “I didn’t know it was a province, and money isn’t a big concern. I just need to find my family.”
She searched my face and then picked up the phone. I listened shamelessly to her conversation and knew the moment that she had found a driver. While my speaking skills were poor, my oral comprehension was above average. Within ten minutes, I saw a thin man of medium height walking toward us. She introduced us before addressing him in Vietnamese. “She is a Vietkieu from America, and she wants to find her family. She doesn’t know the precise town, but they live in this province.” She handed him the piece of paper. “She has a small picture of her grandfather, and maybe you can help her.” He looked at the paper and shook his head in disbelief. “It’s going to cost a lot of money,” he said. “This is far.” The concierge answered, “She is willing to pay.”
The Vietnamese family from the restaurant was in front when I exited the hotel lobby with the cabdriver. I slowed my pace to watch the father as he helped his two daughters onto the back of his motorcycle. And for a second, I saw my eight-year-old self on the back of my father’s motorcycle, with my younger sister sandwiched between us, on the morning of April 28, 1975. Little did I know at the time that my family and I would flee from Vietnam two days later when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army.
The cabdriver took the main road and headed south from Hanoi. I sat in the back of the cab while he drove. We tried to communicate at first but soon sought the comfort of silence. At the first town, the driver got out of the car and chatted with a couple of women. He showed them the small picture of my grandfather. At the next town, he did the same thing, and this became a pattern as we passed through the next couple of towns. About two hours into the journey, he turned and asked if we should continue. “Yes,” I told him. “Keep going.” And we continued, driving deeper into the countryside and stopping at every small town along the way. Another hour passed, and the driver stopped the car and got out. He looked around before motioning me to follow. “We are at the end of the road,” he said in Vietnamese. I got out of the cab, and he pointed to the dirt path a couple of feet in front of the cab. “End of the road,” he repeated, taking out a cigarette. “What now?” The road had stopped. We were literally at the end of the road. I stared at the narrow dirt road for a long moment; my shoulders dropped as the hope of granting my father’s wish disappeared. “Back to Hanoi,” I told the cabdriver. My voice, soft and shaky, betrayed my disappointment.
As the driver and I started to return to the cab, a young man on a moped approached us. “I heard that a Vietkieu is looking for her grandfather,” he said to the driver. “I’m her cousin.” The driver stared at him for a second before showing him my grandfather’s picture. The young man smiled and nodded; he then glanced at me. “He is your cousin,” the driver told me. The young man motioned us to follow him and led us across the small bridge that my father had often described in many of his stories. And for the first time, I saw the house where my father had lived, a place that must have been glorious sixty or seventy years ago but had been ruined by years of war and poverty. I walked past the wing that had been burned but hadn’t been rebuilt; a pig now occupied the space. The young man took me to the living room, where a thin, older gentleman awaited. He shook my hands and introduced himself as my father’s half brother. My uncle asked me to sit down on a bench in front of my family’s ancestral altar, an immense wooden table of detailed design, decorated in the colors gold, red, and black.
More relatives came, and I shook their hands. A couple of the older female relatives openly studied me, and after several minutes, one of them voiced her thoughts. “She resembles her grandmother.” Turning to the cabdriver, she asked him if I was married. He, in turn, asked me. “No, I’m not,” I responded. The old woman cackled and then addressed the other women sitting near her. “The granddaughter is paying for the sin of the grandmother. She had too many men, and this one has none.” She shook her head, and the other women laughed but immediately stopped when my uncle turned to stare at them.
They were curious about me, perhaps even more so than I was about them. “Where does she live?” they asked the driver. “How did she find us?” These questions should have been directed at me, but it was easier to direct them at the driver. I smiled and nodded, trying as best as I could to field their questions, translated by a cabdriver with limited English, and responded to them with my limited Vietnamese. Had I been able to communicate, I would have asked my uncle to explain the intricate golden plaque with red trim and Chinese characters hanging from the ceiling above the altar. Certainly, the two wooden pillars on each side of the altar, adorned with the same gold and red decorations and Chinese characters, piqued my curiosity. As I stared at it unabashedly, I realized that by trying to fulfill my father’s request, I had received the precious gift of family and lineage.
My half uncle asked to see the small picture of his father and explained that all pictures of my grandfather had been confiscated and burned. “Could you send me a picture of Bố when you return to America?” he asked before I left to return to Hanoi. I promised I would.
My father was surprised to hear from me. “Bố, I found your brother,” I told him over the phone from my hotel room at the Hilton. “What?” he asked. I repeated myself; silence dominated for a full minute. I then gave my father my uncle’s phone number and hung up. Months later, I learned from my mother that I had rendered him speechless that day. “He knew he had asked for the impossible; he never thought you would deliver it to him,” she explained. She told me that my father had called his brother immediately, and after fifty years, the brothers finally had a chance to chat.
When I returned to the United States, I enlarged a picture of my grandfather and sent it to my uncle. A couple of months later, he sent me a picture of the altar, with a picture of my grandfather on it. And after my parents died, he asked me to send pictures of them. Soon after, I was surprised to receive a picture in which both of my parents appeared on the family altar. My uncle had granted my mother, a mere in-law, a place and a status on my family’s ancestral altar.
 Escobar, Pepe. 2003. “Vietnam: The deep end of doi moi.” http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/EH15Ae02.html
Hoai Huong was born in Vietnam, escaped in 1975, spent time at a refugee camp in Hong Kong, and finally settled in Victoria, Texas, with her family. Later, Hoai studied at University of Texas-Austin and finished her Ph.D. studies at Cornell in 1994. Currently, she is a market research consultant in the Seattle area and is working on her first novel. For more of Hoai’s writings, read her blog.
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