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Home Again

Posted 2/10/2015

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  It feels like, and has been, a very long time since I have written in this space. Thank you all who wrote me notes of good wishes for my three week trip to Vietnam, the land of my childhood. We got home last night and were very pleasantly surprised that Japan Air Lines did not cancel the daily flight from Boston to Tokyo. Given the weather in Boston, Logan was mostly closed, and we were prepared for delays and re-routing and lots of difficulties. Instead, it was a smooth and easy flight--even the landing. Given that there was no snow on the ground when we departed Boston on 1/19, it was shocking to see what now surrounds us.

  Tomorrow I will get back to the usual flavor of this blog, but I can't resist writing a bit about the trip. A quick summary would be that it was even more wonderful and interesting than I might have hoped or imagined. There were only a few things that I recognized: the feel of the warm, humid air, the sounds of Vietnamese conversation, the cathedral in Saigon, a few other city landmarks. My house at 176 re Pasteur is gone, replaced by a primary school. The next door house is still there, part of the school, and it looks about the same. We were so fortunate to find it while there was a man there working on the grounds; he had been there for thirty years, so had a lot of history to share. It sounds as though, after we left, the house was used by the mother of a high ranking government official for decades, then became the school about ten years ago. A Buddhist statue was still in a corner of the garden, as it was during my residence, and seeing her brought tears and floods of memories. She now sits in the center of a beautifully tended carp pond; she used to be surrounded only by greenery.

  We landed first in Hanoi, a city that had not been open to us during our time in Vietnam. The first morning we had a local tour than included a visit to the mansoleum of Ho Chi Minh; as you may know, he is embalmed and lies there looking very well indeed for someone in his circumstances. The rumor is that his body is re-embalmed every few years in Russia; someone is clearly taking good care of him. There is an enormous park around his grand building, and the feeling is one of respect and honor and celebration.

  The following day included a market tour with Daniel Hoyer, a chef and cookbook writer, who now lives in Hanoi. It was totally fascinating and delicious (as an aside, we were very impressed and surprised by how clean the markets were all over the country. In most of Asia, the markets are a lot of trash and garbage, sniffing dogs, lots of flies. None of those were around.), and set us up nicely for the later markets tours and all the eating we would be doing. If you are curious: http://www.welleatenpath.com/

  After a few days in the city, which is quite beautiful and not crazy busy like Saigon, we drove to Ho Lan Bay for a couple of days and nights on a boat. It is incredibly other worldly beautiful, and we had time to kayak through caves and gape at the landscape: https://www.google.com/search?q=ho+lan+bay+vietnam&rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS602US602&espv=2&biw=946

  I don't want to bore and lead you through the whole thing day by day, but we slowly moved from north to south, spending time in cities and in rural areas and finally at a spectacular beach resort. It was fascinating and delicious; we ate mountains of food and somehow lost weight. Must be all the vegetables and no fat and literally handfuls of intense herbs on everything. Everyone we met was warm and friendly, and any negative feelings about the war seem deeply buried. Vietnam has a very young population, so most people weren't even born during those years of struggle. It is clear that the most important central value is filial piety and ancestor worship; every home has an altar with pictures of the ancestors, and daily offerings are given. There is a palpable sense of one's deceased family members being quite present and available and watching over you.

  In Saigon, we went to the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine http://www.fitomuseum.com.vn/ which was totally fascinating. There were thousands of herbs and herbal recipes and beautiful old crocks and scales and grinding equipment to make teas. There didn't seem to be many suggestions that any of these treatments could cure cancer, but there was a lot of emphasis on common, minor ailments (sore throat, difficulty sleeping, stomach upset, etc.), and I surely am convinced there is value in those ways. We brought home little jars of Royal Jelly that are supposed to help with sleep (eat a tiny bit) and skin (smooth it on).

  It will take a while for all my feelings and memories to settle, but I am currently filled to the brim with nostalgia and happiness about the experience. I thought a lot, of course, about my parents and my girlhood and wished that I could talk to my 12 year old self, the self who was so distressed about moving away, and reassure her that life truly would turn out all right. It feels that an important circle has been closed, an obligation fulfilled, and my own filial piety enhanced. I am so lucky and so grateful.

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