The last time I saw Saigon, I was thirteen. It was an emotional departure at Tân Sơn Nhất airport, filled with longing for a childhood and world that I knew was leaving forever. It has been exactly twenty years since, and my return to this home city, admittedly composed of more than just excitement. I was mostly nerves. The things I left behind were more than a city, it was a state of mind, a piece of soul, a bony pre-teen girl filled with dreams about a first world, dreams that were built from a place of pain but also hope.
A friend of mine gave me a really good piece of advice, “have fun and don’t be overtaken by your own past”. He, too, has had to get re-acquainted with this old lover, one who crafted a past relationship that dictated so much of our future. Two decades passed, and Saigon, at the moment, like the current locals say, is same same but different.
There are many aspects of Saigon that can make you uncomfortable, coming from the west. The traffic, the noise, the pollution, all enough to turn any city-savvy traveler shy from wandering into pockets of this place. And if you’d like, you can have a pleasant vacation just staying in your 5-star hotels and hiding in air-conditioned taxis from tourist spots to tourist spots. Saigon can be seen from that very exotified lens, with gorgeous girls floating along in their áo dài and our famously delicious and beautiful food.
When I grew up here, my parents had a small stand selling fabric in the bustling Bến Thành market, so it was among the first stops on our trip. My husband wanted to understand the various sceneries from which my childhood was composed, to further understand me, and this kind of setting, is at the very core of many Vietnamese. Here is where I first interacted with the outside world beyond my family, where I learned the costs of food and life, where I learned how to sum up strangers and price our products accordingly, where I learned the different shades between black and white.
I no longer have a lot of family in Vietnam, just a few cousins on my father’s side. Meeting the children of my cousins were a main fortune of this trip. Watching the youth of this country, playing with them and talking to them, was an experience that ultimately informed me so much about the Vietnamese bloodstream, what keeps us alive and what drives us. There is a constant presence in the way that these kids perceive the world, they learn at a much earlier age and at a much faster pace, where they fit into the world and how they move inside it. That formative experience of childhood, easier but perhaps more dazed in a first world, is likely coupled with an awareness of survival here.
The other scenes of Saigon often change quickly from pretty to ugly, clean to dirty, very rich to very poor. This juxtaposition is at the same time compelling and exhausting to me. I can’t stop looking, listening, tasting, and smelling. My home city is very much a developing place. It will look very different two years from now, and even more so five years from now. This is an undeniable difference of Saigon from cities in the US and Europe, which more or less have grown and will not change very much. Saigon constantly and resiliently shrugs off the pains of its complicated past to transform. My home city, is just being born, again.