Giddy, joyful and wondrous of the adventures that await are the feelings I usually have when planning a trip. And while all of these sentiments are absolutely true of my upcoming August trip that brings me back to Southeast Asia, this time a few more feelings are surfacing.
Note: I usually don’t look quite this fashionable while trip planning. BUT let’s agree that an image of me with no make-up, on the couch and in PJs is markedly less romantic or interesting.
Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City last August – A city where I learned news that changed my life and forced me to leave it barely 24 hours after arriving.
Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam war. The new name commemorates the man quintessential to Vietnam’s independence.
“Although this is its official name, and although Ho Chi Minh is still venerated, to many, if not most, the city will always remain Saigon. It is Saigon that is the name given to the city in so many romantic works of fiction. It is Saigon used in the old movies and musicals. Somehow Saigon seems to wrap itself in a shroud of beauty and mystery, while Ho Chi Minh City seems utilitarian, and sparse. In the same way that for some Sri Lanka will always remain Ceylon, and Myanmar will ever be Burma, so too is Ho Chi Minh City destined to always be known as Saigon.” – WiseGeek.com
A Saigon street vendor who charmed me with her hand cut cards and smile.
Last August 17th I arrived to Vietnam after successful sojourns through Thailand and Cambodia. Vietnam was the third leg of my Southeast Asia tour and I was excited to see how this country, a country in which my Dad had fought a war, would touch me. And it profoundly did, but in a way I could never have anticipated.
I want to remember those indelible 24 hours here:
Arriving late to the city and a bit travel worn, I woke that first morning not feeling my energetic self. At my hotel’s breakfast buffet that catered to all cultures, the combined smell of fish along side scrambled eggs further exasperated my listlessness. The espresso maker was broken and to top it off no good fruit was left for my consumption. Frustration started to percolate, but the delightful spirit and hospitality of my Vietnamese hosts kept all tempers at bay. “Tomorrow we will have everything waiting for you, Ms. Jedda,” said my adorable server who was only thrilled to have this American guest. Her sincerity and warmth literally lifted my spirit. We all parted ways with big smiles. I went back to my room excited to see them the next morning.
All hail socialism :)..and Ho Chi Minh.
Some of the propaganda signage while walking the streets of Saigon.
Due to my sub-par energy level that morning, I gave myself permission to just peruse the markets, walk slow and stop at cafes. No need to pressure myself to discover the entire city/museums/monuments that afternoon. After all, there was always tomorrow, right?
I did have get out of relaxation mode to cross streets like these! And this picture represents only a mild accosting of motorbikes. They didn’t stop for anything!
According to a friend of mine who has a sister that currently lives there, the unwritten traffic law followed in Vietnam is “follow your heart,” and the best thing to do when crossing the street is go at a steady pace. Not once did I cross at a steady pace, rather a run…but I steadily saw my life pass before eyes with each crossing.
My only market stop in Vietnam.
The heat, crowds and my attitude kept me from shopping for too long, but I did muster up the bargaining power to buy some earrings and bangles all made from the horns of water buffalo. Pretty cool actually…and super unique.
The sight of the fateful text.
The fact that my next stop after the market was an American-born coffee chain is a bit out of character for this seasoned traveler. But something that morning wanted me to go in there. The idea of functioning air conditioning, strong wifi and an ice-cold beverage all had the air of comfort and familiarity, and my uncharacteristically downtrodden spirit was looking for that.
After I had completed the oh-so-important social media updates and slurped down the last of my San Pellegrino, my phone buzzed. I looked down at a text from my mom that read “Please call me now!!!” *Gulp* My heart and stomach sank.This can’t be good…especially if three exclamation points were involved.
I immediately called and desperately asked, “What is going on, Mom?!”
“Dad is dead,” was her response, “an accident.”
These words are hard to comprehend regardless of the situation, so couple that with being in a distant land and thoughts that you left two healthy parents behind and you get complete shock. My reaction was a bit like footage one would see on the BBC that captures the moment a mother witnesses the body of her lifeless child being pulled from war torn ruble. I shrieked and literally fell into a puddle of overwhelming emotion on the floor. Oh, those poor people in the coffee shop…but what beautiful people they all were. The comfort and concern I will never forget. One woman, whose name I never got nor whom I will ever see again, just sat there hugging and rocking me on the floor. “I will come home. I will come home,” was all I could say to my mom.
After the initial trauma dissipated, I felt composed enough to collect myself off the floor and head to the bathroom to wipe my mascara stained face. The staff offered to call me a taxi to get me back to my hotel, but for some reason I was QUITE insistent that I use my Uber app to call an Uber. I look back on this now befuddled that I took such a stand on that. Perhaps it was more of that familiarity I was looking for that morning…perhaps I didn’t want to have to use any of my Vietnamese Dong or worry about if the taxi was going to rip me off. Who knows, but I do know my Uber got me home.
Back at the hotel the next sequence of events is a bit of a haze. I know there was more crying (at one point for a few hours in the shower) but then a lot of phone calls. The most important being to my travel insurance company to sort my passage home.
I always get travel insurance for my long overseas trips (Travel Guard). And if I am to be honest, the paramount reason I do is so is to ensure no one else has to pay the exorbitant cost to have my body repatriated should something tragic happen to me (that could be weird, but it is what I worry about). It never occurred to me that I may have to use it for any other tragedy. But as it turns out travel insurance is helpful in many other situations…this included! I was grateful for the sincere condolences all the agents on the other end of the phone gave me and more so for their thorough, patient help during a time when thinking was fuzzy and making complete sentences without crying was nearly impossible.
It was decided that instead of trying to utilize my existing ticket, one that would require me to get me to Bangkok that evening for a 6am Delta flight then next morning, we would book me on another airline the next morning out of Saigon. Definitely the right choice.
With plans set, I decided Dad would not want me to sit in the room the rest of the evening while an entire city still needed exploring, so I put on a cute dress, open-toed walking shoes (important detail for later) and my bravest face. The first stop was to an artisan market to pick-up more of the interesting Water Buffalo horn jewelry to showcase in my shop (I figured Dad would also want me to curate cool stuff since I was there) as well as a gift of hand painted bowls for my mom (something to “mark the moment” if you will).
Walking the streets, I specifically remember noticing all the other tourists around me. They all seemed so care free, so wondrous, so happy to be there. I was envious of them. They probably looked exactly how I looked and felt only a few hours before such a burden fell on my heart. It also struck me in that moment that although my world was in complete upheaval, the rest of the world continued to move forward without even skipping a beat. Life.
As I wrote on August 18, 2016 – “A final view of Saigon and a necessary premature wrap-up of this Southeast Asia trip. Tragedy has struck my small family as my dad unexpectedly died yesterday…I didn’t know so much hurt could fill me. So I am coming home now….this trip permanently imprinted on my heart with joy and so much sorrow.”
Saigon is known for its rooftop bars with spectacular city views, and a chic one called Chill Sky Bar was my choice that final evening.
As I walked up to the reception at the base of the elevators, two incredibly fashionable Vietnamese women greeted me. I then noticed a sign in English on the desk outlining their strictly enforced dress code.
“Uh oh, maybe they won’t notice my shoes,” was my first thought. But before I even had time to complete the wish in my head, one said, “I am sorry but you can’t go up there with those shoes on.”
“Keep it together, Jen,” was my next thought, and then doing my best to hold back another onslaught of tears, I took a breath and explained to them my day. I noted I wasn’t sure when I would be back, and that I would just appreciate going up for a moment to see the view.
Without even looking at one other, one went into the room behind her to grab me a pair of close toed shoes while the other pushed the sign-in list in front of me and signaled me to the elevator. Their gesture was so small, but their compassion, understanding and humanity in that moment was remarkably grand. Without thought or discussion, they just did what they knew to be right.
As a note, the shoes they gave me were hideous. I have never worn a more ugly pair of shoes ever…but at least I met the dress code.
Who knows if memorializing your grief stricken self in a pre-24 hour trans-Pacific flight selfie is normal…but this is me in all my swollen-eye grandeur.
The next morning on the way down from my room to the lobby, the elevator inadvertently stopped at the breakfast room. When the doors opened my two lovely servers from the previous morning looked over. Their smiles grew even larger in anticipation of my exit to take a seat. It was obvious they were excited to see me and to exceed all my expectations this morning. But alas, I had to let the doors close on me with no explanation and only a half-hearted smile. I remember their looks of confusion. I also remember everything inside hurting a little more.
Even in the midst of my grief I had to take a picture of this sign detailing items that were prohibited to export. Weapons and relics that belong to the Vietnamese government I could understand….but banned books? Turns out Vietnam was ranked 175 out of 180 countries in the 2016 by Reporters without Borders when it comes to press freedom. Its one-party socialist state retains a tight grip on all media. I was sure to dump my copy of “Memories of a Pure Spring” by Duong Thu Huong before passing through customs.
On the flights home I chose to watch only ultra-sad movies so no one would question my constant stream of tears. Between movies like “The Notebook” and layovers, I wrote my Dad’s eulogy.
Back in Montana with Dad and some of his favorite things.
So there it is, the last time I was in Vietnam. And while my choice is purposeful to go back, I can’t say there isn’t trepidation being felt for the emotions that may resurface when I touch down again in Saigon on August 2.
I can say, however, that I will go back to the coffee shop where I received that text from my mom. I want to sit at that same table and for a moment remember me, life and my Dad when we as a family were whole. Much changes after such a significant death, and if only for a moment I can escape to a time where all was much more familiar and pure, I want to try.
(Laos and Indonesia will also be stops on this reprisal trip, but we will get to those later.)