I have returned from Viet Nam and I am … ambivalent.
Only a tiny portion of the trip was about visiting my family home in the South Mekong Delta. The tourist part will be discussed elsewhere – I am still doing my best to keep my genres clean.
The landscape around Hang Day 9 was undeniably beautiful, and poignantly bare in places. Where our house once stood, a thriving garden of watermelons, chilli trees and random herbs now live in neat rows. My uncle’s house is a new structure of concrete and tiles, bright and gaudy in the way rich Vietnamese like, and is directly behind where my father’s house was. It is luxurious for the region. I preferred the dark palm leaf huts with their patted down clay floor. All my father’s family have given up rice farming, and some have given up the fishing life, hiring out the fishing nets to people who are poorer and have to work harder to survive.
Nevertheless, the area is still very dependent on the river. Travel was entirely by boat – our initial trip out from Ho Phong to Hang Day 9 was on a small, low ‘long tail speedboat’. It was about one metre across, 7 metres long and half a metre deep. One could stand in it reasonably comfortably, but 3 sisters, Um & Ba plus all our luggage filled it up quite quickly. The rest of our travel on the river was on a suong – also a long tail speedboat but this time only about 70cms across, 4 metres long and about 30cms deep. One could not stand and it was best if one sat serenely in the middle, with as little shifting as possible. The locals squat, but our cousins knew we would not be accustomed to doing so and had placed reed mats on the floor of the boat for us to sit on.
I felt lost and timeless out there. We left when the tide was high, ate when we were fed and went to bed not long after dark. I never knew where or when I was going next and I never grasped the geography of the twists and turns of large river and little and littler tributaries.
I wished to be left to myself more, to wander around the prawn filled dams, my grandmother’s tomb and the gardens surrounding the area but each time I walked off, someone would follow me for fear that I would get lost or fall into the river. My westernisation comes out most strongly in my desire for peace and quiet and my inability to spend lengthy amounts of time with people. This all manifested in a migraine which I could not shake the whole three days I was there, because I could never lie down in a cool, dark and quiet spot.
The twists of filial relationships confused me and I called most of my male cousins: older brother (hia or anh – also the polite term for any male). Many of them are older than me and almost all have young families. Most traced their relationship to me, meaning that they were to call me older sister (che) and I to call them younger sibling (em). I could not do it. I was so useless and dependent out there, I had no claim to demand a term of greater respect.
My female cousins I did not see very often. They were almost always busy in the kitchen or garden. They woke before me and started breakfast. After setting up and clearing away breakfast they disappeared into the garden to collect the vegetables and begin preparing lunch. And after lunch, the routine was repeated for dinner. I wandered into the kitchen a few times to talk to them but was ushered out again after it was discovered I did not want anything. I offered my washing up services but was politely declined. My mother suggested that I would be unable to do the dishes because I was unfamiliar with how it was done. When we wished to bathe, my cousins boiled water for us and came to get us when the water was ready. I felt coddled and suffocated. The only cousin I spoke to for a lengthy period of time was excused from serving duties because she had a child still at the breast. She conversed with us in between dealing with her young son.
My position would have been no different if we remained in Viet Nam. I was only served because I was a guest; in another life, I would be serving. All my female cousins called me ‘che’ but I tried to use their names. Even they called each other by filial denominations and I was confused again.
I found Viet Nam beautiful and moving, and I could imagine living there – as a foreigner in the city. I could not live as my cousins do. I have changed too much to be able to accept their life. I am too outspoken, too feminist, too intellectual and too different.