Wednesday, February 22, 2012


More than a writing exercise for class...

I stood under the shadow of Ho Chi Minh's statue. My eyes traced the curves of his wide arms around a small child. The two bronze figures formed a perfect image of peace and concern. As motorcycles screeched in the background, I looked intently at the town square monument. I realized that no matter how the rest of the world deemed him, as long as Communism stayed in power in Vietnam, that country would celebrate Ho Chi Minh as a benevolent hero.

"Could you ask the guard to take a picture for us?" I heard my mom ask. The whole family turned to Dad for an answer. Even at the very heart of District 1, the city's most developed neighborhood, the people knew no English. Only my dad could successfully communicate with them.

In broken Vietnamese, Dad asked the guard for the favor. With the picture done and the thanks given, our band of five continued our walk in dusty downtown Saigon. Dad winced whenever we called the city Ho Chi Minh City. For him, Saigon was Saigon, his beloved hometown. Ho Chi Minh City was a foreign place filled with Communist soldiers who robbed his family and caused him to flee his own country when he was fifteen years old. And to this day, he would not consider Ho Chi Minh City to be a legitimate place. Saigon was Saigon, and that's what we all called the place.

We crossed several streets on foot, every step felt like wading in a river of motorcycles. I constantly held a handkerchief to my mouth to keep away the dust particles. A few moments later, about five blocks away from the town square, Dad stopped in front of a red, three-story concrete building. Mom stood close by him; my brothers and I stared blankly at the two of them.

"This used to be our house," Dad said, emotion in his voice as he looked upwards. "Your grandfather built it. Then the Communists took everything."

My brothers and I strained our necks to scan the whole building. I began to wonder who the residents upstairs and the owner of the new hair salon on the ground floor were. I wondered if they knew the sad history behind the building they now occupied. I wondered if they shared any part at all in the shattered dreams of my grandfather's young family.

Even though I had never seen the events as they had happened almost four decades ago, the family stories were familiar to me. This red building had been the setting for my grandfather's torture, my grandmother's inquisition, and their whole family's extended house arrest by Communist soldiers. What had been my grandfather's crime to deserve such harsh treatment? He was a capitalist, the soldiers had claimed.

"Could we take a look inside?" Dad's question interrupted my thoughts.

The lady at the salon entrance said yes. Dad stepped into the building first. Mom and I followed while my two brothers trailed behind.

Inside the roughly-decorated salon, I could still feel the dust of the road sticking to my face in the humid, tropical air. The open doors ushered in all the noises from the road. I fidgeted in the heat, perspiration pressing my skin against my clothes. I surveyed the few items on the table. My backpack had more items to carry for a vacation than the salon worker had to use for a profession.

We left the building about five minutes later. "I'm thirsty!" my youngest brother complained. Hearing this, Dad promptly maneuvered the narrow sidewalks to a sugarcane juice booth.

"Three glasses," Dad ordered. The lady at the booth nodded and pulled out several stalks of fresh sugarcane. She pushed each stalk through the juicer. The fresh juice dripped into glasses pre-prepared with lime and ice.

My brothers and I fought over the juice once the glasses reached our hands. The sweet, cold beverage refreshed our dry mouths and re-energized our limbs. After a long, satisfying sip, I asked Dad how much the drinks had cost.

"Five thousand dong each," he replied.

The thought of the number overwhelmed me until I converted the currency in my mind. Five thousand dong equated to twelve Philippine pesos, which would convert to twenty U.S. cents. Then I realized that anyone could be a so-called millionaire, but buy very little, in Communist Vietnam.

Our family visited several other sites in downtown Saigon that afternoon. We sat on the empty pews of the state-controlled church. We watched the souvenir merchant wheedle tourists into buying hand-held fans for double what they were truly worth. We walked the aisles of the sprawling, open-air, central marketplace, where vendors called out cheap prices in numerous languages, hoping to find at least one language we could understand. We entered shops selling traditional and modern clothing side by side. We acquired tourist city maps that did no good, and we forced ourselves to avoid buying the suspiciously cheap electronics. Then when dinnertime approached, we piled into a taxi and headed back to our hotel.

As we drove away from the prosperous District 1 toward the outskirts in District 5, my mind played through the events of the day. Suddenly, I recalled the benevolent smile on Ho Chi Minh's face as he wrapped his arms around the child. My eyes looked out at the desolate roadside. I do not wish for that kind of benevolence, I said to myself, no matter what brand of benevolence it might claim to be.