This is our third and final day in Hanoi and I’ve been trying to figure out these feelings of déjà vu. I’ve been here before many times, many years ago. Back then I never ventured very far from the Hoan Kiem and Old Quarter, so in many ways I am seeing the city anew. Not to mention of course, that Hanoi has changed so much since my first visit in 1996. The streets are cleaner, the buildings taller, the store fronts more chic, and traffic lights actually mean something! Imagine all that!
And yet the people are unfailingly the same–generous, curious, and friendly. Our strange group of foreigners–curly-haired children, bearded men–have gotten much attention and most of it positive. We’ve been well-taken care of by hotel staff and tour guides, many of whom have gone above and beyond the call of duty to locate lost phones, re-arrange rooms, and even make medical appointments on our behalf. It is the people who I will always remember.
Speaking of people, I have come to realize that for me, Hanoi will be forever linked to J and j. I haven’t mentioned J and j before, but their history with this city and me runs deep, deeper than I had thought until this trip. Wandering around Hanoi I have been preoccupied with leading our (mostly) merry band of travelers through tangles of traffic, orchestrating our path through rivers of motorbikes, and ordering family style meals to satisfy a variety of tastes. But when we went to the Metropole, the significance of time and place became obvious. Hanoi is about J and j, the two people in my life who first brought me back to my homeland and held my hand as I struggled with the emotions of that first visit. For on that visit, I not only returned to the country of my birth, but also met my father for the first time (in my memory) and faced the government that my family vilifies. I was both the Vietnamese daughter as well as the American college student, all while occupying that strange place between Vietnam and the US, wondering how to deal with all the contradictions swirling in my mind.
Through this whirlwind, J and j were a steadying force, reminding me that one moves forward, however slowly. Forward. One step at a time. They were there when the plane landed and the tropical warmth hit our faces, announcing the presence of a country pushing advancement at a mighty pace. And they were there when I met my father, making sure that I was not alone and being the family that I needed at that moment. The irony of it all is that I came to Hanoi to meet my father, but in the process, created new bonds with people who would become just as close as family.
This time, Hanoi seems a bit clearer to me. I see a vibrant, beautiful city that doesn’t look back. This clarity is most likely due in good part to my own inner peace. I’m okay now in that space between Vietnam and the US. I don’t mind being mistaken for a Japanese tourist only to surprise everyone when I open my mouth. And I love watching my children take in all of the bustle and chaos.
So, I owe J and j a special heartfelt thank you, for starting me on the journey to find peace with my heritage.