Family, Meet My Old Love: Saigon

An alleyway in Saigon. Mayhem, a hidden-away vintage clothing store, is just around the corner.

Almost as soon as we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I set out to make my family miserable. This was not difficult. It was late August, nearing 90 degrees and humid. All I had to do was propose we walk through the streets of the former Saigon to a restaurant for lunch.

At first, my wife, Jean, and our daughters Sasha, 7½, and Sandy, almost 4, were game. The road outside our Airbnb — an air-conditioned two-bedroom, with tile floors and brick walls, carved into a crusty ocher Art Deco building in central District 1 — was oddly calm. Shade trees spindled past skeins of electrical wire, while the low plastic chairs of an open-air cafe sat neatly in the shade of a long, blank wall. When we came to a busy avenue, we all held hands and stepped bravely into traffic, trusting that motorbikes would swerve around us with unthinking grace. (And they did!)

Soon, though, the sun bore down, and we sweated our way along a market street. The rough pavement was at once dusty and damp, the din of shoppers and small trucks inescapable, the ripe scents of fruits and vegetables, fish and pork, as unrestrained as their vivid hues. All about was action, noise, aroma, drama — the kind of whirling vortex of energy I feed on.

Not so the ladies. There was whining, dawdling, worry. One child had to be carried. (I bore that burden.) It is entirely possible that someone asked, “Are we there yet?” Finally, after 15 endless minutes, we reached a fluorescent-lit restaurant, Chi Tuyen, where we sat on blue plastic stools at a lightweight metal table and ordered bun thit nuong, nubs of pork grilled to caramelized sweetness, on a tangle of cool rice noodles, shredded lettuce and herbs like mint and perilla. The kids ate and calmed down, and Sandy played adorably with one of the kittens roaming the restaurant. Outside, rain began to fall, harder and harder, and then even harder. We were trapped, but there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be.

Twenty years earlier, almost to the day, I had moved here to live. Vietnam and the United States had only recently re-established diplomatic relations, and I was a fresh college grad embarking on an adult life of adventure in an unknown land. Over the course of a year, I fell in love with the city everyone still called Saigon — with the seething chaos of its streets, the head-spinning variety of its flavors, the boundless outgoing enthusiasm of its people. In a lifetime of constant travel, Vietnam was my first, truest, deepest love.

And yet, though I’d been back to visit a dozen times or more since 1997, I’d never brought my wife and kids, primarily because Jean’s family lived in Taiwan, so that island always took precedence on trips to Asia. In the summer of 2016, however, we found ourselves in Taipei for an extended period — long enough, I decided, to make a weeklong trip to Vietnam. First we would hit Ho Chi Minh City, then spend two days at a beach resort near Nha Trang — nothing overly ambitious, just enough for my family to begin to understand the place that made me who I am. Still, I worried: Would the people I love most love the land I love most?

How could they not? All around were visceral pleasures. At the entrance to our building sprawled a sidewalk restaurant, and every morning they’d send up breakfast on a tray: bowls of bun bo hue, a spicy beef-and-pork noodle soup, or banh mi op la, fried eggs with baguettes as light as air. From the next-door cafe, I would fetch tall glasses of Vietnamese iced coffee, made from house-roasted beans and thick with condensed milk, plus pastries from Tous Les Jours, a Korean franchise bakery (not my pick, but the kids adored it). We would eat in our cozy little apartment, and I’d sigh with contentment: This was just like my old life here — but now I had people to share it with.

From there, we’d venture out to see friends I’d long wanted my wife to meet. We visited Quynh Anh Pham, a thin, elegant video producer — known as QA — who had reinvented herself as Ho Chi Minh City’s premiere modern florist. Her shop and cafe, Padma de Fleur, lay down a still-unfinished alley; its courtyard was draped with dangling mokara orchids, watering cans painted blue and pastel pink, and weathered metal saucer lamps. The lemonades that QA served my daughters came garnished with pale roses, and there was yet another kitten for Sandy to play with. This was classic Saigon — an oasis of sophisticated beauty that a casual visitor might never glimpse.

Places like Padma de Fleur felt especially precious when I witnessed the big, obvious changes to the city’s landscape. Like Takashimaya, the glittering, multistory Japanese mall that had just opened in the heart of Saigon, within sight of the Opera House (still lovely, at about 120 years old) and bustling Ben Thanh Market.

It was as fancy a mall as Vietnam has seen, chock-full of international luxury brands (and a Japanese food court!), and it reminded me that back in 1996, there was but one mall, Saigon Superbowl, out near the airport, where country bumpkins would come to gape at, and fearfully attempt to ride, the city’s sole escalator. Now, at Takashimaya, escalators intimidated no one — except for one stylish woman wearing wobbly four-inch heels, who held tightly to the railing as she ascended. The mall felt so utterly normal that I didn’t freak out when Sandy ran off and got lost for 10 minutes — this was no longer the rough-and-tumble city where you’d worry about kidnappers.

Every excursion was an opportunity to compare the Vietnam I remembered with the Vietnam it now was, mostly to my delight, occasionally with disappointment. A road along the Ben Nghe Canal, for example, had been widened and landscaped into sunny modernity, but the project had wiped out old buildings, including an auto garage that, at night, turned into a secret shellfish restaurant.

Sasha, however, approved. “I like this part of Vietnam,” she said, gazing out the window of our taxi, “because it looks well trained. Nice and clean and it looks good — like it works. The other parts …”

She trailed off, and I knew why: Vietnam was not a hit with my family. The heat was rough. (What did they expect during summer in Asia?) They were not fans of the dirt, the chaos, the insects. The kids kvetched about being bored. (Just like at home!) Jean remarked, “I don’t think Southeast Asia is for families.”

I didn’t know quite how to take that. For decades, I’d seen foreign families all over Southeast Asia — a major reason I’d wanted tobring my own family here. On the other hand, I understood: Like New York, Ho Chi Minh City exists not for tourists but for its own livelypopulace; this metropolis doesn't care about coddling outsiders — it’stoo busy entertaining itself.

So the task of entertaining fell to me. Whenever the heat grew too brutal, we would stop for sinh to, cool fruit shakes — orange, mango, banana, soursop, avocado — sold everywhere from the alleys of the backpacker district to market stalls in Cholon, the city’s Chinatown. We took taxis and Ubers, not motorbikes. We rummaged the racks of Mayhem, a hidden-away vintage clothing store, and emerged with armfuls of finds, including an oversize flutter-sleeve top for Sasha and what Jean described as a “ditsy floral dress” for herself. I couldn’t get over how far the city had progressed: Twenty years ago, used clothes were only for the poor; now you needed a credit card to buy them.

Another friend, the Vietnamese-American artist Trong Gia Nguyen, led us through the downtown gallery scene. At Galerie Quynh, which opened in 2003, I gushed over one of Trong’s works, a laser-cut facsimile of a brise-soleil, the sun-shielding patterned screens that you see everywhere in Vietnam, cut to the size of a window or an entire building’s facade. At Dia Projects, Jean and I were entranced by “Fruits, Children & the Cutting,” Mai Hoang’s disturbing, entrancing watercolor renderings of children as fruits — dragonfruit, passionfruit, strawberries — being opened, peeled, dissected. At each stop, Sasha sat on the ground and opened her notebook to draw, engrossed and uncomplaining. Sandy, meanwhile, was kept entertained by Trong’s friend Athésia, a Canadian musician passing through on her way to gigs in Australia. I’m told they discussed “Frozen.”

Occasionally, my ladies even entertained themselves. While taking an Uber through Cholon, Jean pointed out a trio of early 20th-century shophouses, slightly decrepit but charming still.

“Is this where ‘The Lover’ was filmed?” she asked excitedly, referring to the 1992 movie based on the Marguerite Duras novel. If she could muster such enthusiasm, maybe my experiment was working? Love might be out of the question, but I’d settle for like.

Instead, I got ambivalence. For every grand dinner of grilled pork and sour fish soup with old friends, there was a scary cockroach on some sidewalk. The grassy martini at Hum, a stylish vegetarian restaurant, was addictive, but we couldn’t forget that grim immigration officer who’d stamped us into the country. (“I don’t think he’s happy to see us,” Jean observed.) The kids may have enjoyed making crafts projects at the oddly named Somewhereland — Madam Fatty Fatt, a Colonial-era villa that had been renovated into a Hogwarts-like castle, the kids seemed content to work on crafts projects, like cutting felt into hats and cloaks for wooden witch figurines. (Meanwhile, Jeanand I sipped iced coffees.) But this was too chill for Sasha. “Whenyou’re young, you don’t want to sit down and relax,” she insisted. “You want to move!”

Which is why, on our last day before flying to the beach, I booked a van to the Cu Chi tunnels, the underground former Viet Cong base, about 90 minutes outside Saigon, that is a major tourist draw. At last, the kids could roam and climb, and gawk at the admirably barbaric traps used to catch enemy soldiers, while I pointed out ponds that were really bomb craters and told them about a war I was born too late to remember firsthand. And, of course, we clambered about in the three-foot-high tunnels, which is any kid’s dream but drew rivers of sweat even from this smaller-than-average American.

When we emerged, Sandy (who could stand fully upright in the tunnels) explained: “You ate a lot of dinner — that’s why you didn’t fit in the tunnel. You ate a lot of food — like Anna and Elsa!”

Sasha was more succinct: “This place is pretty amazing!”

As my heart warmed, I also realized: Oh my god, my kids are … tourists. They like it easy. They like fun. They’re on vacation. What did I expect? One day, perhaps, they’d outgrow easy fun, and want to know how Vietnam turned Dad into Dad, but it didn’t have to be today. Tomorrow we’d be at a pristine beach resort, with a swimming pool and a villa twice the size of our Brooklyn apartment — easy fun for $500 a day. Someday, surely, we would return to Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe not next year, but someday. And then we could all compare the Vietnam we remembered with the Vietnam it would become.

For her part, Jean had but a single requirement for our return.

“Next time,” she said, “I want to stay somewhere nicer.”

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