“Our House, In the Middle of Saigon”

Our two-week homestay in Ho Chi Minh city has come to a tear-filled end—grandma cried as she forced the last plates of broken rice, fruit, sweet soup, noodle soup and cups of Nescafe.  These have been the best and most challenging weeks of the trip thus far: absolute integration into the lives of a Vietnamese family. The amount that I’ve learned in these 14 days about what it means to be Vietnamese in the fastest growing city in the world is exhausting! Let me at least introduce you to the family…

There were six people living in the purple, five-story apartment near the center of Ho Chi Minh. Grandpa Hong was quick to tell me that a) he was deaf since he refused to wear his hearing aids (reminds me of MY grandpa!) and b) spoke practically perfect English. And French and Spanish. He was definitely one of my favorites in the house… Our relationship revolved around notes that we passed to each other at the breakfast and dinner table. I don’t know where he learned words like “laxative” and “aphrodisiac,” but I didn’t ask. I also got to spend time with him as he tended his garden on the terrace. He would set up the hammock for me around five in the evening, and I would go to the roof to read and write as he watered his jasmine, and kumquat plants. And after he found out that I play cello, he would serenade me as I did homework and ate breakfast with vocal renditions of his favorite classical pieces. He used to work as a consultant for a company in central Vietnam, and was apparently a millionaire, but lost everything during the war and moved south. He hates the communist regime and loves America and American culture, and for damn good reason. One of my most interesting parts of the stay was being driven to the War Remnants Museum and hearing his opinion of it all. Trust me when I say it feels very weird to be told that the museum’s portrayal is complete bullshit by a Vietnamese man. And even weirder to be told that the My Lai Massacre was justified since it killed a village full of VCs, and the GIs were only acting in self-defense. I’m still processing that whole experience.

Grandma Hong and Grandpa Hue are in love, and have been ever since he saw her singing in Danang. They’ve had six children together, three of whom are living in America. She is the president of the neighborhood organization and very involved in the church. The family is fervently Catholic. She loved to feed me, and always said I never ate enough. This seems to be a trend with many of our hostmothers. She bought most of the food from street vendors out side of the house, and wanted to find me something new every morning so I could experience the breadth of the Vietnamese cuisine. It was quite the way to start my day. She also had a loud, boisterous voice. Probably from shouting into her husbands ear any time she wanted to get him to hear her. She was an incredibly sweet lady, and told me she loved me within four hours of meeting her. She also wore beautiful, floral printed pajamas. Classy is the word to best describe her.

Her daughter, Loam, was my host mother. She worked at Honda selling motorbikes, which is a hot commodity here in Ho Chi Minh. Her and her husband, Long, were often out of the house, so I missed out on having as good of  a connection with them as I did with the grandparents. But, she did make a point to buy me smoothies on especially hot days for “medicinal purposes.” She was worried I would overheat. I was NOT one to argue with that logic, and happily sipped on my nightly smoothie.

They have two daughters, Tina and Rosa. Grandpa picked out their English names for her, because he loves the Spanish culture. Rosa was like my best friend and mother in the house. She was constantly worried about my “absent-mind” as she called it, and still texts me making sure I am taking care of my health and eating enough. She is 20, loves pooh and the disney channel, one of the brightest students at the University of International Relations, and the president of the Student Union. I soon realized my embarrassingly inadequate understanding of pop culture after these 14 days. She also spoke perfect English, which was a saving grace! She was so kind to me, and took me out with her friends and to the hippest places in Ho Chi Minh. I adore Rosa! And then, Rosa’s little sister, Tina. A chubby, spunky, sassy bundle of awesome. She is five years old and loves to dance, sing, and have photos taken of her. She was such a good friend to have around, since she always smiled and didn’t much care that I couldn’t understand a word that she said.

And the best part of this family is how close they are–the Vietnamese family structure is one of the strongest bonds there is. At the end of the day, I loved my time with them.

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