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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

The whir of motorcycles and the hum of overhead wires crackled through the air as the young man stepped carefully into the humid night. He looked up and down the alleyway, one of the many winding side streets that made up the labyrinth of the Cholon district in Saigon, Vietnam. Since the war, the nights had become increasingly uneasy, never knowing if police would come by and knock on your door to monitor your movements. Taking a few steps, he hesitated and looked back, locking eyes with a woman staring out of the window, her face browned from the sun and lined with worry. Afraid to draw attention with anything resembling a farewell, his father had already turned away, back to a veneer of normalcy. It was an unbearable but necessary risk to send their only son on a boat to escape a country ravaged by war, and in their final words, all they could choke out was a reminder to send a letter once he was safe. There would be no proper goodbye, only a final wave to his mother standing steadfast at the window before he walked away, empty-handed and the heavy burden of hope pounding in his ears.

Thirty-two years later, I would walk down the same alleyway, retracing the steps of my father. I had just finished graduate school and was travelling through Southeast Asia with a friend. Growing up, my family didn’t travel much and I had never been overseas. When I told my parents about the trip, they were apprehensive. “It’s still communist!” my mom had said, half whispering the words. Knowing they would panic if they knew I was going with a friend, I told them I would be travelling with a tour group. “It’ll be fine,” I insisted. My friend and I had meticulously planned out an itinerary – we would fly out of Ottawa and start off in Thailand before heading to Cambodia, then Vietnam, and rounding out the trip in Thailand.

A week into the trip, my friend decided to change her plans to meet up with an old friend and take a different route. I was welcome to join them but my heart sank. The idea of travelling alone terrified me, but I couldn’t imagine coming all this way without finally seeing where my family came from. A small fire lit up inside me and I decided to stick with the original plan, alone.

We arrived in Vietnam through the capital, Hanoi. After visiting the majestic and haunting landscape of Ha Long Bay, my friend and I went our separate ways – she took off to Thailand and I continued onward in Vietnam, alone, afraid but determined. I headed to Hoi An for a few days then boarded a bus to Saigon. Squeezed into a reclined bunk seat and unable to sleep, I watched the countryside turn from dark moonlit pools to pink dawn. Twenty-four hours later, I arrived in Saigon to see the evening lit by a dizzying metropolis of highrises and neon lights. I let out a sigh of relief. I made it. I was in the city my family once called home.

The next morning, I met up with Sammi, one of my mom’s close childhood friends who had stayed in Vietnam all these years. My parents told her I was visiting and she came to show me around. Small in stature with a broad, beaming face and eyes that revealed perpetual mirth, she welcomed me by remarking on which of my features reminded her of my parents. I sat on the back of her motorcycle as she whipped up and down the crowded streets of Saigon, slowing only to point out buildings and landmarks that my parents once frequented. We drove by my mom’s former home, a pink three-storey building sandwiched on a busy three-lane road that was now a commercial space. We continued, with Sammi yelling out landmarks for me while I dutifully snapped away with my camera. My mom’s school, click, my dad’s church, click, a former police station, click, a former horse racetrack, click. On and on, a blur of motorcycles and memories.

Finally, we slowed to a stop in an area with less traffic. “Come, I’ll show you your father’s old home,” Sammi said, taking me toward an alleyway so narrow that the roofs on either side seemed to kiss. We passed small tables and chairs where noodle soup was sold and a vendor stand filled with drinks and snacks. People lingered about and Sammi called out to them, “This is Huan Khoi Tri’s daughter! Do you remember him?” Growing up, I can recall my parents’ friends and acquaintances introducing me by my father’s name. It’s as if they know who you are by where you’re from, by who you’re from. This seemed to work in Vietnam as well. My dad’s former neighbours let out cries of recollection; even after all these years, they remembered him. They gathered around excitedly, and we took a photo together to show my parents. Finally, we approached my dad’s former home, a thin three-storey building hidden behind tangled telephone wires. A mustard yellow door lay slightly ajar. I stood in the doorway and Sammi took a photo of me. It felt familiar and unfamiliar all at once, somehow connected to a place I’d never been, in some way known by people I’d never met.

I showed my parents the photos of Saigon. To them, it was nearly unrecognizable. The following year after my trip, they went back to Vietnam for the first time. When my dad walked down the alley and saw his former home, he broke down in tears. He’d never thought he’d see this place again, forever intertwined with his mother’s face in the window bidding him a silent goodbye. It was only after his return that he began sharing that story, as if it had been dislodged in his mind, lost and then found. Memories, like ghosts, are just spirits trying to connect with the present.

What is home when you’ve been displaced and disconnected? Does being a citizen equate to having a home? Perhaps our sense of home had been lost somewhere in the South China Sea, or when new owners took up their empty homes and filled them with new memories. Standing outside my father’s home more than 30 years after he fled Vietnam, I don’t know if I can say I found a sense of home. I guess it was never going to be as simple as an address or co-ordinates on a map. Instead, home is a journey that expands and contracts, like strands of DNA. We leave in search of freedom, we come spiralling back. What else but blood and bones would compel me to return to a place I’ve never known, an alleyway in Saigon where they knew me by my father’s name.

Tiffanie Tri lives in Ottawa.

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