Before I left Australia I said that I was apprehensive about the thought of returning to Viet Nam and I became so worried that I was having trouble sleeping and getting the odd panic attack. However, I should not have wasted so much energy worrying as it became clear to me from the moment that I stepped out of the airport and into the hassling of the taxi drivers that actually it was all so familiar that it was in no way daunting.
In fact I have realised since I returned here that before I left Viet Nam I had become very stressed and was being needlessly rude to people. In reality I was overdue for a break from the intensity of this place but the problem is that even though you may be overdue it?s difficult to realise it at the time. Now that I am here I am much more relaxed with people I am getting the same feeling back from them. I am smiling once again and getting it back tenfold. It is wonderful.
I decided that initially I would stay in the small Viet Hong Hotel on Vo Van Tan St as it is located at one end of my old hem and it would be convenient and enable me to catch up with my Vietnamese family and my former neighbours and friends. Kim Long and Cuong could not understand that, as Mimi and Truc are now in America, why I would not stay in their house as there is plenty of space, but I need my autonomy and so finally they agreed and booked me a room. It proved to be a happy compromise.
After checking in I walked the short distance to visit Mimi?s parents and of course there was much hugging (not a Vietnamese trait but an Aussie one that we introduced and they seem to have embraced, if you?ll pardon the pun), and it was so good to sit in their tiny front room, have my first Heineken and, through Mimi?s brother Thanh, talk and laugh about things that have happened over the last 5 months in all of our lives.
They told me that after we had returned to Australia they left our house exactly as we had left it and that even now with new tenants in there they have changed very little. They went on to say that most days Mimi would go to the house, shut herself in and sit on the steps and cry. She would wander through each room and be very sad. Needless to say I found it impossible to talk about this as the lump in my throat choked back all the words that I wanted to say.
Troi oi Mimi, when you read this you will know what I am feeling right now.
None of my neighbours and friends in the hem knew that I was returning so it was a great surprise for them to see me appear in their midst, but it was delightful to see the smiles appear on their faces as recognition dawned. I had arrived as the ceremony for a funeral was taking place in the hem and was saddened to learn of the death from cancer of a lady who I remember well as she often used to sit at Kieu?s tiny caf? at the end of the hem.
However, having the funeral taking place meant that many of my neighbours were there, especially the second morning when the coffin was taken away to Cu Chi. Nearly every person that I knew followed it down the hem, waiting patiently as the pall bearers adjusted the angle of the timber poles which were too wide to fit through the narrow space. Once again the nods of recognition, tempered by the seriousness of the occasion, were genuine and heart-warming.
As I was standing and talking to one family I felt some arms go around my waist and turned to find that it was Hoang, our favourite xe om driver who was not adverse to carrying on the Aussie tradition of a hug in public. We sat together and drank ca phe and very soon some of the children that I know came and sat close by and moved in close enough so that they were touching me, all the time smiling and watching intently.
To say that this was a very emotional experience is a gross understatement and I don?t believe I have the words to express how it made me feel as one by one people came and said hello and enquired about what I had been doing and why I was here by myself and how long I would be staying etc.
It served to reinforce for me that in this life you get back what you give out. Treat people respectfully as human beings and you get it back over and over again, amen. (Here endeth the gospel).
Mimi?s parents have loaned me the same Honda Dream that they let me drive after RMIT moved to South Sai Gon and I didn?t want to knock the Vespa about too much by taking it out there. I was a bit worried about getting back into the traffic and yet again it was a needless worry. After the first few nervous minutes re-adjusting to the feel of the bike I launched myself into the early evening chaos of Vo Van Tan St and was immediately engulfed by the oneness that comes from driving in this place.
I have missed the people and the food from this place, but it is the freedom that comes from driving in this chaotic traffic that I have missed the most. Especially the driving in the cool of the evening feeling the breeze on your face while cruising down the wide tree lined boulevards or negotiating your way through narrow and potholed side streets or alleys. Ah, it is so good to be able to do this again.
The truth of the matter is that I know my way around this city better than I do in Brisbane. Of course that stands to reason because I have only lived in Brisbane for 5 months, but it still a strange realisation that I actually feel more at home here in Sai Gon than in my native country. Very strange. Maybe this is ?reverse reverse culture shock?.
So my first week here has been very busy, eating meals prepared for me by Kim Long, catching up with former colleagues, visiting old haunts and just driving around for the sheer pleasure of it. Everywhere that I have gone where I am known it has been the same, a sincere warmth a big smile and the comment that ?it is so good to see you again?.
I am glad to be back and I am also glad that, for the next few years at least, I will have the pleasant mix of time in Australia to be with my family and friends, to study and write and take time out in a quieter atmosphere as well as time here in Viet Nam to indulge myself within this unique culture.