My Saigon – From Past to Present

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Pho Vendor in Vietnam
Pho Vendor on Auntie's Street

The house used to smell like leather tanning all the time. It was an awful smell. But the cow skin was so fresh that the meat was often still attached – we would use it to supplement our meager food rations.

Since arriving in Saigon, the stories about my childhood and those of our family have been streaming out from my mom, Grandmother, and Aunties. I didn’t pay much attention before but now that I can put some visual context to the stories, I’ve been asking more and more questions. I didn’t know my family were leather tanners!

Your great-grandmother originally had 4 plots of land here. We needed the space for the leather tanning business. We sold 3 plots many years ago. Then bought 1 back recently to expand the current house.

I try to get more details out of my mom but the language barrier makes it difficult. She doesn’t know the English terms to explain the leather process and I don’t understand the technical Chinese terms she uses.

This is where you fell down the stairs when you were barely one year old and I had to call out to your mom and dad to take you to the hospital.

My grandmother has told me this story a million times before in New York but this is the first time I can actually visualize where it really happened. I looked in the direction of her pointing finger at the central staircase and tried to imagine how frightened my parents might have been. Especially in light of Wee Scotch’s two trips to the Dubai Emergency Room for head trauma.

This is my eldest daughter from America. She’s come to visit with me and has brought her son as well.

My mom still knows a few people in the maze-like neighborhood where Auntie’s house is. A few neighbors will greet us each time we leave the house. Since Auntie lives in the Cholon district of Saigon, many speak Chinese although I do not know how to make conversation with them so I just smile shyly and shuffle along with Wee Scotch. The streets around us are free of litter and I notice that each morning they are swept by the shopkeepers or homeowners with triangular straw brooms.

Wee Scotch paying respects on Remembrance Day
Wee Scotch paying respects to the departed on Remembrance Day

The pho [rice noodles in soup] is freshly made. Not dried and packaged like in the States.

Auntie has bowls of Pho delivered almost every morning for breakfast and everyone can’t help but remark about the fact that we are eating freshly-made noodles. I am amazed that the noodles are delivered in real bowls complete with chopsticks, spoons, and dipping sauce instead of in disposable takeout containers with plastic utensils. After the meal, the bowls and chopsticks are placed outside the house for collection by the Pho vendor.

Home Delivery of Bowls of Pho
Bowls of Pho arriving for Home Delivery

We couldn’t afford shoes as children and used to run around barefoot in the streets even with the glass factory next door. Sometimes, we would help the workers paint and decorate the little glass jars. They’re used for gas lanterns in areas that don’t have electricity.

One of the owners of the glass factory on Auntie’s alley allows me into her shop to take pictures of the glass-making process. She has known Auntie since they were small children and has taken over the family business along with her sisters. Inside, workers old and young bear the oppressive heat to churn out large glass jars and small glass lanterns. Outside, straw baskets lined with more straw are piled high, ready to transport the finished glass products.

Glass Factory
Glass Factory on Auntie's Street

Baskets to transport the finished glass products

The city is going to pave our road one day so our house could only be expanded to a certain point. The government says any day now but that could mean another 5, 10, or 20 years. 

Auntie’s front gate is always locked – she said someone once snuck in and stole her motorbike. As I walk around the uneven cement street, I notice that many of the houses have their front gates open since they also serve as storefronts. Their owners or tenants mill around – in flip flops or barefoot – sometimes napping on a chair or right on the hard ground. Everyone seems to own a motorbike and indeed every house has a ramp so that the bikes can be pushed into the house for safekeeping.

Auntie’s neighborhood, like all of Saigon it seems, is one bewildering maze with one alleyway branching into others. There is a mix of residential and commercial – just on her alley alone is a small shop where we bought our mobile SIM card, an internet cafe that seems to be always packed with youths, two three four pho vendors (each bowl costs about $0.50), a small pharmacy, and at the end of the alley is a cart selling Bánh Mì (Vietnamese baguette – I like mine filled with meat, paté, cucumber, cilantro, and pickled veg) for $0.75.

Pho Vendor in Saigon
Pho Vendor on Auntie's Street

See that three-story school across from our street? That used to be the tallest building around and now it’s one of the shortest. If you get lost, just try to find your way back to that school.

I take a picture of the school because my memory can’t seem to retain any of the Vietnamese words. Speaking the language is even worse. My attempts are similar to Joey learning to speak French on Friends and am constantly frustrated at my inability to properly pronounce the sounds. I wonder if this is how Scotch feels when he tries to speak Chinese.

Soon, our four generations consisting of Grandmother, Mom, Wee Scotch and me will begin our tour of Vietnam by flying north to Hanoi and slowly making our way back south to Saigon. I’m sure I will continue to hear more stories of not just mine, but their childhoods and those of their parents as well.

More than forty years ago, when I was about nineteen and before I met your father, I traveled with a group of Buddhist monks to see the countryside. It was an affordable way to travel and along with two other nursing friends, we traveled with the monks from Saigon to Danang to Hue. Those were the days we were young and carefree.

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  1. Awww what a touching post. Love hearing stories of people rediscovering their roots. I’m the same, not to long ago I discovered my family had a trade in food. My mum’s dad was a baker, my dad’s mum used to make and sell frozen yoghurt and banana ice cream, and my mum used to help her aunt sell Vietnamese desserts on the street.

  2. Oh Sandy, very touching post! It is such a pleasure to go back home and be transported back in time through the eyes of those who witnessed life back then, and at times as back before our recollections of ourselves… words of mothers are always touching and your mother’s words in the end of your post are universal.
    +there is the traveling with the monks which I would love to do myself!!!
    Really enjoyed reading your post 🙂

  3. Beautiful rendition and love that you still refer to the city as Saigon. I was hoping to visit Vietnam this summer but sadly it’s rainy season – when would you recommend going?

  4. Lovely piece & gorgeous photos, a pleasure to read. The photo of the fresh bowls of Pho made me hungry. What a great family/food/travel experience. Well done.

  5. Captivating! How incredibly special is that, to be there and share that with your four generations, see for yourself so all those stories come to life. And then share it with us your readers, so we get a glimpse and get drawn in. Great narration. Cannot wait to read more.

  6. Sandy,

    When I went through your pics of your visit, I eagerly awaited the story behind it. I knew it would be packed with revelation and authenticity. You did not disappoint. Kudos on an excellent job!

    1. Thanks Kari – now that I am older, the (his)stories that my family are relating to me are starting to make more sense to me and I could probably write a whole book about it!

  7. Love reading about your experiences. I would love to go visit with Puerto Rico with my father some day and have some of the same experiences.

    1. Sara – I hope you are able to do so one day. But make sure you pack in lots of sightseeing as well 😉 Lived in PR for almost two years and loved some of it.

  8. Looks like you’re having a great time!

    It must be great learning more about your family’s history!

    1. Lots of revelations seeing my mom, aunties, and grandma together. Many in the form of, “Oh, is that why I turned out this way?” 😉

    1. Glad you liked it. Lots of sensory overload though. Hoping my scatter-brain can retain some more of the stories that were told to me.

  9. I’d love to have a Bahn Mi stand beside the house 🙂 Me loves a toasted one with crumbs falling all over your lap! I don’t mind that kind of mess on me ;p

    1. After having Banh Mi in Saigon, I can never look at one the same again. The bread in Vietnam is truly amazing! And this is from someone who doesn’t like bread.