Vietnam Journey

By Marcella Bombardieri '99 / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
When I was little, I thought Vietnam was across the street from my house. I grew up in Boston on Sammett Avenue, a double-dead-end street with mirror-image houses, a neighborhood so orderly that the same fruitless pear tree stood in every front yard. An empty lot at one end of the street served as a makeshift playground; it was full of dust and weeds and plastic toy guns, forgotten and bleached by the sun.

Was this a Vietnam battlefield? As a six-year-old, I wasn't sure. All I knew about Vietnam was that, when adults uttered the word, shadows crossed their faces. My friend and neighbor Matthew insisted the empty lot was a battlefield. The discarded weapons seemed to support his case.

Eventually I outgrew my confusion. But after spending the spring of 1998 in Ho Chi Minh City - still known as Saigon - I realize that, in a way, Matthew was right. Location is a personalized notion, circumscribed more by a person's emotional and geographical journeys, than by dotted lines on a map.

I went to Vietnam to experience a world as different from my own as possible. In the spirit of adaptation, I embraced scrubbing my clothes by hand, weaving through the chaotic streets on a bicycle, and eating pho, a spicy noodle soup, for breakfast. When strangers greeted me with, "Hellooo, where you from?" I would answer, "Em la nguoi My." I looked askance at the expatriates who ate in upscale restaurants and couldn't even say "thank you" in Vietnamese.

One weekend I traveled to a village to visit the family of Tra My, a Vietnamese-American friend. I felt that through this rural immersion I would finally know Vietnam. While I could only converse in gestures, I fell into the family's routine: picking cashews in the backyard and roasting them on the kitchen floor, sleeping on a slab of wood in a room with eight people, and attending a 6 a.m. Catholic mass wearing an ao dai, the tight-fitting national dress of women in Vietnam. After church the family visited the grave of Tra My's grandmother. Holding a parasol and linking arms with Tra My, I tottered on borrowed, toe-pinching heels down a dirt road, surrounded by sun-drenched mountains, cornfields, and rice paddies. If I ever came close to going native, it was during that cemetery visit.

But I struggled through the weekend. I was uncomfortable and hot and bored. Most of all, I was lonely in the near muteness that the language barrier imposed on me. It struck me that as a transient visitor from across the world, my penetration of Vietnamese life would always be imperfect. Like an anthropologist or journalist, I had to learn to respect the limitations and privileges of my role as an observer. I knew I was not a colonial presence in Vietnam, but sometimes I felt like one. It took me a long time to accept the fact that my lifestyle included blond friends, air conditioning, and ice cream.

Instead of fretting over the hopelessness of cultural assimilation, I shifted my focus to a search for independence and strength. I bought an airplane ticket to Hanoi and spent two weeks bicycling through the Old Quarter and writing in my journal beside the mythi-cal Lake of the Restored Sword. Lonely yet elated, I felt proud getting by alone in such an alien world.

Back in the United States, I spent the summer in Dorchester, the Boston neighborhood where my father grew up and worked in his father's bakery. Now the neighborhood is Vietnamese; banh mi thit and mi xau have replaced the Italian bread and pasta of past decades. Though I passed many childhood hours playing behind the counter of Bombardieri's Bakery, today it is the Vietnamese travel agencies and sandwich shops that feel most familiar.

This puts me in a curious, but not unpleasant, position, walking a bridge between two cultures a world apart. I'm an Italian from Dorchester who knows a good bowl of pho when she tastes one. Vietnam may not have been literally across the street from me when I was six, but it was not so far down the road.

Marcella Bombardieri is an internationl relations concentrator from Acton, Massachusetts.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 1999