Ve que translates to returning to one’s hometown. Vietnamese-Chinese American Ruben Luong house-hops solo in rural Vinh Long, reconnecting with generations of his mother’s family.
Born and raised in Texas, I came to Vietnam for the first time in 1999 when I was 12. I was with my parents and older brother. My parents hadn’t returned to Saigon since escaping the aftermath of the American War in 1975.
In 1975, my father’s family heard about a plane in Saigon helping locals evacuate to the United States. Word spread in the south, and families rushed from nearby provinces for spots on the plane. My mom sent word to her family in the Mekong Delta, but an incoming horde made it futile. My parents boarded the plane with my father’s family, but for my mom’s family in the countryside, it was too late.
We reunited with my mom’s side of the family in 1999, but I still can’t recount much of where we went, what we did, or, especially, whom I met. My parents were doing their own research, tracking down old friends and relatives. I imagine the streets were different for them, too. I followed my parents everywhere, visiting one house, district, and province after another, trying not to get lost or fall into a river. There were too many faces, too many roads, and I didn’t speak Vietnamese.
When I came to volunteer-teach in September 2012, I waited close to a year before I contacted my relatives, in order to learn Vietnamese and to avoid this from happening again. In the sea of eight million, I’ve most likely passed by distant family working or living in Ho Chi Minh City without knowing it.
But last summer I emailed my cau, whom I call my uncle. He lives in District 2 with his wife and two boys. He’s one of the only relatives I remember, and he also speaks English. It’s crazy to think he was about my age now when I first met him.
The same weekend, he invited me to accompany his family to rural Vinh Long, my mom’s hometown. It’s about a three-hour drive south. We’d visit his parents, whom I refer to as ong and ba (although, I still struggle with names and pronouns). My cau drove us in his family’s minivan at six in the morning.
After about two and a half hours, we stopped in Vinh Long city, where some of my relatives own a shophouse selling the standard array of potato chips, gum, and milk. There I reunited with a cousin I remembered, Nhieu, the son of my mom’s younger brother. He drove an hour away from My Tho, where more of my mother’s family reside, to see me.
“Nho khong?” he asked, to confirm if I remembered him. He’d given me a ring before my family left in 1999, an 18-karat gold and onyx-encrusted ring which I lost back home, but rediscovered in my parent’s house five years later. Nhieu was in his 20s when I met him; by now he’d developed grey hair.
I was introduced to more relatives and we had lunch, which is always a feast in the countryside. Men in the Mekong like to drink, and this would come to characterise all my trips to Vinh Long. I was flushed from rounds of snake and rice wine with the men of the family, full on noodles, and stricken from the heat, but the day was only beginning.
We drove another 15 minutes away towards the rural district of Vung Liem. There were two other houses we visited. One belonged to relatives who lived along the road, where we’d left the car. From there, we rowed a canoe to a secluded house along the river, which my cau had built for his parents and other relatives.
Later that day, the men were building a bathroom with bricks, the women were busy cooking, and the children played cards. I wandered on my own. I took pictures of everything: rice paddies, chickens, dogs, ducks, bananas, palm trees, and the road. It reminded me of Vietnamese folk tales, in which the countryside is a ground for significant encounters in one’s life.
One morning that weekend, Nhieu guided me through a long grove of shady palm trees and makeshift bridges to a house where two of my elder relatives live. Both of them are at least in their 80s. I don’t know much about their generation, but what I didn’t know I could see in their faces. Their wrinkles seemed to carry important lessons.
We had short conversations in Vietnamese, took photos together, and mostly stared at each other. I sat across from them, and then I sat next to them, curious. There was no pressure to communicate. It was enough for them knowing that I was chi Luom’s son. Like every house I returned to in Vinh Long, I left both humbled and honoured.