Traveling with Mom and Dad in Viet Nam

Ashes of my late mother and father rest in a sealed locket around my neck. Each of their children and grandchildren has a locket. Some don’t wear it. Others, like me, wear it only when traveling to places my mom or dad never went. Mine is a butterfly, now a little worn and scuffed. It goes on the morning I leave for my trip, and comes off, getting tucked back into its box, the day I get home. This year, I took my parents to Viet Nam.

Wearing the sealed, butterfly locket in Viet Nam.

I was avoiding writing a Mother’s Day blog. I had ambition for it. On Facebook I posted a video of her from Florida, the summer after she was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. The simple act of posting that video, one I had not watched since she passed in 2008, was emotional overload. The blog would have to wait until I could process that video for a day.

During that summer, we each took turns going to Clearwater to take care of her during early parts of her treatment. In the video, we are walking along the shore of Sand Key park (me, my niece, my nephew and Mom) and Mom is holding up her cup and showing us the exact concoction to make a “perfect” cup of coffee: “About this much [pointing to an imaginary line on her Panera Bread cup] Hazelnut, one pack of sugar, and then filled with ice up to here [second imaginary line on the cup].” The final ingredients of the recipe are muted by the sound of wind ripping through the video camera, but it was something like a “smidge” (one of her favorite words) of half & half, followed by good coffee.

I inherited my obsession with the “perfect bite” or “perfect blend” of food or drink from her. I also got her love of nature and observation of the flora and fauna around me. Mom was my 9th Grade Science teacher, but her first love was biology. Although I hated anything analytical in school, I loved the application of it in the outside world. I liked knowing how the plants and wildlife interacted, and especially enjoyed knowing what wild things were edible, inedible or occasionally, medicinal.

Mom wasn’t even half-a-dip hippie. While she liked knowing the potential properties of the world around her, she would take the pragmatic and double-blind tested over wandering through the woods in search of some roots or leaves to cook up to treat illness. In this respect, I’m much closer to the hippies. I’m a conspiracy-theorist and cynic, imagining much of our current “medicine” is rooted in plants, only synthesized because it’s easier to make money on chemicals and synthetics than by telling people to eat a healthy dose of burdock root every day to treat gout or high cholesterol. But Mom did use a few natural remedies, like our aloe vera plant for burns. She also liked eucalyptus leaves and oil—more so when she was sick.

For two years after she passed, I kept her string of dried eucalyptus leaves hanging in her room at our house. She loved the smell and that they were from her sister. When I finally decided to let that eucalyptus go to the compost bin, I wouldn’t think about it again for four years, until an unscheduled roadside stop near Hue, Viet Nam.

Viet Nam held an incredible amount of experiences I knew one or both of my parents  would celebrate with me. Mom and Dad both would have appreciated the strong Vietnamese coffee. Dad would have loved the atmosphere of the men sitting and enjoying their coffee with an equally strong cigarette, playing cards. He also would have loved tooling around on the motorbikes, and drinking one of the many tasty beers brewed locally.

dan nguyet, aka “moon guitar” reminded me more of the banjo my dad used to play.

I think his favorite might have been listening to the dan nguyet, a “moon guitar” which, to my ears, sounded much like the banjo he played in my childhood. He would have also loved seeing how it was made, and seeing the variety of wood-carvers and artists in the markets. He would have been proud of me firing the AK-47, but I think I would have had to work a little harder to convince him there are no POWs still in Viet Nam, that the war is over, and that a new generation of those children and grandchildren of the war only want to enjoy the same quality of life as their American counterparts. In other words, I would have told him, looking straight in his eyes and squeezing his hand, “It’s time to let go.”

Or maybe letting go would have been only a matter of playing some pick-up dan nguyet with the locals, teaching them bluegrass tunes for their instruments. It’s easier to condemn, suspect and believe propaganda from 10,000 miles away. It’s harder to think of a distinct “North” and “South” when you can freely travel between both and see the sameness of human spirit and a mirrored sanctity of family, commonality of values.

Mom’s battle would have come with the crowds and the claustrophobia. She would not have been able to crawl through a section of the Cu Chi Tunnels, and her love of experiencing the shops and beauty of the towns would have been hampered or altogether nonexistent because it would have meant jostling through crowds of people and bartering in a noisy marketplace.

But she would have loved the long bike ride through the rice paddies and fields. Her hand would have been the first to go up, volunteering to work in the garden or try the pottery wheel. She would have been very hands-on and inquisitive with the plants around her. I can hear her voice, advising me on the family of a certain species of tree, or defining the difference between the Golden Vietnamese Cypress and our own Bald Cypress. She would have taken that same cup of Vietnamese coffee that Dad would enjoy with a smoke, and determine her preferred measurements of sweetened condensed milk, ice and drip coffee to make the “perfect cup.”

Vietnamese drip coffee in condensed milk, ice to be added when done.

And outside Hue, where our bus makes an impromptu stop to examine a roadside stand of eucalyptus oil, her stoic teacher-face would have masked giddiness at seeing how the eucalyptus leaves were burned for three hours through a homemade distillery-looking system of tubing and cookboxes, to produce a perfect liter of eucalyptus oil. She would have been the first to put her finger under the dripping spout to catch the oil and rub it between her fingers. She probably would have done exactly as I did, catching enough oil to discreetly rub against my belly, under my shirt.

It’s possible to interpret wearing a constant reminder of your late parents as an almost exquisite form of masochism. Maybe. But I prefer to see it the way I intend it—allowing them to travel again, allowing me to remember what shaped the way I see the world around me.