2 September 2002,Da Nang, Vietnam
“… The city of Da Nang was abuzz with revelers on holiday as today is National Day — also Labor Day in the US.
My parents and I have returned, after many years (my mother after 27 years) to the country of our birth. Needless to say, much has changed. My grandmother at almost 90 is not as coherent as before, but still very glad and aware of our presence.
Other family have welcomed us with much love and kindness — without a hint of strain after many years and hardship. We are glad they are now more content with their lives — and always the more appreciative of our own opportunities “back home” — which is always where the heart is… whether the California Coast or along the white sand beaches near Da Nang… MDN”
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April 5, 2013, Los Angeles, CA
“She passed away this week,” my mother said of her aunt, my great aunt Ba Le — who I first met in November 1996 over 16 years ago, on my first trip to Europe.
“She returned home.” My mother explained, “She will be laid to rest this weekend in Hanoi.”
I wasn’t sure if my great aunt was still living in Lausanne, as she had moved over sixty years ago to France, then Switzerland — before Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel between the North and the South by the Geneva Accords concluded on July 21, 1954.
It was during the Geneva Conference which negotiated the Accords that the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought, beginning on March 13, 1954 and ending with the climactic French defeat on May 7, 1954 — marking the end of French occupation of Indochine which lasted from 1887-1954. The end of French colonialism set the stage for U.S. entanglement in the Vietnam War for the next two decades during the Cold War.
It was also 38 years ago this month that the Vietnam War ended, and with the Fall of Saigon — my parents, relatives and I fled the country as the Communist forces of the North overran the South and unified a divided nation. April 30, 1975 was also a watershed moment in American history as diplomats were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy at 4 Le Duan Blvd in downtown Saigon — which reopened in 1999 as the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, my good friend Robert Ogburn who I met while an intern at the U.S. Department of State in 1993, has returned to serve there in his current posting as the Deputy Consul General.
It is amazing how much Vietnam has been transformed, and is now quite welcoming of former Western adversaries and diplomats, as well as its ethnic diaspora like me, my parents and my great aunt — who have returned to our place of birth after wars and generations have passed.
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November 1996, Lausanne, Switzerland
“He died with a broken heart at 24, with few realizing his talent until much later.”
So began the tale my great aunt told me of her childhood amour back in the colonial days when Vietnam was part of the French colonial empire known as Indochine.
“We were not permitted to marry,” she explained, with a deep pause.
The young composer who was captivated by her beauty did not survive long after their relationship ended, given the strict traditions of the day on appropriate love and profession. Shortly after, his remaining artistic aspirations crumbled when his respected parents destroyed many of the seemingly frivolous songs he wrote as a means of disciplining him into reality. However, with the withered songs of love, so went his broken heart.
His friends managed to salvage his compositions, and posthumously shared the secrets of his brilliance. As for my great aunt, she ended up leaving Vietnam before the end of the French occupation in 1954 to marry a gentleman in France. Later, after being widowed, she remarried a gentleman in Switzerland. She currently lives alone in Lausanne in her grand age, where I have come to visit on my first trip to Europe.
There on the mantle in her small apartment were photos of the three men she loved in her life — tributes to their memory and her fascinating journey from Indochine to Paris, and now Lake Geneva.
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My great aunt lived quite a full and international lifestyle. She loved at home and afar, and returned to her ancestral roots after six decades in the West to her final resting place. May her soul find eternal enlightenment…
My father also happened to return to Vietnam this week upon retiring earlier this year. For the first time in his life, he is no longer burdened by a labor intensive job, and can finally take more than a few weeks off to relax with our relatives and his childhood friends. He is spending nearly three months at his birthplace of Da Nang or “China Beach” pictured on the postcard above, which I wrote when I returned with my parents in 2002.
“I plan to visit Laos for the first time.” He told me as I dropped him off at LAX airport earlier this week.
His statement struck me and reminded me of when he dropped me off at LAX nearly two decades ago, when I left for Laos for an internship at the American Embassy in Vientiane during the Summer of 1994. It was my first trip abroad as a young adult and recent college graduate, and I was incredibly smitten with wanderlust. The following year on July 11, 1995, the United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations — allowing me and other Americans to visit Vietnam after a 20-year embargo.
Laos is next door to Vietnam. I was quite surprised my father had never been before, and waited until his retirement to visit. After 65 years of experiencing warfare in support of U.S. troops, toil in American factories and sacrifice to establish his family in our adopted home — my father is finally allowing himself to visit Laos. He must have been proud his son went to Laos before he did, and the nearly 40 countries that I have ventured to since then.
In memory of the recently deceased and in respect of the living, I am ever grateful for the opportunities to have lived freely, loved dearly and pursued an artistic passion — no matter how fleeting. The adventures have been enormously rewarding, whether to foreign and familiar lands, or to have expressed myself through writings and songs. The destination, as cliche as it may sound, is not necessarily the end goal — but rather the journey itself.
May you also have the chance to live your lives with fewer regrets, higher hopes and greater fulfillment.
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