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The Homecoming Meal

May 07, 1997|MAI PHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Pham is chef-owner of Lemon Grass restaurant and cafes in Sacramento and author of "The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking (Prima Publishing, 1995)

QUOI SON, Vietnam — I squint as I gaze out over the lush green landscape before me as the ferry docks in this small village near My Tho, about 50 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Rice fields span the horizon, punctuated here and there by coconut palms and zigzag waterways bouncing silvery reflections across the plains.

The sun is scorching hot, and I'm weary from hours of driving on potholed roads, but I'm wildly excited. My heart is beating fast; I'm nervous. Soon, I will be seeing my grandmother for the first time in more than 20 years. It's the moment I have been waiting for.

She's a tall, kind woman, my ba noi. My 97-year-old grandmother shows outwardly what she is on the inside: compassionate, perky, almost naively positive. She laughs heartily and every time she does, her tiny nose wrinkles, her eyes smile and her laughter resonates in the room.

At least, that's how I like to remember my grandmother.

The last time I had seen her, she wasn't so jovial. It was April 1975, just days before Communist tanks rolled toward Saigon. My family and I were about to be evacuated, along with thousands of others.

Just as we were leaving, my grandmother, who was staying behind, came running out, crying as I'd never seen anyone cry before. Leaning against the front gate of our home and beating her head against a post, she bewailed our fate. Why had the war turned out this way, she cried; how long would we be separated?

We agonized over leaving but feared for our lives if we stayed, because my father was a high-ranking official in the South Vietnamese government.

After fighting our way through the chaos and pandemonium at the Saigon airport, we finally boarded a military cargo plane for the airlift to the U.S.

When the plane took off, we were speechless and torn, wondering about those who were left behind, crying and screaming on the runway. When my mind flashed back to the last images of my grandmother, I became deeply distressed, anguished, even angry.

*

Now, 22 years later, I'm returning to Vietnam for the first time to see my beloved grandmother. Even though I have dreamed of going back since the day I arrived in America years ago, I had never worked up the courage. I couldn't face the past. Until now.

Even though Quoi Son is my ancestral village--both my parents and grandparents were born here--I was never allowed to set foot in this area during the war. By the time I was a teenager, fierce battles had broken out nearby, and one never dared to venture here, where one flag would fly during the day and another at night. During the Tet offensive in 1968, my grandmother's home was burned down, apparently to keep soldiers from hiding under her roof.

Quoi Son is now a peaceful village where families still farm the land the way their ancestors did--by hand, with buffalo by their side. The most precious crop of the land, rice, dominates this delta, but coconut, longans, custard apples, mangoes and pineapples are becoming equally important because they bring in more cash.

At the public square near the ferry, the market bustles with fervor. Although it's packed with dozens of old buses, motorcycle taxis and xe lams (Vespas with passenger trailers), vendors still manage to squeeze through and hawk everything from trai thanh long, or dragon fruit (which tastes like very sweet kiwi), to live chickens, fresh noodles and banana leaf-wrapped rice cakes.

My grandmother lives five miles down the main road from the market. It's been raining on and off the last few days and the roads are muddy. Our driver, worried about damaging his 1980 Mazda van, drives slowly and cautiously. Around here, cars are prized because few people can afford them.

As we drive along the bumpy road, I keep thinking about all the miles that my grandmother must have walked to catch the ferry to visit us when we lived in Saigon. (Back then there was no public transportation from the ferry to her home.) She never came empty-handed, always showing up at our doorstep with three or four heavy baskets of live chickens, fresh mushrooms, bamboo shoots and dozens of other foods she'd spent days preparing. To my grandmother, food is the only expression of love that matters, and the more you care, the more you give.

My uncle and aunt, who are traveling with me today, point to my grandmother's house, the one with the big pomelo tree in front. We pull over and before the van even stops, a crowd of relatives runs out to greet us. We all embrace, then laugh and cry. For a moment it's like a dream, until I look again at their wrinkled faces and graying hair and realize that this is all quite real.

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