A week before our family's return trip to Vietnam after a 38 and a half year absence, Typhoon Haiyan was predicted to centerpunch central Vietnam; then, improbably, it skipped the area and cruised north. In the near four decades since we escaped on April 28, 1975, only our mother and two of my sisters have returned to Vietnam. This occasion sees the five of us and our mother all reunited in Vietnam. The only person missing, of course, is my father.
All my life, Huế has been a word and a story, the home my father yearned for and knew he could never see again. He left her when he was fifteen and was returned to her embrace only a year ago when my mother brought half his ashes back and spread them over his mother's grave. There was no question that Huế would form an integral part of my itinerary in Vietnam, the other half dedicated to my mother's home town of Phan Thiết.
I'm told before my flight to Huế that it's expected to rain nonstop. Instead, a cool, bright day meets me when we land. I give a silent salute to Dad, almost certain that he's pulled some strings to make my first day in Huế a sunny one. I'm accompanied by my brother and our friends, Mike and Eileen.
Seven generations of my family have lived and died in Huế. After 1975, only cadet members of the family tree remained; everyone else left, immigrating to other countries, or being forced into re-education camps for siding with the westernized Republic of Vietnam. My brother was born in Vietnam, was two months old when we fled. And here we are, the oldest and the youngest of our branch of the family tree. We don't belong here and yet we do.
Huế is the former imperial capital, the seat of the Nguyen lords, later to become Emperors. Its cuisine allegedly accounts for 1400 of the 1700 known Vietnamese dishes because the royal palates were so discerning that the Emperors demanded new dishes every day.
My cousin aptly describes Huế food as Vietnamese tapas, a progression of interlocking flavors and textures designed to please, rather than overwhelm. These are dishes seldom found on the menu in a Vietnamese restaurant. They're time consuming to make and they're generally shared among family. Some of the dishes can be esoteric to western palates accustomed to dishes no more exotic than the ubiquitous phở or chả giò. Mike and Eileen, who have known us for over two decades and who have eaten frequently with us, are astonished to discover heretofore unknown Vietnamese dishes.
Driving into Huế from the airport is at first disappointing, the road flanked by houses of every conceivable style, ranging from tin shanties to three story French colonial houses. The outskirts of Huế make for a distressing and bemusing ride. Oh God, I think. This could not possibly be the misty city which called to my father all his life? Of course it isn't; because once we enter the actual city, it's a different story altogether. The Perfume River cuts a blue swath through Huế and the city teems with life, the lovely streets shadowed by large trees. There are echoes of imperialism in the colonialist architecture, and the remnants of majesty linger.
We are staying at the Hotel St. Morin. Built in 1901, it was once known as the "Grand Hotel of Huế" and was the primary meeting place for the French colonial community. It overlooks the Perfume River and retains its Indochine colonial glamour. I am every where surrounded by the lilting Huế accent, which makes me miss my father even more impossibly than I already do.
For the first two days, it's warm, sunny. Everyone tells us this is unusual, as during this time of year, Huế is normally cloudy, grey, and raining steadily throughout the day. Vietnam's answer to Seattle. On the first day, we make our way to my family's gravesite in the mountains; mausoleums, family cemeteries and sepulchers cluster along the mountainside like a giant valley of the dead. The mountain itself is a necropolis.
The burial site is relatively small, housing the raised grave beds of my paternal grandfather, his younger brother; his first wife; and his second, who was my paternal grandmother. Originally, they had been buried in the gardens behind my grandfather's sprawling residential complex in the city. But in 1975, when the new government seized control, they appropriated the residence and demanded that the bodies be removed. My father's younger brother had the task of digging up his family members, then reinterring them in the mountains where they now rest. It is over my grandmother's grave that half of my father's were spread, in accordance with his wishes.
On our way back to the city, my uncle takes us to Hàng Mẹ, renowned among the locals for its food. The owner/third generation cook brings us: bánh bèo, bánh lá, bánh bột lọc, bánh nậm, banh ram, and bánh ướt tôm cháy. It's little more than street food and we choose to ignore the "kitchen" set up which would drive any US city health inspector absolutely, freaking insane. It's a good tactic because the dishes are heavenly, perfectly authentic.
On the second day, after an impossibly generous buffet at the St. Morin, where I indulge in Bún bò Huế, the region's famous spicy beef and pork noodle soup, fried bánh chưng (savory rice cakes filled with mung bean and pork and steamed in banana leaves), and of course, my beloved bánh bèo, the steamed rice flour crepes with shrimp, we visit the Citadel and the Forbidden City. The grand residence and complex housed the Emperors, their families and their courts. In the grand esplanade, where the civilian and military mandarins gathered twice a month to meet with the Emperor, I stand next to one of the stelaes on the left. My paternal grandfather was a civilian mandarin, with governing responsibility for three of the provinces and this is where he would have stood.
That night, we go to a lovely restaurant whose second story gives us the illusion of being in the tree tops. If only good food had not likewise been an illusion. I'm so incensed to have had a bad meal in Vietnam that I rant and vent at my mom and my aunt on a phone call that night. They are likewise aggravated and call the tour operator to cancel all his preplanned meals and restaurant stops.
"I don't care about views," I tell our guide. "I care about good food. Clean is important, but great food is a must. I cannot be in my dad's hometown and eat crap food." He's a local. I leave it in his hands to take us where the food is made for locals, not tourists.
We are much more pleased the next day at Ancient Huế restaurant, with its French colonial design and upscale interiors; but mostly because the food is as delectably refined as Hàng Mẹ's was simply rustic. It's here that Eileen encounters bánh khoái, a fried rice flour crèpe filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, onions and greens. A Huế taco. My dad would laugh at that description, I know he would have.
Dad, why did you never tell me about the rain in Huế?
It begins to rain that afternoon, the sky dark and pensive, a fine mist of rain steadily increasing to a melancholy patter. Our guide notes the downpour and says, "Without the rain, Huế would not be Huế." He tells us how some of Vietnam's finest poets, writers and musicians and lyricists are from Huế; and how the persistent and sometimes gloomy rain influenced much of their romantic and mournful works.
I'm watching the torrent from the St. Morin, observing the locals as they move along the street, some with umbrellas, others with plastic ponchos; they do not rush, they do not run. They are in sync with the rain, accepting the precipitation as a natural part of their daily rhythm.
"Miss! Ma'am! It's raining out! Would you like to come in?" The staff of the St. Morin don't know what to make of my standing outside in the steady drizzle.
"No, thank you," I demur, waving away the offer of an umbrella. I don't want to explain that I'm baptizing myself in the waters of my forebears.
Huế settles over me like a second skin and something inside sighs and says, "Yes. This."
There's a Welsh word, "hiraeth" which, roughly translated, means a homesickness affected with yearning, longing, nostalgia, and wistfulness for a place that was, or might never have existed except in one's imagination.
It's almost as if the word was invented to describe how I feel about Huế.