We are gathered around a table, sitting on low plastic stools; the table is heaving with plates of seafood, noodles and rice stacked on top of one another that are constantly being replenished. There is a hum of activity, the air frequently punctuated with joyful bouts of laughter from the adults and playful shrieks from the children. Every few minutes, a person cries out, ‘Một, hai, ba…dô!’ and glasses clink in unison.
This scene is being played out in the front courtyard of my grandfather’s house in Hoi An, a familiar place. A place of happy memories where moments like this are the norm rather than the exception.
This is my fourth visit to Hoi An, my parents’ home before they left Vietnam by boat. They spent time in a refugee camp in Hong Kong before eventually being sponsored to come to Australia. They left without telling their parents and siblings, and they never expected to be able to return or to see their family again.
Every time I return to Hoi An, I am more and more surprised by the changes that have taken place since I have last been there. My first visit in 1993, when I was 7 years old, brings back hazy memories of dusty dirt paths leading to my grandparents’ houses (my parents grew up across the road from each other), which were located a short 2-minute walk away from a then quiet beach. I remember there being one shop on the road that sold sweets and drinks. My next visit, when I was 18, saw the beginning of the internet boom. Flashy resorts were starting to emerge along Cua Dai Beach and internet cafes were springing up in the town. During my third visit, when I was 25, I stayed at one of these glitzy resorts which dominated the foreshore of Cua Dai beach; however, most of my time was spent down at the neighbouring An Bang Beach where my uncle had his seafood restaurant ‘Chay’. This beach was quieter with noticeably fewer tourists.
This time I’ve returned at the ripe old age of 30 with husband in tow. An Bang Beach is now swarming with tourists and my uncle’s seafood restaurant is one of many restaurants in a strip that includes beach bars that wouldn’t look out of place on Bali’s Kuta Beach. The dusty dirt path that led to my grandparents’ houses now has Mexican and South American eateries and expat-run bars. Westerners ride past on their motorbikes and bicycles. Signs screaming out ‘Homestays’ are plentiful. The once quiet beach near my grandfather’s house now has deckchairs which can be hired for sunbathing. The house next door to my grandfather has expats staying in it.
My father’s friend laments that the sense of community in the village has dissipated. Investors from Saigon and Hanoi have bought up the land which has increased in value considerably. Foreigners now stay for the long term, renting out homes near the beach as they live out the South-East Asian lifestyle they’ve always dreamed about. Doors which have always been open are now closed. Familiar faces have been replaced by strange ones. People who are still in the village are moving away because things have changed.
Such change is inevitable. We cannot expect to see the ubiquitous image of the old Vietnamese woman shouldering a bamboo pole for much longer.
However, my grandfather’s house is still there. There have been changes since my first visit in 1993. A toilet has been installed. We no longer have to shower next to the pig pen with boiled water from the well in the backyard. There is a washing machine. Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury, it’s an expectation.
Things have changed, but I can always rely on the familiarity of my family. Always constant in their warm embrace, their welcoming smiles and cheeky jokes. Always putting family above all else.
This is the Vietnam that I know. This is the Vietnam that I love. This is why I will always come back.
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