The following is written by CJN correspondent Sagi Melamed and his son Guy.
Father: The plane comes in for a landing as I reach the end of the Netflix series The Vietnam War, watching the American flag lowered for the last time outside the embassy in Saigon and a North Vietnamese tank bursting into the compound. U.S. military helicopters abandon tens of thousands of South Vietnamese collaborators. America leaves this terrible war with its tail between its legs, after horrendous casualties. I close the iPad and prepare to land… in Saigon – today Ho Chi Minh City.
When my son Guy asked me to join him for part of his post-army trip (a ritual for young Israelis), I couldn’t refuse. We picked Vietnam. Apart from the beaches, culture, and heritage, the Vietnam War has been one of my fascinations. I read books, watched movies, and even took an academic course about the war. When I got here, it took me a few days to internalize that not every waiter was former Viet Cong, nor would napalm rain down on us.
At the airport I suddenly understood I was in a communist country. Going through passport control I worried about being delayed. And I rushed to find Guy and hug him. I hadn’t seen him for three months, the longest time apart since he was born 25 years ago.
Son: It was weird sharing a room with my father in the middle of my post-army Grand Trip. Right before I met him I started worrying I’d made a big mistake. Will partying the night away turn into tea and cookies? Will he bug me to get a shave and haircut? Will it be embarrassing to introduce myself: “I’m Guy and this is… my father”? Maybe asking him to come along wasn’t such a great idea. Of course, I’m not complaining about the upgraded accommodation and dining arrangements. A hotel room with a full bathroom is a vast improvement over dorm bunk beds and 12 people crammed into a room, as are restaurants compared to bread rolls from a street vendor.
Father: My paternal instinct tells me to look after my son. But it is my son who takes care of his father on the streets of Saigon– crossing them is Mission Impossible, with motorbikes that threaten to mow me down at every pedestrian crossing.
On a visit to the Saigon War Museum we view the war from the Vietnamese perspective. I thought I should not burden my son, recently released from a long and challenging army service, with images of the horrors of that war. He had enough images of his own. But in the end it was I who asked him if we could end our visit prematurely, when the misery began to overcome me.
Son: I’m not the greatest at keeping in touch, but during my Grand Trip I made sure I called home every Friday to catch up with my family. Then suddenly my father was here by my side, not just for a 10-minute phone conversation but for two weeks of traveling together. His sudden appearance made me reflect on the routine of the trip. The adventures and extended travels that over time became routine, started to make me long for routine in the original sense. I think about my home and my friends. About the future, near and distant. I remember that eventually this dream-like time will be over, but unlike the feeling I get when I think of the temporary nature of this trip, the sight of my father actually calms me down, telling me wordlessly “to everything there is a season.”
Father: Đà Lạt is a city built in the French style located between Swiss-style mountains. Only the waves of motor scooters and the smoky food stalls remind us these streets are Vietnamese and we are in the Orient.
Guy didn’t feel well. His stomach. He stayed in the hotel to rest. I went out by myself, climbed stone steps between rustling pines up a hill to the Trúc Lâm Zen monastery. A Zen center calms the soul. The garden, the slow-walking monks, the gong, or even just knowing that those around you are masters of their minds. Here and there I found myself sitting across from a monk, discussing the past that is no more, the future that is yet to come, and the here and now that is the only thing that exists.
Son: Up to now I have gone everywhere by motorbike. The vistas are far more impressive with the wind in your face and you are more alert than if you were dozing in the back seat of a taxi. I had hoped to do the same in Vietnam, but I wasn’t sure how my father would react. I imagined him vetoing the idea with “It’s dangerous and I’m too old for that.” But he surprised me.
Father: In Grade 10 I went to the American School in The Hague. I would park my bike in the entrance to the school and look enviously at the motorbikes of my American classmates. My desire for a motorbike faded with the years, but when Guy suggested it, I was happy to fulfill my teenage dream.
So I found myself on a motor scooter tour of Đà Lạt, riding behind Nguyen, a local guide, who claimed a monk told him he had been Israeli in a previous incarnation. Guy rode his own motor scooter. At first I held my breath and gripped the rear seat, terrified, glancing at Guy as he expertly maneuvered through the crazy traffic, but gradually my fear subsided at the glorious sights.
The tour included a visit to a silk farm, a demonstration of rice noodle production, learning about the black pepper industry, seeing a spectacular waterfall and lookout points, and more. The crowning glory was a visit to coffee plantations where the taste of the coffee beans is improved by passing through the digestive tract of a weasel before roasting.
I asked Nguyen why he doesn’t open branches in other cities in Vietnam, to exploit the reputation and fame he earned in Đà Lạt. “I have enough work here, I don’t need other places.” I wondered what Harvard Business School would have thought of that attitude, which encapsulates the difference between the Buddhist entrepreneur and the American – the latter would have been preoccupied with expansion, whereas the former thinks: I am successful and happy, and that is sufficient.
Son: On the tour with Nguyen we stopped at a coffee plantation. On the outskirts of the large store that sold the plantation’s products stood a café overlooking the coffee trees. We ordered the famous Vietnamese “weasel coffee” and sat looking at the view. “Wow, your dad’s a hero, touring with you on a motorbike,” says Tamu, a vacationing Dutch student sitting next to me. “My dad would never visit the East, it disgusts him”
I nod in agreement regarding my father’s heroism as the waiter delivers our coffee. The prestigious drink drips slowly through the filter into the cups, like the sand in an hourglass. Tamu and I watch impatiently. “I’ve had enough waiting,” I say, and removed the filter to take a tentative sip. “Blech! Disgusting!” I pull a face. “At these prices, how dare they serve it lukewarm?!”
Tamu laughs. “Don’t forget, it’s not just coffee – it’s also weasel dung!” He pats me on the shoulder consolingly. “It’s probably the most you’ll ever pay in for a cup of excrement, so you should at least try to enjoy it!”
Father: Hanoi. Last hug to Guy. Not sure when will be the next one. Flashes: His first cry in Rambam hospital, coming out screaming to the world: I am here and plan to make a difference! First day of school (he didn’t want to go. We forced him to. And now he wants to be a Doctor…). Bar Mitzvah. Teaching Karate together. His challenging military service… Only yesterday I was reading to him Cat In The Hat before bed time, and now I am flying home, and Guy continues his big trip tomorrow, to Australia, no less.
Wondering how the last two weeks impacted our relationships. Happy for him that he is able to set free, first time in his life. After 25 years of structures and duties, and before university, jobs, family, and other (good) expected stages of life – he is totally free to do whatever he aspires to do.
Good bye Vietnam. No more you are associated with the (horrible) Vietnam War. From now on Vietnam will be where I (joyfully) re-bonded with my first-born son.