Chi Vân was beyond helpful when it came to guiding us to particular destinations in the south of Vietnam. Taking us out to the orphanage was generous enough. Our next excursion, however, would take us a few hours south of the large city, into an oceanic region where the Gulf of Thailand meets the South China Sea.
Chi Vân led us through Saigon once again, taking us on major highways, over bridges, down inconspicuous back lanes that you’d swear were just for foot traffic. It took nearly an hour or so just to get to the industrial city limits and onto a major freeway populated with vehicles of every kind.
I have to mention, before I continue, that we had all of our shit on us.
We weren’t yet comfortable with the idea of leaving our belongings overnight somewhere, let alone for several days. Somehow, we got lucky enough to have rented a motorbike with the largest under-seat storage area that we’d seen yet. We managed to fit both of our day bags underneath and our primary backpacks were wedged, one between the two of us and the other in between myself and the handlebars. It doesn’t take very long to get uncomfortable in a situation like this on a little moped. Dealing with physical awkwardness was something we had begun to get comfortable with.
So we hit the freeway and traveled south for about an hour before changing trajectories, westward. By this time, the roads were clogged with buses, vans, cars, and semis. It was vehicular madness. Myself, with all of the other moped drivers, were up on a sidewalk-like path that had no pedestrians.
After about half an hour, we broke out of it and changed direction once again, onto a wide open road where I could travel as fast I wanted to. At this point, Chi Vân had had enough and gave us verbal instructions regarding our remaining path. For the most part it was really direct from then on. We thanked her graciously for her saintly assistance and continued on our way.
After driving on scores more kilometers ahead, we started to become uncertain if we’d lost our way or missed some critical junction. We pulled to the side and jumped off, to gather our bearings and get in some much needed stretching. The backpacks were killing us.
We had a Vietnamese sim card in my phone and were able to try out the long number that we’d hoped would reach Teresa’s Uncle, Bác Tân, who was set to meet us, somewhere along the side of the road. We didn’t get through, but Teresa eventually spotted a large Catholic church that she thought she recognized. A few hundred meters further, and there was Bác Tân, already commenting on how crazy I was for even driving a motorbike in the first place.
Bác Tân is Teresa’s mother, Cô Mến’s, closest brother. Not quite the oldest, but certainly one with brotherly, even paternal, influence in her life. It was he who convinced Cô Mến to flee to the final stretches of the South as the Viet Cong began to overrun the entire country in 1975. She was the only one of her 11 siblings who escaped during this tumultuous era of history.
She was only 16 at the time and there was a great deal of uncertainty and fear of what was to come after the Southern Vietnamese army, and their Western allies, were defeated. Several boats, some in horrible condition, awaited to transport as many potential refugees as could be squeezed in the shoddy confines. I was told stories of illnesses leading to death, suicides, violent crimes, and bodies being thrown overboard, both living and dead. I can’t imagine the disillusion that comes with escaping one nightmare, only to land neck deep in the next one.
Her resilience allowed her to survive the journey, to a small Indonesian island, Galang, in the middle of the sea. Her stay there is a whole other matter, one impossible to allot due to the restrictions of this medium.
Bác Tân told us of many of these stories in his home, directly adjacent to the house belonging to Co Men that we were privileged to be staying in, undoubtedly the nicest we’d experienced since arriving in Asia. But the strong sense of family that was warmly projected towards us was the most memorable and touching aspect of this visit. And the fresh, home cooked Viet food just blew it out of the water.