On my third trip home since moving to Saigon, everyone started coming around. This time, the standard question “When are you coming back?” lost a bit of its currency. And Dad started to make vague comments about coming for a visit.
After some back-and-forth — involving food photos, viral videos and a harder sell than I’d yet given him — our plans evolved. He’d come over at the start of Tet break, celebrate his 70th birthday on Feb. 19 with all the other ‘Tet orphans’, then accompany me on my first whole-country travel.
On Feb. 17, Dad arrived. Fresh off 24 hours in transit, he was raring to go. I took him to the Tet flower market on the back of my bike. He thrilled at seeing a passing biker with seven beer cases stacked between his legs. He’d never expressed too much interest in my adoptive home, but now I could see it written on his face, and in all those photos he made me pose in.
Over the next couple Saigon days, we puttered around a bit. We saw the fireworks, and went over to my cleaner’s house the next day for Tet lunch. That night he blew out the candles on another birthday. A few friends came, and we Skyped my mother in when it was time for the birthday speech.
The next day we woke up, scrambled to the airport, and started our 12-day, five-stop grind.
I’d budgeted in three nights for Siem Reap — the only stop he’d explicitly requested — and booked the hotel. We thought getting the tour guide would be the easy part. But nothing is easy over Tet. We booked a car to take us around the temples, starting at sunrise. When our driver told us he’d wait in the car, we realised the deal. Siem Reap buyers beware: you will get charged for everything.
We chinned up and went exploring, along with 1,000 other people. But after an hour of bumping around and taking pictures of statues, we decided to look for some guidance. And here’s where we encountered our first challenge.
All of the tour guides were booked up, of course. But Dad improvised. While I went to the bathroom, he chatted with strangers. And a nice couple from California ended up inviting us to share their tour.
Day 1 was the small temple loop — Angkor Wat, Bayon (the one with 216 faces of the god-king carved in) and the tree-swarmed Tomb Raider temple. Then we attended the Vaudevillian Phare circus (pharecambodiancircus.org). It was super cool. Dad loves cultural stuff.
Day 2 was the large temple loop — far less crowded, no less beautiful. That night we went to Park Hyatt Siem Reap’s (siemreap.park.hyatt.com) free Apsara dance performance — damn spectacular, taking place twice weekly in the Hyatt’s pristine, fire-lit central courtyard. Then we met some friends at 1940s Shanghai-style Madame Wong Cocktail Bar (misswong.net) for a drink, which is more my kind of cultural experience.
Day 3 we headed to Kulen Mountain — the magic mountain where the Angkor kings harvested their temple stone. This was a holy place, a place of pilgrimage, where even the tourists seemed to be part of the magic.
The Fortune-Telling Monk
When Kim offered us a turn at prophecy, Dad told him a story. It was nearly 30 years ago that he got his last fortune told, this time in tarot. And it was damning. That night, he got a call about his mother — she’d just had a stroke. Over the next year, as both of his parents’ health deteriorated, his business struggled. The young man who’d told his fortune — one of my mother’s students — never read tarot again.
I, however, told Kim I’d do it.
I put a thin folio of Hindu Vedas on my head, parting its pages with a pencil. Handing it back to the monk, he told me about the page I’d landed on, describing Armara.
“Armara was chosen by the king, Mohov Shuth, to be his queen,” Kim translated. “She was a commoner, and was elevated to the royalty. Armara was really good, she was really educated, really useful. Everything got better.”
I asked about her parents — I’d made my pre-fortune wish for the happiness and good health of mine — and Kim said, “Sure, of course! For her parents too.”
Seeing my good luck, Dad decided to give it a try too. And he landed on the worst page in the book — about Yama, the god of judgment, who normally exists between hell and earth. When I asked Kim about Yama, he said, “In one day, the god of Yama got into hell to see what was going on. In one day, the assistants of the Yama burned everything in the hell.”
His wish had been for my good fortune.
On Kim’s urging, we started spreading money around — 100 Riel notes (VND500) to anyone who asked. We went up a winding staircase to pay our respects to the golden Buddha carved into the mountaintop, touching his eyes and mouth, dropping 100’s everywhere we could.
Later, swimming under a nearby waterfall, dunking young monks underwater while Dad watched, I felt like we’d finally redeemed ourselves.
Father Knows Best
Dad warned me that if we did certain things in our fairly upmarket hotels, we wouldn’t be invited back. He reminded me to write a TripAdvisor review for Karavansara, our Siem Reap accommodation. The sweet young manager Rel apparently talked with him for “10 minutes” about how nice it would be if we would do this. “It’s a good job for her,” he reasoned, “and it’s a small thing we can do to help her out.”
Sideways related to this is something I slowly realised: Dad is a prototypical mark. A woman approached us after our overpriced boat ride into Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, holding plates adorned with our blinking, mid-conversation faces, and Dad seemed to entertain her US$10 offer. Small moves that help me to avoid rip-offs in my daily life — like ordering food in Vietnamese — were futile. We paid VND50,000 a bowl for our streetside pho on our first night in Hanoi. I wasn’t looking to cause a scene.
The next day, Dad wanted to do some washing. Our schedule was pretty tight, only two nights in each place minus travel time. But Dad brought the Woolite.
After he did some sink washing we headed out for the night, leaving the shirts and underwear hanging by an open window. But Hanoi’s a bitch for line-drying, especially when your window opens onto a wall.
Everything was still damp when we got back, and we were leaving the hotel at 7.30am the next morning. So Dad improvised, and took the blow dryer to each article of clothing separately. I can still hear that sound in my mind.
This ties into Pro Tip #1: if it makes him happy, don’t fight it. Maybe Dad wants to spend your siesta time washing clothes he doesn’t need in the sink, maybe he wants to buy a US$10 T-shirt at Angkor Wat. If he’s happy, you should be happy.
I don’t know about your dads, but mine is the smartest man in the world.
In the morning, Dad was reading a book I bought him before the trip, Neil L. Jamieson’s Understanding Vietnam (never mind the two other books he tore through in the first week). Though I bought the book for him, I didn’t get past the first 30 pages, and he was teaching me things.
He read a poem to me at breakfast about colonial resentment:
Marry a mere boy for rice and a tunic?
Even in hunger and rags one still knows shame.
My parents taught me long ago,
A girl who runs after boys brings ridicule upon herself.
— Nguyen Khuyen
Like our tour guide in Siem Reap, this book gave Dad some context. It helped him to better understand what’s evolved here.
Later, we wandered into an exhibition of art about Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge, at Maison des Arts (maisondesartshanoi.com). Dad had just read about its birth, and this encounter was one of those synchronistic travel threads it seemed we were meant to pick up.
The owner, Nga, told us about her project, while Dad wisely held back. He’d just read about Paul Doumer, the governor-general of French Indochina at the time. During the bridge’s three-year construction, 3,000 forced labourers were drafted, many dying on the way to its completion.
But when Nga told us her motivation for preserving Long Bien, Dad began to understand how Vietnamese people make sense of their complex history.
“We believe there are many souls under the bridge,” Nga said.
The Rest of the Trip
I don’t want this to turn into one of my Skype phone calls home (Mom will be more than happy to fill you in on the details). Suffice it to say we had fun, through cafés, hotels and laundry blow-drying sessions. We did some light tourism in Hue’s Imperial City and on Victoria Can Tho’s up-river excursions. I tried to match Dad up with some cool, age-appropriate friends. Even now, a month after him leaving, my friends are still asking about him — and teasing me about having had a glimpse into my future.
We slowed down after Hanoi — we did about six different things in our one full day there — instead concentrating on eating well, hanging out in our lush hotels (and swimming in La Résidence Hue’s and Victoria Can Tho’s lush pools) and walking around aimlessly. These are basically the things I do in my everyday life here, the life I wanted to let Dad see.
When we returned to Saigon, we met more friends, went to more cafés. We bought more shirts (to make a total of 20+ on the trip), and spent one of our dinners going place to place to get in as much of my local favourites as we could. The next night, Dad took my friends out to Cuc Gach Quan.
On the morning he was leaving, he told me something he’d expressed a few times already. “I see why you want to live here,” he said. He saw the energy of this place, he went on, it was all around.
And that’s the best thing he left me with, besides for a five-pound salami and two loaves of rye bread. The idea that he gets what my life here is about, and he approves.
A Quick Intro to Dad
— He was born in Philadelphia, and currently resides in New Jersey
— He owns a documentary film distribution business
— While working in the New York City Dept. of City Planning, he supported my Uncle Fred’s petition about releasing snakes in the city to help with the rat problem
— He loves classical music, and thinks our cat does too
— He once ate 14 lobsters at a single lobster buffet sitting
Where We Stayed
Siem Reap — Karavansara Retreat (karavansara.com)
A boutique-styled hotel with a trellised, white Modernist concrete facade. Their sister property is in Kyoto, Japan
Hanoi — Tryst Hotel (trysthotel.com)
A tidy, sleek and inexpensive location near Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We never did learn why it was called “Tryst”
Hue — La Résidence (la-residence-hue.com)
A luxury hotel adapted from the old French governor’s mansion, with a beautiful pool added on. The colonial aura was strong in this one
Hoi An — Pomelo Garden Homestay Villa (pomelohomestay.com)
This four-room homestay was built by two former five-star hotel employees, right near a bucolic shrimp pond
Can Tho — Victoria Can Tho Resort (victoriahotels.asia/cantho)
Our last stop of the trip, Victoria Can Tho provided the relaxation we were looking for — in an all-inclusive resort type of setting