If you ever walk by a plumeria tree, you probably won’t forget the fragrance that fills the air. I secretly searched for them on my travels in the south of Vietnam only to find a handful living in odd places. People no longer have plumeria trees in their yards. I guess they don’t have a need for them anymore. I asked a friend of mine to which she promptly explained. People are slowly cutting them down due to their lack of monetary potentials. I still didn’t really get it. The one my grandparents had never brought them any money, but it stood for years and years before the river swallowed it.
I hear it from everyone. Land value is rising. Farmers are selling their land quickly to cash in on the incline. I don’t blame them. I’d do the same. It’s people like me who have time to search for these sentimental things. People like me who are lucky to not have to worry about the survival of everyday life. Not that I don’t worry, but it’s a different kind affliction. Growing up in another country, I’ve always wondered where life would have taken me if I had stayed. I’m not sure if I’d be sentimental about anything at this point.
To my surprise, I ran into a long row of white plumeria trees on a walk through Nguyen Hue walking street. I spotted their unmistakable dome-shaped silhouettes from afar like giant umbrellas shielding from the sun. Curvy branches intertwined and converged towards the hazy sky. I thought about how strange it was to find them here in the city, where I least expected them to be. Nonetheless, I was happy to see them. As I got closer, the aroma of the plumeria blossoms became more powerful. It was almost like sweetness of honey evaporated and coated every air molecule. I picked up a few flowers from the sidewalk to get a closer look. Their ivory white petals still delicately soft to the touch. A breeze ran through the trees as streetlights came on for the evening. It was the perfect beginning for a night in the city.
I looked around at the fancy buildings recently erected, and I wondered if the trees like living here. I imagined them feeling a bit strange like the way I felt walking through these streets. Life in the countryside suddenly seemed so much more enticing. That’s where I’d like to live, but sometimes these kinds of things are not choices we can make. They still cast a beautiful silhouette against a sky of skyscrapers. They still give off that sweet aroma tourists can enjoy. I guess what is unfamiliar will eventually become familiar.
Stepping onto the boat to cross the Cửu Long river, I could not stop the overcoming feeling of solitude. The scent of this river was all too familiar to my nostalgic senses, even after all these years. The inhabitants of this river, generations after generations, remained the livelihood of this part of the Mekong Delta. I have always been a visitor here, though as a child, I have bathed and swam in its branches reaching far into the outskirts of town.
As far as my eyes could see, through the haziness of the tropical sun, a few small clusters of water hyacinth aimlessly float on the river’s glassy surface. As a child, I often wondered how lonely life must have been for them. I remember, some thirty years ago, counting them as they passed by on the side of the ferry crossing this river. It was like they somehow shared their sentiments in a moment of vulnerability. It’s not the kind of calming and introspective solitude you’d wish for, but a futile sense of yearning to belong. Life was not easy even as children. I couldn’t possibly imagine how hard it must have been for my mother. I would wander up and down the ferry jam-packed with people, some crippled, some diseased, and some was just trying to make a living. My mom would wake us early, even earlier than the rooster’s crow, to take the four of us across this river into the city. My two older sisters and younger brother would be half-asleep for the first part of the trip. It was always an all-day ordeal. By the time we make it to the city, mom was exhausted, and we were wide awake. Even though I feared these trips back then, I only long for them now just to feel that way again.
Once in a while, a blooming hyacinth bud would pass by, shining atop of the muddy brown river water. I can still see myself as small as the greenest leaf, as crisp as the freshest bloom. As the lightest of touch of lavender smiled at me with solitude, a childish sense of yearning came to me. And I realized, what I yearned to be, I have become, and where I longed to be, I am.
Coming back from another run to the neighboring city, we met the rain at the entrance to town. At first just a few scattered specks, and before I knew it, my sunglasses were shrouded. In shorts and a T-shirt sitting in the back of my nephew’s motorbike, I was dusted in the softest raindrops. Every hair on my exposed skin stood up to welcome them. Out of the corner of my eyes, I can see the gray clouds hovering over every corner of the afternoon sky. I knew it was going to be a good one.
Fortunately for us, my cousin’s house is less than a kilometer away. A few of my grandfather’s relatives decided to join us for dinner. We gathered, ate, and said our goodbyes. Seven hours later, the rain continued. And I don’t mean the kind of drawn-out trickling rain. Downpour after downpour, the rain soaked ground gave up its yielding ways. Water poured from every crevice of what was earlier today parched ground. I stayed inside, but my curiosity leaped through the window into the ankle deep layer of water standing in the front yard. It immediately brought me back to childhood, spending these rainy days with my younger brother and the neighborhood kids. We used to run naked through the streets free of obligations, and absent of worries. The cold raindrops on my bare skin always left me with an irreplaceable sensation of purity. I imagined it would be somewhat similar to being baptized, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve only seen it on TV.
We would race through the streets filled with laughter and overflowed with excitement. Sometimes when it rained so hard like it was today, every drop felt like tiny fingers tapping me on the shoulders, urging me to partake in the celebration of typhoon season. Only that today, it is barely the month of January of the lunar calendar year. This kind of downpour at this time is rarely seen. A part of me thought superstitiously, and the other parts reasoned with science. Flowers in the front yard that my aunt has tediously cared for many months before the arrival of the new year seemed to have succumbed to the force of gravity. I lay awake under the tin roof listening to melodious sound of the rain. When I close my eyes, I imagined the sea bringing in a convoy of waves colliding into each other onto shore. The sound I very much embrace, the sound of sleep, and the sound of peace.
That’s how these things go. I’m always inevitably pulled into these awkward situations where I’m bound to engage in semi-formal conversations with neighbors and distant relatives all over this stretch of dirt path. Everything seems a little smaller every time I come here, from this dirt road to my grandparents’ house where I had spent most of my summers as a kid. The fact is, everything has gotten bigger. I can tell from the narrowing river inlet that has graced the front of our house for as long as I can remember.
I’m reminded of how different we all are now. We’ve adapted and evolved to become the essence of who we are. Is it a product of our environment? Absolutely. But that’s no surprise. I’m more interested in what connects us. Take my little cousin Nhí (his nickname) for example. He and I had a lengthy conversation tonight catching up on the ten plus years that have passed us. I stayed silent for the most part, listening intently only to decipher a fraction of our conversation. Admittedly I have no knowledge of what he was saying, but nonetheless, I caught up quickly.
I’ve known he has had a rough beginning. We grew up together in this village, though I was more fortunate than he. Tonight, he spoke with an overwhelming sense of honesty as if he had speculated my apprehension in his words. He is now a husband, a father, and a salesman/electrician. Previously he was a delivery driver for an insecticide company traveling throughout the Mekong delta into Cambodia and Laos. He proceeded to tell me about a slew of other professions he has had, some in conjunction with others, just earning enough to feed his family in this tough economy. He insinuated a lack of resources and the demands for his type of work changes on a daily basis. I can see his eyes gleaming for new opportunities, and his brain forming new schemes as we spoke. I followed the lines on his forehead down to his cheeks stippled by the sun. It was not with a sense of curiosity or judgement, but with pure affection and admiration. I realized how much of him and his life I did not know. How he had to navigate through childhood and adult life on his own. How he had managed to stay afloat to support himself, his wife, and his child. The harsh conditions of living in this place forced him to be skillful, resilient, and a lot of times, cunning. I could tell at times when he puts his head down mid-sentence that he was not proud of the things he had done, and that’s just it. In that way we are the same. We meet at this junction where we do what we must. We survive.
We lived separate lives, on separate continents. Like our environments, we mold ourselves to get where we need to go, and who we need to be. Just like my grandparents’ house, just like the narrowing river, we too transform with time. I still remember the sparkle in his big brown eyes when he was young, and yes, they still shine. Even though the lines on his face, the hair on his chin, or the calluses on rugged his hands may have tried to disguise the boy I knew before, he and I are still very much the same. And in that moment, I began to understand, who we are.
I’m wide awake. It’s almost three am. Exhilarated, jet-lagged, drenched in relief to have made it to Vīnh Long without a hitch. The long trip was anticipated but the jitters are keeping me up at this hour. It’s probably the lack of sleep, but who knows, I might have drank too many espressos at Taoyuan airport. Maybe I’m subconsciously celebrating Tet as it creeps up on this day. Even in this state of mind, I somehow feel at ease amidst the concert of frogs and insects outside my steel-framed window. It’s still pitch black outside, as black as I remembered. The nights here bring out the mysterious side of this land, and apparently I’ve forgotten these early mornings embodied the same. In which case, I will stay inside my mosquito net and wait for the sun to rise…