I am sitting in Thuy and Thanh's house next to a table filled with food after enjoying a feast of pork and duck "cooked over fire," rice noodles, cucumbers, greens and the tiniest of satsumas. This food sits on a table with candles lit next to an altar, and Thuy's baby is sleeping in a cradle next to me while I type. Thuy and Thanh are right outside with the fabric. Today commemorates the passing of Thuy and Thanh's mother's grandmother, so when I arrived at the stand this morning, Thanh said, "My mother would like to invite you to eat. In fifteen minutes." That's the amount of time her grandmother and ancestors needed to enjoy the offering.
I usually only eat duck in really nice restaurants, but of course, this duck is cooked perfectly. Is there anything in this country that is not cooked perfectly?
"They are saying 'It's been two years," Thanh tells me, since she joins me on the first part of the walk. Garlic Lady hits me and repeatedly makes the "two" sign at me. She is saying something like "It's been two years since I said "hello" to you!"
And, yes, my first meal this morning was rice cakes. Best. Breakfast. Ever. It was quite a reunion with my favorite neighborhood cooks.
After breakfast I went by Candle Lady's house and got a warm greeting from out of the crawl space I wrote about in my vignette published in this month's Sun Magazine - she has no idea that her act of kindness is now known all across America.
I arrived yesterday at 11:30 - Thuy, Thanh, Thanh's baby, Huang, Ms. Hao (Sweet Seamstress) and Ut (her brother, whom we thought was her son for two years) got to the airport at 10:30 to meet my 11:30 flight, but somehow we missed each other. I walked out of the international gate to see hundreds of Vietnamese waiting to greet passengers and expected to see them jumping up and down, but after walking back and forth for an hour, I finally caught a taxi to the hotel. At 2, Thanh finally called the hotel to see if I was there. So after waiting 3 1/2 hours, my loyal welcome crew poured out of the taxi in front of my hotel, with unfulfilled anticipation mixed with loyalty and some very droopy welcome lilies.
While waiting for them to arrive, I sat out in front of the hotel, just breathing in the neighborhood - heat and soup and fire - or a mix of something like that. After sitting for about five minutes, I hear, "Maggie!" I look down the alley to see Mr. Seven, the driver I used to use when Nam wasn't there to take me to school. I walked over to greet him, and he, like everyone else, held up two fingers. Two years. They all want to know if I am working. No, I say, I stay in the hotel.
The night was filled with walking around the neighborhood, greeting old friends.
This next part is hard. But I will tell it to you like Thanh told me.
We walked by Nam's mother's house and I said, "Have you seen Nam?" Because he lives in a different neighborhood and only comes to visit his mother. I couldn't wait to see him and ask him to drive me around.
Thanh stopped, looked at me and held my shoulder.
She paused before saying, "Maggie. Don't cry."
I knew what was coming next, but you know how you wait and hope that it's not what is actually coming.
"Yes. I sorry. I cry for you when I hear. Motorbike."
"How do you know?" was my first question, because I was thinking that she didn't really know. And suddenly my throat was dry and I felt lightheaded. Jet lag plus shock.
Thanh just gestured to the neighborhood. Of course she knew. The neighborhood - they are family.
So last night I slept fitfully, waking up to so many thoughts of Nam.
This morning, I ask Thanh to visit his family - his sister, mother and Minh - his nephew, with me. We pick up flowers, dragon fruit and mangoes and go to his mother's house. She still lies on the hard bench in the front room - in exactly the same place she was two years ago. His sister comes in and Thanh and she speak for a moment. I can hear Thanh saying "Not Nam?" and hope rises in me - she did make a mistake. But no, she tells me that his name is actually "Dung" - not "Nam." (Later I clarify that "Nam" is his nickname, for the fifth child born.) I hold his mother's hand while she and Nam's sister cry and tell Thanh what happened. Nam was driving with his wife and daughter on the back of the bike when a "cowboy" grabbed his wife's purse. They went down, and both his wife and daughter broke both legs. Nam took them to the hospital, then home. He took them both upstairs, then came down, and during the night, he died while lying on the floor. No one knows exactly why. It happened ten days ago.
My driver - the man who drove me to school and back every day for a year, who introduced me to the best food in Saigon, who brought me gifts for Tet and who drove me crazy and who didn't want me to buy high heels. My good friend.
I can't process it. I went for a walk last night to try to stay awake longer, and kept seeing "him" - xe om drivers dressed in blue driving shirts. They all looked like him.
So I am sad. And happy. And in shock. My heart is racing non-stop.
More than anything, though, right now I feel overwhelming love for this place.