When I returned to the country of my birth, Vietnam, for the first time, my husband Merlin did not come with me. It was my wish – or rather, my promise to myself – that I would first come back with my brother to find out if we felt like foreigners after living for more than twenty years in Canada. I also did not know how my countrymen would react to my British husband. We had been together for eight years and married for two, long enough for us to become as comfortable together as an old pillow, although, in the eyes of others, we were still an odd and unlikely couple: he, a large Briton; me, a much smaller Vietnamese.
My brother and I chose to start our trip in the North where we had never travelled before. If we really felt like foreigners there, we thought it would not bother us too much.
My fear of feeling like an alien in my own country greeted me at the hotel, during my encounter with a smiling young receptionist. We spoke the same language, with the same accent, but her voice was stridently assertive while mine became reserved and distant. The twenty years of Vietnamese war breathed silently between us. We had absolutely nothing in common. This was definitely not my country and there was an ocean between me and my real country, where I had left Merlin. At that moment, I just wanted to turn around and sail back to that other shore and rest my head on his shoulder. This was not the first time I had travelled without him so I thought it would really be no big deal if we were apart for a couple of weeks. How wrong I was.
As the week went by, my unhappiness swelled intolerably. We were reminded of our foreigner status when we had to pay more than locals to visit museums and shrines. At night, loud arguments in the streets would wake us from our hot and sticky sleep. I could hear and understand every word, but their vulgarity was beyond my comprehension. The polite smiles and greetings of the hotel receptionists hid an assumed superiority and an unspoken mockery. This made me even more homesick and desperately lonesome for Merlin. Every evening, I went to the internet shop to send him emails: short and inconsequential messages about mundane things – how was he doing at work, if he remembered to weed our garden and water the house plants? At night, I wrote longer messages to him in my notebook, messages never sent, pouring out my heart and my tears. I wanted to be transported home at once, to wipe my eyes on his shirt and to listen to his beating heart.
After ten days, we made our way south. The Vietnam that we used to know gradually revealed itself with each mile travelled. The invisible shroud separating us from those around us began to lift as soon as we left Hanoi, and had dissipated completely by the time we reached Nha Trang, a city with which I have a particular bond – I was born there, and, as a teenager, I had returned a few times after our family moved to Saigon. Every morning, I walked to the beach to watch the sun rise – a huge, orange ball emerging from the blue calm of the Pacific Ocean. Back home, where my Merlin was, the sun was setting and I wondered if he was watching it from the window of his study. One evening, I sent a message to the moon that would be delivered to Merlin in Canada, twelve hours later. I slept that night comforted by the thought that the murmuring ocean between us would carry our every conversation.
Three years later, I returned to Vietnam with Merlin. During the week we were in Nha Trang, we watched the same sunrise every morning and the same full moon every evening. We bathed in the same ocean that had separated us on my previous visit. I frolicked in the same water just like the little girl who played there more than thirty years earlier.