Her Name Is…

When I told my Dad I would be returning to Viet Nam (after being there only a couple months before), he gave me a rather amused look.

“Anybody I know,” he asked?

Certainly, the question was meant to be light-hearted.  But, it got me to wonder.

I didn’t know the answer then, and I still don’t now.  Not clearly, anyway.


She does not really have a name of her own.  She can be any name you call her.  She can be anyone you want her to be.  She can look however you want her to look.  She is equally alluring in a short, revealing dress–with little in the ways of undergarments–as she is in a soft, regal áo dài.

She is often not easy to get along with.  Most of the time, she is edgy, angry. She constantly swirls around you, in her manic dance, her orchestrated chaos, until your head spins so hard.  Then, she does it some more.

But one can also find her in a gentler mood, warm, inviting.  Difficult, but if one is patient enough, that side of her will come out.  She has a certain soft smile, but will let it show only if you bother to smile at her first.  When she does let it show though, it’s an open, brilliant smile, verging on laughter.  It’s a kind of smile that will put you immediately at ease, even as you are aware you may need to continue keeping your guard up.

She is deeply suspicious.  It’s unspoken, but her first reaction–and, you feel this–upon meeting you is to question whether you have any ulterior motive.  She has been through quite a lot; most of it has not been kind to her.  She still bears scars from vicious masters, some so long ago.

But, once she has accepted you, she will let you wander into her little cafe, mix your own coffee, smoke her cigarettes.  You will have to make your own coffee; she is often not there.  Once you are done with the coffee and the cigarettes, she will trust that you will pay your due for it.  You will know where her cash drawer is; just throw what you owe in it.  As said, she is not there.  She trusts you to do it.

She is from nowhere, but she is from everywhere.  She has every accent, but her voice betrays no origin.  It may resemble the crackling, easy-going sound of the Mekong Delta one moment; then the harsh, hard-scraped Central Region the next; then the melodic, cultured Hanoi the one after.  But, once you are used to this constant shifting, you will find–underneath it all–that it is a voice that seeks to nurture, to comfort.

Your only task is to get her to accept you.  It’s not difficult.  Be yourself.  However you are. In as much honesty as you can muster.  She values honesty above all.  Once you have shown your honest self to her, she will take you in.

Her name is Sài Gòn.

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