"Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today
We touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U.S.A."
*Lyrics from Back in the U.S.A by Chuck Berry
Breakfast on the street of Hanoi's Old Quarter before being dropped off at the airport by my new friend, Michael Hake of Hanoi Exclusive Hotel.
After almost 36 hours at the airports and on the planes, I finally landed in San Francisco. I was pleasantly surprised to go through a straightforward customs process. No form to fill out. No line to wait in. I only had to show the Customs agent my passport, and voila! I'm back in the U.S.A.
United Airlines has a counter immediately outside of Customs, so I quickly re-checked my bags and returned to US civilization. Realizing that I had been wearing the same clothes for almost two days, I changed into new clothes in the bathroom and freshened up the best way I could without showering. I probably smelled, but I did not have many good options to make showering happen, so there you have it. Physically, my body ached due to being in various contorting positions on two long plane rides; mentally, I felt a sense of relief, knowing I was finally home. Home, on US soil, and with another 7 hours to go: a 5-hour layover and a two ½-hours flight, I'd be home, home. I'd had little to no sleep, but that did not bother me now. Instead, I felt refreshed and ready to start a new day.
I had been anticipating food for this arrival moment. What will I have? I knew I could always get San Francisco's famous clam chowder and sourdough bread at the airport. But what else? What's the one dish I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into? Seafood? A big bowl of cioppino? A refreshing salad? Pizza? Fried chicken? A juicy burger? My brain scanned this long list for a couple of minutes. Finally, I decided to stick to my morning routine and have coffee and a croissant since it was only 10 in the morning—a big mistake. I was now too full to eat anything else. With incredible discipline, I spent the next couple of hours catching up on email and the news while waiting for lunchtime to arrive. As soon as noon hit, I found my way back to the food court. There it was. The big sign with a picture of clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl warmly greeted me. I thought this place was no Boudin Bakery, but it was fate. Years ago, when living in Southern California, I visited San Francisco often for business, and I loved this city. Every time we flew up, for business or personal reasons, our ritual was to check in to the hotel and walk to the pier. The first place we'd stop for a quick bite to eat would be Boudin.
The familiar smell of that clam chowder and the bread called out to me now. Easy choice, I thought. I was grateful that the soup was seeking me. Now I did not have to spend too much time deciding what to eat, as I usually do when hungry. Everything lived up to my expectations. The creamy chowder, full of pieces of clam and cubes of potato, was divine. I'd had and enjoyed many Vietnamese dishes in the past nine weeks, but it was time. It was time to get all those homey feelings back with my space and tastebuds. I savored every bite, both the piping hot soup and the warm bread. At times full of drama, I closed my eyes and whispered, "Oh my goodness. This is so good!" I didn't think I'd missed American food so much until now.
"United Airlines flight number 1810 is now boarding." I finally heard the announcement and headed to the gate. I was in the first group to board since I'd been at the airport for several hours. I quickly got to my window seat, sat down, and buckled up. The next thing I heard was, "…. for flying with us. Welcome to Denver." I opened my eyes and stretched my arms upward. I calmly remained in my seat while people scurried in the aisle. More from behind me were pulling carry-on bags down from the overhead bins. The folks in my row were in no hurry, either. They smiled at me as if to say, "You were sleeping so hard we didn't want to wake you." I thought they looked relieved to see me awake. The comfort food I had helped me feel comfortable enough to fall and stay asleep the entire flight. It could have been the lack of sleep for almost two days that finally caught up with me. Either way, I was glad for the unplanned yet much-needed rest.
Once in Denver, I texted John, "Landed!" Then slowly and intentionally, I walked to Baggage Claim. I wanted to see and feel the difference in my new surrounding. I paid attention to how people moved about and the displays and products sold in all the shops I passed. I listened to people talking on their phones and with each other. I noticed how my body and mind started feeling a sense of familiarity. I thought, "How weird. I've only been gone for nine weeks, and this is how I'm mentally and physically getting readjusted?" I quickly snapped out of my headspace when both suitcases appeared on the conveyor belt. I picked them up, went outside, and breathed in the cool evening breeze. My eyes were scanning for John amidst all the cars slowly driving by. I was still searching when he appeared out of nowhere and yelled, "Hello!" I was startled but smiled and yelled back, "Hello yourself!"
Oh my gosh, I am home. Here's John, standing in front of me. I'm in Denver. In the US. It felt so good to see him. It felt so good to be home. At that moment, I thought of my two boys and everyone I love. At that moment, I thought, "This is where home is for me. This is where all my loved ones are. I was born and raised in Vietnam until I was15 years old. In 1975 I came to the United States as a refugee of war and had been living here since. I am Vietnamese-American. I am a citizen of the United States of America."
I am the bridge between two countries, two cultures, two ideologies, between war and peace, and past and present Vietnam.
Even though John and I talked daily, there was still much more to catch up on. We talked the entire time on the drive home. When John opened the door to the apartment, I knew and was ready for Cookie to have a cardiac arrest. She goes through this every time I return from a trip. She was now barking non-stop and leaping high up in the air, trying to get into my arms. After crouching down to try to pick her up, unsuccessfully, because of her constant movement, I hurriedly went to the couch. This is how I get her to calm down. She was still excited but slowly relented and rolled onto her back. I began to stroke her tummy. The strenuous physical exertion of jumping, huffing, and puffing caught up with her, and she finally settled down. I picked her up and put her on my lap. As soon as I started rubbing her neck and massaging her legs, her breathing became more rhythmic, and her body began to relax. It feels good to receive such a homecoming fanfare from her, and it feels terrible at the same time to see her go through that kind of physical reaction, especially now that she is older.
While Cookie indulged me with all the love, John started performing in the kitchen. He welcomed me home with a tasty dinner of beef filet topped with a creamy mushroom sauce and roasted cauliflower. Clink, clink, clank, clank, pop, pop. A glass of red wine appeared. Wine! Something I was looking forward to having. I did not drink much wine in Vietnam because it was difficult to find, and the selection was limited. So, I opted for beer whenever I felt like having a drink. John bought a nice bottle of red wine to accompany the lovely dinner he thoughtfully put together. We sat down, said a prayer, and broke bread together.
I've been asked to share the one thing that stood out the most about my trip, and without hesitation, my response was this: Even though I enjoyed my solo adventure and solitude time immensely, there were many occasions when I wished you were all there with me. I wished we could have shared the motorcycle ride in the countryside of Da Lat, the drive from Da Nang to Hue via the Hai Van Pass, the beautiful scenery of Ninh Binh, the winding mountain road to Sapa, reaching the peak of Fansipan and being surrounded by patches of clouds where I thought I was physically on Cloud 9, and of course, the cruise around the unique Ha Long Bay. This trip turned out to be more than what I'd asked for, and I am excited to reflect on all of the experiences, including pictures and videos, and continue my sharing on this blog. For those curious about a return trip, I'll have to say it's too soon for me to think about now. When the time is right, I will let you know. Until then, I would like to thank everyone who sent good thoughts and prayers for a fun and safe trip.
Love you all.