My hometown now

A migrant, now a Saigonese, expresses his love and gratitude to Saigon which he says has been a place where he can realize his dreams.

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A face of Saigon – PHOTO: THANH HOA-NGOC LINH

I began to know about Saigon in the mid-1980s. In the imagination of a five-year-old boy back then, Saigon was the land of prosperity, wealth and luxury. The poverty and backwardness of a highland region at the time—before the country’s renovation period—made many in my birthplace visualize Saigon as a place where they could realize their life-changing dreams.

The relation between my family and Saigon was established by my father’s trips to Saigon. My dad, a dynamic young man in the countryside, always thought of ways to make his family less miserable during the hardships during the subsidy time. During his first trip to the “promised land,” my dad accompanied a soldier who was then stationed in Bien Hoa [some 30 kilometers from downtown Saigon] when he was on furlough. From the second trip onward, my dad went it alone. He next brought back textile and garments, footwear and other commodities from Saigon to sell them to people in the countryside. I still remember my dad’s well-worn knapsack. It was rather smelly and dirty but still gave off the light scent of ripe mangos, flour, sugar, milk and Camay soap bars from Saigon.

After graduation from high school, I packed my things for the south. It was 20 years ago. At the time, people my age were not given vocational instructions the effective way today’s people are. Almost all my friends, except for a few who continued their education to enroll in universities, left their home provinces to live with their relatives in the south or the Central Highlands to find jobs.

I spent six months at my relative’s house in Bien Hoa trying to win a job. At the time, I wanted to be a factory worker, but it was not easy because there were too few vacancies while there were too many job applications. I wanted to be a driver, but the tuition fee was an insurmountable challenge. Having nothing to do, I dug fish ponds and raised pigs with others. When the year came to an end, an acquaintance lodged my application to military service in Saigon. That was my best choice then to end my idle time.

On the first days at the place in Saigon where I was stationed, I didn’t dare to venture out of it, because Saigon remained quite unfamiliar to me. It was too crowded with too many people and vehicles on too many roads and alleys. When I had become more accustomed to the city, I began to explore it. After completing my duties, I borrowed a bicycle to wander around the streets and alleys in Saigon’s central districts. I was then just like a newborn turtle on the sand that saw for the first time the immense ocean whose every place was strange, intriguing and interesting. Later, when I have become acquainted with every corner of the city, I still remember well my first tours of Saigon on a bike.

After my first year of being a serviceman during which I knew more about Saigon, a question arose in my mind as to what would I do to earn a living after my military service. I was rankled by the idea that I had not studied hard enough when in school so as to take a university entrance examination. Then I became dead set on taking such an examination, I visited a bookstore selling used books near my barracks to buy some twelfth-grade textbooks to review the lessons to prepare for my future tests.

Afterward, I spent all my spare time learning as hard as I could the necessary subjects. After five months of hard work, I silently applied for an entrance examination to the communication faculty of the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities. It was also a test for my doubt of whether I could make it successfully. It was a surprise yet encouraging outcome: I passed it. But I couldn’t attend university right away because the time I served in the military was too short to return to civilian life.

Anyway, I felt more confident to prepare for the next examination in the year that followed. This time, I aimed at the trade faculty of the HCMC University of Law. A Sunday morning in 2000, I woke up late. A companion in arms rushed in to tell me that he had seen my name in the list of successful candidates to the university printed in a daily newspaper. I was overjoyed with the news. My military commander allowed me to be demobilized a little bit ahead of time to enroll in the university.

So, up I went in Saigon, discreetly, silently and patiently like many other people from the remote provinces.

In return, there is a generous and accommodative Saigon in the south’s great source of inspiration. It is this inspiration that has given rise to, encouraged and soothed the aspiration of a huge number of migrants who want to build and improve their life. Perhaps, to every people coming to Saigon from the provinces, the story of how they reach and live here is worth being listened to, whether they have become businesspeople, intellects, hawkers or garbage collectors. All once lived on here hinging on some Saigonese values while waiting for a better life to come.

In my case, Saigon from a place that offered livelihood has become part of my life and is my current “hometown.” The city has instilled a sincere love and deep gratitude in the soul of many migrants. When leaving this city for a long time, I miss my Saigon very much. I miss the southern accent, the clatter of the pushcart selling noodles in small alleys, the motorbike driver who will heartily show you the way when asked, and the free drinking water cans of unknown people who silently put them on the sidewalk in the early morning. When back to the city at Hang Xanh gateway, I always have a feeling of an eternal love and lasting inspiration—the same way I would when going back to my birthplace.

I love Saigon and its dynamics, openmindedness, zestiness and wealth as much as its forgiveness, sincerity, kindness and generosity.

Twenty years after my arrival in the city, I still find Saigon a place where I can realize my dreams. We migrants from faraway provinces—from Nam Dinh and Quang Binh in the north, Khanh Hoa in the central region, and down to the southernmost Ca Mau, as well as all other locations—will contribute our efforts to this beloved city.

This coming Tet I won’t be back to my home province like in the previous years. Isn’t Saigon my hometown now?