Revisiting Vietnam after 23 years

In October 2000, when I was 11 years old, my parents, younger sister, and I flew to Da Nang, Vietnam, to adopt my youngest sister, Julie. Traveling there was the first time any of us had been overseas, and it was a life-changing, eye-opening experience. Nearly 23 years later, I decided to return there for a month on a work sabbatical. My mom also dug up my and my sister Lisa’s journals from that trip during a recent visit home, and it’s been fun to revisit those.

I’ve got a huge mix of thoughts swirling in my brain about the trip. Firstly, I’m incredibly excited to explore the central and northern part of the country. Our trip in 2000 was more abbreviated by necessity, and we were somewhat limited in our activities with a new toddler in tow. We primarily visited Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Hoi An was my favorite place we visited on a day trip, and I remember wanting more time there. I’m going to spend the better part of a week there and visit the Mỹ Sơn ruins that date from the Champa Kingdom in the 4th century. We’re also very much looking forward to taking boats around Ha Long Bay.

I reached out to the adoption agency to try to make contact with Julie’s birth mother while I’m there. It’s always been a mystery to us who she is and what her life has been like. There are no guarantees that we’ll be able to get in touch, but I wanted to make a best effort. I know Julie has a lot of complex feelings about the adoption, so I checked in with her first, and am being conscientious about the level of engagement she wants in the process.

My dad recommended several books to me on the subject of adoption, which I’ve been reading in advance of the trip. My favorite has been Somewhere Sisters by Erika Hayasaki. She captures so many of the complexities of the adoption experience and provides a lot of history of the politics of Vietnamese/American adoption. The Harvard Book Store recently hosted an insightful conversation with her and sociologist Indigo Willing that I also recommend. On that topic, it’s an especially interesting time with domestic politics so focused on abortion. The right side of the political spectrum views adoption as a solution to the debate, when in reality it’s much, much more complicated than that.

Geopolitically, it’s a pretty turbulent time to visit SE Asia. North Korea keeps hurling ballistic missiles off the peninsula, China/Taiwan tensions are probably the highest they’ve ever been, and wildfires in Burma, Thailand, and Laos have given the region some of the worst air on the planet the past two months. If I’ve learned anything after three years of pandemic/inflation/supply chain snarls, it’s that you can’t take travel for granted anymore. So even with a sprinkle of trepidation from perpetually overconsuming the news, I’m grateful to be able to make the trip.