05/01/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Weeks before Saigon fell to the Communists on April 30, 1975, Julie Dam and her family made their escape from Vietnam. Admitted to the U.S. as refugees, they eventually settled in Dallas. Her parents—Phap, 59, a linguistics professor, and Lily, 57, a school district administrator—have yet to return to their homeland, but Julie's sisters, Los Angeles lawyers Janie, 35, and Larkie, 34, spent a month there in 1993. Curious to rediscover the country and the relatives she left behind as a child, Dam, 28, who graduated from Harvard University and is now a senior writer for PEOPLE, went back to Vietnam for the first time last November. This is the story of her journey home.
You look just like your mother," Co Huong whispered as she embraced me, first grasping my hands tightly, then brushing my hair out of my face. A day before, she hadn't even known I existed. A 57-year-old retired librarian, Co Huong hasn't seen my mother, her cousin, since 1954, when my mother's family left Hanoi and moved to Saigon. "Your mother and I used to scamper down to the pond behind your grandfather's house and then pick green papayas and make salads. That's all we ever ate!" she recounted happily. A moment later she fretted, "Have you eaten? Are you tired?" She reminded me a little of my mom too.
Whatever disconnect I had felt when I arrived in Hanoi disappeared as my mother's relatives opened their homes—and their happy memories—to me. I had come to Vietnam hoping to retrace my parents' early lives in the north of the country and my own in the south. Back in the States, my parents and their siblings checked their e-mail every day, eager to hear from me about the country they left 25 years ago but still see vividly in their dreams.
Though their paths differed, my mother and her cousin led lives that were oddly parallel. While my mom went to college in the U.S., met my dad and returned to Saigon, Co Huong learned Russian and lived in Poland and the Soviet Union. Both lost loved ones in the war. During one battle in Quang Tri, Co Huong's brother-in-law died, as did one of my mother's nephews. One fought for the north, the other for the south. "People on both sides died," Co Huong lamented. "And for what?"
I was about to turn 4 when my family left Saigon the first week of April 1975. I have a few memories from my childhood—going to the Saigon Zoo with my family, waving from the balcony of our apartment when I heard my dad's car drive up. I believed that once I set foot in Vietnam again it would all come back. As it turned out, I felt like a tourist in my own life.
Hanoi is a sleepy town by American standards, and yet later my parents would hardly recognize it from the pictures I sent them. Co Huong took me to the house where my mother grew up. It is now a district office for the Communist party—well-kept but far from the magical home of my mother's memories. The pond and the trees that she described are gone. My mom's bedroom, I surmised, is an office. (We weren't allowed inside.) That night I sat at my laptop and recounted every detail to my parents. "I am following your story like I am living it," my mom wrote back. "I remembered every corner you described."
Four days later in a village called Lang Me, a bumpy hour-long motorbike ride northeast of Hanoi, I sat in the house where my father was born in 1940. He had told me to be sure to visit the temples that had been built there in honor of our two most illustrious ancestors, a 15th-century Le dynasty court minister and a "national teacher" during the 17th-century Trinh dynasty. But the first place I asked to be shown by Ong Tiem, the 65-year-old Dam patriarch in Lang Me and a distant cousin, was a three-room brick-and-tile-roofed house surrounded by a small rice paddy, which my grandfather built in the 1920s. It was the only one of my immediate family's homes still standing. My dad's brother Phan messaged me from Canada: "I was so moved and proud of you! My friends also felt the same. You have touched our heart, as we all feel homesick somehow."
I headed south a few days later; my turn to recover lost memories of Saigon. My 45-year-old cousin Thu-Phi told me she'd write my name on a card so that we could find each other at Tan Son Nhut airport. I had no recollection of what she looked like, and she hadn't seen me since I was a hair-impaired 3-year-old whom my sisters had dubbed Tuan (a boy's name). I found her in the crowd, and she gave me a big hug. Her appearance—cropped, silvering hair, red lipstick and diamond jewelry—so different from what I had seen in Hanoi, where most women wore drab-colored clothes. Thu-Phi (also known as Sophie) belongs to the go-getting, prosperous south. Spending all day on her cell phone dealing with her work as a coordinator for a Western shipping company, she was surprised that I was so eager to chat with relatives and visit old family homes. The next morning she picked me up in a chauffeured Honda borrowed from a friend and led me on a whirlwind tour of the Saigon I once knew.
My heart began to beat in double time as we turned onto Duy Tan street, renamed Pham Ngoc Thach. We parked across the street from a modern-looking pink office building. It was in front of the two-story apartment house where my family lived the first few years of my life. I was devastated. It looked completely unfamiliar to me. The walls and floors had been recently redone, and when I stepped onto the balcony and leaned over I couldn't imagine how I could have been so small that my dad could only see my hand waving at him. As I stood on the street taking one last look at the building, I cried, mostly because I couldn't remember, but also because we were once a young family, hopeful for our future in Saigon, despite the war that raged on the periphery of the city. A few days before we left Vietnam, my dad took me to the French convent school my sisters attended for an entrance exam. After the headmistress assured us I would have a place there in the fall, my dad and I went out to have a bowl of rice soup to celebrate.
And then we were gone. As a respected U.S.-educated professor of languages at two universities in Saigon, my father had become friendly with several of the American officers and CIA agents he taught. At the end of March 1975, one of them called to tell him that the end was near, that we had to leave the country secretly and that they would help us. A few days later, my mother, sisters and I were transported to the airport with nothing but a few photographs and important papers, bundled onto a Babylift flight and flown to the Philippines. My dad got out in the cargo hold of a U.S. military plane and met us there three days later. After stays in Guam and a refugee camp in California, we arrived at the Fort "Wayne, Ind., home of the Schmidts, the parents of my mother's Miami University roommate, who became our sponsors. It was May 1, 1975, the day after Saigon fell.
Meeting my relatives in Ho Chi Minh City, I learned what took place after we left. No one knew what had happened to us for four days. My dad's older brother Bac Thao and his cousin Bac Moc (Thu-Phi's father) frantically searched for us. They found my father's abandoned Renault on the side of a road. Then they learned that my elderly grandfather had been tranquilized by his doctor son Chu Thang and the two had flown out. Bac Moc, who was the commandant of the South Vietnamese police academy in Saigon, had sworn not to leave the country as long as my grandfather remained. Now he was crushed that he had stayed behind to no purpose. His family hid his gun so that he wouldn't join the other South Vietnamese officials and military officers who were committing suicide rather than face the consequences. As April 30 approached, pandemonium broke out, and the doors out of the country rapidly closed. Bac Thao spent four years in a reeducation camp before escaping by boat. Bac Moc died in another camp in 1982 at age 65.
I sat there, stunned and silent, and listened to Thu-Phi's weary 70-year-old mother as she recalled those terrifying weeks and the long, hard years that followed, when Thu-Phi's brothers were forced to do physical labor to survive. Many lives in Vietnam have improved immensely in the past 10 years. Thu-Phi has bought property in Ho Chi Minh City and is building a house for the family. Still, every morning I woke up in Vietnam I wondered how different my life would have been had we not been able to leave. I felt so grateful—and so guilty.
"You can visit me here, but I can't visit you there," remarked my second cousin Chinh wistfully. Chinh, 37, makes $60 a month working in a Korean-owned towel factory in Saigon. She lives with her sister Thang, 30, in a spare concrete-floored room on the premises. But none of my relatives seemed to resent my luck; they were proud I had assimilated in America, that I had gone to Harvard, that I had a good job and, most of all, that I had returned. My dad's 80-year-old cousin Bac Mac graciously said that at least I spoke some Vietnamese, though he gently chided me for sounding like someone who had learned the language from books, not from birth. "She left when she was so little that she's practically all American," my cousin Quyen said in my defense. "But," he added, to my immense pride, "I think she is still very Vietnamese inside."