Although my mind is full of images of North Vietnam, where my parents' lives began, I had never seen that forbidden region. I was born in Saigon 28 years ago and lived there until I was 9, when my family fled to the United States a week before South Vietnam's capital fell to northern forces in 1975. But wherever we lived--Saigon or Phoenix--my parents filled me with images of a land they loved, a place they felt forced to abandon along with 1 million others in 1954, when the Geneva accords gave the northern half of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh's regime. I never dreamed I would visit a place ruled by my parents' sworn enemies. But in April, I ventured into the north of Vietnam for two weeks to compare it with the legends of my youth: Hanoi, with its lakes and ancient citadel; Hanh Thien Village, where my ancestors' shrine stands, and Chua Huong , or Perfume Pagoda, buried in Huong Tich Mountain. I took my first look at Hanoi on a ride from the Noi Bai Airport. The basic features of the city matched the stories I had heard. Green rice paddies gave way to narrow streets lined with tall trees, stately villas and bustling street vendors.
But unlike my parents' memories of the city, Hanoi had deteriorated. Many of its buildings and roads needed repair. And its homeless people drifted among the city's 3 million workers who earn an average of $12.50 a month.
My first stop was a complex of pagodas 35 miles southwest of Hanoi, built into the limestone cliffs of Huong Tich Mountain,, the Mountain of Fragrant Traces. These cliffs, named after an unexplained scent that surrounds them, have been a mecca for Vietnamese Buddhists for thousands of years.
My parents' families had been Buddhists, and a visit to the North's most famous shrine was supposed to have been a natural birthright. But the war had taken that option away from my father and mother. I was going to Huong Tich Mountain to reclaim that right.
I had first heard of the Perfume Pagoda as a high school freshman in Phoenix, where my family resettled. The Phoenix area had a close-knit Vietnamese community of about 3,000, and we organized variety shows to celebrate the most important Vietnamese holiday, Tet, the lunar new year. In the spring of 1981, when I was 15, the celebration included a dance number to a poem that had been put to music, "A Pilgrimage to Services at the Perfume Pagoda," about a trip by land and water to the shrine.
The pagoda it described seemed as far from the Arizona desert as the moon:
. . . Finally, here is the Inner Shrine
The cavern beneath emerald tree lines
Moss-covered rocks at the foot of limestones
The cavern soaked with falling incense smoke . . . .
My parents had never visited the pagoda while they lived in North Vietnam. They had assumed there always would be time. I thought of this during the two-hour car ride from my Hanoi hotel to Hoa Binh Province.
Before automobiles, pilgrims would hire people to carry them on hammocks along a dirt path. The dirt path was eventually paved, and the government only recently started filling its many potholes. At one point, the way was blocked by road workers smashing stones with hammers. Our frustrated driver stopped and gave the men cigarettes to speed up the work. Twenty minutes later, we were able to drive on, but not without some minor damage to our rented car.
At the Perfume River, two friends, the driver and I got into a rowboat. The one-hour ride downriver took us past majestic, jagged limestone formations. There were other boats headed to the pagoda, most carrying Vietnamese families wearing conical hats or shielding their faces with newspapers from the fierce sun.
At the foot of Huong Tich Mountain, our boat docked alongside hundreds of others.
The temperature was about 80 degrees with equal humidity. Carrying bottles of water in our backpacks and paper fans bought along the way, we began the two-hour hike that would take us along four miles of steep, winding dirt trail.
The climb was crowded with thousands of other pilgrims, vendors selling everything from food to incense, and beggars--the old, the young and the lame--who chanted their pleas in rhyme.
Just when I thought I would faint from heat exhaustion, we reached the Inner Shrine, the main pagoda at the top of the mountain fashioned from a natural cavern.
Before me was a flight of nearly vertical steps descending into a sea of smoke created by incense sticks. The rising smoke combined with falling sun rays to form an eerie curtain.
Inside the cave, which reached as high as 20 feet, hundreds of pilgrims surrounded the 10 scattered altars. Illumination came from candles and thousands of incense sticks that visitors lighted and placed in pots.
I worked my way through the crowd to the main altar, closed my eyes and bowed to Buddha, in whom my family believes but whom I abandoned long ago.
I didn't pray to the deity. I raised incense sticks to my forehead, smiled through smoke-caused tears and quietly told my ancestors: "I made it. I pay respects on behalf of my father, who died three years ago, and my mother, who hopes to come soon."
I continued my journey a couple of days later, traveling to Hanh Thien, the village where a temple honors my mother's side of the family. My maternal grandfather, born in 1909, was a member of the 13th generation of Nguyens to hail from this town in Nam Dinh Province, 90 miles southeast of Hanoi.
During my junior high years in Phoenix, "Hanh Thien" became familiar words in the house, as relatives helped people trace their roots there. They told me I should be proud to be descended from a native of Hanh Thien, known as the birthplace of scholars, many of whom became mandarins, high officials who advised royalty.
Since no one closely related to me lives there anymore, the only contact I had was a scholar named Nguyen Chi, but I didn't have his address. I shouldn't have worried. The town only has 7,000 residents and the first one I asked knew where to find Nguyen, a historian and retired public educator.
When I arrived, Nguyen was hiding from the scorching noon sun in his 105-year-old stone house. He recognized my grandfather's name and said, "Your great-grandfather was my second cousin."
Though I interrupted his lunch, the 60-year-old man led me to the temple that has existed since 1611. In front of the pagoda was a cemetery with many headstones bearing the Nguyen name.
Standing among the graves, I felt lost and frustrated. Which of these belonged to my ancestors? Nguyen Chi didn't know.
He escorted me down the village's only paved road--past farmers leading water buffalo to shade and children laughing in a schoolyard--to a gate, through which another of my childhood legends materialized.
All these years I had thought the Nguyen family was honored in this village by a simple altar in a corner of a Buddhist pagoda. But my ancestors are memorialized with an entire shrine built in 1929, complete with a red altar 12 feet high and a framed family tree detailing Hanh Thien's first 10 generations of Nguyens.
On a framed list naming descendants from overseas who had sent money to help with the shrine's upkeep, there were the names of my grandmother, parents and relatives. I laughed and told Nguyen Chi: "My family would love to see this."
"Bring them one October for the village's annual festival," he answered. "The boat races are really beautiful."
I told him I would, and maybe then my mother and her sisters can tell me more about what life here was like.
When my mother was 8 in 1948, French troops temporarily regained control of Hanoi and escorted her family and others from Hanh Thien to live in the city. My grandparents bought a piece of land, little more than an eighth of an acre, and built a three-story brick villa complete with a turret.
It was a fitting house for a couple who were among the richest merchants in the city. They rented out two of the floors, ran a car rental agency on the grounds, owned a soap factory in another part of Hanoi and sold home-grown water lotus to tea makers.
"We always had money in the North," said my 86-year-old grandmother, who now lives in Phoenix. "That saved us, separated us from most everybody else.
"There were a lot of persecutions, a lot of people driven to poverty because their properties were taken. But we were able to bribe the right people to let us alone. And we made it through the hardest times," she said.
When my family abandoned the villa in 1954, the new communist government took it over and allowed squatters to live there. Even though the house has been divided into 50 living units, the four main rooms on the second floor have remained in the family. My great-aunt, 70-year-old Tuong Thi Be, has clung to them, even when Viet Minh officers threatened to imprison her in the late 1950s.
She recounted those years of hunger and fear as she led me up a flimsy flight of stairs. There is electricity and plumbing, but no money to install modern toilets.
She made me lotus tea and told me I looked like my mother.
When I left, I was bitter that my family had lost our native land but happy that I had visited long-lost relatives. I began to cry, and in a city where residents are so reserved they don't hug, where suffering is so common people seldom cry, I was a strange sight.
The next day, I went to my grandparents' soap factory, where there also was the home in which my mother spent the first five years of her life. My mother told me to look for a gate with the words "Thai Loi" on it, the names of two of her four brothers. They were still there.
My grandmother had raved about the rows of pine trees that had lined the walk leading from the gate to the one-story villa and pond on the grounds. But the trees have since been replaced by food stalls, the pond filled, and its space, as well as the rest of the nearly 900 square yards, had been taken over by renters.
Each of their dwellings was the size of an average bedroom in the United States. Residents pay about $8 a month in rent to the government.
Adults and children surrounded me as I stood in front of the aging villa in the center of the complex. It needed paint, and 10 families were living in it. But I was satisfied that it hadn't been destroyed. After all, I thought, Mother had learned to walk there.
On the ride back to the motel in the pedicab, I looked hard at Hanoi.
The city seems drab compared to what my elders had described. But behind the walls of those thatched huts, single-story stone houses, storefront homes and villas, life has gone on--patiently waiting for time to bring change.
In the future, with expected economic improvements from the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam in February, and with the possible normalization of relations between Washington and Hanoi, analysts are predicting that the region may be revived. Its best days may lie ahead, not in the past of my parents' memories.