Two days after I arrive, Aunt Bao drives me to visit my grandmother just outside of Hanoi. “Ba Ngoai”, as I call her, means “maternal grandmother.” The Vietnamese language is very specific in stating kinship and relationships. The way I say “aunt” in “Di Bao” signifies that Aunt Bao is my mother’s younger sister. According to this system, I am automatically “older” than my cousins, since my mother is their “older aunt.” My cousins, both in their thirties, therefore call me “older sister My” – something I am still getting used to. I have always interpreted this system of naming not only as a sign of respect, but also as an expression of family pride. I look at “Di Bao,” and think: I am your sister’s daughter.
It is a 30-minute motorbike ride to the village, but the traffic congestion makes it nearly impossible for us to reach the highway. Sitting behind my aunt on the back of the motorbike, I cannot help but once again curse the fact that I do not have a driver’s license. Small motorbikes are the main mode of transportation in Hanoi, and not being able to ride one makes me frustratingly dependent on my family for getting around the city. A driver suddenly cuts in front of us, and Aunt Bao quickly moves out to the left. Even if I could drive, I decide, I probably wouldn’t be able to survive in the crazy Hanoi streets.
Tightly-packed facades turn into patches of undeveloped land and rice paddies as we leave the city for the suburban area of Tay Mo village. Passing trucks kick up clouds of dust from the unpaved road. It seems like the village has not changed much since my last visit. Grandma is over at Uncle Trung's house when we arrive. Uncle Trung is the eldest of my grandmother’s five children; my mother Thanh is the second oldest. His house is right opposite to the house that the family built for Grandma a few years back. Uncle Toan, the second youngest, also built his house on the original patch of land that my grandparents owned. Uncle Nguyen is the only child apart from my mother who lives far from Grandma; he moved to Saigon after the war. Five children, all of their names engrained in my mind from a young age: Trung, Thanh, Bao, Toan, Nguyen. I would say it like a mantra until I remembered them all, long before I ever met any of them.
Cousin Nguyet is preparing spring rolls for our lunch, and the children are playing in the front yard. Right after we put our things down, Aunt Bao and Cousin Nguyet take me to Grandpa's grave. We bring with us the flowers that we bought on our way, but leave the fruit on the house shrine. The graveyard is just outside the little village, located between rice fields. It has been raining for weeks, so the fields are flooded. I stay on the grass path with Aunt Bao, while Cousin Nguyet steps into the mud to find Grandpas's grave. It is a heap of earth, indistinguishable from others around it if not for a tiny plaque, nearly hidden by the thick grass. It's been three years since my grandfather passed. According to Vietnamese tradition, his remains will be moved by the end of this year. I ask Aunt Bao and she shows me the spot where his final grave will be built.
The midday sun is surprisingly friendly, and relatively mild for a summer day on the open field. We light incense and pray to the spirit of my grandfather, and do the same at my great grandparents’ grave. “Whatever you do, first go visit your grandma, and go take incense to your grandfather’s grave,” my parents had told me when I called to tell them I had arrived safely in Vietnam. I bow to my ancestors, stating my mother’s name as well as my own, and ask them to protect me on this trip.