At night, the streets of Hồ Chí Minh City—forever Sài Gòn to my family—vibrate with a sense of restless transience. Scooters snake through the streets with elegant precision, somehow averting clusters of pedestrians who step into the ceaseless traffic with startling confidence. In this bright city of all cities, everyone is going somewhere: to a bar, a roadside snail stand, back home to their families. There’s no time to take a breath. No time to stop moving.
My mother and I are swept among the crowd, two American tourists in our birth country. It’s been nearly two decades since we’ve returned. This time, we’re with my grandparents, who remain sleeping back at the hotel. I have no memories of Hồ Chí Minh City. I’ve just graduated college, and my grandparents gifted us this trip of a lifetime to Việt Nam.
Because of this generosity, and because we will be forever indebted to them in a thousand ways, Mom and I become obedient children again. We eat what they want us to eat (endless bowls of hủ tiếu noodles, no sushi restaurants), go where they want us to go (the public gardens, but never the dance clubs where young people end up after a few Heinekens), and sleep when they sleep (7:30 p.m. at the latest, when the last of the sunlight is setting the sky aglow in very distracting ways).
“Don’t put on your pajamas. We’ll sneak out when the oldies are sleeping.”
My grandparents got a large suite at the hotel, which is really just one giant room with four beds and a line of glass coffee tables dividing the space. At our embarrassingly early bedtime, Mom and I aren’t tired, but we try to stay quiet, reading with book lights or flipping on the firm mattresses, hoping to conk out from sheer boredom. Outside, the city teems with sounds that creep into our eager ears. We want to be out there with the rest of the young people—we both still consider ourselves young, at least compared to my grandparents—but instead, we’re sighing gently into the darkness of the hotel room. Wishing together.
But not tonight. Tonight, we’ve made our escape, sneaking out the moment we hear my grandparents’ snores. In a rare act of rebellion, my mother had taken me aside after dinner. She whispered, “Don’t put on your pajamas. We’ll sneak out when the oldies are sleeping.”
And so we did, on feather-soft feet, cringing each time the cadence of snores broke or one of us jammed our feet on a piece of low-lying furniture. After a few heart-stopping moments, we were out on the street, blinking into each other’s incredulous faces, laughing at ourselves and the children we have become. For the first time in our lives, we’re going on an adventure together. For the first time in our lives, it’s us against everyone else.
“We did it,” I say. “Now what?”
After a moment, she says, “Chè.” Dessert pudding, a national pastime in Việt Nam. We’re not quite brave enough to go to a bar—something my conservative, teetotaling grandparents would never tolerate—but chè is safe. Sweet and innocent as childhood.
Our favorite kind of chè is chè ba màu, literally “three color pudding,” named for the three colorful layers: mushy yellow mung beans, sweetened red bean paste, and jiggly, green pandan-flavored jelly, all resting in a glass heaped with crushed ice. The unnamed fourth color, white, comes from a drizzle of coconut cream at the end, adding that final, bracing richness to a dish with lots of texture and bright sweetness.
But more than the colors and the complex flavors, I’m struck by the symbolism of the dessert: Each layer is distinct but promises to complement the others in surprising ways when mixed together. Family is like that too. We’re all fighting to be seen as individuals, but really, the magic often happens when we are together, an indistinguishable rush of history and love.
When we finally find our way to a dessert shop after lots of wrong turns and near-crashes with speeding motorcycles, I know exactly what to order. Mom gets the same.
The chè ba màu arrives in parfait glasses with long-necked silver spoons wedged in the pile of ice, like Excalibur in its stone. As we excavate through the layers to scoop out a perfect ratio of flavors, we gaze out the window. The shop is empty—we are the last customers of the night—but outside, the city is alive, calling to us. I can’t stop watching Mom eating her chè ba màu, her hair loose around her face, sweat clinging to her temples.
“Ngon, ha?” she asks. Good, huh? “Worth sneaking out for?”
Mom is hard-working and brilliant. She has the mind of an engineer—determined to parse a thing apart until she can recreate it, then improve upon it. A recipe, a garment, any Pinterest craft you could find. Her emotions are often oversized, spilling into our home like a flood, and she has a very tenuous grasp on dates and facts in general. I’ve known her as many complicated things, but, until now, I have never described her as playful.
Yet, on those streets, under the cover of night, she seems to sparkle with a sense of curiosity I rarely see from her—mischief even. I like this version of my mother. I think perhaps she’s been there all along, like a genie in her bottle, waiting to grant herself the wishes she put aside for the sake of everyone else’s. We finish the chè and pay an outrageous tourist’s price, but we agree that it’s worth every đồng.
While sneaking back into the hotel room, we think we’re being slick. Quiet as mice. But as soon as we pull the door gently behind us, my Bà Ngoại shoots out of bed with the spryness of someone half her age. Her hair is wild, her scowl magnificently untempered.
“You could have been killed! Run over. Maimed! Kidnapped! Decapitated!” she yells. I’m impressed by this litany of criminal activity. My grandfather, next to her, shifts slightly and goes back to snoring. But Bà Ngoại isn’t done. “Sneaking out like teenagers. Not telling anyone. Who knows what could have happened? We are not city people. We don’t know this place!”
She’s not wrong. Maybe we had been a little reckless. But before I can apologize, I glance at Mom to see how she’s taking this tirade. She’s flattened her lips. In shame? No, there’s a twitch in her expression, as if it’s being tugged along by a hook. Her nostrils flare. Then I realize she’s holding in her laughter, which only makes me burst into giggles that bubble out into the tense air of the room. My mom finally releases her joy too, in gulping guffaws broken up by inelegant snorts that feed my laughter. A conflagration of joy.
My grandmother, for a person not wearing her teeth and clad in the sweetest pink pajama set that ever existed, is the picture of ferocity. She could shame Hồ Chí Minh himself. But it’s too late. We’re in hysterics and nothing can bring us back.
“You’re supposed to be the mother,” Bà Ngoại says to Mom in mild disgust. She flops back down and immediately begins snoring, as if she’d never been awake at all.
Mom shrugs, finally cowed, though a smirk lingers on her face. We return to our beds and listen to the noise of the city, with a taste of sugar and adventure still lingering somewhere on the back of our tongues.
Soon, Mom’s snores join the rumbling chorus, and she’s lost to the waking world. But I can’t sleep yet. I retrace our steps from the night. Down the back alleys, past the steaming soup in metal vats, through the stale scent of beer, the jostling partygoers. Into a dessert shop that promises a few moments of stolen freedom. Mom with her elbows on the sticky tabletop, a sparkling glee in her eyes. Of all the mothers I have known in her—the sacrificial one, the stressed one, the tender one—this one, the mischievous rule-flouter with that luminescent sparkle, might be my very favorite.