In May, Van Khanh Ha traveled to Vietnam with her daughter Lauren and her friend Karen Hilsberg. Here are excerpts from the journal she wrote to her loved ones back in the United States.
3 May — Returning Home Again
Yesterday morning our plane landed in Hanoi smoothly. My heart was ﬁlled with joy and peace. As I walked out, I was welcomed by so many sweet familiar faces and warm and humid air. The memories of war and its destruction are fad-ing. Hanoi today is alive more than ever.
I stopped and breathed deeply to the fact that, yes, I’m returning home again, after thirty-seven years.
5 May — A Dream Come True
Hanoi impresses me with its beauty and wonderful culture. I’m taking each step, each breath with deep gratitude to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Lauren and I are happy here. Everyone is wearing the temple robe — ao trang — Lauren is so cute in this outﬁt.
We continued to explore the historical sights of Hanoi: Chua Tran Quoc, Den Ly Thai To, the botanical garden, and the water puppet show. As I listened to the classical opera, I felt as if Papa was there listening with me and embracing me with his tender love.
This was a promise that I made to him before his death — that some day I would return home to his beloved village of La Chu, to visit his ancestors’ tombstones. And now this is it. My dream has come true for myself and for my dear Papa.
Last night we had our orientation with Thich Nhat Hanh. There were four hundred retreatants from more than forty different countries. I looked around the room ﬁlled with people, as this small, simple, and humble monk talked. His Dharma talk was deep, lovely and with a great sense of humor. He gave wholeheartedly and I received his words with gladness, with joy and tears. The theme was “dwelling happily in the present moment.”
9 May — Peace in Ourselves, Peace in the World
The Golden Lotus Hotel where we are staying has 450 rooms and only two computers for guests to share. So it’s a challenge and we are learning to be very skillful with our time.
The retreat here with Thich Nhat Hanh is wonderful. Early every morning, we start our day with walking meditation. Thay walks mindfully with each step and we follow him with our breath and our smiles. Outside of the hotel, the streets are crowded with people going to work. The sound of silence is mixing with the sound of cars and motorcycles to become an orchestra of real life.
After breakfast is the Dharma talk. Imagine a big room ﬁlled with hundreds of people and it’s quiet except for Thay’s voice. His voice is gentle, yet his message and his mission for peace are very powerful: “With deep listening and loving speech, we can transform our suffering. Peace in ourselves, peace in the world.”
Last night Lauren woke me up to say: “I love Hanoi, I enjoy Vietnam so much. Thank you, Mommy.” At that moment, I knew deep inside my heart that I’ve made a good decision — for both of us to return to our roots, to our ancestors, and to discover Vietnam together. We are very grateful to be here and to receive the beautiful teachings of love and compassion from Thay with many of our friends.
12 May — Friendliness to Foreigners
The retreat ended, leaving a great impression on me and many others — looking at this gentle monk in his eighties who puts out so much energy for mankind with one simple wish: that the world be a better place to live for all beings.
Today is the beginning of the UN celebration of Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. The theme this year is “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society.”
Yesterday Lauren, Karen, and I went to the One Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature. Again, we went to our favorite Indian restaurant. We also had a chance to have ao dai [the traditional long silk tunic] made at the tailor shop; they are going to be so beautiful!
Despite the crowds and noise, Lauren and I embrace Vietnam with the connection to our ancestors. This trip has made me appreciate even more the old values and virtues of Confucius. I still see the happiness of the people, and the friendliness they offer to foreigners, even Americans. Life is difﬁcult for most of the people here, but they accept and ﬁnd peace in their lives.
16 May — Wholesome Seeds of Compassion and Peace
Today is the conclusion of the United Nations Day of Vesak Celebration 2008. The last three days have been so amazing. Being here helped to water and cultivate the wholesome seeds of compassion and peace in me. Many representatives and guest speakers from over sixty countries came together for one purpose — to promote peace in the world. We are united as one to bring happiness and love to all beings on this Earth.
I feel so blessed to witness such a sacred event. This is the ﬁrst time for Vietnam to host this special event, and the organization did a wonderful job. Every meal, we were served with a banquet of delicious foods, desserts, and fresh fruits. The entertainments were excellent — a combination of old and new — from traditional music and songs to modern dance.
Tomorrow we go to the Avalokiteshvara Cave, Chua Huong and then to Ha Long Bay for two days.
18 May — Ha Long Bay
Today we went to Ha Long Bay. It’s so beautiful. We visited the caves and walked up to the mountain, the scenery is unbelievable. Every moment living in Vietnam made me appreciate the beauty of this land even more. Lauren and I are sharing a room with ocean view.
People here are simple and so loving. They are glad to know that I’m Vietnamese. I thought after living in the U.S. for most of my life, I had lost touch with my own roots but the ﬁrst step in Hanoi, I know I’m home, with my own brothers and sisters.
20 May — Proud to Be Both
We are in Hue now. It is much more quiet and tranquil, even though our hotel is located in the heart of downtown. Meals are served with many types of special dishes. The dining area is on the balcony of the top ﬂoor overlooking the city and the Perfume River. It’s so nice, especially at nighttime.
Yesterday we went to Tu Hieu Temple. Thay with his gentle steps on the ground of his root temple brought tears to my eyes. This trip is more meaningful for us because of the practice and of his teachings. I’m forever thankful.
In the afternoon we visited preschools in the remote areas of Hue. The children sang songs and danced for us. They live on small boats or on stilt homes by the river. The living conditions are very poor but they are full of laughter and big smiles.
Last night we went on a boat to celebrate Vesak. We chanted and then released ﬁsh back to the river under the light of the full moon.
This trip continues to nurture my deep connection to my homeland and its beauty. I treasure my time here and just like Papa said: “You should be proud to be an American, but never forget your roots and your values.” He’s a wise man and I know in my heart that I’m proud to be both.
24 May — Visiting Ancestors
Yesterday Lauren and I went to visit my parents’ birthplaces near Hue with my relatives Chu Phu and Cu Chau’s children that I have not seen for over forty years. We went to La Chu, my father’s village, then later to Vi Da where my mother was born ninety-three years ago. Being by my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ graves, I felt the deep connection to them, even those I never met.
Early in the morning we walked on a narrow dirt road leading to my grandmother’s last resting place. Both sides of the road were rice ﬁelds ready to be harvested. The wet roads were so slippery, Lauren almost fell into the ditch. We burned incense and touched the earth three times to each of the tombstones.
Later, we went to Nguyen Khoa cemetery where my maternal grandparents are buried. I knew that Lauren and I are the continuation of our ancestors. There is no birth and no death. They are in us, in our every cell, and in every breath we take. And I could feel their love sent to us from above.
Central Vietnam is hot, with humid weather, and we were dripping with sweat. But we looked forward to being with our ancestors, so we just smiled and embraced the moment.
Today we visited the Emperors’ tombs and the Forbidden City. When Chi Hoa, Mu Chuc’s daughter, found out that we were here, she came to visit us in the hotel. She told us many stories about my family and she warmly greeted us with deep true love.
1 June — Memories and Gratitude
After Hoi An we went to Da Nang, where I spent most of my childhood and where I ﬁnished my education from elementary to high school. It brought back many warm memories — of family, friends, and the beautiful beaches. My Papa often took us to the ocean so my sisters and I could play in the water.
Lauren and I took a tour to the Cham Museum. It has artifacts that are thousands of years old. Then we visited my beloved math teacher’s home — Mr. Bui passed away years ago but his lovely wife welcomed us warmly. I sat there holding her soft hands, and her heartbeat and mine became one. We did not say much, but deep inside our love was interconnected. It was a hot, humid day, and our visit was sweet. I was touched by her tranquility and her kindness.
After that, we stopped to see my high school, Phan Chu Trinh. I used to walk with my friends to class; we shared our teenage years with so much laughter and silly jokes. Another stop was the courthouse where my father worked as a judge for twenty years. I could not ﬁnd our old home in Da Nang because it’s now an ofﬁce building.
The last stop in Da Nang was My Khe beach. Lauren and I were so happy when our feet touched the white sand and warm water. It was a perfect day, the sky was blue with patches of white clouds. Warm summer breezes caressed our faces softly. I picked up some seashells and feathers on the beach. I took a few deep breaths to treasure my youth, and my presence in the here and the now.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) three days ago. It’s a lovely break: we called our time here are our “lazy days” — great food, and nice times spent with my brother’s family. We also visited with Uncle Tu’s children, Aunt Dieu Phuong’s daughter, and my dear friend Thuy Anh that I have not seen for forty-ﬁve years.
Lauren and I feel very fortunate to be able to take this trip together. Vietnam has helped us to open our hearts and our souls, to be touched by the kindness of many people and to be proud of my homeland’s natural beauty.
I’m looking forward to being back in America soon. May all beings be at peace.
Van Khanh Ha, True Attainment of the Fruit of the Practice, left Vietnam in 1971 to study in the United States, where she married and had a daughter, Lauren Mai. Her father, who had been a federal judge before the war, and her mother were able to come to the U.S. and live with Van in their old age. Van practices with Sanghas in Maryland and Virginia.