It envelops you the second you step from the plane, just past the little fracture in the floor, the gap between the loading dock and solid concrete where crystalline cages or drywall barricades aren’t there to keep the raw feel of Vietnam at bay. There’s no need to spot the endless sea of mopeds that clutter the streets just past the airport’s windows, no need to catalogue the tall, lanky buildings–houses atop houses atop stores. Being able to see it seems trivial when mental images can fade like photographs and you remember this place better with every sense but sight.
The feel of it hits you first, like plunging into water so perfectly lukewarm that you can’t feel the change in temperature so much as the change in texture. The air changes when you step out of the stale, sterile airport. Suddenly, you wonder why you thought the static-charged carpets were so bad; that is, until you try to run your fingertips along the metal handrails and flinch from the static shock. You walk away faster after that, your body acclimating to the new weight of the air.
Warmth is quick to seep past the thin cotton of your shirt, siphoning away what little airplane-cold still remains stubbornly under your skin. Your face and hands feel the brunt of the humidity first, sweat beading on your hairline and palms growing clammy against the smooth plastic handle of the suitcase that clacks rhythmically behind you. You bring a hand up from its listless position, hanging by your side as you walk, and with stiff, sweaty fingers, you start to fan yourself, relishing in the short reprieve from the humidity. It never stops feeling heavy, sticky, sweaty; the feeling latches onto you like a desperate, unshakable lover. Ensconced in it, it’s so omnipresent that you wonder when it will stop existing around you and finally just permeate your skin, never to leave.
The smell of it hits you next, somewhere past the throng of recent arrivals. Sweaty and polluted, the scent of Vietnam fills your head and your lungs, so all-encompassing that you feel like you’re swimming in it, blissfully surrounded. Even in the confines of the airport, the smell of gasoline trickles in through open doors and windows, mingling with the sterile airport air, only growing stronger as you near the exit. When you finally pass through the automatic glass doors, the afterthought of that bitter scent quickly turns into a sharp tang at the very forefront of your senses, somewhat reminiscent of the smell of downtown during rush hour, half a planet away. It’s a little noxious, a little dizzying, but it’s constant, unchanged in the years you left before returning. You breathe it in deeply, just to confirm that it’s the very same air. It’s heavy, heady, and rich in a way temperate California air isn’t, and when you draw in a lungful through chapped lips, you can almost imagine the miniscule molecules of water that dance through it, instilling themselves into your sun-dried skin and warding away dryness with the sly promise of sweat. The longer you find yourself ensconced in it, the easier it is to find the smoky tang of gasoline on your tongue as a part of you, so commonplace that you need to consciously remind yourself that air didn’t always taste like this, didn’t always swirl so tangibly in your lungs or so heavily in your head.
The last thing you notice is the sound. You have to close your eyes to hear it, so you do, just for a moment, just to revel in this antipodal realm around you. There’s that signature humidity in the soft squelch of your sister’s sandals under her little feet. It’s rhythmic, perfectly aligned with the clunk-clunk-clunk of her tiny luggage case, and when she tugs on your dad’s shirt, whining about the humidity, you laugh and remember when you carried the same case and tugged on your dad’s shirt the very same way. Opening your eyes, you pick up your pace and fall in step beside her, wiping beading sweat off your forehead.
“Nóng quá,” you tell her with a wink: “Nói trong tiếng việt.”
It’s so hot. Say it in Vietnamese.
The words tickle your own ears coming out, feel warm and airy against your tongue, almost like a blanket of simple, mono-syllabic utterances come to smooth away the tiring intricacies of English. It’s a little rough and a lot out of practice, but the language ensconces you anyway–from your mouth and every other around you–and you inhale the bitter air with a small smile.
Writer: Mia Vu is a current senior at Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, where Stage Management and Audio Engineering are her main foci within the Production and Design conservatory.
Artist: Eesha Azam Khalil moved to California from Pakistan. She studied Graphic Designing from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, Pakistan. Passionate about Animation, the move to California was a perfect fit. In her free time, Eesha loves to go hiking and taking pictures.