According to Andy’s father,
they were going home. As the Vietnam
Airlines jet began its descent he gazed out the window.
‘The last time I see that coastline,’
he said, ‘I was squashed inside a rusty fishing boat with sixty
other people, heading out to sea. No room to stretch out or lie down,
nothing to do for three days and nights, seas very high. Water slosh
in around our feet all time. Everyone seasick. Everyone praying we won’t
sink or be raided by pirates.’
The first time Andy had heard that story
he’d imagined the kind of pirates he’d read about in books
or seen on the screen: dashing dudes in frilly shirts brandishing cutlasses.
‘Three times we were raided,’
his father went on.
‘When we reach Thailand, we have only the clothes on our backs.
Officials in the refugee camp search us again, looking for money and
gold to steal, but we tell them, “We have nothing left!”
Pirates take it all.’ His father laughed, as if he were telling
an amusing story.
Perhaps it seemed funny to him now because
it all happened so long ago, Andy thought. But it couldn’t have
been very funny at the time, especially when you were barely fifteen-years-old
and on your own. His father never talked very much about that time in
his life, and he’d never before been back to the country of his
‘What would happen if you went back to Vietnam, Dad?’ Andy
had asked him once, years ago.
‘They would lock me up. Maybe shoot me.’
‘Because my family anti-Communist and because I escape.’
Yet here they were, going back. Well, not Andy. He’d been born
in Australia. The trip wasn’t a going back for him, it was a going
He looked out the window at the green coastline and the vastness of
the ocean and tried to imagine myself doing what his father had done.
He’d be scared, he knew that. He wasn’t even sure he’d
be brave enough to leave in the first place. But if his father had stayed,
he, Andrew Nguyen, aged eleven years and seven months, wouldn’t
be sitting here now, flying into Hanoi with an Australian passport in
his pocket. His father had an Australian passport too. That was probably
the reason it was now safe for him to go back.
When the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign came on, Andy obediently
clicked his into place. To many of the Vietnamese on board, however,
the sign seemed to convey another message entirely, one that said, ‘Beat
the rush and get ready now’. They jumped to their feet and opened
overhead lockers. They pulled down bags and parcels, and put on hats
and jackets. They jostled in the aisles, their faces tense and eager,
as if they were in a race and they were waiting for the jet to touch
down before they sprinted for the door.
Andy looked at them disapprovingly. Didn’t they realise this was
the most dangerous time of the entire flight? Hadn’t they read
the safety and emergency evacuation guides in their seat pockets?
‘They should stay in their seats until we come to a complete stop,’
he said to his father.
‘We could hit an air pocket, the wheels might not come down, the
pilot might miss the runway, a bird could fly into the windscreen –
‘They excited to be coming home,’ his father said. ‘And
for some, maybe first time in aeroplane.’
‘It’s my first flight, too,’ Andy said. ‘But
I still know the safety rules.’
‘Smart boy. Not everybody have your education,’ his father
Andy didn’t think it had anything to do with education. He’d
noted how the Vietnamese pushed their way onto the plane, elbowing past
other passengers, taking all the space in the overhead lockers and under
the seats. Now they seemed determined to be the first ones off. Vietnamese,
he concluded, were just selfish and impatient. If he got around to writing
a travel diary, that would be his first entry.
His father said it was a very good idea to write everything down in
a travel diary: ‘Then you don’t forget all the different
happenings and can tell your mother and your friends everything when
you get home.’
Andy thought that if he wanted to tell his mother and friends what he
was doing – and he wasn’t sure that he could be bothered
– there was always email. Vietnam had heaps of cheap internet
cafes, according to his teacher, Mrs Gowdie, who had been there last
year on a Discovery Tour. He wasn’t interested in keeping a daily
diary. But observations – he was good at those. Last term for
Science Mrs Gowdie had made everyone keep an Observations notebook (‘Science
is about observing and drawing conclusions from those observations’),
and he’d got the highest mark for his. Nobody else in the class
had recorded so many different observations on hopping mice, Mrs Gowdie
On the intercom, the captain ordered everybody to sit down and buckle
up. The flight attendants scuttled down the aisles and eventually everyone
was persuaded to resume their seats. There was a buzz of excitement
and babies started to howl as the patchwork land loomed closer and closer.
Andy’s father seemed nervous. He licked his lips as he peered
out the window, and he twisted and turned the thick gold ring studded
with diamonds on his finger. Andy stared, noticing it for the first
time. The gold watch on his wrist was new, too. When had his father
acquired such luxuries? They certainly hadn’t been on his hand
when they left home. Perhaps he’d bought them at the Duty Free
shop where expensive things were supposed to be really cheap. They must
have been a bargain; normally, his father would never dream of spending
money on jewellery, especially for himself. He usually wore a battered
old Timex that had been on his wrist for as long as Andy could remember.
‘Pretty flash,’ Andy said, pointing. ‘When did you
‘Where are your shoes?’ his father said, ignoring the question.
‘Under the seat in front. I can’t get them without unbuckling
my seat belt, and I don’t think I should do that. This is the
most dangerous time – ‘
‘Find them and put them on.’
Andy unbuckled his seat belt and scrabbled around on the floor. He hoped
the flight attendants couldn’t see him. They’d think he
was another of those ignorant Vietnamese passengers. He located his
sneakers and struggled to put them on. It was difficult in the confined
space. He couldn’t bend down properly and his feet seemed to have
grown a size since he’d left home. If the plane hit an air pocket
now, he’d bounce up sharply and hit his head on the ‘Fasten
He managed to tie his laces and straightened up, his face flushed. His
father glanced at him critically, and frowned when he noticed the stains
on the front of his T-shirt.
‘From when I opened that can of Coke,’ Andy explained. ‘It
must be the air pressure or something. The same thing happened with
the orange juice. And those little tubs of milk. And the mineral water,
but you can’t see that.’ He rubbed ineffectually at his
T-shirt. That was another observation: airline liquids sealed with foil
exploded when opened at altitude. Airlines should use screwtops. If
he saw the pilot, he’d mention it to him.
‘You can put jacket on after we land.’
His father had hardly moved from his seat during the long flight, and
there wasn’t a single wrinkle in his dark suit pants, on his white
business shirt, or his tie. All new, all bought for the trip home. Andy
wondered why he had chosen such uncomfortable clothes to travel in.
At home on weekends, when he wasn’t working, he wore jeans or
a track suit, and sitting for hours in a plane seat watching a little
screen was pretty much like sitting in a chair watching TV at home.
A more uncomfortable chair, of course.
At least both he and his father were normal size. The lady across the
aisle was so big she overflowed the confines of her seat. With her seatbelt
fastened tightly across her middle, she looked like a Whopper burger
stuffed into a Junior container.
A flight attendant in a green ao dai headed down the aisle towards them.
Guiltily, Andy quickly reached for his seatbelt, but he was sitting
on one half of it and was forced to do a little jig in his seat. Caught
out! Now he’d be reprimanded in front of the entire Economy section.
Well, rows 40 to 55, anyway. How embarrassing.
The flight attendant didn’t seem to notice that he wasn’t
buckled in. She handed his father his suit jacket, which he’d
given to her to hang up when they’d boarded the flight. ‘Here
you are, Mr Nguyen,’ she said in Vietnamese. She smiled at Andy
and asked his name.
Before he could reply, his father told her: ‘Nguyen Cuong Anh’.
We haven’t even landed in the country, but already he’s
calling me by my Vietnamese name. Fastening his seat belt, he said,
‘My name’s Andrew Nguyen.’ And then he added, ‘I’m
Australian.’ He wasn’t sure why he wanted her to know that.
Perhaps it was just to let her know that he could speak Vietnamese.
‘Is this your first visit to Vietnam?’ she asked.
Andy nodded. Two years ago his mother had taken his younger sister Mai
with her to visit her family in Saigon, and now it was his turn. He
said, ‘We’re visiting my father’s family in Hanoi’.
His family, too, of course, although he’d never met any of them.
‘You’ll have a lot to talk about,’ the attendant said.
‘I bet there’ll be a crowd to welcome you at the airport.’
‘Big crowd,’ said his father. ‘First time home for
The flight attendant said something to him in Vietnamese that Andy didn’t
understand, but he nodded intelligently as if he did.
As she walked back down the aisle, he was suddenly nervous. The truth
was his Vietnamese wasn’t that good. At home, he talked to his
parents in a mixture of both languages – what he called ‘Vietlish’
– although it was more English than Vietnamese. He knew his grandparents
didn’t speak English. Would he be able to understand them? Would
they understand him? He’d forget what little he did know and be
tongue-tied. Or he’d say something really stupid, which was easy
to do in Vietnamese, because one word could mean several different things,
depending on how you pronounced it. For example, you might think you
were asking someone to pass the salt, but what you were actually saying
was, ‘Pass me the nose,’ or ‘Pass me ten’ or
‘Pass me the smell’. The same word meant all four things.
‘Got your passport?’ his father asked.
Yes, of course I’ve got my passport. You’ve asked me at
least a dozen times since we left home. He pulled it out of his pocket.
His father had wanted to carry it in his travel wallet along with their
tickets and other documents, but Andy had stubbornly refused to surrender
it. If he was old enough to have his own passport, he was old enough
to be responsible for it.
He pulled out the duplicated customs form he’d signed earlier
and started to read the small print on the back. No, he wasn’t
bringing any guns, explosives, knives or pornographic material into
the country – unlike the blonde girl two rows to his left who
was stuffing a copy of Cosmo into her shoulder bag. He could see a cleavage
on the cover and some headlines: ‘Sex sizzlers and fizzlers’;
‘My boyfriend owns my boobs’. Customs would be onto that
like a shot; she really ought to leave the magazine on the plane.
He was just about to lean over and suggest this to her when something
else on the form caught his eye. Also prohibited were “children’s
toys having negative effects on personality development”. He showed
it to his father. ‘What does this mean?’
His father read it and shrugged. ‘Who knows? War games, violent
computer games, perhaps. Vietnam has a Communist government, remember.
There’s a lot of censorship.’
‘What’s censorship?’ Andy asked.
‘It’s when the government decides what people can’t
see or read or listen to.’
Or play with. Andy thought of the GameBoy in their hand luggage. They’d
bought in the Duty Free for his cousin, Hien. He reminded his father,
who shook his head and said, ‘I don’t think Customs would
Andy certainly hoped not. First of all, it had cost heaps and second,
how could a GameBoy possibly have a negative effect on development?
Computer games were excellent in improving hand and eye co-ordination;
even Mrs Fossey at school, who considered most modern technology more
trouble than it was worth, admitted that.
He tried to think of toys that the Vietnamese government might not approve
of. All he could come up with was Barbie, with her clothes and sports
cars and houses with swimming pools. A lot of Vietnamese didn’t
even have a bicycle or running water, his father had told him. No, communists
wouldn’t look kindly on Barbie.
‘Did Mai take her Barbie to Saigon?’ he asked. ‘I
reckon we would have heard the scream in Australia if Customs had tried
to take it off her.’
His father wasn’t paying attention. He peered out the window intently
as, with a slight bump and jolt, the plane landed. Many of the passengers
applauded, as if complimenting the pilot on a job well done. As if he
could hear them way up in the cockpit. All around him, Andy heard the
snap, snap, snap of seatbelts.
‘We’re home,’ his father said.