Local Jewish teen visits his roots in Vietnam with dad

Daniel and Repps Hudson and Natalie Monks in the Mekong Delta.

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – On Father’s Day this year, I got a very special gift from my son Daniel.

I got to watch as he did what he loves most and does best: play a hard, fast and intense game of soccer, a pickup match against boys his age or older who were born in the same country that he was born in nearly 18 years ago.

It was our good fortune that Daniel has been in school in St. Louis with a young man named Jack, who was born and reared in Vietnam, and who speaks excellent English. Jack happened to be in Vietnam at the same time we were, so not only did he arrange for Daniel to play soccer there but also served as an interpreter between my son and his soccer mates.

These youngsters often play on Sunday afternoons in a growing suburb of the former Saigon, the city that was the capital of South Vietnam during what we call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War. Nearby were new high-rise apartments, houses and industrial parks where American and South Vietnamese tanks and armored personnel carriers had once kept watch over the major highways leading into the overcrowded city on the Saigon River.

Now, the end of the war was 40 years – two generations – in the past.

These guys my son was playing were in-shape players, and Daniel was as happy as I had seen him since we left St. Louis a week earlier to explore his native country with a friend, Natalie Monks. She, too, was adopted from Vietnam in 1999.

At my suggestion, Daniel, Natalie and I had flown to Vietnam for a two-week visit, to the city once and still known as Saigon, to show them the rapidly developing country they had left when they were adopted.

I hoped they would discover some of their roots, perhaps, or at least begin to get an intuitive sense of the people and the country they had left when they were small children. I hoped to pique their curiosity about the country where they were born.

Daniel has told me since he returned to St. Louis that he is glad he made the trip.

“But,” he said, “I felt like I was a tourist.”

Natalie had a similar reaction.

As we were about to make the 28-hour trip home across the Pacific, she told me that the best day of the trip was “the first day, when we walked around Saigon. I liked seeing how the city worked. I could see the similarities with America.”

Before leaving for Vietnam, Daniel and Natalie were apprehensive that they would miss their friends back in St. Louis. But they realized they were still connected to their world as they discovered Wi-Fi in the hotels where we stayed, in the coffee shops and even in a sleeper bus we rode on for an uncomfortable eight-hour trip through the mountains.

It may be true that they both felt like tourists. However, many were the times when Vietnamese teenagers would approach Daniel and Natalie, often in restaurants, to ask them questions in their native language.

I understand a few words, so sometimes I had to step in to say they didn’t understand the questions.

Still, Daniel and Natalie seemed very much at ease and content to be learning about their former home as we traveled by bus or car around the southern part of the country, from the Mekong Delta and its nine broad outlets into the South China Sea — the Vietnamese call these waterways the “nine dragons” — to the cool, highland resort city of Dalat and to the famed Viet Cong tunnels of Cu Chi.

They seemed most curious about our day trip to Vung Tau, on the coast at the mouth of the Saigon River, because that resort town is where they both were born and from which they were adopted.

Yet, in the end, they remained tourists, exploring the beach and the waves and climbing a prominent hill just south of the city. We could not drive to a house and show them that this was where they were born or where their birth families had lived. We simply did not know those details.

Daniel’s mother, Stacey, and I adopted him when he was about 2 years old. Natalie was an infant. Even then, Daniel’s love of and talent for soccer stood out. In my mind’s eye, I can see this little guy, just a day or so new to our family, repeatedly kicking a small ball into the wall of our room in the four-star Rex Hotel in downtown Saigon 15 years earlier.

As he grew older, he attended Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (which merged in 2013 with Shaare Zedek to form Kol Rinah).  We celebrate Shabbat every Friday night.

Through the years, as he has grown and developed into a superb athlete, Daniel has worked to perfect his game. His Crossroads College Prepartory team went to the Missouri State Finals for the first time last November, and they took fourth place. This fall, he hopes to be a co-captain of the team.

Daniel also coaches and referees for middle school kids. He lives to play soccer.

So it seemed so natural that my son was dashing back and forth on a small soccer field in a Saigon suburb on Father’s Day last month, even though he could not speak a word of Vietnamese, playing against boys, some without shoes, many without shirts.

When the match ended after an hour or so, Daniel and Natalie hopped onto the back of two motor scooters — the prevalent form of transportation for most Vietnamese — while I got into a taxi. 

We wound our way through more of the evolving suburbs — the sparkling office buildings of Saigon triumphing over once war-torn the landscape — to eat lunch at a café where Daniel’s friend Jack knew the owner.

Another of Jack’s friends, Vy, who’s studying English to become a translator and interpreter and was eager to be our go-between, helped us order a round of soup and noodles for everyone. The bill for six or seven of us came to $2.50 each.

My notes say, “Pretty decent lunch.” 

The picture commemorating the meal after the Father’s Day soccer game shows several young Vietnamese boys and girls and one older, white-haired American, this former Army infantryman who was on his fifth trip to Vietnam. 

Whether they fully realized it or not, Daniel and Natalie were visiting a place that one day may  become a second home. We had planted the seeds in their minds.