My mother and me, wearing her áo dài!
The Áo Dài
As Told By: Christine Nguyen
Some people collect vintage stamps. Others collect baseball cards. For my mother, her not-so-secret obsession is with the Vietnamese áo dài. In our home, her collection lives in the downstairs closet, tucked away from the chaos of her twin sons. With bright fabrics, textures, and prints lining the walls, the 5 by 4 foot room truly feels like magic. Each áo dài is organized in a perfect and seamless gradient, representing every shade of the rainbow. For a woman who is everything for everyone, sewing and designing áo dài is one of the few things that my mother reserves for herself. At the end of long days at the office and after her children are fast asleep, my mother would find peace and rest behind her sewing machine.
When my mother was a child in Vietnam, her parents could only afford one áo dài for each daughter to wear to Catholic school. My mother’s father was a mechanic in the Vietnamese army and her mother sold imported machinery. In their home, everything was shared. The eight children slept on straw mats, huddled together under mosquito nets. Their meals were cooked over a simple wood fire and were often made from leftovers that local restaurants were going to throw out. Among my mother and her four sisters, they had one blue special áo dài that was their prized possession. It was plain, but beautiful and elegant. My mother constantly argued with her older sister, Luong, who had seniority privileges over the áo dài. One day, the bickering became so unbearable that their mother ripped the áo dài in half.
Two months before the Fall of Saigon in 1975, my mother’s family lost their home to a fire. Her mother had saved small amounts of jewelry for each daughter. A ring for Lien. A thin gold necklace for Luong. A pair of earrings for Huong. A broach for Hanh. These small gifts were meant to be a part of their dowry. All of it was lost to the fire.
On April 30 1975, my mother remembered being surrounded by chaos. There was shouting and gunfire. Her mother frantically corralled all of the children into their home. She told them that they must wear black, like the people up north. “If we don’t listen, we will be shot and killed.” There was no electricity that night and everyone silently waited in fear by the candlelight.
Life after the Fall was difficult for my mother’s family. Her father, brother, and sister escaped Vietnam first in 1977. Everyone else had to stay behind. As a young teen, my mother woke up at 2am everyday to go with her mother to the seaside and buy goods such as fish sauce or rice for cheap prices. It was illegal to buy a surplus of goods, so my mother had to hide rice in the folds of her clothes. Her father would send their family small medicine boxes from the United States. These goods, which were meant to be used by the family, were also sold in order to survive.
After 13 years, my mother’s father was finally able to sponsor the rest of his family to the United States. They relocated to Anaheim, California and have been living together in Orange County ever since.