SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- Twenty years after my family fled Vietnam, I still miss those humid nights when as a child I lay awake waiting for the B-52 bombs to reverberate from some distant hillside. Ka-boomb, ka-boomb -- the sounds would roll across the city, like heart beats, strangely soothing. Ka-boomb, ka-boomb -- they told me how far away the bombs had fallen and, reassured, I would fall asleep mistaking the bombs for lullabies.
I miss the smell of upturned earth and the thick dark winds that came before the rain, sending the white bed sheets and mother's silk ao dai dresses fluttering like angry ghosts caught on the clothes line. I miss the monsoon: the afternoons when I sat in the hammock on our balcony, listening to the applauding rain, watching it blur the garden and the houses beyond. After the rain, the frogs and crickets would begin their sonorous symphony which continued far into the night.
I miss singing the South Vietnamese national anthem at the top of my lungs with my classmates in grammar school. Little boys wearing sandals, white shirts and blue shorts, we held hands in the cement courtyard while we sang and the gold flag with three red horizontal stripes waved above us against the cerulean sky. ''Blood debt must be paid by blood . . . Let's sacrifice ourselves, why regret our lives?'' Once I believed the words; now I am no longer bound by river and land.
I miss our dogs -- Popsi, Medor, Lulu -- who searched in vain for their masters long after we fled inside the C-130 to the Philippines, then on to Guam. For years in America, I dreamed of them, tails wagging, tongues hanging out. Popsi, Medor and Lulu rush toward me as if they had been waiting all those years behind some jasmine bush for my return.
I miss the soldiers who lived in the barracks behind our house where my older brother, sister and I would sometimes sneak in to watch the soldiers drink their ruu de -- rice wine -- playing bingo or singing various cai luong songs from Vietnamese operas. But when Uncle Lau, the sergeant who was once a farmer, began to tell ghost stories, there would be an instant hush. In such an old country, everyone believed in ghosts.
I miss my old classmates. Some have died or lost limbs fighting a futile war in Cambodia, some have become cosmopolitans living in Paris, London, New York. Some have taken their MBAs and Ph.D.s back to Vietnam as Viet Kieu -- Vietnamese Nationals living abroad who are the new icons of their homeland. Who could have predicted which of us would become the prince, which the pauper, back when we all played hide and seek under the tamarind trees?
I miss the French comic books -- Tin Tin, Asterix & Obelix, Spirou -- along with the homework I never finished and the jar of marbles and the train set I never could get to work. The house with the red bougainvillea blooming over its rusted iron gate remains as vivid in my memory as the day we left it, doors opened wide so looters could whisk away all that we left behind.
I miss the smell of gunpowder and sweat and scorched earth and Old Spice emanating from my father's uniform when he came home from the battlefield. I miss the happy feeling of knowing he was safe and sound. (I do not, however, miss the memory of his sad face and unfocused eyes near the end of the war.)
I miss the gathering of our extended family on my grandfather's death date when we all lined up and lighted incense sticks and begged grandfather's spirit to bless us. My relatives now live on three different continents so it's impossible to gather on grandfather's death date anymore.
I miss sailing down the Perfume River in Hue, listening to my mother tell fairy tales so sad they made the stones cry. My mother does not believe in fairy tales with sad endings anymore; she tells happy ones to her grandchild, Amy, the first in our family to be born in America. Amy is a trusting child. She knows nothing of the princess who dies of lovesickness, nor the widow who turns to stone waiting for her warfaring husband to come home. Instead, she watches Barney the lovable purple dinosaur, and laughs at my mother's happily-ever-afters.
I miss the sour-sweet mangoes barely ripe on the mango trees, the cicadas humming on the flame trees which turned blood red in summer, the cool, sweet coconut drinks by the Mekong River. I miss the smell of burnt wood used for cooking in our old neighborhood, the rice fields undulating like green waves at dusk, the sound of my grandmother's gongs as she prayed to Buddha each night.
I miss Vietnam even though, as a journalist, I have been back many times since the Cold War ended. Yet the things I miss remain with me, unresolved by life in a new country where I do and do not belong.
The worst kind of ghost, Uncle Lau said, is one who wanders back and forth looking for his true home but whose only home, finally, lies in his memories. Twenty years after fleeing Vietnam, I have become one of those wandering ghosts.
Andrew Lam, who left Vietnam at age 11, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.