Chanel No. 5

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Lauren Vuong as a child with her mother and sister.

Scientists say that of all the senses, smell is the most tied to memory. Lauren Vuong has this Perspective.

Recently, a detour took me past the perfume counter where a spritz of Chanel No. 5 hung in the air. I was immediately transported to Vietnam, 1978.

Chanel No. 5 in post-war Vietnam: How can such a dichotomy of capitalist colonial luxury exist in war-torn Communist Vietnam?

My mother wore Chanel No. 5. She had a bottle and hid it. Chanel was as secret as U.S. dollar bills, gold leafs, or Chinese antiques. Chanel was part of my mother’s pre-war past when she was glamorous, wealthy, and married to status. She even smelled important. Now everything of obvious value had been appropriated by the state, even her husband.

In post-war Vietnam, my mother supported three young children, secured my father’s release from re-education, and planned an escaped out of Vietnam. She conducted business in the black market, securing and re-selling banned goods, like Tylenol or Marlboro cigarettes. She ran from busted stings, bribed officials to evade arrest. She was the most badass woman ever. In secret, she still wore Chanel No. 5, just a hint of it, on her still-damp skin after bathing. The scent hung in the air, like a specter without shape or form, but whose presence you feel just the same.


In those years, my mother was gone all the time. The only evidence of her existence was her dirty shirts in the laundry pile. My sister and I would sit in the armoire and wrap them around our bodies, shirts that just yesterday touched our mother’s skin. We would inhale the faint linger of Chanel No. 5 mixed with what was uniquely our mother. It was as if she was there and hugging us.

My mother doesn’t wear Chanel No. 5 anymore. Maybe it’s too much of a reminder of those post-war years. Even though it’s been 40 years, the scent still evokes powerful memories. I miss my mom. I love my mom. But now, I can see her anytime.

With a Perspective, I’m Lauren Vuong.

Lauren Vuong is a mother of two. She lives in San Francisco.