Archive for the ‘Smiles and stories abound’ Category

Last week, I met 40 volunteers at 5am on a dark street in Saigon. We were going to the Mekong Delta to interview scholarship students/parents and award their annual scholarships. The volunteers were young Vietnamese students and professionals, most of them had never been to the Mekong Delta. The group split into two and headed off to different provinces. Our group of 20 boarded the bus to Bac Lieu. There were two other Viet Kieu (Vietnamese Americans), but I was the only non-Vietnamese speaking person.I am constantly relying on my best asset to span language barriers. Not my 200 words of Vietnamese – my big, cheesy grin. People will quickly look at me to ensure they are the intended target, the smiles are shyly returned at first, and then our smiles grow in mutual delight. It works well with children, elderly and women.

I was assigned to video tape the interviews with students and parents. You might think this is a challenging task since I can‘t actually understand the interviews. But I’m pretty good at reading situations and can see emotion and spirit, I can tell when someone is going to open up and tell a great story. And the stories just pour out. Single mothers that have struggled to raise children, older sisters raising younger siblings. They are giving the next generation everything to create a better future. It’s an age-old story and I never get tired of seeing the proud smile of mothers as they gaze at their daughters with love and hope.

After two days in Bac Lieu and Ca Mau, my friend and I left the group for beach time in Ha Tien and Phu Quoc Island. It was the beginning of circuitous travels that wind up heavenly. We got to the bus station, but since there were no other passengers to our destination of Ha Tien, we had to take another bus, a shuttle, another bus and a taxi. On the first bus a 90-year old woman boarded and sat next to us. She was hunched over and used a PVC pipe as a cane. Her son was sick and she was in Ca Mau to visit him. He had dissuaded her from visiting, since he didn’t have the money ($2.50 USD) for her bus fare home. A mother’s concern is fierce and she came to see her sick son without knowing how she would get home. My friend paid her return fare. When we finally got to our destination after 8 hours at 10pm, we ate steamed, sweet crabs with lime and salt on the beach in the dark.

We returned to the same beach resort as my prior trip to Phu Quoc Island. My last trip included flirting with one of the hotel staff. He was surprised to see me with a male traveling companion and asked if he was my boyfriend. I told him we were just friends, but I think “friend” in Vietnamese is code for something entirely different. It’s amusing for others to look at us and make assumptions. I feel like I’m acting in a straight play, but then my gay friend and I laugh hysterically and call each other honey.

We took a taxi into town for the night market. I liked the taxi driver, Dong, as soon as I saw his face. When I learned his story, I was immediately crushed out on him. His father and grandfather were communist party officials. He met a woman and wanted to get married. Her family had escaped from Vietnam, and the party told him if he married her, he couldn’t get a job with the party. He chose LOVE and is a proud taxi driver now.

Phu Quoc Island has deserted beaches and unending seafood. We took a boat trip to go fishing and snorkeling. I practiced humility when I didn’t catch a single fish. We grilled the fish for lunch on the beach of a deserted island. My friend wanted sea urchin, so the boat driver swam into the water with a bucket and tongs and emerged 10 minutes later with sea urchin. He gave the spines a quick haircut, cut them open, rinsed them out in the salt water and grilled them. So fresh and delicious!

After three nights falling asleep to the sounds of the surf, it was time to leave paradise. I’m back in Saigon and we leave for Hanoi tomorrow.



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