Header photo: The Catholic church at the lake's edge, Gia Nghĩa
Today we took a drive between Buôn Ma Thuột and Gia Nghĩa, two provincial capital cities in Vietnam – those provinces being Đắk Lắk and Đắk Nông respectively – taking a slightly alternate route (I know, I know) from the main highway. The road was mostly sealed and good, the occasional pot hole and a 15km stretch of ugly gravelly sand notwithstanding, and we passed by newly planted paddy fields in brilliant green, strategically placed so as to be irrigated by the many natural waterways.
During one moderate downhill ride, two young boys shot past us on their bicycles, waving and laughing as their pedal-power trumped our fossil-fuel. Of course, it was a different story going up the other side, but some enterprising school kids on bikes had grabbed on to a tractor’s trailer and were being pulled up, some waving shyly, some yelling cheekily, all happy to see us passing by and not showing even a trace of hostility. Adult passengers on motorcycles stared as they overtook us, the rags over their mouths to protect from the dust failing to hide the smiles visible around their eyes. The cows remembered that the road is not an ideal place to graze. The dogs still enjoyed jumping out from time to time. The goats stayed in little groups in ditches. The chickens were rarely seen. The pigs were entirely absent.
As we drove into a small town that I don’t know the name of, we stopped at a stand selling sugarcane juice. It was a petrol-run crusher – a step-up from the hand cranked juicers of Cambodia – and was operated by a woman on the front porch of her house. It was a typical little drink-stop, with tiny, red, plastic chairs and tables and a shady awning of corrugated iron. Her house was wooden and windowless, tidy, with a hammock out front. She also sold Chè, a dessert of coconut cream, sugar, crushed ice and jellies, and so we ordered one to share.
The woman sat down with us (there were no other customers) and we attempted conversation. Caroline’s Vietnamese is getting better by the day, but there were many instances where she had to concede defeat and admit that she didn’t understand. The woman didn’t seem to mind, topping up our sugarcane and giving us more crushed ice for our Chè. We met her young son and his gang of friends.
“What is your ah-name?”
At this they all began to repeat my name while giggling, and the woman kindly yelled at them in Vietnamese to stop bothering us. They went over to the house and began to play some sort of game involving cards and a board with coloured circles on it. One kid who looked about 8 prodded another kid who looked about 5. The 5-year-old promptly picked up a plastic chair and tried to bash the 8-year-old, but 8 countered with his own chair and they ran around in circles making ‘pshhht’ noises, waving the chairs menacingly. The woman had two children – a boy and girl. She was 29-years-old, she told us. It’s very common to declare your age in Vietnam, since there are many different ways to say ‘hello’ based on the age of the person you are addressing. It’s usually the 2nd or 3rd question Caroline and I get asked.
We finished our sweet drinks and went to pay, but the woman refused to take our money. We don’t know exactly what it was she said, but it was clear that she was giving us the drinks as a gift. She told us that she was very happy to meet us, and waved away the money that was in my hand.
And so it was. A woman living in a small house with two children in a quiet village gave us a gift. I wouldn’t have been as surprised if we had been invited guests, but we’d pulled over at what was obviously a shop and ordered things. To give two people this small gift – people who clearly had enough money to actually be in Vietnam, traveling around and not particularly contributing anything to society – was so simple and touching, that I felt it needed writing down.