A child brought me to Vietnam. My lifestyle does not afford me the time for my own children. Nor does my wanderlust allow for it. Over the years I have sought out other people’s children to love. Whether by spoiling my own niece, Mara, babysitting for friends or writing to and supporting a foster child in a far off country, I now have a connection to children that sustains my maternal instincts.
I had been involved with Foster Parents Plan for years in Canada, sending what little extra money I had to help with children in third world countries who are struggling just to grow-up. With Foster Parents Plan I was able to help support a family and further a community in the rural area of central Vietnam. The organization set up facilities to help educate the children, to improve the community’s drinking water, to provide assistance with farming practices, and established a medical center. There were also programs to help train people to build better houses and install irrigation in the fields. My job was simple. I was to send a check every month and if I wanted I could establish contact with one of the children through letters and a yearly present (this was strictly monitored to discourage jealousy between sponsored children).
I began writing to Cam Nhugen when she was 8. At the time her parents would write me with the help of a Foster Parents translator. Initially it was about their home life on the small farm where they lived, the health of their two children, and how they were doing in school. Timidly I wrote of my family, where I had recently traveled, and what Canada was like in comparison to Vietnam. It took little time and hardly any money by my standards but it meant a significant amount in their lives.
As the years passed I watched Cam Nhugen grow up in her pictures. With the same help of a translator and the little English she learned in school she began writing to me personally, telling me what she liked to do and asking about my life. She became a person instead of just a concept. The more letters I received the more I felt I wanted to see exactly who she was, where she lived, and what her daily life really was like? Was she happy? Was it difficult to live after the war? Was she healthy? Did she play? Could she see a mountain from where she lived? Were there snakes in the fields?
I arrived at Cam Nhugen’s on the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Halloween-like event celebrating the end of the rice harvest and the importance of family. Cam Nhugen’s mother Trang had been preparing a traditional Vietnamese feast all morning to commemorate my arrival and the festival. Trang was a young woman with long dark hair and latte coloured skin. Her beauty was as evident as the toughness of her life. Her hands were worn and rough from hard work in the fields but her smile was gentle and soft. She had married young and now had two children and a one-room, single-story cement house. There were banana and mango trees out back for fresh fruit and rows of tomatoes and chilis planted in a garden. Chickens wandered freely through the yard and a thin black dog lazed in the mid-day heat under a low flowering bush.
Like most Vietnamese houses there was no kitchen to speak of nor bedrooms or bathrooms. A cloth hanging from the ceiling was all that separated the sleeping quarters for the family. Two wooden beds were all the furniture the bedrooms had, each with one thin blanket covering them, one for the parents and one for the children. In the main room a rickety table surrounded by mismatched chairs sat beside two open windows along with a large door open to the backfield for air-conditioning. The only decorations were the pictures I had been sending of far off lands and an alter set in the corner to worship Buddhist beliefs. Even the wealthy Vietnamese have sparse living space compared to Western houses but this was meager living according to anyone’s standards. To cook Trang squatted on her haunches on the floor in the corner over a thick wooden cutting board chopping vegetables and mixing dipping sauces while a wood fire burned outside in a cement alcove. There was only one cupboard with few pantry articles inside and three different utensils for cooking. No refrigerator, no stove, no appliances. All food is fresh from the field picked daily.
I was introduced to a shy young Vietnamese girl who I recognized instantly. Cam Nhugen had long dark shiny hair like her mother. She stood taller than Trang but slightly behind her with her almond eyes demurely downcast. “Welcome to my country, Vietnam,” she said barely loud enough to be heard. ” I am happy to see you and my family is pleased to host you.” Her English was practiced and formal. She had obviously been rehearsing.
There was so much I wanted to say to this girl but the formality of the occasion was not allowing me just yet. I did however immediately begin to cry. It was all just too emotional. “I am honoured to be here. Thank you for your hospitality.” This was translated for me; my Vietnamese was limited to please, thank you, and hello. Cam Nhugen seemed only brave enough to recite a script that she had learned so we stood awkwardly silent for a time. Slowly I gained composure and started in on my many questions “How are you?”, “Where is your school?”, “Do you like your teacher?”, “What do you after school?” We soon were opening up more and laughing at my bizarre behavior of crying, laughing, and smiling all at the same time. With so much translating going on it was a slow and drawn out conversation and lunch was starting to smell delicious.
We gathered around the table to dishes teeming with catfish stewed in tomatoes and green onions, steamed rice, thin duck egg omelets cut in triangles, deep green water spinach, and crisp white bean sprouts stir-fried with fish sauce. Pork was baked with a dizzying array of fresh herbs; basil, cilantro, and mint. Crunchy bamboo sprouts were steamed with herbs and chilies and a thick stew of sweet potato and carrot with dumplings and more chilies were laid on the table. It was all fresh and brimming with flavour; not hot from the chilies but spiked with complex explosive flavours. The catfish was caught from the pond at the back of the house. The vegetables were grown in the gardens surrounding the house. The eggs came from the ducks on the pond, which was also home to the water spinach (a lily-like plant grown in fresh water with spinach-like leaves. It is harvested daily as a staple vegetable). The pork was butchered from the family’s pigs grazing in the backfields. They were self-sufficient in this regard.
Trang was eager to serve me and as I was famished I dug into each dish like I had never eaten before. She was too shy to speak but was beaming with smiles and giggles as she joyously refilled my plate with the flaky strong-flavoured catfish. She blushed and hid when I complimented her bamboo shoots that were crunchy and bursting with liquid. I had encountered this shy giggling in women and children throughout Vietnam but had hoped to break that barrier with these people who I felt such a strong connection. I wanted to really speak with them, to be let into their world, to know what they were thinking. But alas, the constrictions of formal feasting and the struggles of language barriers prevented me from getting too close to this woman. There is a gentleness to the Vietnamese people that restricts fast conversation. I knew of the formality of the culture but was unprepared for the shyness. However once enough time had passed she quietly asked the translator about me. “Why is she unmarried?”, “Why does she have no babies?”, “Why is she traveling alone?”. Like many others I had met in Vietnam she was amazed and confused by the strangeness of a 31-year-old woman, without family traveling alone in Vietnam. Here I was older than this mother of two yet it was she who was looking out for me. She was worried that I would become too old and “rotten fruit” if not married with children soon. My life is hard enough to explain in English let alone through an interpreter to someone from such a different culture. I cannot even imagine what my life sounded like to this woman.
The father was a different story. Duong, a small thin man with yellowing teeth and a scruffy haircut was the epitome of a hardworking Vietnamese man. He ran the family’s farm and helped in the community. He was not educated but knew more about the land and Vietnam than I had been able to read in any book. Custom and etiquette led to him doing most of the talking.
Duong’s father was also present. The same thinness was apparent in his physique, the only difference in the two men was the whiteness of his hair–it gave him a look of wisdom that I was certain he held. He was of an age where he would have lived through the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam). I wanted to ask. I was interested in a Vietnamese’s side of the story. But I didn’t. I could not find the courage to bring it up. I was too young to remember the war and being Canadian I had no relatives who were involved. I did not want to presume anything or make any faux pas by asking. I wish I had.
People from the community who worked for Foster Parents Plan surrounded us, each with stories of the organization and the role they were playing in the family’s life. The men were eager to show off the work that they were doing and explain how life was improved by the organizations involvement in the community. Duong led the conversation as we spent most of the lunch sitting at the makeshift table on borrowed chairs, discussing the local school, what changes were being made to the local medical facility, and how a recent purchase of an exotic strain of rice would help the local economy. Cam Nhung politely sat with her hands folded in her lap, not really listening or moving but stealing glances at me through her downcast eyelashes. Trang flitted about the room arranging plates, fussing over the food and giggling when she tripped over her son who followed her everywhere hiding behind her skirt.
Like most children her age, Cam Nhugen sat obediently in her chair while we talked. Her younger brother hid behind her now occasionally sneaking peaks around the chair at the strange white woman who was dining with them. Neither said anything until asked directly and then it was obvious how shy they were by their whispered responses. I asked about school and what they liked to do while playing. They called me Victory instead of Victoria, which was easier on their tongue and they stared at me curiously when they thought I was not looking. They laughed at my use of chopsticks as I dropped rice into my lap – they had been taught to use these fiddly sticks at two years old, right after being fed by a spoon. I did not care if they found my ineptitude laughable, it was a joy to see this family laugh.
My red hair often sticks out in a crowd but these children had never seen anything but the Asian dark hair of their friends and family. My long red braid was bringing waves of laughter from Cam Nhugen’s brother, who was just brave enough to reach out and touch it before recoiling into a heap of giggles. I produced gifts that brought smiles to their faces and tried to talk about their thoughts on the future. Cam Nhugen wanted to be a singer and her brother a farmer like his father. Both loved school and playing with their friends. Cam Nhugen skipped rope and her brother played soccer in the field after school. Apart from the shyness and formality there was nothing different from talking to children in the west. This was a family.
As quick as all the plates had appeared they were also whisked away, the table was cleared, and green tea was poured. The men settled in to discussing community news and the children and I went out to the garden to play while Trang picked fresh mandarins and rambutans (a red porcupine looking, lychee-like fruit with less of a strong perfume taste) for dessert. As this was a celebration it was not long before the business news changed to talk of the nights festivities.
The Mid-Autumn festival was a time for children. There would be music played, a tug of war competition, a lantern making contest, and dragon dancing. It is a lunar celebration of colour and pageantry when the moon is full and the harvest is complete. It is a time for children to play and have fun–the parent’s way of making up for long hours in the fields away from them. The children perform traditional dances, make facemasks and costumes, and will compete for candy and monies handed out by elders. Parents tell fairytales and folk stories and serve mooncakes to the children. Cam Nhugen was to sing that evening in front of the community. Her father was full of pride and had her practice one more time for us. She stood to sing a traditional Vietnamese folk song with the soft sweet sound of an angel while her father rapped his knuckles on the wooden table and drummed his fingers to keep time. Without electricity or television this was the family’s nightly entertainment.
It wasn’t long before Duong opened a bottle of rice wine and shots were poured for toasting. The sake-like drink burned my throat but after many smiles and toasts of Can Ly for happiness (a Vietnamese saying for good health and success) it became much more palatable. I certainly did not want to insult my hosts by not drinking.
In too short a time my afternoon visit was over and I had to head back to the city before it got dark. After many tears and hugs I said goodbye and a heartfelt thank you for such an enjoyable afternoon and glimpse into the Vietnamese life that I had been longing for. For the first time all afternoon Cam Nhugen approached me unassisted, hugging me and saying, “I hope to see you again”. It was translated that she promised to study hard so I would be proud of her and she wished my family health and happiness. It was all too much for me. I left the house that afternoon in silent tears. These were genuine people who had just opened up their homes to me. We had shared more than a meal. I felt a part of a Vietnamese family, if only for an afternoon.
The smiles and giggles of reserved children dance in my mind. Hard working determined men striving for a better future. Salty, sweet, sour fish sauce poured over stir-fried vegetables, sautÃ©ed with catfish and marinated with pork to be baked in clay pots. Listening to the sound of a young girl’s voice singing a haunting melody in a foreign tongue. A family I had only known through pictures coming to life in front of my eyes. This is my Vietnam.
Victoria Adams is currently following her stomach and eating her way around the world as chef on a motor yacht. She has immersed herself in such cuisines as Chinese, South African, Mediterranean, Nepalese, Caribbean, and Vietnamese. She can be now be found eating a mango in the South Pacific.