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Crashlanding into Vietnamese society

I heard the crash behind me and watched as the motorbike mirror slid past on the gravel. We were just several miles outside Hanoi and through the worst of the traffic. I had taken both my grandsons, Jordan and Cody, to Vietnam the year before where they spent time working with children at an orphanage in Dien Bien Phu. Cody had returned for this trip with his friend, Jake.

Hanoi has the worst traffic of anyplace I have ever been: motorbikes on sidewalks, shooting the wrong way down streets, dashing in front of other motorbikes, plowing through crosswalks, and running red lights. The boys had traversed the city without problems so I decided to pull over for a breather and a celebration with bottles of cold green tea when Jake’s front tire slipped on the gravel and over he went. Vietnamese, always helpful, came running from every direction. Before I parked my motorbike, they had pushed his bike into the shade and were leading him, limping on his bloody leg and ankle, away. Cody took my camera and followed them. I was not invited, but ushered to a table in the shade.

Crossing a bridge in VietnamMost people would be nervous having their grandson and his battered friend piloted down a row of buildings where they disappeared. I seldom worry about life in Vietnam. I have rarely met kinder people. A group from the convenience store sat me in a chair and brought snacks and tea and we conversed through pantomime and various forms of animation. I have lived part time in Vietnam for three years and, although I have tried every language course available, can say little more than hello, goodbye, please and thank you. Fortunately, that is all I have ever needed anyplace in the world. The language is impossible for me, filled with strange sounds to most Americans, and compounded by six different tones, so one must not just work his way around the words, he must also be a musician with perfect pitch and have an inherent lyricism. The Vietnamese appreciate any foreign attempts to speak it.

As I sat and enjoyed the shade and the attempted conversation, boys were busy putting Jake’s motorbike back together and giving it a good wash. A young woman placed her baby daughter on my lap and lifted my arms so the baby could rub her face through the hair on my arms. Having body hair is an advantage in Vietnam and makes me good luck, just like my potbelly that every passing stranger rubs.

Jake and Cody returned shortly followed by a band of children. Jake’s leg had been treated and bandaged. Jake’s a tough kid and never shed a tear or complained about anything throughout the entire trip. That is the main reason I travel with young people rather than adults who tend to live in Complaint City. Cody said they had been taken to a building where a man treated Jake. People had donated some money to a boy who ran off and returned with iodine and bandages. Cody attempted to pay, but they would take nothing. When I looked at the pictures he had snapped, I realized they had been taken to a dentist’s office. I also tried to pay for the treatment, but knew it was no use. The people even refused to take any money for our drinks or for fixing the motorbike. Jake and Cody were amazed. Understanding the kindness of other people is part of what travel is all about, and the earlier a person starts, before stereotypes set in, the better.

A new and exciting world opened up for the boys. At the White Thai village of Ban Loc they joined in the local dancing and even sipped local wine through a straw with the ladies. They explored the rice paddies and watched the people harvest crops. Women fished the rivers and kids swam in local streams. We motor biked down back roads (most roads in Vietnam are back roads) and discovered a town engaged in the marking of chopsticks. We drove into the forest and followed the bamboo being chopped from the hillsides as the logs floated down a river. Young men hauled the bamboo logs into the town where they were measured, cut and chopped, into chopsticks. The boys had never thought about where chopsticks came from or the people who made them or, especially, the work involved.

In Sapa we met my friend Susan. Her real name is Ta May but she uses the name Susan to distinguish herself from all the other Ta Mays in her Red Dao village. Every girl of a certain age is named Ta May. The boys rode to various tribal villages to see how each one lives. Susan, and her sister, Ling, led them to their village where they enjoyed a native lunch of fresh vegetables and chicken and later that afternoon helped harvest rice. They learned something about the often-difficult lives of other children when they attempted to talk with a small group of them hauling large and heavy sacks down a mountainside. I explained that in many parts of the world there is no such thing as childhood, that people are just younger or older, shorter or taller.

I always insist the boys do their own talking and make their own deals. They must work out how to order meals and learn to bargain for souvenirs. In Hanoi I give them a map and let them take me to places. They learn to use the taxis and the busses. When I feel confident they can get around, I turn them lose to wander about on their own. With the exception of pickpockets, few big cities in the world are a safe as Hanoi.

The boys also learn to make friends. On a boat trip up the Red River, where we were the only foreigners on board, they found themselves invited to a birthday party. The young Vietnamese, always curious about foreigners, especially Americans, offered them lunch and birthday cake. The boys were soon dancing away the afternoon. Whenever possible I always book excursions with Vietnamese, rather than trips for tourists. The idea of travel is to meet different people and revel in their culture. That is seldom possible with tour groups.

Because I had to stay in Hanoi and work, the boys took their own flight home. They had a 12-hour layover in Seoul, Korea, and a change of planes. Although the boys were just 16, they were already growing into confident young men. The last person they wanted along was a grandpa. Besides, they had a pocketful of contacts from the Vietnamese girls they had met and they needed time to make plans to return next year.

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