A Simple Act of Kindness in Sa Pa, Vietnam
‘Don’t worry you won’t get kidnapped!’
My face must have shown shock I didn’t intend to express. I laughed to lighten the mood and to show that I was really not worried. I’d been travelling alone for a few weeks now, having completed a six-month stint teaching in Ho Chi Minh. It was just wonderful to get out and explore the rural areas, to meet more people and to see how they lived. This is how I came to be eating street food in Sa Pa.
I’d met Hien, my companion for the evening, on a two day hike up Fansipan, the highest mountain in SE Asia. Hien was 26. She had gone on the hike without the knowledge of her family, as it was not good for a woman of 26 to be out climbing mountains on her own. She should, after all, be married!
Hien had poor equipment but a lot of guts. She made it to the top, despite the fog and the rain on our second day. Hien was catching the night train back to Hanoi, so we’d agreed to meet for a meal. I was concerned about where to go, considering her teacher’s salary and Sa Pa’s inflated tourist prices.
There was no need to worry. Hien had asked around for the best street food in Sa Pa. Relief. This meal would not only be cheap but good and doubtless in an area which I would never have found on my own.
She had gone on the hike without the knowledge of her family, as it was not good for a woman of 26 to be out climbing mountains on her own.
First, we went for beer with two other young people who were on the hike. After hugs and goodbyes given with a sincerity only achieved from time spent tackling adversity together, even if only brief, our two Vietnamese friends dashed off for a bus and we dodged away down side streets away from the incongruous neon brash.
After a few months of travelling, I realised the importance of noting where I was going—how to get back, or how to return. ‘I need a piece of string’—I remember thinking. But I didn’t actually think Hien was going to abandon me. Quickly, we were there. Across the street was a pile of builders’ sand and bricks and another new house squeezed into a space hardly big enough.
We sat on brightly coloured, kindergarten-sized plastic chairs. Our table was collapsible and indeed almost collapsed. Its cigarette-scarred top reminded me that health regulations have not yet caught up in Vietnam. But the table and chairs were arranged around a sizzling, singing coal grill. Hien gave me a guided tour of the colourful kebabs, vegetables, and fish. The smell was delicious and tempting and the choice difficult.
So we sat to wait, when I realised I needed to pee. Beer. Bad news. This was a street cafe and there were NO bathrooms. ‘Hien, I need to go and find a bar, find a bathroom’.
‘No? Why’. Seconds, and she was up and chatting the lovely sing-song language I was struggling to learn. And she was back. ‘It’s OK, go with her. The owner. She will take you to her house. It is close by’.
What little she had, she shared with a western lady who had immeasurable wealth compared to her own.
We are back to the beginning. My face obviously showed what I did not want to feel. So I went. To a house which was little more that 10m x 10m. A concrete construction. One room. Mattresses on the floor. An area to cook. Immaculately clean. I wanted to stand and stare. Through the house was a backyard of similar size, packed with salad veg growing in buckets and boxes. The basic toilet sat behind them.
Minutes and I was back. But this moment will stay with me forever. This lady who was running a business was probably one of the more well off in her community. But measured by our standards she lived in poverty. What little she had, she shared with a western lady who had immeasurable wealth compared to her own. She showed a generosity and openness from which we can all learn.