I had just crossed the border into Vietnam, arriving in the city of Điện Biên Phủ for ten days of editing and writing while Gab spent some time with her partner in Laos. I was starving and wandered the streets in search of vegetarian fare. No easy feat as I had one very strict rule – I would rather chew off my big toe than eat rice, morning glory (it’s a green leafy vegetable, don’t be dirty) and egg for the fifty millionth time. This limits your already very limited options in a big way in Vietnam. Would it be mission impossible?
As I passed by people on the streets they were very friendly and shouted out a loud, “Hello!” I almost felt like a celebrity. This warm welcome kept me going until I eventually happened upon a fast food restaurant. #healthyliving. After much back and forth with the waiter at the restaurant and a little help from Google Translate, I was able to order a really crap cheese pizza and connect to the wifi. Worrying that I would have to find food for the next nine days and acknowledging that I shouldn’t (although I probably could) live off crap cheese pizza alone, I did a search to try and find other vegetarian options in the city. To my delight I discovered that there was a vegetarian restaurant, only a short 1.7km stroll from my accommodation. Winning.
That night I made the trek across the city and down a side street lined with Vietnamese flags to Yên Ninh. It was a small restaurant with a couple of tables. Books in both Vietnamese and English lined the walls. I’d found treasure! I looked at the menu and my stomach did an excited flip. I had options! It took me forever to decide what I wanted but Liên, one of the owners, helped me order and the food was delicious. Liên’s 8 year old daughter, Na, came up to me and practiced her English while I was waiting for the food to come out. Liên and Na lived in the same building as the restaurant, with her sister Nga and her family. To my untrained ear, Nga and Na sounded exactly the same and they laughed at me as I tried to work out the difference. Both Liên and Nga spoke spectacular English. We chatted about the restaurant and I told them I was in town for a week or so. As I went to leave, Nga invited me to go to the pool with them the following day.
The pool excursion was a bit of an exciting one. None of the family could swim except for Nga’s husband, Manh, and he watched cautiously from the sidelines. They had not been to this particular pool before and it turned out it was a lot deeper than they were used to. Manh had to keep reaching in and pulling flailing bodies out of the water.
Over the coming week, almost not a day went by where I didn’t see my new Vietnamese family. They invited me to a delicious vegetarian feast with their friends and I met the happiest baby ever (pictured below). I rode on the back of Liên’s motorbike through the mountains and up to the hot springs where the pool was shallow enough that everyone could stand.
Nga and I worked on a video to help travellers crossing the border into Laos. She had quite a few tourists stopping by that had failed to get across due to an issue with the electronic visas. It meant people either had to travel 600km to the nearest border crossing that would allow them to cross or they had to go to Hanoi, a five hour car trip, to sort out the visa issues there. Nga was really frustrated with it all and wanted to do something to help tourists avoid this drama. You can learn what not to do and watch me awkwardly pronounce names of Vietnamese places here.
Nga also taught English and I helped out one day, letting the children pepper me with questions. When I asked the kids what their favourite food was everyone chose either pizza or burgers! It made me miss the children I worked with back home.
One afternoon I was talking to Na (not Nga) and I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She told me she’d love to be a ballet dancer. I had been a dancer in a past life and so we had an impromptu lesson, teaching her and Nga’s daughter Lê the positions of the arms and legs in ballet. The following day Nga took me to watch Na’s dance rehearsal for an upcoming competition and we did a bit more ballet just for fun. They were very good!
By the time Gab arrived I was pretty settled in Điện Biên Phủ. The night we reunited I asked her what she wanted for dinner and she said she couldn’t really be bothered to walk anywhere. I told her we didn’t need to and Manh delivered the food to us that night. Gab was impressed.
We ended up having to spend an extra day in my new home city before recommencing the walk because Gab, living up to the title of Worst Case Scenario Gab, had been bitten by a dog and had to get rabies injections. This turned out to be an incredible stroke of luck for me (just not Gab, sorry Gab) because Na was performing in the annual Điện Biên Phủ dance competition that morning. The competition was unlike any I’d seen before. The audience were a lively bunch that came in and out as they pleased and chatted throughout the performances. The event was the greatest display of nationalism I had ever born witness to. Uncle Ho was featured often, as was the Vietnamese flag and the trusty sickle and hammer. There was such a variety of dances and each one told a story of a different aspect of Vietnamese culture. In between numbers lots of children came up to me enthusiastically to practice their English. Na was in her element and danced beautifully.
On the way back from the competition I got talking to Nga again. She opened up and told me that she had quite a good understanding of what it was like to walk long distances. Her mother was quite a serious Buddhist and when Nga was 14, she decided to go on a bit of a destinationless pilgrimage and take Nga with her. They shaved their heads and relied on the generosity of strangers for food and shelter. She talked about how they would sleep anywhere they could find, how sometime they were starving, that people would sometimes throw rocks at them and how she was bitten by dogs. Nga said that it completely changed her outlook on life and showed her what was truly important. She treasures spending as much time as possible with her family and doesn’t understand how her neighbours are so caught up in the rat race, obsessed with money and conventional ideas of success. It was an amazing conversation and I wish I had recorded it. I have so much respect for what she’s done and how she has chosen to live her life.
As I departed Yên Ninh, regretfully for the last time, Nga stopped me and asked me to pick out one of the beautiful pieces of cloth local Hmong women had embroidered and appliquéd. It’s now hanging from a cork board at my desk and every time I look at it I think about my beautiful Điện Biên Phủ family and how bloody great humans can be.