The Trigger

Vietnamese soupSeated on the sidewalk alongside the Hai Phong port, I enjoyed the lunch I had just bought from one of the street vendors. We were waiting for the boat that would take us to Cat Ba, a small island just south of Ha Long Bay.

I reserved for the third time, a thin and dry piece of fish for eating alongside my rice and soup of leafy greens. The two laborers sitting next to me had just a single fish with two bowls of white rice.

After I finished eating, I offered to pay for my meal, but the elderly woman replied, “You don’t need to pay. You have been invited by Little Xuân ; you are her guest” I looked up, surprised, to see the young girl seated just a short distance from us. She responded with a simple smile and continued to eat her meal as if this was an everyday occurrence.

I had just met Xuân as I waiting to buy my boat ticket. I found out that she was 10 years old; the same age that I had been when I left Viet Nam for the first time. Like many other children her age, Xuân had to work after school and during school vacation to earn a little money. Xuân sold paper fans to passengers as they waited to take their boat across the bay. During this time of year, when the summer season was ending and the rainy season about to begin, it was hot and humid. The trip inside the old steam-powered boat would be unbearable. A fan would be the perfect remedy against the stale air.

Vietnamese fishing boatsFor 500 đồngs, the equivalent of 50 cents, Xuân sold me a fan. I was a little surprised that she offered me the local price, and not the higher “tourist price”,that I was accustomed to paying since I had first arrived. Touched by her kindness, I offered her a tip, and in return, she offered me a meal.

Meeting Xuân was a gift and a privilege for me, and was in such stark contrast to the multitude of beggars on the streets of Sài Gòn, where I had just been. I realized that children only turned to begging when they had been taught to do so.

Happy Vietnamese kidXuân followed me to the boat where she made sure I found a seat and assured me that I would be dry in case it rained. The boat slowly left the port and Xuân disappeared from view. Many days later, when I returned to Ha Nội, I wrote to Xuân. I never knew if she received my letter, and besides, she wouldn’t have had the means to respond. A stamp to mail a letter to France would have been too expensive.

To this day, I often think of Xuân. I can still see her beautiful and cheerful eyes partially hidden by her thick black hair. She will never know that our meeting brought me so much more than I could ever have hoped for in returning to to Việt Nam. Xuân helped me to rediscover the true beauty of this country. Both she and Việt Nam have never left my thoughts in 28 years.

For the coming year, I wish for all of the children of Việt Nam, the same smile and the same sense of hope that I found within Xuân. And, did you know that in Vietnamese, Xuân symbolized springtime?

Dr Trần Tiến Chánh, 1992