Vietnam, Hanoi cyclist


Vietnam, Ha Long Bay rowing
Vietnam, Hanoi street vendor
Vietnam, Ha Long Bay sunset
Home | The Team | Travel Columns | BLOG | Sitemap | Contact |
Luxury Traveler Spacer


Vietnam, Hanoi Hoan Kiem lake
Vietnam: a tale of Christopher, Robyn and Phu

It is extraordinary how many people shy away from Vietnam as a holiday destination because of the sense of overwhelming guilt that followed the end of the American War. Speak of it to any Vietnamese person and they’d shrug and tell you to move on – they have. I don’t think there is a country less sorry for itself in the world. And this is the very reason it should be celebrated… for its courage.

Text Robyn Hodson
Photography Robyn Hodson & Courtesy
Published 5th June 2007
A year ago the Reunification Express rattled into Hanoi station in the early hours of a humid October morning. I awoke with a start, fully clothed and gritty-eyed, barely able to unwind my Western legs from their circus contortionist’s position in the small, cramped compartment I was sharing with four Vietnamese men. I stared out of the grimy window at the darkness, desperately wanting to stick my head under my pillow and push away the jostling crowds which were spilling out on to the station platform.

Amid the whistles, cries, squawks, crashes and general mayhem, I looked for an exit and pushed my way out toward the road where a few taxis and cyclos were parked. After their initial astonishment at seeing a tall foreign woman waving at them through the chaos, the men collectively flung themselves on to their bicycle seats and came at me in a tidal wave of shouts, spokes, cracked seat-leather and fleeing chickens.

I yelled out the name of my hotel and was heaved into the back seat of a small chariot, large backpack balanced precariously across my lap and the rest between my feet. I winced audibly as the scrawny man strained on his pedals to gain momentum. He couldn’t have weighed more than my luggage.

The hotel was quite obviously shut. The cyclo-driver shrugged and pedaled away into the steamy morning. I sat on the stairs sweating, not quite awake, wondering if it would be rude to knock. I did, eventually, and a man appeared at the door in a white vest and black trousers, hair badly pillow-damaged. He mumbled something inaudible, but I made out that I could check in at 11am. He hauled in my luggage and quietly shut the door in my face.

Now what? I looked out on to the street, wondering where on earth I was. I decided to head south and look for a bakery. This was the capital of Vietnam: surely the French had left something of their baguette culture behind? A large rat scampered across my path, disappearing into the sewer. Dead quiet. Through the mist I thought I glimpsed a white horse. It evaporated like a swirl of milk into dark coffee.

I walked toward my vision and kept walking. After about twenty minutes I came to a beautiful lake. Somehow I knew I had walked to Hoan Kiem. I remembered it was named after a legend – something to do with a sword and a giant turtle. I promised myself I would look it up. I sat down on a hard bench and pulled out a sketchbook to begin drawing my apparition. With all of its sadness, its mysteries and legends, I could feel Vietnam starting to wake inside me – a foreigner with no apparent connection to it at all.

A polite cough behind me startled me from my reverie. I looked around and a tiny man - a Vietnamese dwarf - stood next to me. He held out his stubby hand and introduced himself in English as Phu (pronounced Pu) and asked my name. “Robyn,” I said, wondering if I was still dreaming. He happily bounced up on to the seat beside me, legs dangling like a child’s. I noticed he wore scuffed, blue Adidas flip-flops – the smallest size.

He was fascinated by my left-handedness and said it was lucky. He told me he loved tourists and wanted to know all about me. After a short account of my travels, he told me how he had been ousted from his village as a young man as his ‘otherness’ was deemed unlucky. He had made his way to Hanoi and settled on the streets, selling fruit and water. His happiness, he said, was in the friends he had made, both foreign and local.

Vietnam, duck shepherd Vietnam, Jackfruit motorbike
Vietnam, Hanoi traffic Vietnam, Turtle Lake, Hoan Kiem
Around us, morning broke white and silver over the lake. People came quietly down to the water to begin their morning regime of Thai Chi. He stood up and joined in, his short arms and legs moving gracefully. I was fascinated. Afterwards, he wanted to show me his neighbourhood and took me by the hand. We must’ve made quite a sight – the tall, blonde, Western woman and the little Vietnamese man, ambling amiably up the street together.

I bought us baguettes and coffee – thick, dark and rich, sweetened with condensed milk. We continued up the street, avoiding being run down by a million motorbikes, and came to a beautiful pagoda – an oasis of calm in the chaos of a wakened city. It was named Bach Ma – Temple of the White Horse. Phu explained that according to legend, in 1010, King Ly Thai To had wanted to rebuild the former Chinese palace after the Vietnamese gained their independence. The walls kept falling down and so he prayed to the local Earth God for help. A white horse emerged from the temple and galloped west. It was deemed so lucky that the King built his citadel walls along the traces of its hoof-prints and declared the horse the city's guardian. There it was: Vietnam had offered her first gift to me. I smiled and hugged my vision to myself.

We continued walking up the road to his house. Wedged inbetween two buildings was a metal container which was halved into two storeys by a piece of sheet metal. A ladder had been placed under a hole which had been forged through. A mattress lay on the second storey with a pillow and a blanket. The first storey contained a tiny plastic chair – like one you’d find in a kindergarten. A whiteboard, covered in English words, was propped up on the back ‘wall’. His front door was a sliding gate with a padlock, open to the elements. His entire house, both storeys, couldn’t have been more than two metres high by a metre wide. I couldn’t fit into either storey so I sat outside on another of his mini chairs.

A young man wandered up to us and sat down next to me on the pavement. He introduced himself as Christopher, a teacher from the United States. He came over most mornings to help Phu with his study of English and to have tea. The neighbours joined in and soon we were a classroom stretched out on the pavement, shrieking over the noise of the traffic. I was fed a warm, tasty broth for breakfast and Phu provided more tea and fruit.

I visited Phu and his neighbours often over the next few months. I was always greeted with open arms, friendly smiles and gifts of fruit and tea. All I could offer in return was business from my tourists who would stock up on bottled water and knick-knacks at his stall. Sometimes they’d sit and drink tea with him, swapping English words for Vietnamese ones. He helped me organise their laundry, recommended restaurants and assisted in arranging guides and transport. In his friendly, unassuming manner, he helped me more than he ever knew. I was humbled by his cheerful kindness. His was a poverty I couldn’t imagine and his early days had been filled with shame and ridicule, yet his spirit soared like the mountains of his birthplace and his warmth and generosity was matchless.

I remember the day I went to say goodbye. My heart was sore. I had to leave the country I had come to love so dearly. I had learnt from the Vietnamese over those many months that at the heart of honour is great humility and that no matter how daunting the adversity, it can be transcended with love… and it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from – South Africa, the United States or a little village in the north of Vietnam.

On the bustling street outside Phu’s stall a duck had wandered off the pavement and into the street causing a 4-bicycle pile-up. A small boy had dropped his bag of frogs for the market. They were everywhere. A dog ran round in circles, barking frantically at the jumping frenzy and Christopher was bounding up and down the road after them. A wrinkled, stooped old woman, chewing betel and carrying two baskets of fruit on a yoke around her neck, stopped to chat to Phu who sat laughing, a dictionary open at his feet. Christopher and Phu pointed to the baskets and challenged me to balance them. Always up for a game, I picked them up and hoisted them over my shoulders. They were so heavy that I lost my balance and fell over, oranges joining amphibians and long Western legs in a salad of pandemonium. We laughed so hard we were doubled over.

... and then I laughed again as I looked at the scene in front of me: it was a simple story, an eastern story… of Christopher, Robyn and Phu.

Vietnam, Ha Long