When I think of Vietnam, it takes me back to all the great moments, gracious people and delectable food that make the place. The rising sun and chirping birds behind the lime karsts while I kayaked in Halong Bay, the old quarter in Hanoi brimming with poignant French and Chinese influences, the delectable aroma of Pho lingering on the streets every morning, the rippled reflections of lights on the canals of Hoi An, the rich and flavourful coffee with variations of egg and condensed milk… I could reminisce forever. My fondest memory of the country though is that of a person, a middle aged lady from the humble town of Ninh Binh. Despite the cultural barriers or the fact that we had never met and shared very little in common, remembering her will always bring a smile to my face and stir warmth in my heart.
Tips from fellow travellers, word of mouth and the urge to experience some real Vietnam led me out of the charming capital city after spending a few days there. I took off from my hostel one morning and hopped on to the next bus for a day trip to Ninh Binh. I stared out at the lush countryside using the window as a canvas, with some local food parceled for the road and an easy-going playlist simmering lightly in my ears. The journey sure seemed promising! And it was.
As the bus finally pulled in to the stand at Ninh Binh, I hopped off and walked to the nearest little hotel to find myself a bicycle. It took barely any time or effort, given the overwhelming friendliness of the locals. In fact, the owner of the hotel, Hien, even gave me his wife’s Vietnamese hat to wear since he thought it was too sunny to ride around without it. I thanked him and rode off to explore. I spent 5 – 6 hours savouring the streets, markets and a part of the countryside. Content with my adventure for the day, I decided to make my way back towards the hotel and further to Hanoi. Little did I know that the best was yet to come.
My favourite time of day trickled in as the sun set on Ninh Binh. Following the trail back, I decided to stop and take my hat off to be able to feel the wind in my hair. And then as I rode on I heard someone yell behind me. Engulfed by the freedom in the air, I dismissed the sound and continued riding, until the sound grew louder and closer. I turned around to a see a middle aged woman running towards me hysterically and she did not look particularly happy! As she drew closer, I noticed my wallet in her hand and felt my stomach sink. My bubbling nonchalance had lead me to drop my wallet while removing my hat. A possession I would have been stranded without, I shuddered at the thought of reaching the bus without my wallet.
I found myself extremely nervous and trying to blubber out a ‘thank you’ when she finally came and handed it over to me. She seemed to chide at me in a language I didn’t understand. I thought, perhaps, she expected money as a token of gratitude and for good reason! More than willing, I pulled out a 200,000 Dong note from my wallet and handed it over to her. She refused to accept it. Foolishly, I assumed she didn’t feel it was enough, so I pulled out another 100,000 Dong. She shook her head profusely. Noticing the confusion, a man walked towards us and she explained the situation to him. He turned towards me and half-translated, “She want you to be careful, she see you drop your wallet so she run. She want you to have good memory of her town”.
I stood there, utterly speechless, as he spoke. Later, she offered a cup of tea at her shop and I grabbed the offer. As we sipped our tea, I made a few feeble attempts at striking a conversation but in light of the language barrier I just decided to show her the pictures of Ninh Binh I had captured earlier in the day. When i was done with those, I pulled out some of Hanoi as well,just to be able to spend some more time there. Delighted, she called her daughter to share pictures from their travels to Hanoi. We barely spoke but despite the lack of coherent words used, it was still one of the best conversations I have ever been part of. We smiled and laughed and watched the sun set. I decided to stay the night in that gracious little town and meandered around the entire evening with a jump in my step and a beam on my face.
The most heart-warming moments on ones travels are indeed those when you find beauty in someone that transcends the beauty around them! I really wish Linh knew that every time I thought or spoke of Vietnam, I thought and spoke of her. She wanted me to take back fond memories of her land. And she herself, made the fondest of them all.