One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned since moving to Vietnam to teach English, is that love and friendship can be formed beyond words. And by this, I mean literal words. I have formed friendships with local people who speak very little English and I, myself, very little Vietnamese. Being able to share communication in signals and hugs and songs reminds me that being human, at its core, is just an exchange of emotions. My greatest friendship here is with someone who used to be known as “the cleaning lady” at my apartment building. Now, I call her my Vietmama. She has welcomed me into her family. I spend most Saturdays with her and her two daughters, who refer to themselves as my sisters. The first time we all planned to hangout outside of my apartment (we started off sharing tea and bananas on my balcony after they’d finish cleaning–usually listening to Van Morrison and their favourite Vietnamese songs- always the sappy heart felt ones), Vietmama had her friend who speaks English call me on the phone to ask if I wanted to “go to the 7 gifts with them on Saturday”. I said “Yes!”, of course, thinking it was a Vietnamese Holiday or Tradition I was welcomed to join into it. She told me to bring a helmet downstairs at 11 am. They would be waiting. I go downstairs and my sisters and Vietmama are all waiting on their motorbikes. I hop on with Vietmama, who drives like a crazy person (as do I) making me love her even more. We laugh and scream, weaving through the greenery and wires of the streets; the mayhem and controlled chaos that is quintessential Hanoi. They take me to see Uncle Ho at the mausoleum. I keep wondering, “Where are we going? Where are they taking me?” But then, they start asking me in Google translate, “What do you want to do today?” and “Where to next?” and “What you want to see in Hanoi?”. I slowly started realizing– this day wasn’t an event at all. The event was simply them showing me their home. It was them giving me a tour of their city, their country. Welcoming with open arms, quite literally, into their world. So I said “Bun Ca!”, my favourite Vietnamese dish. We go into the Old Quarter which is drenched in lights and smells of fresh baked goods and flowers and trash: the decaying beauty that enchants your soul entirely. We eat all together, sharing laughter and moving our hands to tell stories. They ask me via google translate again: “Where to?”, I say “Anywhere!”. So we hop back on our bikes and weave through town like a girl gang. Like a family of four. We go through back allies. They yell directions at each other, over the polluted, crowded air. We drive past dogs and dad’s holding and cooing at their babies, through rice fields and citrus. We arrive at a place called, “Secret Garden”, which seemed adequate for the day, considering I had no idea what I was going to see at any moment. We run through fields of sunflowers. We take pictures together. We sing songs and swing on swings so high our feet almost touch the buildings of the just distant capital of Vietnam. Hanoi, the only home they’ve ever known, my new home, with my new family. This day reminds me of the simplicity of love. How easy it is to invite someone into your world. All it takes is curiosity and compassion. I see small instances of this every day in this country. A lesson I’ve always hoped to be true. Something I intend to take with me wherever I go. To make families out of strangers. To laugh when there are no words. To love places I’ve never been, always.
Written by Gabrielle Barnes for Teacher’s Friend Vietnam.