Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday adventures (between 5 and 6pm)

Today I went to one of my favourite parts of Hanoi, around Dong Da lake, inside the maze of market lanes leading to my new school. I work there every Sunday, I teach 5 classes of 90 minutes each. Between 5pm and 6pm I get an hour break, and I usually spend it getting my hair shampooed which is such a relaxing experience in Vietnam. It’s refreshing also, as the lady always washes my hair with cool water, scrubs my face and gives me a head massage. It’s been really hot for the past few weeks so I always feel sticky and dirty by the end of the day. These shampoos are really revitalising, I feel ready for my final class after that.
But today I was hungry. I was hoping to fit a Pho as well as a shampoo in 55 minutes, however on my way to the Pho place, I heard a little voice call me.
Co oi!!! (which means “auntie” or “teacher who is a woman”, I don’t know which one it was as she is in age to call me auntie but I am also her teacher – and a woman)
I looked at my little student, Chi. She’s 6 years old, and cute as a button. She was waving at me from across the lane, one hand on her cute little pink bicycle. She looked happy, so I just waved back, smiling. When I looked back in front of me, ready to continue towards the Pho place, something in her attitude caught the corner of my eye and made me look again. She looked lost and confused.
I crossed the lane to join her, and we had this conversation in Vietnamese (now, I missed a few things, my Vietnamese is far from fluent, so whenever she said something I didn’t understand, I’ll leave a blank here)
- Little niece, what are you doing?
- I’m going home.
- Alone?? Where is your mother?
- She’s at home
- Where is your father?
- He’s at work.
Well, I didn’t know how to ask her if they were coming to pick her up. I could sense there was a problem but I didn’t know what it was.
- Where is little niece’s home?
- That way (she points towards the lake)
- Is it far?
- So so.
- How will little niece go home?
- With the bicycle
- So, go home then.
- But my bicycle ………….(bla bla bla)………. She points at men drinking tea 10 metres away from us. She looks like she could cry.
- I don’t understand you sweetie pie. AAAH! Nguyen, come here!
Nguyen is another one of my students, he’s 11, he speaks English well and we get along really nicely. He’s my boss’ son. He was just passing by, going home after his class. I ask him to help me out and ask little Chi what the problem was.
He crouched to talk to her, I mean she’s like one meter tall, max. From their conversation, I understood the following:
- Little sister, where are your parents?
- Mum is at home, dad is at work.
- Why isn’t little sister going home?
- Little sister is (bla bla bla) bicycle (bla bla bla)
Nguyen straightened himself up and told me her bike was broken, the chain was stuck, and she was waiting for the repairman to come back to his usual spot, next to the guys having tea.
- When will we come back, little niece? I asked Chi
- I don’t know.
Nguyen let go of his bag (into the mud) and started fixing the bike. He got his hands dirty for nothing. “It’s really stuck” he said, “I can’t help”
- Ok, can you tell Chi I’ll take her back to school and she can call her parents to come and pick her up from there please?
Nguyen translated. Chi smiled at me with an immense look of relief on her face. I took her hand in my hand and her pink bike under my arm and off we went. We walked back to school, chatting away in Vietnamese.
- Does little niece like cats?
- Yes!
- Does little niece like dogs?
- Oh, no! little niece is afraid.
- Does little niece like…
- Little niece like rabbits!!!
- Really?? Wow, yes, rabbits are so pretty!
And so on. We got to school finally and I handed her off to Hoa, the lovely admin girl. Chi looked happy now, she waved me goodbye.
“Cam on Co!” (Thank you aunt/teacher).
You should see her, she’s so damn adorable and fragile, I wanted to adopt her. But apparently she does have parents, even if they make her ride her little pink bicycle back home alone, at 6 years old, on streets crowded with crazy motorcycles and gigantic cars.

I no longer had time for a shampoo, and I didn’t care. I was happy to have been able to communicate so well with Chi, I was proud of my Vietnamese. That is until I conversed with the Pho lady. I sometimes have Pho there, and she always asks me how much I earn. We were doing just that ritual when I decided to change the topic and asked her where her husband was. She pointed at the sky and said the Vietnamese word for ‘dead’. “I’m so sorry!”, I exclaimed, in a very Westerner’s manner (I really don’t think apologising when someone mentions a loss is the Vietnamese way) she raised her eyebrows and said “khong sao” : no problem.
I was eating my soup then, lost in my thoughts, contemplating how hard it must be for her, on her feet all day, her 2 kids living with their grandparents to be able to go to a school she thought was best for them, but then not being able to see them very often, her huband gone… She still looks young and beautiful, I thought, maybe she can find another love and be happy again. After about 10 minutes, she pointed behind me so I turned around, a man was there.
-“that’s my husband!” she said happily.
Quite perplexed, I said hello. I went through our conversation in my head again, and realised she had said “sleep”, not “dead”… and she had pointed at the ceiling, not the sky. The husband was sleeping in the bedroom above the shop.
I laughed for a while. I still need to brush up on my Vietnamese, because such misunderstandings can be problematic.


  1. comme quoi une toute petite erreur "endormi" ou "décédé"..... c'est presque pareil..... et toute une vie qui change !!!!!
    Je t'adore