When Duyen Van Do returned home to Vietnam, after 18 months of living and studying in the American Midwest, I went with him. Having become such an integral part of our family and community, Duyen was eager for me to join his family, and to learn more of his Vietnamese life. Little did I know that he would try to give me, in three weeks, an experience to match his longer exposure!
The breathtaking cultural leap first took me into homes all over Hanoi, for Duyen's many friends were eager to hear of his American experience.
I had promised my family that I would not get tangled up in the traffic of 1 million bicycles and motor bikes careening through the streets at all hours. But they were the most practical and available means of transport. So I ended up riding behind, and hanging onto, many different drivers on their spinning wheels. Eventually I only needed to close my eyes at rush hour. The freedom and carnival-like atmosphere of the vehicles often sparked my laughter, and I was paying much less for my wild ride than was any visitor to an amusement park at home for an equivalent thrill. We whipped through tiny alleys as well as wide boulevards to the sound of continual honking, bells, and the raucous resonance of bustling humanity.
Gracious hospitality awaited Duyen and I in every home. We were ushered to low tables and benches in front of the ever-present altar honoring beloved ancestors, and served green tea in tiny cups. All spoken exchanges were in Vietnamese, so I sat like a smiling Buddha, nodding and appreciating the exposure to age-old traditions. Sometimes fruit was offered, and if not eaten, we were urged to carry it home with us.
To be with Duyen's immediate family in his home village required many different means of travel. An overnight train took us into the mountainous areas of Lao Cai and Lai Chau, near the borders of China and Laos. With six berths in a narrow compartment, we had company.
Roused early by the conductor, we found our way on foot through a dense fog and onto a bus. We squeezed in among 50 local and exotically dressed tribal people in a vehicle designed for 25. We propped our feet up on gunny sacks filled with rice and onions. Around us clucked basketed chickens.
Unpaved roads meant eight hours of bouncy togetherness. We wound through monolithic rock towers jutting through the clouds.
Arriving in darkness at Duyen's village, we were pleased to find his brother and nephew waiting with motorbikes to transport us and our luggage. I was welcomed into the family immediately with great warmth. Constant attention was paid to my every need. Never have I felt more welcomed and cared for. Now I saw and understood how Duyen had been nurtured in embracing mankind.
Curling up my legs, I joined the family circle for every meal, which was served on the floor on a woven grass mat. In the center were many dishes of meat and vegetables, which were added to our individual bowls of rice with chopsticks. Everyone took turns sneaking choice bits into my bowl when they saw me struggling to manipulate the unfamiliar utensils. The cooking of one delicious feast after another was done on the cement floor of a separate dwelling, which had a carefully tended wood fire.
A niece washed my hair at an outdoor spigot next to two neighbors doing their wash. A nephew combed it. They and neighbor children sang songs to me, showed me their games, and held my hand or arm wherever we went. I saw no manufactured toys. Seed pods, plants, rocks, and sticks provided many fun games for the children of the village.
Most beds were in the living room, each accommodating several sleepers. At the home of one of Duyen's sisters, which we reached via a rocky and muddy road in a soft rain (again on motorbikes), I slept with the sister and her two little girls.
My comfort appeared to be their greatest concern. When they apologized for their poverty, I was able to respond (Duyen translating) that they are truly rich in the important things of life, in love, joy, community, friendship, compassion, and family. They have time for one another..
We visited another simple village near Ha Long Bay, where Duyen greeted more than 50 aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives. This remote oasis, in the middle of a sea of rice paddies, was where Duyen had begun his life, and he showed me the young rice plants and how he had transplanted it as a child of five. These people have never known any other life or location. Everyone wanted to touch my hair, and an uncle and aunt both tucked me into bed, securing the mosquito netting around me.
While I was treated like royalty, "Mister" or "Uncle" Duyen was welcomed as the prodigal son. Everyone listened raptly to his tales of a wider world. He had seemed a boy in the United States, struggling with English. In his own country he spoke with authority, and was treated as a highly respected man of the world.
I saw the lesson that Leo Tolstoy taught in his tale "The Three Questions" answered daily by Duyen and his extended family. Tolstoy asked, "What is the most important time?" "Who is the most important person?" and "What is the most important activity?"
These precious people knew and lived the answers. The most important time is this very moment. The most important person is the one with whom you are right now. The most important activity is to do good to them.
The many life lessons I witnessed in Duyen's home environment have expanded my heart forever.
*The story of the author's first encounter with Duyen appeared May 10, 1999 on page 18 of The Home Forum. Duyen's own account of his time in the United States ran Dec. 8, 1999, also on page 18.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society