another chapter down

You’d think I just wouldn’t want to stop writing about our travels in Vietnam, but truth be told it’s been almost a month since I went to task on it. The process is always a tad bittersweet for me. Vietnam was wonderful and it was hard. Some days I miss the place so much I can barely breathe for the ache of returning. But those are the days when life here is especially hard, when the money is scarce and the singleness turns to loneliness.

When I write about our travels, though, it always brings back the ache. I want to be on the train again. I want to eat bun cha at the Thanh Hoa market. I want to sit on the porch breaking open red watermelon seeds with friends.

So sometimes I avoid writing, like I have for all of September (the month I hate). But today I forced it. Did some editing, some writing and made a small amount of progress on a first draft I really must finish.

Here’s a blip from today’s output about how it really felt:

Through the dust-stained window of our train compartment, I watch as the sun breaks over the horizon. It casts a blue tint across the sodden rice fields that stretch as far as I can see. The bunk above me creaks with Stuart’s shifting weight. Audrey is still asleep in the bunk across from him, her bare feet poking out from under the woolen blanket. She faces the wall, hiding from the light as it floods in through our eastern-facing window.

We are due to arrive in Hanoi in only an hour, with sixteen hours and a handful of bunkmates already passed. The bottom bunk, across from mine, is empty again. When I’d fallen asleep it had been occupied by a grandfatherly fellow, white hair and sporadic beard, reading a local paper. Sometime during the night, as we’d tossed and swayed alongside Highway 1, I’d awoken to find a woman sleeping there; slack-jawed and breathing loudly. But as the sun rises, the bunk is empty and the blankets are tossed aside under the bed lamp.

It’s just the three of us here, bumping along the train tracks into Hanoi. We are truly on our own; no one to house us, feed us, drive us where we need to go. No one to set a schedule or make hotel reservations. It’s all up to me from here on out. And I can’t confess to anyone just how utterly overwhelmed I am by this.

I spent countless hours at the Internet cafe searching for houses and jobs and still couldn’t find anything that would work for us. Nothing. So here I am dragging my children northward to be homeless and unemployed with me in the overcrowded capitol city of this Third World Country because I’m too bullheaded to admit defeat. This move will surely seal my win for the 2007 Mother of the Year award.

Sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing this or why I’m so hellbent on staying here. I don’t even truly understand my determination to get here in the first place, besides the obvious win-him-back and show-the-kids-the-world reasons. But, really, what kind of mother makes her kids sell all their toys then moves them halfway around the world without any sort of back-up plan in place? A lousy one, like me.

It’s taken me eight weeks in-country to realize the magnitude of what we’re doing and it isn’t going to get any easier. We’ve managed to give up all we knew to experience this and I’m sure I could take the kids back to the States, fully satisfied with all they’ve done over the last two months. They’ve seen more of this big blue marble than most kids and the time with the orphans in Tam Ky has truly been priceless. It wouldn’t be a shame to go home. But it would feel like giving up.

I’ll give it a month. I have enough money in the bank from the recent tax refund to get us tickets back. If I haven’t found a job by the end of March, I promise to swallow my pride and take the kids home.


In the last few days before we left Thanh Hoa last September, I asked Mr. Thanh to help me with some shopping. I really wanted a hammock. They are all over Vietnam, in all sorts of styles. In Hanoi, street vendors try to sell them to the Westerners–“Silk. Very nice. You buy only $20.” I never took them up on the offer because one, I think they were lying about the silk part and two, I wanted the green one with a stand.

the streets of Thanh Hoa

Mr. Thanh drove me on his motorbike from one shop to another, our helmets perched, unbuckled, on our heads. We finally found a shop that carried them and Mr. Thanh asked the price. 250,000 VND. A good chunk of change in those parts. I couldn’t bargain with any grace, so I asked Mr. Thanh if he would ask her to take 150,000 VND. I remember he looked a little worried; they talked back and forth for a bit and he asked if I’d pay 200,000 VND. Of course, I would. So we exchanged cash for hammock and I climbed on to the back of his bike again, holding the hammock to my chest.

“Sorry, Miss Teresa,” he yelled to me.
Continue reading “Hammock”

Tam Biet, Em Be (an excerpt)

I have a reading this evening at Marylhurst University, and I’ve managed to whittle what had been a chapter down to two pages to read aloud:

Not one of the two dozen children who live at the baby orphanage come out to greet us when Jo and I ride in, ringing our bike bells in typical greeting. The buildings are eerily quiet. The play yard is empty. We park our bicycles in the shade of the fig tree that grows wide and heavy near the gates, then wait.

My children—Stuart and Audrey—are delivered by Mr. Hanh in his little Fiat, along with our interpreter Yen.

“Where are all the little ones?” I ask Yen as we walk through the barren play yard.

“They’re coming,” she assures us and slips off her shoes to enter the baby room. Stuart, Audrey and I follow. A few of the babies have been here for months, including Fat Baby, who quickly became a favorite with his eager grin, but a new baby shows up every other week or so. Today there is another: a tiny little girl born just yesterday. I ask Yen the birth date twice assuming the workers had misunderstood and were saying she had arrived at the orphanage yesterday. “No, born yesterday. Came here this morning.”

She still has that silky down of a newborn across the top of her ears. In the creases of her neck, the waxy residue of birth hasn’t been washed away. And her swollen eyelids open one at a time, unable to coordinate them.

“What happened to her mother?” Yen translates the question for me and the worker pantomimes tossing something off to the side as she answers in Vietnamese.

“She didn’t want the baby. Too young,” Yen tells me.

Lifting the mosquito net that covers the baby’s restless form, I carefully slide one hand beneath her neck and another under her rear then lift her to my chest. The workers watch me, smiling and one touches my shoulder. “Mẹ,” she say and pats the baby’s back. She smiles at Audrey sitting on the bed behind me and pats my shoulder. “Mẹ.”

I nod, smile and sway with the tiny baby. Would I take her if I could? I’m not sure how I could choose just one. How could I leave Fat Baby here? Or Lan who likes to snuggle on my lap and sing me songs in Vietnamese? If I took her, though, I’d have to bring along her brother Tu and sister Lieu. Then there’s still Audrey’s friend, Trinh and the Three Musketeers, a trio of kindergarten-age rabble-rousers who adore Stuart. There is no way to choose, no way to take them all, even though I would if I could. I’d take them and love them and give them all I had. The reality is that I can’t afford to adopt one, let alone a dozen. This time here is all I can give them.

From the play yard outside the baby room, I can hear the children running in and when I go to see what’s happening, they are lining up in two neat rows. Instead of the broken plastic shoes and mismatched, worn clothes they usually wear, each is wearing a pristine outfit with new shoes and socks. The girls line up, ruffles bumping into one another. They each wear sandals with white socks and against their umber skin the white is striking. All the boys are wearing long knit pants with matching t-shirts, sports socks and tennis shoes. They look nothing like we see them everyday. I’m not sure why until the government van pulls up to the front of the orphanage.

I look at Yen whose joined me just outside the baby room. “An adoption?”

“Yes, Hung and Mai are going to America.”

“Really? Together?” They aren’t sisters, so it surprises me that a family would take both.

Yen nods and turns back to watch as the Vietnamese officials climb out of the van and welcome the Caucasian couple to the Quang Nam Baby Orphanage. They are tall and blonde, a full head taller than their hosts. With wide-open eyes, they are silently brought up the stairs and onto the landing above the play area where the children are all still perfectly lined up with the half-dozen workers standing behind them. From across the way I can hear the government official struggling in English, but I can’t quite understand him. He has a broad salesman grin as he shows off the children. One of the workers, in a crisp white uniform, brings Mai and Hung forward to meet their new parents.

I’m still holding the baby girl, still swaying, as I watch the Western woman. Her face brightens into a smile as she kneels to bring the girls into her arms. Her long, blonde hair drapes over the cropped black hair of Mai. Both young girls stand stiff.

Rocking the baby, the clean smell of a newborn filling my air, the memory of my own children’s births overwhelm me. I remember the moment 14 years ago that Stuart, red from crying his way into the world, was handed to me, a young idealistic 22-year-old—the instant I realized that I was a mother. The memories flood me and I wonder if this American mother feels the same as she embraces 8-year-old Mai in one arm and 7-year-old Hung in the other. I cry tears of joy for her, for her husband standing awkwardly beside her, and for their new ‘parent’ status. Then I notice the workers, wiping away tears, too.

The girls have been at the orphanage for several years now. They call the workers “Mẹ,” mother in Vietnamese. They will be missed in the days, months and years to come. Everyone knows they won’t be coming back to visit and it’s a bittersweet farewell. In America, Mai and Hung will have their own clothes. They will have soft blankets and they won’t have to survive on rice porridge and fruit. They will go to school. They will have a family. And yet, as they head off to more prosperous lands, they will leave behind their friends, their culture, their language, and the women who loved them the best they could.

an orphanage mother with a new infant and Fat Baby

Return to the Tam Ky Orphanage

Two years later, not much had changed. The rainbow on the wall still greeted us, just as it had every day for two months in 2007.
The bathrooms at the baby orphanage. Clearly, it's a storage area, too.
I can't tell you how happy it makes me to be here. Absolutely thrilled to be giving away all those clothes and shoes and toys.
Will it fit you? Who cares?! It's new clothes!!!
She wasn't so sure she liked me. It's a common predicament for me in Vietnam.
Chilling in the doorway; sitting on the pot. Literally.
Stuart with his little buddy, Tu, who was quite happy to see his 'big brother' again after so long. I don't think Tu had grown an inch.
Audrey with the woman who does all she can for these kids--Me Ba. Her vast love for the kiddos here awes me. She is a wonderful, wonderful woman.

Heading South to Familiar Territory

I’ve been trying to update this page for some time now with pictures, but rarely can I get on and even more rarely can I upload pictures. What a shame. So what’s been happening?

Last Sunday we went to the beach with students from the first year: Giang, Giang and Thanh all came, the last two bringing along their families as well. The group of us took a taxi out to Sam Son beach and hung out for hours with Audrey getting a new kite, courtesy of Giang (her former tutor) and playing in the water. I wish I’d had more time to chat with the students but Audrey wouldn’t go into the ocean alone and neither Zach nor Stuart would join her swimming. Too bad, boys, because the water was great. So nice and warm with no crabs or rocks to step on. The big group of us headed out on cyclos after dark to enjoy dinner at a seafood restaurant. And of course, the kids had to play with their food. Crab claws were the hit of the party to be sure.

My other student Ha had her baby on Wednesday-woohoo! Nearly two weeks overdue she was more than ready. I’ll head over next week for a quick peak, but since I’m still fighting a bit of a cold, it has to wait.

And tonight we head south to Tam Ky. We’ll be there tomorrow, early afternoon. I’m looking forward to seeing Mrs. Hanh again and hope that some of the volunteers stick around so I can talk to them about the kids. After our quick jaunt there, we’ll head off to Nha Trang (another 10 hours on the train). The plan is to be there for about two days then head back to Thanh Hoa on a 21-hour train ride. Me and three kids…should be entertaining!

Floating around Tam Coc

Thanks to the kindness of my student Chinh, we were able to hitch a bus down to Ninh Binh and a cab ride out to Tam Coc. She has always lived within an hour’s drive of the beauty that is Tam Coc, but had never been. It was my pleasure to bring her along for the ride.

Chinh, Audrey and I as we take off down the river, a woman paddling behind Chinh in the boat.
Limestone karsts fill the area surrounding Tam Coc and Ninh Binh. The local goats call them home.
This is my dream retirement right here. Someday.
Stuart and Zach take the river in their own boat, fending off the hard sell by pointing out they were just kids. In the other boat, I got suckered into buying a t-shirt and table cloth.
Thumbs up for Tam Coc with friends and family!

Travel is for the Wealthy

And the definition of wealthy changes wherever you go. In Vietnam, I make enough money to afford us to spend our weekends in Ha Noi, traipsing around the city eating expensive Western food and taking taxis to museums. I come back to Thanh Hoa and gripe about the insanity of prices in the northern capitol, glad to be back in a small city with prices I’m more than happy to pay. Less than a dollar for three bowls of ice cream. Dinner for four costs less than four dollars. I am happy to drop a few thousand VND in the upturned cone hat of the beggar woman at the market; she clearly can use the help as she scoots across the wet fish market floor. I feel like I’m spending my money wisely; I’m thrifty like that.

Then a student tells me how if life had a do-over, she’d be a doctor. She could make a lot of money. She could be rich. She could make, she paused for effect, more than 5million VND a month. She’d be rich!

I made that much in the first few days of the month.

She imagines being so rich and I complain that it cost me 300,000VND for a pizza dinner in Ha Noi. Or that it will cost me more than 3million VND to get to Tam Ky so I can deliver these clothes for the orphanages, help Me Ba get a new ao dai, visit orphans who’ve no doubt forgotten us in the repeated comings-and-goings of volunteers.

But I can. If I want, I can spend those millions. And I will spend that and more, taking the kids down south…to Nha Trang, Da Lat, Hue? I don’t know, but our biggest constraint is time, not money.

In this life of juxtaposed wealth, I forget how lucky we truly are. And I’m afraid the kids will never know. In a month, we’ll be back in America, scraping by month to month on a salary that puts us a few grand below the poverty level. I’ll continue making rice dishes and eating little meat simply because I can’t afford it if I have to buy milk and fresh fruit, too.

It’s a strange place to be–this temporary wealth, where I look for hotels at the beach and far-away attractions knowing that I’ll be there before long. We’ll be off to Bangkok soon, then through Thailand and Malaysia before heading home. I’m researching budget hotels and how to buy train tickets online. Thrift is in my nature. But the realization that this life of extra is something that those I care for most here in Viet Nam can never have and it stings. It fights with my maternal drive. I want to show my kids all that I possibly can, yet in my rush to give my family a wider vantage of the world, we remain blind to so much.

Returning to Sam Son Beach

After more than nine weeks in Thanh Hoa, we finally returned to the beach that sits only 15 km away. I’m not sure what took us so long to get back there, but either way the situation was remedied. I had the middle of the week off, so on Wednesday morning we took a taxi out to the beach we’d visited so many times before.

Stuart and Zach collected shells, crabs and other “waste” from the fishing nets. When the boats come ashore, they clean out the nets and all sorts of things find their way onto the shore.

Including this fantastic horseshoe crab specimen. Audrey was especially appalled when some locals started playing with it, flipping it over, etc., but someone nicer came along and lifting it by its tail, threw it back out to sea.

Audrey and I on the rocks. We didn’t yet have the deep red glow we would acquire by the end of our three-hour visit to the beach. Ouch.

Audrey is always happy to pose for pictures–the cheesier, the better.

For a snack, I bought xoi (sticky rice) from this woman. I know I paid too much, but there are times when I feel like it’s worth it. She was so kind; she deserved the few extra VND.Eat xoi on the beach at Sam Son

Overall the trip was enjoyable. We were originally bombarded by sellers and children who would not leave us alone, but a few fellow sellers chased them off from us. It’s always an awkward situation to be trying to set up a beach spot and have people surrounding us, touching us and talking quickly in a language I do not understand. And despite our answers of “Khong…khong thich…di di” they just stay pushing their wares at us.

Then, of course, there was the man who was trying to let me accept a massage. I finally got him to leave, but when he returned the second time he just kept touching, squeezing my arm, then my leg, then grabbed a handhold on my breast. I nearly punched the guy, but managed to keep it to a hard shove. So frustrating.

The kids were all enjoying themselves and we’d rented an umbrella, so we stuck around longer than we should have and three days later, none of us are sleeping well due to the burns. Oops. We forgot our sunblock in Hanoi and the stuff is unfindable around here. The locals carry umbrellas and wear long-sleeves, what would they need it for? So, we all pay the price. But next time when I say we really should go, I’m pretty sure Audrey will be more apt to believe me.


How is it that no matter where you are life does not go according to plans?

Our time has been cut short by more than a week; a week that we were going to spend traveling around the country. Unfortunately when our visas were renewed, they only gave us until the 12th. I will finish work on the 1oth, head to Hanoi, then leave the country. I’m so frustrated I could scream. Not only for the limited time, but for the lack of travel we’ve been able to do. Each time we’ve planned to go to Ha Long bay, a storm has rolled in, cancelling our plans. Then there’s the surprise vacation, mid-week. I will have Tuesday-Thursday off this week, just enough to not really go anywhere. We’ll head to the beach and hope for some fun, but I’m fighting a cold and grumpy as all get out.

I was given no warning of the days off, the money lost. And I’ve got three kids who’ve seen more of the inside of a dorm building that they’ve seen of Vietnam. Quite frustrating.

Hopefully on Saturday we will be able to get to Tam Coc, but I’m afraid that Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa will not be seen this time. And my plans for Da Lat are sinking fast. I have obligations to get to Tam Ky and we may just have to do that instead.

Hitting the Arcade with the Kids

On Saturday afternoon we headed out to Vincom Towers to visit the arcade. You can imagine our disappointment when we arrived and the doors were locked, the room was empty. Of course there was a sign, but we couldn’t read it. Frustrated, we decided to walk around the mall and just happened to stumble upon the arcade.

Audrey at the Vincom Towers arcade
Audrey rode every simulated horse ride available. Surprisingly, there were several.

Stuart and Zach played all sorts of games, including (to my utter dismay) this shoot-'em-up selection..
Take note of the enormous breasts to the left of Stuart's head. I'd walked by them a dozen times before Audrey brought them to my attention. Behind us was a gigantic male torso, as well.

On our first night out as a foursome and for only the second time in all our months in Vietnam, a foot got run over by a motorbike. And of course, it was Zach’s foot.

Note the treadmarks over his toes. This would be the joy of Hanoi traffic.