The Smiles of Mỹ Tho

January 2019

Getting to the village was an adventure in itself. After a taxi to the station, a grueling wait, an hour’s ride in the reclined seats of one of Southeast Asia’s ubiquitous sleeper buses, and a motorcycle ride with some dubious old Vietnamese men, we finally arrived. A teenage girl in glasses and pink pajamas approached us with a warm smile.

“Hello. I’m Hang.”

****

I had agreed to the trip on a whim. When I had discussed an overnight trip to the Mekong Delta with a new acquaintance at my hostel in Saigon, I had imagined we would take one of the dime-a dozen, bus-and-boat trips that are easily accessible, foreigner friendly, and liberally advertised throughout the city. But, by way of her well-connected Israeli travel Whatsapp group, Lital had found a homestay opportunity in the hamlet of M Tho, where a local girl would guide us and let us stay with her family in exchange for some English practice.

Hang’s house was humble, with only a few rooms, rudimentary plumbing, and a couple of noisy fans to keep the constant heat of southern Vietnam at bay. Scattered around the main room was an old-fashioned sewing machine, Hang’s English books, and an altar with family photos and incense as well as an icon of Jesus and a small, fake Christmas tree.

Upon meeting her mother, it was easy to see where Hang’s smile came from. Since she spoke no English, she communicated with us solely through smiles and laughter. The first thing she did, after setting down a plate of succulent watermelon and a basket of small, sweet bananas, was to share some of her prized possessions: baby photos of her children and her wedding album. I gently turned the pages, each containing photos of her in white standing with her tall, serious husband, her beaming smile repeatedly drawing my eye.

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Watermelon and bananas. 
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Hang and her mother. 

We accompanied them to church that night. Hang’s mother put on one of her handmade ao dai, the traditional dress of Vietnam, while Hang and her sister were neat but casual in t-shirts and legging-pants. The building was surprisingly modern, with the lyrics of the hymns projected on a screen, karaoke style. While I didn’t understand a word of the service, I was struck by the sense of ritual, and the large presence of song and chanting throughout. Not so different from the Jewish services of my youth. Before leaving, we went to a small building beside the main church, a mausoleum where the ashes of the congregation’s ancestors were interred. Hang gave us each a stick of incense.

“What do I do with this?” I asked her.

“You should pray to the ancestors and put it here,” she replied, gesturing to a round censer.

I shut my eyes and prayed, although I’m not sure to whom: her ancestors or mine, who were far off in a different time and place. I opened my eyes and stuck my incense in the censer.

****

After devouring a home-cooked dinner and slurping down cold fruit smoothies at a shop that repaired automobiles during the day, we were taken to Hang’s uncle’s house, to meet members of her extended family. I was led to the back of the house, to a simple, stone-floored kitchen, where I found a stout, old Vietnamese woman frying bananas over a wood-burning stove. Hang explained to me that even for the village, this method was unique, as most people had switched to gas stoves.

I had never seen anyone cook this way, and asked the grandmother about her banana recipe, with Hang’s cousin translating. Granny stared into my eyes, a cheerful grin on her face, and asked me a question. The cousin burst out laughing.

“What did she say?” I asked.

“She asks if you’ve ever fallen in love with a Vietnamese boy!”

I returned Granny’s smile. “Not yet.”

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Frying bananas over a wooden stove. 

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the main room, squished between various cousins, we tried Granny’s fried bananas. They were soft and pillowy, a perfect harmony of sweet and savory, the best kind of grandmother food. On the TV was a Youtube video, where some people were fishing using nets in a river. The little boys were spellbound.

Another cousin arrived, a gawking, bespectacled youth. His presence caused a flurry of conversation and laughter from the family members. I caught the words “America” and “California”. They were definitely talking about me.

“Say hello, speak English!” barked Hang’s uncle.

“Hello,” the poor kid muttered as he blushed a vibrant shade of red.

It seemed Granny had found me a Vietnamese boy after all.

****

Hang’s home had one bedroom in the center of the house, which is where her father slept that night. The rest of us bedded down in the front room, her mother in a hammock and us girls side by side on thin mattresses on the floor, chatting like we were at a high school sleepover until we fell asleep, one by one.

The next day, Hang hired a boat and took us on a tour of a few of the famous islands on the Mekong Delta, Unicorn Island and Phoenix Island, named for two of the four sacred magical creatures in Vietnamese mythology (the other two are the dragon and the turtle, and there are two other islands for them as well). On Unicorn Island, we tasted locally produced honey and coconut candy from a tiny factory where we watched the candy being mixed, stretched, cut and packaged before our eyes, and listened to a group performing Vietnamese folk music. Phoenix Island, on the other hand, was a little less touristy and a lot stranger. In the 1960s and 70s, this was the home of the fringe Coconut Religion, formed by a French-educated chemist named Thành Nam Nguyễn who chose to become a monk and eat nothing but coconuts. The island these days looks like the relic of a wacky retro theme park, and it’s a fascinating place to wander around.

Before too long, we took the boat back to the dock, and went back to Hang’s home to pack our things and take the bus back to Saigon. We signed Hang’s “guest book” a notebook where she has kept a record of every foreigner she’s guided, hosted, or had some sort of meaningful encounter with. It is an extraordinary book. Every entry is filled with warmth and gratitude, and it is clear that the people who have been fortunate enough to meet Hang value their connection with her as much as she does with them. As much as I do with her.

Time moves so strangely when one is traveling. It is so ephemeral yet infinite. How is it possible that a day feels like a week and an hour at the very same time? I was in the village of M Tho with Hang and her family for barely 24 hours, just one day. And yet, if I didn’t have that day, I don’t think I would have returned from my trip and felt complete. That was all it took, that one chance to really see what life is like for a young girl in Vietnam, surrounded by her family and community, and dreaming her big, bold dreams of the future.

For anyone planning a trip to Vietnam, do yourself a favor and attempt to seek out such enriching experiences. If you are going to Saigon or the Mekong Delta, please message me privately and I will gladly connect you with Hang, who is sure to have a smile just for you.

Happy Travels,

Mo

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Hang, myself, and Lital. Image courtesy: Lital Bezalel.