by Richard Sterling
In which we discover the pain of separation, from a child.
I beat Heidi at a game of pool a few weeks ago. But it was too easy. She was very much off her game. I knew something was amiss. Over cokes afterward I asked her what the trouble was. She sucked on her straw, pensively. She pointed upward with her index finger, signifying North. “Hanoi,” she said, and her face clouded. Her family was moving back to their ancestral home. Heidi was born in Saigon. She had only been to Hanoi once. But people here can be away from their places of origin for ten generations, and yet they will long for those places. But not Heidi. She didn’t want to go. She loves these streets even more than I. As Melville said that his Harvard College was the deck of a whale ship, so are these streets to Heidi. They have formed her. Though she be only twelve years old, they have formed her. This endless carnival of vendors and hawkers, cheaters and liars, hookers and pick-pockets, cooks, bartenders, flower girls, and foreigners from all over the globe, have been her world. And she was loath to leave it. But she is gone now. And she, and I, and my alley are diminished.
I didn’t know how to respond when she told me she was leaving. It wasn’t the language problem so much, you know. When your love a kid, and that kid knows you love her, language can be circumvented. But it’s important in this country that we not come between persons and their families. Sure, it’s important where we come from, too. But it’s doubly important here. I had to tread carefully.
We sat silently for a while. Then I got up and paid for the cokes. I nodded to Heidi to follow me. Opposite the western end of Loving Park is the Huyen Sy Catholic Church. Heidi’s family is Buddhist, and I’m Protestant, but the Huyen Sy’s flower garden is open to all, and it’s a peaceful place. We sat down on a bench facing a shrine to Saint Mary. Vietnamese Catholics came and went, lighting incense and votive candles, praying, genuflecting and so on. I explained what I could of it to Heidi. She might have understood every third word. But that wasn’t what counted. What counted was that she knew the message of my heart. And she laid her head on my shoulder, and held onto my arm. Here in Vietnam people are quite open to various interpretations of the divine. It isn’t unknown for persons to attend both church and temple. None would raise an eyebrow at the sight of a Pagan and a Protestant finding a bit of comfort in the shadow of the Catholic Mary.
In the fortnight that followed I managed to meet Heidi’s parents. She is the second child of five. Her dad is a day laborer. Her mom has a bum leg, but she does what work she can, like laundry. They were living in two rooms on the second floor of an old apartment building that Dickens might recognize. They shared bath and toilette with I don’t know how many. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Per capita income in this country is only about $500 per year. Through Heidi I managed to learn from Dad that they were moving to Hanoi because he and Mom had determined that their luck would be better there. Vietnamese people strongly believe in luck. Astrologers are taken very seriously. Star gazers had convinced Mom and Dad that luck awaits them in Hanoi.
I had a nagging feeling that Dad’s luck (or lack thereof) centered on cards and dice. Maybe Mom’s, too. These people are incorrigible gamblers. The Red Rag will tell you that soccer is the national pastime, but I tell you it’s the lottery and games of chance. And both Mom and Dad had a certain pallor that suggested that Heidi’s bike had been reduced, at least in part, to cheap rice whisky. And certainly that bike was financing the move to Hanoi. Now Heidi’s benefactor, the Great White Benefactor, who sleeps soundly somewhere in the heartland, had given her a gift that had not only caused her to cry, it was now taking her away. Away from her beloved streets, and away from me, and no doubt from many others. Truly, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
I always tell travelers here that if they want to give money to the children they meet and adore, that they should give to a reputable charity, or at least to the kids’ parents. It’s impossible to make a difference in a child’s life by giving the kid money, or a bike. Giving to the kid’s parents might make some small difference. Well run charities, by and large, will see your dollar go farther than any other means.
So here I was about to violate my own rule. I wanted desperately to help Heidi. Hells bells I wanted to adopt her and take her away from want and deprivation! I wanted to buy her ten bikes and tons of ice cream and barrels of coke. I wanted to send her to college. I wanted to see her go to the prom. I wanted to give her away at her wedding. But I couldn’t do diddly shit. Anything I gave to Heidi would end up in the hands of Mom and Dad. And anything that they got, who knew where it would go? Not to any college fund, that was for sure. To be fair, they were doing the best they could. But their best just wasn’t good enough. They didn’t have the power. They didn’t have the education. They didn’t have the wherewithal. They didn’t have anything. Nothing but the money from Heidi’s bike and the words of some soothsayer.
I thought about buying her some new clothes. I don’t think she has ever had new clothes. But new clothes can be easily resold. There was no question of giving her money. She’s a good girl and would turn it over. And so she should, in this culture. Her parents and her siblings have to eat, too. I wanted to give her something of meaning; something that would remind her of me and my love for her. The perfect gift would have been a custom made pool que, the kind that comes apart and fits into a leather carrying case. Maybe her name monogrammed on the fat end of the que. A few cubes of chalk thrown in for good measure. I could get one for fifty bucks. But Mom and Dad could sell it for forty. Almost a month’s pay.
They were to make the journey by bus. It would take three days, if they didn’t pause. So I bought them food enough for the journey. The day before they left I went to the Ben Thanh market across the street from Loving Park. I loaded up on various kinds of food wrapped in leaves and steamed. Perfect travel fare. I got about 15 pounds of fresh fruit, including lots of oranges, custard apples and papayas. I got some Chinese style ham and sausage, some Laughing Cow processed cheese (they actually like the stuff here). Heidi likes Coke, so I bought 24 cans. On the morning of departure I picked up two dozen Vietnamese baguettes.
I brought the food to them in a cyclo (pedicab) that morning, having told them that I would do so. They were all packed up in cardboard boxes and cloth bags. Their place wasn’t far from the bus station, but I told the cyclo driver to go get some of his colleagues and pedal the family to the station. As the family loaded up I took Heidi by the hand and asked Dad if it was okay for her and me to walk to the station. He seemed confused, but assented.
I always carry a blue and white bandana in my hip pocket. Never go out the door without one. Always pack a few when I travel. I pulled out a freshly laundered one, rolled it up lengthwise and tied it around Heidi’s neck. Humble gift though it was, it was one she could keep. She fingered the knot. It was a good square knot. I still remember my knots from navy days. I pulled her ponytail one last time. And so we walked hand in hand. And we didn’t say a word. And we got to the station and sat on the family bundles waiting to be lashed to the roof of the bus. I’m really not a morning person, you know. Anybody who knows me can tell you. When I’m sitting at Madame’s of a morning reading the Red Rag I’m barely coherent. I shouldn’t be allowed out and about before noon. I’m just no good in the morning. I felt like I was about to get weepy. And I had already got weepy on my birthday. Then Heidi slapped me on the knee. And she stuck out a hand as if for money, just the same way as she did that day we met. And she had that dareful look that said, “I bet I could beat you at anything fun.” I laughed out loud, and so did she. I laughed and I laughed and I wiped away the tears, and so did she.
And then it was time for her to go. And she boarded the bus. And she took a seat by the aisle, as all the window seats were occupied. But she looked out to me, still fixing me with that dareful smirk, her black baseball cap cocked to the back of her head, fingers on the knot of the blue and white bandana. Until the bus took her away. And she was gone.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley.
Richard Sterling is the author of The Fire Never Dies, How to Eat Around the World, and several titles in Lonely Planet’s World Food series. His anthology, Food: A Taste of the Road, won a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book, and he is also the editor of The Adventure of Food and coeditor of The Ultimate Journey.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.