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A Humbling Homestay with Hannah

A Humbling Homestay with Hannah

Too many H’s for ya? If you haven’t noticed, I am quite the fan of alliteration in my blog post titles (I often spend more time coming up with these cutesy phrases than writing the actual post … whoops!). Regardless of my ultra-fabulous writing creativity, this weekend’s mini-trip to my Vietnamese host partner Hannah’s hometown of Tay Ninh was moving and enlightening. Sometimes life hands you 24 hours which can singlehandedly change your world view … and help you to realize how truly amazing it can be!

Miss Hannah picked me up at the dormitory around 1PM on Saturday, and we set off for the bus station. Upon arrival, I was delighted to discover that the bus we would take on the two-hour trek to Tay Ninh was bubble-gum-pink. Kind of a silly little observation, but I was excited nonetheless. We clambered into our tiny, cramped seats (leg-room? What is that? This is VIETNAM. This does not exist.) and napped the entire ride there–it was quite nice, actually. When we drove into the bus station, Hannah told me that her aunt’s home was only a short walk away, so I was all ready to walk there … but then I got off the bus. It was so. freaking. hot. I mean, Saigon is hot. This was … boiling-lava-I’m-going-to-die-right-now hot. Hannah saw my horrified facial expression and quickly snagged a cab. We drove to Hannah’s aunt’s house, where we dropped our things off and washed our faces. Their home was small, but very clean and tidy–two bedrooms, a living room, and a tiny little kitchen. I met both her beautiful cousins (an 18-year-old and an 18-month-old) and her ever-so-jolly uncle. Her aunt sells eggs at the market each day, so I was to meet her at dinner later. Hannah then asked if I wished to go exploring, and I said, “Of course!” So off we went (by a borrowed motorbike, of course!).

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Hannah is an active Cao Đài, a relatively new faith tradition that has strong roots in Vietnam. Tay Ninh, Hannah’s hometown, is the epicenter of the Cao Đài religion: a walled-in complex of religious buildings that is surrounded by the homes of the faithful. Within the main facility, there exists the main temple (called the “Holy See”), a Mother Goddess worship temple, a primary school, a secondary school, the “monkey forest,” and a hospital. There are eleven gates to get inside the complex; that afternoon, we entered one and spent the next two hours exploring. It was all so incredibly stunning; the colorful buildings were illuminated by the setting sun, and the lingering rain clouds surrounding the nearby mountain added an air of mysterious tranquility. Yet what was even more beautiful was Hannah’s sense of utter peace that came upon her when we entered the grounds. It was simply inspiring. She quietly described her faith to me as we wandered the manicured gardens of the temple, and I peppered her with questions about the history and values of the faith. I watched her pray in front of the Mother Goddess altar alongside her fellow Cao Đài members, most in their traditional all-white áo dài. I caught her little smile as she described her childhood memories, playing in the field in front of the Holy See with her friends. Her nostalgia and simply joy that she received from returning home made me so indescribably happy. I felt at peace knowing that even across the globe, all people have that same sense of “home” that I miss so dearly.

After some more exploration of the surrounding town (and a sugary snack of Vietnamese sweet soup), we returned to her aunt’s home. To my surprise, there were about twelve people packed into the tiny house: Hannah’s other aunt and uncle came over, along with her cousins and their boyfriends. Everyone smiled and nodded at me … and that was pretty much the end of our greetings, as Hannah is the only person in her family to speak English. When I asked her why there were so many people over, Hannah smiled at me and said that it was normal for her “big family” to eat dinner altogether. And before I knew it, we were all sitting in a circle on the pristine tile floor with the most delicious assortment of food before us. Huge, green lettuce leaves, an assortment of aromatic herbs, crunchy white bean sprouts, and stiff rice paper sat piled on one platter, in the center. Then Hannah’s aunt delivered a steaming plate of little fried goodies: hot vegetarian spring rolls and salty shredded jackfruit fritters. Hannah and her cousins began quickly rolling all of this food into perfect little rice-paper-rolls … when I tried to make one, it literally fell apart, much to the amusement of everyone in the room. I laughed and shrugged, and then Hannah proceeded to make the rest of my meal for me. I was slightly flustered by my complete idiocy, until I remembered the Hershey kisses I had stashed in my bag (so American, no?). The family was delighted by my dessert, and I realized I had nothing to be embarrassed about. I was having the most amazing meal that I think I’ve had in Vietnam yet … good food, but the wonderful people I was eating it with made it all the more lovely.

Hannah and I went to bed early that evening, as we were both exhausted from our long day. We awoke the following morning at 6AM and headed straight for the market, where we saw Hannah’s aunt in action, selling duck eggs like nobody’s business. Hannah told me that she sells almost 5,000 eggs a day. I was very impressed! We grabbed some delicious (and super cheap!) iced coffees and headed for Hannah’s mom’s shop and coconut farm. Even though Hannah doesn’t live with her mom, she helps out at her outdoor store where her mother sells everything from áo dàis to fresh coconut water. We spent some time talking with her mom (Correction. Hannah chatted with her mom. I nodded and pretended I understand Vietnamese.) and then she showed us around. Seeing Hannah interact with her mom made me miss mine even more!! (#2moreweeks) But soon, we were headed off again … this time for the “Black Lady” mountain. Hannah had planned for us to spend the majority of the day climbing this gorgeous rock formation … I made it about an hour before I was too sweaty and exhausted to continue. It was only noon; I felt awful, because Hannah was a little ball of energy. But she understood; her lazy American friend could simply not handle the disgusting heat. Instead, we had a delicious lunch of vegetarian rice and fried tofu, and took an afternoon catnap.

Around 5PM, we set out to catch the bus back to Saigon. However, we got to the bus station and there were TONS of people … all of the scheduled buses were delayed for at least four hours. Hannah said that this was normal for a Sunday, and perhaps we could just try again tomorrow. But all of a sudden, a woman that I recognized grabbed my arm and started speaking in rapid Vietnamese to Hannah. She took our bus tickets and disappeared … Hannah had a shocked look on her face. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, “Nothing is wrong. This woman is taking a cab back to Saigon and she’s taking us as her guests, for free.” It turns out this woman, who is Hannah’s neighbor, and her husband didn’t have time to wait for the bus … so they were paying for the expensive cab back to Saigon and invited us to come along. On the ride home, she told us her incredible life story and showed us videos of her adorable 1-year-old son. They dropped us off at my dormitory; Hannah and I agreed that we were incredibly lucky. My goodness, I’m going to miss how sweet the Vietnamese people are … even strangers here can be so kind.

Well. Another amazing weekend in Vietnam, done. I now have just under two weeks left until my family arrives and the program is finished. I can’t even begin to think about leaving … I’m going to ignore that final departure date until it actually arrives.

Stay posted!!

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