I like food. Yes, I admit it, I even love food. It brings me such pleasure to taste the infusions in my mouth, to try new things, have spices and flavours just rolling around in there. It’s so good. My Vietnamese experience has been somewhat of a taste sensation, such beautiful fresh and crispy flavours, as well as some fiery little red chillis to spice things up, it has been a delight every meal that is for sure. I find myself looking for the place that I will next have my meal, constantly thinking about my stomach, or more like what concoction my taste buds will experience. I don’t know how I have managed to fit 3 to 4 courses in at one sitting, but I have mastered the art it seems. I look forward to every course like I am 5 years old on Christmas Eve, anticipating the arrival of Santas’ glory the next morning. I have had so many delightful meals, in ‘Western’ style restaurants, Not for Profit run restaurants to train and teach street kids, side of the road joints, food carts being pulled by sweet old ladies, fish markets, and in a family home, and I can safely say that I have thoroughly enjoyed every one.
One morning while in Hoi An, I rose early to go to the markets, where they start their trade at an early 4am when the first of the fishing boats start rowing in their catch of the night. With fish still jumping out of the boat for one try at their last escape, they haul the fish up on the docks and crowds from restaurants start to barter for the cheapest price from the lowly fishermen. It is ridiculous the prices here, it’s not worth mentioning because it will get you all mad and jealous that in the western world we pay far too much, and we can barely get them straight off the boat like this. The freshest and most delicious array that you can possibly imagine are soon all over the markets, getting sliced and diced and sold to the locals.
One of my favourite meals I ate was a whole fish that was wrapped and baked in a banana leaf, with some herbs incrusted over it and fresh lime, it is a taste that can only be described as fishy heaven. I have no idea of what the herbs and the spices were, and when I asked they could only provide me with the Vietnamese names, but I figured I didn’t need to know since I could never cook it as good as they just did.
(Don’t worry - this is the part about food, I will get serious soon but for the time being, I hope that you’re not hungry!)
A dessert that I tried that I can still imagine tasting in the back of my mouth was a crème brulee, but infused with ginger and lemongrass. Oh. My. Goodness. Don’t even try to give me another crème brulee in my life if it doesn’t have this combination.
‘Streets’ was the name of a restaurant that I went to that was started and run by an American Buddhist, he has a heart and connection with Vietnam so has decided to start a Not for Profit organization here for abandoned kids who are living on the street. He has started a cooking school to give them a skill and has opened a restaurant so that these young teenagers and adults will learn the hospitality industry. They work there for a fair wage, as it is a not for profit so all the money after expenses literally go to these kids. It is such a fantastically run place, the kids are so welcoming, friendly and appreciative of what this opportunity has given to them. The owner (who for the life of me, can’t remember his name) comes to every table to welcome you, suggest an item off the menu and wants to know your story, why you came to Vietnam, how you’re enjoying it etc. It is the best hospitality I have ever received at a restaurant before and it was an absolute pleasure paying my bill at the end. The food was pretty spectacular as well.
Wandering the streets has been a delight as well, I have met so many funny people in the most random ways and the hospitality of the Vietnamese is so wonderful. I was going down a dead end alley way on my bicycle (it looked like it might be an exit), and one sweet woman called out to me ‘Wong Way!’, so I stopped and talked to her for a while. She invited me back the next day to cook and eat lunch with her, what could I say? So, I accepted her gracious invitation to welcome a complete stranger into her home and she said ‘ok, you meet my husband too’. I arrived the following morning at 10am like we arranged, and out comes a 59 year old Australian man from the house! So it turns out that this 29 year old Vietnamese woman is ‘married’ to this man. I say ‘married’ because they just pose as being married, since it is very against their traditional culture of not living together before you’re married. They get less hassle this way. So off to the markets we went to purchase a whole array of fruits, veges, herbs, fish and meat to cook, which in total cost less than US$5. I listened to her story while we cooked and obviously asked a lot of questions since the situation seemed so typical…an old, lonely western man wants a wife, man comes to Asian country to seek wife (younger and prettier of course!), man gets wife, wife gets visa. I know it’s a huge generalization of me and I automatically put them in that category (to which, sadly, they really do belong). We all ate lunch together in this awkward, ‘ewwww, you look like my granddad and your new wife is younger than your youngest kid’, state of conversation and sometimes it got the better of me and I just smiled and held my tongue. They were pleasant though. Thu, who is the woman, has a daughter who is 9 years old, she was once married to a Vietnamese man but he did the dirty on her and then ran off to America with a new woman. Since then, she has had to work for a little less than US$140 per month to care for her mother and daughter and so her daughter actually lives with her mother. It’s all very confusing. Steve, the Australian man, has 2 children back in oz who are in their thirties and have 2 children each. Steve and Thu plan to move to Australia soon, once Thu’s visa is approved, and they will leave the mother and daughter behind. Thu told me that this was her choice.
The whole situation just made my head want to explode. Hearing the stories and watching the documentaries of so many ‘mail order brides’ or the likes, and meeting the real deal for myself. It made me so sad that they were going to leave behind her mother and daughter…how would they survive? To me it sounded like sheer abandonment, but I guess you have to do what you have to do when you’re in a desperate situation. I don’t judge them for it, actually that’s not entirely true…I judge him a little for it, but then again, I guess it’s not really my job.
In a very oppressive country, in all aspects like governance, religion, gender inequality and steeped in generational traditions, it is very hard to have any peace or freedom in the choices that you make. My friends, Ross and Nicole Anderson, have been here for almost 2 years and have tried to participate in a church body that was for expats, but due to strict control, police will not tolerate Vietnamese and Westerners experiencing religion together. So the alternative to reaching the Vietnamese is underground or illegal churches. So, they started one! I found myself in an underground, secret church where they have to change their location every week so that police don’t get suspicious about having regular ‘mixed’ meetings. It was a fantastic experience, and actually in a country that has barely any freedom in religion when it comes to Christianity, these smaller, home sized groups work much better for this environment. It was a privilege being able to experience this part of the journey with them.
Through the work that they’re doing here with the ‘fellowship’ and other outreaches, I’ve also had the privilege of visiting an orphanage, or better described as a shelter until they can find these kids a home. A wonderful elderly couple, of a Vietnamese-American mix have a massive heart for abandoned children of Saigon, so what began as taking a baby or 2 into their home and nursing them, has become over 13 shelters and housing around 250 children. They are very basic and don’t leave much to be desired for, but they are a home for kids that otherwise don’t have one. This old couple house the babies in their own home – being older than normal retirement age, this couple take in new babies and are their parents, I can’t imagine being that old and doing the mum and dad thing! So they are real troopers for Jesus, in total obedience to Him. Anyway, once the children get old enough to manage in a shelter, they place them in one that they have started. I managed to get to one of these shelters and the kids were so happy, so full of life and so, so cute. It was great to interact, to be there and to hear their stories. Sad story, after sad story…but transformed – and continuing to be transformed into a powerful story of God’s love and grace. There were some really great things about the place, but some really sad things too. They are not raising many funds from people overseas, so what they have is all they’ve got, kind of a deal. There aren’t many resources to spread around the homes and food is expensive when you’re feeding 30 kids in each shelter. They have a teacher coming to the shelter to teach them, but very basic when you consider the vast needs. Many of these children do not have documentation, so in the governments eyes, they do not exist. They are not entitled to education, dental and health care or basic rights until they have proper documentation. As you can imagine – it’s a constant struggle and fight against the very corrupt and inflexible government.
I adopted a wee boy as my God son, as I was leaving the shelter, this particular boy ran up to me and put a simple pink beaded necklace around my neck that he had made during the arts and crafts session. He was so proud of it and wanted to give it to me. This touched me deeply and I asked if I could adopt this little boy into my life. At the moment, he has an ear infection that he has had for many weeks, it is so bad that green ooze is spilling from his ear. It doesn’t seem to bother him much, apart from the fact that it is causing him trouble to hear. Health care is very expensive here and it is sad to see children in such a state, but hopefully now that we are aware of it, we can help him.
There are opportunities for people to adopt a wee life into your family as well. Ross, Nicole and a team they’ve got around them are currently trying to set up an official NGO, but with the governments zero tolerance on Christian organizations, it is proving to be difficult, but hopefully soon they will see the vast need of the communities they’re reaching and have mercy on the aid organizations. For the moment, it is encouraging children through writing to them and praying for them. It is a wonderful opportunity for people to enlarge their lives with some Vietnamese children, and at the moment, it will bear no financial burden on you…which is a plus for me since next year I will be studying and my financial life will be more difficult. They’re excited about leaving it open and seeing what God does, and if you feel in particular seasons that you want to give, then that will truly bless them.
Marie, who is French-Vietnamese woman, is leading this particular part and it is called Hand of Love. If anyone wants to adopt a sweet little child into your lives, then please let me know so I can pass on your details to Marie. Her main request is that you just pray for the child and the work that will continue to be done here in Siagon.
I am excited about the prospect of being a part of something in the beginning stages, of seeing what God is capable of doing in such a hardened country, in these kids lives and how big this thing really gets. But what is more exciting to me, is because we paid a visit, one life is changed, one kid will get some medical help (Nicole is a doctor!) and one kid becomes a part of my world.
The famous saying that my pastor in London says is ‘We can’t do everything, but we can do something’ resonates deep within me when I think about this. I love the realness of that statement. It is true, we can’t do everything, our visions often want to do everything then we often do nothing because it’s all too hard. But we can do something, and I refuse to sit by, comfortable with my life and pretend that other things don’t exist. They simple do, and we are not called to live a comfortable live, but one of surrender to Christ. Really…what would He do?