Found in Translation

Found in Translation

“Tomorrow,” the bus driver said sheepishly, sympathetically. I’d asked for directions to the ferry terminal.
“But the saleswoman at the bus station said I’d reach Cat Ba today!” I pleaded. It was no use.
He just shook his head saying, “Finish today. Go Tomorrow”.

I’d just arrived by bus, after dark, in Hai Phong city, Vietnam. It was an exhausting day – I’d caught a plane, two taxis and two busses. Finally, there was only a ferry separating me from my friends on Cat Ba Island. A ferry that wasn’t running until morning.

Was I to spend my first night in Vietnam on the streets?

My brain whirred in an attempt to survey my options. There were no taxis around and no hotels either. If I were to bar hop all night, I’d have to carry my valuables around, which didn’t sound too enticing. These thoughts were punctuated by a cacophony of language that I didn’t understand: the driver was speaking loudly with several passengers and they were all pointing at me.

I pulled my phone from my pocket to switch on data roaming. When I looked up, a young woman had appeared beside me, arm linked in mine. “Xin Chào.” She quickly held out her smartphone to show me a Google-translated message.

If you have no shelter, you can stay with me tonight.

I only caught a brief glimpse of her phone – our only means of communication – and we were off into the night. She hadn’t waited for a response. The streetscape blurred into horizontal rainbows as she dragged me along.

What was I getting myself into?

We stopped walking as abruptly as we’d started. The girl made a phone call and a young man pulled up, instantly it seemed, on a scooter. Google translate explained that it was her brother and that he would take me home. When I asked if she was coming, she responded, “I come later.” Gulp. So I drove off on the back of a strange man’s scooter, alone, with all of my belongings.

What the hell was I getting myself into?

The wind whistled eerily through my helmet as we weaved through a labyrinth of dark alleys. Menacing iron gates creaked. Grim shadows obscured my caution; I was unsure of whether I should trust my driver. I jolted with shock as he suddenly yelled out behind us. At that moment, a young girl emerged from the darkness and followed.
“My sister” he explained as we drove off in convoy. “She come with us”.

Phew! This guy was the real deal. I was headed to a family home, not some dingy backstreet brothel.

My saviour Lien, as she later introduced herself, showed up soon after. We sat around their apartment for a little while. It was a single room, separated from the bathroom by a concrete wall. The kitchen consisted of a sink and a rice cooker that sat on the floor. The double bed shared by the sisters (and me, for the night) was topped not by a mattress but a thin tartan mat. The siblings joked boisterously amongst themselves. I sat smiling, unable to understand their words, taking it all in.

It was humble, but I found it charming. The walls, particularly, had character. They were protective. The concrete peered through its faded blue mask, promising to shield us from the elements long after the paint had peeled completely away. I was still distracted by the decor when the phone was passed in my direction.

“We’re going to eat cake float,” it said. What the hell is cake float?

As if on cue, a rumble erupted from my stomach. We all laughed and I nodded excitedly, so we hopped back on the scooters and rode to the main street.

The air was pungent with street-food smell. On the footpath, people sat eating noodles, soups, porridge and other nondescript deep-fried goodies. The cumulative scent was both sweet and spicy, filling my nostrils as we sped past. Hunger and excitement swelled inside me.

We pulled up to a roadside food cart and planted ourselves on little red plastic stools. There was no street lighting: we were to eat by the Minimart’s far-reaching fluorescent glow. A sturdy Vietnamese woman emptied ladles of cinnamon-ginger soup into plastic bowls. She passed them over, along with plates of fried dough. Their faces – the siblings’ and the vendor’s – hovered expectantly. “Mmm!” I grinned, cheeks full of dough, and they all cheered at my enjoyment.

We sat on that roadside for hours. Our bowls were refilled many times while we worked on my pronunciation of cảm ơn, meaning thank you. And I was thankful. Lien joked and laughed nonstop with her siblings, with the cake float lady, and with me as well – as though I understood. And in a way, I did. I didn’t need to speak the language to see how friendly and generous they all were.

Google translate was helpful, but their smiles communicated more. The difficulty of the language barrier turned out to be a blessing. It reminded me that human interaction is about way more than words. It’s about kindness, fun and appreciation for one another. Lien and her siblings took me in when I had nowhere to go and treated me like family, despite my inability to speak Vietnamese. It didn’t stop us from having a great time.

Cover by Frank McKenna