A Coffee on the Way
I had already been traveling alone for several days. And everything was going very well. I took care of my bike, and it took care of me in return. Sometimes, when I was lost in the mountains, many kilometers from any civilization, I would give her two little pats on the gas tank and say:
- " Hold on, sweetie. We'll make it."
And she didn't let me down. A faithful travel companion.
With a daily commute of over 200 kilometers, I followed a strict schedule. I'd hit the road around 8am in the morning. On the way, I would take a short break every 50 kilometers to let my engine cool down. Otherwise, I would only stop for coffee in the early afternoon.
I had taken the habit of skipping lunch to avoid being late and running the risk of arriving at nightfall. But also, I found it difficult to be served in the small villages I met on my way. Most of the time, nobody spoke English. Communication was always tedious, if not impossible.
It was very difficult to order in restaurants. Outside of the tourist areas, restaurants in Vietnam do not have a menu. With Trung, I was spoiled: he took care of ordering the meals and we always ate like kings. Now that I was alone, ordering at a restaurant was a challenge. And I was tired of eating pho. But most of all, I was frustrated by my inability to experience the regional Vietnamese cuisine on my own.
So, at this point in my trip, the most painful part was not traveling by motorcycle, nor was it being alone. What I really found difficult was my inability to relate to the Vietnamese people I met. The language barrier was just too great.
Also, I didn't always feel welcome. Sometimes they wouldn't serve me. I don't know why. Maybe because I was too late. Maybe because they had sold everything. Maybe because they were as afraid of the language barrier as I was. I often met a hardness in their eyes, if not contempt. Every meal had become a moment I dreaded.
Was it because of my attire? It is true that in a motorcycle suit, I was not particularly feminine. Or was it because I looked rich with my big Honda? Or was it because I was a young woman traveling alone? I will never know.
In preparation for this trip, I tried to learn Vietnamese. Last summer, I bought Rosetta Stone's software with the firm intention of completing it before I left. But I lacked the time and discipline to achieve my goals. Nevertheless, I remained confident that I could learn some Vietnamese on the spot. That once I was immersed in the environment, it would be easier for me to learn the vocabulary.
However, this has not been the case at all. Since I've been here, I don't understand anything. I can't even make a sentence. And even when I try, no one understands what I am saying. How arrogant of me to think that I could "catch" a little Vietnamese on the spot. Learning this language would actually require several years of study.
Having traveled elsewhere in Asia, I probably wouldn't have had the same frustration of being prevented from interacting with the locals. But I was in Vietnam to learn about its people and immerse myself in its culture. My inability to communicate was a real failure.
On the second day of the trip, I stopped in a small village to have my daily coffee. I sat at a table in a small restaurant and ordered a coffee. The man who served me gave me a sermon in Vietnamese. I did not understand anything. In fact, scratch that. I understood two things: that he didn't have any coffee, but that he was inviting me to sit down. So I did.
There I was, sitting and waiting for who knows what, when the woman from the café across the street came in. With a wave of her hand, she seemed to say: "Come on, I have some coffee". I followed her.
Within minutes, I was comfortably seated at a small table with a sweet latte and green tea. The lady was affable and attentive. After setting everything down, she took a seat in front of me.
She started talking to me. Asking me questions in Vietnamese.
Panic set in. I couldn't understand what she was saying. But I wanted to answer her so badly. She was so nice.
At my confused look, she repeated her question. Then another time, more slowly.
Then I took out my little notebook and started to write.
Tôi đến từ Canada. Tên tôi là Flora. Tôi sẽ đến Saigon.
(I'm from Canada. My name is Flora. I'm going to Saigon.)
I passed the notebook to the woman I was talking to. She read it carefully, then looked at me with a smile. She answered me with a question. I handed her my notebook to write it down.
I then took my phone out of my pocket. In the English-Vietnamese translation application, I entered her question. I got:
How old are you?
I knew the answer to that question! "Ba mốt," I said proudly.
The conversation continued. Slowly, with the help of my phone and notebook. This woman had the patience of an angel.
Cha của tôi đến từ Việt Nam. (My father is from Vietnam).
Từ đâu? (From what place?)
Tôi đang ở Việt Nam trong 2 tháng. (I am in Vietnam for two months.)
Một mình không? (All by yourself?)
Bạn có gia đình phải không? (Are you married?)
Bạn có con cái không? (Do you have any children?)
This conversation must have taken well over twenty minutes. In the meantime, this lady's husband had joined us. Then her son. And the two little girls living next door. Soon there were five of us conversing through my little notebook.
My coffee finished, I prepared to leave. All four wished me a safe trip.
Back on the road, I was deeply moved by this encounter. In my helmet, my eyes were filled with tears.