Friday, October 19, 2012

Back to where it began

Some of the most powerful events in life begin with a chance encounter. The course of my own life changed in January 1999, when I had my 'mountain bottom' experience in Chau Doc.

Right on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, Chau Doc is a quiet town far from the major cities. Most visitors to Chau Doc are either crossing toward Phnom Penh, or on their way to visit Sam Mountain.

I was on a tour of the Mekong Delta, following a well worn path, when my bus stopped at the base of Sam Mountain more than 13 years ago. Stricken with food poisoning, I was too weak to walk up the mountain with the rest of the group, so I opted to miss the beautiful view over the delta and into Cambodia. Instead I sat alone on a bench under a tree.

But I wasn't alone for long. Within minutes, two boys aged about 13 and 15 approached me, asking for help with their English homework. The boys were named Huy and Vu; their families lived on the side of the mountain, and they saw countless tourists walk by every day. On this day, they decided to be brave enough to approach one and ask for help.

Huy's mother owned a tin shack along the path from which she sold drinks and sweets. She plied me with food, refusing to accept any payment. Other kids, including Vu and Huy's brothers and sisters, came to look and try to learn some English too. It must have been quite a spectacle. 

I have no memory of how long we sat there going over their English text books. It might have been 20 minutes, or maybe 2 hours. All I remember is that, when the tour group came back down to the bus, I didn't want to go. It's a cliche, but there's no better way to say it: I was having the time of my life.

That single encounter changed me. I had been unhappy in my job back in Australia and had been looking for a change but didn't know what to do. I did get back on the bus, and we returned to Ho Chi Minh City; but the very next morning I was back on a local bus to Sam Mountain, a harrowing 8 hour journey, but I just had to get back to see Vu and Huy and their families.

On returning to Australia, the experience stayed with me. Next time I had a holiday, I was back in Vietnam, and back in Chau Doc. And again some months later. And again.

Vu and Huy, in 1999, holding birds they brought me as a gift

Finally I moved to Vietnam, and I have been here for 10 years now. After 6 months in Ho Chi Minh City, I found myself in Hanoi meeting street kids, and so Blue Dragon was born.

Before coming to live in Vietnam, I stayed in close contact with Vu and Huy. Those were days when "close contact" meant sending letters and making an occasional phone call. I sent their families money to make sure they were in school, and they asked for some extra help to study computers.

After moving to Vietnam, I saw them again a couple of times, but then ended up in Hanoi, at the other end of the country, and we drifted out of contact. 

This afternoon, I returned to Sam Mountain for the first time in 10 years. I was not alone on this trip; Blue Dragon's lawyer, Van, was with me, as we had both been in a nearby town for a meeting with police about human trafficking.

In many ways, nothing has changed at the mountain village. Huy's mother still sells sweets out of the same tin shack. Most of the neighbours remembered me; as I pulled up on my rented motorbike, a woman instantly recognised me and started calling out to others. It felt like I'd never been away.

The shop run by Huy's mother

However, a lot really has changed over the years.

Before coming on this trip, a friend had visited, just a week ago, and had met the mothers of Vu and Huy. So when I arrived today, I had already heard the news that Vu died 3 years ago of liver disease. He was 26, and had been working as a driver. His mother told me proudly that he had finished high school and was tall and handsome; and also that he had hidden his illness from his family for as long as he could, knowing that there was no cure.

His mother took me and Van to visit Vu's small grave. We sat and talked about his life; she seemed pleased to have the chance to talk and I was happy to listen.

Huy's mother was there as well, of course, and she told me that her son is married now and has a daughter. They live near Ho Chi Minh City, and I hope to see them over the weekend.

We have much to catch up on. And I know I will be back to Sam Mountain very soon.

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