Courtesy of CNN
It was 1975. I was only 10 years old when I saw people running for their lives, on TV — Vietnamese civilians jumping on board rescue helicopters on the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon (better known as Ho Chi Minh today).
At that time, I didn’t really understand what was happening. It was only in 1990 that I did, though it was by accident. I was with a group of French students (from Lycée Français de Singapour) . We were on our way to Mount Krakatau, the infamous volcano located between Sumatra and Java. During the trip, we were on a speedboat when out of the blue, we spotted battered boats full of Vietnamese survivors, half dying from the lack of food and drinking water. We helped them as best as we could — their plea for help was put on Indonesian newspapers, and eventually, with the help of the locals throughout the country, they were eventually able to make it all the way to Australia, where they could start a new life.
A decade later, I got to travel to Vietnam itself, as part of a job assignment. I’ll never forget the airplane flight (that left from Singapore) — a young and handsome Vietnamese man was sitting beside me, with a bouquet of flowers in his hand. Overcome with curiosity, I asked him if he was going to see his girlfriend in Saigon, to which he replied gravely, “No, I’m actually visiting my grandma… we (my sister, parents and I) left her 20 years ago. Using her gold, we were able to escape from the country on a boat, and we ran all the way to Australia. She saved our lives, and now I’m coming back for her. I’m going to build a proper house for her, and make sure that she’s never forgotten.”
So there I was, fresh-faced in Vietnam, a bustling country where in the wee hours of the morning, you could already see swarms of people on the street, eagerly getting ready to start the day. The Vietnamese are hard workers who never complain, but remember to enjoy the simple of pleasures of life. I’ve always been impressed by how healthy their food is… vegetables are a surprisingly big part of their diet!
It was in Vietnam that I learned to be grateful. In a busy alleyway of Hoi Ann in central Vietnam, I came across a cheerful old lady, preoccupied with selling clay pig figurines. Honestly, what made her so special was not the pigs, but her smile. It was a genuinely dazzling smile that she gave to passers by (mostly tourists). For the next two years, every time I returned to Hoi Ann, she would still be there, giving that same smile. That old lady made me realize how lucky I am to be traveling to all these different places, while she has stationed herself in that alleyway for the better part of her life.