I knew that Mr. Kim and his wife had six children, so I’d expected a house full of people. Their strained financial circumstances, however, meant that only Mr. Kim, his daughter, and a single grandchild remained at home. The rest of the family—the older children and mother as well—were working as day laborers in nearby towns. We sat on the porch with Mr. Kim while Hai explained to our children that the family could hire out their new boat or fish with it and sell their catch.
"Do you have any questions for Mr. Kim?" he asked.
The kids hesitated. Then Sam raised his hand and asked, "Do you like your house?"
Hai translated. Mr. Kim smiled at Sam, then nodded. "I do."
We walked down to the water to see the boat. Built of wood from the dau tree, it was brand new, deep red, still sticky with resin. Long and thin like a canoe, it would move easily through these waters, as such boats have done for generations. Mr. Kim stood next to me, gazing toward the bank. "When can you begin fishing?" I asked. Mr. Kim looked up toward the sky, judging the light, the weather, the wind. The sun had just begun to set. After a moment, he said, "I’ll start tomorrow."
The Mekong on Two Wheels
Traveling by van along the roads of the Mekong Delta felt a bit like eating rice without salt. It wasn’t bad, exactly, but we sensed we were missing something. So everyone was excited when, the morning after our visit to Mr. Kim, Linh and our driver pulled out mountain bikes and helmets from the back of the van. Linh would ride with us while the driver followed, ready to load us back into the van if we ran out of steam.
We got off to a wobbly start. Jesse, who hadn’t been on a bike in months, nearly careened into a flooded rice field. But the road was flat and wonderfully empty, and soon we formed a neat single-file line. Our route wound past rice fields and over mangrove-lined canals. We glided by prim little houses glowing with fresh coats of pink, green, and orange paint, and one-room shops selling Vietnam’s national dish, the noodle soup called pho (pronounced "fuh" as if you’re asking a question: "Fuh?"). The day was hot and bright, but also breezy.
The night before, we’d stayed in the town of Can Tho, at the palm-shaded, colonial-style Victoria Resort. After hamburgers at the Victoria’s restaurant, the kids swam in the pool until 10:00. Watching the fun they had simply playing in the water, I’d wondered whether they would have been just as happy to spend this vacation in Orlando, at a Holiday Inn. But this morning’s bike ride taught me otherwise. The kids clearly found it challenging, but they were also having a blast. And there was something more, as well. Every couple of minutes, a young child or two would appear in the doorway of a house, dash out to the side of the road, and call as we passed, "Hello!" I responded at first, but eventually got tired. Noa, however, riding just ahead, kept at it the entire ride—calling back greetings 50, maybe 60 times. Later, when I asked her how she had maintained such enthusiasm, she said, "It didn’t take much to say hello." Clearly, you don’t have to be a grown-up throwing around terms like "cross- cultural understanding" to recognize the value of spreading goodwill.