Q̀uynh Trang has been telling me since 2007 that she wanted to take me to Đ̀a Lạt. I found excuses not to go each time before because it involved getting involved which I was determined not to do. This year she and her husband Binh said they were going to take me with their two little girls to Đ̀a Lạt. I have not been interested in going there because it is a resort and exists for tourists and artists who exist for their trade with tourists. I am not much enamored of those things. It is the old French resort built originally around the turn of the last century to provide a respite for the colonials from the heat and humidity of the lowlands, of S̀ai G̀on especially. It is every young couple’s dream for weddings or honeymoons. It has world class golf courses and is an art colony. Some strange people live in strange houses there. My daughter spent a few days in Đ̀a lạt in 2007 when I gave my prot́eǵe a high school graduation gift of going to visit anywhere she wanted to go in Việt Nam. Of course she chose Đ̀a Lạt.
Trang acted as if it was a done deal so I resigned myself to going . The day before the scheduled trip Trang said she and Binh couldn’t make it because Binh suddenly had to go to Huế to deal with business problems and the baby was sick. I felt a little relief but then she said that her sister Phương Trang and Trung, Phương’s husband the local high school coach would take me instead.
So I went to Đ̀a Lạt. Đ̀a Lạt is about 120 kilometers from Cam Đ́ưc and the last two thirds of that is all windy roads and switchbacks on mountainsides that reach probably a 7 per cent grade in spots. We passed big trucks in low low gear that I could have overtaken on foot. One truck was blocking half the road obviously overheated and the driver sat in front of it while it steamed.
Near Đ̀a Lạt the valleys and hillsides are covered with square miles of greenhouses. Trung told me that most of the commercially raised flowers in Viẹt Nam were grown in those things.
We rode around Đ̀a Lạt for an hour to see some of the sights then found a small hotel for the night. We unloaded the car into a room with a double bed and a single bed and air conditioning which was most surely not needed. It is almost always cool in the highlands and there is no call for the AC except from some western tourists who have to have it in the room and working even if they turn it off as soon as they close the door.
After putting our backpacks and clothes on hooks in the closet we went out walking which is the best way to go in Đ̀a Lạt. The market on the central circle is full of gadgets and children’s noisemakers and sparkers and little cars that flip over and run around in programmed patterns. And there is lots of clothing and of course, food and flowers. Phương said we have to buy gifts for Trang and her girls, flowers for Kim Anh, and souvenirs for nieces and nephews. I was, as usual, at a loss for choosing such things but Phương had the situation in hand. She picked out knit hats for all the girls and Qùynh Trang and the flowers for Kim Anh. She found a LED flashlight for Thông and fruits available only in Đ̀a Lạt, at least for reasonable prices, for everybody. At each place where she made her selections, when all was wrapped up and ready she turned to me and said, smiling, okay pay for it. It wasn’t all one sided, though. Some sellers didn’t have the right tìên lẻ- change- and Phương and I would each pull out the bills we had and pick out the right combination. At one place we only had big bills left and were at a loss when a woman who had been pestering us to buy one of her printed shopping bags offered to help with her stash of tìên lẻ and the three way exchange proceeded. We bought three of her shopping bags.
Trung decided it was time to get something to eat and we looked for a caf́e. There were eating places everywhere. Such is how it is in Việt Nam. But Trung wanted a discrete restaurant with a roof. When we came to one finally that suited him it was at the top of a narrow stone staircase that turned right at a landing in the middle of it and went for another 20 steps or so to the entry. At the landing two walls met at a right angled corner. As I led the way up I was confronted by a pile of rags in that corner with a hat set out in front of it. It was hard to tell in the dark But it seemed to be a small girl of an age somewhere between 8 and 14. Even that was not sure. She looked as if she had been very ill fed for a long time. Trung squatted down and tried to talk to her. All she would say is that she had no mother and father.
Many years ago, before I was any sort of Christian a situation occurred that involved a problem that had arisen, I had a feeling that it was placed in front of me. It was in a letter from ten thousand miles away. I heard a voice in my head that I thought was the voice of God. It just said, what are you going to do? The world seemed to change at that instant, as if all the colors had changed or I could see it somehow 90 degrees differently. From that I got a wife who is probably the only woman on earth that would have put up with me in later years. She is still my wife after 47 years and several paths are radically other than if I had turned away and are far better for several people, myself not the least.
In 2003 in Cam Đ́ưc I visited a convent the first day I was there. The sisters were excited that an American had come to visit and Soeur Têrêsa ran across the street to get the 14 year old girl who had taught herself to speak English to come over and translate. Nguyệt was one of two young ladies who determined that the American should see everything there was to see in Cam Đ́ưc and Nha Trang, the nearest city of any size. She pointed out the collapsing roof on the dormitory at the convent and said I should get the sisters some help in America. She took me to meet a truly poor family whose children were all to some extent retarded because they had never had enough to eat. She said I should get them some help from America. I heard this exhortation daily and she never asked anything for herself though her family was poor, even by Cam Đ́ưc standards. I could see that she was very intelligent. Two days before I was to go back down to S̀ai G̀on to go home I said to her, “Nguyệt, you start high school in the fall, what are you going to do with it? Do you have any plans?
She said,”No, I am through with school. I have to go to work for my family.”
Again, God showed me a problem and I heard the words quietly spoken with no inflection, no demand, what are you going to do? I had the same sensation that everything had changed, as if all the colors had changed, as if all the directions had changed. “Let’s go talk to your father.”
I supported her for 12 years to keep her in school through her MBA from the Economics University in S̀ai G̀on. Her life is radically different. So is mine.
In that corner on the staircase in Đ̀a Lạt there it was again. What are you going to do? This time I turned away. The three of us gave the cô b́e ăn xin- little beggar girl- more money than we should have. Both Trung and Phương were affected thy the waif. We knew, all three of us, that all that money would not help her but would go to her adult owner who had assigned her that station. She might have got an extra share of rice once for increasing his take for the night. We could have taken her or got her to lead us to her owner from whom I could have purchased her, or more exactly, her papers, the birth certificate and identity card which the owner must surely have. But I didn’t do it.
In the morning when we were rousing ourselves to take a last turn around the town before we started back to Cam Đ́ưc it came over me like a palpable cloud. I had been called to do something and turned my back. I said nothing for the rest of the trip.
Tr̀ân Thị Phương Trang is a woman I met the second day I was in Việt Nam in a crowded apartment full of transient business and enterprise conspirators in Sài Gòn in 2003 when capitalism was very much being born but was still a bit underground. I met her again a few days later in Cam Đ́ưc with her sister Qùynh Trang though I recognized neither and did not know they were the same people in both places until years later when I recognized Phương in a photograph from those first two days and then Qùynh Trang in another.
Phương amazes me more every time I go back there. I fully believe that there is no one that Phương does not know. She is the capable fixer, the one who knows where to go and who to bribe and how much is too much or too little to get something done. In the last 10 years she has made herself a consulting office with employees that works with several large real estate offices in the province. She does all their field work on her scooter or in her car if Trung doesn’t need it. She does all their dealing with government offices. She has made herself affluent by American standards, not to mention Vietnamese standards. She is successful because she has managed to meet everyone relevant to any situation and is truly a fine judge of character and intentions. In American parlance she schmoozes well. And she is a fount of practical wisdom.
The next day after returning from Đ̀a lạt I went to Phương’s house- her office is also her living room and asked her if she could take some time to talk. She had a client coming in the door and I said to deal with business first but she put the client off and we went on her scooter to Babylon, the coffee garden where she carried on much of her business. She asked me if it was about the cô b́e nô lẹ, the “little slave girl” girl in Đ̀a Lạt.
I asked her what would be the consequences for her and Trung if we had kidnapped the child. She said the police would become involved because we wouldn’t have her papers if they knew where she had gone. I suggested that it would be difficult to keep her at the convent without paper and Phương agreed. I asked if she could get a set of papers for her that would be officially accepted. She said yes, she could do that. It would be expensive ,at least in Vietnamese terms but she could get them. She suggested that her apparent age would make it possible for me to claim I had fathered her in 2007 and it would be easy to find a “mother;” she might do that part herself. But if the child knew where she was born, the year, and her parents’ names it would be easier and much cheaper to get papers.
Then Phương asked me why? She said there are still many of them, not like ten years ago but there are probably a hundred of them just in Đ̀a Lạt. I said ,”but this one was set in front of me.”
She sat immobile for eight or ten seconds and then picked up her di động- cell phone and called Trung. I did not understand the conversation. It was too fast for my not-so-sharp ears. She set the phone down on the table and said, “Trung and I will go back to Đ̀a Lạt in two đays. I think I might be able to find her. The price from the owner will probably be four million đ̀ông and maybe up to three times that.” That is 200 to 600 dollars, which can be done. If anyone not from Đ̀a Lạt can find that needle in that haystack it is Phương Trang.
I told her she did not have to do that for a foreigner with a silly fancy. She answered that she owed me too much not to. That mystified me for a moment but then I remembered that her father had spoken the last words he spoke on earth to me after not speaking for seven months due to a massive stroke. That means a lot more to sons and daughters in a traditional family society than it does in America. That and I had helped him out of a financial jam a year before.
I went from Phương’s office to H̀ơi Ấm Th̀ưa Sai convent to tell the senior sister these things and ask if the convent could accept the child if we could bring her there. I would pay for a medical exam, for whatever papers would be necessary and monthly support. She said she was agreeable but must get the other three sisters to agree also.
I went back across the street to Thông’s house where I stay and Kim Anh’s phone was ringing as I entered. It was Soeur Dìêu saying that all were agreed.
Since then I have been home for three weeks and Phương and Trung have gone back to Đ̀a Lạt twice and will go again. I suppose it is not realistic to think the child can be found and perhaps that event on the staircase was the only opportunity. I am trying to atone for turning away from the call. I don’t know if that is possible.. I pray for that little girl. My priest said I am forgiven. It is hard to believe that but I must.
Because I heard those words, “What are you going to do?” I know that if I had responded for her, that however we had done the deed, it would surely have turned out well