Kicked in the ass by a donkey, that’s a little how we feel today. We ask the travel gods all the time for insights close to real life, the local view into worlds we have traveled the world to see. Sometimes we get close, sometimes we look from afar and just like a farm animal you get a little too close to, we get a swift kick in the ass occasionally. Banh Cuon is one of our favourite Vietnamese foods and we’re off to the market for the best Banh Cuon before it runs out, but we never make it. In true Viet style, Tung’s parents knew it would run out and bought enough Banh Cuon to feed an army back for us along with more of the family home made pork sausage. Argentina, beyond occasional frustration was generous and hospitable but nothing touches Vietnamese hospitality.
Tung’s mum has been up since 3am buying freshly butchered pork from the market to make the home made sausage from pork flesh and fat still warm before taking it back to morning market. Who could think that a wrapped sausage was a living animal just six or so hours earlier, this is freshness on another level. Tung’s mum tucks a wad of cash in his pocket along with the tray of food she insists he take back to the city and his dad has skipped away from work to share tea with us all and send us on our way as custom dictates. He even stops in at the cafe on our way out to pay for our coffee in a show of generosity and hospitality that can’t be overdone by local standards. It’s a show, a bit of a charade of course, but such a lovely one; Tung’s family share with us an inside view like we’ve rarely ever seen before, close enough to get that swift kick in the ass.Just like a donkey the kick comes from out of sight. The hospitality is lavish, the generosity is abundant and it’s in this close up view of a culture of giving that we also receive our kick from getting too close to the donkey. The social etiquette that demands this hospitality works for us, it works for anyone who fits within the rules that it caters for: we are guests, this is how you treat guests; simple. In holding tight to these rules it goes without saying that if there’s no rules written for a circumstance it makes for an awkward loose end, panic caused by the abandonment of all the rules that so often hold your life together. So often fear ensues and we retreat back to the rules that make life so simple.
Where’s the kick in the ass among all this generosity and hospitality, I hear you ask. The kick in the ass is hearing the story of Tung, and being so close to it that we can’t write it off as a story from a distant land, it’s too close. The twist is that with all these social rules alienating Tung to horrific consequence there’s no avenue for these proud parents to bridge the gap to a son who didn’t need generosity or hospitality, he needed parents. We have no doubt that the love from Tung’s parents is unconditional, but they never had a chance. The hurt, the turmoil that has driven Tung to extreme actions is not known to them, he’s kept his side of the social rules bargain and walked through life alone for fear of shaming his family. There’s love oozing out of everywhere but those rules that everyone finds such comfort in forces everyone to walk alone.At 16 years of age Tung left to travel Vietnam against his parents wishes, he just got on a bus and left, such was his need to see the world, to break out. He plans to travel the world, there’s no future in Vietnam for people like him in his mind. No place in Vietnam for smart, caring, ambitious people; if they’re gay. And so Tung has walked life alone, there’s love pouring from all sides but those rules so strictly clung to act like walls to pen in the love and keep people at a safe distance if the rulebook doesn’t have a chapter written for them yet.
So the travel gods granted a wish, not only did we get close to a culture for the inside view, we leave rocked to the bone for what we’ve seen. Sadly it’s a story we know, it happens at home but no padding prepares you for the kick in the ass when it comes. We ride back to Hanoi and hang out with Tung in another day that seems so normal, so standard except for that it’s not. We’re all a little exhausted from the high octane emotional kick in the ass of the last few days, we’re sure Tung most of all needs a come down, time to get an ice cream and walk around the lake as he has done so many times before.We’ll recover from our kick in the ass, we’ll move on and carry on our lives anything but alone as we leave Tung to carry on his life. Tung has a passport coming, the world to see, a degree he’s about to finish and just maybe this week has shuffled him a few steps further along a path toward a life a little less lonely. It boggles our minds to think that this immense story is happening all around us all the time with barriers of propriety keeping people alone even in relatively liberal Australia. There’s a better future not just for Tung but the millions just like him walking alone; as we recover from a kick in the ass we asked for there’s a rulebook with new chapters being written all the time for the people it forgot to mention.