It began as a quick walk to the store, just up the sandy alleyway that leads from Phi Kite School to the main road, past the rows of freshly planted onions. It was already dark, and we had already eaten. All we needed was a few personal items, and then to bed.
When we stepped down off the road into the florescent light of the doorway we noticed a group of six young men gathered around a small plastic table laid with some appetizers. Funny, we didn’t think this was a restaurant… (perhaps a common refrain in Vietnam). We looked at each other in a small moment of shock–they likely didn’t expect two foreigners to appear out of the night in their small convenience shop. But in an instant there were smiles and “xin chao’s” and straight away an invitation to join them. I hesitated, but then decided I’d just wait for Kallie by sitting with the guys for moment.
The first question I was asked was would I like a beer. (One doesn’t have to know the language for this one). Before I could process the implications of my response, a round of beers was ordered up and I could see the evening was taking a different course. Kallie found what she was looking for and they hurried to find her a chair too. After enough time traveling together a husband and wife can exchange a glance that communicates how much energy each has for the likely social commitment ahead. I deciphered about twenty to thirty minutes with an open ended option, which is about what I had as well. We raised our glasses with the guys and began to enjoy. With the help of google translate and their exceedingly good natured and eager patience we were able to learn their names, ages, and marital status. Next to Kallie sat the oldest of the six, and perhaps the most dramatic. He was happy to show her pictures of his two little ones. As they were flipping through pictures on his phone, they both erupted into laughter. Apparently it was: family photo, family photo, family photo, random nudie… We all laughed and assured the more conscientious of them that we were not offended in the least, and raised another glass.
One of the appetizers on the table was grilled calamari with a dipping sauce, and the guy across from me was the hospitable host, continually handing me morsels to eat, sometimes even dipping them for me in the sauce. In parts of Asia the host will place food on your plate as a gesture of honor and hospitality. We were amply welcomed with food and drink, and constant reassurances that they were very happy. We were happy too, if a little bewildered by the unexpected evening of kindness. Not knowing what’s next or what’s expected can be a stressful experience. But kindness allows for trust, and trust is a great container for uncertainty.
So when they asked us to sing a song, we rolled with it. We trusted their kindness. Karaoke is very popular here in Vietnam. It is not uncommon to pass an open doorway and hear full throated cover singing from a group of men in a circle. We have seen solo singers, and portable karaoke machines set up at the beach with a group of friends, and huge buildings flashing neon with enormous glowing signs reading K A R A O K E . In some ways, karaoke could be considered a social custom. But before we had a chance to sing our nudie photo friend gave us his heartfelt rendition of a Vietnamese love song, complete with gestures and slightly uncomfortable sustained eye contact. We followed with a more up-beat “Steal my Kisses” from Ben Harper, without the sustained eye contact. Then we raised another glass. We declined their offer for another round, saying we planned to get up early the next morning, and took some pics together before taking our leave.
One of my favorite things about traveling is the adventure of discovery. We came to the store for a few small items, we discovered kindness, and we left full of social warmth and a handful of new facebook friends.