Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vietnam Vignettes: Second day of Passover in Ho Chi Minh

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City late on the first night of Passover after our own version of 40 days and forty nights on buses, minibuses and taxis from Cambodia to Vietnam (you can read about the epic journey here). In any big city in the world, it is usually possible to find a Chabad House. We could have made arrangements to find a seder to attend but we opted instead to begin our tour of the city. We visited the War Remnants Museum and booked a tour to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels where the Viet Cong ran their military operations during the Vietnam War.

At the specified time the next morning we arrived at the tour office to pick up our promised air-conditioned bus. There we watched air-conditioned bus after air-conditioned bus come and go, until a young man gathered a small group of us together and took us for a long walk down the street and around the block, across traffic several times, continuing to pass air-conditioned bus after air-conditioned bus until he arrived in front of an already crowded HOT minibus (we have given up thinking we would ever be on an air-conditioned bus …). We were instructed to board and find seats. The bus was already so crowded that Marc and I could not sit together. Having found seats as close together as we could, we waited for the bus to start moving.

Behind us, near the back of the bus we heard three young Israelis discussing their plans. Two of them were sitting, each with an empty seat beside them. “Hmmm”, I thought to myself, “I’m sure if we ask them nicely in Hebrew, one of them would surely move so that Marc and I could sit together for the three hour journey to the first stop on the full day tour”. I then sent the message telepathically to Marc (who was sitting closer to them), with a nod in the direction of the back of the bus. When the bus stopped to pick up yet another group of people, Marc turned politely to the boys and in Hebrew asked them if they minded switching seats.

With those few words, the day was transformed. We were now five Israelis at the back of the bus!!

It ended up that the three young men had met the night before at the Chabad organized Passover Seder. All three had recently arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and were missing home and their family Passover meal. We were soon in a very animated conversation about their Passover experience, all of our plans, and all of the experiences we had all had in Southeast Asia. We spent the rest of the day with these young men visiting the Cao Dai temple, as well as the Cu Chi tunnels.

All three of them spoke perfect English so we drifted from English to Hebrew all day. Two Spanish girls sat in the back of the bus with us and were intrigued that we spoke Hebrew. They soon joined the conversation and we literally had a party going at the back of the bus.

I could tell you about the tunnels and the booby traps and the tricky way the Viet Cong wore their sandals to confuse the enemy. But those details would not be the most memorable aspects of that day. What we will remember is the experience we had with these three young men, all on their “after the army” trip before settling down to the adult portion of their lives in Israel. Each one was more interesting than the next. Each was so confident and intelligent and hopeful for a peaceful future. It seemed somehow so appropriate that while all around the world Jewish families were sitting down to retell the historic story of our people’s exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery; we were talking about a brighter future with these twenty something young men, who were so full of optimism and positive energy. It was truly an inspiring day.

Spontaneously, when we returned to the city, we decided to ask the bus driver to let us off the tour bus on the corner of the street where a night market was just setting up. It was one of those things where we made a last minute decision and had little time for proper farewells. We wished each of the boys and the two Spanish girls safe travels and when we looked back, the bus had vanished and with it our new friends. We didn’t even know their names. It was a moment in time that we shared — the kind of moment that happens when you are traveling. We missed them immediately and hoped our paths would cross again. Luckily, as is so often the case when traveling, we did meet again, just a few days later, in Dalat when we bumped into two of the three Israelis, now traveling with one of the Spanish girls!

Reunited again, we ended up having dinner together that night at an outdoor market in downtown Dalat. Eventually we got around to our years living in Israel and life on kibbutz. While eating hot soup and drinking cold beer, we talked about democracy and socialism and kibbutz principles that drove the decisions during our Saturday evening kibbutz meetings. The young Spanish woman learned a lot about Israel and kibbutz life that night and it was an education for the young Israelis as well. They had been born in a different time in Israel. Much of what we had experienced had changed dramatically by the time they were old enough to know what a kibbutz was. The discussion was lively and interesting and time passed quickly. Before we knew it, all the eateries were closing down around us.

The town was completely dark when we finally walked back to our respective accommodations that night. It was almost midnight. As they rang the bell at the entrance to their guesthouse, we all took turns embracing each other tightly and wishing each other well. “Until we meet again!” we all said to each other as we turned towards our hotel and the door to their guesthouse closed behind them.

Only then did I realize that we still did not know any of their names! The Spanish woman was on her way to Nha Tran, and the boys were taking a three-day easy rider trip (a tour on the back of a motorcycle) with a licensed guide, and we were flying to Danang, so the likelihood of us meeting up again was highly unlikely. And I had nothing — no email addresses — not even a photo of them!

What to do?

The only sensible option, to keep this memory alive was to document our time together on these pages. When I reread this post, I am hoping it will bring the experience back to life. I want to remember their kindness towards us, and their eyes so full of excitement about discovering the world and expanding their horizons. And I want to remember their optimism and openness to the people and countries they were visiting. Traveling is not simply about the places and the monuments you visit. It is also about the people you meet and the conversations you have with them over a bowl of soup. Our two encounters with these nameless young men (and their new Spanish companion!) gave us new energy to face the next weeks of travel. As we had predicted, our paths did not cross again, but our time together will not be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. Not even a name to pass on to your young cousin! Oh well. Sounds like it was a great travel moment!