I hated what we were doing. I hated staring like a creeping voyeur, gawking like a tourist.
But it was so extraordinary, so far beyond my realm of experiences and personal reality. I wanted to absorb every image.
We were in a flat-bottomed sampan exploring the village of Cua Van, one of seven floating villages in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’ve seen the new King Kong movie, you’ve seen some of Ha Long Bay.
For nearly 100 years, people who first fled war in their land have lived on boats clustered together in small, remote bays. They’ve had little to no education, limited health care and a quiet, peaceful life away from the mainland hustle.
Believe me, these are not the houseboats and cruisers you see on Lake of the Ozarks. These are authentic junk boats, tiny and purposeful. No air conditioning, no running water, only slightly bigger than our SUV sitting in the garage at home — these are their homes.
We had come to Vietnam because my husband had first visited courtesy of the United States Army in 1970 to ’71. Many times over the years, he talked about how beautiful the country was when it wasn’t dripping in Agent Orange or exploding in napalm. So we went back, not to absolve any demons troubling his conscience, but to explore a place and people that contributed to the person he is today.
Starting in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly and still frequently known as Saigon, we worked our way north. We visited battlefields and memorials, climbed into the Vin Moc tunnels, passed the 17th parallel of the DMZ, and entered into what, at that time, had been North Vietnam. And it was all as my husband had remembered – beautiful landscapes and warm-hearted individuals eager to share their heritage with us.
Of course, my husband’s first tour did not take him to North Vietnam, thankfully, but we both wanted to see Ha Long Bay. We wanted to see these floating villages and this oft-photographed landscape.
Cua Van, which means “entrance to the sea,” is closest of the seven floating villages to the open waters the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. About 600 people live on boats in this sheltered little cove, making a subsistence living by fishing. In recent years, the government has built a few docks and installed generators so that the people may have lights.
The government also delivers barrels of fresh water once a week. Until recently, the villagers drank rainwater gathered from island run-off, but because the islands are made of limestone, the number and intensity of kidney stones villagers endured was life-threatening.
The petite young woman who rowed our sampan had powerful, broad shoulders and tough, worn hands gripping the oars. As we stepped into the boat, I spoke the few words in Vietnamese I knew – “xin chao” – which simply means hello. She nodded. Her smile was big and sincere.
We moved in silence through the emerald waters surrounded by towering, narrow limestone islands jutting skyward. Dogs barked and chased us as far as the short little leash on their boats would allow. Otherwise, the calm was palpable.
In a few moments, the woman rowing our boat tapped me on the shoulder. “Madame, Madame,” she said, a remnant of the French influence in Vietnam in her words. She began gesturing, showing two fingers and then tapping her heart and then rocking her arms.
Within seconds I understood. She wanted to tell me that she had two children and they were small. They were at home asleep. I nodded and held up one finger for my only child, then raised my hand well above my head to indicate that he was tall and grown, no longer living at home.
She nodded and we both beamed in understanding. I turned back in my seat to watch the sites ahead of us, yet filled with warmth, so touched was I that she attempted to communicate with me – not my husband seated beside me or the other four people in the little boat. We were both mothers. She knew I would understand.
A few moments passed in silence broken only by the dip of the paddle in the tranquil water. We moved past colorful junk boats painted in rich teal and red. Laundry hung from poles, steaming pots cooked over a bed of coals. People watched as we moved past their homes, some smiling, some not, as we took pictures and waved.
Just as I was feeling guilty again at being a rubbernecking American, the woman tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a little hut, no bigger than a backyard garden shed, floating nearby.
As I struggled to understand, she pointed again and made a sound that sounded like a dove cooing. All of a sudden I understood. She was trying to say “school.” This was the village school. I said school in English and French and she nodded vigorously.
Soon, a woman on another boat called out to our oarswoman. They laughed and exchanged a few words like I do with my neighbors across the street in Parkville. She lifted a net filled with shrimp from the green waters. Perhaps it was dinner. An old man sitting nearby patted his belly and offered a toothless smile. Yes, he was ready for dinner.
Another tap on my shoulder notified me we were at her home. Through an opening, I could see two children, maybe 5 or 6 years old, sleeping angelically on a mat. She touched her heart and tears filled her eyes. And mine as well.
My iPhone contains dozens of pictures of my son and as I scrolled through the images trying to find one to share, I realized how grand my home appeared when compared to our current surroundings. In reality, ours is just a modest Platte County home, but it is palatial next to hers.
Nonetheless, I found a picture of my son and me taken in front of the Christmas tree last year. Yes, the house looked all glittery and elegant as many homes do with holiday décor, but I decided that wouldn’t matter to her. She wanted to see my son.
Her smile was generous and warm and she patted my hand holding the phone.
As the little sampan tour around Cua Van came to an end, I didn’t know how to communicate how deeply I was moved by this brief glimpse into her simple life. My husband gave her a generous tip as he stepped off the boat, but I... I hesitated.
Taking both of her hands in mine, I smiled with all of the warmth my heart could generate. No words were necessary. We were mothers, a bond that translates all languages and lifestyles, all continents and time zones.
On this coming Mother’s Day, I’ll think of all of the mothers who lost their sons in Vietnam, who were not as fortunate as my mother-in-law to have her first born come home all in one piece, mentally and physically.
And I’ll think of my new friend, a young mother raising her children in such an unusual setting. It was so obvious that those children will be raised with love. Whether it’s in a middle class home in Platte County Missouri or on a boat in Cua Van, Vietnam, a mother’s love is all that’s necessary to make our lives whole.
Based in Parkville, Diana Lambdin Meyer and her husband, Bruce, have been traveling the world and telling stories together for many years. They are both members of the Society of American Travel Writers. Diana has twice been named Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year by the Midwest Travel Writers Association.