During our time in Hanoi, my sister and I made three trips to the northern town of Lang Son. Four hours north of the capitol, we were brought to an elementary school in desperate need of assistance. Located in the middle of nowhere (I’m talking roads that shouldn’t even be called roads since no cars ever drive on them), the children of this school are beyond poor. Walking miles to get to school in cold winter weather, we were shocked to see that these kids were wearing broken sandals, no socks, and no coats. When I say that we stood out at the school, it wasn’t just because we were tall and blonde. It was also because many of these kids (and some teachers) have only seen tall and blonde on TV and weren’t sure how to react to it in person. We were literally gawked at from all angles…constantly.
Let me share something with all of you, though – if you film a child and they’re afraid of you, just show them the video. Suddenly all the fear evaporates and they think you’re pretty darn cool.
Only one person, a teacher, spoke English. This lack of English was rather incredible and made for some loooong, quiet lunches.
There were many hilarious moments in Lang Son. For instance, the principal loved my arms – well, I think she loved them – because she would squeeze them constantly and not let go; another teacher told my sister that she was so beautiful she just had to stare at her; they all thought that we were strange for not eating meat and basically ignored our requests when serving us food – laughing at us; and they took shots of whiskey during school lunch and got rather tipsy. Add to that some harrowing motorbike rides in the mountains, and the fact that I unknowingly drank a shot of cobra whiskey…some amazing memories.
But I want to talk about one of the most powerful experiences we had. Like I said, these kids wear broken sandals and many lacked coats. So we went shopping, with the help of the teacher who liked to stare at my sis, and bought over 100 coats and over 300 shoes and socks. Without an explanation, the teachers asked all the kids to line up in the courtyard. We got to play Santa. I’m sure it was beyond confusing having these tall blonde strangers handing out gifts and crying at the same time – tears kept coming because we were so moved by just how grateful each child was. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. It changed my sister and me – that’s for sure.