It’s Thursday morning 2.30 and in less than 24 hours my kids will be here with us. My nerves and my emotions are ragged, not entirely because of the impending arrival of my close family, but it is this place, and the things that happen here that threaten to tear me apart.
Tonight we had drinks and a meal under the mango tree at the villa at Pham Ngoc Thach campus to officially farewell those members of academic staff who are moving on. Afterwards, several of the staff came to our house to share drinks and food and gradually we all succumbed to tiredness and the delirium of intoxication. It was while we were listening to music and talking that the girl who sells noodles in our hem appeared at our gate and she just stood there, as she sometimes does and watched what we were doing.
This girl has been our friend now for nearly the whole of the twelve months that we have lived in this house. She has the most infectious smile and has always said hello, and laughed with us and tried to communicate, but of course there is the language barrier. We have never been able to have a conversation and we have never purchased a bowl of noodles from her, but still she is friendly and outgoing towards us. Tonight though we had some people with us who can speak Vietnamese and with a little bit of encouragement this girl came in a sat down and gradually we got to know her story.
Her name is Dien, she is 14 years of age and she has been working selling noodles on the street for the last four years. Her working hours are from about midnight through until dawn 7 days per week. She does not work on a family noodle stand as we assumed, but works for a man who came to her village in Kon Tum province and “recruited” her at the age of ten. Her sister of 17 years works in HCMC also and Dien is happy to be able to go home and visit her family for Tet in a few days time.
Diem has to put up with drunks who try to molest her and a boss who beats her if she does not earn enough money. She told us that he only beats her because he cares for her. She sometimes has customers who will not give the full amount of money and she is scared of the ghosts in our hem from all the people who have died. Dien earns about VND350,000 per month (that’s US$20.00, not a bad wage by some standards here) and she dutifully sends most of that money home to her family by money order from the small post office over near the markets. She sleeps on the floor in the house of her boss and night after night while we are asleep in our comfortable bed she walks the alleys hoping that some person will want to buy a late night bowl of noodles.
And every time we see her she smiles at us with such genuine warmth and affection that it would lead you to believe that hers is the best life there is to live on this planet.