by Thu Pham (Vietnam)
Audio: “Dinnertime,” read by Angelina Nguyen
When I look at Vân, I see hope.
In the Vietnamese language, Vân means clouds. Free, but for how long? Two years from now, she’ll turn five. Five-year-olds tend to know more than they should. And then? She’ll cease to be that innocent kid who hops on and off the pavement every afternoon.
I watch as Vân carefully draws an eye on the pavement’s stone. Her tiny face cracks into a wild smile as she dusts her hands off the most recent masterpiece. In the dying sunlight, the painting looks almost ethereal. A family, I realize. Our family.
“Will Mom and Dad like it?”
“Of course.” I give her a half-hearted smile, then turn back to our mobile shop. This is not going well. I can hear Vân’s voice even before the words leave her mouth.
“When will they be back?” She frowns, the way she always does when Mom and Dad are mentioned.
“I’ve already told you. They’re helping grandma with her fieldwork. And do you know what would make them very happy when they return?” We both said in unison. “An empty shop.”
Picking up on the clue, Vân hops onto the back seat as I steer the bike towards the road. She hesitantly looks back at the painting, all alone in the darkness, then decides to leave it anyway.
By 7 p.m., we’ve only managed to sell half of the goods.
The mobile shop was a fancy name we came up with for our bicycle, which is strung with baskets of miscellaneous junks: toothpicks, bubble gum, lighters, clippers, rubber bands—anything we can sell for a living. Occasionally, we will stop by restaurants or coffee shops, hoping for a piece of bread or two, but most of the time, we just meander through the clustered streets of Hanoi.
The city has changed a lot in just two years.
Before the pandemic, Hanoi was alive with excitement. Crisscrossing streets laying out like chess boards in the dazzling halo, seasonal blossoms lingering on the fabric like perfume, and sounds of honking cars harmonizing in a symphony of zest.
But that was never our Hanoi.
Our Hanoi was humble rather than dashing. Our Hanoi was the sight of poor workers returning home, of parents and children reunited in the ghostly sunlights. Our Hanoi was the sound of Mother’s calling, the fleeting warmth of Father’s embrace.
But whether ours or theirs, Hanoi was never the same after the pandemic.
“Will she get better?”
My mother swallowed the lump in her throat.
“I’m not sure, honey.”
Not a dozen days had passed since the lockdown but half of the neighborhood had come down with fever. Every day, my mother and I would distribute food rations provided by the relief party, but it was unsure how much longer we could endure. Vân was locked in the house with my father, whose symptoms had started to show. She was not allowed near him, but when you lived in a half-basement house as wide as two bathrooms, there was no such thing as isolation.
Mom gave out the last tray of the day to Miss. Hương, our neighbor. As we were heading home, I couldn’t help but break the suffocating silence. “Will it get better?”
We both stopped in our tracks.
“It will, honey. It has to.”
And so, I clung onto that promise like a flower in the monsoon rain, but against everyone’s foreboding senses, things did get better. We even started to nurture hopes of a miraculous resurrection. At last, faith had returned to us.
By 9 p.m., I have given up all hope of finishing the day’s goal.
On the squeaky bike, I ride Vân home. As rows of houses and alleys shoot past us, I come to realize how much of a stranger I have become in my own city. Tonight, Hanoi seems deadly silent. Perhaps everyone is mourning too.
“Auntie!” Vân yells as I pull up into the house’s backyard. “How is your day?”
“Better now with you!” My aunt bombards Vân with storms of kisses. We are about to follow her into the house when the sound of a motorcycle booms in the distance.
“Mom, dad?” Vân bolts from the porch. “It must be them. They have returned to bring us home. Look what I told you, sis.” She runs down the staircase, skipping two steps at a time. Scrambling for balance, I rush out just in time to see Vân’s shoulder shuddering slightly in the December breezes. We stand in dead silence at the sight of a new motorbike.
Vân’s eyes trace its shining cover, betraying the tiniest glimpse of disappointment.
“What do you think?” Miss Huong calls out from across the yard. “First in the village.”
“Looks fantastic, miss!” I yell back while trying to pull Vân into the house. Before I can properly lock the door, she yanks her hand free of mine. Her eyes well up with tears.
“How much longer?” Vân’s voice comes out in a muffle of hiccoughs. “How much longer do we have to stay with auntie? How much?” I pull Vân’s head close to mine and burrow my face in her smoky braids, trying to hide the big, fat tears that are now streaming down my cheeks. “Just a little bit more, I promise. Don’t you cry, honey! They will be oh so sad. Let’s just eat now, shall we?”
Reluctantly, we gather around the table. As Vân reaches out for the cabbages, I yank her hand back. “Did you forget something?”
“Auntie, sis. Bon appetit.” She turns to the altar in the corner and smiles. “Mom, dad, bon appetit!”
In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have done that—making a promise I couldn’t keep—but what else could I’ve done? If a lie can keep Vân carefree just for another day, I would lie my way through this world. Sorrows can wait for another time.
We all eat to the sounds of Vân’s stories.
Thu Pham, age 17, is an aspiring writer and filmmaker in Hanoi, Vietnam. She loves storytelling in all its shapes and forms, and her biggest goal is to capture life’s simple beauties in words and images.
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9/17/23, 8:43 AM
Powerful. Spreading the truth some don't think about, some don't have to worry about. A great and strong piece.
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
8/25/23, 10:35 PM
Excellent and amazing
8/17/23, 7:00 AM
Absolutely beautiful poem! The words were picked meaningfully and used it a descriptive way. Very relatable.
8/11/23, 4:59 AM
Beautiful, moving and thought provoking. Keep up the amazing work!
8/11/23, 4:48 AM
Absolutely beautiful work! Relatable for some and eye-opening for others.
6/19/23, 6:26 PM
It is really great, I'm impressed!
Eunice N Kitchener
6/11/23, 5:13 PM
Quite amazing and interesting story. It's also a challenge to others. Develop your skills through hard work.
6/8/23, 7:21 AM
Beautiful. A wonderful portrait of the identity crisis caused by colonialism.
5/26/23, 6:23 AM
Congratulations Claire - this is a powerful piece - this feeling of a yearning for a home that may not even exist anymore will be something that everyone who lives outside of their original homeland will resonate with. Well done.