The kindness of strangers

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, May 26, 2011

Today we are celebrating Tom's 26th birthday and what a brilliant day we have both had. The joy of being in Hoi An mostly comes from wandering the pretty streets and soaking up the atmosphere, however you can also take day tours out to see some local temple ruins in the jungle. So to celebrate Tom’s special day we booked on a temple tour to see the My Son ruins. In all honesty Tom didn’t really want to celebrate his birthday; he wanted to wait until we get home to celebrate it with our families... but it turns out that fate had other plans. As we were getting ready to go on our tour there was a knock on our door and when Tom opened it he was met by a line-up of 4 members of staff from the hotel; it turns out they had noticed his date of birth on his passport and had bought him a beautiful birthday cake and present! From the bathroom all I could hear was Tom laughing and saying thank you and when I came out he was stood there with a huge cream cake in one hand, a box wrapped in birthday paper in the other and a look of shock on his face! He asked me if I had asked the hotel to do this and I had to admit that I had no idea what was going on. The birthday cake was iced with the words "Happy Birthday Mr Thomas" and had a tom-cat figure made of cream and icing on the top. In the box was a hand-made silk tie! Neither of us could believe our eyes! A few minutes later our tour bus arrived and we quickly said thank you to all the hotel staff and manager for their amazing gifts. It seems that the manager had told everyone it was Tom’s birthday because everyone in the hotel, staff and guests, were wishing him a nice day and a prosperous and healthy year ahead. It was an incredible way to celebrate Tom’s birthday.

We spent the rest of the day at the temple ruins and didn’t get back to the guesthouse until about 3pm. The ruins were very beautiful and their location in the jungle was peaceful and serene. Tom and I don’t really like going on organized tours because sometimes you can feel like a herd of sheep but unfortunately it is practically impossible to get to My Son without a tour group. There turned out to be nearly 50 people in our tour group after the guides put 2 separate groups into one big group and this made it really difficult to walk around the small ruins without bumping into everyone else. Nearly all our photos had someone walking in front of the camera but despite this the ruins were beautiful and we had a great day in the jungle. In the bus on the way back we got chatting to a couple who had just traveled through China for 2 months; we spent most of the journey asking them questions about their time there and it put our minds at rest when we heard how much they had enjoyed China. As we arrived back at the hotel we were met by the hotel manager, a lovely lady called Madam An, who pulled us to one side and asked us if we would be her special guests at a family meal that evening to celebrate Tom’s birthday. We were speechless! Of course we said yes and made a quick run to the local market to buy Madam An some flowers to say thank you. We didn’t know if we were supposed to take a gift to the family host but we figured that a nice bunch of flowers would do the trick either way. Afterwards we tucked into some of Tom’s cake, which we devoured a lot quicker than we first expected!

At 6pm we went downstairs and found out that one of the other guests at the hotel called Catherine was also celebrating her birthday, so we would also be joined by her and her partner. We were shown outside into the family courtyard and saw that a long table had been set up with chairs, twinkly lights and a spread of food and drink! It was unbelievable; we really didn’t know what to say. We were also joined by Madam An’s family, some hotel staff and 3 other guests who had been living at the hotel long-term as they had started working at a local bar. We sat down and for the next 3 hours we tucked into an 8 course feast of home-cooked Vietnamese food which was simply delicious! Everyone was lovely and we all got on like a house on fire. Nearly all the food had meat in it so I had to be pretty diplomatic when it came to eating all 8 courses and even though I could actually only eat about 3 dishes it was still amazing. Here is Tom’s special Vietnamese birthday menu: prawn spring rolls, rice pancakes with salad, herbs and sate sauce, skewered pork and chicken with honey and sesame seed, ham omelets, fried chicken (heads and all), tuna mayo baguettes, chicken rice with spicy papaya, cabbage and chicken soup, pineapple and herbal tea. The table wasn’t big enough for all the food and every time we thought we’d finished, all the empty plates would be cleared away and another 2 courses would be bought out. About half way through the meal Madam An stood up and raised a toast to Tom and Catherine in Vietnamese and everyone sang them happy birthday. It was such an emotional moment; I really had to choke back the tears. Madam An and her family had no reason to be so kind to us and yet they took us into their home and treated us like members of their family. We have had some amazing moments during this trip, but our most precious memories are from moments like this. We have traveled half way around the world, it feels like we are a million miles away from our own families and yet we have still managed to find a home to spend the night in and a new family to help us celebrate Tom’s birthday. Activities, scenery and food are all very nice, but it is the overwhelming kindness of strangers which has proved the most life-changing aspect of this trip. Sometimes I am left speechless by the compassion, gentleness and charitableness of the people we meet.     
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