By Dylan Ho, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
My parents and I were on vacation in Hanoi. It was a fine day, the air was cool. You could see the clear blue sky. My dad and I were chilling out on a bench overlooking the majestic Hoam Kiem Lake (Google it if you want to read about the legend). We were reading books we brought on the trip. It wasn’t quiet per say, because the busy road was behind us. But if you could drown that out, and you tried very hard, you could hear a few birds. And as they say in Chinese, 心静自然凉, which means, “When the mind is still, you will be calm, cool and collected.”
A young boy no older than 13 years approached us. He was wearing a simple T-shirt and shorts and sandals. He looked bright and alert. On his back, however, he was carrying about 100 books strapped up in a harness. Anybody who has been to Southeast Asia should know what was about to happen. The boy was trying to sell us books. There are a lot of street-side “vendors” in Vietnam who carry their shops on their backs. There are old ladies who sell Phở, baguette sandwiches and fried foods on the roadside. Others sell footwear and sunglasses and offer to polish your shoes. It isn’t an uncommon sight.
Boy: “Good day sirs, do you want to buy book? I have storybook, travel guide, photo book…”
He started expertly pulling books from his side to show us, including classics by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Joseph Heller. He had guides to Hanoi, London and Australia. He also had photography books to show us.
My dad politely dismissed him. But the boy knew his target audience. Both my dad and I were reading books, big ones with small font. We both wore thick spectacles and baggy pants and looked unmistakably nerdy. These are the exact kind of people who would buy books, right?
He deftly pulled more books from his back. Among them was one book I remember, “The Sorrow of War” by Bao Ninh.
B: “You should read this one, it is about the Vietnam war. It is very good.”
My dad humored him. He took the book, read the blurb and flipped through the pages.
Dad: “I’ve read many books like this before. It’s okay, I don’t want this.”
B: “Please buy something. I have 3 young siblings to feed. I’ll sell you good price, very cheap. How much you want, just say.”
D: “This book is a fake. It’s photocopied[i], not good.”
B: “No! Still can read. Please help me. I have hungry family.”
It was a weekday, a school day. The boy was clearly bright and hardworking, yet he had skipped school to supplement his family’s income.
D: “Okay, you are a very bright boy. And your English is very good. I don’t want your book. I already have a lot at home. Please take this money.”
My dad took $5 USD and handed it to him.
The boy looked at the note and became very angry.
B: “No. I do not want your charity. I am not a beggar. If you want to buy the book, you can buy it. But I don’t need your pity.”
My dad and I were taken aback. We hadn’t expected this.
D: “We’ll buy the book.”
My dad took out $30 and handed it to him.
When the boy saw the money he was shocked.
“This is too much! Do you want another book? Maybe travel guides?”
“No it’s okay. Thank you.”
As we walked off, my dad turned to me and said, “Dylan, these people may be poor, but they live a good, honest, hardworking life, and that’s the most important thing, Dylan. Don’t forget that.”
[i] Photocopied books are commonly sold in Southeast Asian countries