It was a sudden windchill in the air that led me to Phuong, down a dirt alleyway tucked in the heart of Hanoi. As clouds danced across the sun, I dodged eager scooter drivers plunging by at frightening speeds into his guesthouse lobby. The space was bland and only mildly- inviting.
Our first interaction was when he guided me with a pen through a historical journey of the city map, with secret tales that could only be provided by the familiarity of a local. I knew immediately that I needed Phoung -- like I later learned he needed me. I didn't yet understand the Western fascination with Vietnam, but I felt compelled to learn why thousands of brave traveling souls before me felt a deep attachment to the country and its people.
So I studied Phuong as I study a new map, getting a little lost in between the creased edges and slowly finding my way. At 27 years old, behind the clear eyesight, was nothing but tired eyes. They cried for a life beyond the draping mosquito net that shielded him on the floor of the lobby in which he slept seven nights a week, every week of the year. Those endless hours accumulating just dollars to send home - if you could call that wallless, waterless building of broken bricks a home. He worked to buy drinks and food for foreign Westerners in hopes that they would stay longer. . .just one day longer. . . . just one hour longer so his life didn't have to feel so viciously cyclical.
But often it's the people who have less than us that can teach us the most. They experience inept gratitude for customs we view as normalities. They see the value in a dollar, or rather don't see the value in a dollar because money is of no concern -- although they have almost none of it. These people prove that possessions serve no factor in the quality of our lives.
Because it wasn't more money he desired. He yearned for simple companionship, a concept almost too opportunistic for his lifestyle. Trapped behind a pair of barren doors, he watched people coming and going, going and coming while time for him repeated itself.
The depth of our conversation heightened; for some reason he let me in. Maybe because I was the first person in a long time who truly listened. Maybe because he just wanted someone to listen -- even knowing that I too would leave, because in actuality we had no foundation for a friendship besides the fact I was a tourist in his country.
So in this strange, conceptual, lost-in-translation relationship Phuong needed me like I needed him.
Thanksgiving rolled around, a holiday lost within days of traveling transitions. Together -- with other International friendships in a timer, rice and spring rolls, we celebrated. We ate and drank in a humbling display of inexpensive food, savoring the laughter and the company. Phuong knew nothing about the fruition of the tradition, nor the meaning of Thanksgiving. He did not know of the typical, extensive and colorful display of the plates. He had no former history to use as a backdrop for the memories we were creating.
But Phuong, more than anyone who followed holiday tradition, expressed sincere gratitude. We gave thanks -- and he gave greater thanks. For him, however much or little we have, we can always value the company we keep. If we offer a reciprocal learning exchange of knowledge, then there is no greater companion.
Phuong may have had less than me in some senses, but he possessed qualities far more powerful than any possession. He had a beautiful mind of curiosity and a genuine soul. He had the capability to connect with any person of a foreign culture. Most importantly, he used his experiences in life to teach.
So together, with those friendships in a timer, we drank until our voices rattled through the lobby and four floors up. We laughed until his tired eyes eventually caught fire - vibrant and alive.