A small hand

by Amy Giles-Mitson (New Zealand)

Making a local connection Vietnam


It is still dark as I follow the path down to the beach. The sand between my toes feels foreign. I am used to it warming, sometimes blistering my feet, but now it is cool. I sit on the shore as the world wakes up and contemplate what I have come to do. Soon, the beach will come alive which means I can’t sit for too much longer. Later maybe I can join the travelers and holiday makers as they eat grilled boxfish and drink cold beer after a day of exploring. This morning I must say goodbye to my father. As I go to stand the creak of bamboo turns my head. Thuy is sitting up on the railing of the small elevated seating area in her parents’ restaurant. “You’re up early,” I say. Her face breaks into a wide smile, one of her front teeth is missing. I have known Thuy for several days now. On my first night here I am eating banh mi prepared by her mother, at a red plastic table which sits wonky in the sand. Thuy, shy at first, comes over and shows me a battered copy of The Cat in the Hat that she keeps in her school satchel. “She learns English,” her father says, beaming and ruffling her hair. “My smart girl.” I show Thuy the book I am reading and she scans the text, pointing out car and boy, carefully sounding out the words for me. The next day, and the next, she reads to me from The Cat in the Hat as I eat. Her mother joins us at the table one evening, she smells of charcoal from working the grill and has kind eyes which crinkle when she laughs. She asks me why I have come to Phan Thiet. “My father,” I say. “As a young man he was a war reporter. He wanted his ashes here.” I show her the small urn I am carrying everywhere I go. Thuy’s mother puts her hand on top of mine and speaks to Thuy in Vietnamese. She nods and reaches out to touch the tiny gold flowers etched on the small vessel which holds my father. Now Thuy jumps from her perch on the bamboo rail and is heading towards me on the beach. For a second I lose my nerve and think that I will go back to my room, back to my wooden bed under the long white mosquito net. But I can’t. My plane leaves from Ho Chi Minh tonight, I do not have another morning. Before Thuy reaches me I take the urn from my bag, when she sees it she stops and squats down where she is instead of coming any further. At the shore I kneel in the sand and watch the sun rise in streaks of pink and burnt orange. Though I still don’t know exactly why a part of him stayed on here, I feel close to my father in this place. At arm’s length I pour out the ashes and they effortlessly join the sea foam that laps around me, before being pulled back out to sea. For a while I sit and remember him. Already I can feel the heat of the day. I start as I feel a small hand on my back and Thuy sits down beside me. I had forgotten I wasn’t alone. “Saying goodbye,” Thuy says and rests her head on my shoulder. “Yes, saying goodbye,” I reply. We make our way up the beach as the sounds of hustle and bustle and the smell of coffee brewing fill the morning.