Flying over the mountainous valleys of northern Vietnam, my ankles were trembling with unforeseen trepidation. Twelve students and two teachers were on that plane with me, and we were keen on fulfilling our National Honor Society service project. After landing in the capital city of Hanoi, we were to take a six hour bus ride to the small rice cultivating village known as Mai Châu. Our mission: collaborate with other villagers and build a house for a disadvantaged couple struggling to make ends meet. There was so little I knew about this small Southeast Asian country that I was going to be immersing myself into for the next eight days. I knew about its notorious role in the Second World War and the period of communism that reigned under the dictator Ho Chi Minh, but basic knowledge about a country acquired by flipping through an AP U.S. History textbook is barely sufficient. I would soon learn that what I knew of Vietnam was a miniscule twinkling star in a vast universe of constellations. I would soon understand that Vietnam is a country characterized not by its history, but by its people, and it was the interaction that I had with the villagers in Mai Châu that transformed my perspective on the developing-world forever.
The cultural differences between rural Vietnam and the U.S. baffled me after spending just one day in Mai Châu. At the top of the list of my “first world problems” was the “horrendous” fact that I had to shower in cold water, the “unspeakable” experience that I had sleeping on a hard wooden floor shrouded with a mosquito net, and the “terrifying” situation of not having cell phone signal or wireless communication. I was distressed, homesick, and felt terribly out of place.
My first day building a house was equally painful. My hands were splintered from carrying and cutting large sticks of bamboo. A few feet away from me a few Vietnamese children were merrily kicking around a deflated soccer ball. I felt so much pity for them. They had nothing and were so oblivious to the luxuries that Western children are so accustomed to. At the same time, some of the village elders who were helping us learn proper bamboo cutting techniques kept chuckling at our inability to do such a seemingly simple task. In their minds, the process was quite simple: drag a stalk of bamboo to the side of a road, squat over it, position a sharp machete on-top of the stalk so that he blade runs parallel to the thin veins of the bamboo, smash the machete with a mallet, then turn the bamboo one inch around then repeat the entire process. To them, it was not an arduous task associated with dangerous tools and physical strength. It was the mundane process of crafting a piece of bamboo flooring which they had known since time immemorial. Occasionally they sipped rice wine from small wooden cups and chittered away in Vietnamese, pointing their quivering fingers at us “foreigners” who were so inept. As I chopped bamboo, I tried to block out their scornful laughs and focused on the task at hand.
After 7 days, the house was built and our hard days of work were over. We all climbed the ladder to the second floor, testing its sturdiness with our feet and appreciating every nail and plank placed by our very own hands. We all sat down and waited for the couple who we built the house for to walk in. They treaded in slowly with tears flowing out of their eyes. They gave a small thank you speech in Vietnamese, and handed each of us a banana for our hard work. I thought of their calloused hands gathering large clusters of bananas, their only source of income, and my face radiated with appreciation. I grasped the banana which at that moment felt incredibly more valuable than a cheap piece of fruit. I did not understand a single word that came out of their mouths, but it didn’t matter. They were speaking with their soul, and the words of gratitude that they spoke were words that any human could understand.
I looked over to my peers, Mr. Berg, and Ms. Hawkins. A beautiful silence hung around the room and everyone had a string on their heart pulled. Even Mr. Berg, known for his jokes, funny stories, and relative youthfulness had tears in his eyes. The room had been magically transformed and for the first time in my young life I felt this funny feeling of content in my stomach. This was not the feeling of receiving an I-phone on Christmas morning or getting a shiny new Mustang for your 16th birthday. This was the feeling of kindness, happiness, altruism, friendship, community, and success, and it hit us all at once. This was bliss in its purest form, and the hour we spent sitting on that wooden floor felt like a millennium of unperturbed Nirvana.
As we were leaving the house, I looked at the village children one more time. They were frolicking through the streets chasing chickens, and my initial feeling of pity immediately turned into a feeling of envy. Paradoxically, these were children who had nothing, yet they had everything. They didn’t need cell-phones or wireless communication to keep themselves entertained. All they needed was each other to be jubilant. Just then, one of the elderly men walked past me, using a thin wooden stick as a cane to hold up his fragile body, and I recognized something that I had not seen before. The elderly men, despite their sneers and their annoyances, were actually some of the most selfless individuals I had ever interacted with. They were not obligated to help the couple we were building the house for, yet they came with their feeble bodies to support someone in their community.
It was at that moment that I perceived an often untold relationship between communism and community. Yes, communism once flowed as a mighty river down Vietnam. As a socialistic country today, it still trickles down its banks. Despite the destruction it brought, it left behind something instrumental for its people. The farmers who dig their soft heels into the rice fields bend down, fix their cone bamboo hats, and pick rice together in one large wave. The neighbors who come together to build a house nail together the planks in one large swing. All the tiny children that play soccer together graze the field like one gigantic tractor. It seemed as though every villager cupped their hands into that stream, took a sip, and gained an unmistakable sense of community.
Images of Mai Châu still appear to me as they encompass a fresh definition of serenity. I reminisce sinking our sandals into muddy rice field pathways, biking through ancient crevices in jagged mountains, and a blood red sun setting over smooth, bucolic hills like something out of a Japanese oil painting. A dream-like fog loomed around us, people from different races and hemispheres, and I was able to understand something that I could not perceive before. There is no first world or third world. There is no us vs. them. We are just human beings whose only allegiance is to each other. Although often unrealized, the earth holds us all together like a fragile droplet of water, in perfect harmony and balance, and it only takes a small gust of ignorance to make it shatter and disperse.
While we have a plethora of things to offer to developing counties, be it new technology or humanitarian assistance, individuals from the developing world can teach us something about the human experience. Thankfulness is being appreciative for the people around you, not necessarily for the things that you possess. It is saying “thank you” to a friend for giving you a gift, but it is also giving up your only form of livelihood to thank those who helped you out at a time of need. Altruism in its greatest form is giving up your own happiness for the happiness of others. It is flying across the world to build a house for someone in need, but it is also exerting your feeble bodies to work for the overall good of your community.
Economist Adam Smith defined wealth as the accumulation of silver that results from a favorable balance of trade. In that respect, Vietnam is a poverty stricken nation. In my eyes, there is so much more to it. A lack of material goods does not mean a lack of wealth. For wealth can be measured in many ways, and with respect to self-sacrifice and gratefulness, the people of Vietnam hold immeasurable affluence.