Hitchhiking Vietnam
life in vietnam
Children and Elderly

"I hadn't gotten very far along the road before they found me, veritable hoards of them. Three-foot-high munchkins in shiny white shirts and flip-flops, energetically swinging their plastic satchels on their way to class. They surrounded me in ever-deepening layers, shouting, "Lyn So!" with cheerful glee. They thought I was Russian. I set them straight and they brightened considerably. When I walked off they followed, showing no intention of making their way back to school."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam
Vietnamese children, especially in the rural areas, are given much more responsibility at an early age than Western children. Expect to see two-year-olds dragging machetes longer than they are tall and four-year-olds tending half-ton water buffaloes.

Children are a great way to get into a village - they are friendly, curious, and usually not otherwise occupied. Interact with them, play games, get them to show you around. You will be welcomed everywhere. And face it, the kids will be tagging along whether you like it or not...

"Lyn So" means Russian. In remoter areas the kids have never seen a non-Russian Westerner. Russians are not popular, so if you tell them you're American (or any other nationality) you will get a much better reception.

Most children know a few words of English and will be quite relentless about practicing them.

The Vietnamese love children and give them many indulgences. The old European "children should be seen but not heard" doesn't exist here.

Children take care of children...
"The children darted in and out of the house like hummingbirds, the boys roughhousing and the girls stepping lightly, one hand behind their backs to settle the infants that invariably peeked over their shoulders. They played in groups of two or three and seemed to have the run of every house in the village. Having grown up in a highly segmented Western grammar-school world where seventh graders wouldn't be caught dead playing with sixth graders and smaller siblings were about as welcome as the mumps, I was surprised to see that age and gender seemed to make no difference to these kids. From oldest to youngest, their protective custody of each other was endlessly endearing. When I offered a four-year-old a box of cookies, she accepted it with open mouth and unblinking eyes, made a beeline for the other children, and opened it in their midst. It passed from hand to hand, each child taking only one, and was then returned to me, still half full. When I gave one cracker to a nine-year-old it immediately went to the infant on her back. I gave her a second one and that too, went to the baby. I had to give her two at once, and even then if the infant tugged on her earring it got both cookies, until it had eaten its fill. Apparently no one had told the teenage boys that they weren't supposed to like small children, and any toddler who ventured near the men's fireplace was likely to be scooped up into a pair of brawny arms and nuzzled, or swooped about like an airplane."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

With the advent of tourists in Sapa, the kids there underwent an overnight transformation. They suddenly started demanding pens and candy and, when they didn't get any, throwing stones.

Children are everywhere in rural areas, rather like crickets. Don't expect ever to be alone.

In the cities the beggar children often slip into cafes and eat the leftover food that the patrons have left in their bowls. For this they are kicked, shouted at, and beaten by the store owners.


"I continued along the mountainside until I turned a corner and came upon an old Hmong woman walking slowly towards me along the path. She took one look at me, hitched up her skirts and jumped with remarkable agility over the lip of the nearest terrace. By the time I reached the edge she was nowhere to be seen. Not wishing to scatter the elderly population, I left the trail and continued my climb straight up the mountain slope."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam
In Vietnam it is one of the principal duties of the children to take care of their aging parents and to tend the graves and altars of the ancestors. For this reason it was particularly devastating that the war took so many of the country's young people, leaving few to caretake an entire generation of aging parents... Keep this in mind when you see an old man or woman begging on the streets of one of the major cities.

It can be very hard for Americans to understand the importance of ancestor worship in Vietnam. I once came across an older woman in the Central Highlands who, unlike most of his fellow villagers, looked at me with distaste, spat on the ground, and turned away. I asked my hosts about her that night. They told me that she had lost her three sons in the American war. She and her husband had long ago accepted their deaths and held no grudge against the Americans - until 1994, when she had heard of a US MIA team visit to a nearby village.

Why the sudden anger? Because she had no idea where her own sons were buried. This meant that her children's spirits were doomed to wander the land without rest. And since she had no more children to tend her grave when she died, she was facing the same fate. So why, she asked, should the Vietnamese government be helping the Americans to find their missing sons when they had done almost nothing for their own soldiers and their families?

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