The good thing about travelling to different countries it it’s taken me out of my familiar zone. It’s taken me to places I’ve never been before.
I recently backpacked around South East Asia – Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. Amazing, countries, fantastic food and incredible people.
In Vietnam I met a tour guide called Han. She grew up in the Mekong Delta, where, on days when there were no boats to take her to school, she would swim. Imagine that? I don’t know many children today who would brave treacherous waters to swim to school.
She knew from a young age she didn’t want to be a farmer like her parents, she wanted to travel. She completed her high school education (unusual in Vietnam because few farming families can afford the cost of schooling – they need children to work and earn as soon as they can). When she finished school, her parents had saved enough money for a return bus fare to Ho Chi Min City, where she went in search of a job. She spent the morning traipsing round offices asking for work.
‘Do you have a degree?’
‘I’ve graduated from High School.’ she explained.
‘Not enough’ everyone told her. ‘In an office you need at least degree level education if not a Masters. Come back when you are more qualified.’
Han quickly realized she wasn’t going to get an office job. She knew she’d need to look elsewhere. She also knew she couldn’t afford to spend her return fare on lunch, just in case she needed it for the bus back home.
Hungry, she headed for a residential area, where she knocked on doors of opulent houses. She knew the best work she could hope for in this city was cleaning or childcare.
‘Do you need a housekeeper or nanny?’ she enquired when doors opened. They were shut with a ‘No’.
Eventually, one door was held open a little longer. The owner was happy to listen to her. ‘I don’t need a housekeeper’ he told her. Han sensed she could push a little further to get the door open wider. ‘I’ll work free for a month, only board and food, and if you’re satisfied, you keep me on.’
The man agreed, and after the month he started paying her $35 a month to keep his house. It didn’t take all day to keep it in order, so Han took more jobs to fund herself through language school. At one point she worked 5 jobs each day, sleeping only 4 hours a night, surviving on strong Vietnamese coffee to keep her awake.
Han earned enough money to complete language school and become a certified tour guide. She’s travelled abroad, met lots of interesting people, done things she didn’t know about as a child and could only have imagined.
She joked with me one day when she came to meet us at our hotel.
‘How many stars does your hotel have?’
‘I think it’s 3 stars Han. Why do you ask?’
‘Where I come from we have a thousand star hotel.’
‘A thousand star hotel? Wow! What’s that like?’ I asked incredulously.
‘It’s like home.’ she laughed. ‘It’s the roof over our head. We look at it every night when we go to sleep.’
And I looked at her and wondered if only the rich sleep in a ‘thousand star hotel’.