I met Phuong and her twelve-year old daughter Dan outside the Temple of Literature. Established in 1070 by King Lý Thánh Tông, this is a historic fixture of Hanoi that is not to be missed. It was used to foster the talent and energy of Vietnam’s people, a serene place for sages and Confucian scholars to learn and train; “The talent of the country is the health of the country,” Phuong explained. We walked along hundreds of stone tablets resting on carved tortoises, symbols of longevity and wisdom. These were in honor of the doctor laureates who had excelled in a given discipline: history, math, politics, it goes on and on. Every facet of this place was dripping with venerable tradition; it seemed an appropriate vestige of ancient ways, an homage to literature and the written word, as I watched a master of classic calligraphy make his brush dance.
Afterwards we went to a coffee shop and Dan pulled out her science textbook. It was all in English, Phuong said, and Dan was behind given they just moved back to Hanoi after three years spent in Germany. I was then asked to help.
As I detailed the differences between compounds and mixtures, solvents and solutes, and independent and dependent variables, Dan was quiet but I saw she was trying to absorb everything I was saying. She wanted to learn, it was clear, and she wanted to understand. There was an undeniable brilliance to her, a natural curiosity not easily attained. I couldn’t help thinking how she would have done well a thousand years ago, owning her own tortoise carved from stone.
I waddled home with my backpack and helmet, rejecting all the pressing taxi drivers along the way, for it was a cool, humid evening and I began going through the Vietnamese alphabet in my head.∗