Ink conversations with Binh

At 18:00 Da Nang’s vicious sun had already set but I was still struggling with the humidity alongside hunger. ‘Bread Of Life’ had been recommended to me, so sitting in the window of the cafe (right next to the air conditioning unit) I waited patiently for my Vietnamese iced coffee and mushroom burger.

A second waiter approached me but before I could smile and indicate that I had already ordered, he sat down next to me with a blank docket/receipt and pen. He wrote “what is your name?”. I wrote back and also asked for his name.

Meet Binh.

Binh is 26, originally from Hoi An, now married, has been working at Bread Of Life for some years and is deaf. He’s not the only deaf being in the cafe either. The chefs, baristas and other serving staff are all deaf too.

Binh’s receipt quickly fills with questions and answers around Australia vs Vietnamese life and I am forced to rummage in my bag for more scrap paper. Turns out Binh was born all hearing and speaking but at the age of four he had a horrible fall – cracking his skull open. After numerous months in hospital he was pronounced stone deaf in both ears.

The deaf, in Vietnam, are more often than not seen as a burden on family and society. Schools for the deaf are far and few between, consequently a large proportion of deaf adults today have minimal literacy skills and many are unable to communicate with their own family members (sign or otherwise).

This is where the little cafe I’m sitting in becomes a life-line for some of Da Nang’s deaf. Bread Of Life teaches new deaf recruits to sign in Vietnamese, the skills required of a chef/waiter/barista and more importantly Bread Of Life gives these folk their independence.

I had intended to eat and run within an hour but instead stayed for over two ‘talking’ with Binh and some of the other staff. By the end of it, I’d been offered a ride back to my hotel and I happily agreed. Perched on the back of Binh’s motorbike and with a piece of boxed apple pie tucked under my arm, we accelerated off into the night and mayhem of Da Nang – Binh, oblivious to the thousands of honks, beeps and all other manner of traffic sounds.

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Crossing with confidence

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Perched on the back of a motorbike taxi and puttering past uneven pavements filled with food vendors, open-aired plant nurseries, tailors and old men hawking mechanical bits and pieces; I sat as high as possible to take advantage of Saigon’s hot, thick ‘breeze’. My driver, for the last ten minutes, had kept up a constant stream of advice, pointing out interesting places we passed – temples, parks, mosques, markets – and shouting questions over his shoulder at me. Such a shame I can’t speak a word of Vietnamese. But, my smiles and nods of agreement to everything he relayed allowed for an easy hour of orientation in the city we had just landed in,

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Image by Ross Walker

Scanning the sea of bicycles, scooters, Vespas and motorbikes of all descriptions; I spotted Ross further ahead, photographing Kathy (also motoring along close by) one handed while clutching the back of his seat with the other hand. Seeing Ross is exciting. Having left home and Australia over seven years ago, I’ve had very little interaction or contact with him. In the time I’ve been away he’s graduated from both school and university, widened his acting experience, gained niche skills as a barista, he’s become his own person and now … he’s seeing more of the world. And with me. I’ve waited a long time for this.

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Image by Katherine Griffiths

Pulling up to red traffic lights I realised it was necessary to become as streamlined with the bike as possible. Slotting in between other motorbikes with relaxed legs meant a possible loss of knee caps or contact with exhaust pipes. All limbs need to be tucked in and then eeling through Ho Chi Minh’s revving humanity, unscathed, is possible.

Pulling up to red traffic lights.
Image by Kate Walker

Ignoring very obvious red lights, some drivers took off veering around crossing pedestrians and beeping in irritation at oncoming or turning traffic (who by the way had right of way). Bemused by this, I caught the eye of my man and he shrugged, pulling away in the glow of red lights too. Gracious, this was getting interesting.

Image by Kate Walker

Twisting in my seat, the scene behind me was pure mayhem. Drivers in their hundreds were picking up speed, yet those on foot continued to walk the intersections with small children, baskets of produce across shoulders and with the elderly hooked into the crooks of arms. Nobody dithered, lost courage or changed direction. To do so would mean an accident. Smiling to myself, I quietly agreed with Lonely Planet – those without wheels must cross with confidence.

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Image by Kate Walker

Day one in Vietnam and we still had a full three months ahead of us. Perhaps by the end of it all, we’d dither less and simply stride out (confidently) into the mayhem of SE Asia.