She grows up in the village of Văn Hà, Gia Phương. Her parents are farmers. They plant and harvest rice. A tedious and time consuming affair. They also raise pigs. One of Mai’s tasks is to tend to the pigs. Sometimes her hands and her feet are so covered in pig feed she can’t wash it all off before she goes to school. So then she smells like pig feed. Sometimes she gets bullied. Even the teacher sometimes mocks her. Her slightly darker complexion – so coveted in the western world – is not appreciated in Vietnam. They ask: ‘Are you from Africa or something?’ Luckily Mai never believes the deregatory remarks and knows she is beautiful. Though it’s highly unlikely she realizes just how attractive she is.
She leaves the village behind her and studies tourism in Hanoi. Mai wants to spread her wings. She is quite enterprising. She promotes her village as a place where tourists can enjoy the traditional ways and scenes of Vietnam. With success. A Dutch family stays over and Mai and her family stay in touch with these friendly inhabitants of the nation with the tallest people in the world. Supposedly because the Dutch drink a lot of milk and eat a lot of cheese.
Later she visits Europe. The charming Vietnamese falcon lands in Spain. Will the country run out of paella now? While in Europe she also visits France, Belgium and the Netherlands. She even ends up exploring the city of Gent where dien cai dau William, the guy she is about to meet, lived for eight years. Ah, the places he could have taken her! But when Mai is there, strolling along the water in the city’s heart, passing Cathedrals and medieval market squares, William is 1,200 km away in Slovakia wondering, for the strangest reasons, to start learning some Vietnamese. He comes up with the most unusual ploy to select a Vietnamese teacher. The fates are at work. Soon a boy’s inexplicable attraction to something as gruesome and sad as the Vietnam war – or the American war as Mai calls it more accurately – will turn into something unexpectedly positive.
Over in Belgium William was born. Also in a small village. Erembodegem. His parents did not have a real farm, but they had quite a big vegetable garden that provided the whole family vegetables almost all year round. There was quite a bit of work to be done to grow potatoes, beans and peas. To harvest plums and strawberries, onions, carrots, parsley, etc. There were no pigs though. Sometimes a neighbour kept a sheep.
Some of William’s earliest memories are connected to the war in Vietnam. A series called Tour of Duty that closed with the Rolling Stones song ‘Paint it Black’. The family drama series The wonder year. In the first episode a young girl’s brother gets killed in Vietnam. There was the docu Dear America: Letters home from Vietnam. With particularly haunting footage and sounds. The famous picture of the naked girl running and covered in napalm was often shown on TV. There was the movie Good morning, Vietnam. A movie that is partly responsible for making William pursue a career in teaching. There was the brutally realistic movie Platoon.
When William and his friends played in the woods they often imagined they were ambushing the enemy in the jungles of Vietnam. There was something deeply sad about the war. But there was also the romantic side, with the music, and the hippie movement and the war protests. As though this dreadful war had brought out a lot of love in a lot of individuals as well. For Carnaval William insisted on going as a peace loving hippie. There was Forrest Gump, the gut wrenching movie Casualties of War about a squad of American soldiers that decide to abduct a Vietnamese girl ‘for fun’ and one lone man’s protest. Through these and many others William felt an attraction to this little known country with its ever resourceful, magnetic women and determined, zealous men.
So finally he decides to understand some of the Vietnamese that always eluded him in all these productions. He scrolls through all the available teachers via on online platform and only one stands out. Mai. By far the most intelligent looking, the most sophisticated sounding, looking too stunning for words with a fun loving vibe. It is decided. It has to be online, lacking a private jet to fly to Spain, and with all the world under lockdown. From time to time the Skype video freezes and the image of Mai’s smooth and lush black hair, her titilatingly chiseled nose and bewitching cheek bones is glued on the screen. She teaches with patience, humor and a painstakingly thorough attention to pronounciation. Along the way Mai fills in the gaps that all the documentaries leave. In a silky, soothing voice. A sounds that reminds of a Siren. So naturally William thinks of Mai when not much later he watches a movie where a gorgeous French model with the same sort of elegance as Mai is likened to a siren. With her thoughtful answers to a never ending barrage of questions Mai stills a hunger in William he hardly realized he had.