Jane was overjoyed to take a surprise birthday trip to Vietnam with her daughter Monica. But in what should have been a spontaneous getaway in a new country, Jane went through the experience she feared the most.
Jane should have gone to sleep two hours ago. She and her daughter had an early flight the next day, and instead of getting some shuteye, she was still chasing one memory after the other.
Jane lifted her eye mask slightly to check the time on her phone. And in that glance, she saw the old photos on her nightstand. Jane had seen them time and again, and yet, she couldn't resist taking another peek. One by one, she looked at the faded pictures like they were paintings.
She studied the picture of her younger self wearing a Vietnamese hat and summer dress. She looked silly and was laughing a bit too hard when the photo was taken. But that was always the case when she posed with her friend and au pair, Mai.
Jane couldn't take her eyes off Mai in the picture. Her smile was so infectious that it reached through the photo and spilled over Jane's face. Mai was holding a little girl in one of the pictures. That was Jane's daughter, Monica.
Jane went back in time staring at old pictures. | Source: Getty Images
It felt like a different era, yet the memory felt as fresh and palpable as yesterday in many ways. Jane hadn't told anyone how much Mai's friendship had meant to her back then. It was like they understood each other's hearts without ever understanding each other's languages.
And even though Mai had to leave America and travel back to Vietnam after just a few months, she remained one of Jane's favorite people in the world. Mai was probably forgotten by everyone but Jane. Or so she thought.
Monica had grown up listening to stories about Mai and her vibrant accounts of Vietnamese culture. Even though she had no personal recollection of her Vietnamese babysitter, she imagined her to be this gentle, kind soul with a sweet voice, who changed her mother's life.
And when Jane's 70th birthday was approaching, Monica knew exactly what to gift her. She booked two tickets to Vietnam.
Monica surprised Jane with two flight tickets to Vietnam. | Source: Getty Images
Mai's whereabouts remained a mystery. But Monica knew it would mean a great deal to her mother to see and relive the stories and memories that her friend once narrated.
It was a long, exhausting journey to get to the bustling city of Ho Chi Minh, but the aromatic cup of tea at the hotel instantly rejuvenated the two women. Jane couldn't quite place the flavor, and the tea menu was only written and explained in Vietnamese, just like everything else.
"Mom, come on. Let's get to the market. Maybe we can avoid the large crowds if we get an early start."
Jane quickly wore her hat and sunglasses and followed Monica out of the cafe. Monica looked like a classic tourist, immersed in navigating through the map on her phone and holding her purse and a bunch of Vietnamese phrasebooks and city guides in the other hand.
Jane had to catch up with Monica's excitement of exploring Vietnam. | Source: Getty Images
Jane knew she had to follow her closely. "I'm too old to walk this fast, Monica. Slow down."
After walking through a series of narrow lanes and turns for about 20 minutes, Jane and Monica finally spotted it. A building with big, bold letters read: "Ben Thanh Market."
"This is amazing! Let's go in." Monica held Jane's hand to cross the street and get to the building.
Jane was excited, too, but she was slightly more nervous than enthusiastic. Earlier that day, Jane had listed out all her worries and inhibitions before her daughter over breakfast.
Monica explained that the language barrier, the confusing directions, and general information were all going to be addressed by this new app for first-time travelers. Jane forgot the app's name, and somehow, all those features failed to put her mind at ease.
The inside of the plain-looking building was like a country in itself. The market was the biggest one in Ho Chi Minh City, and it was perhaps the biggest culture shock Jane had experienced in her life. The place was brimming with a sea of people.
Jane was shocked to see a crowd this size at the market. | Source: Getty Images
The air was alive with mysterious aromas that blended into each other as one walked. There were more colors than the eyes could capture and more stalls than one could count. Every statue, every piece of clothing, and every delicacy was unique and new to both women.
Soon, Jane and Monica had more bags than they could carry. Jane's knees were acting up, too. "I think we should leave now, Monica. I'm a walking pool of sweat."
Monica was tired, too, but she wasn't done shopping yet. "There's just this one stall I need to revisit. I saw some souvenirs I need to pick up for Ben and dad. Ben was Monica's husband, and Monica had spotted the perfect conical hats for both of them.
Monica wanted to buy souvenir hats for her husband and father. | Source: Getty Images
"Mom, why don't you head back to the hotel?" She knew her mother wouldn't be comfortable with an app, so she handed her a map instead.
Monica traced along a route on the map, trying to show Jane exactly how to get back to the hotel. But Jane was too ashamed to admit that she couldn't hear her very clearly over all the noise or that she was terrible with maps in general.
"I wish you would come back with me, Monica."
Monica really should have gone with Jane. Because trying to find her way back to the hotel was every bit as tricky as Jane imagined.
She missed two turns and reached a place she didn't remember seeing on the way. She tried asking for directions, but the locals did not speak a word of English, and she didn't understand Vietnamese, either. Midway through her walk, she realized she had left her phone and glasses with Monica.
Jane realized that she was lost on her way back. | Source: Getty Images
Jane was stuck. She didn't know the way forward nor the way back. She managed to point at a coffee on the menu of a street cafe, and luckily, the cup of authentic Vietnamese iced coffee was a perfect cooler for the hot day.
It had been hours since she left the market, and Jane was still lost. She was now standing in a narrow lane with barely any passers-by. She had exhausted whatever change she had in her pocket, and her knees forced her to sit on the sidewalk. The sun had set a while back.
Jane gave up her search, and with a sense of surrender, she lay down on a bench under an old street lamp. She didn't realize when she drifted into sleep.
Jane was exhausted and fell asleep on a bench on the sidewalk. | Source: Getty Images
In the morning, she was woken by a bunch of uniformed police officers hovering over her. "Jane Step…Stef…Steno…" They were trying to read out her last name from the phone.
"Jane Stephanopoulos, yes, that's me!" She sat up on the bench and almost cried with joy.
With great difficulty, the men asked her to enter the official vehicle. What followed was a 40-minute drive to the local police station. The moment she entered the quarters, she saw Monica and almost stumbled with relief.
The mother and daughter hugged each other for a long time, while the locals stood by, watching and smiling at the moment of reunion. Jane could feel Monica's tears trickling onto her blouse. "I'm sorry, Mom!" she muttered as she sobbed. "I shouldn't have let you leave alone. We were so worried."
Jane is reunited with her daughter, Monica, at the local police station. | Source: Getty Images
Jane later learned that it was her veteran husband, Daniel, who managed to get in touch with his old friend in Vietnam. The friend used his contacts in the police department to track Jane down successfully.
Of course, Dan still had a lot of influential friends across different countries. Only he could've helped out in a situation like this. Jane immediately called him.
"Dan, thank you. Thank you so much! And please thank your friend for me."
"Well, sweetheart, you're not the only one who has old friends in Vietnam," Dan replied, with a slight tease in his voice that made Jane smile. "Which reminds me," he continued, "You may have a visitor at your hotel tomorrow. She's old and doesn't speak a word of English. But I think you will recognize her…."
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