I’ll always be grateful to a hotel receptionist named Chau, who one day in 2007 offered to get me out of Hoi An and into the homes of people in the surrounding countryside.
On Chau’s day off, from the back of her motorbike, I watched the landscape whiz by as she drove us several miles to the west of Hoi An. We passed rice and corn fields, a kid on the back of a water buffalo, trucks that threatened to flatten us. We passed a phalanx of teenage girls who, in their conical hats and white ao dais, sat atop their bicycles with such perfect poise that one wondered if bicycling were a form of ballet.
Among the places Chau took me was the home of some friends. That’s Chau in the picture above — full of energy, simultaneously running toward the home while also turning around to make sure her guest was not far behind. We had lunch with her friends, walked through nearby fields, and then rested through the worst of the midday heat. As I lay on a mat in one corner of the home, my eyes closed and belly still digesting the meal, I listened to the sounds of Vietnamese bouncing off the concrete floor and I appreciated the unintelligibleness of it all. Because I couldn’t understand the words, I could focus exclusively on what was beyond them: friendship. Here were people relaxed and enlivened by one another. There was nothing formal about the interaction, no sign of pretense, no austerity in how they laughed or even reclined. They were completely comfortable together.
The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing 167 years before two of Chau’s friends rested on a bed, one with her feet propped up on the other’s legs, had this (and more) to say about friendship:
A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thoughts, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.