The tricycle that we had rented for our city tour halted before a community built of bamboo huts. The place looked nearly deserted and I wondered why.
Hmm. Maybe they were into an afternoon siesta. But wait, were Vietnamese known for that habit? Honestly, I didn’t know.
I didn’t even know what to expect of the Vietnamese Village (aka Viet Ville), one of the tourist attractions in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, which at first sight wouldn’t pass for an impressing sight, let alone an interesting visit.
The bed of grass was not properly maintained, and dry leaves scattered on the grass. The seesaw on the playground was rusting, and the paint of the religious statue next to an adoration hall was starting to peel. However, it was the abandoned classroom and the old, flimsy state of the houses in the village that gave its demise away.
Once a home to more than a thousand Vietnamese refuge seekers during the fall of Saigon to the communist in 1975, the village has now only less than ten or five refugees inhabiting the area. The rest have already migrated to the US or Europe through a sponsored program.
That explained why the village nearly looked like a ghost town now.
The Viet Ville Restaurant
The restaurant within the village was another story. It was where we found the welcoming atmosphere that it’s nearby surroundings had denied us, or any visitors for that matter.
And even if it also looked old and was made of materials like those of the houses of the refugees, there is some sense of orderliness and purpose inside the restaurant– two qualities that are slowly dwindling in other parts of the village.
Even if the staff were a little shy, the smile they gave us was warm and sincere. The owner, a Vietnamese who looked more like a Filipino than his Filipino staff, was equally timid. But we appreciate it that he came to our table and had a brief conversation with us.
Of us four diners, only the tricycle driver ordered authentic Vietnamese food. The rest of us sampled dishes that are a fusion of Filipino and Vietnamese cuisine. I hope we did sample more of the food on their menu, if only we weren’t full from the food we ate in one of our side trips before this.
As a result, I couldn’t tell if the food had been remarkable or not. One thing I’m sure though, the village was much more than what it has become today.
Subtle Hints of Lessons and Inspirations
The hints are all there. We, visitors, only need to look beyond the physical state of the surroundings. The signs may be subtle, but they are proofs of significant events that transpired in this refuge camp.
The presence of the Catholic chapel on the other side of the village and the adoration hall with the image of Buddha at the back of the restaurant signify that two different religions can co-exist.
The playground and the classroom show that even helpless strangers in a foreign land can have the privilege to learn through formal education and play.
The houses remind that anyone capable of helping – irrespective of religion or race – can help change lives and restore someone’s shattered trust in humanity.
The stage in the restaurant is a symbol of encouragement for the refugees – especially the children – to showcase their culture through singing and dancing.
And the fact that most of them have better lives now (based on stories published on books and personal accounts of some Filipinos that once worked in the refuge camp), suggests that courage and resilience trump any form of hardship – be it family separation, afflictions and misery brought by war, or all of them combined.
But, for me, it was the photo album inside the adoration hall that made me see the village in a different light. The photos gave faces to the refugees and the Filipinos who willingly shared a part of their lives with them. How significant that bonding had been was aptly summed up in the message printed on its cover.
It read: “friendship is a gift.”
Some refugees that are already in the US are doing some fund-raising activity for Yolanda victims. One of them is Alex Tang, 34 and now living in Houston. According to him, “This is a chance for us to show that the Vietnamese community will never, never forget what the Filipinos have done for us.” “There’s no better time to show that than right now,” he added.
The Filipinos who were able to help the refugees during their stay in the Philippines might not be expecting something in return, but it still feel good to know that they consider the Filipinos as their brothers and sisters. For that, thank you!