By Lindsay Sterling
“While I wait, I beat the peanuts,” Says Hop Nguyen, a custom clothes designer in her home kitchen in Yarmouth, Maine. She’s teaching me how to make green papaya salad from Bac Ninh province in northern Vietnam. Waiting for the spaghetti-like strips of unripe papaya and carrot to lose their stiffness as they soak in salt water, Hop taps a meat tenderizer on a covered bag of peanuts to break them into pieces the size of small gems. As she’s about to mince a hot pepper, I ask, “What kind is that?” It’s bright red, the size and shape of my pinky finger. “It’s called heaven point pepper,” she says because it grows not hanging toward the ground, but pointing toward heaven. I marvel at this image, and more. She sharpens her a knife on the back of a ceramic bowl. She carves a carrot into a delicate flower. The salad, finished with peanuts and whole basil leaves, is really refreshing, with a special multi-faceted crunch.
But what’s really amazing is the story how she ended up here. Thirteen years ago in January in Vietnam, she was riding her bike home from English class in a short-sleeve shirt and jeans. The air was smoky, the gutters next to the road filled with trash. All the motorbikes honking their horns looked like a stream of fish rushing to spawning ground. As she came up to the archway at the Temple of Literature she saw a letter that someone had dropped on the sidewalk. She doesn’t know why in all the commotion the letter caught her eye, or why she stopped her bike to pick it up. The intended recipient’s address wasn’t far so she went to deliver it, but the person no longer lived there. She kept the letter for ten months sealed. Then one day, she opened it.
In the letter someone named Benjamin Birney wrote about life in the United States. Hop wrote to him to say that she’d found his letter on the sidewalk. He wrote back, explaining that a year before, he was visiting his godfather in Vietnam. On the last day of his trip, he met a teenager who showed him around town and asked him to be his pen pal. Hop wrote back. She was 21 studying to become an English teacher. Maybe she could be his pen pal instead?
Ben typed his letters. Hop wrote hers by hand in pen. They wrote about once a month for four years before Ben typed and Hop read: “I love you.” Hop tried to get a tourist visa to come meet him in the United States, but it was denied. Ben went back to Vietnam, and they traveled the county together for a month. Hop was often giving him Vietnamese lessons in a notebook so when he wrote in the notebook: “Will you marry me,” she translated it for him: “Em sẽ cưới anh chứ," but then he pulled a ring out of his backpack. Thrilled, nervous and surprised, she said, “Yes.”
When Ben left Vietnam that first time, before the letter Hop found had even been written, his godfather gave him a painting by a popular Vietnamese artist. When Hop finally arrived at Ben’s house in the U.S., a fiancé visa in her purse, she could not believe what she saw. The painting his godfather had given him was of the exact location where she’d found the letter: at the arch in front of the Temple of Literature.