Where the Heart Is: Quang Binh is my uninteresting yet peaceful shelter

People often ask me where in Vietnam I'm from. "Is it Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh city?’" "Neither."

I am from a small town in the middle of Vietnam, so small and uninteresting that I never explicitly mention it unless people ask.

"I’m from Quang Binh province."

For all my life, I had been trying to get out of this town. When people asked me where I wanted to settle down in the future, the answer would always be: "Anywhere but Quang Binh." When I met people who were not from my hometown, I would keep my sentences as short as possible, trying to hide my heavy accent.

During my time at UBC, although I missed my parents at home, I would either find every possible way to stay in Vancouver or just leave for two weeks. The generic response that gets my parents every time is based on the most common topic of small talk: “Quang Binh’s weather is too extreme, I can’t stand it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought me closer to Quang Binh in an unexpected way. It was December 2020. With the lockdown and school being online in BC, I decided to take a 20-hour urgent flight organized by my country’s government to return home. On my way back, I kept thinking, how am I supposed to spend the next eight months in this province? Would I just stay home all day and occasionally go to the city’s shopping mall, which I used to visit at least once per month with my mom?

As if it could read my complaint, Quang Binh welcomed me with very unpleasant cold, yet humid weather. The province has always been known for having extreme and unpredictable weather, but that year was perhaps one of the worst in history: From October to December in 2020, three destructive and catastrophic floods swept through the area, engulfing thousands of households and roads in water. It broke my heart to read about families whose houses were deep in water and they had no food to survive. Many people lost their lives. Quang Binh once again made its residents question their decision to call this area home.

On my ride home from the airport, I looked out the car’s window, wondering how much Quang Binh might have changed after all these years. As expected, everything was the same except for one thing. There was a new traffic light on the way to my house, adding an extra one minute for people to witness our town.

Although it was only 9 p.m., the area seemed to be preparing to drift into the night. Almost all the shops were closing, the owners busy covering the sign boards, unanimously decorated in red, white and yellow. The only exception was a few of the karaokes and bars, whose neon sign boards were ridiculously colourful to catch the eyes of the city’s night owls.

On the street, people rushed home on their motorbikes, with only express buses and trucks remaining on the roads. They honked as though they wished to increase people’s cholesterol levels.

Quang Binh is known for its hot, dry wind in the summer and its catastrophic floods and storms.

After four months at home, my mother forced me to go for a walk around the neighbourhood in the morning to "breathe some fresh air." The idea caused me great distress since the last time I went out, the only thing I breathed was the unpleasant smell of animal waste and the hot summer morning air.

"Honey, there is this new park behind our house where people are building a new residence area, I’m sure you will love it," my mom reassured me as she saw my pouting face.

I took two extra masks and reluctantly followed my mom. The smell of animal waste hadn’t gone anywhere, but you could feel a mood change.

More people were out. There were groups doing their morning exercise. Some were so busy chatting with their friends that they stopped every five minutes. Some were in an athletic mood, swinging their hands and walking as fast as possible. People were biking with their kids.

This scene was so lively to me that my resistance to the area evaporated. As my mom and I walked, I looked up at the blue and clear sky and breathed in deeply. It was one of the most refreshing and peaceful mornings I’d had in years.

So, what took me so long to notice this majestic beauty? Was it my ignorance and my deep-rooted assumption? Or was it my high expectations? over-expectation, and my hopes that Quang Bing was something other than itself?

Either way, I failed to realize the beauty under the 'boring and never-changing' name tag I assigned to my hometown. In fact, Quang Binh is home to one of UNESCO World Heritage, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park and Son Doong, the largest cave in the world. It’s also about the people of Quang Binh. During the historic flood in 2020, the residents, regardless of strangers or relatives, tried their best to have each other’s back by sharing food and shelter.

Quang Binh, perhaps, is trying to preserve its warm heart and beauty for those who are patient enough to find out.