Every time I drink freshly squeezed sugarcane juice (nuoc mia), I reminisce about to the spring of 2002. Mom and I went with to Vietnam in the spring hoping to visit my aunt for the last time. She was fighting metastatic ovarian cancer here in the US but given not long to live, she wanted to spend the rest of her time go back home, to the home of her childhood and memories. But she died a month before we got there so we never really got to say goodbye. So we used that time to visit her burial but also to visit several orphanages around Saigon. This was when I discovered fresh sugarcane juice. I didn’t recall it when i went back in 1998, but now it was ubiquitous, on every street corner. Each cup was about 1000-2000 Dong, at that time about 10-20 cents US. Freshly squeezed with a touch of citrus from kumquats (tac). I devoured it like my life depended on it.
On one occasion, we visited Co Nhi Vien Thien Binh outside of Saigon. This was Catholic orphanage with about 70 kids ranging from 6 months to 18. It was headed by a single priest and self sufficient. The older children grew there own vegetables, tended to livestock. They took turns cooking, doing other chores, and teaching sunday school lessons. When food wasn’t enough, the priest would go around to the surrounding villages asking for food donations. He said there was no government support for orphanages in Vietnam.
Immediately as we stepped inside the orphanage, the priest treated us like royalty. He asked what I wanted to drink and despite my misgivings, my mom chimed that I love nuoc mia. So he immediately sent one of the kids to go bike down the road to bring me back some. Immediately, I wondered if these kids ever enjoyed this ubiquitous nectar that I’ve been drinking on an almost hourly basis? Perhaps, maybe never…
So I immediately asked him how many kids in the orphanage–he replied quizzically, 70. So I said, I “Father, can you please send out more kids and tell them to get 70 bags of nuoc mia, one for each kid?” Before I finished the sentence, I could see the kids hovering around the door squirming excitedly and as soon as the priest gave the ok, they immediately hoped on dilapidated bicycles with the money we gave. Within a short time, they came back, overflowing with nuoc mia in plastic “to go” bags. It was like Christmas in July. They were literally dancing around with joy. Some took small sips and then saved it in empty plastic bottles. Some even shared when others ran out.