“Liar liar, pants on fire!” she said in fluent English.
“Who taught you how to say that?” I asked in astonishment.
“The tourists. They are liar liar, pants on fire! They say they will buy later and they never buy!”
I was very impressed with her excellent command of English and how confident she was when she spoke. She picked up the language, even slangs and idioms, simply by interacting with foreigners everyday.
Like many young children, seven-year-old Linh, left her village to work in the beautiful touristy town called Sapa in Northern Vietnam. Along with other girls her age, she stays at a boarding house with an older lady that provides her with two meals a day. All day long, she wanders the streets with her friends, selling silver bracelets and handicrafts.
These girls would follow the foreigners all around town – sometimes even tag along on long treks – trying to talk them into buying their handmade products.
Even though I rejected Linh many times, she must have chanted these lines over 10 times, “This is beautiful for you. Or maybe you want to buy this for your loved ones – your mother, father, sister, brother, aunties, uncles, boyfriend, husband, friends? Ok, maybe later?”
While traveling through Southeast Asia, I saw child labor everywhere I went. It’s always a tough decision – to buy or not to buy, to give or not to give. Whenever I buy something from a child, I regret almost immediately because I know that I am not helping her out, but instead I am encouraging her family to continue sending her out to make more money.
“I don’t need anything. I am not going to buy it later either,” I repeatedly reminded her.
But she continued to walk beside me, maybe with hope that I might change my mind. She lent me a helping hand when I needed one as we trekked into the rice fields. I noticed she was only wearing plastic sandals, but she was walking so fast like she’s hopscotching, through the muddy rice terrace.
I enjoyed listening to her stories about the different foreigners she ran into – the generous ones, the mean ones, the crazy ones, the funny ones. She spoke like a middle-aged lady who had been through a lot in life.
She talked about her parents and her three siblings that live three hour away.
“I go home once a month. I will go home soon because my sister is getting married.”
“Oh, how old is she?” I asked.
“16. And her boyfriend is 17. He will come take me home in his motorcycle.”
And she asked me lots of personal questions too, “Where is your husband? You need to get one soon.”
As we chatted away, Linh seemed to have forgotten about her business. She even put away her goods in her pockets and took them out only when she saw new travellers around town. She ran over to say her sales pitch and somehow managed to find me again after she was done.
We continued to enjoy each other’s company until dusk.
Before heading back to my hotel, I stopped by a grocery store to pick up some things. Linh was waiting for me outside. I handed her a pack of Oreo cookies, “Thank you for hanging out with me today. It was fun.”
She said thank you with a shy smile and immediately called out to her friends that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. She shared her snack with everyone.
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?” she asked before running off with her friends. “Ok, I come say good-bye to you!”
I thought she was just saying it, but at 7 the next morning, she was waiting by the entrance of my hotel!
The bus was already loading passengers, so I thank her for coming out so early to see me off and said good-bye.
The driver was backing up the bus and just when the door was about to close, Linh ran to where I was sitting and handed me a tarnished silver bangle with a tiny bell dangling at the end.
“No, I really don’t need it,” I wanted to say but she quickly cut me off and shoved the bracelet in my hand.
“This is for you! No money! Bye! Come see me again!”
She dashed out of the bus as the angry driver screamed at her to get out. I fought back my tears as the bus drove off.
Perhaps it was the encounter with this little girl that made Sapa a special place to me. After nine years, I can still remember her husky voice and the expression on her face as she said, “Liar liar, pants on fire!”