The moment of realization was when she picked up a letter intended for me and I could see the strain on her face as she looked at the writing.
I assumed she couldn’t read English but my wife called me aside and explained she couldn’t read or write full stop.
To say I was shocked was an understatement.
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that a reasonably wealthy lady in a developing or third-world country is not equipped with these basic functions but being a westerner we take it as read that everyone has been taught these valuable tools from an early age.
Not so, and later on that day I saw online that Vietnamese people only read an average of 0.8 books per year according to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
So not only is a sizeable proportion of the population unable to read or write, a lot of those citizens that can read don’t.
Now I remember even as a young child loving the thrill of turning a page to find out more adventure, being carried away to some fantastical place and time in history and even hiding future paragraphs so I didn’t spoil the ending.
This wonderment with the written word hasn’t diluted over the years, maybe explaining my vocation in life.
The pen is still a powerful instrument.
I feel angry that the Vietnamese people are being denied this simple but life-changing pleasure.
This is 2013 and despite the wealth that has been created over the centuries this sad fact is a reality.
Of course many businesses and NGOs are getting involved by bringing book fairs to the countryside with farmers in particular admitting in a recent survey they didn’t read any books that is if they could read at all.
Rural children read 0.2-0.8 books/year compared to five books a year for urban kids.
However, there is encouraging news from nearby.
Ten years ago in Malaysia, people on average read only two books a year but by last year the number had increased to 10-20 books and it is increasing still.
When books are digitalized it may mean Việt Nam could catch up quickly but it all comes down to access.
If there are no books to access, what are you going to read apart from maybe newspapers and magazines?
In a country with so much wealth and poverty, the only way kids can get out of the poverty cycle is by education, with reading books a great start on that road.
Most young Vietnamese I meet have a real passion and vibrancy about them and are very keen to learn about the world and different cultures.
Then again, being city-based, normally the brightest and more adventurous and financially-capable types move to the big cities of any country.
It is in the rural areas which need the most help, who knows what gifted young people are out there if they are not given the chance.
The young are by nature curious about what’s going on in the world. We have to inspire them – they need to be inspired.
Reading is a choice.
We choose to read because something leaps out at us from the cover of a book, a recommendation or an image or a dream.
Reading is not always for the dreamers but it does help. Reading can nurture a fertile imagination to follow one’s dreams.
Growing up in the UK I was fascinated by European writers George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexandre Dumas and Americans heavyweights Jack Kerouac and Jack London.
In fact it is suffice to say that reading these giants of the book world shaped my life in many ways.
Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo especially taught me that no matter what life can throw at you, there is always hope and you can rise to greatness in spite of jealousy and obstacles put in your way if there is a strong will and determination and an element of fortune.
Vietnamese kids need a will.
I am not so sure who their modern-day inspirations are but they have to rise above all expectations and kick off a series of contemporary writers to make their nation proud.
Reading breeds writers and they seem to be pretty much barren these days in this new-old country.
Great worlds await you inside the covers.