In 1995, there was a little village in the South-North of Vietnam. A young couple and their three children lived in a little house. Their house was neither up to the top nor down to the bottom of the mountain. Their three children, the daughter was 10, the middle son was 8, and their youngest son was 4. In this new development area of the village, which used to be a corn mountain. As there were more people in the village, they expanded the village. The commune sold corn lands to people so they could build their homes.

Early buyers would get beautiful locations around the foot of the mountain. These precious locations would give their family well enough water for the year round. The houses, which were located a bit high up to the top of the mountain, would have dry wells for at least three months of the year. These families then had to get their water from the village wells. These wells were big, and near the wet rice fields or rivers, so they would be full of water for the villagers. People carried water five to ten times a day in buckets for their daily use. Kids often helped their parents carry water home while their parents were at work.

The kitchen in those days was often made of bamboo walls or mud mixed with rice straws.

In the village, people who had a bit of money would have tie roofs for their main house, kitchen, and the pig house. Many families only could afford a tie roof for their main house. Other buildings had thatched roofs.
The couple had their pig house made of brick walls and a hatched roof, and the kitchen leaned on the pig house with bamboo walls and a hatched roof. They were out in the mountain or field almost every day. They grew corn in the mountain, rice in the fields, and beans weaved in the corn fields. These were foods to feed their family and poultry.

They left their children at home alone. Kids looked after themselves. In the new development areas where they lived were often young families with kids like them.

People left their kids at home and went to work. The older ones looked after, the younger ones. In some families, their children were even only around five to six years old. But, these five to six years old kids looked after their one-year-old brother or sister.

One day in late March, when the weather was chilly and dry, the empty well season, as they called it. It was a weekend, so the kids were home, not at school. The couple left home early, and their children were at home. As usual, the older sister looked after her brothers and prepared dinner before their parents came home after work.

The older sister took her brothers to her friends’ houses – her neighbours. That day she spent more time with her friend and left her brothers to play with each other next to a nearby pond.

People used rice straws and wood branches for cooking.

While she was playing hide and seek game with her friend across the road from her house. She heard her youngest brother call out softly from their house: “Sister, I have something to tell you, can you please come home”. The sister answered, “just tell me, I am playing, I am not going to go home now”. Then, the little brother was quiet again. A few minutes later, her brother started to call again, “could you please come home, I need to tell you this thing”.

The sister had the same answer for her little brother. Then, she looked up to her house from her friend’s garden. She saw a big smoke from the side of the house. She quickly jumped through the garden fence and rushed home. She saw her little brother in the middle of the kitchen with a fire had already caught on the roof. The kitchen walls and a corner of the roof were on fire. The corner near where her brother stood with the roof frame almost collapsed. The little four-year-old was coughing and trying to put the fire out.

The sister quickly pulled her brother out and called out for help. It happened during the planting season. Adults were out in the field, and no one was around. Four kids from two families ran out to help. They carried buckets of water from their houses. They tried to put the fire out themselves. Seven of them, aged 4 to 10, in their instinct, when they saw the fire, and they must put it out. No matter how big or small.

The fire was now on the roof, those kids were determined, but they put themself in danger. Nobody was there to tell them to stop. Luckily one old man was on his way home from the rice field and saw the situation. He yelled out and ordered the kids to be away from the fire. He quickly told them to carry water to him, so he could put out the fire on the roof.

“Distant water will not quench a fire nearby” was an idiom in Vietnamese, and it was correct in the situation that day. Those kids and the old man were determined to put out the fire, but the kids did not run quickly enough from the village wells to the couple’s house. After an hour of fighting the fire, they managed to turn off the blade. But the kitchen was completely destroyed by the fire, only ashes left. They were glad that the fire did not catch the pig house.

When the couple came home, water remained on the kitchen floor, and some little smokes were still around. They were terrified and asked their kids what had happened. By then, they all had a chance to ask the little boy. He told them he was playing near the pond and fell into the water. His clothes were wet, so, he came home and started a fire to dry his clothes. But, the fire then caught to the rice straw bund nearby. It got bigger and bigger, and he tried to use the water in the bucket to put out the fire, but it did not work.

He called his sister… but she did not come home… The couple could imagine that their little boy was in the middle of the burning kitchen. They knew that it was dangerous to leave their kids at home or let their kids prepare meals. But their kids still had to look after themselves and cook dinners before they came home. Because they often came home so late. They had to work to be able to feed their family.

The mother turned to their daughter and talked to her firmly, “your job is to look after your brothers, not play with your friend, so please make sure that you keep an eye on them”.

As you can imagine, their kitchen was made of bamboo walls and hatched roofs. These materials are the right food to feed the fire. Well, the couple quickly built a small kitchen in the corner of their front yard, away from the pig house and their house. They told their kids to be careful when they were in the kitchen. And if there was the fire again, left it and let the kitchen burn, just got out of the kitchen.

Many families had the same stories in the village in those days. Adults went to work, and kids were at home and prepared meals for the family. Kids burned the kitchen while they were preparing meals. Many more families had their kitchen in the corner of the yard or the middle of nowhere (away from the main house). It seemed like parents told their kids the same thing: “Get out of the kitchen and let it burn if there were a fire, don’t try to fix it”.

That was one of my childhood stories. I was the oldest sister. I still remember my little brother was so little compared to the kitchen, but he tried to put out the big flame himself.

I wouldn’t dare to think about the situation if I did not come home quickly enough. After that day, I was more careful with my brothers… but we still had many more adventurous childhood stories to tell…

More childhood stories from Vietnam are at: