Sydney Jones sat in her small apartment’s living room, scrolling through Facebook for the umpteenth time today. Since the apartment’s only window opened to face a lovely slum alley and a 12-story building with no attractive features on its design, social media was her only true view of the outside world. It also didn’t help too much that she never left her tiny home. You see, many years ago, Sydney was diagnosed with agoraphobia, the fear of leaving home. Or, as Sydney’s therapist whom she met with once a week via Skype explained, it was the fear of having an anxiety attack in uncontrollable circumstances. And since the one place a person feels the most in control is in their own home, Sydney chose to never leave.
She decided it was time to get off her phone and put away the groceries that had been delivered an hour ago, the same items delivered at the same time every week. Sydney had the same standing order with the grocery store’s online delivery service for the past two years. As she put the cans of chicken broth away in the cabinet, she remembered she needed to call and refill her prescription for her anxiety meds. They would send them over to her apartment the same as they had for as long as Sydney can remember. Without them, Sydney felt she had zero control over herself and her surroundings, resulting in an absolute mental breakdown of catastrophic proportions.
About twenty minutes later she had finished putting the food away and ordered her anxiety medication. She had just sat back down to look at the outside world via Instagram photos when her phone began to ring instead. It was a number she had never seen before but did look like it was from her city, so she answered it.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Hello, is this Sydney Jones?” the unknown caller asked.
“Yes, this is she. Who is this?”
“This is Barbara at the law office of Smithson and Smithson.”
“Law office?” Sydney could think of no reason for a law office to be calling her.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s in regards to the death of your grandfather, Mr. Derek Reid.”
Sydney was taken aback. “He died in March of 1975, just before the Vietnam War ended.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know. It actually has more to do with the death of another man who just passed away 2 weeks ago, but the connection to you is your grandfather,” Barbara tried to explain.
“What are you talking about? What man? Who died?” Sydney had never been more confused in her life.
“His name is Long Nguyen. He passed away 2 weeks ago at the age of 82. Our firm was contacted because in his will, he left what he referred to as his “greatest possession” to the descendant of Derek Reid, which would be you,” Barbara continued with her explanation. “Apparently when your grandfather was in Vietnam fighting in the war, he met Mr. Nguyen. Nothing in the will or information I’ve been given details how your grandfather knew him or why Mr. Nguyen chose his descendant for this possession, or even what the possession to inherit is. Only that it should go to the descendant of Derek Reid, which is you, Ms. Jones.”
“This is bizarre,” was the only response Sydney could come up with. She drew a breath to consol herself. “Fine, I guess just have them send whatever the “great possession” is to my apartment and I’ll take a look at it.
“Well, there is one stipulation for getting the inheritance, Ms. Jones. You actually have to go to Vietnam to claim it.”
“What?! Are you crazy? I’m not going to Vietnam!” Sydney couldn’t believe that she would even suggest that she do that.
“I’m afraid that’s the only way, Ms. Jones. The will specifically said it had to be Derek Reid’s descendant and you are the only one there is. If you don’t go and claim it, it will go to no one.”
“But you don’t even know what it is! It could be something completely worthless. Or a joke. Is this a joke? Or it could be a trap. That’s what they probably did to my grandfather in the first place! That’s why he died over there! That’s why I never even got to meet him! Why should I go to the country that killed him for the inheritance of a man I’ve never met!” Sydney was heated. She could stand no more of this nonsense. She hung up the phone without another word.
She went about the rest of her day still heated, repeating the absurd conversation back to herself audibly, trying to see if it would make more sense as time went on. It didn’t. As evening approached, she made herself some green tea to settle down for the night. She took her tea to the bedroom and went to grab one of the many books on her bookshelf. As she scanned the shelves for one she hadn’t read in a while, her eyes landed on a photo album tucked away in the top right corner. It was one that her mother had given to her when she was in high school, before her parents were killed in a car accident. That accident had been the primary trigger in her agoraphobia. Looking at the pictures of days gone by caused her pain, so she avoided it. But the conversation on the phone from earlier somehow made her want to see her family again.
She pulled the album down and sat down on the bed, flipping through the photos. She paused when she got to a very old one, one from before she was born. It was a picture of her grandfather standing in front of a noodle shop in Vietnam in his army uniform. He was smiling, like he was happy to be there. She took the photo out to look at it more closely. She didn’t understand how he could be smiling in such a treacherous place, the place that took his life before she was born. As she fingered it, she turned it over and saw words on the back she had never realized were there. Her mother had given her the photo already in the album, and she had never needed to take it out before.
The words were a letter on the back of the photo from her grandfather. He must have written them before he sent the photo to her mom. Sydney did her best to make out the faded letters from so many years ago: “My dearest May, how I miss you so. You’re going to be so big by the time I come back to you. Every day I tell Uncle Long about my precious girl. He always reminds me that family is everything. I hope to see you very soon. All my love, Daddy.”
But he didn’t get to see his daughter May soon. In fact, he never saw her again. Family is everything, but it’s hard to be a family when the dad is on the other side of the world. Speaking of family, who is Uncle Long? Sydney had never heard of a Great Uncle Long in her family. Then she remembered the name of the Vietnamese man who left her a supposed fortune. Long Nguyen. Could he be the Uncle Long her grandfather mentioned on the photo? But why would her grandfather call the Vietnamese man uncle? Sydney had so many questions, and she knew she would never know the answers. Unless she made an insane decision. There was only one way. “Family is everything.” If that was true, she owed this to her grandfather who died defending their nation.
She picked up the phone and dialed the most recent call. “Hello, Barbara? This is Sydney Jones. Umm...I guess….how do I get to Vietnam?”
The next morning, to Sydney’s bewilderment, she found herself packing her suitcase for the 4:00 pm flight to Vietnam. She would fly from California to Beijing to Hanoi to her final destination: Ha Long. What would she find there? She had no idea. As the departure time approached, Sydney felt the need to up her dosage of anxiety medication. She packed extra just in case, since she had no idea how long this would take. She just wanted to get there, claim her inheritance in honor of her grandfather, and get back to the safety of her apartment.
The time came to leave the apartment, sooner than Sydney had wanted. She stood at the door, bags in hand, just staring at it as if she was waiting for it to open itself and transport her effortlessly to another country. Since that wasn’t happening, Sydney knew it was time to do something she hadn’t done in years: leave her apartment. She put her hand on the doorknob, took a deep breath, and twisted her wrist. The door pulled open, she looked around in the hallway, and pulled her feet up and forward to step outside. They say the first step is the hardest, and Sydney was really hoping that would be true. As she made her way to the street, hailed a taxi, and drove to the airport, she began to realize it wasn’t. If leaving her apartment was like Frodo leaving the Shire, making her way through the international airports was Frodo climbing Mount Doom. Even if she wasn’t diagnosed with anxiety, airports would still cause that reaction. Nevertheless, after multiple transfers, sleepless plane rides, and 35 hours of breathing into a bag, she somehow landed safely in Ha Long, Vietnam.
Ha Long City in northern Vietnam wasn’t well-known for the city itself. But it was a bit famous for Ha Long Bay which showcased a large number of limestone island mountains protruding from the water and topped with lush rainforests. Every day, people took boats tours around the bay to look at the mountains and stop at a few for cave tours. As a UNSECO World Heritage site, it was protected from any developments that might take away from the natural beauty of the limestone wonders. But Sydney wasn’t here for sightseeing. She was here for answers and the quicker she found them, the quicker she could be on plane back home.
Arriving in Ha Long City, the limestone mountains were not the first thing Sydney was distracted by. As she was driven around by a Grab taxi, she stared mesmerized and intimidated by the culture outside the car window. Noodle shops were open on every block, accompanied by street carts selling baguette sandwiches. The letters on the signs looked like English characters but with lots of extra dashes and v’s above them, making it impossible for Sydney to know how they were supposed to be pronounced. Little old ladies stood outside their vegetable stands, ready to sell. Kids played in the streets without a care in the world. This was not how Sydney had pictured Vietnam in her mind. Granted, anytime she had thought about Vietnam it had been thoughts of the war that claimed her grandfather. But this no longer seemed like a war-torn country.
She was driven to the building where she was to meet the lawyer who would explain, hopefully, what exactly she was doing here. As the driver pulled up to the address, though, Sydney felt that she must be in the wrong place. This did not look like the building a law firm would be in. It was plain, unusually plain for people like lawyers. Sydney felt uneasy going into the old, dark building. But the driver assured her it was correct. At least she thought that’s what he said. It was all in Vietnamese and pointing to the building. So Sydney went inside. Thankfully a woman was waiting for her as she walked in.
“Hello! You are Ms. Jones?” the nicely dressed woman asked in English with her natural accent.
“Umm...yes. I am. I guess that means I’m in the right place?”
“Yes, of course! Please, come with me,” as she ushered Sydney to the elevator which they took to the 3rd floor. They made their way down the dimly lit hallway to the office, which was surprisingly well-furnished on the inside. Sydney was beginning to see that outward looks could be deceiving in Vietnam. The office was actually quite beautiful.
“Please be seated,” the woman requested. As Sydney did so, the woman pulled a file off of her desk. “I have here the will for Mr. Long Nguyen. It includes the details of the inheritance he left for you.”
“Great, just give me whatever it is and I will gladly take it with me back to the States and we can close the door on all of this,” Sydney replied impatiently.
“Oh, I cannot do that, Ms. Jones.’
“I’m sorry? Why not?”
“You see, the inheritance is apparently up on top of one of the mountains in Ha Long Bay. You must go there to receive it.”
“Are you kidding?” Sydney was done. “I already flew to Vietnam when I don’t even leave my apartment. I’m not going up some mountain in the middle of the water!”
“Then I’m afraid you’ve come all the way to Vietnam for nothing, ma’am. It’s the only way. You’ve come so far. What’s the little further going to hurt?”
“It could hurt a lot,” Sydney sighed. “Fine. How do I get there?”
“A good friend of mine, Minh, has a boat and will take you to the mountain. There is a staircase built to help you climb to the top.”
“This is ridiculous. I just want to go and get this over with and get back home,” Sydney whined.
“Minh is ready when you are. I can call him and tell him you would like to go immediately.”
“Alright, let’s go then.”
About 30 minutes later, Sydney found herself climbing aboard the Dragon to meet Mr. Mihn. and he was very excited to see her.
“Ah, Ms. Jones! So happy to see you! Welcome, welcome!” Minh exclaimed, shaking her hand violently with a giant smile across his face.
“Uh, thank you, Mr. Mihn. How long will it take to get to this mountain? I was hoping to have this all wrapped up by tonight.”
“Oh, not long, not long. The trip is only about 2 hours to Reid Mountain. And you have a wonderful view on the way there!”
“Great. Let’s go then.” The boat took off onward. “Wait, did you say Reid Mountain?” Sydney did a double take.
“Oh, yes! It was named after our grandfather, Mr. Derek Reid. Everyone loved him here! He always smiled and bought banh sandwiches for the children.”
Sydney was flabbergasted. “My grandfather actually lived here?” All she had thought of was his fighting the war here, not making friends.
“Of course! He was welcomed in our community! His best friend was Nguyen Long. They did everything together.”
As the boat ride continued, Mihn told Sydney the stories he had heard of Derek and Long and the lasting impact her grandfather had made on the community. It turns out that even though he was there fighting a war, it didn’t stop him from seeing the good in the people of Vietnam and falling in love with them. The people in turn fell in love with him, so profoundly that they dedicated one of the limestone giants in the water to him.
Within a few hours, the Dragon drew up on said giant. Reid Mountain towered high above the water, covered with luscious greenery. “Now we need to get to the top,” Mihn motioned upward.
“How exactly do we do that?” Sydney questioned, staring toward the sky.
“Mr. Long and Mr. Derek had built a staircase to the top.”
“Why? What’s up there?”
Mihn smiled with a twinkle in his eye. “You must climb up and see for yourself.”
They set off and up the mountain. Thankfully, the staircase was built well and the climb was not too difficult. As they reached the top, they beheld a small but gorgeous house, custom built for simple luxury. “Whose house is this?” Sydney asked.
“It belonged to Mr. Long. I believe there is a note for you on the table inside. Go in and read it. I will wait for you out here.”
“This is way too mysterious for my liking,” Sydney said as she reluctantly entered the house in search of the letter.
Inside, she found a wooden table in the center of the living room. She picked it up and read: “Hello, you must be the descendant of Derek Reid, my best friend. We built this house together and since his passing, I have missed him greatly. I have no children of my own, so I believe the right thing to do is pass this house, and this mountain, on to you. Please take good care of it. It was built with great friendship, and the only thing greater than friendship is family. Family is everything. Signed, Long Nguyen.”
Sydney took the letter and stepped back outside. “Well?” Mihn asked curiously. Sydney looked out at the bay from the top of the mountain. Never once had she thought she would be in a place like this. Never once did she imagine her grandfather loving Vietnam and its people. Never once did she think she might also feel at home in such a place.
“I think….I think I have to stay.” She looked back at Mihn. “My grandfather helped build this place and invest in the people here. I never got to know my grandfather and I think being here, it’s my one chance to do so. I’ll keep my inheritance. I’ll keep this house. I’ll help my grandfather’s legacy live on.”
Mihn smiled wide. “I was hoping you would say that. Welcome to your new home.”
And Sydney never set foot back in her old apartment again.