Have you ever watched a movie and come away from it saying, "I am going to visit that place?" I have. The memory of the jade waters of Halong Bay in the film 'Indochine' stayed with me long after the credits had faded. A couple of years later when a friend came home raving about Vietnam her enthusiasm was enough to propel me into action and I booked a holiday.
Vietnam sends you into sensory overload. The sounds of ever -honking horns, the smells of fish sauce and lemon grass, the chaos and maelstrom of people continuously on the move, the spectacular scenery and the friendliness of the people - all of it sucks you into its welcoming vortex.
Vietnam has a rich and varied history stretching way, way back, thousands of years before its protracted civil war. Yet in the Western World it's probably most remembered for that war. In 1975 many orphaned Vietnamese babies were flown out of the country in cardboard boxes and adopted by families around the western world. These babies are now adults and many of them search for relatives in Vietnam with scant information available to them.
Australia has many aid programs operating in Vietnam and that got me thinking about a romance set in this beautiful country. Why would a person want to come and work overseas in a third world country? That question was the seed of this story.
Bec, an Australian nurse, comes to Vietnam determined to help the children of the country and escape the memory of her own troubled childhood. She has decided that it's safest not to love and is creating an independent life for herself.
But she meets Tom, a dedicated doctor. He is Eurasian. Born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, and feeling as if he does not belong in either country, he is working in Vietnam and trying to trace his birth mother. He feels his life is on hold until he knows more about himself.
Together they challenge each other's beliefs about themselves as they travel around Vietnam dealing with medical emergencies virtually unknown in the western world and sadly, only too common in Vietnam.
Just as Halong Bay with its limestone Karsts and jade green sea wove its magic over me, it weaves a special magic over Tom and Bec. But is magic enough to keep them together?
I hope you enjoy travelling vicariously through Vietnam and perhaps you might book yourself a holiday there as well. Let me know!
Rain tumbled from the sky, a wall of pure water - the response of humidity finally reaching breaking point. Bec Monahan automatically tilted her head up enjoying the refreshing coolness on her face and sighed.
Hanoi traffic, chaotic under perfect conditions, would now be at grid lock. No point getting a taxi. She glanced around. No cylos either - all the drivers had retreated to shelter. Damn.
Pulling her Non La forward she smiled at the varied uses of the traditional Vietnamese conical hat. Just an hour ago she'd been using it as a fan and a much needed sunshade. Now it doubled as an umbrella. It also screamed tourist or country hick in the emerging cosmopolitan city.
She didn't care. She had no use for designer clothes. One Milan designer dress could feed four children for a year in Vietnam. Two days after arriving and sweating in tight western clothing, she'd adopted the local dress of light cotton trousers and a long sleeve blouse. Practical, comfortable and plain. She stood out enough just by being Australian and this way she drew less attention. She'd learned from an early age it was safer to fade into the background.
She peered at the scrawled address watching the rain make the blue ink run. She bit her lip and sent up a hopeful plea that this time the address was correct. Tracking down Dr Thông had turned into a marathon.
Weaving her way around the impromptu food stalls and parked motorcycles, she turned into a street clearly marked by an enamelled street sign, a legacy from the French occupation. She stopped abruptly, her skin shivering, a wave of goose bumps rose in warning.
A dead end narrow lane. Always have an escape route.
Life with her father had taught her that. Never let yourself be cornered. She breathed in deeply. This was a leafy suburb of Hanoi. But you know what leafy suburbs can hide.
Bec started and turned.
A young man with an umbrella came toward her, concern crossing his face.
'Bác si˜. Doctor.' Bec repeated the oft-said phrase wondering how bad her accent sounded to the locals.
The young man grinned a trademark, wide Vietnamese smile and pointed to the gate in the high wall at the end of the lane. 'He is there.'
Bec smiled, nodding her head in thanks, and ran the last few metres to the gate. Her heart hammered in her chest with anticipation. Finally, after two days of searching, she was making progress. Since arriving in Vietnam on holidays she'd had an increasing sense of needing to contribute to this glorious yet poverty stricken country. To do something for the children of Vietnam. At night she lay in bed and tried to work out the best way to help. One week ago she'd decided that a clinic that combined health and education was the best way to go.
Healthy children had a greater capacity to learn and children who had access to education had a greater chance to improve their life. Education opened up options even if it was just the option to flee an unsafe situation.
She'd used that option.
Now she wanted to give other kids the same chance. Australia had a lot of established services for children and Vietnam didn't. She hoped to use the ties Australia had with this emerging nation to her advantage.
But trying to work out how to start the process of working with the health department and the education department had almost defeated her. Each bureaucrat fobbed her off with, "talk to Dr Thông". She had no idea who this doctor was but she was pinning her hopes on him. He must hold the key to her plan.
The heavy gate closed behind her. Suddenly she was in a tranquil courtyard; the noise and hustle of Hanoi receded to barely a buzz. Only the sound of heavy rain on the pavers broke the peaceful serenity of this haven.
The French villa stood before her, an imperial old lady with faded beauty, her green shutters closed against the rain. Bec swore she could hear whispered stories of a life of decadent elegance before years of turmoil. She shook her head against a feeling of light-headedness. The heat and humidity must be getting to her. Soaked to the skin she tugged on the old door pull and a bell sounded in the distance.
She waited. The bell rang out. Silence descended.
Her stomach growled - hunger gnawing at nothing as anticipatory acid burned her gut. She'd given away her breakfast of rice soup to a homeless child. She'd planned to grab something else but had got sidetracked with her search. The world tilted slightly and she realised it was now mid-afternoon. Stupid. She needed to be on top of things when she met Dr Thông.
She pulled the bell again, her hand gripping the pulley tightly for support.
The bell chimed loud and long. Footsteps sounded.
Bec bowed her head and breathed in a calming breath. This is it.
The door creaked open and stilted Vietnamese swirled around her, the accent clumsy and unfamiliar.
She looked up quickly, her practiced greeting dying on her lips.
She'd been expecting a short, Vietnamese doctor. Instead, a tall, broad shouldered man with designer tousled black hair filled the doorway, a backpack slung casually over one shoulder. He wore a well-known surfing-brand T-shirt, the spun cotton clinging like a second skin to a toned chest and strong, muscular arms. A shadow of dark stubble highlighted a strong jaw and a firm mouth.
An unexpected quiver spread through her, racing down to her toes. She shook her head. She really needed some food. Blinking, she took another look at him through the rain. A sigh of dismay escaped her lips as her heart sank. This golden skinned man belonged on a beach. He had tourist written all over him. He couldn't possibly be Dr Thông.
Large, oval eyes, the colour of dark chocolate, studied her intently. 'Can I help you?'
The Australian accent stunned her and she searched for her voice. 'I'm sorry; I think I've been directed to the wrong place. I'm looking for Dr. Thông.'
An ironic smile passed over high cheekbones. 'That's me, I'm Tom. It's written 'Thông', but pronounced Tom. Tom Bracken.' He hitched his backpack further up his shoulder. 'I'm also just leaving so you're best to try the French hospital.'
Her brain stalled at his smile, driving away the confused thoughts of why he sounded and looked so Australian. She forced herself to focus. 'No, I'm not sick.'
'Glad to hear it. I'll be back in a few weeks so make an appointment with my housekeeper.'
Panic simmered in her belly. Don't let him leave. 'I need to talk to you about the orphans.'
He stiffened. 'Are you a journalist?'
She shook her head confused, her mind racing to find a succinct sentence to make an impression on him to stop him leaving. 'I'm a nurse.'
'Great. Again, try the French hospital.' He moved forward, towering over her meagre five-foot and two inches.
She clenched her fists against the surge of unwanted fear that twisted inside her as she looked up at him. 'You don't understand. I'm not looking for a job.'
'So, you're not sick, you're not looking for a job and you're not a journalist.' His black eyebrows rose in a perfect arch. 'Why do you need to see me?'
She swallowed hard knowing what she said next would either delay him or see him marching through the gate. 'I have a mission and I need your help to do it right.'
Don't stop, you'll miss your plane. Tom's grip on the door handle instinctively lessened as an irrational need to listen to this woman's story clashed with his desire to leave immediately. Something in her voice made him pause. Energy and vitality rolled off her in waves, matched with a steely determination. Her chin jutted upward ever so slightly as she stood her ground. He recognized that stance. He'd seen photos of himself doing the same thing.
When he'd opened the door and seen a petite woman in plain Vietnamese dress, with her head bowed against the rain, he'd immediately assumed she was a patient who'd been given the wrong address. Then she'd raised her face. The rush of heat that whipped through him when her violet-blue eyes caught his gaze still simmered inside him.
He'd never seen eyes that colour before. They reminded him of his mother's spring irises, the purple-blue flowers she insisted on growing despite the heat of the Australian bush.
And yet shadows lurked amongst the sparkle of vibrant colour. For a brief moment he had a crazy desire to chase those shadows away.
You don't have time for this, the pilot has a timetable. Ever since he'd been interviewed on local television, people had started approaching him requesting his time for his perspective on health, and requesting his support for their own projects. And the local government officers referred anyone who asked about starting health programs to him. He'd tried to convince them not to, but to no avail. He was flat out keeping up with his own patients and clinics, let alone taking on other people's work. His patients came first every time. Thank goodness Jason, the PR person for "Health For Life", was due back from his extended leave next week. He couldn't wait to hand all this admin stuff over and get back to completely focusing on medicine and reviewing the rural outreach projects. He'd been jealously watching the other staff heading out around the country. Although he enjoyed the Hanoi hospital work, he'd missed his outreach work and the chance to assess new projects.
Water trickled down his neck, the droplets jerking him back to the present. For the first time since opening the door he realized it was raining. Remember the plane.
Dragging his gaze away from her mesmerizing eyes, he countered the nagging voice inside his head. Five minutes is all this will take. 'Ms…?
'Monahan. Rebecca Monahan but please, call me Bec.'
He smiled. 'You better come in out of the rain, Bec.'
'Thank you, I thought you'd never ask.' She took off her hat and long chestnut hair streaked with sun-kissed blonde cascaded down around her shoulders.
He stood stock still, staring at her, completely captivated.
With a flick of her head, water bounced off her hair, spraying him. She giggled then smiled broadly, her face creasing in delicious laughter lines. 'Sorry, the monsoon and I are still adjusting to each other.'
She stepped forward, stopping abruptly when he didn't move, leaving a wide space between them. A flash of something lit her eyes and faded as fast as it had appeared.
He tried to catch it and read it, but it had vanished.
She tilted her head and raised her brows, her mouth pursing slightly. 'May I come in?'
Concentrate, Tom. 'Of course, sorry.' He moved back, dropping his pack to the floor.
She walked into the entrance foyer slightly favouring her left leg.
Tien, his housekeeper, used to people arriving at all different times of the day and night, silently appeared holding a towel which she handed to Bec.
'Oh, dear, I'm dripping all over your floor.'
His country hospitality, drummed into him by his mother came to the fore. 'Don't worry, that's why we have ceramic floors. Would you like some lemon juice and water or tea? Something to eat?'
'Yes, please, I'm completely starving.' The moment she spoke she clapped her hands over her mouth like a child who believed she'd said the wrong thing. 'I'm sorry, I don't want to put you out.'
'Not at all. In Vietnam it's mandatory to over feed all guests.' He grinned. 'Tien will be thrilled she has a willing recipient.' Will you listen to yourself? Find out what she wants, and send her on her way.
He ushered her into the sitting room. 'So tell me about your mission?'
Her eyes sparkled like a child's, all innocence and wonder. 'I want to start a clinic and kindergarten for children.'
He suppressed a groan. He'd just given into a crazy moment of attraction and let his guard down. Stupid.
Normally he was attuned to all the signs but somehow he'd let a naïve "do-gooder" into his house. He'd met plenty of people like this. They thought they could arrive from the west and change the world overnight.
A Woman to Belong To, is an outstanding romantic novel written by one M&B's fastest rising stars. Fiona Lowe writes with plenty of depth, sensitivity and heart as she transports her readers to the wonderful cities of Vietnam where she shines a light on the problems which the local people are facing without being preachy or didactic.
A Woman to Belong To is a beguiling tale of hope, providence and second chances that will warm your heart and leave you eagerly anticipating the next emotional heart stopper by the supremely talented Fiona Lowe!