Old woman and the bridge

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Soothsaying guide presents the past and foretells the future


Tran Thi Dieu, 78, entertains a foreign tourist thanks to her fluent English and fortune-telling skills.

Thuy Thanh Commune boasts an impressive tile-roofed bridge that is such an integral and central part of it that the village itself is now called the Thanh Toan Tile Roofed Bridge Village.

Located in Huong Thuy District in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue, the bridge has become a magnet for tourists, who typically go there in busloads.

After they disembark and take a look around, they come across a local institution as rare as the bridge a soothsaying guide.

The old lady chooses her opportunities carefully. She approaches the tourists with a warm smile right after the initial flurry of photograph-taking is over and they are not sure about what to do next.

Her knowledge of English surprises everyone and piques their interest.

Tran Thi Dieu is 78 years old and very well known in the area since the Hue Festival in 2002, during which her English proficiency came in very handy, as did her fortune-telling skills.

"Hello! Welcome to the Thanh Toan Tile-Roofed Bridge," she says, speaking in fluent English as she introduces the history and architecture of her hometown and that of the Thanh Toan Bridge which was built three centuries ago.

After walking around the site, Dieu takes tourists back to the bridge to relax. "It is cool inside the bridge and good for us to take a rest and even take a nap," she says. And as they settle and relax, she says casually, "Now, who wants their fortunes told?"

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It is a statement that never fails to draw interest and curiosity, especially among young foreigners.

Maris, a young blond-haired woman from the UK, comes and sits near her, wipes her palms and shows them to the old tour guide.

Nobody can hear what Dieu tells her foreign client, but the latter's cheeks turn red and she smiles happily.

Maris said Dieu told her that her palms are full, which means she will have a prosperous life, get married twice and have three children. The 24-year-old woman was also surprised by Dieu's pronouncement that her parents had just divorced, which was true.

Anna, 17, also from UK, is delighted to know about her future love life. "Mrs Dieu told me that I will have a handsome boyfriend, and we will get married and have one son and one daughter. I guess she is right because I am in love and my boyfriend is the most handsome guy in our class."

No matter how much she is paid (from VND2,000-US$100, depending on what the client feels like giving), Dieu, always says, "Thank you very much" and reminds her clients, especially young women, to protect themselves before marriage.

She herself had a daughter with a man married to someone else. The daughter followed suit, having a love child that she left for Dieu to take care of when she got married to her second lover.

"Like Vietnamese, foreigners, especially the young ones, love to know about their future, their career and love life. I don't practice superstitious things, but I say something that makes them happy and optimistic about their future," Dieu said.

However, Dieu refuses to offer the soothsaying service to Vietnamese tourists. She gets out of doing it by telling them she is only able to read the palms of foreigners.

According to Than Ngoc Nghia, a freelance tour guide who often brings tourists to the bridge, Le Thi Dieu herself and her effort to promote the Thanh Toan Bridge is a bonus to the place.

Dieu says that her English fluency comes from years of working as a housemaid for American soldiers before 1975. An American colonel taught her the language so that she could understand his instructions, she says.

She admits, however, that her English is just pidgin English, since she knows nothing about grammar and writing. "That the foreigners understand my English is the most important thing."

For that last 30 years, she has sat at the bridge from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, waiting for tourists.

"I am happy to do the job, though at first, I was afraid I would be a [free] tour guide. Though I didn't have chance to learn English and tourism at school, all foreigners prefer unprofessional local tour guides like me," Dieu says.

She says there are few locals who can speak foreign languages to introduce their hometown landscape and specialties to foreign tourists.

"Village folk face difficulties to do business in tourism when it comes to language," says Dieu, who spends her free time teaching basic English communication to other villagers.

Her efforts are paying off. 

Nguyen Thi Kinh, a tea shopowner near the bridge, says that at first she found it difficult to learn English, but with Dieu's help as well as her daily conversation with foreign tourists, she now can speak a little. "More foreigners visit my shop since I can talk to them."

Dieu just smiles.

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