Memories and Inspiration: Women in Vietnam
"Where you from?" She asked me. I didn't have time to respond, as she had already moved on to other queries. "How old is you? Children? You want hat? Fan? Umbrella?" I shook my head, as words were unlikely to break through the dense fog of questions. I stared quizzically as the tiny Vietnamese lady stood on the balls of her feet, straining to look into my eyes. I blinked profusely as beads of sweat and raindrops appeared like bulbs on my brow - apparently a typical welcome to Hanoi in rainy season.
Eventually, she realised this approach wasn’t working and began to tell me about herself in broken nuggets of English, sitting on one of the uneven slabs of pavement and motioning me to join her. We were now on level terms, and she could look me in the eye without great hardship. She was 36 (but looked older) and had seven children. At first, I was struck by the gulf of cultural difference between us - her status as mother and street hawker seemingly a world away from my existence as a single woman living in London. But, while we sat and giggled as dusk began to settle and motorbike lights began to buzz around the streets like fireflies, it occurred to me that the cliché of female kinship perhaps contained some truth. And as my trip wore on I would see how Vietnam, despite its more recent emergence as an Asian tiger economy, retained the role of women at the centre of a communal society.
I have to confess, thoughts on motherhood and female relationships were already swirling through my head before my feet had even touched the tarmac of Hanoi International. The day before leaving for my Vietnamese sojourn, I learned that a woman I held dear - the mother of one of my best friends and someone who had always treated me as part of her family - had days to live. I would not see her again.
“In my contemplation, the spectre of motherhood (in all its forms) followed me through Vietnam, from the mountainous tips that hugged the Chinese border to the sweaty delta down south.”
As memories of my ‘second mum’ ebbed and flowed through my mind, I could not help but draw parallels with the fascinating women I met along the way.
Vietnam's unique, challenging story is one where community and womanhood are intertwined. The war with the US is one of the more recent sore points in a backdrop of invasion and political turbulence. With a prominent gender gap still evident two generations after the US war, the number of women of working age far outstrips that of men. As a consequence, women have had to balance traditional responsibilities with hard labour. From Hanoi to Saigon, women juggle children and long working hours, as well as cooking great feasts on street pavements and looking after their elders. This enormous social contribution of women seems to also be uniquely recognised: there is an annual national Women's Day, as well as the hugely active Vietnam Women's Union. Visible and vital, the busy lives of these women made my usual groans about ‘never having enough time’ seem insignificant.
In the northern borderland of Sapa, I met Xe, a grandmother in her late fifties from the Hmong tribe. A mountain guide, babysitter, carer, cook, confidante to her daughter-in-laws, tiller of paddy fields and weaver of beautiful deep blue garments - she really did do it all! To the east of Hanoi, in the awe-inspiring limestone crags of Bai Tu Long, local grandmothers cared for humble guesthouses and ailing ex-fishermen husbands. In the metropolitan sprawl of Saigon, middle aged ladies arrange mass aerobics sessions in public parks (such as Lei Loi in District 1) where they would unwind after a long day at work, bring their children and gossip, before going home to prepare a family meal.
As I talked to the unnamed street seller at the side of a busy Hanoi street, at the very beginning of my journey, I had no idea this meeting would be the gateway to many other sources of female inspiration and how deeply I would come to associate this with Vietnam. That night, underneath the orange street lights and balmy sky, it simply transported me home, to growing up and to memories of my ‘second mum’. Some things, it seems, are universal.