Day 1: Friday, July 21, 2017
It is currently 6:03p and it is taking every ounce of willpower to not fall asleep for four more hours. Trang let me take a 30-minute nap – probably because she was also tired – and when the alarm went off, made me sit up before falling back asleep herself. She is very trusting.
My first day in Vietnam is wrapping up and I feel like I won’t have room in my stomach to eat anything else for the rest of the month. My first meal was chicken pho when Trang and her dad picked me up from the airport last night. It was my first time trying pho and the hype did not disappoint. Sitting in that restaurant corner, I was struck by a comforting sense of my last few weeks at home: a couple speaking Spanish behind me, the cilantro, chili and lime in my noodles. But it’s too early to be homesick or nostalgic.
When we arrived at Trang’s home, a four-story row house, I said hello to her mother the way Trang had taught me on the car ride there and met her sister, Thu. Took a much-needed shower/bath and fell asleep to the sound of motorcycles and a baby crying across the street, under a mosquito net with Trang and Thu in their bed.
We entered the city this morning at 7:30a and I had my face pressed to the window of Thu’s car the whole time. Trang laughs at me every time I reach to put my seatbelt on in the backseat. Everyone honks constantly, there are more motorcycles than space in the road and the lanes are apparently just a suggestion. In the newer part of Hanoi, the buildings are unsystematically stacked four to five stories high, apartment on top of Vietnamese billboard on top of balcony on top of restaurant.
Breakfast was porridge with pulled pork and fried dough from the street and iced coffee from Tom’s café – a total of about $2. The porridge was savory and I would definitely have it again (it’s like oatmeal, but smoother and more finely ground). Vietnam is known for coffee (there are bags of coffee beans hanging as air fresheners in every car and cab I’ve been in). Trang says a nickname for this type of Vietnamese coffee roughly translates to “black-brown,” because of the dark espresso layer that lightens when it mixes with the white condensed milk. It was both strong and sweet and about half the amount I am used to drinking, but the intense caffeine had me shaking an hour later and didn’t stop until lunch.
We met our first interviewee at Vui (translates to “happy”) coffee shop, which had a wonderfully minimalist aesthetic, all the succulents in the world, a really expansive menu and a “media room” playing John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. I had a pink grapefruit yogurt smoothie that was really good. Our interviewee, who said I could call her Jenny, is a blogger, world traveler, and a fabulously independent woman. She is a single, 28-year-old wedding planner who doesn’t believe marriage is for everyone. Her English was really great and so I was able to interview her while Trang filmed. She talked about Vietnamese culture surrounding women and marriage, self-love and relationship advice. Her life motto was to ask herself two questions: “Where do I want to go?” and “Who is coming with me?” She said that many of her female clients, as well as other women, often switch it around: “Who am I going to be with?” and “Where are we going?” She was incredibly inspiring. I even teared up at one point.
We had lunch in a restaurant with the longest menu ever and stations where cooks prepared different kinds of food right in front of you. I had more food than I can remember or name, but a few stand out: green papaya seafood salad, Vietnamese pancake (not actually a pancake, more of a crepe with shrimp and herbs that you wrap in rice paper and dip ina sauce). It was all delicious, except for the fermented shrimp sauce I tried.
Afterward, we walked to the Vietnamese women’s history museum, with exhibits about marriage, childbirth and family, military contributions, entrepreneurship, religion, agriculture and cooking. Here were a few stories that inspired me:
- Low-income, rural, often indigenous women who leave their villages for a week at a time to work in the city to provide for their husbands and children
- Adolescents who joined political groups at the ages of 9-15 and later served during the Vietnam War, saving countless lives by dismantling American bombs from their communities (and in many cases, endangering and sacrificing their own lives)
- The backbreaking, intensive work of rice farmers – for which I will show my respect, as Trang taught me, by never wasting any rice
- A soldier who went on to become the nation’s vice-president (a female vice-president – wyd, USA?)
I am here to listen to and then share the experiences of Vietnamese people surrounding expectations for women and marriage. Before coming, I read Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick, on her experience with the historical and current culture surrounding this issue from the American perspective. I didn’t want to come in to a new country with a westernized ignorance and point out its cultural flaws without fully looking at my own culture and it’s struggles. So, I’ve been actively observing women and thinking about American parallels. Today I was constantly struck with the similarities and differences. One is that there are so many women driving motorcycles. I rarely see this at home – usually, women are only present on the seat behind the male driver. I also saw men riding with other men driving motorcycles. Shouldn’t be an issue or a phenomenon, but I have never seen that. Another is the discussion about sex as taboo and pre-marital virginity as a moral standard (even the outspoken Jenny discussed this in very vague terms like “damaged goods”).
Trang and I exchanged many other parallels today, beyond gender. For instance, the dessert I had for lunch had milk with rainbow-colored gummies in it and, after 20 minutes, I realized what the taste reminded me of: creamed corn. We also talked about police relations, prison conditions, free speech and media, religious corruption, financial corruption, protests, and, yes, the Vietnam War. I’m so thankful to have a friend in her that I can both confide in and learn so much from. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to spend a month halfway across the world from everything that is familiar, in a country I may have not ever visited otherwise, surrounded by people and ideas I would have never engaged with otherwise.