An hour after landing in Saigon, I met Navi, a young college student who had come to pick me up for a scooter ride around her city. Navi drove fast, rash, and had no hesitation arguing with an angry cop to let her cross a banned barricade. She tiptoed into an old building and sneaked us in to show us the local life bubbling in those shattered corridors. She shushed her male friend when she wanted to talk, and listened to him when he made a good point. She was loud, confident, and energetic. She tried her best to make me marvel at her city but I was marvelled at something else. Her.
Navi is a city girl, maybe a pleasant exception in the society.. I thought. Four hours into our ride, Navi had shared enough leaflets from her middle-class Vietnamese life that left me reminiscing about mine in India when I was her age. Having been raised in the East of the world, the intensity of our experiences felt many decibels apart.
In those four hours that I spent with her, Navi had driven me into her badass life. Little did I know that in the next two weeks in Vietnam, I was going to meet hundreds of these women who unknowingly do things that many others don’t, in this part of the world.
As an Indian woman, I have the vantage point to notice small acts of women’s rebellion, freedom, and voice better than many others. A bold dress, an unusual haircut, an awkward profession, an assertive statement – I seek them and find them with more keenness than my western counterparts. This doesn’t imply that the west doesn’t see the difference or appreciate it. Our lenses are different and we notice different battles even when looking at the exact same person.
In Vietnam, I found women everywhere and at all times of the day. The local bars had an almost equal number of women cheering at a football match. The babies were dangling off their lap and learning that mothers can have fun too. When walking back home late in the nights, I was comforted by the dozen women doing the same and with ease. Presence of women in an otherwise deserted area has a calming effect and women with babies is the most harmless combination. This was a common sight in the dark alleys of Saigon which immediately made me put my guards down.
Majority of the hotels and home stays we stayed at had a large number of female staff. At a particularly shabby hotel, I requested the hotel receptionist if she could refund the money and let us move out to another hotel. To my surprise, she acted like the sister I never had and helped me move for the silly reasons that I believe only women can understand of women. This, to me, was an unusual power that she was able to exercise irrespective of her designation at the hotel, a liberty I had barely seen available to our gender not only in India but many other parts of the world too.
The street food business in Vietnam is ruled by its women. I can safely say that more than 90 percent of the street food that we ate in Vietnam was cooked and served by its women. Carrying her pregnant belly tucked under her cute dress, a vendor in the night market of Hue ran her business like a boss. She cooked, served, washed and made sure that her work was top notch. She wasn’t an exception. The entire market had a strong sisterhood running through it. While the grannies held the baby, the mothers cooked. When the mothers cooked, the daughters served, and when nobody was around, the next door vendor pitched in. For the first time in my life I was surrounded with so many women entrepreneurs at the same time and that felt liberating, very liberating.
At the beach in Hoi An, kids came with their mothers who also swam and splashed with them. They let their little girls go as far as their sons did and the girls tried as hard. They paddled fiercely, failed, and then tried again. While catching their breath during one of the attempts, the girls befriended me and we tried together. I wondered if that’s all we, women, need – a fair chance to try.
Even in the remote corners of Ninh Binh, it wasn’t a man but a middle-aged woman who rowed our boat in the waters of Van Long Nature Reserve. The routes were curvy and she had to manoeuvre hard. When I signalled to her if she was alright, she stretched out her palms and showed the dents caused by the oars. Then, she touched her muscular arms and gestured that she was fine. She yawned frequently at what she considered a usual task while I sat absolutely focussed on what I thought wasn’t ordinary at all.
This isn’t to say that Vietnam doesn’t have gender issues or its women have a perfect life. I am certain that there are way more concerns than what a visitor can gather in two weeks. However, a well-deserved appreciation is as important as well deserved criticism especially to a country that came out of one of the most brutal wars not more than 43 years ago. Perhaps working in Vietnam isn’t a choice but a necessity to its women, perhaps the money earned doesn’t always end up with them, perhaps there’s more to it than the eye can see. But this is the fact: woman are out there where people like me watch them and feel at ease. Their presence in the outside makes the world feel balanced and much safer. The women of Vietnam are the reason why this country felt safe at every hour of the day.
Perhaps it’s a simple trick that India can learn from too. To bring more of our women into our workforce, streets, traffic, bikes, taxis, autos, hotels, shops, restaurants, and street food to generate a sense of balance and safety in the society. Women’s presence in the outside world is highly underestimated for the sense of safety it generates in the society and I truly hope that one happy day sometime in the future when I hail an auto rickshaw from my street in Bangalore, I am greeted by a woman driver, just like that.
P.S. I found Graham Green’s The Quiet American a perfect piece to get a sense of Vietnam during its war accompanied with Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen that funnily disregards the notions stated in the former. If you are planning travelling to Vietnam, these books are interesting picks to engage in the country’s past.
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