Vietnam: Learning About the Women of Vietnam

This morning, our first in Hanoi, Joanie and I woke up from our respective twin beds (with very nice down comforters, I might add), remarked on how well we’d slept, and starting kicking around what wanted to do with our wide open day. I got on Trip Advisor and read about Women’s Museum, a likely choice because it was one of the only Hanoi museums open on Mondays. One of the reviews said, “Absolutely amazing and it made it very clear which gender runs Vietnam.” That description sold us for sure. The Women’s Museum was going to be destination #1.

The other thing we both wanted after our 24 hours of travel was to get a massage. I’d written to Judy, our tour leader, to see if she had a favorite massage place in Hanoi. She told us about a great foot massage salon, but there wasn’t enough detail in her email to locate it. So I googled “foot massages Hanoi” and read some good reviews for a place called Dai Cat Foot Massage. One of them said, “Anyone who wants to relax a bit from the loudest city in the world–but a lovely one–come here and shut down your engine for an hour or more.” That sounded good to both of us so I scrawled the address of Dai Cat Foot Massage into my little notebook. We decided those two outings would be enough for our first day.

After an extensive, delicious breakfast buffet on the 11th floor of our hotel, Joanie and I headed out. And the very first thing she did was stoop down next to the anthurium growing in a pot on the steps of our hotel, reach out to that poor little plant and clean the grime off its leaves. How could it ever achieve photosynthesis with all that greasy dirt blocking the sun from its leaves?



Just look at the grime on her thumb:


When Joanie was done working her magic on the anthurium leaves, we walked down the steps of our hotel and turned left. How did we know to turn left? Here’s a great travel tip for you. Hanoi has the craziest streets –not just in terms of sheer chaos–the numbers of cars and scooters and bicycles and pedestrians zigzagging all over the place, but the complete mish-mash of streets makes it very hard to find anything.

We had picked up a couple of tourist maps (useless) and I had GPS on my phone, but since I’d turned my phone onto airplane mode to avoid expensive data charges, we only could my GPS when we were connected to wifi. That meant we could only use the GPS on my phone if we pre-routed a map in one direction while still at the hotel, but if we went off course and needed to be rerouted, or decided on a second or third destination, the map couldn’t compensate or deviate. Nor could we reset it. In other words, we were royally screwed, trying to orient by landmarks we hadn’t identified or memorized yet.

Here’s where my daughter, Eliza, came to the rescue. Last June, when we were on a family vacation in Spain, Eliza told me I should download a little app called HERE (written diagonally in white on a solid blue icon.) She said it was much better for international mapping than Google Maps or Maps that came on my iPhone. And today I discovered why.

In five minutes, I was able to download a map of ALL of Vietnam while I was connected to wifi, so the map now lived on my phone and not in the Cloud, and from then on, we could navigate anywhere in Vietnam off line. All I had to do was type in the new destination by street address, select that we were traveling on foot, and voila–instant offline mapping. It guided us all day.

Despite the pollution and the grime and the constant smell of diesel, Hanoi is endlessly fascinating and I love cities where you can walk everywhere. In fact, we never stopped walking. As we survived making our way across one of the many streets we had to cross, swimming our way through the never-ending traffic, Joanie quipped, “Red and green lights only seem to be a suggestion in Hanoi.” And she was right.

But through careful observation, we were getting the hang of it. You step off the curb and slowly and steadily cross the street. You don’t stop. You don’t dodge. You don’t wait. You just keep going and everyone else swerves, slows and avoids hitting you. What started as a terrifying experience actually became fun within just a few hours. We became as cavalier about crossing the streets as the locals.


On our meanderings, we passed Truc Back Lake, the lake John McCain parachuted into when he was captured as a POW.


We saw this woman headed for the street:


Then we watched commerce in motion.


How many do you want?


Here you go.


These young girls were holding these advertising placards at a street corner:


Behind the signs, they all were texting.


A block from the Women’s Museum, we came across this place called The Loving Hut and the translation of the Vietnamese sign said, “ORGANIC VEGAN FOOD SHOP.” Being from Santa Cruz, we just couldn’t resist, so we walked in through a set of automatic sliding doors that slid into a hidden pocket into a spotless silent environment.


These looked awfully familiar.

It was the cleanest place we’d been in Hanoi. Joanie said, “It was almost like they were pumping in fresh oxygen.” It was that serene and clean.


I have these at my house!


The whole store displayed health food as an exclusive luxury. In positions of great honor on the shelves were things like Trader Joe’s almonds, Pacific chocolate almond milk, pita chips, Ricola throat lozenges, chocolate truffles, and dates.


I just bought Martinelli’s cider for the holidays. It’s bottled in Watsonville, one town over from my home in Santa Cruz. Here, the small size was $6.00 a bottle.

This place was surreal. There was “less salt pepper fermented bean curd” in a jar: reddish tofu floating in a reddish-orange liquid. A cooler featured a shelf of Earth Balance above a shelf of a completely unrecognizable glutinous local substance called Nem Chua Chay, which the salesgirl let me taste. It was…..well, indescribable. I know I’m not supposed to say that–I’m a professional writer, but I was really at a loss. It had something crunchy, something sweet, something tart and I liked it. I could have bought a bottle of extra virgin coconut oil for 205,000 dong, about $10, which would be extremely expensive for Vietnam.


We assumed this was some kind of altar, but we couldn’t speak Vietnamese so we couldn’t ask.


On one wall in the back of the store was a huge mural with the headline: “Well Known Vegetarians.” It included photos and small bios of these luminaries: Jesus Christ, Socrates, Samuel Jackson, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Mike Tyson, Pythagoras, Prince, Thomas Edison, Chinese pop star Zhao Wei, Steve Martin, Al Gore, Mark Twain, Plato, Carl Lewis and Dustin Hoffman, as well as many others.


We left without buying anything, but we gave the sales girl a big thank you.

Down the street, we paid our 30,000 dong, ($1.50) for entrance into the Women’s Museum. In the entry courtyard in front of the museum was a very lively food market. Joanie and I wandered looking at the vegetables, familiar and unfamiliar, the meats being cooked on the pavement, and all kinds of foods we couldn’t recognize.


Grilled chicken anyone?


How about this one?


Rice, but what kind?


Not sure.


We got into a conversation with one young friendly woman who served us some artichoke tea and told us all about its medicinal values. “It detoxicates and relaxes,” she told us. “It calms you down and helps you sleep.” Then she gave us a peace sign when we moved on.


Joanie took my picture right outside the museum doors.

The Women’s Museum was aesthetically beautiful, and all the exhibits were captioned in Vietnamese, French and English. Different galleries celebrated different aspects of women’s lives. There was a hall dedicated to courtship and marriage, birthing children, and the different customs of the 50+ ethnic groups that live in Vietnam. There was one dedicated to Women’s Fashion and another to the worship of the Mother Goddess.


One thing that interested me in the hall dedicated to fashion and beauty was an exhibit on lacquered teeth. Until the mid-20th century both men and women of certain groups lacquered their teeth black with resin from a tree as a sign of beauty. Girls first began lacquering their teeth at 12 or 13.


Now only a few elderly women have lacquered teeth.


Another exhibit that captured me the most was tucked in a little alcove across from the hall dedicated to all the ways women earn a living in Vietnam. It featured photographs of women selling goods on the street, and an accompanying movie called, “Ganh hang rong: Street Vendors Voices.”

In this documentary, women– the very same ones we’d passed cooking food on the street, selling their wares, and carrying baskets of produce over their shoulders–were telling their stories. They talked about leaving their villages and only being able to travel to see their children every 10 or 12 days, bringing home the $20 they’d earned in that amount of time. They described sleeping for 35 cents a night in rooming houses with ten women in a room, getting up at 4 AM to go to the market to buy their goods, working on the streets from 4 AM to 7 PM, and being hounded by the police,

“My husband makes $60 a year selling pigs,” one woman explained, “but it’s just not enough to send our children to school.” Another woman told the story of her husband dying in an industrial accident, and having to leave her children to go to work.

After watching that video, I had a whole different perception of the women I’d passed on the street. They were no longer just a good photo opportunity for me. They were real woman living in real poverty in desperate circumstances. I knew I’d never look at them the same way again.


Another alcove, outside another main gallery, displayed portraits of hundreds of women known as the “Heroic Mothers of Vietnam.” The sign introducing this exhibit said, “The battle for the reunification of the country could not have been accomplished without the silent sacrifices of the women whose children and husbands died for the Motherland…”

“In recognition of their sacrifices on 24th September 1994, the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly established the honorary title of ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’ which was granted to every woman who had lost more than two children, their only child, only one child, or their husband and children, or their own life…Compensation was given to these honored mothers such as accommodation or pensions.”


And then there were the pictures of the mothers….so many mothers.


I was haunted by the pictures of all the women. Actually they weren’t just photographs…




As I read more, I learned that this scooter had been used by the artist Dang Ai Viet, who traveled over 35,600 km to more than 63 provinces and cities in Vietnam to paint portraits of the Heroic Mothers of Vietnam from 2010-2012. These haunting images were all paintings!


The part of the museum Joanie and I loved best was the one commemorating women for their role in revolution and war. This huge hall was fill with stories of heroines who had been martyrs, revolutionaries, guerrillas, warriors, nurses, spies, engaged in civil resistance–all of those who “fought against colonial and feudal forces, demanding socioeconomic and democratic rights.”

These were women who had resisted the French and later the Americans, women who’d served in combat and the resistance, women who had been imprisoned, tortured and put to death. Once placard said, “Vietnam has a long history of warrior women role models such as the ‘tiger-general who fought with courage.'”

It was impressive and fascinating to see the war I’d grown up with narrated from the point of view of the Vietnamese–especially Vietnamese women.

There were dozens of tributes like the one below, portraits of a woman and then her story.


“Born in 1935, at 14, she joined the Dat Do Volunteer Police team in Ba Ria. In February, 1950, she was arrested and condemned to death in Chi Hoa Prison in Saigon. Because she was below the legal age for execution she was held held in prison and executed before she turned 18.”


I loved the display of propaganda posters. This one had the caption, “Nixon owes the Vietnamese a debt of blood.”


“Be determined to prevail over the American air attacks.”


“We will destroy the American planes.”


“Every person is a soldier.


“Heroic, indomitable, honest and responsible.”

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