LADIES OF VIETNAM
Reporting on my residency in Vietnam with The British Council.
We arrived in the city of Hanoi late at night - much later then expected. A very apologetic taxi driver who spoke limited English did his best to communicate that he had a flat tyre that needed fixing. He was skinny with a permanent, big smile and that vague ‘youth’ face that made his age almost impossible to tell. Anywhere from 18 - 25. The kind of face that’s gonna get ID’d buying booze whether you like it or not, kiddo. When we got to the hotel desk we were greeted by a man who had "everything is going to be fine" tattooed on his arm. It was hard to tell if he was a hopeless neurotic who had gone to extreme measures to remind himself to calm down in times of inevitable, crippling stress, or if he was sporting the mantra of a chilled out guy just laying back in his imaginary deck chair watching the rat race go by. I really couldn’t tell you at this stage, I’d just got there.
Stepping into Hanoi the next morning was probably the most excited I’ve been since I managed to get through to Diggit to talk to a member of Atomic Kitten after ringing their 0800 number several million times off of my parents landline in 1998 (think it was Kerry Katona). It was really sunny, and the buildings were beautiful, and there were new colours everywhere, but the thing that did it for me most - hands down - was how chaotic it was. Chaos was everywhere. Whole families rode on mopeds with the baby balancing at the handle bars whilst the mum held a puppy and the dad carried a pile of logs. Women painted their toenails on shop till counters with rollers in their hair whilst having a laugh with the coat shop lady next door and ignoring all their customers. Old guys grabbed your feet as you walked past and tried to force you into a shoe-shining experience that you definitely did not sign up for. Barbers set up station in the middle of the street with just a mirror, a stool, a pair of scissors and a bit of charm. Literally no traffic had any interest in stopping for you so you kinda had to weave around them like you were a beyond-human hero in some kind of PlayStation 1 game (outdated reference sure, but PlayStation 1 is where my gaming experience begins and ends and I’m a gal who stays true to herself).
Me and chaos have an, er, chaotic relationship. In terms of things I hate hearing about myself, chaotic is right up there with forgetful, messy and - by far the worst - away with the fairies. But I get it. I’ve lost my bank card at least 5 times in the past year, I still haven’t returned my library books from 2002, and I’ve fallen down the stairs as an adult woman on Christmas day more than once. It’s caused me to forget really important things that involve others, led to arguments with puzzled friends who associate my lack of a plan with a lack of care for them, and played a destructive role with romantic and professional relationships alike. But here I was in Hanoi, a place that put my measly library-book-keeping-chaos to absolute shame. The best thing about the chaos was that it managed to be relaxed and energetic all at once. It made me see the merits of chaos, the honesty, and the humanity of it. The place where it manifested itself most strikingly was in the work place. This was true not only in the city, but in the rural village of Lao Chai in Sa Pa - a place largely inhabited by the Black H’mong minority people.
The Black H’mong women were among the most extrovert people I have ever met. Ms Gia, who invited local women to her place to show us how they made hemp fibres and embroidered clothing, was a force to be reckoned with. Gia couldn’t have been bigger than 5 feet tall, seemingly too small to fit all of what she’d seen and all of who she was inside. Gia and the local women talked about sex and laughed about their useless husbands whilst pounding the heck out of hemp and spinning it to make fibres as they sat around in casual clusters. Sometimes a gang of baby chicks would stroll in or a row of children would run and weave in between the legs of the women whilst they worked on handicraft. At one point Gia broke into song whilst they embroidered, inspiring one of the smallest kids to do a sassy dance routine in the middle of them as they worked intensely. In Lao Chai work and life are the same thing. It’s an environment where you don’t have to have a phone voice. Or be afraid of your boss. Where a days work isn’t a day of clocking off from being you. Professionalism is largely done away with, and the women I observed seemed happier for it.
As the women chatted, Gia revealed that her parents had initially wanted her to marry some fella she was not feeling AT ALL. Gia ran away from home and met the love of her life, but it would be 3 years before they made love. Simply because, in Gia’s words, she ‘didn’t know how’. This lack of sex education was an issue that came up throughout the trip. One Vietnamese woman from the city told us that she had no idea how her body worked until she was 23 and her boyfriend told her. The lack of conversation over sex and pregnancy didn’t fit the otherwise overtly honest and upfront nature present in both the city and rural areas. We were told that there were even incidents of ethnic minority women finding themselves in abortion clinics with absolutely no idea how they had got pregnant in the first place.
For me personally, finding out what sex was was one of the most traumatic days of my life. I was about 9 years of age, still high from my Atomic Kitten phone-in victory, not a care in the world - when my mum suddenly sprung it on me that the stray dog I’d brought in the house had to get out because in actual fact he wasn’t hugging my pet dog Daisy but, alas, humping her. Needless to say this led to further unwanted details. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She expected ME to some day go near a boy so that we could do probably the WORST THING I HAD EVER HEARD IN MY WHOLE LIFE. I was not having any of it.
The idea that women could be in their twenties before finding out what guys and gals get up to as gross adults actually filled me with a profound sadness. It just feels like the kind of thing you have a right to know. In Sa Pa the women have children very young, and often lots of them - one of the H’mong women in the village we visited had 18, and it was extremely common to see much older women with super young kids - so it feels like these women in particular have a right to know. I wondered how it had got to this, but I saw evidence that the local women were tackling the issue and becoming more empowered with it. They had already founded a women’s union and it was extremely common to see certificates hanging on the walls in their homes awarding them for teaching other local women about contraception and sexual health. Sisters were doing it for themselves, and they didn’t need any pesky stray dogs as a conversation starter. It was something that made me feel truly connected to women not only in Sa Pa, but everywhere in the world.
Thao - the Vietnamese sustainable fashion designer who accompanied us on the trip - had a wonderful relationship with the ethnic minority women we visited, having already worked with them to utilise traditional hand weaving, batik and indigo dye within her own designs. Thao also had so many great stories of her own to tell. She met her American husband in the late 90s when he saw her working in a music shop opposite the internet cafe he was hanging out in, and then proceeded to send emails to her work computer which her boss would print out for her at the end of the day to give to her. It's probably the most 90s of all 90s love stories ever. She’s kept the email print-outs to this day, a hard copy reminder of not only the love they shared - but of that strange transition between physical communication and the digital age.
Thao told us that Vietnamese education has a heavy focus on retaining facts and repeating knowledge. There are some cool results to this - for example, she tells us that most Vietnamese children can recite endless poems completely by heart - but this causes problems when approaching design. Design is about innovation, curiosity and asking questions. Women in rural Vietnamese communities are not traditionally encouraged to follow this path. They are wonderfully skilled crafts people who are capable of producing beautiful things, but from what I could see they have not been encouraged to put any part of themselves into the things they produce. They have not been given the starting points needed to be able to design something afresh.
Virginia Woolf famously suggested that most of the poems we see written by Anon were, in fact, written by women. Similar theories can be said of design - with many historians suggesting that female designers were unable to promote and take credit for their work due to the enormous home commitments they were expected to take on alongside any design. The evidence that women were present in design but just didn’t get the recognition is overwhelming and fair, and finding ones place in design as a woman is one thing. But what about getting there in the first place? How do you even start? What resources, opportunities, and education programmes are needed? I often think about how many people are secretly gifted trumpet players but just never had the lessons or the encouragement or the goddam trumpet to begin with, so never know how great they could have been. I'd never really thought about design in the same way before - the opportunity to be curious and play around with some crayons always felt like the kind of thing that's accessible to everyone - but it’s not. For many, it's a privilege. How many women - particularly women in remote parts of the world - could have been great designers but never had the right kind of resources? This is particularly relevant with the ethnic minority women I met as women from these remote communities had incredible craftmanship.
After spending time observing the White Thai women in Na Phon commune, it struck me what a privilege it is to be able to design anything at all. Myself and a group made up of the British council and The Royal College of Art were staying at a homestay ran by Di. Di was hardworking and passionate about making something of her life. She was young and beautiful but spent most of her time running an incredibly ambitious craft shop with her Aunt; the two of them had recently taken out a scary huge loan to set up the craft business. All of the women we visited in Vietnam belonged to ethnic minority groups, and all of them lived in very rural locations. In these communities traditional craft knowledge is passed down through relatives year after year, but nothing changes design wise. The only thing that does change - due to lack of money and demand from tourists - is the quality of the artefacts and fabric that these old designs get weaved or printed onto. The once thick, handmade fabrics are swapped for cheaper, flimsy material. The products lose their authenticity, and with it - the women are in danger of losing a vital part of their identity.
As an artist who has gone through foundation and university I think it's easy to take for granted how lucky I’ve been in terms of being encouraged to access my own ideas and put them into practice. These women have not had this luxury. It would be great if resources could be put in place to enable these women to start to think about what inspires them in the environments and everyday lives that they are so often confined to. Everyday lives that, from what I could see, were beautiful. Days filled with natural colours you wouldn’t dream of seeing in England. With life brimming at every corner - water buffalo in a line, children playing on the bed, a litter of puppies protected by one shifty mama. Women in gangs sewing and laughing together. Lable-less bottles once containing homemade booze gathering at wooden houses where a party was had the night before. Women at work not having to smile at a rude customer in the hopes that they might go away - but being able to completely and utterly be themselves. How wonderful it would be if they had the resources to be able to put some part of these selves into the things they were making.
The last area we visited was Pa Co, a place inhabited by the Blue H’mong. Pa Co - in stark contrast to Sa Pa - was devoid of tourists. Me and a couple of my fellow residents were the only white people there, it was by far the most isolated area. Here, unlike the other areas we visited, the women were very open about teaming their traditional clothing with Adidas jackets and knock-off Chanel sandals. In Lao Chai and Na phone the women wore these things too, all the time in fact, but if a camera came out or a particularly touristy looking group of tourists came by these garments were removed and very traditional hats suddenly appeared on their heads. How interesting that, in perhaps the most unaffected area of them all, documentation would suggest that they were most affected simply due to their lack of practice with tourist demands.
It was here in Pa Co that we met Vo, a kind grandmother who tragically cried at the fire place of her working kitchen whilst she told us about the death of her husband that year, and her longing to go back to her brothers, sisters and kids who were so far away.
Within the Hmong community women are expected to live with their husband’s family and look after them into their old age. We were aware of this from our early conversations in Sa Pa - in which one woman, May, told us of her desperation to have a son so that she would not be left by all her children. However, we were not fully aware of how strict these traditions were. Vo was unable to return to her own family even though her husband had passed. She was still expected to stay with his, mourning his loss and becoming more and more isolated as she took care of her granddaughter and dreaded the day that her own daughter would get married and leave the village. Bereavement has a way of making people feel scared and alone like nothing else, but despite the complicated traditions that limited Vo's freedom to choose who to stay with, she was not alone. Her husband's family loved her and would stay with her until the end. It made me deeply aware of how much everyone looked out for each other within the ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. Homes for the elderly were extremely frowned upon, and everyone came together to take people on and lead them into death in a way that isn't as present in western culture. Vo was unable to leave, but the family of her husband had her back no matter what.
Another Blue H’mong woman told Tsau how she had already made the outfit she would die in. Vo explained that these death suits are made by women when they are still in their childhood homes, done in order for the clothing to remember its roots - enabling it to catch up with the parents quickly into the afterlife. It was at this point that I really started to appreciate the emotional value of these garments, and the importance of the cultural heritage that they embody. They are not just a way of looking interesting or keeping out the cold. They are a way of being deeply connected with the many people who will touch these women’s lives, and a physical testament to how much those people meant.So's mother rests against a motorcycle, Sa Pa
On our very first day in Vietnam, we stumbled across the bright yellows of a funeral procession, with a professional cryer leading the ceremony. That is, a person who had been hired to cry into a microphone at a person's funeral. Thao told us that these cryers - who lead the ceremony - perform stints of crying for dedicated members of the deceased’s family. I figured it really might take the pressure off these family members - the people everyone expects to be crying. I mean, not all of us are cryers. Some people are fainters, some people are get insanely drunk after-ers, some people find it awkward, some people sing obnoxiously loudly to the hymns out of respect, some people laugh at the people singing loudly then feel bad cos it’s a funeral - at least this person takes care of the crying part at a time when everyone is truly affected in completely different ways.
When we had seen the funeral ceremony up close - all bright yellows and overly adorned pick up trucks and a holiday club-rep looking figure crying into a microphone - it had almost felt playful. So culturally different from anything that I had seen that I was emotional detached from it, and just wanted to catch it. I ate it up. But as the trip came to its own sort of death, and we sat face to face with a crying woman at a fireplace telling us how she had lost the love of her life, I didn’t want to catch it anymore. I became brutally aware of how grief unites us, of how similar and connected we all our in our most vulnerable and dark moments - regardless of what colours the people were wearing at the funeral, and regardless of how they chose to say goodbye.
On the last day of the trip, Thao took us to a Vietnamese restaurant in Hanoi that had old food coupons from the 80s covering its walls. Thao told us that food coupons were so precious back then that these days, if someone is really really sad, they’re described as being coupon sad. Coupon sad is the kind of sorrow that matches the desperate feeling of losing a food coupon in 1980s Vietnam. Much like the saying ‘you look liked you’ve just seen a ghost’, Vietnam has the term ‘you look like you’ve lost a coupon’. The beauty and the charm that filled the lives and homes of the women we visited was a special thing that I will always be grateful that I go to see. But there were also those things that made me sad. The fact that so many women had little choice but to choose between their birth family or their marriage. The fact that some openly wanted to learn about design but still, after all this time, have not been given the resources to do so. The fact that they were having to take it upon themselves to educate one another about their own bodies because nobody else was there to do it for them. It made me sad, but not coupon sad. Coupon sad is losing something so essential that you don’t know how to get back from it - but the women here are building unions, and teaching each other, and openly sharing their hopes and dreams. All is, most certainly, not lost.