In 20014, our close friend Hongky (an unusual Vietnamese name, pronounced Hom-kee) invited us to meet her parents and extended family, who live in the countryside in the province of Thanh Hóa (tang hwa), which is also the name of its largest city. I had seen photos of her home, and had some deep misgivings about going, involving my usual ridiculous bathroom worries, but we wanted to show our respect and we were curious about her upbringing and seeing this part of Vietnam.
Hongky has qualities that are consistently impressive to us, especially considering her background. First of all, she is over the twenty-seven-year-old dreaded marriage deadline and not married, and she doesn’t seem to care. This may seem unimportant on the surface to Westerners, but in Vietnam, especially in the countryside, it is shameful for a woman to still not be married at thirty, and they are constantly harangued by their families and friends to get a move on. Going home for Tet holidays, young women can be certain there will be an empty chair set out for their one-and-only, who they are expected to bring along and introduce to the family. Relatives and family friends begin to wonder if something is wrong with the unmarried one.
In Hongky’s case, just the opposite is true: she is brilliant, clever, beautiful, graceful, loving and affectionate, a capable and natural leader – in short, a remarkable human being who volunteers to raise money to take children in the countryside warm clothes and blankets because they have none. We later met her “team” from Ngọc Lặc, consisting of other young people who wanted to help those less fortunate. (See photo below.)
We have discussed the marriage issue extensively with her, and she admits that she gets a lot of flack from her parents about it, particularly from her mother. When she goes home, her mother badgers her to hang around more, but the result of this is that marriage is all that gets discussed. This is pretty typical in Vietnamese households, and puts tremendous pressure on the daughters who are single. Hongky is extremely understanding about it, but she is not willing to settle. She wants to see the world and try many things, and knows this dream will never be realized if she goes down the traditional path.
So we took a taxi from our apartment in Long Biên, East of Hà Nội, to Hongky’s street and picked her up, then on to the bus station, where one of my fears was realized: I had to use the bathroom. We had just met Hongky’s friend Sam (pronounce “Sum”), and she led me to the “facilities”. I walked past some squatting young women to an empty stall – no door – and a none-too-clean hole in the ground.
Squatting for a middle-aged American, even one in fairly good shape as I am, is okay for about 20 seconds, but when you’re tense about the entire experience, you need to squat a lot longer than that for the bladder to relax and get the job done. Then there’s the fear that you won’t be able to stand up with nothing to grab onto, or you might slip on the wet floor while doing so. All kinds of horrible scenarios were crossing my mind as I tried to get the whole thing over with. Thank goodness I only had to pee! We were spending the night at Hongky’s home, where no toilets existed, only an arrangement such as the one I was now grappling with, outside their tiny dwelling. I am a nighttime pee-er – usually twice per night – so that prospect was not one I was looking forward to.
I succeeded in the basic task, took the tissue out of my purse for wiping (because providing toilet paper would be a luxury in a public bathroom like this), and looked for a faucet to wash my hands……none was in sight. I was relieved that I thought to bring hand wipes, and Larry had stashed two rolls of toilet paper in his backpack, knowing I was freaked out by the whole bathroom controversy. I shook my head at my own wimpiness.
This bathroom situation is typical of most of Vietnam (and probably most of the world) today, especially when one is outside the larger cities. It is not unusual to see men peeing anywhere and everywhere, and children are held over gutters to do their business, then shaken off before being put back together. Honestly, if Ebola ever came to Vietnam, the entire population could be at risk due to this one habit. (That, and the men hocking up all over the place. I’ve never seen a woman hock up in Vietnam.) I wonder about the immense obsession with cleanliness in America versus the cavalier trading of germs in a country like Vietnam – which way is more likely to keep you well? The Vietnamese must have built up iron immune systems to counter all the germs they’re exposed to on a daily basis, through tainted water and exposure to bodily fluids.
This is another of my misgivings about the country in general. Meat and fish sit out in the sun where flies are happily using them as runways. People in stores grab every exposed loaf of bread to feel which one is best. When one is sharing a meal, your dining companion reaches over to help peel your corn cob or in some other way touch your food, and it’s clear that washing their hands before eating is not a priority. But, at the drugstore, Tetracycline is available without a prescription, so that has been our savior on many occasions.
We board the bus and we’re off, finally, and Hongky has expertly moved several young men to make sure we have a row of seats together. The taking of selfies begins, and goes on for the entire trip – Vietnamese youth are wild about Facebook and selfies. (The government, however, is not so wild about Facebook and other social media, and periodically will try and shut them down. However, everyday citizens have become very clever about developing work-arounds as fast as the sites go down, so those in power have basically given up tinkering with them.) We will be in her village in about three hours. There is one stop, where I encounter and slay yet another primitive bathroom, a faucet is provided (hooray), and we buy a popcorn snack.
Sam, as it turns out, is just learning English. We are just learning Vietnamese. So, we have a fundamental way of communicating, but we’re all trying. Somehow, after two days, this builds a pretty strong admiration society, and of course, we become fast Facebook friends, where translation is easier. Hongky is our tutor, and she never lets us get away with any crummy pronunciation, which for us is just about all the time. We are forced to repeat the phrase until we get it right, even if it takes ten laps.
We arrive in Ngọc Lặc (“nyup lahp”), Hongky’s tiny village, and one of the villages on the famed Hồ Chi Minh Trail. Waiting for us there is one of her four brothers-in-law, who owns a restaurant on the main street. We do the usual tea ceremony, and her sister brings out a drowsy child who has just woken up from a nap. After about five minutes, a black car pulls up, to take us to Hongky’s home. The car is immaculate inside and out – clearly someone has gone to some trouble for our arrival.
We drive about five more minutes, and pull into a small sand driveway, then into another smaller sand driveway. Her parents’ home is a two room stone cottage with a breezeway and another room in the back that serves as a kind of kitchen. Hongky’s parents come out to greet us, with big smiles and lots of Vietnamese. We don’t hear any English for the next two days, except from Hongky, ourselves, and a little from Sam.
The next several hours are spent eating (we have not had lunch, so some corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, and noodle soup are served up right away), getting a tour of the house and grounds, straddling motor bikes (me on the back of Sam’s, Larry on the back of Hongky’s) and viewing the immediate area (which is mostly lovely farm fields), and visiting other relatives, which of course means more tea. Everyone is thrilled to see us, and it’s clear most of them have never seen Western faces. We are instantly famous, and the subject of many cell phone photos. Since Hongky’s relatives run the village, we are assured no police interference.
We arrive back at the house, and Hongky explains the sleeping arrangements. Her parents will go next door to her sister’s house and sleep there, and we will sleep in their bed in the main room of the house. We are shown the outhouse bathroom (another squatting situation) and the indoor bathroom, which does not have a toilet, but she says we can use it for peeing in the corner, where there is a drain. This is also a typical country setup – you pee where the floor is canted somewhat, then spray or ladle water on it to dilute the smell.
Hongky grew up here with four older sisters, and at that time they had no electricity. Today, they have that and WIFI, so clearly have come a long way in the tech department. I ask where they slept, and of course it was all five sisters in one large bed, in a room that is now being used for motor bikes. These people all seem very happy and relaxed with the situation, and they have, to our eyes, nothing. Why aren’t so many Americans this happy, I find myself wondering. Many of us have everything we could ever want.
Dinner is announced, and the entire extended family has arrived. A mat has been spread in the breezeway, and the food and drink is set in the middle. The brother-in-law who we first met, a local chef, has cooked the meal, and it is elaborate. There is a rice roll filled with mushrooms cooked in banana leaves, chicken with lemon grass, a veal dish, many kinds of greens that you wrap in rice paper and dip into a sauce, and rice wine or sake, which we begin to consume in liberal amounts because the family keeps filling our shot glasses.
Halfway through the meal we are squirming because we can’t sit the way Vietnamese people can, cross legged for hours on end. They find a couple of tiny wooden stools for us, and our pain is relieved somewhat. The men have begun to shout and laugh, likely due to the sake consumption; we are all very relaxed and enjoying the delicious food. The subject of our age comes up, which is totally Vietnamese; their culture is built on age hierarchy, so they need to know how to treat us based on that. We are good enough with our language skills that we can tell them in “tiếng Việt”, which really tickles them. Larry and I look much younger than a comparably aged Vietnamese couple. But that is a reflection of great difficulty and struggles in life: agrarian work and stressors about health and money, raising children and finding enough to feed the family in challenging times.
This is another cultural obstacle for Vietnamese. They are extremely hard working, but it is in the end just to survive one more day. There is no life plan for most of them; you work to feed yourself and your family, and hope it all works out. It has been this way for centuries, and sometimes it does not all work out. This is also a country that has withstood dozens of invasions over the centuries, from the Chinese, the French, the Portuguese, the Japanese; life is tremendously difficult here, and people still go on and thrive. (It is worth noting that the Vietnamese have only once invaded another country, and that was when Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge became too big a threat to ignore.) But being in survival instead of growth mode is holding the country back somewhat, as Vietnam tries to enter the global economic arena. However, Vietnamese are both resilient and clever; once this population decides to do something, there’s pretty much no stopping them, and we have seen many examples of this (one of the most recent examples being the successful resistance they showed the U.S. in what they refer to as the American War).
There has been another hardship in Hongky’s family that she has told us about. Her father, a soldier in the Vietnamese army, fell into a PTSD depression that lasted for ten years as his daughters were growing up. He couldn’t get out of bed, so the family struggled to survive. Somehow, with the help of relatives, they did. Hongky’s relatives, as the leaders of her village, made sure she and her sisters were in good hands.
So, seeing someone like Hongky, coming from this country setting, is relatively uncommon. She just happens to have many of the tools she needs to go farther than anyone in her family, and her father apparently saw that in her. She told us that he is extremely well-read, and that he loved talking to her about ideas when she was growing up. He is proud that his daughter is, in her own way, taking the world by storm, and gives her a lot of encouragement. He must walk a fine line in supporting his wife and her marriage campaign at the same time, no easy task.
Featured photo by Lawrence D’Attilio.