One of the best gifts of traveling is that of perspective. At home, in our modern, democratic and economically stable society, we still somehow struggle with inequality and extreme income disparity. Yet standing here, on the corner of a crowded Hanoi street, watching hordes of female street vendors try desperately to sell goods, it’s impossible not to have that word creep into your mind. Perspective.
The most striking thing we’ve noticed about women in Vietnam is their strength. Whether speeding past on a motorbike or grilling meat at a roadside stand, they exude a silent, yet incredible, confidence. Maybe it’s because they’ve been through so much, tragically lost so many loved ones, so many sons and husbands gone following the still recent war.
We’re sitting in a small room in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, surrounded by portraits of the Heroic Mothers of Vietnam. This title was given by the National Assembly to over 50,000 women, all of whom had lost more than two children, their only child, their husband and child, or their own life, during the war. In the center of the room, sits the Chally scooter ridden by artist Dang Ai Viet, who traveled more than 35 thousand kilometers across the country to paint many of the women. All stories of incredible resolve, through incomparable tragedy and loss.
Later, at a nearby coffee shop, we talk about what it means to travel responsibly; to give back to the place we visit. We’ve purposefully been staying in locally-owned homestays and hotels, buying food and products made in Vietnam, and have sought out local shops to ensure what we spend goes back to the communities we visit. But with our newly gained knowledge of the struggle that many Vietnamese women face to support their families, it doesn't feel like enough. There’s no simple answer. No true or false questions, no multiple choice. This is an essay question that has to be answered thoughtfully and thoroughly, with details and examples. Part of this trip, this website, is about finding those details, providing those examples, sharing the information and continuing to look for opportunities to help.
In another room of the quiet museum, a small screen loops a 5 minute film, documenting the lives of street vendors near Hanoi. In Vietnamese society, men traditionally stay home to run the farm, or small plot of land, and watch over the children. They earn extremely little money doing this, forcing wives and mothers to move to the city and earn the money necessary for their families to survive. These women typically live together in a dorm-like apartment, as many as 10 to a room. They wake at 4am for the market and work throughout the day, often until 7pm, in hopes they'll make enough to return home every two weeks with $20.
We sit in silence, moved and saddened. We’ve been approached by street vendors throughout our time in Vietnam and nearly all have been women; persistently trying to sell everything from donuts to banh mi, clothing to conical hats. Now we’re itching to get outside and hand over a $20 bill to the first vendor we see so she can go home to her family.