Tag Archives: culture

Say it with flowers on International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day flowers on sale.

Last week the Vietnam News ran a story about International Women’s Day.  It reported that: “This year’s inflation may be a dampener on International Women’s Day, but many supermarkets and centres in HCM City have announced sales and promotions to attract ladies back to the shops.” One supermarket chain was running a promotion called “Ton vinh ve dep Viet” (Honour Vietnamese beauty) and at another chain a promotion was titled Rang ngoi ve dep Viet (Shining Vietnamese Beauty).

International Women’s Day in Vietnam is like a cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.

This morning at work, I and my two female work colleagues each received a red rose from our male boss. On March 8 each year, said my colleagues, men in Vietnamese offices will often buy the women they work with flowers as our boss did, and treat them to lunch as well. Husbands and boyfriends buy dinners and gifts and husbands may even tidy up the house that day.

Hanoi has many beer taverns that are either open to the street or actually on the footpath, and are almost exclusively patronised by men. However, tonight a couple that I go past on the way home from work were much quieter than usual.

But the florists were busy, and many street vendors were positioned by the road to sell roses from shallow baskets balanced on the seats of their bicycles. Red roses fetched around 10 times their usual price today, given the expectation that men will buy some for the women in their lives, professionally and personally.

All this is a far cry from the origins of the day, as described on the United Nations’ website,  as emerging from labour movement early in the last century and becoming a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women.

The way the day is observed in Vietnam also contrasts with my memories of March 8 in Australia, where it’s commemoration is also firmly rooted in the labour and women’s movements and is also a day to celebrate women’s achievements as, over the past century, they have increased their choices in how they live their lives. On the other hand, the day is not widely observed and I suspect that most Australians would not be even aware of it.

For a different view of women in Vietnam from the one that’s mostly  presented on International Women’s Day visit the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi, or look at its website at www.womenmuseum.org.vn. 

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9am wedding

Brides next to Lake Hoan Kiem in Hanoi get ready for their photos
Brides to be get ready for their wedding photos

This morning I left my home at quarter to nine to meet the motorbike driver who takes me to work, and outside the front door of my building walked straight into a wedding party.

It was being held in a long narrow marquee erected in the laneway outside my building. The lane was only slightly wider than the marquee, leaving just enough room for me to walk through. At the far end of the marquee I inadvertently got caught up in a wedding photo (I’ll be the Tay (westerner) scurrying through the guests at the far left of the shot), after which I weaved my way among a group of women wearing beautiful scarlet ao dai, before finding my motorbike driver.

Ao dai are the traditional costumes consisting of long, tight-fitting silk tunics worn over loose trousers that Vietnamese women don for special occasions. I could not see the bride in the throng of guests as I departed by motorbike, but she was actually more likely to be wearing a flounced western wedding dress than an elegant ao dai, judging by the many wedding photos I have seen taken at beauty spots around town.

Most weekends I see a few couples having their wedding photos taken, and sometimes several in the same spot. The photos are not taken on the day of the wedding, but weeks, if not months ahead, so that they can be displayed on the big day. My favourite sight from one of these photo shoots was a bored-looking groom-to-be trailing his fiancée as he carried her high-heeled shoes.

A quarter to nine on a weekday morning might seem a strange time for a wedding party, but I was told by a Vietnamese work colleague that both the date, and the time of day, of the wedding are carefully chosen by the couple and their families after consulting a fortune teller. Believing in supernatural forces is common in Vietnam, and those forces are held to affect people’s lives in many ways.

This morning may also have been a particularly auspicious time for a wedding as it immediately followed the 15th day of the first lunar month of the lunar year (the Tet new year festival falls on the first day of that month).

My colleague told me that the 15th day after new year is a very important time for the worship of ancestors, with people holding big family dinners and visiting pagodas to pray, leave offerings and ask deceased parents and grandparents for help in this world.

Last night I also saw people burning paper money on the street, to send to their ancestors – another example of the pervasive beliefs in a spiritual world, and in its everyday links to the material world.

 
 
 

 

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Good night Vietnam

Street hammock.

I once took an early xe om (motorbike taxi) ride at about at 4.15 in the morning to catch a 5.15am bus out of Hanoi, and was surprised at how many people were up and about at that hour. By the time the bus was travelling out of the city the roads were already crowded with motorbikes and cars.

People in Hanoi go to sleep early, and wake up early. Despite the size of this city of 6.5 million people, many still live much closer to the traditional early to rise, early to bed pattern of the countryside. A lot of people are in bed by 9pm. By 11pm most streets are quiet.

And become noisy early. Even if you do not live on a street that’s crowded with tooting motorbikes by 6am, there are also the chickens to contend with. In my first home in Hanoi I lived in a street well away from through traffic. However crowing roosters woke me up at dawn, all of a couple of kilometres from the centre of town.

Then there is construction work. According to official statistics Vietnam’s GDP is growing at the second fastest rate in the world. after China, and in Hanoi buildings are springing up everywhere. Some foreigners complain about how their sleep is disrupted by construction work that starts at 6 in the morning and finishes at 10 or later at night, but stops in the middle of the day, when the relative peace and quiet is of no use to anyone.

Personally I thank my lucky stars that at 6 in the morning I am tucked up in bed in a clean, quiet dark room. It’s a much better deal than the construction workers get. They are already working at 6am, rest during the hottest part of the day, then go back to work, sometimes well into the evening: some construction sites are still hives of activity at 10pm. The workers eat their evening meal and sleep on the building site itself, in the temporary lean-tos that are their homes during that job, their laundry hanging up nearby.

Indeed, it’s not only construction workers who sleep in very different surrounds from what westerners expect at night, and have trouble sleeping without: a quiet, dark purpose-built room, warm in winter and cool in summer, curtains drawn, a comfy bed.

Glimpses into homes in Hanoi through open doorways often reveal wooden beds in the living room, covered by nothing more than a mat. People live and sleep in the same space.

Some of the flats I looked at when searching for a place to live had room configurations reflecting this pattern of living and sleeping. They had a larger combined living room and bedroom and a separate small kitchen, rather than the western combination of a kitchen-living room with a separate bedroom.

People also sleep where they work.

Lunchtime cat naps are standard. In most offices, including mine, workers eat their lunch and then retire to a quiet room or back to their desks to sleep for an hour or so. Many offices close between 11.30 am and 1.30pm. Lunch restaurants do a roaring trade between 11.30am and 12.30pm, but staff are packing up by 12.30pm or 1pm, before, I presume, their own naps.

People in other occupations snatch sleep where they can. At night I have seen people stretched out on the pavement, using their thin rubber sandals to cushion their heads. My guess is that they are night workers rather than homeless, as they don’t have any belongings with them. During the day market stallholders sleep in hammocks above their wares. Xe om drivers doze precariously on their motorbikes – usually head on the pillion and feet on the handlebars. Taxi drivers snooze in the driver’s seat of their cabs, ready for the next fare.

I often book taxi rides with an English-speaking cabbie named Quan. He starts his shift at 10 in the morning and finishes at 2 the next morning, six days a week – a 96-hour week (for which he makes 5,000,000 dong a month – about A$250). So it’s not surprising that when I go to meet him near my home at a pre-arranged time I often find him napping. I have also woken up other taxi drivers on occasion. I feel mean, figure they would rather have the fare than the shut-eye.

 

 

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