I am beyond impressed with the women in Vietnam. They are smart, hardworking and look great on a motorbike, even when wearing 5-inch stilettos and a puffy dress. Granted, I didn’t make local friends, or visited every city or village, but what I did get to know inspired and soothed my feminine soul. How? Let me start by telling you about election week.
Election Day was a dark one for us in Hanoi. The nomad archetype is true in that most people who choose this life are open minded, liberal and believe in equality. It would be a hard trip around the world otherwise. You need to have some of those values in order to assimilate and respect other cultures. There are always exceptions, of course, but I can tell you most of the people in the group (and even the expats on the streets) were deeply saddened by seeing the US taken over by Trump and all that he represents.
The 12-hour difference provided us with a painful advantage: we woke up just as the results started coming in and got to watch Trump take over the states one by one. Most of us went to bed excited the night before and looked forward to watching live. We even planned an election breakfast to watch together at a bar, unsuspecting the final outcome.
I woke up late, still jet lagged from the continental jump. I checked Twitter from my bed, my feed full of cries from comedians and pop-culture commentators proved how out of touch I was with my country. I then joined the breakfast for a few minutes, running to work as soon as I could to avoid conversation. There was nothing left to say or do.
A few hours into the workday, I started crying. I cried because this meant so much more than the democrats losing. This was a loss for women and a loss for tolerance. I cried not because Trump won, but because the reasons why people voted for him. I cried because I was reminded once again of the uphill battle women have to fight. I'm not saying Hilary is a saint, but can we all agree she was far more qualified, competent and experienced? That's not counting all the racist, misogynist, intolerant comments her opponent made during the campaign. All of that and our country still preferred to have the shittiest man to ever run for president as their leader.
That night, after work, I went to an open mic north of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. I figured distraction could be a good thing. When I got there, I was surprised to find that every single person going on stage was a musician—a combination of Irish and American expats who get together every week to “jam”. I immediately regret typing that word, but it’s staying. #noregerts
One of my RY friends, an Irish who’s all about the liquid courage, convinced me to get on stage with him. We’d done it at another open mic in Morocco and got good reviews, but this time we bombed. I mean, the chords weren’t right, my voice certainly couldn’t save it. We were lucky everyone there was very drunk and in a “we’re all one” mood as we still got some cheers from the crowd.
At one point, while he was tuning the guitar, I started sharing my story as an immigrant and as a woman. I mentioned how I felt like I lost my home country (Dominican Republic) when I became aware of the disadvantages of being a feminist there and how it felt like it was happening again with my adopted one, the US. I finished my speech saying that I refuse to let that happen again. If anything this election has motivated me to fight harder, come back stronger. That night, in a dark bar in Hanoi, home felt closer than ever.
I had my first visitor! My friend Jennifer landed right after the elections and stayed with me for 10 days—10 days full of laughter, deep conversations and short trips. It was the perfect follow up to that awful week.
On her first weekend in Hanoi, we went to Sapa—a city comprised of small rice-villages near the Chinese border. We met two village women who literally followed us around until we agreed to use them as guides. Now, this sounds pretty annoying, but they did it so quietly and respectfully, we didn’t mind. In fact, we founded it funny and respected their hustle.
We went up and down slippery hills to reach the villages. One of our guides, Susu, carried her baby the whole time! Jen and I were amazed at their strength and knowledge. Most of the village women haven’t even been to Hanoi (their country’s capital!) or finished high school. Yet, they are able to support their families by working the rice fields and guiding tourists, all while raising their children. Their itinerary included showing us around the village and telling us how their people live. However, we snuck in some convos about marriage, sex and birth control (they are not clueless, these girls). I have Jen to thank for that as she was the one asking all the right questions. We returned to Hanoi and crashed. The rest of the week went fine with Jen doing her thing while I worked and then meeting me for dinner/drinks afterwards.
On her second and last weekend here, we went to Ha Long Bay. The weekend started off on the right foot when my cruise reservation got upgraded TWICE. This has never happened to me before, so Jen must be my lucky charm. Also, the Vietnamese are so damn nice. The whole reason they upgraded us was because they made a small mistake in my reservation.
Ha Long Bay was beautiful. We sailed around the islands, put on a fancy Vietnamese dress for dinner and ended the first night looking at the stars (between clouds) and talking about life. But, guess what, I got sick again. I got a cold on the last day that put me in the worst of moods as the only thing I wanted to do was sleep. I still rallied up and visited a cave with Jen. She was so pumped. Traveling with people who have the excitement and curiosity of a child is a blessing. “My lady, it is time.”
Thanksgiving week, y’all! (Been hanging out with some southerners lately.)
You’re not going to like this, but I’m getting more and more comfortable with the idea of being on the road. I still look forward to NY, but I’m no longer homesick. At all. I guess that’s what’s supposed to happen, but I honestly didn’t think it would.
I decided to join a gym with only two weeks left in Hanoi because that’s how I roll. Although I went a total of four times, it was 100% worth it as they have the funnest dance class. The name of the class is Sexy Dance, which sounds silly, but let me tell you, the most challenging fitness classes I’ve taken have a “sexy” aspect to them: aerial yoga, pole fitness, that one “heels” class that left me sore for days. The instructor, a tiny, maaayybe gay Vietnamese man, had us do a Broadway-meet-Burlesque routine, while “giving face”. When the first class was over, I felt like a real dancer and wished I had more time to keep going back.
For Thanksgiving, RY organized a dinner in this garden/art installation/tree house complex in Hanoi. It was as cool as it sounds and we all made something to share. The food was alright. Not because my fellow RYers aren’t good cooks, but because I don’t care much for the typical Thanksgiving menu. I like my Thanksgiving Dominican style with pastelitos and pork and pastel en hoja. Still, it was really nice to share a meal in such a lovely setting, with the people I’ve come to appreciate.
Black Friday brought us to the countryside for the third installment of the Writer’s Retreat. I had skipped Serbia’s and thought Vietnam’s would be a good time to re-enter the circle. The location this time was as remote as it gets. We drove three hours west of Hanoi and took a 15-minute boat ride to reach the homestay. I was beyond uncomfortable during the boat ride, anticipating a lot of “wild life” when we got there. Those thoughts quickly dissipated (kind of) when we arrived. The beauty of the place didn’t leave much room for fear and I felt at ease surrounded by the calmness of the lake. When in doubt, just add water.
I shared some poems about regret, love and feminism that night (who am I?!). They were fine. One of them, I think was really good, but that’s probably because I’m very attached to every word in it. Like on the first writer’s retreat, the best work didn’t come out until Day 2.
I have been playing with the idea of writing the stories my grandfather used to tell me as a child. It would be a way to preserve his memories and tell the life of a man born and raised in a dictatorship. I chose to share the first two stories with the group on the second night. It was nice to reflect on how his stories have made me who I am today. One day, I’ll share them with everyone. For now, those stories belong to him and I am just lucky I get to borrow them once in a while.
As a woman, Vietnam has been so inspiring--from my tour guides in Sapa, to the waitress at Tom’s bar who doesn’t speak English, but gets every order right, to the lady who is still trying to sell goods on her bicycle when I come out of work at 11 PM, they have all made an impact in me and made me appreciate the freedom and privilege I have.
I went back to the "sexy dance" class on my last week in Hanoi. I don’t know if it was the music (a mix of Beyonce and Rihanna this time), or the fact that the instructor made us hold hands several times during the routine, but I felt empowered af after that class. A day later, I went to a ladies night organized by one of the girls in the group. We dressed up and grabbed a cocktail at a fancy bar. Let me tell you, this is a fine group of women. Even the ones that might seem shallow have shown me a lot of strength; even the ones I am still not a fan of, I’m beginning to understand.
The rest of the week went fine. I was a little bummed we didn’t get more time here. I am writing this post on my last night. The group has moved on to Cambodia, but I’ve decided to go to Bali instead for the month of December. Next time, I’ll tell you about solo traveling, Christmas on an island and coordinating logistics (co-working space, accommodations, sim card, etc.). Wish me luck!
Half-way milestone reflection...
I feel like I’ve aged 10 years since I started this. A couple of years ago, I would have looked at this month’s experiences with pure cynicism. Now I can look at them and learn without criticizing myself or others. It feels good to be free.
Tips! Tips! Tips!
- Get coconut water and tropical fruits everywhere!
- Uber (moto) everywhere
- Find the sexy dance class at California Fitness & Yoga
- Explore the Old Quarter, where you usually have to go through a dirty-looking alley to find the coolest cafes.
- Eat all the noodles, bun cha at Hurong Lien, and squat at a sidewalk BBQ.
- Rock City: the place where open mic was held. Go on Wednesday if you wanna see some really good musicians for free.
- Go to Ha Long Bay: I used Princess Cruises. Highly recommend it.
- Go to Sapa: Arrange a sleeper bus from one of the tour office in the old quarter. It was the most comfortable 6 hours I've spent in moving vehicle.
- Visit the Women’s Museum in Hanoi: you can tell a lot about a country by how the appreciate women and their contribution to society.
- Go to the Pan Pacific Hotel's rooftop at sunset. Pricey drinks, but it's the best view of the city.
- Catch a live performance at Binh Minh Jazz Club. Also, Tadioto Bar nearby is nice. I found it because the owner came to speak at one of our events. The intimate ambiance and the friendly staff make you feel at home.
- Hanoi is great, but there are a lot of other smaller cities, temples and caves nearby you can explore on day tours. My friend did this when she visited and it looked lovely. Also, it's very easy and cheap to arrange these tours from Hanoi. Just pop your head in one of the tourist offices in the Old Quarter.
Not so great:
Hanoi is an awful city for pedestrians. Cars, motorbikes, trucks, they don’t look, slow down or yield when they see someone crossing the street. EVER. Also, most sidewalks are re-purposed for eating or parking motorbikes, so you’re constantly forced to walk on the street.