Tucked away under their distinctive conical hats, you rarely see their faces. Virtually every inch of them covered in hopes to keep the unrelenting eastern sun from darkening their skin, giving away their identity as a worker. But elusive glances reveal much, evoking images from centuries ago when women repeated the same tasks, planting each blade of grass in columns as linear and prideful as the pillars of their kingdom — building an empire by hand. Passing field after field almost tricks your sense of time, until you notice her motorbike parked nearby, quickly bringing you back to the present.
The arduous life of a worker is in many ways what we expected from a communist country, so my mom and I were a bit surprised to see BMWs and plush hotel properties nearly outnumbering water buffaloes and bicycles. After a few days trying to pin down Vietnam’s politics, our Saigon guide summed it up for us: “We’re mixed up”. But despite all of its changes occurring quicker than we could unpack our bags, Vietnam retains that exotic allure that keeps its spot on the top of my list.
Let me explain.
First, the motorbikes. Even the savviest of New Yorkers will be in awe by them; their numbers, the creative uses the Vietnamese find for them, and their skill when navigating them. I’d argue it’s an art, unimaginable numbers of them weaving in and out of openings we didn’t realize were there until they pass right past us, in a sort of chaotic grace. Not to mention, the term wide-load has been redefined by the Vietnamese. Your buddy ordered a few queen-sized mattresses that need to be in Saigon before rush hour? No problem. Four-hundred eggs need to get to the market by noon? Sure! But what impressed us the most was one man’s successful attempt of balancing a door frame three times his motorbike’s height, his head peaking out the window to find the way. It made me reconsider the moving trucks I have scheduled for my move across town at the end of the month. Maybe I’ll rent a few motorbikes instead…
Another quintessential element of Vietnam – their markets – selling everything from faux Fendi to flip-flops and everything in-between. Visitors quickly pick up that markets are not the chilly supermarkets that we are accustomed to, but a second home for the Vietnamese. Vendors and patrons are not strangers, but lifelong friends; a woman’s extended network of support to pass the time. Queasy stomachs need not apply here, as the food products are not tidily packaged by Mr. Perdue, or packaged at all for that matter. Pig hooves hang freely next to congealed blood, livers, and other unmentionable organs. Frogs caught after last night’s rain try to break free from the plastic baggies that keep them contained. Fish wiggle on the trays provided for them until they are gutted and cleaned as nonchalantly as if their new owner was washing her own hands. Food is on a much more intimate level here, and though it is at times tough to digest, I’d argue visiting the markets is one of the most revealing windows into their wondrous culture.
With all of the hype about eating local and getting to know your food, Vietnam could be the poster child for the movement. And did we take advantage of their unique and delightful cuisine! We learned to eat like a local here not only involved slurping down Pho, but it also meant forgoing proper table and chairs for small plastic ones inches off the ground. They may look more like a toddler’s toy stools than seats, but they command a place on the sidewalk just as much as the tourists and vendors they share it with. We also struck gold when straying from the local circuit in Hue and “splurging” for a $20 lunch at six-month-old Hoang Vien. Quietly set in a restored French villa, time stood still as we devoured a divine tasting menu, carefully presented with such beauty and thought that we almost felt bad eating it. But taste buds prevailed, and with tummies filled, we were ready for our next stop: central Vietnam’s charming port town of Hoi An and The Nam Hai.
But when in Vietnam, unforeseen moments present themselves that, invariably, tend to be the most treasured…
A woman gracefully strolled up to our table wearing a traditional Áo dài, her long jet-black hair tightly pulled back in a bun. She introduced herself as Boi Tran, the chef and apparently the cause of all the deliciousness. She was stunning. As a former Christie’s employee, I had to ask about the Sotheby’s bag hanging from her shoulder, an unusual reminder of home. In endearingly broken English, she revealed her other passion: painting. Apparently an exceptional one considering her works of art that color Sotheby’s venerated catalogues. In seconds my mom and I accepted her invitation to visit her garden on Thien An Hill, in the outskirts of Hue. Even The Nam Hai could wait for this!
Her Eden-like grounds were not pruned to perfection – but overwhelmingly beautiful nonetheless. One-hundred year old trees dotted the property, intersected by lily ponds stocked with well-fed chubby goldfish that instinctively seemed to prop their mouths open for seconds as we walked by. Sipping on lemongrass tea straight from her garden, we wandered through the open-air gallery that housed her masterpieces, our host adding to the beauty of the natural surroundings. Boi Tran exuded a goddess air about her, but her paintings brought her back to earth, providing a more intimate glimpse of who she had become after enduring a war-ravaged youth and losing a son during his attempt to save a friend from drowning. But her smile and loveliness assured us she was a survivor despite the challenges of her past, much like the city of Hue itself. As we said goodbye we hoped just an ounce of her exquisiteness had rubbed off on us.
When our car pulled away from her oasis and toward the coast, I felt our serendipitous experience to be, as the Vietnamese say, “the good luck” following us. As my gaze returned to the sea of motorbikes impossibly weaving their way through the hectic streets without incident, I realized there must be some truth to their superstitions. But whatever it was that graced us – from our beginnings in Hanoi to our final days in Saigon – we were grateful.