Women’s Work: A Vietnamese Love Story

Love comes in all shapes and forms.

Vietnamese women work really, really hard. From Hanoi to Siem Reap, women are weighed down by baskets full of fruits and vegetables swinging from shoulder poles. They cook street food. They work in markets. On Halong Bay, they stand on bows paddling with a single oar for miles until they reach tourist boats and try to sell Oreos, Pringles and water. Along the highways, they bend over in rice paddies, the tops of their conical hats just visible.

In Hoi An, some women sew all day long while others hustle people into market stalls to buy custom dresses. In every city, clad in skinny jeans and four-inch heels, they drive motorbikes, or sometimes ride sidesaddle balancing a toddler or a laptop case. They wait tables and serve cold beer. And near the temples in Angkor Wat on a recent trip, our guide said not to buy trinkets from kids because they were trying to teach them better habits. But when a four-year-old girl followed us for about a mile in 100-degree heat and humidity, I caved and bought four wooden beaded bracelets – insisting on paying double what she asked ($2).

Midway through our three-week trip through Vietnam with a stop in Cambodia, my husband, Erik, and I were in Nha Trang. It felt like Miami (and let me pause for a moment and say that I adore South Beach – for real – but I wouldn’t fly 20 hours to get there). Tall, swanky hotels filled with barrel-chested tourists (Russian in Nha Trang, midwestern in Miami). Honestly, after one day at the beach and taking in the breathtaking Long Son Pagoda, Erik and I were kind of over it. Then we met Johnny.

We were crashed out at a cafe drinking beer when a friendly-faced local approached. He said his American nickname was Johnny and that he’d be moving there soon to go to school. After a few minutes, he said, “My friends own a resort near my town and I know the only guy in my town with a car. It’s the most beautiful place you have ever seen. Come to my home tomorrow and meet my mom.”

Now, usually, I would have said no, or smiled politely and lied a “maybe.” But, there was the beer. And the fact that, already sunburned and wise to the fact that the beach didn’t have enough umbrellas, we really had no idea how we were going to spend the next few days. It didn’t hurt that Johnny was dressed like a member of the chess team – complete with glasses sliding off his nose. He seemed harmless. Erik and I did the glance and shrug and said yes.

The next morning, Johnny and the guy with the car showed up at our hotel. The driver was the Fonz to Johnny’s Richie Cunningham. Had we met him first, there’s no way we would have gone. With them, was a girl.

“This is my Aunt Trang, she’s moving to America to marry a very rich man. She will live in Alaska. She doesn’t speak English, which is why she is here, to talk to you and learn – and also because we have the car and will stop and get her papers.” I thought this was a little weird, but in a way, it explained Johnny’s eagerness to hire a car for the day because we’d pay the driver and he’d get his errands done.

As the resorts and the Lotus Building faded into the distance, I got nervous. We were leaving tourist Vietnam and heading into what, I didn’t know. I wanted to be back in the hotel having had the amazing experience of doing something like this without actually having to do it.

To distract myself from the reality of being in a car with strangers, I asked questions about the pending nuptials. What we worked out is this: Trang is 20. Johnny is 24. His other aunt married a different guy from Alaska back in the 70s and arranged the union that would bring Trang and Johnny to America. Trang is super cute. She had cell phone charms, a red and white-stripped shirt that looked a lot like the American flag and a flowered cloth mask covering her mouth – which was common, but seemed odd in the air conditioned car. Her future husband is 47, red-faced and pretty much a dead ringer for the guy you’d cast to play the guy who mail orders a child bride.

Keeping an upbeat tone, I asked if she liked him. She giggled a little and shrugged. I asked Johnny. He said, “70% money, 30% love. He’s really, really rich.”

30% seemed high. I asked if she was excited. She shook her head, wide-eyed. “Scared.” I asked what she would do in Alaska. Through translation I learned that she wanted to do nails but that her husband wanted her to stay home. Red flag, I thought, going through my mental address book for a contact in Alaska, eager to think of someone she could call when this goes to hell. No one. “Tell her it’s really important to make friends,” I said to Johnny. It was the best I could come up with so I said it twice.

After an awkward conversation where duck and dog became confused (turns out the soon-to-be-husband actually wants her to cook dog), I determined that she’s moving to Alaska to be a sex slave and maid. At least that’s what it seems like from my American, feminist perspective. I wanted to save her. At the very least I wanted to drop the fake excitement from my voice and sound as horrified as I was. What I wanted to ask was, “Are you seriously okay with this?” And, “Why the hell are you going?”

As the day continued and I learned more about her family and her village, I began to understand two things: She didn’t really have a choice and it was very much an act of love.

Her village looked like a postcard – bright blue skies and sea with blue and red boats docked on the white sand, their painted-on eyes facing the horizon. Small homes dotted the streets – most didn’t have front walls, which gave them the exposed look of stages. Inside, we saw motorbikes parked in living rooms, altars filled with offerings and incense, and people napping in hammocks or watching TV. Outside, kids ran around sucking on bright straws stuck into baggies full of fresh-squeezed fruit juice, and women worked roadside stands.

We stopped to buy fruit at a stand and then headed to Johnny’s mom’s place where she made us watermelon shakes while his brothers peeked around corners. In the living room, Johnny showed off the certificate from the government celebrating his English skills. His diploma and photos of him posing with Americans hung next to it on the wall over the couch. He told us that he was the only guy in town with these credentials. But without Trang, even Johnny the golden child didn’t have a ticket to America.

I recently read the novel The Lotus Eaters about a female combat photographer in Vietnam. While in some ways a love story in the traditional sense, it was clear that the country itself was the leading contender for everyone’s affections. I think there’s an argument to be made that our new acquaintance Trang was marrying for love – love of her family and her village. While she didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter, she wasn’t angry and seemed to have an appreciation for what her ambitious nephew could do for her family – which was most of the village – with more opportunity.

We ate lunch at another woman’s house – the only quasi-restaurant in town. We sat out back in plastic chairs on a cement slab with a view of the ocean. Here, unlike in Nha Trang, only laundry drying on lines obstructed the view. Over frog, among other charcoal-grilled foods, rice and cucumbers, Johnny told us his plan: go to America, go to graduate school, come back and open a coffee shop in the village. He may have some competition, he added, telling us very casually, that the land we were on was to be developed into resorts and that the entire village would be moved inland about 10 miles.

The village and Trang herself were to be sacrificed in the name of Western-style progress.

How, we asked, would it survive as a fishing village? He shrugged. His plan, he continued, was to apply for government money to clean up the environment – which, frankly, needed some help. Littering was commonplace and despite the beauty of the landscape, there was trash everywhere. I wondered how people would get their boats to the water and how it would be to live with the smell of salt and fish for a lifetime and have it suddenly disappear. I wondered if the fish in Alaska would be comforting to Trang.

After lunch, as planned, we stopped at a fenced-off government building, and the three of them went in. Johnny came out and explained that he had to run home because he forgot something – he took off in the car and we waited. Then I realized Erik had left his bag with all of our money and our passports in the backseat.

Panic set in. My chest tightened and I looked at Erik. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I was suddenly sure the whole thing about the visa and the fat Alaskan had been a scam, that Trang spoke perfect English and the conversation we had where we taught her to say “watermelon” was a joke. I was certain that all of the “Oh, that was so long ago,” talk about the war and resentment of Americans was total crap and that we were about to find out how people really felt.

I was 100% sure that Trang had gone out the back door of that building and hopped a moped with the Rico Sauvé driver – by now I had created a story in my head that they were having an affair that she would be forced to give up to marry the American. I half hoped they had run off together, despite the fact that we were stranded an hour from the city with nothing and my palms were sweaty. After 15 minutes, the car pulled up and the crisis I had invented was over.

I was so quick to lose faith in these people – people who had been nothing but welcoming and gracious for the entire day, people who were willing to sacrifice their happiness and freedom for a shot at even a chance at the kind of life I was born into. People who carried no anger toward me for being an American tourist – snapping photos of their real, ordinary lives – only one generation removed from the War. I felt like a total ass. And I was really, really glad I was wrong.

When Trang came out of the door of the building, we gathered around to look at the passport photo stapled to the necessary paperwork. Her smiling face was framed by her thin headband and American flag shirt. She looked happy. We hugged her and offered congratulations. Then, the five of us got in the car and headed back to Nha Trang so she could get to the passport office by 4pm and take the next step toward her new life as an American woman.