Visions of Vietnam: Women, their Smiling Faces, and their Clothing

Vietnam is a multi-ethnic country. There are 54 distinct groups, each with its own culture, lifestyle, heritage, and language. Each ethnic group also has its own style of clothing.

When I visited Vietnam, I had the opportunity to experience about six groups personally, although I probably saw many more as I traveled around. I was definitely intrigued with the style of clothing of each group, and how they differed.

Black Dzao Woman Vietnam

Many women were willing models, and showed some of their biggest smiles when the camera was taking their pictures. The woman above is a Black Dzao, taken at the Tam Duong market in the Sapa region of Vietnam. The hair is worn in a bun, kept in place by a silver frame resting on top of the head.

Flower H'mong Woman Vietnam

This woman is of the Flower H’mong, one of the most colorfully dressed groups, with intricately embroidered clothing. This photo was taken at the Coc Ly market in the Bac Ha region. I love her happy and enthusiastic smile.

Mekong Delta Woman Vietnam

This friendly woman’s photo was taken in the Mekong Delta area, where I was on a bicycle ride in this region. She was walking on the road as I was passing by, and more than willing to model for this photo. I love the warmth and wisdom in her smile.

The clothing of each of woman is definitely beautiful, and representative of their ethnicity.

Sweet Travels!

Visions of Vietnam: The Strength of a Woman

It was a quiet and peaceful morning. The sun had just begun to rise. There was a slight crispness in the air, but you could tell that as the day approached, it would get warmer. I decided to get up early this one particular morning; before the planned activities of the day were to begin; before all of the other tourist awoke. I wanted to experience the early morning life of the locals; to observe them in their daily activities, living their lives. I wanted to explore life in a floating fishing village.

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A floating fishing village is just that:a village of people who fish for a living, with their homes all built on floating wooden planks on the water. This village that I wanted to explore was on Cat Ba Island of Halong Bay, in Vietnam. The population of this village was 1,000. The homes were small on these floating wooden planks – about the size of an average living room, but comprised of a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom for each family. The planks themselves were just wide enough to support the homes, and to allow room for the villagers to walk around. Around the homes, the planks extended out in order to allow fishing nets to drape over rectangular shaped holes in the water where fish were gathered. These holes held a lot of fish.

I wanted to experience this floating fishing village via a boat. Not just any boat, not a motorized boat, not a sail boat, not a yacht; but a tiny wooden boat, powered by oars – the oars powered by a local Vietnamese woman. A small, but strong, woman. She paddled and maneuvered these oars of the wooden boat in between the homes, and around the fishing holes, and through this floating fishing village with ease.

I saw the local people catching fish in this early quiet morning; I saw them feeding larger fish with smaller fish, carrying fish in baskets, cleaning and rinsing fish, transporting the fish via wooden boats, chopping fish, cooking fish, and preparing fish to be sold. I smelled the aroma of the fish being cooked. These activities were done by both men and women, who waived a friendly wave to me as I was being taken around in a woman-powered boat. The children would run out of their homes as I floated by, and in their best English, they would say to me, “Hallo. What is your name?”

The woman taking me on this exquisite private tour would point out things for me to observe. I would smile at her after seeing the sights, in order to thank her, and she would smile back. She had a beautiful smile, warm, friendly, and full of wisdom and strength.

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As I was watching the local life, with all the fishing activity, and the other movements of the early morning, I chose not to take any photos, except for one. I just wanted to observe, to sense, to feel what it was all about. It was all about making a living, living life, supporting a family and a community. It was about joy and happiness. It was about peace and harmony.

I was not only intrigued by this floating fishing village, but also by the woman who paddled the wooden boat around for more than an hour. She had something that attracted me to watch her. She seemed strong. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Her physical strength was evident, as she rowed the boat with little effort, using her entire upper body to paddle, bending at the waist, sometimes standing up to get more control when going through a small area that required some maneuvering. Her emotional and spiritual strength showed through her great smile and kind eyes.

When my tour was all over, the woman brought me back to the rocky shore. She took my hand in order support me so that I would not slip as I exited the boat onto the slippery rocks. It was truly then that I felt not only her physical strength through her grip, but her emotional and spiritual strength also radiated through, through that grip and through that smile.

The one and only picture of my whole experience in this floating fishing village was of this woman: It is a picture that I hope reflects the strength of a woman!

Sweet Travels!

The photo of the fishing village itself was taken the previous day.

Vietnam: Walk with Conviction

To walk with conviction: to walk with confidence, purpose, strength; to walk with a sense of knowing one’s goal; to walk with courage, direction, certainty – that is my latest philosophy on life. I did not get this philosophy from some ancient source, or from some spiritual or religious path; I did not get it from any of the disciplines concerned with questions of how one should live; I did not base it on philosophical doctrines, such as realism, skepticism, existentialism, or pragmatism; it does not stem from either Western or Eastern philosophies; it did not come from Immanuel Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, or St. Thomas Aquinas; nor did it arise from Aristotle, Plato, or Socrates. Instead, my latest philosophy of life developed during a few moments of my life when I experienced crossing a street in Hanoi, Vietnam.

In last week’s blog, I wrote about the traffic in Vietnam, and how what one could perceive as chaos, I found to actually be cooperation. All of the hundreds of cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, and cyclos, weaving in and out and amongst each other, with no real lanes being followed, doing so effortlessly and smoothly. But what happens if a pedestrian, such as myself, needs to cross the street in a busy city such as Hanoi? Yes, there were a few places where there was a stoplight and a crosswalk; but even there, some mode of transportation was still moving. Most of the time, there was just a crosswalk, in the middle of the street, without the aid of a stoplight. So, one has to get from point A to point B, with the various vehicles weaving in and out of each other, and with no real great point in time where there would be absolutely no vehicles moving whatsoever.

So, how does one do this; cross the street in the cooperation of perceived chaos? The goal, of course, besides getting across the street, is to also avoid being hit, and also to try not to disrupt too much the cooperation of the traffic that was already in existence. Before I took the plunge myself for the first time, I observed a few of the local people, and how they crossed the street. I watched how they walked, and how the traffic moved around them. And I thought, well if they can do it, so can I!

From my observations, I decided that the way to succeed was to just walk. Walk with conviction and confidence. Walk with a sense of purpose and strength. Walk with knowing your goal, and having the courage to know your direction. Walk with being certain of where you came from, and where you are going. Well, ok, maybe I am exaggerating just a bit, as of course one needs to also still pay attention to the vehicles, and have some sense of timing, too. But amazingly, what happens is the drivers of the vehicles incorporate the pedestrians into their cooperation. They weave around you, too. They do this effortlessly, and with great timing.

And, like that, I crossed my first street!!

Once I accomplished this, as I was at point B, I thought what if life could be approached with the same ideas that I just used to walk across the street? What if I could walk through life with conviction and confidence? What if I could walk through life with a sense of purpose, strength, courage, and direction? What if I could be certain about life, and my goals, and where I was going? Of course, I would still need to pay attention, and also maybe have some sense of timing. But, from that moment on, I decided that one way I could approach my life was just like the way I crossed the streets of Vietnam: With conviction!

Sweet Travels!

Vietnam Traffic: Cooperation of Perceived Chaos

This is an excerpt from an email that I wrote back home to my family and friends while I was on my journey through Vietnam. It was written May 27, 2007, although I made modifications to the original email for this blog. Note that I live in Seattle, Washington, and that this was my first experience in an Asian country. Also note that I did not take many photos of what I am describing. Hopefully you can visualize what I am writing about.

And we thought driving and the traffic in Seattle was an experience…Well, let me tell you of my adventures within my first hour of arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam. First of all, before I describe this, I should clarify that this was actually a grand adventure, in spite of what it may sound like. I actually found myself rather enjoying what could be perceived as chaos, but what I decided was actually cooperation!

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Traffic in Hanoi

After my nearly 24-hour journey to get to Hanoi, I started my almost hour-long taxi ride from the airport to my hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. This ride is where I began to experience the cooperation of traffic!! (Yes, it is possible.) But not just normal everyday traffic that we experience in Seattle, or most other US cities. Traffic of hundreds upon hundreds (if not thousands) of various types of transportation: cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, cyclos, even pedestrians, hundreds, all sharing the same road. What really caught my attention was that all of these various vehicles were not following each other in straight lines as we are used to; they were not necessarily following traffic rules (if there were any); they were passing and weaving in and out of each other, in between vehicles, around and through vehicles, side by side, making for no real lanes, sometimes going down the dashed line of the road, or on any arbitrary lane that one wanted to go, with very few stop signs or stop lights.

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Woman on Motorbike

I found that I became immediately enthralled with looking around, observing, and listening to what was going on outside of the automobile that I was in. It seemed like a random movement, perhaps some would think chaotic, yet it worked; people got around and through and in between other vehicles in what seemed smooth, effortless, cooperative.

Interestingly, most people, especially on the motorbikes, scooters, and bicycles were not even wearing helmets. Many were however, wearing masks over their face, to protect from pollution and sun. And in all of this, I felt completely safe. Of course, I would not want to drive in this myself; I was perfectly content letting my taxi driver do the driving.

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Traffic in Tam Duong Town

And then there was the noise: honking horns, lot of honking horns. Sometimes the honk was out of courtesy to let someone know that you were passing; other times it was to tell someone to get out of the way, please. Seattle seems so much quieter. But for me, even with the noise, I was not overwhelmed, and I rather liked listening to the symphony of horns.

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Carrying Goods (from postcard)

And then there was what was being carried on many of these moving vehicles, especially on the motorbikes, scooters, and bicycles, themselves. Not just people; but things, too: goods that were either just bought or wanted to be sold. A dozen huge watermelon-sized fruit; 50 crates of eggs (what a mess that would be if the driver lost balance); long slats of wood or steel beams sticking out of a basket; a dozen breakable stone carvings; food, fruit, live animals and birds, not-alive animals and birds, house-hold items, building materials, anything, you name it, they were carrying it! No, they were balancing it, weaving in and out of the traffic, smoothly, effortlessly, confidently, cooperatively.

Oh, and then there was the person talking on a cell phone (a sight commonly seen in Seattle), but while on their scooter, and carrying some goods. And then there were the people who decided to just stop in the middle of the road to say hello to each other, in the middle of all this traffic, without even flinching. And, I even witnessed on one scooter, an entire family (five people) – dad, mom, and three kids.

And, I will bet that in all of this, that I was the only one wearing my seat belt!

And, what I loved the best was the conical hats that the women were wearing!

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Women on Bicycles (from artwork)

That was just my hour long ride into Hanoi. What is amazing though, is like I said – it all just works – the amount of vehicles, the various type of vehicles, the passing and weaving, the honking, the goods being carried: The cooperation of this perceived chaos!

Note that after spending two weeks in Vietnam, and getting very used to the traffic and the noise, getting back to Seattle almost seemed too calm and quiet.

Sweet Travels!

Vietnam: A Garden in the Forest

I wrote the following “poem” in an email to my friends and family while I was traveling in Vietnam. I took a three-day tour of Halong Bay, and part of that tour was a two-hour trek on one of the islands. Beautiful scenery, and a great people experience:

Planet Earth.
Southeast Asia.
Vietnam.
Halong Bay. 1969 mostly uninhabitable islands. Limestone rocks covered with green trees, shrubs and plants.
Cat Ba National Park.
Cat Ba Island.

Halong Bay
Halong Bay

Subtropical evergreen forest. A two-hour trek. Hot. Humid. Protected from the sun by the trees and plants.

Wildlife. Hawks and other birds flying overhead. Various vibrant colorful butterflies fluttering around.

Sounds. Birds chirping. Crickets humming. Monkeys grunting.

Descending a trail. Rocky ground to walk on. Could be slippery when wet. But not raining today. Plants, spider webs, ants on the ground. A few wild flowers sprinkled.

A lake. Fish in the lake. Fishing nets next to lake.

Fishing Nets
Fishing Nets

Then…a family. One family of four. The only family around. Living in the forest. Just the family and the forest.

Dogs and puppies bark to greet me. Chickens running around.

A woman. A wise old woman. A grandmother. She smiles at me – a wise smile. I smile back. Hello, good morning, I say. No English. She smiles again.

She offers me bananas. Freshly grown bananas. From her garden. Her garden in the forest. I accept the offer. Small bananas. Half the size of the bananas I usually eat. But, twice the flavor. Thank you, I say. We smile.

The woman is cooking. In a hut. A hut made of wood. Hand made wood from the trees of the forest. A basic and simple hut. A few fresh cooking ingredients inside the hut. A few hand made utensils also inside the hut.

Cooking Hut
Cooking Hut

The woman is cooking fish. Freshly caught fish. From the lake. The fishing nets from the lake. Frying the fish in a frying pan. Over a small fire. Flipping the fish with chopsticks. I watch her cook. She offers me a small wooden bench to sit on. I accept. Thank you, I say. We smile.

Cooking Fish
Cooking Fish

The woman takes out peanuts. Freshly grown peanuts. From her garden. Her garden in the forest. She sits and cracks them open. I watch. We smile.

The smell of fish fills the air.

The woman offers me a cucumber. Freshly grown cucumber. From her garden. Her garden in the forest. I accept the offer. Same size as cucumbers I usually eat. But, twice the flavor. Thank you, I say. We smile.

I ask my guide if I could take photos. He translates. Yes, the woman nods. I take photos of the hut, the cooking. Then she looks at me, smiles, and motions for us to be in a picture together. We smile, as my guide takes a picture of me and the woman.

Debby and Thanh
Debby and Thanh

It is time to go. I smile to say goodbye. The woman smiles back – a wise smile. Precious moments with the woman. The woman of a family. A family living in the forest. A family with a garden in the forest.

On Cat Ba Island.
In Cat Ba National Park.
Halong Bay.
Vietnam.
Southeast Asia.
Planet Earth.

Sweet Travels!