Hue and Hoi An

Hoi An, Vietnam

My favorite quote of the day, written on the wall of Miss Thu’s Cafe, a backpacker cafe in Huế:

Miss Thu love you long time - you take a shower!

Vietnam is an illustration of William Gibson’s aphorism to the effect that “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” The girl at the next terminal in this Internet cafe in Hội An is using VoIP to talk to her brother half a world away in England; just a little distance from here there are boatwomen rowing flat-bottomed wooden boats and wicker coracles up and down the river, and hand-woven fishing nets that are raised and lowered by wooden windlasses. Earlier this evening, I saw a wooden blanket loom with a woman watching over it, in a scene straight from the Industrial Revolution – except that the loom was apparently electrically-powered, rather than being powered by steam or water.

Women, by the way, seem to be the real productive force in the Vietnamese economy, or at least the ones doing most of the hard work. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, and doesn’t make Vietnam unique, but there’s absolutely none of the Western conception that women aren’t suited to hard physical labor. The rowboats – the ones here seem to be powered with a single long, flexible oar that possibly doubles as a puntpole – are rowed by middle-aged women. As elsewhere in Asia, women are heavily involved in construction, heaving baskets filled with hundreds of kilos of rubble or building materials around. Men seem to gravitate primarily to tasks involving machinery, which for some of them means sitting by the side of the road all day saying “Hello, motorcycle?” whenever a foreigner passes.

The service industry, as far as I can tell, is dominated by terrifyingly-efficient sixteen-year old girls. These come in two varieties - sparkly, and dour. The dour ones will occasionally smile when required; the sparkly ones are bubbly and friendly and never quite break down into giggles, although they manage to hint that something like that is permanently imminent. Both varieties run a tight ship.

There’s an interesting contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia here; in Cambodia, the typical guesthouse was run by a staff of young men, who would spend their spare time on self-improvement, learning languages or taking technical courses. In Vietnam, it seems to be the girls who are expected to run the show and simultaneously to better themselves so that they can go on to bigger and better things. This is, of course, a generalization and one based on a very small sample – but it’s intriguing, not least because the Vietnamese guesthouses seem to be a lot more congenial and better run than their Cambodian counterparts.

At least prospects for women have improved since the days of the Nguyen emperors (the Vietnamese phonebook must be interesting, since fully fifty per cent of Vietnam has Nguyen as a family name; Emperor Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen dynasty, consolidated his power by defeating the Tay Son, who were all Nguyens … but different Nguyens). Tu Duc, whose tomb I visited in Hue, counted at least 104 wives plus an unknown (but very large) number of concubines. He was kind enough to dedicate a temple in the grounds of his tomb to his ‘minor wives’, but despite this honor I suspect that most of them might have been happier running guesthouses and learning tourist-trade Japanese.

Emperor Tu Duc, of course, had the good fortune to live in the Forbidden Purple City, which is now my favorite title of all time for an imperial residence.