Hanoi

On Thanh Niên, the road that straddles the West Lake in the North of Hanoi, women are waiting. Some of them throw words to the myriad of scooters that brush against them, bring the flowers or the bread to the passersby, come back to the starting point, the bike, and repeat round trips ad infinitum. Their legs don't know time nor tiredness. Tran Quoc, Vietnam's oldest pagoda, stands up a few steps further. I wait in front of a small prayer room inhabited by an androgynous woman made of marble and dressed in immaculate white. She is surrounded by two other statues sitting cross-legged; small black points for eyes and directed to the visitors, silencing him as soon as he enters. Prayers float in the air. With the incense, they mingle with the offerings made of biscuits and colored fruits, hang on the centenary walls. The Mother goddess is prayed for the Earth and the soil, fertility, the favors of the weather. The believer accosts her with respect, attracted by the Construction and fearing the Destruction. The Nature is a woman. Venerated and hated. She inspires a fascination fed by the fear. She is corpulent during the Paleolithic period; she is crowned in the guise of Isis in Egypt and dresses in Ceres with the Romans. In Vietnam, she has a reserved morphology and an appeased face. While the worship, the Đạo Mẫu, was banned for a while, its importance didn't decrease and follows peacefully the Vietnamese popular beliefs.

The 8th of March is populated by other goddesses. In Hanoi, the Women's rights Day turns into the Women's Day. Not any women. The charming woman who wears colors with a shy smile and a light make-up. A statue outside the temple, embraced by a certain idea of dimensions, colors of skin and behaviors. She is photographed in front of the lake, a distant look to the horizon and the myth that men and herself feed. They offer her the roses and balloons they bought to these other women that sell everything and who, for the occasion, take on sidewalks with a renewed vigor.

Woman telling her story (Nhung in her apartment, Hanoi)

"Would you like to draw a vagina?" Nhung's apartement, a few blocks away from the pagoda, is decorated with paints, papers and books. She doesn't want to be called an artist because she just gathers others' perceptions of the female sex. The drawers are men, women, transgenders, straights, gays, bisexuals,... She shows me the works. Those who never saw one sketch symbols and colorful shades. Nhung explains that there are no "clean words" to designate a vagina and all the synonyms are used as insults. Under her gaze, I draw blurred lips with light and dark reds made of water colors, a mouth covered with a coat of dreams. Her initiative was born with the finding that the taboo surrounding sexuality in Vietnam is still very present. There is no sexual education at school and talks at home are drowned by the conservative values. When two people are in a relationship, nobody wants to discuss about pleasure or contraception. The act is the encounter of two mute bodies. The purchase of pills and condoms is a challenge. Nhung tells her friends' stories, pregnant against their will, fearing shame, anger and rejection from their own family. She shows me the vagina draw of one of them. A wounded heart. Her own flesh betrayed here when it accepted the child she didn't want to have. She could have aborted but she didn't. She decided to accept her destiny. Nhung reacted in the same way when that happened to her three years ago. But it ended differently. "I thought my babe had already felt that this world was bad... That it didn't want to live because of that... That's what I told myself so that I don't get too sad." What was left of the stillborn child was buried at the back of the garden by her mother and, today, a beautiful plant was born from the bowels of the earth. 

Woman working at West Lake, Hanoi.

I go back at Hong's, twenty minutes from the center. In the bus, young students in blue and white uniforms tighten against each other to make room for the older ones. Scooters overloaded with flowers, boxes and children whirl around us. The drivers have a mask that covers the mouth and the nose in order to avoid breathing the blow of the other motors and, more generally, the particles of pollution that flow in the air and seem to give to the sky its gray color.

Being a woman is being a mother. Hong answers without hesitation. Her life turns around single mothers' lives in Vietnam, subject that bears the stigma of the Confucian foundations of the Vietnamese society. She explains that, according to that philosophy, the father represents the roof and the pillars of the family. Starting one without him is considered as a project doomed to failure. After she gave birth to her daughter a few years earlier and decided to raise her alone, she founded "Coins for change" in order to help other single mothers. The funds raised by the social business are invested in financial and psychological supports for these mothers.

Woman telling her story (Hong, Hanoi)

While the myth surrounded her is celebrated, the human life of a mother in Vietnam is marked by mores, conservatism and burdens that she has to face under penalty of not being socially accepted. Nhung adds that fathers are worthless. They can help financially because they tend to have a better pay but, at home, they don't take care of the children and the housework. Is the tradition there to overcome reality? That celebration of the woman seems to be an attempt to fill the gender gap and the cultural leading role of the father at home hides his absence. In addition of that, the woman's body brings her the constant choice of being a mother or not. However, whenever social pressure invites itself, that scale tips in one direction and does not lead to her own decision.

I leave Hanoi under the rain. On a tiny scooter, my huge backpack is close to knock out the surrounding drivers. I look at women sitting in the ground or on midget stools. They don't care about the chaos or the dust all around them. Concentrated, they cook, they clean, they sell, they walk, they think, they remember. They live to make their children live.

Women selling flowers in the street of Hanoi

Woman reading her newspaper

Woman cleaning the the flower market