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All work, little rest for the women of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay

It took being atop a mountain in north Vietnam for me to understand what bothered me most about the war on women that was waged by Republicans in this year’s presidential campaign.

I’ll admit right now to being a Democrat with a capital “D” — the only thing my adult kids know could risk estranging them from me isn’t drugs or unsafe sex or even moving to another country, it’s bringing home a Republican. My very first political memory is writing a letter in 1971 to Madame Binh, the leader of the North Vietnamese delegation then in Paris for peace talks — whom I admired, because she was a female diplomat and a woman feared by men — and to Richard Nixon — whom I loathed, not least because of how unhappy Pat always looked — asking both of them to please just talk things over and end this war. I was 13 years old and the first girl in my Iranian immigrant family to even think about going to college. I had the delusion that if I didn’t, the world might miss me.

Later, as a baby boomer, I fought dutifully and hopefully for the things that I thought my generation was supposed to hand down to our daughters: pregnancy leave, telecommuting, birth control, no-pantyhose Fridays, the right to choose your job, your God, your future.

So I’m not naturally inclined to understand or appreciate the GOP attacks on abortion or birth control; I’m not amused by the redefinition of rape; I feel outrage that anyone would suggest, in this day and age, that a woman undergo a forced vaginal ultrasound. I find it confounding that we’re debating whether or not American kids should have to go to college, when that dream is one that millions of people around the world would seize unhesitatingly with both hands. If I had any doubt about that, two weeks of traveling in northern Vietnam and watching people watch me — the luggage I possessed, the digital camera I captured their faces with, the money that paid for taxis and laundry service and bottled water — has persuaded me all over again.

Call me a snob, but I don’t get it. In one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, and one of the safest places to be a woman, why would we intentionally throw freedom away?

My epiphany came in the form of a young woman standing in the middle of the road one foggy morning in Sa Pa, a mountain town north of Ha Noi. She was wearing a crazy multicolored hat with tassels, traditional black Red Dao pants and overshirt, Nike running shoes and a puffy gold parka that looked as if it had just come straight from Sears.

At first, I took her for one of the seemingly dozens of indigenous tribal women selling their embroidery in this town, the crossroads of a remote region dotted with villages where making red-and-purple zippered bags and pillowcases for tourists has become, for many families, a fine line between survival and subsistence. The day before, outside the tourist agency, I had met such a woman, a small, wizened grandmother carrying a large bamboo basket of clothing. Including her traditional Hmong headdress, she barely came up to my shoulder.

“Where are you from, what is your name, how old are you?” the woman had asked, a singsong meant to make a person stop and talk and perhaps buy. “Fifty-three,” I had answered. The bright brown eyes in her wrinkled face lit up. “I am 58,” she said, then reached for my hand. “Now we are sisters.”

So the next day, as as our van neared the young woman with the gold parka, I was worried that we were going to hit a sister. Instead we screeched to a halt and she hopped in. “I will be your guide today, yes? And we will go to the market and it will take three hours. Yes.” And with those determined words, I met May, a daughter of the Red Dao tribe, wife, mother and budding feminist.

Our destination that day was Coc Ly, a market located on the Chay River near Sa Pa. Getting there took three hours in the van plus a one-hour boat ride; going back took even longer, so we had ample time for conversation. But the usual pleasantries quickly deepened into a portrait of a young woman who is trying to create her future but is paying a heavy price for the freedom she wants.

May’s story began simply. As we picked our way along a riverbed, she pointed to my husband, walking a few yards ahead of us. “Is it true, in America, your husbands do work in the house?” she asked, shyly. Yes, I answered, and May shook her head in disbelief. She married at 17, a few years old for her tribe. “They want their child to get married early because they want the dowry,” she explained. Now 24, she has a four-year-old son. May’s decision to “get a better life” by working as a tour guide is not popular with either her husband or her parents, but with the money she earns, May is able to send her son to a private school in town instead of the public school in her village. May’s dream is for her son to be a doctor or a teacher.

Contrary to her husband’s desires, May is trying not to have any more children. Unfortunately, she cannot get birth control, but there is a doctor in Sa Pa who helps women like her. “You go there, and he does something,” she said. Is it a pill, I asked, and she shook her head, no. Do you mean surgery, I asked, and she nodded: “You go there, and you never have babies no more.” The fact that she still wants to have children in the future did not seem to worry her; she seemed to trust that whatever was done to her could just as easily be undone.

May walked through the market, long braid swinging past women who plucked at our sleeves, begging us to look at their pillowcases and tablecloths, and others selling curled-up intestines and pork belly and pig heads. “The families come here and sell as much as they can and then they meet with their friends and eat,” she said, pointing to a small square of plank tables where mothers and children were eating noodles. Nearby a group of men squatted on the ground, siphoning rice wine out of kegs into small bowls. Even from two or three feet away, it had a pungent smell, like gasoline. “It is 45 percent alcohol,” said May, wrinkling her nose. “And the men stay here and they drink and then they get really drunk and go home.” What happened after that, May had already told us: Her husband beat her. When I murmured protest, May smiled in the way that a mother addresses an indulgent child. “All the husbands do it,” she said. “My husband is not the worst one.”

And that was when I understood that what we do — the cultural wars we fight, the orchestrated shouting matches on cable that we call news  — really does matter. But not just to us. In America, arguing about how Georgetown University students who get birth control are sluts, or whether or not Ann Romney has ever had a job, or if Karen Santorum’s kids should go to college, is an idle discussion, a luxury problem; in Vietnam, the answers are clear. Of course May should be able to control how often she is pregnant; of course she should be able to work for money, not only to send her son to school but so that she can escape the backbreaking life of cooking and cleaning and sewing and selling that makes a woman look like a grandmother before her time.  Isn’t that the kind of freedom that America stands for? Isn’t that just common sense? To be rolling back the clock especially on reproductive rights isn’t only unfair; imagine the despair of our sisters around the world who look at us and harbor hope that life for them may change.

Several times during my travels in Vietnam I met women who were my age but a lifetime older: The woman selling handicrafts in Sa Pa, another on a bamboo boat in Ha Long Bay, selling snacks and fruit to tourists, two women with rough hands and broken nails, stripping rubber from a mountain of electrical cords on a sidewalk. In central Ha Noi, I saw a woman in a conical hat using a straw broom to sweep a traffic roundabout as cars and cyclos hurtled by. It seemed like folly, the act of a madwoman, but her grace and patience made the task a kind of ballet: Caught in the maelstrom, she faced a choice between inching towards security, or striking out for a better, riskier path. Yet May would not romanticize. It is too easy to see, again and again, that fine line between who she is and what she does not want to become.

After the market, we stopped at a small roadside restaurant for lunch. May ate with a friend, another tour guide, and a group of perhaps a dozen men who alternately sipped beer and took hits off an enormous bamboo bong. They sat at a long table near us, and all through lunch we could hear May’s voice, laughing and talking and protesting and laughing again as the men listened to her stories. She was undeniably the center of the conversation, not a village girl anymore, but a working woman, flushed with independence. Five years from now, I wonder if I will be able to find her again.

In a few days, my daughter will arrive in Ha Noi, and she also wants to go to Sa Pa, so I’ve given her May’s email; they’re the same age. Not because I want Claire to go to Coc Ly and buy embroidered handbags, but because I want Claire to meet a young woman for whom feminism doesn’t come easy and freedom may not come at all. And May is just as eager to meet a young woman from California.

“You, you Americans are good for us,” she told me as we said goodbye. “Because in your country, everyone is equal, right?”

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