I am on a pleasure trip to Vietnam (a fascinating place). When we were in Hanoi, I had the opportunity to visit the Women’s Museum. Vietnam is not a country with much women’s equality: our middle-class Vietnamese tour guide (from Hanoi) talks freely about how all housework, child care, and maintenance of ancestor worship traditions are women’s responsibility (even though his wife also works full time). He tells us that when women marry, they transfer all of their family obligations to the man’s family–and that prospective fiancees are expected to cook for the man’s family — and wash the dishes — the first time they come to meet the parents. (When the man meets the woman’s parents, he is treated as a guest — and his prospective fiancee makes the meal and washes the dishes.)
However, as in all relatively prosperous developing countries, the women are rising and things are changing. The very existence of the Women’s Museum surprised and pleased me, and the place itself was a real treat.
The museum has four floors of exhibition space: one is devoted to traditional Vietnamese culture, with a lot of information on the different Vietnamese ethnic groups and their (somewhat) different marriage and birth customs. One is devoted to fashion, both historical and contemporary. Both of those floors are worth your time, should you be in Hanoi.
The fourth floor is for special exhibitions. When I was there, the exhibition was “Rendezvous Between the Old and the New,” contemporary folk paintings by Xuan Lam, like the delightful pig and piglets above. These paintings evoke traditional art for Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) and also a delightful modern sensibility. Seeing about 20 of them together put me in a good mood all day.
Even Xuan Lam’s paintings paled, for me, in comparison with the floor devoted to Vietnamese women war heroes, from traditional times, from the French War, and from the American War (which in the U.S. we call the “Vietnamese War”). This exhibit begins with the picture from the top of this post, of women who lost more than one child, their only child, their husband and one child, or their own lives, in the American War. They were declared heroes in a ceremony in 1994, and many of them are pictured in the museum.
The large exhibit on that floor is devoted to individual women — dozens of them — soldiers, leaders, journalists, nurses, organizers. We see their photos, their paraphernalia, and sometimes posters made of them, like the one pictured above.
I have never been in a museum anywhere in the world which showcased this large a number of women as fighters, or which provided this wide a range of the ways women fought in a dreadful conflict.
Outside the museum is a sign which says “We know the grass ceiling better than the glass ceiling.” The day is coming — soon — when Vietnamese women will be in the forefront of breaking that grass ceiling. I hope I get to see it.