This will be one of the last in my series of posts from Vietnam, because I have less than a week left! It’s hard to believe – the weeks have tumbled by in a blur, and now I’m struggling to start saying goodbye to everyone I’ve met. This weekend, I traveled to Tam Dao, a town about 60 km away from Hanoi, nestled into the mountains, with my Vietnamese friends Lien and Duong, their friend Phuong, and another friend from the seminar, Nicole. Tam Dao began as a French hill station, but most of the colonial buildings were destroyed during the war, leaving only a dilapidated church perched above the town that no longer seems to be used for Catholic services (the first time I wandered inside, alone, clutching my camera, I discovered a large number of people eating lunch inside – they offered me rice, which was very sweet, but I couldn't figure out why the church seemed to be a happening lunch spot). We wandered the town, saw a beautiful waterfall, climbed to a temple that was at an interesting stage in the process of refurbishment, and lounged in the hotel room, eating mangoes with chili sauce stolen from the hotel kitchen. Tam Dao also seems to be the karaoke capitol of the Red River valley – either that or it’s the only thing to do at night, as we discovered when we unsuccessfully searched for a DVD store – and the sound of very bad karaoke ricochets around the valley until late on Saturday nights.
The weekend was incredibly lovely, partially because Tam Dao seems to be entirely undiscovered by Western tourists. I met two older white women who spoke English and seemed to be from North America (when I asked them where they were from, they said “Hanoi” and gave me an irritated look – God forbid that I should assume that they weren’t Vietnamese), but other than that, I was the only Western person in the town (Nicole is Vietnamese-American, and speaks Vietnamese, so she didn’t really count). At first, this delighted me. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in large groups of Westerners (i.e. my fellow Princetonians) and although I’ve enjoyed our trips a lot, it was refreshing to be in a place that didn’t blatantly cater to Western tourists – although there was definitely a thriving trade aimed at weekend tourists from Hanoi. But I was also a little disturbed from the moment I stepped out of the hotel, when Nicole and I were accosted from a man from Hanoi, who seemed interested only in talking to me, although his English was practically nonexistent. As I wandered around the town, I noticed that people were staring at me – even pointing at me. When we walked down for ice cream, the woman scooping our cones said something to Nicole, who laughed uncomfortably and looked at me – the woman pointed at my face and smiled maniacally, and Nicole explained, ‘She likes your skin. She says that if she were a man, you would be driving her crazy. She says she just wants to eat you up.”
Fair skin, apparently, is a rare sign of beauty in Tam Dao. This makes sense, because as obsessed with tanning as Western women may be, my Vietnamese friends walk around with umbrellas in sunshine and wear long gloves and long-sleeved shirts when they’re riding their motorbikes, even in 100-degree weather, because they’re afraid of dark skin. I’ve never thought one way or another about my skin – it’s very pale, which is irritating mostly because I burn easily, but not unusually so. I would never stick out in a Western country because of my skin – and in fact, my redheaded and freckled sister is much fairer than I am. I have never, ever thought I would be considered beautiful just because of my skin – but in Tam Dao, I was coveted, objectified, a source of constant conversation and attention. The weekend was shocking for me, simply because it was a very stern reminder of the varying standards of beauty that the world has to offer – and because I have never been the subject of so much unwanted attention.
EW blogger Shannon Togawa Mercer, who is spending the summer in Cairo, posted
in June about the harassment and objectification that she experiences in Egypt on a daily basis. I have to admit, after I read her post, I felt a little smug about my choice of country for the summer – Vietnam may have its problems with trafficking, domestic violence, lack of reproductive health information, and general gender inequality, but damn it, I was not going to be catcalled on the street! And catcalls have rarely been a problem in Hanoi – I’ve been checked out a couple of times when I was wearing a short dress, but that’s a risk I would run in the United States as well – most of the attention I receive from men on the street is when they’re trying to sell me a motorbike ride.
Turns out, this is just a privilege of women in urban Vietnam. In Tam Dao, cars full of men would literally slow down to look at me. Every man (and most of the women) I spoke to commented on my unusual beauty – I suddenly became a magnet for creepy guys from all over the valley. In the afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, writing in my journal, when a cat came over to me. I started playing with it, and didn’t notice when a large group of businessmen sat down at the next table – that is, until one of the businessmen was right next to me, picking up the cat and taking it to his table. He then began to beckon furi
ously, gesturing toward the seat next to him and saying things like “You sit here, beautiful girl!” I put my headphones in and mourned the loss of the cat quietly, but he was back a second later, offering me cigarettes, which I declined. He leaned forward across the table, smiling frighteningly, and said, “You know I love you!” I responded with one of my few Vietnamese phrases – “không cảm ơn” – no thank you. The table of businessmen exploded with laughter, and (worst of all) the cat ran away.
I know that much of the issue in Tam Dao was the fact that young Western women are rare, and I certainly looked very out of place. But I’ve always been confused by friends who say that they find catcalls flattering (mostly because I get catcalled when I’m out jogging, when I know I’m not looking good, unless guys are secretly into the drenched-in-sweat look), and after 36 hours of almost-constant attention to one small part of my appearance, I can say with great certainty that catcalls are not gratifying. They didn’t make me feel more beautiful, or enhance my pride in my skin, because they weren’t about me. I could have been any light-skinned woman in a town where light-skinned women are rare – everything about me could have been different, and people still would have gone out of their way to compliment my beauty and whistle at me in the street. But that doesn’t make the attention more acceptable – it actually makes it worse. It shows the extent to which women’s bodies are public property, and the highlights the horrible fact that standards of beauty are just that, standards. They’re not about the individual, or personality, or even a combination of traits – if you possess one standardized beauty component, like big breasts or a small waist or, in my case, fair skin, everything else about you disappears and you’re subject to endless harassment.
This may sound completely obvious, and that’s because it is, but I’m highlighting all of this because I read essays (or in this case, news articles
) way too frequently about how catcalls are a compliment, that it’s a male way of paying tribute to female loveliness. Bullshit. For the Vietnamese women who saw me, I was a reminder of an absurd standard of beauty – for the Vietnamese men, I wasn’t a person, I could have been floating pale epidermis and they still would have yelled “beautiful girl” at me. There is nothing as alienating, in a foreign country, as knowing that your body is public property, for an entire town to ogle.