When I encounter tourists in Hà Nội, I often recommend a climb up the Flag Tower, a 200-year-old survivor of fraught history that now serves as a crown for the Việt Nam Military History Museum – which is really what I want tourists to see.
The museum is an aptly shabby, sobering reminder of the bad old days, a repository of decrepit weaponry used by Việt Nam and its enemies over the generations.
A centerpiece is the rusting sculptural collage formed from the wreckage of downed aircraft.
But during my first visit, two displays from “the American War” proved most riveting.
One was an old, grainy news photo of a hulking, captured American pilot being held prisoner by a diminutive Vietnamese woman.
Another was the bust depicting the sad, deeply lined face of a “Heroic Vietnamese Mother,” one of more than 44,000 women who had been accorded that recognition and a modest pension after losing children and husbands in the war.
To some, the Vietnamese Women’s Day, observed on October 20, is little more than “a Hallmark holiday” – a marketing gimmick to sell greeting cards, flowers, sweets and maybe a night on the town.
But I find myself thinking it is more than that – perhaps, to use an American frame of reference, a blend of Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.
All in all, Vietnamese women have it tough.
My Sài Gòn – born, American-raised wife would tell you that in Việt Nam’s patriarchal culture – in Việt Nam or overseas – the stereotypical wife may suffer not only from a husband with a wandering eye and a thirst for bia hơi, but also a domineering mother-in-law who feels her boy can do no wrong.
This is, I suspect, one reason that many Vietnamese women find foreign boyfriends.
My impression of Vietnamese womanhood is also shaped by what I see day after day on the streets of Hà Nội in how so many women labor in ways that have existed for hundreds of years.
Most women, of course, are now riding their scooters in styles appropriate for office jobs.
But much as rural women still labor under their conical hats in rice paddies, thousands of their sisters in Hà Nội wear their conical hats while carrying their meager livelihood in two baskets that dangle from the yoke-like bamboo gánh over a shoulder.
There are women who trundle carts or walk bicycles holding baskets that serve as portable florist shops, kitchens or miniscule general stores.
Two books on my nightstand also shape my perspective.
“The Girl in the Picture” tells the story of Kim Phúc, who was 10 years old when she ran naked and screaming from the pain of napalm into the view of photojournalist Nick Utt, whose iconic image helped cement opinion against the war.
The other is “Last Night I Dreamed of Peace,” based on the diary of Đặng Thùy Trâm, a young Vietnamese woman who as a physician tended the wounded in medical tents in central Việt Nam.
She was 25 when she started her diary on April 8, 1965.
On June 20, 1970 her diary ended.
Trâ was killed in action.
The diary was nearly tossed into a fire before the Vietnamese interpreter of an American intelligence officer realized it should be saved.
Not until April 2005 did the diary find its way to Hanoi and Trâm’s mother, Đoàn Ngọc Trâm.
The publication of the diary proved a sensation in Việt Nam as readers connected it with the spirit of a young woman whose heroism hid her heartache over a past love.
Sacrifice, it seems, is the recurring theme – one that Vietnamese women share with so many others all over the world.
Here’s hoping that the brave Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for daring to demand education for girls makes a full recovery.
And to all the ladies out there, here’s hoping for a happy Women’s Day – here and elsewhere, now and forever.