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Hanoi: What the Women Do

An almost full moon is rising over Hoan Kiem Lake this steamy Wednesday evening. I'm feeling a little forlorn, it's nothing specific, nor too extreme, more a lostness, a kind of ennui. Most travelers have it some time or another. You’re watching the passing show, enchanted, transported, when you suddenly realize you’re not in it. That’s just what it is, a profound feeling of not belonging. Here is this exotic world, but you’re passing through. It’s someone else’s, and not your own.

I had been walking for hours, up and down the crazed labyrinth of the Old Quarter with it’s innumerable craft stores, diligently building a map in my head to keep myself oriented and able to make it back to my hotel in time for dinner.

Along the way I'd literally lost myself in the deluge of intense color that drenches this culture, shimmering and gleaming on every sidewalk in every texture imaginable. I’d lost my self control, all inhibition, and a reasonable amount of my limited budget as I repeatedly failed to resist silks more ethereal than material, a kind of poetry, haunting and musical.

Where I come from color is just not that brazenly out of control. Here it is wanton. In neighboring China color is bright red and gold, but formal, traditional and somehow restrained. Here heedless color casts a spell.

So three euphoric hours later I’m back at the lake. It’s still too early to sequester myself in the hushed luxury of the old Metropole Hotel. I linger here at the inky evening water. I sit on a stone abutment and rest my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands. Next to me is a bag of rustling silk that promises to transform me. I have two dresses, one the color of the inky Aegean at it’s deepest and the other a dried antique rose. Nestled around them are four twirly skirts in riotous colors seen only in the most flamboyant of sunsets: saffron, gold, russet.

The lake seems quiet, as though everyone has someone to go home too. I am alone. I begin to think flat thoughts like maybe the silk dresses will look silly on a woman of my mature age. How can you dress up a frump in something as lavish and exuberant as these silly confections I have in my bag.

Someone slips by me, a shadow, followed by another. In the dim evening light they unzip and peal off their thin nylon jackets and pile them on a stone bench to the right of me, closer to the dark water of the lake.

The two women stand without talking, waiting. Soon two more women arrive. They do the same and join the group. No-one speaks. Before I can imagine what they’re waiting for, women are coming from everywhere. They form a line. Now there is some subdued, companionable murmuring.

The moon is up high and I am transfixed because this line now moves in a slow, languid dance as though it was one and not many. The women, clearly middle-aged and rather dowdy, have all begun to touch the backs of the woman in front of them. Their hands move in concentrated strokes and circles round the shoulders, down the spine across the small of the back.

I’ve never seen anything quite so dear and so beautiful. I am sitting here next to them, invisible and beaming uncontrollably. So this is what the women do. This is how they care for one another, bring each other to life.

They are the anti-glamour set, beyond silk and color, they’re dressed plainly in sneakers, sweatpants, T-shirts, but tonight, beside the lake in the moonlight, they are radiant.

I dance my way back to the hotel, no longer a lone middle-aged woman with an inappropriate silk purchase, no longer not belonging. I have seen something ancient and abiding, I have seen love in action on some quiet moonlit lake in a land on the other side of my world.

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