Ellen Brickley

Between Welcome and Health on the Mekong Delta

            We meet Thanh on a boat, where her job is to be nice to us. 

            She sees the harps on our passports and says “Céad míle fáilte!” with admirable pronunciation for a Vietnamese woman, and a glee that’s hard to fake. Later we’ll see her consulting a little notebook she carries, full of foreign phrases, so she can say them to her groups. Later still, she’ll joke with an English family on the boat about Waitrose in a way that shows she understands the nuance of Waitrose, the particular place it inhabits in the English streetscape. The following morning, when she convinces us to drink snake wine when the sun is barely up over the Mekong Delta, we’ll teach her how to say “Sláinte!” for her next Irish guests.

            I think of our time with Thanh between those two moments, between welcome and good health. Thanh’s job is to bring us, the English family, and no doubt others I’ve forgotten, on a tour of the Mekong Delta to try local foods and see how life unfolds where a river is the street and the highway. Thanh is the reason I have tasted and smelled durian, a fruit so pungent that one of the hotels we stay in has explicitly banned it from rooms. I remember her fondly in spite of this.

            Thanh walks us through a humid forest, plucking fruits and leaves, telling us what to eat that’s safe and good (the durian and snake wine come later, after we’ve grown to trust her). Thanh is curating Vietnam for us, making it palatable. It’s my first trip to Asia, and mindful of the combination of my anxiety disorder, culture shock, and who I am as a person, we have joined an organised tour where, as my friend puts it, “all we have to do is show up.” Though I can’t overlook how this is all a bit imperialist, a bit othering, a bit problematic, it is hard to regret what brought us to Thanh.

            I realise I should have arrived with nothing more than a backpack, a phrasebook, and a vaccination record. I know I should have schlepped around Vietnam authentically, although I can’t help wondering how many visions of that kind of unfettered adventure depend on the adventurer enjoying the privilege of male safety and family wealth back home. Within a year of my trip, I’ll be working adjacent to the tourism sector in Ireland. When I see groups in my own city, holding guidebooks in alphabets I can’t read, I am relieved that someone is helping to make sure they see the very best of us, having come all this way. But it’s not quite that simple the other way around.

            After dinner on the boat, Thanh pulls a seat over to our table, and asks to join us. We are delighted, to be three young women together. My friend and I are the only women on the boat who aren’t accompanied by men. Thanh and my friend got married, it turns out, one day and several thousand miles apart. We laugh together about the coincidence. I’m six months away from my wedding day – a thick silver band sits on my wedding finger (what a concept, a wedding finger), in place of my engagement ring, which I felt sure I’d lose on a trip so far from home. I don’t know why it feels more likely that my ring will fall into the Mekong than the Liffey, but I have a history of getting stupider when I board a plane, so it was probably the right call.

            We talk about weddings. Thanh tells us that in Vietnam, wedding photos are taken weeks before the ceremony, so the guests can view the albums when they gather to celebrate. The photographer arrives with a selection of outfits, a hairdresser and makeup artist, and the couple are photographed in beautiful locations, like I imagine a magazine photo shoot. I’d like to see Thanh’s album – I imagine how authentically happy she must look, weeks before her wedding, with so much ahead of her. (There’s a word, authentically. It’ll come up again.) The wedding album cost $350 – Thanh asks us not to tell her what wedding photography costs in Ireland, so she doesn’t fall off her chair. Her wedding lasted for four days, two for each family. We tell her about Irish weddings, everything in one day, photos done quickly between the ceremony and dinner.

            Then we talk of beauty standards. As there were children in our tour group, Thanh says, she didn’t talk about some of the topics she usually likes to cover, to help her groups understand Vietnam. Her voice drops, quiet and fast, and she tells us what cosmetic surgeries are most sought after among Vietnamese women – breast augmentations, implants to make the bridge of their noses seem harder and larger. I touch the bone of my own big nose, which I’ve always hated. I tell her that in the West, women get our nasal bones scraped to make our noses small and soft, like Thanh’s. Thanh tells us about skin-bleaching and eye reshaping – I tell her about fake tan and winged eyeliner. Vietnamese women are trying to look like us; we are trying to look like them. It isn’t lost on me that, while we’re arguably all trying to capture the beauty we see in each other, Thanh is talking of permanent surgeries and dangerous bleaching. I’m talking about face paint.

            “Vietnamese men think you’re so beautiful,” Thanh says to us.

            “European men think you’re so beautiful too,” we tell her, but we all know it’s not quite that simple, the other way around.

            When I decide I will write about Thanh, I’m walking to the local coffee house seven years later. There is a pandemic. I haven’t seen or heard from Thanh since our time together between fáilte and sláinte, although I left my email address with her. She must meet someone like me every day, and of course she won’t want to keep track of us all. She was singular to me, but it’s not quite that simple the other way around. I walk through Dublin and I remember the durian fruit, that odd mix of melon and onion, creamy and bitter. I remember the cool of the delta in the morning, before the sun has baked the mist into humidity, sitting on deck watching the working boats make their way past us. We are the tourist boat, a sanitised and curated experience, but all around us is something real. The photos I took of large cargo boats moving on the river are some of my favourites of the whole trip. 

            But mostly I remember Thanh, as I walk through a suburb that she’ll never see. I wonder what I can safely report of what she told us about women’s lives in Vietnam, about childbirth and bodily autonomy, about working after having a family, about healthcare. I wonder how much I am flattering myself that something I wrote, that (might) appear in a literary journal, if I’m lucky, could possibly reach the ears of someone who could take retribution against Thanh for the time she spent educating two white women. I wrote about Cambodia once, and left out half the story rather than risk getting someone in trouble thousands of miles away. I thought this was alarmist of me (and not a little self-important), until a retired diplomat I met at a party assured me I had been wise to be cautious. As I walk, I remember things about Thanh and our days on the river that I thought I had forgotten. When I get to the coffee shop, I write them by hand. The words come out in motion, as Thanh did, revealing the secrets of Vietnam with the rolling of our boat.

            Like J. D. Salinger’s Buddy Glass, I have “never written a line longhand in my life without instantly visualizing it in eleven-point type.”[1] When I write essays, I think about publishing them, and when I think about publishing them, I think about the ethics of doing so. When I first wrote about Thanh, by hand in the coffee house, it was in the days after the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shootings, in which eight people were killed and one injured. Six of the dead were Asian-American women. In the days that followed, people wrote and spoke about the nuances and specificities of anti-Asian racism, particularly towards women, about the intersection of sexualisation, fetishisation and racism. I thought of Thanh, of what she taught us about the bodies of Asian women, the changes they pursue, and the changes that are wrought upon them. I thought of how I told her that we, in our turn, think women like her are beautiful. We do, of course, but it’s not that simple. It’s never that simple.

            Commentators noted how many news outlets got the Asian-American victims’ names wrong, transposing family and given names to conform to Anglophone naming conventions. Another white woman’s voice didn’t seem a useful thing to add to the world at the time, so I left my story of meeting Thanh for another time. I also decided that, if I ever did publish it, I would donate any fee I earned to an organisation that works to eradicate the very women’s issues in Vietnam that Thanh had told us about. It seemed the best way to honour her honesty in dropping her customer-facing mask, and forging the connection, however brief, that the three of us had shared in the delta twilight. 

            To find a suitable organisation, I did a variety of web searches with key words like “Vietnamese women’s organisations”, “South-East Asian women charities”, “support for women in Vietnam.” 

            In the shadow of the assassination of Asian-American women in Atlanta, the entire first page of the search results and all of the sponsored ads for those terms were for dating sites and porn. 

            A year later, when I revisit the essay, I run the same search terms. The ads are gone entirely, and the first page results are less ugly. Something has changed. The suggested searches are still highly sexualised. The auto-completed search terms for “Vietnamese women” on Google suggest that most people who start a search with those terms would do better not to finish it.

            I find two articles with details of organisations that work to advance the rights of women in Vietnam. Both were written by men with English-language names. I wince at this, internally drawing on the language of social media to analyse and problematise it. And then I remember who I am, and what I am doing. 

            Telling stories we bring home from faraway places is another iteration of colonialism. Instead of bringing home items for my large private museum, like a Victorian man, I am bringing home tales and lessons that I can pivot into social capital, no less potent for lacking a physical embodiment. “A woman I met in Vietnam told me…” smacks of the humblebrag (observe simultaneously how I can afford a plane ticket, connect with strangers, and engage meaningfully with a person I am Othering by talking about them, deploying them to bolster myself as an aspirational person). But I cannot deny that I learned from Thanh, and in my scant defense, I didn’t seek out our post-dinner conversation, didn’t draw Thanh out beyond her specific, circumscribed role, between fáilte and sláinte. Thanh gave me a gift, that of her knowledge and perspective, even though much of what she told me was hard to hear. The challenge for me as a white woman is to honour that gift without dehumanising, commodifying, the giver. 

            To write about Thanh is to acknowledge and receive her gift with the gravity it deserves. But it would be remiss not to write that we laughed, all three of us, that night on the delta. That we were three young women together, for a moment, chatting about our weddings. That my friend and I talk about her often, with affection, and with the particular light that a long friendship casts. 

            Remember when we. Remember that time. Remember that story.


[1]   Salinger, J. D. (1991). Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. New York: Little, Brown and Company

Ellen Brickley is a writer of essays, poems and YA novels. Her writing has appeared in Banshee, Sonder, the Irish Times, and Dedalus Press anthologies Local Wonders and Romance Options. She is a grateful recipient of two bursary awards and two Agility Awards from the Arts Council of Ireland.