Before I departed for Asia, I often worried about their infamous street vendors. As a naive, and often lost and confused, westerner, I figured that they would be able to suck my money out of my anti-theft wallet like financially motivated vacuums. How could anyone, I thought, be able to resist the soft calls and big, brown eyes of those child sales-squads? I should not have underestimated the power of human adaptation. The sheer number of people asking for money hardens your heart quickly. I gained the ability to sweep right over those big brown eyes and block out the not-so-soft calls of Cambodia children who, waving postcards, will run up and chant, “Dollar only for ten! Look: one, two, three …” Pushy street vendors are as much a part of the scenery as the crumbling ruins and cultural museums and, unfortunately, I began to see straight through people.
The guilt apparent in my confession appeared when we visited the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi. It was an interesting display: three floors with varying themes of female contributions to culture and history. It was also our first day in Vietnam, so it was our first taste of the communist propaganda that is sprinkled among the display plaques and labels in many Vietnamese museums. However, what really stayed with me was a woman’s story detailed in a five minute video feature about women vendors in Vietnam. She calmly explained that her farmland had been taken away by the government, and her and her husband needed to find jobs to support their three children. Her husband found work as a construction worker, but fell and broke his neck on the job. He spent three months in the hospital, and three months at home, before finally dying. She now works in Hanoi as a street vendor, so that her children could continue going to school. She goes home once every ten days with $20. She stays in a room with a dozen other women, for $0.35 a night. She gets up at 2am to buy her wares at the market. A good day means that she can pack up and go to bed around 5pm. If not, she’s out til 8pm. Then she goes back to the room, showers, eats and goes to sleep.
The prospect of being forced into this kind of life is so daunting; I couldn’t imagine that I have the fortitude to continue without a hope for a better future. After hearing that story, I began looking a little more closely at the vendors in Vietnam. They were all women, and they were all hardened. They didn’t slouch under the weight of their wares half as much as I slouched under the weight of my bag. They had a lot of friends. Most of them would smile, wave, laugh and call out to people that she passed. It almost seemed indecent to be so happy with such a hard life. To think how many people, myself included, are resentful at the slightest downfall. Eventually, I did fall back into the habit of ignoring potential salesmen, but the memory of the straight-backed, smiling street vendor remains solid.