Reflections about the Women & Leadership program in Vietnam

by Mary Stebbins, Registered Nurse and Public Health Professional, USA
We had an early morning departure from the Grand Hotel Saigon (HCMC) for the short flight to Hue City. Our tour bus was waiting and soon after arrival, we set off to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hue, considered by many to be the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual heart of Vietnam. This small city is home to 300,000 people, most of whom are Vietnamese originating from the north (Kinh) and 14% are ethnic minorities. According to our informative guide, Xiu, this area was originally a gift from China in exchange for a princess bride.

Our first stop was to visit the Imperial City (also called the Citadel), the former capital of Vietnam. Xiu provided an interesting commentary as we walked around the grounds of this walled fortress ringed by a moat. The Citadel is situated along the northern bank of the Perfume River (Song Huong). Construction took place from 1804 to 1832 and the site served as the center of the Nguyen dynasty from 1805 to 1945. It was built using a combination of Chinese principles of feng shui for harmony and balance, and military architectural concepts adopted from the French. The Citadel has three walls or tiers, the outermost of defensive stone ramparts with a flag tower, and seven gates for the second tier containing royal buildings, gardens, and temples. Of particular note in the second tier (where we saw a short movie), was the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Thai Hoa Palace) that houses the emperor’s throne and many red-lacquered wood columns adorned with the golden dragon emblem of the Nguyen dynasty. Access to the Citadel’s innermost areas, known as the “Purple Forbidden City”, was restricted to the emperor (the only man allowed) and Nguyen royal family. During our tour, we were dismayed to see extensive damage from various past wars. The Tet offensive in 1968 (the “American war”) was especially devastating. However, it is good to note that restoration work is on-going and progress is being made to return the most important structures to their former beauty. Touring the Imperial City provided a fascinating glimpse into the history of Vietnam and many wonderful photo opportunities.
Following our interesting visit at the Citadel, we enjoyed a welcome break for lunch at the Ancient Hue Restaurant. According to the brochure, the lovely, traditional architecture of this restaurant is intended to reflect the history of Hue and the Nguyen Dynasty. Set among beautiful gardens with a waterfall, statues, and colorful lanterns, it offered a relaxing respite from the heat along with a delicious sampling of Hue cuisine.

After lunch, we drove to the Pilgrimage Village, our hotel for the night. This was another impressive venue with beautifully manicured grounds, extensive amenities, and a very well-appointed spa offering a long list of inviting services. We wished for more time to enjoy all that this lovely resort had to offer in the quiet countryside on the outskirts of Hue City. After a quick break to settle into our rooms and change clothes, we were off again to yet another special experience.

Our bus was waiting at 4 pm to take us to the home of Ta Thi Ngoc Thao, a wealthy businesswoman who designed this as her place to retire. We soon discovered that the Cat Tuong Quan Zen House is far more than a retirement home. As we walked through the gate toward the house, we were surprised to be greeted by Xiu along with another young woman and two young men, all dressed in “Tai chi” attire. They escorted us to the courtyard with a reflecting pool surrounded by elegant open air wooden buildings with columns and tile roofs. We were offered cool wet towels and a refreshing tea drink before Mme. Thao came out to greet us. With Xiu serving as translator, she welcomed us and offered a tour of her home and Zen center. Many Buddhist influences were apparent inside and out. We marveled at the décor and the beautiful furniture that looked like museum pieces. After the tour, we were invited to be seated amphitheater-style on the steps to watch the Zen Master’s demonstration of Qi Gong, an ancient Chinese martial art form similar to Tai Chi. Qi Gong (pronounced “chee kung”) can be described as a spiritual healing practice that integrates slow physical postures, breathing techniques, and focused intention with the goal of achieving mind, body, spirit connection. After the inspiring performance, we were offered an escorted walk to the top of Thien An Hill for an opportunity to try some basic Qi Gong movements and breathing exercises taught by the Zen Master. We lined up in rows in front of the Master, facing a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which provided an interesting backdrop for this meditative experience in an exotic outdoor environment. On our walk back to the Zen House, we discovered a wide stone stairway leading to a garden area. As we climbed the stairs, a large, highly adorned Catholic Church came into full view and we heard beautiful chant singing coming from the black-robed monks inside. A very tall ornate pagoda stood next to the church—another exotic juxtaposition!

Back at the Zen House, we were offered tea along with a snack of fresh fruit and sweet rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. A beautiful black lacquered table and chairs were set up so that we could also watch a slide show of photos taken of our group during the visit. Those of us who tried Qi Gong with the Master, had a chance to see what we looked like in various poses. Following the refreshments and slide show, Mme. Thao came out to greet us again. She set aside this time to provide us with an opportunity to learn more about her life as well as her perspective on women’s issues. Ever smiling, she started out by telling us that she “came from nothing” and was raised without family since the age of six in a Buddhist ashram. Her lifelong career as a business woman was in real estate. She was married and had children and is now enjoying her role as a grandmother. She expressed her opinion that, socially, there should be no difference between genders (In the Vietnamese language, there is no separate pronoun for “he” or “she”. It is the same for both genders and loosely translates as “human being”). Furthermore, young people (especially girls and young women) should not allow social barriers to prevent their achievement in whatever they want to do. They should persevere and find ways to achieve their goals even if it defies tradition. She gave an example from her personal life when she was a young married woman early in her career. It was (is?) traditional for women to be responsible for all the household tasks in addition to managing the demands of their work outside the home. Mme. Thao dealt with these inevitable conflicts by hiring people (presumably women) to do the cooking and cleaning in the home while she spent time with her husband and children after work. When Mme. Thao offered to entertain questions, she was asked about how less affluent women can handle work life balance dilemmas when they cannot afford to hire help. Her response was not very specific nor enlightening. Likewise, very little was said in response to questions about how she started her career and the challenges she faced in the workplace, especially given that she had come from nothing. Nonetheless, it was clear that Mme. Thao has been very successful in her work and home life and she is an inspiration to young people that are lucky enough to interact with her.

At the conclusion of her presentation, Mme. Thao invited us to come to the yoga studio for some guided meditation practice. Seated on mats and pillows, she led us in a series of relaxation movements similar to “self massage” for about a half hour. At the end of the “meditation” session, she spoke about the importance of paying attention to our bodies. She encouraged us to carve out time on a regular basis to take care of ourselves because that is just as important as caring for others (if not more so). Then she invited us to enjoy a dinner typical of this region. Dinner was served al fresco in the same area as the Qi Gong demonstration. The black inlaid table had been moved to this location and set with pottery and utensils in the traditional Vietnamese way. We were treated to several courses of colorful and delicious vegan dishes served family style. Throughout the meal, the young people we had met earlier brought out platters of food and bowls of soup and helped us to serve everything properly. They made sure that our water glasses were replenished and the conversation was lively. After dessert, Mme. Thao returned to bid us good night. Michael took this opportunity to present her with a thank you gift from our GEI delegation. Knowing that Mme. Thao has an affinity for bees, he had chosen several personal items containing bee products.

The entire evening was a memorable and uniquely enjoyable experience. Although it was disappointing not to hear more in depth about her views, we were very appreciative of Mme. Thao’s generous hospitality and her willingness to share a relaxing “Zen experience” in a most lovely and peaceful environment. We returned to the hotel around pm where some of us retired to the room and others went to the piano bar or spa before some much welcome sleep.