Wandering these streets seems too familiar too quickly in the storm of chaos that describes them. Yet familiar they seem more than they ought, a travellers adaptability or maybe a human resilience we all have but so rarely grant an opportunity to shine? Tung is leading the way as he tends to do; being a tour guide of sorts is in his blood with an urge to please like many Vietnamese seem to have. The BBQ goes down well along with the swathes of butter, oil, fat and salt required to make it memorable, again Tung seems to omit his needs from manning the small hot-plate with near maternal fervour for our eating. In this respect, Tung represents his nation so succinctly, an empathetic desire to please belies the confident boldness stored within him somewhere that only rarely escapes. So often we see a need to please connected firmly to submission or meekness; what do we call it when it’s delivered not from supplication but empathy?
As fate has it, this weekend in Hanoi is Vietnam pride, the ritual celebration of gay rights held in nearly every major city not attempting to exist in the 18th century or earlier. In conservative Vietnam still calling this very capitalist society communist, a pride weekend is not only a triumph but a curiosity we can’t ignore, it’s off to the pub. In just a few days we’ve gotten to know Tung relatively well but his sexuality isn’t a huge topic, he’s gay and even to gay strangers that are in his country for a short time there’s no outpouring of the conversation we might expect, no faux coming-out. He walks us through these familiar streets to call down a cab with a smile or a giggle just occasionally letting on an excitement years of rationale are telling him to suppress. I wonder why he wants to hold it in but a fleeting though to my younger years brings admonishment of my stupidity for even wondering why, it’s what we all do. In the face of acknowledging a frightening realisation don’t we all seek comfort in a bit of denial?
We walk into a bar that’s suitably cheesy, playing suitably cheesy music with a suitably cheesy crowd. How did gays get such a reputation for style? We’ve said it a million times that gay bars are the same the world over and while this one isn’t a great deviator it does have a festivity, a life that seems to take the place of the usual sleaziness. Maybe being in a conservative country gives credence to these bars as we don’t appreciate at home; in my lifetime the sanctuary of a place not to be afraid has been a noble yet distant ideal to me, something theoretical that other people might need at some time. The older I get the luckier I realise I was. We order a gin and say a cheers to Charlie’s dad, Phil, who passed away a few years ago; today is his birthday. A life spent towing his family to frontier countries imbued a reputation of fearless adventure to Phil, the location here might be an oddity but we have no doubts that he’d approve of this great adventure all the same. Cheers Phil.Retro disco jerks to underground soul that crashes into saccharine pop, the DJ is atrocious but beyond the jarring shifts the music is fun enough , it’s a gay bar after all. Charlie has been accosted by a couple of guys who are young enough to be his children in another life as Tung decides that Charlie just about defines the gay Viet ideal. Tung so unwittingly declared earlier that Charlie is the very Viet type: “Local guys will like you, you’re white, hairy…. and chubby” Lets just say that Charlie wasn’t keen on being declared chubby but Tung seemed confused about the reaction to his dubious compliment. With my fat hairy husband being drooled over I sit with Tung at the bar as we both ignore his pensive restraint that seems comfortable to him as these streets do to us, like it shouldn’t be comfortable at all.
Vietnam’s favourite new plus-size model returns and we get a round of beers as we drape our arms around Tung telling him he can’t go and get the last bus much to the countless sets of eyes that catch the moment. Apparent’y according to Tung having foreigner friends is somewhat of a status symbol here which means we simply have to make the most of the red herring we represent. In no time the ice is melting, on pride weekend Tung is up and having a tentative dance to fuel the gossip. He didn’t choose this weekend for a statement but Hanoi is taking notice of Tung and it seems like he’s loosening his restraints as he lets them look, lets them talk and laughs at it all instead of shrinking back in fear like he usually might. to us it seems like a light bulb moment, he leans in and says “everyone will think we’re having a threesome’.
We aren’t sure if this is ok, half expecting him to shrink in and go back to the bar leaving those words as a reason for his departure. But no, a smile, a straighter back greets us “fuck them, I don’t care anymore” as he breaks into a small dance that means more than the careful movements suggest. Let them look indeed, we count to three and plant a kiss on each cheek; what a scandal. And so the night goes, we dance and laugh at the prudish liberation so hard won in a country not yet ready to let go of traditions so much simpler. The symbolism of Vietnams youth facing fear and letting go of it against the backdrop of a country that isn’t yet ready to do the same is ripe. For now traditions feel comfortable to Vietnam like the streets to us and fear to Tung, but for how long.To fuel the fire we all leave together and get in the same cab; who knew grabbing a few beers with a friend could be so scandalous. Our cab pulls up to our hotel and we leave Tung to carry on to his house thinking little of a night out that we believe means more to him than just what it was, a night out. Coming out is an interesting process, rather akin to an emotional reset button that all gay people must press at some stage. Staring in a mirror and realising you aren’t who you believed you were sends questioning ripples to the darkest corners of your world, nothing escapes a fresh new look and no belief is blindly left to assumption. It’s not a one-night process, it takes a long time to tear down a life of things you know and assess every speck all over again but a big moment in the process for everyone comes before reassessing your entire world, you have to reassess yourself first.
It’s impossible to say from the outside, possibly even rudely presumptuous but maybe tonight was the night that Tung decided he was better not hiding from himself. In a culture that so nobly decries selfishness for empathy, it’s just possible that the necessary step was taken on those words screamed to a chubby strangers ear on a dance floor: Fuck them, I don’t care anymore. Far from not caring, far from giving up, Tung indeed might have just decided to care for the first time, to care for himself. Just maybe on the night of Vietnam pride there’s one Vietnamese guy who found what the word means and decided that having another look at the world is a process he should start, with pride.