It’s 7.30am and we’re at breakfast already, ready for the day. Those of you who know us know that there is no way that we are ever out the door at this time of the day, despite getting up early. But here we are.
Since yesterday Sarah has been messaging Srorn about a purchase for the members of Pacific Pride Choir. There’s a Facebook Page, Rainbow Cat (Rainbow Cambodia Advocate Team), founded to support the human rights of everyone, not just LGBT as it is known here. They support social enterprise and provide funding to help the poor and the disadvantaged start small businesses. As little as $100 USD can fund a street seller.
Srorn tells about Pheng Sahn, a trans man who lives across the Mekong River. Seems there is quite a trans community here. Sahn is a weaver and weaves rainbow kromer, the traditional Khmer scarves, to support his family. We see photos of the stunning fabric. Sahn and his female partner have been together since 1979, says Srorn; before Sarah was born (‘only by a year,’ says Mel).
We’d planned to buy a couple of traditional kromer for ourselves and had been going to look for them in Siem Reap. We know a guy who knows a guy who sells them and another who will hem them.
Quick change of plan. We do the maths and run the logistics (getting the kromer, getting them back to Sydney and then over to Hanoi), as both Srorn and Sahn are heading off on Friday to tour to Prey Veng, where Sahn will speak to the village community about his life as a trans man as part of the My Voice, My Story exhibition.
We order 35, enough for each member of the 2019 tour and a few extra. Facebook Messenger is a wonderful tool (can’t believe we said that). We place the order and Sahn will arrive Friday at 9am with the scarves. Activists like Srorn and Sahn don’t have salaries for their work. Our purchase will fund their families and their advocacy.
The softly-spoken Mr Bee and his colleagues at Rambutan help us translate for Sahn when he arrives on his moto. He recognises Rambutan as the site of last year’s Pride Pool Party. Mr Bee is nominated by his co-workers as ‘the photographer’, and so he artfully arranges our kromer and snaps away, posing our hands in the symbol for ‘love’. He shows us another way to wear kromer on his phone: in a photo an exceptionally buff young man reclines on his side, framed by blue sky, wearing nothing but a vibrant rainbow kromer wrapped sarong-style around his groin. ‘This is me,’ shy Mr Bee has to point out to us.
As we leave for the day in Mr Viriya’s gold Lexus, complete with wicker heart dangling from the mirror, Sahn and the Rambutan’s gruff butch security guard are hanging out together out front, clearly old friends. We’ve learned something new about two of the Rambutan’s staff this morning, all thanks to rainbow powerhouse Sahn.
We first came to Phnom Penh 10 years ago. It was our honeymoon, and Cambodia’s capital was the first stop on our 12-day Intrepid tour. November was hot, humid, & bustling. Jet-lagged, we headed straight out of our hotel with a few hours to kill before the welcome dinner. We soon discovered clear footpaths were a luxury not afforded most streets. If they did exist, they were turned over to sidewalk restaurants, mechanics workshops or moto parking lots.
We were an oddity, walking the length of the main street, waving away the constant refrain of, 'Hello, you want tuk tuk?' But we were instantly captivated by the steaming, chaotic city and its surprisingly relaxed inhabitants. There wasn’t much development then; a few shiny banks & less than a handful of high-end hotels.
Fast forward to 2019 & the change is evident. As with Hanoi, the juxtaposition of old & new is stark. But now, the city that seemed frantic to us ten years ago feels different. The pace of life remains far less frenetic than Hanoi. This city, though busy, is more chilled.
We meet with Dirk de Graaff, who owns the Rambutan with his partner Tum Hantitipart. We’re hoping to gain a Westerner’s tips on the gay scene here & to avoid any rookie mistakes, like the one we made ten years ago. (More on that later.)
There's a divide between the city LBGTQI and the rural; the two rarely intersect. Dirk stresses that it's not a community in the sense that we know. We ask about gay bars, having noticed that Blue Chilli has been around since 2006. Most of the others sputter into life and close within two years, he tells us. Finding a lesbian bar is hard. We ask about The L Bar, opened in 2016 by two French women - closed. 'All I know about the lesbian scene is that they head off on motorbikes & go somewhere', says Dirk. ‘I saw a documentary about it once. I don’t know how it works.’
Sarah has a sheepish smile on her face; it’s time to fess up about our one and only attempt to find a lesbian bar in Cambodia, on our last night in Phnom Penh, all those years ago.
At the mere mention of the Pussycat Bar, Dirk collapses in laughter. Seems we don’t have to explain all that much. Our tour guide of 2009 helpfully suggested a bar to us that he thought lesbians could go to. Pussycat Bar - it sounded cute. Somehow we managed to pick up a tuk tuk driver from our hotel who was clearly a screaming queen. ‘Pussycat Bar!’, he trilled, as we tucked ourselves in behind him. We’d dressed down for the evening, in our standard tourist guise of knee-length shorts and long-sleeved shirts. We’d made the mistake previously of dressing up to go to a gay bar in Siem Reap and found everyone was in t-shirts and jeans, so we figured the Cambodian scene was more relaxed.
Our tuk tuk pulls up outside a narrow entranceway, lit with neon, the pavement in front crowded with moto and with some big guys dressed in leather. We head down the stairs to find more neon lighting a narrow bar, a large pool table, and about a dozen girls. They’re all young, they’re all gorgeous, with long, flowing hair, they’re all immaculately made-up, and they’re all wearing very short skirts.
We like to think we don’t stereotype, but we’re pretty surprised at how different Khmer lesbians look to those we’ve met around the rest of the world. We sit at the bar, feeling seriously under-dressed, and look over the menu, trying to make bright conversation with the bartender. They don’t have most of the drinks listed on the menu. As we peruse it, we find a semicircle of girls closing in on us. One in particular seats herself next to Mel and starts asking questions - ‘Where are you from?’ We feel like somehow this cultural exchange isn’t panning out quite as we’d expect.
The girls are looking at us expectantly. They seem to be much more interested in Mel than in Sarah, but it’s clear the ringleted lass doing most of the talking has adopted her, and the other girls slowly drop away as her pout deepens. They try and entice us off the bar stools, to which we are firmly rooted, to play pool. Mel, quite keen on pool from her days as a university chorister, isn't going anywhere, despite encouragement (from Sarah included, who knows her wife likes pool). Mel later confesses she wasn’t bending over a pool table for anybody. By this point we both think there’s definitely something going on we can’t fathom, finish our drinks and pay up. We thank the girls and depart.
As we leave, the burly guys in black leather hustle for our business: ‘Moto?’ ‘Tuk tuk!’ shrieks our driver, waving his hands in the air and leading us across the road to his vehicle at a trot. On the way home, he tries to convince us to go to a drag show at Blue Chilli, but we’re done for the night.
Back in our hotel room, Mel confesses she really needed the bathroom but was too scared to make a move. Sarah says the same, and we both shake our heads and laugh.
It takes ten years for us to find out about ‘hostess bars’, and by that point, Dirk is laughing about as hard as we did. Oops.
Where to begin?
It’s evening of our first full day in Cambodia. Our heads are exploding with information; our hearts are already full with some of the stories we’ve heard. We’re glad to be back in this crazy-beautiful city after nearly 10 years, and back in the gay-owned Rambutan Resort, in whose sister hotel in Siem Reap we first thought about bringing a pride choir to Cambodia.
We had our first meeting with an LGBTQI organisation, Cam-ASEAN, this afternoon, in the Starbucks at Bokor traffic lights (yes, they’re a landmark). The Starbucks is large, cool and clearly a popular meeting place. We’re meeting with activist Srun Srorn, who tells us one of his current projects is providing job opportunities for young LGBT people to prevent them from homelessness. Employers can sign up to receive CVs from young folk at risk once they’re proven to be able to provide a safe working environment. We’re at Starbucks Bokor because the boss there has signed up.
We’ve ordered our coffees (‘two coffees for Miss Sarah’ calls the young barista) when Srorn and his colleague Pheung Sophea arrive, straight from another meeting. We know that Cam-ASEAN is responsible for the brand new SOGI curriculum (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) to be rolled out nationally for high school students as part of the Life Skills curriculum in 2019. We have lots of questions about it, particularly considering our own Australian government has just withdrawn Safe Schools, an equivalent program, from our own schools. But the story Srorn launches into about Cam-ASEAN’s current project is beyond incredible.
Srorn tells us of his work to create the same recognition for lesbians and trans people at an official level as there is for gay Khmer. Several years ago, he faced the official position that there were hardly any lesbians or trans people in Cambodia; since then he has worked to help dispel that myth. Cam-ASEAN's recent work is to go into villages and connect with trans and lesbian couples.
We ask how they identify these people, and are stunned by his response. Srorn and Sophea travelled from village to village, all over Cambodia. They asked the local police, the tuk tuk drivers, and the street sellers - people who know most of the village - 'Do you know any men who dress like women, or women who dress like men?’ ‘Yikes!’, Mel is thinking, 'Can you imagine that approach back home, where coming out is such a personal thing and we round on anybody who publicly 'outs' someone?’ Meanwhile, Sarah is impressed at the perseverance of such a painstaking approach to gathering information.
It seems a direct approach works, and works well. For many couples, the old cliche of being ‘the only gay in the village’ was true. Yet in one village alone, 7 long-standing trans couples identified themselves and are part of the project. Many of these couples have been together for over 40 years and survived the Khmer Rouge regime (that, in itself, does our heads in). Outside their village community, all these couples have come to realise they are not alone. And likewise, so have their neighbours and families.
Their stories are collected in a roving exhibition, ‘My Voice, My Story’. Just like Srorn and Sophea when collecting the stories, the exhibition now roams from village to village. Neighbours weep as they hear the stories of people who have been living among them all their lives. But the point of the project - of any of Srorn’s projects - isn’t to inspire pity for the difficulties of a queer life. It’s to empower LGBTQ people to show the strength in their lives. They have identified 5,000 people across Cambodia living in long-term (decades-long) trans and lesbian relationships. These elders were unknown to the young queer folk now centred on Cambodia’s big cities, or who have moved overseas. But now the faces of these elders are being seen, their stories are holding up the young folk, and, more importantly, they are stepping forward as key contributors to their own communities. Srorn shows us a video of a transman and his partner who are setting up a home for the old and poor in their community. It’s the same video we saw over breakfast this morning, reading up on Cam-ASEAN.
This story was the tip of the iceberg in our 90-minute conversation. Srorn is a passionate activist. He’s not the type to stay with one organisation, resting on his laurels. He tell us that he founds groups and then, when they secure funding, he leaves to start something new in the next area he feels needs development. He and Cam-ASEAN also use a model in all their projects which trains people to speak for themselves; young LGBTQ folk on Facebook live are interviewed about their lives, and then become the interviewer for a queer friend in their circle in a subsequent episode. Similarly, trans men and women accompany the roving ‘My Voice, My Story’ exhibition to rural villages, give their stories in person, and in doing so, train up the trans people in that village to speak about themselves.
Srorn has several ideas about how Pacific Pride Choir can support Khmer people. It will take time for us to figure out which one we can make work. Whatever it is, we reckon it’s going to be something that could teach the Australian government a thing or two about recognition.
On our last night in Hanoi, we’re having an early dinner before heading to the airport, and reflecting on the past week, the people we’ve met, what we’ve learnt, and what comes next.
People and organisations the world over are big on curating ‘listicles’: your top products, your best skills, your strongest reasons for action or thought; the list goes on. In the quiet of the hotel restaurant, we compile our own top 5 list: a list of what we can achieve by bringing Pacific Pride Choir to Vietnam.
1) We can inspire the first LGBTQI+ choir in Vietnam. If we can bring 40 singers to Hanoi, iSEE has undertaken to found a Diversity Choir. This is one extra choir on the planet - and one extra LGBTQI+ choir, to boot - added to our diverse international choir family. We have a deal, or at least an in-principal agreement: if we bring singers to Hanoi, there will be singers there to welcome us.
2) We can help iSEE kickstart their new era of fundraising to assist with advocacy for LGBTQI+ people in Vietnam. Some of iSEE’s main funding sources are about to expire, meaning they need to build a profile around crowdfunding and philanthropy to keep doing the work they do. A formal concert, with an international choir, in an elite venue like the Vietnam National Academy of Music, will draw high profile celebrities, and the audience’s attention.
3) We can assist in raising the visibility of the LGBTQI+ community in the general community by giving free public performances in places with a lot of foot traffic.
4) We can provide a free concert for members of the LGBTQI+ community who won’t go to elite concert venues, who feel like such spaces, and the music in them, can’t possibly belong to them. These are some of the most marginalised people in the city. Maybe we can even provide an opportunity for some of them to perform, with a bit of mentoring first.
5) We can meet and make friends with a surprisingly large network of LGBTQI+ folk, who are passionate and articulate. Some people have expressed doubt that we’d find community to connect with in Vietnam. By now, shouldn’t we all have figured out that LGBTQI+ people are everywhere? For a few days next July, we can be a focal point for queer folk to unite, and, probably, party.
There’s no doubt it would be easier if we toured to countries with established queer choirs, or if we joined in with long-running festivals. These choirs and festivals already have an existing network of supporters, and supportive venues.
But what marked Sarah's time with Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir was outreach. We sang for people and communities that didn't get much love: the children detained at Pontville in Hobart, detainees at Villawood in Sydney. It didn’t matter that we were LBGTQI+. We were a choir and we were willing to spare a few hours for anyone who wanted to listen. We remember at Pontville, we were told not many of the boys spoke much English, and most of them would have no idea what we were singing. But one boy broke into song during ‘Seasons of Love’. He knew every word. And he was Vietnamese.
There are other kinds of outreach, too - the kind where you sing for churches, synagogues, nursing homes, hospitals, in public parks, at public events, anywhere where the general public will see you, and understand that LGBTQI+ people are, in some ways at least, ordinary human beings.
This kind of work is the foundation of Pacific Pride Choir. It’s about putting the goals of the people you’re travelling to meet on par with your own desires as a tourist. There's a certain immunity that comes with being a traveler in a choir, too. At the end of our trip, we’ll get to head back to our own communities.
What we want to do isn’t easy - as far as we can tell, there’s no choir quite like Pacific Pride on the planet - but when you’re looking people in the eye, and seeing them light up as you talk about the project, and what we may be able to do together, you remember what it's all for.
We have huge support from our dear friends Oliver and Michael and all the staff at KIconcerts. We’re grateful that they make it so easy for us, and believe in what we’re trying to do.
Everyone says travel changes you; that people travel so they can be changed. We prefer the kind of travel which offers a little change in return.
So, the question is: what kind of a traveller are you?
The alarm is set for 8am. No morning meeting means a rare sleep-in. Nevertheless, we're awake before the alarm. No matter; there’s time for a swim and a leisurely breakfast. This morning we’re off to the Vietnamese Women's Museum. It’s been on our radar since friends told us it’s a must-see.
In the foyer, there’s a tall gold statue of a woman surrounded with pink lotus flowers; large portraits of elderly Vietnamese women spread to the left and right, their wizened faces full of a thousand stories.
The permanent exhibition focuses on the role Vietnamese women played in the country’s history, and the role they currently play in society and family life. The museum's stated mission is 'to enhance public knowledge and understanding of history and cultural heritage of Vietnamese women ... thus contributing to promoting gender equality.'
There are 4 permanent exhibitions: the first, Women in Family, looks at marriage. An information plaque makes it clear that much of Vietnam has always been a patriarchal society. However, some regions were matriarchal, and on marriage it is the man who leaves the family home to join that of his wife. Together we spend much time in the room about the Mother Goddess, discovering that the rituals belonging to her worship involve spirit mediums who channel incarnations of various deities. Like the mediums themselves, deities can be of any gender, creating an interesting space for gender fluidity as the mediums change between them.
Mel would have been happy to spend hours in the room devoted to Women in Military. Soft, slightly out-of-focus black-and-white photos of beautiful women adorn the walls. Attached to each is the a story of a young woman, 18, 20 at the most, who served during the resistance wars against a multitude of enemies: a spy working behind enemy lines, a courier, a doctor. These women fought and in some cases died during the Vietnam War. Others spent years in prison, subjected to unspeakable torture.
Sarah watches a short film on street vendors. We’ve seen them daily, pushing bicycles with baskets of flowers or fruit; others with a pole balanced on one shoulder, large woven platters on either end piled with smaller fruits and other foods. We’ve not bought anything from them, stopping for meals but not snacks during our trip. 'The next time we come here, I’m buying something from them,' says Sarah. Most of these women are from rural areas who've come to Hanoi seeking work. Perhaps they earn $20US a month to send back to their families. Most are married to farmers, but they don’t earn enough to support a family. Others are the sole bread winner. They work incredibly long hours, sleeping in cheap hostels, and seeing their families only briefly every few weeks or months.
We return to the hotel for a quick costume change, before heading out again to our final meeting at the offices of SCDI. The Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives has a broad remit, working with sex workers, MSM (men who have sex with men), people with HIV, children, and drug users. We’re here because, once again, an Australian friend, Justin Koonin, has introduced us to the organisation. According to its website, SCDI ‘deeply believes that each individual and community has great hidden potential, which can be used not only to tackle their own problems, but also to contribute to the development of the society. Through the approach of empowerment together with policy advocacy, SCDI aims to create motivation and an environment for these potentials to be realized in favor of positive goals.’
SCDI is a little different to the other organisations we’ve visited. It’s the first place we’ve seen clients in the building, sitting on the porch and watching the river that flows opposite. We’re meeting with Ms Nguên Thi Kim Dung, who brings us coffee mugs of cold water and seats us on couches in a new meeting room. We tell her about the meetings we’ve already had, and the ideas that different organisations have suggested for a large-scale, formal, fundraising concert. Kim pauses before responding. These are all organisations she knows, so she understands the issues around the upcoming withdrawal of funding to them. However, she's concerned that a formal concert at the Vietnam National Academy of Music will alienate SCDI's core constituents, who Kim describes to us as low-class. She acknowledges that while music should be for everyone, these MSM and transwomen may well feel that a concert in a high status venue is not for them, something too elite to feel genuinely open to them.
We ask Kim for suggestions. A free outdoor concert, perhaps at the Lake. It’s a public space, and for everyone. The Hanoi community is always there walking, or playing badminton, and on the weekend there’s the Night Market. The European community has spent the last month showcasing their various cultures at free outdoor events. The embassies hired the space, brought in a stage. Mel thinks that perhaps one of the embassies can partner with us.
Once again we are grateful that we came to Hanoi. We want to include as many parts of Hanoi’s LGBTQI+ community as possible, and while all these NGOs work broadly across queer issues, their specific demographics and areas of focus differ significantly. Internally, we tally up the mistakes we could have made, the people we could have inadvertently excluded, if we’d just landed with the choir and done one show.
We thank Kim for seeing us. Before we leave, Sarah ducks into the bathroom. It’s the first place either of us has seen a sharps bin in Hanoi, a reminder both of who SCDI is supporting, and its commitment to providing proper care for people with issues largely invisible to us tourists in Hanoi. Kim’s right - music should be for everyone. We add to our list of tasks how we can help people who feel excluded from much of society believe that Pacific Pride Choir is singing for them too.
People think we’re odd to want to walk in Hanoi. It’s hot, the footpaths are uneven and crowded - either with moto, foot stools, or street vendors - so a distance it would take ten minutes to cover on foot in Sydney takes twice that long in Hanoi.
But on our final night, we decide to take shanks’ pony one last time. We’ve been in the American Club (I’ll admit, we were drinking), officially on a reconnaissance trip to see the space, as it’s hosted Pride events in Hanoi before. The club is owned by the US Embassy, and foreign embassies provide both moral and financial support to many NGOs working on civil rights for LGBTQI+ people. (The Australian embassy’s held a Mardi Gras event before - go, Aussie, go! - and the American Club is going to host a queer prom night in the near future.)
By the time Chris joins us for a drink, Mel and I can attest to the suitability of the space, both the sprawling outdoor setting, which would make a great after-party venue, and the generous beverage servings. It’s the first time anyone in Hanoi has popped over to our table to check how dry Sarah likes her martinis, and where she feels game enough to ask for it to be ‘a little bit dirty’.
Under Chris’s guidance, we roll down the street to try roast chicken from a street vendor, and skirt the lake, busy as always with locals and tourists taking the air. All work and no play make Sarah and Mel very dull, so after we hug Chris goodbye, it’s off for a spot of shopping. As always Mel is on the look-out for t-shirts. With Tintin safely stowed, we start the walk home. It’s a nice night, and it gives us time to reflect on the last week, the people we’ve met, and the ideas we have for 2019.
We’re starting to recognise streets. ‘Aren’t we near Tadioto?’ says Sarah. A quick check of Google Maps confirms her suspicions - how fortuitous that we walked! There would be no better way to say ‘bonne nuit’ to Hanoi than a last drink at Tadioto. Maybe Ha is working again tonight; he is the manager, after all. Once again we enter through the velvet drapes. This time, Ha welcomes us like old friends, a beaming smile on his face. We’re shown to the same table as before, and he’s even remembered our drinks order (the bar makes a really good martini). But when we order white wine, three glasses turn up at the table. Ha will join us. He offers his story. It’s complex, yet familiar.
We’re keen to understand the trans experience here, and Ha is one of the foremost trans activists in Vietnam. He is eloquent and articulate in English, probably fearsomely so in Vietnamese. In response to our many questions, his story unfolds, along with various lessons on politics and LGBTQI+ experiences in Vietnam.
Ha’s first coming-out was as a lesbian. He worked as a lesbian activist until he found a language and a way of expressing his true identity. Sarah asks if there are words in Vietnamese for these identities (lesbian, trans, etc); if they must all be borrowed from English; or if new words are being made. The Viet words are all derogatory, Ha explains. But identity is a tricky thing, especially for someone like Ha, who is non-binary trans, and feels trapped in a binary worldview, no matter the language in which he operates.
Ha went on to work for iSEE as a transman, was involved in forums and support groups, told his own story repeatedly, and nursed many other people through the telling of theirs. Trauma compounded trauma; being strong for people who had no other role-model became debilitating. Eventually there was one phone call too many asking Ha to be the sole public representative of a very private tribe. Too often, if Ha turned down a chance to speak, no one else was prepared to step into the gap.
This resonates with Sarah, who spent a year in Q&A; not the ABC TV show, but a youth leadership course for LGBTQI+ people, led by Sydney Leadership alumni Meredith Turnbull, Michael West, and David Hardie. Part of the course’s adaptive leadership model taught that sometimes, for others in a group to learn their own strengths, their leader must fail them. If a leader is always present to do all the work, take all the criticism, find all the answers, the strengths of the community remain hidden, as it relies solely on the individual, no doubt flawed, strengths of the leader.
After 10 years of activism, Ha is taking a rest, in the hope others may step into the breach. He’s managing Tadioto, contemplating his next move, hoping to maintain his personal activism. Based on the time he’s spent with us tonight, we would say his personal activism has the potential to be as powerful as his more overt public work.
We ask him what we can do, as two white Aussie white queer female musicians, to make some kind of useful difference. Ha is crystal clear on what we should talk about: Vietnamese trans people are stuck in the dual boxes of masculinity or femininity. Somehow, Vietnam needs to open a space for non-binary-trans.
Ruefully, we tell him the same thing still needs to happen in Australia. For trans & cis-gendered people both, there is a kind of rigidity inherent in performing gender, which risks forcing people to focus on the presentation of this one aspect of a whole self. As non-binary-trans, Ha is a minority in his broader Vietnamese community, within the LGBTQI+ community, and even within the microcosm of his trans community.
It’s the same problem we face everywhere, among all minorities and marginalised groups: to reach a point where definitions don’t matter, we somehow must create a space for those definitions to develop in safety and equality.
It’s no small problem that we’ve been invited to consider. We don’t know how far a choir can go towards contributing to the answer, but there's no way we want to let Ha down. Courage deserves courage in return. And while neither of us are particularly brave, we're always game for a challenge.
It’s 9am (again), and we’re in a Grab (Uber, Southeast Asia-style), heading to CSAGA. Their offices are only 6km from where we’re staying, but in the Hanoi traffic it's about a 50-minute drive. It dawns on us that if this were Sydney, it'd be gridlock. But the traffic flows. How? A dawning realisation ... there are no traffic lights, and everyone is travelling at the same (albeit slow) speed. Is this another lesson for Gladys?
With our newfound Hanoi navigation skills, we find the street number: 9A. Chris and Fyfe have taught us always to trust the street number, no matter how unlikely it looks, as all premises must list the street address somewhere on their shopfront.
9A definitely appears to be a coffee shop. 'Level 4,' says Sarah and then Mel spots the logo, cunningly hidden behind a pot plant. So there must be stairs inside. We open the cafe door: tables, chairs, a coffee machine, a staff member. 'CSAGA?' we say tentatively. The woman nods, smiles and opens a door completely camouflaged by wall decals, to reveal a lift foyer.
CSAGA (Centre for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender, Family, Women and Adolescents) focuses on gender-based violence, domestic violence, bullying, human trafficking and gay rights. We are meeting with Ms Mai Buoi, head of the LBGTQ program, and Ms Tran Quyen, a project officer on CSAGA’s Women Loving Women (WLW) project. Their air-conditioned office is welcome; Buoi pours tea while Quyen sets up a PowerPoint presentation.
45 minutes later, we're not only very well-informed, but seriously inspired. CSAGA's work is extensive, but their key tools are art and other creative projects. In fact the women can only spare an hour with us as they're leaving for a work trip in the north to film a gay man and a lesbian woman who chose to marry to fulfil expectations around family obligations. It’s a common story, but one that few are prepared to tell. This couple are two of 20 originally approached to tell their story. The others dropped out, fearing a backlash.
CSAGA doesn't work only with cis-gendered women, or with lesbians. The WLW program now covers women of all kinds - cis to trans - in relationships of all kinds - homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, sex work, and so on. They also tackle the thorny issue of domestic violence in lesbian relationships, as well as looking after the interests of children mothered by all kinds of WLW.
'Visibility is a problem', Quyen tells us. 'Also, the media do not understand sexuality or gender so they spread false news, reinforcing prejudices.' This is certainly something which resonates with us and we drift again briefly to the Marriage Equality debate of last year.
Buoi has visited Sweden, and saw their pride parade. This inspired CSAGA to support a Pride Festival in Hanoi in 2012. It seems that embassies the world over are very attuned to the LGBTQI+ community, some more so than their own governments.
We’re at the end of the presentation. It’s our turn now to present our story and to ask how Pacific Pride Choir can collaborate. We all see a synergy between CSAGA's arts and creative programs and the choir. Eagle-eyed as ever, we both spot a very nice gallery space in the presentation slides. Looks perfect for a choir.
The two women talk amongst themselves. We stress that we don’t expect an immediate answer. Sarah and I drink more tea and eat the biscuits which have been offered while they debate.
Yes - they think that our project is good, and that we can work together. They like the idea of cooperating through the medium of art and in a public space. They know some high profile artists, maybe some dancers too, who could come together with us in a concert. We'll all be in touch, especially Buoi, who has an Australian government scholarship to study leadership in our country.
Downstairs, life in the coffee shop goes on, although our world has changed a little bit, and for the better.
Back home we’d disconnected from Facebook. Too negative, too agony-aunt, too awful. We tweet, we email, oddly enough, we talk. We don’t communicate with each other via Messenger.
As you may have noticed, we're back on Facebook. It’s one way you connect and do business here. We’re learning. It’s also useful: the map attached to a venue’s Facebook page has saved us from aimlessly wandering the streets more than once. But it can also let you down.
Last night we set off for Manzi Art Space. We’d finally got the taxi system sorted and were confident that we weren’t going to get ripped off. We drove through peak hour, freshly showered and looking for a good night out. The taxi swings into a little side street, past a Buddhist temple with bells ringing, and our driver sings out, ‘Manzi, Manzi!’
We step out into the evening air, along with several other young people. 'Sorry,' the young woman at the door says, 'there’s a concert tonight'. ‘Perfect!’, we think. 'Can we buy tickets?' 'Sorry, no, it’s a private concert.' So Facebook is good, but not that good.
We’ve got an hour and a half until our dinner engagement at Gón, which is about 3km north of where we are. 'Shall we walk?' asks Sarah. We type our destination into Google Maps: destination not found. We look it up on Facebook: nothing. Chris messaged earlier in the day to say, 'It’s near the Sheraton, if that helps the taxi driver'. What taxi driver?
And so begins our unscheduled walking tour of Hanoi. It’s along a main road, but the footpath is wide and the going easy. We pass a taxi layover area; drivers squat playing cards and board games. Further on, the ubiquitous plastic stools are being put out. Roadside food vendors are setting up for the night. The noise from the road is deafening; this is not the place for a quiet, romantic dinner. The sun sets, the footpath vanishes, replaced by long stretches of large, uneven gravel. A makeshift light hangs above a doorway, young and old sit on the front step: you soon realise that you are eye to eye with the locals, looking in on their lives. People live less than a metre from this busy road. Their front yard is the highway.
It’s dark now, the neon-lit road stretches before us, sweat pours out of us. Sandwiched between the houses is a high-end tailor and a car hire company, a luxury car on display behind a massive wall of glass. The occasional marble-foyered home with sweeping rosewood staircases glitters in between closed shopfronts where families cook dinner and children do homework amongst the piled stock. The contrast couldn’t be any more stark. And so it continues, the houses of the poor juxtaposed with those of the rich, furniture decor stores, and a very trendy wine bar.
The red light of the Sheraton is a beacon against the night. We still have no idea where Gón is but we’re on the water, there’s a breeze, and the view across West Lake is spectacular. Eventually, we find Gón and our friends.
We’re north of Hanoi because our friend Chris plays baritone sax in a band at Hanoi Rock City, a live music venue that we need to check out. Chris pulls up on his moto; presumably his wife Fyfe, joining us after a work conference call (she works for an NGO, tirelessly, we think) will jump on the back when we head to Hanoi Rock City. Sarah jokingly asks Chris if all 4 of us can fit... Actually, we could; it’s his own piloting skills Chris doesn’t trust. We Grab instead, the local equivalent of Uber.
Hanoi Rock City looks like a Spanish hacienda; there’s swing music, and, more importantly, a bar. Sarah orders a dry Martini. She gets a glass of Dry Vermouth ... this is one more in a long list of lessons we’ve learnt.
Upstairs it’s Open Mic night, and slightly stoned expats are singing cover songs, and original compositions about love and travel. It’s downstairs we can imagine our choir, under the lanterns, in amongst the swing music, maybe with the big band. We’re contemplating another drink when Sarah’s email pops up with a change of meeting time: our 3 o’clock Friday is now a 10am Thursday, as CSAGA’s office will have a power outage on Friday. It’s time to head home.
A healthy body and a healthy mind, or so the saying goes. We’ve got an 8am start today so we’re up at 5.30 and heading out for a morning walk. This fits with our usual routine back home, minus Max, the disabled Jack Russell. He’s safely ensconced at home and, by all reports, not missing us at all.
'Left or right?' Mel says. 'Right,' says Sarah. She’s spotted something of interest in the dawn light; movement in a park a block away. We can hear music; hundreds of locals are doing the Hanoi equivalent of morning boot-camp, minus the barked instructions from a beefed-up instructor. There’s gentle music and slow, graceful exercises for the older generation, a vigorous aerobics work-out for the middle generation, a variety of exercise equipment, badminton, and walkers, going counterclockwise around the park. We join the walkers until we muster up the courage to enter the park for some stretches.
Back in the hotel and dressed, we realise we’re in matching outfits. 'Now they'll never tell us apart,' says Sarah. Black shirts, grey pants, black shoes, short hair, and brand new Vietnam Pride pins, given to us last night by Thư.
Punctuality is key here. We’re in the lobby five minutes early but our tour manager from Phoenix Voyages, Mr Dung, is already there. We have an air-conditioned car to ferry us through the seething streets to the Viet Nam National Academy of Music.
Ms Nguyen Thi Hai Vân, Manager of the International Cooperation Dept, meets us. We thought we’d scrubbed up alright, but Vietnamese women are so stylish they put us to shame. Ms Van’s silk dress, amber beads and platform shoes make us look like grubby pigeons next to a finch.
Let’s not mince words - VNAM is spectacular. Slightly faded French-style glory on the outside, the small hall is decorated in traditional Vietnamese style with every façade covered in intricate carvings, a spectacular chandelier, and red velvet seats. But it’s the main hall with which we fall instantly in love. The Sun Symphony Orchestra is warming up for rehearsal so we can hear, from the minute we step inside, that the acoustic is crystal clear. We step into the foyer; grand marble staircases sweep upwards left and right.
Outside again, we’re joined by Mrs Dang Chau Anh, Head of Conducting. We introduce ourselves, the project, the contacts we’ve made in Hanoi, and what we're hoping to achieve. While both women are keen to help us, it’s hard to describe our project to them. Although two choirs from the US are visiting this year, there’s no precedent for what we’re trying to do. It takes time before we’re on the same page; we learn we need a Vietnamese organisation to partner with us, and to seek official permissions from the government for our concert. Ms Van suddenly figures us out: we should ask iSEE to be our official host and they can invite VNAM to co-organise the concert. Now we feel our new colleagues understand - we’re here for outreach, as well as to make music.
We mention Thư’s suggestion that iSEE would like to support starting a diversity choir, so we ask if there’s a conducting student who may be interested in helping. Ms Anh gives us a big thumbs up.
Whilst it seems a cliché, there have been a couple of 'six degrees of separation' moments in the last 24 hours. Mrs Anh studied in Sydney for six months and lived in Newtown in the 90s, on Edgeware Rd. We’re delighted when the women suggest a photo. We stand under a photo of Ho Chi Minh conducting an orchestra, choir and the public in August Revolution Square in the 50's. It’s perfect, embodying everything we’ve been discussing both this morning and during our time here. We hope to return.
As she shows us out, Mrs Anh suggests that silk is a cooler clothing choice in this weather. Time for new PPC uniforms, we think.
‘It’s kind-of like getting ready for a first date,’ says Mel. We’re both leaning into the bathroom mirror in our stylish new digs, The Ann Hanoi, rumpling our hair, preparing to meet Thư from iSEE.
Thư has chosen Tadioto for our meeting, a stylish cocktail bar in Tông Đản, Tràng Tiền. Entering through velvet drapes, we’re met by a friend and former colleague of Thư’s, who recognises us instantly and shows us to Thư’s table. We introduce ourselves, bowing and handing over business cards. Maybe Thư is as nervous as we are, but we’re saved from formulating our first question by the cocktail list. This is a good ice-breaker; Sarah sticks with her usual dry martini (they serve them with olives here, no silly citrus twists) and Mel braves the Long Island Iced Tea.
Drinks ordered, we launch in, giving our background: Sarah as the former conductor of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir, the choir’s 2014 tour to Riga, and meeting Edyta, the Polish GP with a lesbian daughter. It’s a story that never ceases to inspire, and is woven with anecdotes of raising awareness and media interest in Riga, the work of Kaspars and Mozaika there, and our first Pacific Pride Choir tour in 2017. This resonates with Thư and the work of iSEE, and in particular the diversity advocacy which they do.
iSEE describes itself as a science and technology organization. It works towards the rights of minority groups in Vietnamese society through research, policy advocacy, conferences and events, and youth and minority initiatives. It’s a perfect fit for us: according to their website, ‘iSEE envisions a more equal, tolerant and free society in which everyone’s human rights are respected and individuality valued’.
We particularly like this part of their mission statement: ‘iSEE celebrates diversity and its promise of a more colourful and vibrant life. Through its works, iSEE promotes plurality and the ending of discrimination against minority groups, especially ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.’
Thư (Le Phan Anh Thư) is one of two iSEE employees working in the LGBTQI+ program. She tells us there are 14 employees all up, working across LBTQI+ issues, for ethnic minorities, and improving civil society. Part-way through the night, Thư’s friend and colleague Huong joins us. She’s just returned from Myanmar; both women are as surprised as we were to learn of &Proud, Myanmar’s first LGBTQI+ choir.
Inevitably, the question of human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of thought arises. Again, these are universal issues. iSEE has had two major successes in the past three years: getting same sex marriage decriminalised (although it’s still not recognised), and providing protections for trans* people under the law. We discuss Australia’s same-sex marriage debate, the role that religious institutions played, and how different groups interpret their rights. We also compare our two countries’ laws for trans* people, which at this point in time, don’t seem to be all that different.
A number of iSEE’s programs have been funded through assistance from foreign embassies, particularly the American Embassy. That funding is coming to an end, however, and iSEE now needs to raise funds to further its work. This, Thư says, is where Pacific Pride Choir could be useful: as part of a high profile fundraising concert. Vietnam doesn’t have a culture of philanthropy; according to Thư, that will need to change. Our concert could also be the launchpad of something which really excites us - Vietnam’s first LGBTQI+ choir. iSEE could support this, says Thư. She is keen to hear about our choir and its open-door policy - this is what she wants for Hanoi, a diversity choir which is fully inclusive.
Everywhere we go, it seems, Pacific Pride Choir needs to take a different role, and play a different part in the local LGBTQI+ scene. We’re so glad we made this trip. Now the pressure is on for us to make it work. Bringing PPC to Hanoi has the potential to be a catalyst for change in this crazy-beautiful city. No doubt the change would still happen without us. But with us, Thư says there’ll be more momentum, both for a choir and for fundraising.
Come on, PPCers, we need you.
The evening ends in a cloud of mutual inspiration, admiration, and determination - although part of the admiration is for the fab oil painting depicting famous Vietnamese actor Ngo Thanh Van (Tadioto is full of great art). She’s a babe, and the helpful barman takes a photo of us in front of her portrait. If we could read the name of the artist, we’d tell you. But you’ll just have to visit Tadioto and check it out for yourself.