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.