As World Childless Week approaches, the author reflects on how an attempted escape from painful reminders led to unexpected joy. By Sian Prior.
Mother’s Day in old Hanoi
Early in May this year, the day before Mother’s Day, I flew to Vietnam. It was a planned escape. I wanted to avoid the saturation media images of motherhood – the breakfasts in bed, the bunches of flowers, the adoring children. In Vietnam, mothers are celebrated in August – for a whole month – so my first day in Hanoi would be an ordinary Sunday. No danger of being reminded of my involuntary childlessness. Or so I thought.
Every weekend, I discovered, the streets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi are closed to cars, and families come out to play. From the front door of my hotel, I could see parents buying their kids ice creams and fairy floss. Kids and parents kicking soccer balls. Parents and kids walking their dogs. Kids and parents on rollerblades, or driving dodgem cars, or spraying each other with bubble guns. Unless I stayed inside all day, there was no way of avoiding these joyful scenes.
Don’t get me wrong – I love hanging out with children. That’s why I spent seven years of my life trying to create one. I love seeing the world through their eyes, showing them the world through mine. Two decades ago, after multiple miscarriages and a year of unsuccessful IVF treatment, I had to give up trying to become a mother. Reimagining my future without children was like turning a supertanker around. It took many years, and a lot of plans had to be jettisoned. My life now is busy and full of enriching friendships, and I am grateful for the liberty my childlessness affords me, including the freedom to travel. But that grief still runs deep. It can be hard to watch others enjoying the maternal pleasures that are out of my reach.
So there I was, hovering at the hotel door, wondering whether to go back to my room. Directly opposite the hotel there’s a small lake named Hoàn Kiếm. The concierge told me it’s sometimes called Sword Lake, and that the walk around its circumference is about 2km. The crowds looked thinner over there. I could stride away from the happy families and explore the shores of this tree-lined lagoon.
I’d only been walking for a few minutes when the first group of children approached me. They would have been about 10 years old, all dressed in their Sunday best, and accompanied by a couple of young teachers.
“Excuse me,” one of the children said, “do you mind if we practise speaking English with you?”
“Sure,” I smiled. “I’d love that!”
For the next 10 minutes I answered a barrage of questions – what was my name, where did I come from, what was my favourite colour, how old was I, did I have a dog? The teachers told me that Vietnamese children begin learning English early in primary school. Wealthier parents often send their kids to conversation classes on the weekends, and talking to tourists is a great way for them to practise. On request I showed the kids a photo of my crazy cavoodle rolling in stinky seaweed, then they all took turns telling me about their crazy pets.
Eventually we said goodbye and I continued walking by the water, sticking to the shade on this humid morning. Five minutes later another child approached me, a boy this time, with his smiling mother hovering behind him. He did most of the talking, telling me all about the stone tower in the middle of Lake Hoàn Kiếm. Turtle Tower was named after a legend involving an emperor, a golden turtle and a magical sword. The turtle was a god and apparently the sword belonged to him. The boy’s mother intervened every now and then, trying to keep him on track, but there was no need. He was a charming and confident storyteller.
And so it went on for the next hour – quiet kids and bold ones, solo and in groups, all wanting to talk to me. One diffident lad told me that Vietnam and Thailand were his two favourite football teams, and that the Vietnam women’s team was about to play in the finals of the South East Asian Games. This morning, he said, the rest of his family had gone shopping, leaving him alone here beside the lake. When he’d first tried to approach English speakers, he’d felt horribly shy, but now that he’d pushed through his shyness it wasn’t so bad. I knew how he felt.
The next boy was also alone but far from shy. He told me he was studying French, English, German, piano, guitar and singing. I asked him which team he barracked for, but he had no interest in football. He mentioned his father worked for a government film office, assessing foreign movies and sometimes banning them. The last one he’d had to ban was called Uncharted, something to do with a scene involving an “inaccurate” treasure map. I tried not to seem too curious about – or critical of – Vietnam’s cultural censorship, but of course I was all ears. (Later I would google Uncharted and read all about the “illegal” treasure map in the movie, depicting the contested South China Sea as part of China’s territory. More recently, Barbie’s producers hit the same hurdle, courtesy of a childlike crayon drawing of a map that appears in the movie.) When I asked the boy if I could take a selfie of us, he replied with a polite but firm “no”.
The grandmother of the next girl asked if she could film our conversation on her phone. Why not? Her granddaughter told me all about the poems written by former North Vietnamese president Hồ Chí Minh in his prison cell, and then recited one for me. I told her about how South African president Nelson Mandela had read poetry when he was in prison. Then I remembered that Timor-Leste’s former president, now prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, had written poems in his jail cell too. She’d heard of Nelson Mandela but had to look up Timor-Leste on a map on her phone. We both wondered how poetic we’d be feeling if we were stuck in jail for years.
Another girl told me about a giant spider web she’d just seen, and so I told her about all the dangerous Australian spiders. She said she’d like to see them for herself one day. Then she offered me a lollipop that looked like an eyeball. And so, my half-hour walk around Lake Hoàn Kiếm stretched to two hours.
When I finally found myself back among the throng of families outside the hotel, I didn’t go straight up to my room. Instead, I sat on a bench, sucking on my lollipop, watching the lucky parents watching their children. And their pleasures no longer felt entirely out of my reach.
World Childless Week 2023 runs from September 11 to 17.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Mother’s Day in old Hanoi".
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