The Mysterious Crotch-Grabbing Handshake: Hard Lessons in Vietnam

By Angela Smith Kirkman

That’s it. I’m done with these useless Vietnam guidebooks. The very next smoldering cauldron of incense we pass, I’m chucking all of them in. Not one makes any mention of the disturbing crotch-grabbing ritual into which all three of my children have been indoctrinated. How can you fill two hundred pages with information about a country and fail to mention one particular custom that’s repulsive and vile and that seems to be so prevalent? We’ve been in the country for just over a month now and, in that time, my kids have had their genitals clutched by strangers a total of six times. At this point, I would gladly trade in all these worthless travel guides for five tickets out of here.

Huế: Bella praying in temple

Huế: Bella praying in temple

Vietnam is country number ten on our big field trip around the world, and I was really hoping it would be an easy one. We haven’t been home since we set sail on this harebrained adventure a year and a half ago, and to say that we’re homesick would be an understatement. For the next two weeks, though, we have a guest to here distract us. My husband Jason’s father, Mike, has joined us for this chapter of our journey.

We’re sipping on cold, flavorless Tiger beers at the colorful DMZ bar on the corner of Le Loi Street in Hué, where we’ve decided to base ourselves in Vietnam. I’m sitting at a tall table in the corner with our kids, Cyrus, Bella, and Cruz, and we’re wolfing down the first onion rings we’ve seen since leaving home; Jason and Mike are playing a game of pool. The DMZ bar, which caters to tourists and expats, is a local watering hole named after the Demilitarized Zone, the dividing line between North and South Vietnam. The DMZ was the battleground separating the two sides during the Vietnam War, which around here is referred to as the American War.

Mike gave fourteen months of his young life reluctantly serving in that war back in 1970 when Uncle Sam decided he was done with college, dubbed him a combat medic (though he had absolutely no experience in medicine), and stuck him in the jungle of Quảng Trị, just south of the DMZ. Mike has joined us in Vietnam in hopes of exploring his old haunts during a friendlier era, trying to make sense of those chaotic times, and making new memories that might displace the old.

The kids’ eyebrows shoot upwards as they survey what they’ll later refer to as “Penis Plaza.”

Mike makes quick work of walloping Jason on the pool table, then the two men pull up stools beside us. After helping polish off the onion rings, they pull out their maps and begin to make a strategy for tomorrow’s road trip into the DMZ. The kids are starting to fade, so I decide to walk them back to our hotel and leave the men to their planning.

Before I head off, Jason pulls me aside. “Hey, watch yourself out there, Baby. Last night when Dad and I were walking after dark, we were propositioned by more than a few shady characters who apparently assumed we were in the market for boom boom and pretty young girl. Keep your eyes open.”

I usher the kids onto the street, gathering them around me like a clutch of chicks, scanning every dark shadow.

We’re almost home. Only a block from the hotel — just past the streetlight on the corner where two older men sit at a plastic table chatting over iced coffee. A motorcyclist pulls over to the side of the road, jumps off his bike, and approaches us with a broad smile. He’s a slender young man dressed in a white t-shirt; he has a dark glint in his eye.

The man nods at me. “Xin Cháo,” he says. Then he turns his attention toward my oldest son, Cyrus.

I eye the man cautiously; he seems just a little too friendly. He extends his hand toward Cyrus, forcing an introduction. The kids are used to being the center of attention — what with the embarrassingly blond hair and all — and Cyrus shakes the man’s hand indifferently. Mr. Glint-in-the-eye then proceeds to swing his free hand up and cup it firmly over Cyrus’s crotch.

Cyrus looks at me in panic. When I realize what has just happened, I transform instantly into Mama Werewolf. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, claws pop out of my fingertips, and I grow three feet taller. Before I can formulate a rational thought, I find myself towering over the man, unleashing a slew of foul threats and insults the likes of which I’m certain my children have never heard before.

When I finally stop roaring, moments later, and shrink back to normal size, I’m not sure whose mouth is hanging open wider: the man’s, the kids’, mine, or those of the elderly gentlemen under the streetlamp who’ve ceased their chitchat. A heavy tension hangs in the air for a few seconds. Then the man jumps back on his motorcycle and speeds away.

I grab the kids’ hands and hurry to our hotel. I can hardly believe what has just happened. The act from which I’ve always vowed to protect my children has just taken place — right in front of me — and I did nothing stop it!

Jason and Mike return to the hotel about the time I recover my sanity, and the three of us spend the next hour having a careful discussion with the children about what they’ve just experienced. They sit in silence, absorbing the onslaught of guidance from their elders.

“If anyone ever tries to touch you inappropriately, you have our permission to bite, kick, and scream.”

“Do whatever you need to do to get away.”

“Tell the nearest adult.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“There’s no reason to feel ashamed.”

“Listen, there are some bad seeds out there but, by and large, people are very kind.”

“No need to be scared.”

“But it’s always good to be cautious.”

They seem to take it pretty well, Jason and I agree after tucking them into their beds. My only regret as I try to fall asleep is that I didn’t punch Mr. Glint-in-the-eye right in the stinking face. He was small. I could’ve taken him.

The next morning over a filling breakfast of Xoi Cha, sticky rice with meat rolls, in the hotel dining room, Mike and Jason look over their maps one more time, finalizing a rout for their tour of the DMZ. Cyrus has decided to go with them, but I’m still shaken by the events of last night and decide I’ll stay behind with little Cruz and Bella who both seem relieved to have some down time.

Mike’s trying to pinpoint where he was stationed during the war. “I think it was right around here somewhere,” he says pointing to a place on the map just below the town of Quảng Trị. His hand is shaking. “But really it’s impossible to know; the Army never told us anything.” Mike’s shirt is already drenched with sweat. He pushes away his sticky rice.

“How you doing, Dad?” Jason asks.

Mike takes a deep breath. “To be honest, Jas, I’m really spooked,” he says. “I don’t know how this is going to go.”

Mike tells us how, a few months ago, he thought that joining us in Vietnam was a great idea and, theoretically, maybe it had been. But when he landed at the airport in Hanoi and was suddenly surrounded by Vietnamese people — North Vietnamese people — a cacophony of voices speaking that language again, his brain had gone into panic mode. He needed to escape. He ran out the nearest door, but outside the airport was no better. The crushing heat, the humidity, the aromas he’d long since forgotten overwhelmed his senses all at once. All the old emotions came flooding back — the fear, the anger, the confusion — sentiments he’s spent nearly four decades trying to forget.

“We don’t have to go, Dad.”

“No, no, I want to go. I need to go.” He folds his map and tucks it into his knapsack. He takes one last sip of coffee, then heads out through the lobby with Jason and Cyrus. I clear our dishes, wipe the sticky rice from Cruz and Bella’s hands, then usher them up the rusty staircase toward our room.

We spend the morning holed up, eating lychee fruit and drinking lotus tea. Cruz and Bella are both designing new comic books, which is their favorite activity of late, and that keeps them occupied for a few hours giving me a chance to catch up on some of the translation work that’s funding our travels. By mid-day, we’re all getting a little stir-crazy and hungry. Cruz and Bella proudly show me their masterpieces, both curiously involving hideous werewolves. I finally convince myself that we have to get out, at least for an hour.

The noontime sidewalk is packed with diners happily slurping. The scent of lemongrass and the sound of laughter fill the street. Bella points excitedly when she notices a hand-painted sign on the corner that reads “Phở Bò Hué.” She runs to claim an empty table and Cruz darts after her, though he’s not quite sure why. Phở Bò Hué is a beef noodle soup that’s traditionally eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner here in Hué, and other than not having to use silverware, it’s Bella’s favorite thing about Vietnam.

Silk Ladies

Silk Ladies

I approach a young woman who seems to be in charge. She’s wearing a pink medical face mask that’s embroidered with apricots. Her eyes brighten as she looks up from her steaming kettle and says something to me in Vietnamese. I raise three fingers and smile sheepishly. The woman nods and places three large bowls of rice vermicelli noodles onto a tray. She ladles hot broth over the vermicelli and layers slices of grilled beef on top. Then she throws in a few chunks of oxtail and a cube of congealed pig’s blood for good measure. She places cilantro sprigs neatly atop each bowl and then green onions and a squeeze of lime.

The kids are wiggling in their seats when I return to our table with three steaming bowls. The slurp-worthy broth is savory, filling, and delicious. Just what I need to perk up and look on the bright side again.

After filling our bellies, we walk downhill to the bank of the Perfume River and follow our noses to a stinky little fish market. Beneath a long, wooden structure, rows of ramshackle stalls spill over with snails and baby eels and tuna tails. All the fish vendors seem to be women. There are dozens and dozens of women; they’re chatting and giggling and haggling. At the sight of Bella and Cruz — who are in particularly good spirits, holding hands and pretending to like each other — the women grow more animated and twitter excitedly.

Being in the presence of so much feminine energy all of a sudden somehow makes everything okay. Of course there are always going to be creepy men out there. But there will also be women. Lovely, beaming women, with lively eyes and kind faces.

Huế: Fish Market

Huế fish market

With sunny smiles, the friendly female fishmongers fuss over the kids, each offering whatever she has to gift: a golden razor clam for Bella, a baby crab for Cruz, a piece of coconut candy for each. A wrinkled old woman waddles up in her silk pajamas and cone hat and throws open her arms for a bear hug. After last night’s sermon about strangers, Bella isn’t quite sure what to do, so she glances toward me for guidance. I nod, urging her to go ahead and give Grandma a hug, and she obliges obediently.

Seconds later, Bella jumps out of the embrace, turns toward me with eyes wide, and whispers, “Mom! She just touched my privates!” Sure enough, I look around just in time to see the old woman swinging her hand up to cup Cruz between the legs. The other ladies continue their giggling, like nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

What the hell! I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my fingertips begin to tingle, but I struggle to hold back my inner she-wolf. Instead, I slap the old woman’s liver-spotted hand, sweep little Cruz up into my arms, and run out of the fish market without looking back. We return immediately to the hotel, where I decide that I will be hiding my children away for the next two months, until our flight out of Vietnam.

When Jason, Mike, and Cyrus return from an emotionally exhausting DMZ tour, I tell them what happened at the fish market. They’re as puzzled as I am. We go back to the drawing board. This time, we’re all at a loss. Could it be that this is a regular occurrence in Vietnam? How else could the same thing have happened to all three of our children within the first forty-eight hours in Hué? Does this happen to everyone? Or do young children get the special treatment? Or maybe this is some sort of local hand shake — no offense intended? Mike lifts his hat and scratches his head. Nope, he has no recollection of coming across any such tradition during his first tour in Vietnam. We spend the next few hours searching the guidebooks and the internet for any mention of a secret Vietnamese crotch-grabbing handshake. Nothing.

Mike told us of the time he’d been sent into Quảng Trị on a medic visit to treat the local Vietnamese. The hungry children. The rotting teeth. The bodies filled with parasites.

To get our minds off things and get the hell out of Hué for a while, we travel to the province of Quảng Nam the next day to explore Mỹ Sơn, a World Heritage site regarded as one of the most important Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia. We hire a guide named Thanh for the day. Thanh is from the nearby village of Duy Phú, and he speaks English relatively well, certainly better than we speak Vietnamese despite our language podcasts. He seems to be in his mid-thirties — about my age I’m guessing — and wears a dress shirt and a floppy sunhat. We follow single file as Thanh leads us into the jungle.

Mỹ Sơn is a cluster of over seventy abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples that were constructed to honor the lord Shiva. Thanh’s ancestors, the Champa people, erected the red brick shrines between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries, and he gives us a bit of history as we walk.

“King Bhadravarman I, who ruled from 380 until 413, built a great hall to worship the god Shiva under the form of the Linga.”

Jason begins to explain to the kids the meaning of the word “linga,” but as we follow Thanh into the entrance of a lush courtyard, he realizes that his explanation is probably unnecessary. The tranquil enclosure is dotted with phallic altars, each standing erect three or four feet high. The kids’ eyebrows shoot upwards as they survey what they’ll later refer to as “Penis Plaza.”

Lingam statue in Mỹ Sơnv

Lingam statue in Mỹ Sơn

Thanh decides this might be a good place to take a break. We rest momentarily in the courtyard, wiping sweat from our brows, surveying the landscape, and sipping from our water bottles as Thanh points out the particulars of the construction. “You’ll notice that each altar is composed of two essential parts,” he explains. “The lingam is the masculine stone protruding erect from the center of each altar, while the female yoni forms the base of the structure and connects the lingam to the earth.”

As the kids snicker under their breath, Thanh goes on to paint a scene from centuries past when Champa priests poured milk and spring water over the linga to honor Lord Shiva.

After a few moments, we resume our hike and push deeper into the jungle. As we march, Mike tells the kids that during the war — if his memory serves — this area was known for harboring the Việt Cộng, who had considered the site to be a safe haven given its religious importance.

Thanh confirms his first point. “Yes, there were many Việt Cộng here, but it was hardly a safe haven,” he says. “Mỹ Sơn temple complex was the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina, but during a single week in August 1969, fifty of the seventy historic temples were destroyed by American carpet bombing.” Thanh points out dozens of sunken areas: bomb craters where shrines once stood.

Mike wipes his face with his handkerchief, then asks, “Thanh, was your family affected by the war?”

“Yes, of course. During day time, my father worked for Americans.” Thanh says, “And at night he fought against America with the Việt Cộng.”

Mike bristles and, though he remains silent, I feel his rage. This is not the first guide who has referred to a relative playing both sides during the war. Last week as we were floating in basket boats through the water coconut palm canals near Hoi An, a young guide named Khoa shared similar wartime stories. Khoa smirked impishly as he plucked a reed from the water next to our boat, then cut off both ends and began to blow air through the hollow stalk. He demonstrated how, during the war, his uncles and other Việt Cộng-by-night fighters would use the reeds to breathe as they hid beneath the water, waiting to ambush American soldiers — the same soldiers with whom they worked side-by-side during the day.

After the first such story, Mike began sharing with us his memories of the war — a rare occurrence according to Jason, but one that he had been expecting and looking forward to, given the nature of this trip. Mike told us of the time he’d been sent into Quảng Trị on a medic visit to treat the local Vietnamese. The hungry children. The rotting teeth. The bodies filled with parasites. The worms hanging from noses. He spoke about the day he’d received orders to run through what he soon realized was a minefield, to the aid of a fellow soldier whose feet had been blown off by a booby trap. How he’d held the young private in one arm and his useless medical kit in the other, trying to keep the soldier conscious until he could be medevacked out. How the next day, he had been awarded the Bronze Star for Valor, though he didn’t feel he’d done anything courageous. “Just following orders.” How, after the medal had been pinned onto his uniform, he’d been ordered to retrace his steps back through the now-disarmed minefield to find the private’s feet, which he’d neglected to retrieve the first time. “Nothing could be left behind for the Việt Cộng.”

Mike reflected on how he and the other young men who’d been forced to serve their country in Vietnam had been told they would be protectors — heroes even — to the people of South Vietnam. And now to find out that the very people they’d come to defend had been betraying them all along.

I glance at our guide, Thanh, the smile lines on his face, the resilience in his eyes, and wonder whether perhaps loyalty wasn’t the issue. Neither on the American side nor the Vietnamese. Maybe it was just about survival. Thanh’s father and Mike, after all, were the lucky ones. They both survived and went on to have children.

Bella, Jason, Cruz

Bella, Jason, Cruz

Late in the afternoon when we’ve finished our tour of Mỹ Sơn, Thanh offers to take us on a bike ride through his village and into the countryside. We agree enthusiastically. Moments later, we find ourselves zipping past rice paper disks drying on mesh racks and dodging piles of flattened squid spread on the blacktop to dry in the sun. Down a matrix of dirt roads raised between rice patties, we pedal past water buffaloes clumping through the muck and cone-hatted farmers who look up from their rice seedlings to regard our odd procession.

I suck in the salty air, which seems a little short on oxygen. Even under the forest canopy, the heat is unbearable. After an hour of cycling, the kids are thirsty, and we’re all sopping with perspiration. Thanh motions to the side of the road, and we pull over next to a small gulley to rest in the shade. Jason retrieves our water bottles from his backpack and passes them around.

On the other side of the gulley there’s a small bamboo house. A weather-worn woman sits on her porch in a wooden chair. I wave, but she doesn’t seem to see us. Two young boys run out of the house bare-chested, flapping their arms wildly. “Hello! Hello! Hello!” they shout. We return their greeting and wave back. A young woman follows the boys onto the porch, bouncing a toddler on her hip. She waves the toddler’s hand and smiles. Then the young boys begin digging deeper into their English vocabulary. “How are you? How are you?”

“Very well, thank you,” we answer. “How are you?”

“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” they respond.

Our waving hands slow, and we look at each other in confusion.

“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” they continue.

“Well, this is awkward.” Cyrus whispers.

Thanh reproaches the children in Vietnamese and decides it’s probably a good time to move on. We mount our bikes and pedal off.

When we’re at a safe distance down the road, Thanh explains, apologetically, that many of the older women in the area were “taken advantage of” by American soldiers during the war. As a result, in addition to the standard English phrases taught in schools, some of the children have an arsenal of alternative greetings learned from their grandmothers.

Red temple, bicycle

Red temple, bicycle

Far too soon, Mike is preparing to head back to the U.S. Jason, the kids, and I stare at each other vacantly over a pot of green tea as he finishes packing; we’re not looking forward to being out here alone again. Mike tucks new trinkets into his bag alongside the old handwritten letters and books he brought along to help make sense of his memories. Over the past two weeks, he has told more stories of Vietnam than Jason ever heard during childhood. But has there been any closure? Any healing? Or just reopening of old wounds? Wounds that, had they been left alone, might have scarred over and been forgotten.

Mike closes his suitcase and walks toward the door. “Sounds like spring has finally sprung back home,” he says as he pulls on his hat. We follow him through the hotel lobby and onto the curb where Jason hails a cab. Mike gives hugs all around before climbing into the back seat. As the taxi carries him away, he rolls down his window and blows kisses to the children who are wiping away tears.

I’m overwhelmed with a sudden desire to go home with him, to run after the taxi. Why on earth are we staying here? Haven’t we already learned everything Vietnam has to teach us? Spring is blooming back home; the pear tree must be raining its blossoms onto our courtyard in Santa Fe. I should be starting seedlings for our summer garden. We have just two more months until the end of this journey, but for the first time, I don’t know whether I can make it any longer. I’m ready to run away. Run far away, yelling, “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

But the taxi disappears, swallowed in a swarm of bicycles, and we stay on.

Things are starting to look up, or at least they’re getting bearable. We’ve rented a three-bedroom house with a functioning air conditioner, and it’s a relief to be out of hotels for a while. Summer’s coming, and each day is hotter than the last. Jason has resumed home-school lessons, which is providing a sense of normalcy. The kids each bought a baby turtle from the fish market and have created a water habitat in the dining room, complete with streams of tiny gold fish and a few papier-mâché mountains (which we fashioned from the discarded pages of our useless guidebooks).

I found a Vietnamese language teacher named Nguyen, a student at Hué University. She’s been giving us language and cooking lessons a couple times each week, and being able to communicate — at least a little — is helping us feel more connected to the community. Under Nguyen’s tutelage, I realize that I’ve been saying Xin Chào wrong all this time. The phrase means both “hello” and “goodbye,” but since Vietnamese is a tonal language, if you mistakenly use a rising tone rather than a falling tone (which I guess I’ve been doing), it apparently means “bring me some rice pudding.”

Jason and dragon boat in Huế

Jason and dragon boat in Huế

One evening last week, after we’d spent the day with Nguyen floating down the Perfume River in a dragon boat, she came over to teach Jason how to cook Phở Bò Hué. I prepped vegetables and herbs while Jason and Nguyen fussed over the broth, and the kids played with their turtles in the living room. The aroma of cinnamon, star anise, clove, and roasted ginger began to swirl around me, and I finally worked up the courage to ask Nguyen the question I’d been rehearsing.

“Nguyen?”

“Yes?”

“Is it considered normal in Vietnam for people to… to touch children… in their private areas?”

Nguyen looked up at me. I knew she could sense the anger and embarrassment I was trying to hide. She asked me to explain. As Jason busied himself stirring the broth, I told her all the stories. About the man on the way home from the DMZ bar. The old woman in the fish market. And the three other times it’s happened since, most recently by a restaurant owner who’d spent the previous hour doting over us and showering the children with affection. After dining, we thanked the man, vowing to return for lunch the next day. He bade us farewell. Then, with a bubbling smile, he reached over and tugged on Cruz’s penis through his pants. When the man saw my sudden fury, he looked confused. Like he just couldn’t imagine what had caused my unexpected rage.

I told Nguyen that it had gone like that every time. That each perpetrator had been someone who, seconds before, seemed to be absolutely smitten by the kids, so overcome with affection that they couldn’t contain themselves. Like they just wanted to gobble the kids up, or pinch their little cheeks. But, instead, they had tugged on their genitals. I told her that I was starting to wonder whether maybe it was a custom — some Vietnamese tradition that we just didn’t understand.

Nguyen placed a platter of jackfruit on the table and measured her words before speaking. “Those actions would not be considered at all normal or appropriate.” She paused then added, “Not to a child you do not know.”

What was she implying? That the act would be okay if performed by a relative? An uncle? A grandparent? That this could be considered a sign of affection? Her answer raised so many more questions that I was aching to ask, but I could tell the conversation was making her uncomfortable. That we stood on either side of a cultural chasm. So I held my tongue.

Wow. Okay, so it’s perfectly acceptable to fondle your children in the comfort of your home? I would say that’s a pretty huge cultural difference. How could something that would be considered sexual assault in one country mean nothing at all in another? Back home, being fondled by an adult would be considered a tragic, scarring moment in a child’s life, an injustice that she would then spend the rest of her life processing. And yet, here, can it really be the equivalent of a pinch on the cheek?

Maybe I’m making too a big deal out of this. It doesn’t have to ruin their lives. Or the rest of our stay in Vietnam.

A few days after the conversation with Nguyen, Jason and I discussed what we learned with the kids. We explained that the crotch-grabbing is apparently some sort of local custom which — though we don’t quite understand or agree with — is likely to happen again. And that if it does occur again, in all likelihood it could happen too quickly for us to intervene.

“In other words, you’re going to have to protect yourselves.” Jason explained. “In the meantime, though, Mama and I are thinking about having you all fitted with athletic cups.”

The kids have been doing a little brainstorming of their own, and they’ve decide that they have two options:

Cyrus’s idea: They could initiate a policy of preemptively grabbing the genitals of all potential perpetrators, in hopes of beating them to the punch. The best defense is a good offense.

Bella’s idea: If anyone takes a particular interest in them, they could real quick-like cover their privates.

Everyone seems to be more comfortable with Bella’s idea, so that has since become our new strategy. It’s not an ideal solution, I know, but it should get us through the rest of our time here in Vietnam.

Now that we’ve decided to take things more lightly, we’re even starting to have fun. We’ve rented three bicycles (Cyrus gets his own; Jason and I each tote a young’un on back), and being on two wheels has changed everything. We spent our first month in Vietnam inside of taxis, I realized — windows rolled up, a/c blasting — observing the country as spectators from the comfort of our little bubble. Now that we’ve rented our own bikes, however, our perspectives have shifted entirely.

Of course — this is what was missing! To get into the flow of life in Vietnam, you literally have to GET INTO THE FLOW.

Each afternoon when home-school lets out, we take a long ride around the city. What a rush to become part of the madness! Joining in with the thousands of two-wheeled creatures flowing through the streets is like being part of an immense school of fish, weaving in and out with no apparent rhyme or reason, but somehow keeping rhythm with the pulse of traffic. Elbow to elbow with other cyclists, close enough to see their expressions, sense their moods, smell what they’re taking home for dinner.

Cycling in Vietnam is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Whereas biking in Spain is akin to making love — meandering unhurriedly over curves and valleys with a picnic basket and a bottle of wine — and cycling in the U.S. is an exercise in efficiency — to burn as many calories as possible while minimizing appreciation of natural surroundings, yet maximizing expenditures on spandex — biking in Vietnam is more like charging fully-armored into battle.

Sweat is streaming from beneath my conical hat and burning my eyes. Cruz holds tight to my waist. I pedal faster, riding a high, finally feeling like part of the chaos that is Vietnam. The woman beside me has a headless chicken strapped to her bike. We zip past wafer-thin cyclo drivers hauling portly old white guys with cameras and street food vendors dishing up banh khoai — Hué pancakes; banh bao — steamed dumplings; and com hen — rice with mussels. Farmers hurry toward the vegetable market, each balancing a long bamboo pole on one shoulder; woven baskets suspended from each end of the poles burst with morning glory greens, kohlrabi, bitter melon, chayote gourds, and banana blossoms. We follow the same route as the farmers, heading toward the marketplace to fetch ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Jason and Nguyen will be preparing another Vietnamese specialty: gỏi cuốn, grilled pork spring rolls.

In front of the market we dismount and lock our bikes curbside. Jason tucks the shopping list into his shirt pocket, and we look nervously at one another. He smiles and gives me a kiss on the cheek as I sling on the daypack. We take the children by the hands and duck inside the wooden structure. A sweet floral aroma fills the air surrounding the florist’s stall; she’s placing a spotted purple orchid into a customer’s basket. We pass the plastic-toys-from-China lady, and the loose tea vendor, and the lady with a dozen types of eggplant. As we delve deeper into the marketplace and the crowd begins to grow denser, old women in full silk pajamas and cone hats swarm around us from all directions smiling at the children and carting baskets overflowing with herbs and vegetables.

I hold Bella’s hand a little tighter, and she shouts a quick reminder to her brothers: “Okay guys, we’re going in! Cover your crotches!”

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About Angela Smith Kirkman

Angela Smith Kirkman recently returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico from a two-year journey around the world with her husband and three young children. During the adventure, dubbed The Big Field Trip, her family hiked the Inca Trail, snuck into the dilapidated communist headquarters in Bulgaria, rode camelback through the Sahara, caught the swine flu in Istanbul, rode a dragon boat up the Perfume River, was chased out of the Great Mosque of Uqba in Tunisia, lived on a vineyard in Portugal, was robbed at gunpoint in Bahía, taught at a tribal school in Rajasthan, biked through floating markets near Bangkok, and communed with snow monkeys in the hot springs of Japan. Stories from The Big Field Trip have been published in International Living Magazine, Asia Literary Review, Eventus Magazine, YourLifeIsATrip.com, and World Press Review. Kirkman blogs at www.thebigfieldtrip.com. Her photographs have been selected as favorites by National Geographic Travel’s Director of Photography and published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, which ran a front-page story featuring The Big Field Trip in March 2015. Kirkman currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she’s busy growing leeks and conjuring up the next voyage.

10 Comments

  1. Posted September 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful adventure you are sharing with your family! Your writing is thought-provoking and so enjoyable to read. Thank you for sharing this piece of your journey with us. I like your kids’ new motto – think I’ll adopt it, metaphorically. :-D

  2. Reina Fernandez
    Posted September 2016 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I sure enjoy the way you write – eloquent, humorous, captivating.

  3. Jeneane Young
    Posted September 2016 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Angela, I so enjoy your writing. I laughed out loud several times. Such adventures you all had.

  4. Ginny Penney
    Posted September 2016 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Great story, Angela! Sometime I have to find the time to read all your stories that I’ve saved! Congratulations on your award; you deserve it! Superb!

  5. Rolando Montecalvo
    Posted September 2016 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Hey Angela, I just re-read this and I find it’s still an awesome story and every bit as interesting as the first time I looked at it. Well done and congrats on the prize!

  6. Dennis Sanders
    Posted September 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Edgy, a real “feet on the ground” view point on traveling. It’s always a combination of wonder and trepidation when immersed into a foreign culture.

  7. Clara de la Torre
    Posted September 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    “The Mysterious Crotch-Grabbing Handshake: Hard Lessons in Vietnam,” transported me straight into the heart of Vietnamese culture. Descriptions of flavorful local dishes, scents wafting by, and the heavy press of humid air made me feel that I had actually been there with Angela, her husband Jason, and their three children. Angela’s writing–descriptive, colorful, and at times hilarious–had me salivating one moment and cringing the next.

  8. Robert Rivera in SFe
    Posted September 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Great adventure. Thank you for taking us along with your writing.

  9. Sarah
    Posted June 2017 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    That was a really interesting story. It’s important to remember that there are good men out there, not just good women, but some give them a bad name when they don’t consider the effects of their actions.

    That said, I think you handled the crotch-grabbing situations well. You learned about the culture, explained it to your children, and informed them that it was likely to happen again. You also decided to take the situations more lightly. In the experiences you described, it’s important to just accept they’re going to happen and be relaxed when it does.

    In the USA, the culture is obviously very different, so in a similar situation in the USA you would probably react the way you did the first time and make a police report, but it’s good that you eventually adapted to the situations in Vietnam.

    Although this is pointless advice to you considering how long ago your experience was written, it may be useful for others: What you can do is explain that all the things you said previously (about touching being wrong, about kicking and screaming, etc.) still apply in America but that they don’t apply in Vietnam. Kind of like how you might tell a child in America that nobody can touch their genitals but that doesn’t apply if it’s a doctor or if they’re being bathed. That way, the children still understand that in the USA, nobody should touch their crotches, but that in Vietnam, everyone is allowed to and that many people probably will touch their crotches and that they should expect it and accept it. That way, when it happens, they know that their mom has accepted that it’s going to happen and they’re not shocked (so it’s less likely to disturb them) when it happens, and they know that, because it’s in Vietnam, their mom is just going to watch and allow it to happen, so they don’t expect her to intervene and get confused when she doesn’t.

    Adaptation and acceptance of the culture are key.

  10. Janet
    Posted October 2017 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    At least they didn’t try to take the kid somewhere and do it in private, which suggests it’s not intended sexually at all, and therefore there’s no need to try to avoid it happening or to tell you kids to cover their crotches.

    It would obviously be bad if, for example, some adult with sexual attraction to a kid took away your son or daughter to touch their crotch in secret, as the adult would obviously be up to no good, so it’s good if he/she feels your child’s crotch right in front of you. Then you can watch the adult as he/she feels your child’s genitals. This makes it clear to the adult that you are keeping an eye on him/her, and that you understand it’s just a cultural thing, and that you encourage him/her to touch your son’s penis or daughter’s vagina it in front of you, and it makes it clear to the child that the situation is perfectly fine and there’s nothing to worry about.

    Obviously there is a risk if your son or daughter goes to a country where it’s not common and thinks it’s acceptable in that country when it’s really out of perverted desires in that other country, but they would be so used to their crotch being touched by adults by then that it wouldn’t really matter if someone did it later in another country for sexual reasons, as your kid would be so used to adults touching their crotch.

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