I was one week into a four month stint in Southeast Asia when I found myself standing opposite a sea of colorful fishing boats, watching the most beautiful sunrise of my life in Hoi An.

With my camera in tow, I gingerly stepped over fish guts in my flip-flops, venturing out onto one of the many slippery docks. Though it was only 5:00AM, the locals had already been hard at work for some time transporting the morning’s catch to shore. Baskets were set down in front of women on the shoreline, who sold the fish to patiently waiting locals just as fast as they could clean them. I smiled at one as she worked with the speed and precision of someone that had clearly been doing this most of her life (and was used to the overwhelming stench). She looked up at me from beneath her conical hat and smiled back. I snapped a photo. That was the moment I fell in love with the women of Vietnam.

I had never traveled abroad alone before and to say I was naive about the culture I was going to be diving into headfirst was an understatement. A few days before, a local woman had come up to me on the beach with a tray of small trinkets she was hoping to sell. I struck up a conversation and innocently inquired as to why on earth she was wearing heavy, long clothing despite the blistering heat and humidity. She laughed from behind her face mask and informed me that in Vietnamese culture, light skin is seen as the pinnacle of beauty and a symbol of wealth. Dark skin meant a poor profession, such as a farmer – someone who would be toiling away in the sun all day.She followed this up by complimenting my “beautiful white skin”, which felt especially odd as I lay sprawled out under the sun on Hoi An’s beautiful beach, hoping for a tan.

From that moment on I was filled with a strange combination of awe and guilt every time I watched a young lady pull on a jacket and put on fingerless gloves just to ride a bike through town. Even more incredible were the women who must have been close to my grandmother’s age working tirelessly in the rice fields, 12 hours a day, covered head to toe and hoping to make enough money with their crops to feed their families. I visited one such field at sunset and though the language barrier kept us from verbally communicating, the excitement they displayed upon seeing my camera was contagious. I watched as one woman’s face lit up with pure joy while peering into my LCD screen, examining the portrait I had just taken. I could only hope that she saw herself as the beautiful, strong and gentle woman that I saw.

In a remote corner of Hoi An, I met a woman who awoke at 3am every morning to make fresh rice paper because she would sell out by noon. I met two sweet, enthusiastic young ladies who acted as my guides on a cycling tour that told me that they used their income to help support their families back in more rural areas of the country. I visited a rice candy factory run entirely by happy, chattering ladies in a tiny, sweltering building. The day I visited the fishing docks, I walked to a house with my group and an old woman greeted us with a plate of homemade red bean dumplings.

Meeting the women of Hoi An has changed my perspective on a lot of things, most notably my perception of beauty, what it means to be truly kind and the definition of “hard work.” For people with so little, I know for certain that if I needed something, they wouldn’t hesitate to help me, a total stranger and foreigner, in any way they could. I will never forget how welcome they made me feel through their remarkable energy and graciousness. Vietnam will always have a special place in my heart because of them, and whenever I return, I know it will feel like coming home.

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