Elijah Ferrian gets a history lesson about Saigon’s first women’s group for foreign ladies, International Ladies in Vietnam. Photo by Vinh Dao.

Parla Salomaa is a Finnish expat living in Saigon for the past two and a half years, and is currently the Vice President of Administration for International Ladies in Vietnam, or ILV.

“We are a social organisation”, Salomaa says. “We help women that come to Ho Chi Minh City and provide them with information, support and friendship. Basically when you’re new, it can be your lifeline. When I first came here I didn’t know anybody. Essentially, ILV is a meeting of friends that makes anyone new feel welcome to the city.”

There’s many reasons that people end up in Saigon. Salomaa is here because her husband took a relocation for his career with a company he worked for back in Finland. What’s known in the expatriate community as a “trailing spouse”, but Salomaa had visited Vietnam before.

“We had the conversation long ago about getting a job overseas, and how we both agreed we would go along with it.” Salomaa tells me. “Of course when he said ‘I am getting a job in Vietnam’, my previous trip to Saigon was in 1999 and things were much different. I remember being here and not seeing Coca-Cola products anywhere.”

She couldn’t get the image out of her head of what she knew Vietnam to be, and she can now easily identify with the women that are making the leap from their home nation to this mysterious land we all know.

“There’s people that have never even travelled outside of their home country, and people that have been travelling all over the world. At one point [ILV] had over 42 nationalities. People from all walks of life.”

Parla and her husband don’t have children, and that’s one of the things that she said can really help you break into a wide variety of social groups. ILV focusses on women from all backgrounds, and just wants to provide a network for anyone that feels like they are starting their life from scratch in a foreign world.

It all starts over coffee.

“Basically, every Thursday we have a coffee morning, and we have someone assigned to help out newcomers.” Salomaa says. “People ask you how long you’ve been in town, where you’re from and tell you about what ILV offers. We have meet-up activities for almost every week day. Playing mahjong or bridge, long dancing, card games, bowling and a book club. Thursdays are for everybody but we always have someone assigned to newcomers.”

International Ladies in Vietnam has been around for quite some time, and it has a seriously interesting history. They just celebrated their 25 year anniversary, each lady fully clad in áo dài as an homage to the culture of the land members currently call home.

It all started in 1992 when the few foreign women who had come to Saigon with their husbands decided to meet at the Floating Hotel, “the Floater”, along Ton Duc Thang Street. There were only a few expat women living in Saigon. The availability of goods, services, houses, hotels, restaurants and the choice of imported foods was very limited. Ladies who were in town in the morning began making it a routine to stop by the Floater to see if other ladies were also in town. After a while, Tuesdays became a regular morning out and ladies would often meet for a cup of coffee, go shopping (someone was always desperately hunting for something), and then have lunch together.

“Back in 1992 you couldn’t even bring airline magazines into the country,” Salomaa explains. “I’ve met one of the founding members. At that time it was said that there were districts but no names on the street. [Foreigners] had to go by landmarks. There wasn’t easily found baby food, medical supplies and other necessities. You also couldn’t travel freely. There’s stories of these women hiding in the back of a truck just to get out of the city to explore.”

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the ladies had a lunch with 122 current and former members. 30 of them came all the way back to Vietnam just to show their support and celebrate how important International Ladies in Vietnam has been in their lives.

Things change fast in Saigon, and with the internet transforming the planet, ILV has seen a lot of its own changes as well.

“Of course the city has changed a lot over the years.” Salomaa says. “We have people that are members currently that have been here for 15 years or more, but the typical thing is you have people coming and going. The internet has made everything so much easier. Before the technology of Facebook and other social media, groups like this helped pave the way for women to establish themselves comfortably in a foreign culture. We used to have at the height 400 members, now it’s about 200.”

With so many different groups now coming out of the woodwork, and the ability to connect with other people through cellular devices and computers instead of sparking conversation with a stranger at a local cafe, social groups like International Ladies in Vietnam are going to have to adapt to the evolution of human social behaviours.

That’s why ILV is making some pretty big moves to ring in their silver anniversary.

“Our new bylaws were approved at our meeting in March that men can now become associate members.” Salomaa says excitedly. “We realize that there are trailing husbands now as well. We accept Vietnamese people as members. There’s no other criteria. Just pay the initial fee and show up and participate in whichever way you prefer.”

If you’re interested in joining International Ladies in Vietnam, visit their website ilvietnam.com or stop in to the Intercontinental any Thursday morning.