From the country’s earliest beginnings to today, through war and peace and everything in between, Vietnam’s women have proven that you don’t need to wear a cape to be a superhero. By Claudia Davaar Lambie and Simon Stanley. Photos by Vinh Dao.
On the 8th of March 2016, International Women’s Day will be celebrated around the globe. Vietnamese women will often receive flowers, cards and gifts from their partners, husbands and male colleagues. It’s a chance to recognise women for their achievements big and small.
In recent years, Vietnam’s women have benefited from various transformative changes in the economic, political and societal spheres. The traditional attitudes which once prevailed are gradually becoming unstuck, bringing about greater choice and freedom for girls and women all over the country. As Jessica Hilston, 28, founder of the Women of Saigon networking group says, “Women are now the movers and shakers of Vietnam.”
At the highest level, the ongoing introduction of new legislation is beginning to equalise the balance between the genders. The 2004 Land Law allowed for a wife’s name to be added alongside her husband’s on the Land Use Certificates necessary for home ownership. This milestone gave women, particularly those in rural communities, economic empowerment and a chance at a more equal stake in their financial affairs. 2006’s Gender Equality Law, hailed by the UN as providing a real window for advancement, ensures that equal opportunities are created and that women are protected from discrimination.
Historically, women have always played a pivotal role in the development of Vietnam. It is believed that the country was nurtured from matriarchal beginnings. In school history lessons, homage is paid to its many female heroes such as the ferocious Trung Sisters who led great armies against the invading Chinese, and the anti-colonial revolutionaries of the early 20th century who fought not only against French imperialism, but against the Eurocentric assumption that women should be confined to domesticity. As the old adage goes, ‘giac den nha dan ba cung danh’ – ‘when the enemy is at the gate, the woman goes out fighting.’
We spoke to four women who, just like their ancestors before them, heroically overcome the trials and tribulations of being a woman in Vietnam.
Sharing The Burden
Meeting Nguyen Mai Thao, the energetic 33-year-old head of production at the Ho Chi Minh City offices of J. Walter Thompson, a global advertising agency headquartered in New York City, you might not guess that she was mum to two young boys – one almost two, the other three-and-a-half. With erratic hours and long days, flitting between clients, film production companies, directors and creative teams, how does she find time to fulfill both roles? “I have a very good mother-in-law,” she says. “She takes care of the kids for me while I’m not at home. Also, when I travel on business trips for example, I try to bring them with me.”
She admits that juggling a family and a career is not without its sacrifices. “I miss a lot of things. For example, I cannot go to my kids’ ceremonies at school. I feel guilty (but) I’m trying to get more staff to support me so I have more time for (them).”
Having been raised in a very open-minded family where, without the pressure to marry and settle down, she was able to follow her passion for travel, creativity and production. “I have very lovely and understanding parents. They left me to choose whatever career I liked.”
After carving a path through the male dominated worlds of IT and multimedia, Mai Thao has now arrived in an industry where gender is not an issue. “(At JWT) we have a lot of boys and girls, gay, lesbian… everyone lives happily. We don’t look down on anyone.”
Traditional gender roles are also absent at home; Mai Thao and her husband enjoy an equal partnership. “We both play mum and daddy,” she adds. “My husband is very good at cleaning, much better than me. But I am better at cooking!”
Mum of one, Trudy Ta, recently started her own online fashion business. She realised that there was a need to design clothes for fuller-sized women and xlux.vn was born. “I want ‘normal’ women to feel self-confident in what they wear,” she says.
Ta, now 30, won a scholarship when she was 18 to study Marketing at Nanyang University in Singapore. Her parents fully encouraged her to study, sharing her belief that having a career was important.
Ta moved back to Ho Chi Minh City and married when she was 27. Her marriage was a happy one, until her daughter was born. She clashed with her husband over who should do most of the housework and who should spend more time looking after their child.
“He wanted me to take on the role of the housewife 100 percent; there was no sharing of any of the responsibilities,” she says. Ta remembers how her husband suddenly assumed the “captain” role of the family and how his expectations of Ta changed.
During this time, Ta worked long hours for an e-commerce start-up. She says her parents began to echo her husband’s views, advising her to stop working and dedicate her time to the family. The transition into motherhood seemed a natural one for everyone but Ta.
Sadly Ta’s three-year marriage ended in divorce. Now, she juggles being a single mum with the launch of her new business venture. She takes her now three-year-old daughter to kindergarten then works non-stop until it’s time to pick her up again. “I have to wear two different hats and be sure that I don’t focus on work when I’m looking after (my daughter).” Her ex-husband sees them once a week. “For me, it’s important that (she) gets to see her mum and dad together, even if it’s only for a short while.”
Ta wants her daughter to grow up with an open mind; not caving to social pressures and ascribing to strict gender roles. “One day after nursery, my daughter told me that boys wear blue Superman helmets and girls wear pink princess ones…I explained (to her) that girls can also wear Superwoman helmets.”
52-year-old Tu Le talks modestly about her life as a working mother of one. “My mother had 12 children,” she says. “She had to work so much harder than me. I have been lucky.”
Born in the rural province of Long An into a family of rice planters, Le eventually moved to Saigon to get married. When her son was born she was forced to give up her job to care for him. “Only my husband could go to work so we were quite poor,” she explains. “It was a hard time.”
When she eventually found full-time work in a clothes factory to pay for childcare, expectations at home didn’t change. “I had to do two jobs: working at the factory and being a housewife and mother. If I finished work late at night, I would come back home to wash my son and do all of the housework as well. The next day I would do the cooking before going out to work again.
“In my mind, housework and taking care of children is the responsibility of a woman. It’s part of her duty. If my husband helped me, which he sometimes did, though not usually, I was grateful. If not, then that was fine.”
With her son now approaching 30, Le accepts that times have changed, although she remains firm over certain matters. “When my son gets married he will have to help his wife,” she says. “I think in modern families the husband and wife should share everything; finances, responsibilities and housework, but I don’t accept that the husband should stay at home and look after the children while the wife goes out to work. He has to play the man’s role. If I had a daughter, I would encourage her to be independent, but to still keep the traditional character of a Vietnamese woman.”
Having tied the knot at 31, many considered Le Anh Tho’s marriage to have come slightly later than normal. “I told my mum I’d rather be myself,” says the now 38-year-old, “that I’d rather be alone until I found the right person to get married with, rather than please everyone else by getting married at 26 or 27.”
Anh Tho is currently the assistant director and head of Arts and Creative Industries at the British Council in Ho Chi Minh City, and has two girls aged three and six. “My parents were very open,” she says. “They just guided me on what I should do and what I shouldn’t do, but they never had a plan for me.” She explains that for many Vietnamese women, this is not always the case. “Especially for families not in big cities. People still put a lot of pressure on their girls.”
Even in Vietnam’s rapidly expanding cosmopolitan culture, the traditional stereotypical expectations of a woman’s role can still affect her choices in life. “Vietnamese women should be more confident about what they can contribute to society,” says Anh Tho. “They shouldn’t think that because they are a woman that should limit them in some areas.”
It’s an ethos she has lived by from day one. “I am quite strong. I never think that because I am a woman that I couldn’t do this or that,” she says. “I never had that in mind. I think when you are confident with what you are doing, why should you care if you are a girl or a boy?”
Anh Tho also praises the support of her husband. “I’m a lucky woman. (He) also does not pressure me as a woman by saying ‘you should be this’, ’you should do that’ or ‘you should stay home’. We support each other. He cooks better than me and I clean better than him. So I say, ‘okay you cook and I’ll clean all the mess’.”
Come Out Fighting
From its matriarchal foundation to the present day, Vietnam’s history is dotted with female heroes in one form or another. Positive changes have benefited women throughout the decades and continue to do so. In January 2016, the Communist Party’s newly elected central committee voted in 20 female members, including Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who has climbed the ranks to reach one of the top four postings in government. The fighting spirit of Vietnam’s women is admirable; whether they’re leading armies, juggling to balance work and raise children, or simply keeping their homes in order. As Trudy Ta reflects, “Vietnamese women have the genes to be very resolute in any kind of battle they face.”
Vietnam’s Historic Heroines
The mythological fairy mother who laid 100 eggs containing the children of Sung Lam, the dragon lord. They would become the ancestors of the Vietnamese civilisation.
The Trung Sisters (circa 40CE)
These legendary warriors amassed an army of 80,000 to fight the first waves of invading Chinese.
Lady Trieu (225 – 248CE)
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Vietnamese Joan of Arc’. Another female leader who fought against the Chinese and their patriarchal ideals.
Bao Luong (1909 – 1976)
Poet and anti-colonial revolutionary. Fought for the emancipation of women under European rule and the liberation of Vietnam.
Vo Thi Sau (1933 – 1952)
Schoolgirl guerrilla and national martyr. Executed for leading deadly attacks against the French authorities.
Nguyen Thi Minh Khai (1910 – 1941)
Revolutionary and co-founder of the organisation which became the Communist Party of Vietnam. Jailed by the French colonial government and executed by firing squad.