More and more, women in Saigon are choosing to hold off on starting a family. With the lowest birth rate in the country, Dana Filek-Gibson explores the reasons behind this delay and its implications for the future. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Just over two years ago, Le Thi Ngoc Han tied the knot. In 2010, she and her husband, Tri, met at work and, after getting to know one another, began dating. At first, she says, he was shy. Tri didn’t say much and she wondered whether the two had much in common. But over time, Tri opened up and, when the couple finally got married a few years ago, Han knew there was much more to him than she had first thought.
It’s the usual story of love and marriage in Saigon, and Han lights up as she talks about him, even when making playful jokes. The 27-year-old HR worker has a much more equal relationship with her husband than many other young Vietnamese her age. Once the wedding bells had quieted and the honeymoon was over, the second most important question came around: When are you going to have kids? For Han – and every other woman in Vietnam – this is a standard question, and one for which you usually supply an answer. But Han and Tri, now married for over two years, are in no rush.
While it’s very much the opposite of traditional Vietnamese thinking, these days more and more Saigonese women are waiting to have kids. This trend has caught on the world over, but in Saigon it’s particularly prominent: the southern hub has the lowest birth rate in the country at 1.33 children per couple in 2012, a marked contrast to the 2.05 national average.
These figures represent an array of both good and bad news for the country: on the one hand, declining fertility rates mean that Vietnam’s population is under control in a way that it certainly was not in the aftermath of the American War, when couples married young, contraceptives were all but nonexistent and rural families needed the extra hands around the house.
On the other hand, as Vietnam faces a rapidly aging population – according to a May article in Thanh Nien, experts believe that one-third of the country’s population will be over 60 within the next 15 years – the challenge of caring for its elderly citizens falls squarely upon the shoulders of the next generation, whose numbers are dwindling by the year.
But beyond the larger societal implications of delaying childbirth, women have their own reasons for waiting to start a family. In Han’s case, money is the biggest issue.
“Our family is not rich,” she says. “For Vietnamese, you need to have a house already and then you continue with other things. We don’t have the house. After getting married, we had to live in my uncle’s house.”
Without property of their own, Tri and Han hesitate to bring a child into this world, though the pair have been saving for an apartment of their own. The papers will be signed this fall, opening the door for the rest of their married life to take place, however Han continues to fret over the costs of living in a major city.
“You have to get more money, get a high salary, and then it’s easy to live here,” she explains. “Many people say that Saigon has everything; it’s easy to live here if you have money.”
For many women her age, Han’s story rings true, not only because of the financial struggles that come with raising a child in the city but also thanks to the familial obligations that begin to weigh down on a young couple after getting married.
“My mother-in-law says: ‘Please, please, give birth! I will take care of it. I am young, too. Why do you keep delaying? I’m getting older and older. Who will take care of the children for you?” she says.
In Vu’s circle of friends, such pressures are a common part of life for women of a certain age. The 34-year-old Hanoi native, who chose not to disclose her full name, maintains a relatively wide circle of friends and clientele in Saigon who left the capital in part for the southern hub’s charms but also because of the increasing pressure placed upon them by their families and friends to get married and have children.
“The funny thing is that whoever doesn’t get married at a certain age that their family expected, they move down to Saigon,” she says. “All my friends are from Hanoi. They moved down to Saigon and they wanted to stay in the single life, to pursue their career; they didn’t want to get any pressure from their family so they move down to Saigon.”
While this wasn’t Vu’s primary reason for settling in the south, her career is a major part of her adult life and, in her case, part of the reason she hasn’t yet taken the first step toward building a family: marriage. Though Vu has been in long-term relationships in the past, the Hanoian says she’s ultimately chosen her career over her personal life in these situations. She has no regrets about these decisions but is also aware that by putting her career first, there is a possibility that children may not one day be in her future.
“I think one day I do want to have kids,” she says, “but I don’t want to be a single mom, so if I found the right partner who would pretty much be in on everything then I would actually want to have kids. But if not, then it’s not a big deal for me whether I have kids or not. If I haven’t found the right partner, I won’t have kids.”
Even in western societies, this is a bold statement for women to make, but in Vietnam it is almost unheard of. For many Vietnamese – Han included – children are an important part of a couple’s retirement plan.
“[Here,] the social system is not good…so you need to have one child who can take care of you when you get older, or you get sick or something,” she explains. “In Vietnam, every couple should have children to take care of their future.”
While these two women and their experiences indicate both a shift in Vietnamese cultural attitudes as well as a growing trend to hold off on having kids, the government is preparing itself for the more serious implications of fewer babies. Last month, Thanh Nien reported that officials were considering whether to drop the loosely-followed two-child restriction in place in Vietnam to encourage more couples to have children. There is no word yet on how, if at all, this rule might change, but in the meantime, Vu believes it will sort itself out.
“I think that’s a natural way of going; that is the issue in all developed countries so I think that life [in Vietnam] will be more progressive,” she says. “It happened to Japan, Korea, America…Women basically have much more power to be able to do what they want, even though some Asians are a little less so, because I guess that in the next few generations we will still have that thought that women are for the family.”