In many developing countries it would be unusual to find a woman driving a vehicle. Not so in Vietnam. Women can be seen everywhere zipping around on motorbikes and I even had a female taxi driver once, something you wouldn’t find in most liberal western cities. Men invariably drive when there are multiple people on a motorbike, but there does not appear to be any popular mistrust of female driving abilities. For instance, I told my Vietnamese classmate Dzung the joke that we used at Finnegan’s quiz night…
Why couldn’t Helen Keller drive?
Because she’s a woman.
Although I explained who Helen Keller is, he didn’t get the humor.
Some of the women making the morning commute are on their way to high level jobs. During this trip we’ve had the fortune of meeting some impressive professional women. In June we heard a lecture by Ambassador Ton nu thi Ninh, the Vice Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the National Assembly. She spoke for an hour and a half in elegant, French-accented English, effortlessly convincing us of the good intentions of the Communist Party and skillfully dodging tough questions. More recently, we received an address by Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, a proud octogenarian who headed the Viet Cong’s delegation to the Paris Peace Talks and later served as Vietnam’s Vice President. As far as I know she’s the most distinguished Vietnamese female since the legendary Trung Sisters, Vietnamese Joan of Arc figures who expelled the Chinese in 43 A.D.
These two women are products of the French-educated elite. But modern Vietnam is also producing impressive females. I’ve butted heads with Van, a serious, outspoken international trade student who intends to go into finance. I’ve also gotten to know Hoa, a well-liked girl with impeccable English who’s off to study at Johns Hopkins this fall. When she returns she intends to open a school and then enter the government, probably the foreign ministry. Desaix thinks she could become the foreign minister one day.
Beyond the well educated elite, Vietnamese women are proving adept entrepreneurs in the current economic boom. Pinky and Moon, two sisters who own the bar of the same name, have built a small nightlife empire that includes two bars, a restaurant and the Lighthouse Club, one of Hanoi’s largest nightclubs. They employ at least 30 people, most of them men. Their gender doesn’t hurt them in this business. Indeed, by courting European boyfriends they’ve secured reliable lines of capital.
Pinky and Moon at the Pinky Moon
Pinky and Moon are not rare exceptions—there are lots of female entrepreneurs all over the country. On our trip to Central Vietnam, two of our restaurants and one of our hotels was owned by a woman who was in the process of expanding her business.
On a lower level, female participation in business is even more prevalent. A great number of shops are run by females and over half of all street peddlers are hard working women. In the covered city markets, no less than one hundred percent of the booths are owned and run by women. In Vietnam, I’ve told dozens of women that I don’t want to buy a shirt, but I’ve never had to tell a man that.
The presence of Vietnamese women in large, medium and small business is impressive, and it has traditional roots. According to Neil Jamieson, rural Vietnamese men did the majority of the farm work while Vietnamese women were expected to go into the village and sell extra produce and small handmade crafts. In this traditional division of labor, it was the women who became the petit bourgeoisie of rural society and they controlled the purse strings of their families.
Nevertheless, Vietnam is not a feminist paradise, even after decades of gender-neutral Communist ideology. Vicki, a Vietnamese-American girl who I talked with at the Dragonfly, was critical of the social order. I told her that I was impressed that every merchant in the indoor markets was female but she dismissed my enthusiasm. “Sure they’re all women,” she said, “but that’s because small shop keepers are considered lowly.”
It’s an important point—in Vietnam all trash collectors are women as well. Women are found in all sorts of difficult, undesirable jobs. In fact, the legal female retirement age is lower than that of men. Why, a classmate asked an official. “Because women work harder,” he answered, without a hint of humor.
A hard working woman in Hanoi
Women are not entirely liberated socially. Although they’re never required to have a male chaperone, all unmarried women have curfews. They’re shockingly rigid by American standards. Hoa, the twenty three year old future Foreign Minister, disappears from Dragonfly at 11pm, without fail. During high school, she would have been home at 10. These curfews will stay in effect until the woman marries. As 11pm approaches at the Dragonfly, Elias invariably offers to marry Hoa so that she can stay out later, but she politely declines.
Marriage is very often forced on young Vietnamese women. Tu, a stunning student at Hanoi National University, has been dating her boyfriend for eight months. Her boyfriend is extremely jealous, forcing her to stay at home until he comes to take her out. His parents have exerted intense pressure on Tu to marry their son, and Tu had tacitly accepted her fate, unable to imagine an alternative. They set a date for the wedding. Her friend Dung, who reads a book version of Sex in the City to improve his English, told her that she's not ready to make that kind of commitment, that there are other options out there. But it was the arrival of the Americans that made the difference. We showed up with our permissive attitudes toward dating and Tu had a small renaissance. With the support of her family she made the bold decision to stand up to her boyfriend and his family. The wedding has been postponed indefinitely. She goes out without his permission. Now she thinks dreams of career opportunities and studying abroad instead of impending marriage. Her liberal, middle class friends are happy that she made the transition. But how many Vietnamese women are that fortunate?