As I wrestle with the bolt to lock my front door, I suddenly feel eyes on me. For a moment, I delay turning around, instead pretending to search my bag. The sun has left behind a faceless heat, hanging in the air and making my bare back drip with sweat. Finally, I meet the stares of two men and realize wearing a halter neck top probably wasn’t such a wise move after all. One gestures to his own covered back and they begin to laugh awkwardly, clearly unsure of how to tackle the matter of my bare shoulders.
This is just a fleeting glimpse into Vietnam's complicated stance on gender politics- which is at once impressively modern and achingly old-school. While the younger Vietnamese population strive for gender equality and to blur the lines of male and female, the older population are more hesitant.
Often misconstrued as stubbornness, the older generation’s reluctance to let go of traditional gender roles is understandable. Given its history of invasion and colonisation, there’s a widespread desire to preserve Vietnam’s national identity. An important part of this is ancient narratives surrounding the family and home- a historically patriarchal sphere.
As with most cultural matters, it seems that Vietnam is in a tug of war match between traditionalism and modernity. However, things are starting to change at a pace that’s so typical of the country’s dizzying culture.
Teaching The New Generation
If you want a glimpse into the future of a country, becoming a teacher is probably the nearest you’ll get. By skimming through the provided syllabus, you can get a real sense of Vietnam’s current position on gender equality. After all, what could be more important than carrying these views down to the next generation?
What pleasantly surprised me was the emphasis placed on International Women’s Day. Our employers told us that for an entire week, students would be making cards addressed to a female family member or teacher. Some of these are now stashed in my room, with messages including “Dear teacher Molly, thank you for teaching us new things, we love you”.
Every day became a tiring yet wonderful show of praise: I received flowers, endless snacks, as well as envelopes containing money.
After I expressed my surprise to my teaching assistant, she explained how important it is in Vietnam to have a day in the year where every woman, be it at home or in the workplace, has her accomplishments recognised.
Unfortunately, the ideas expressed in our teaching materials are less forward-thinking. Flashcards for the unit on careers show exclusively male doctors, farmers, and businessmen- and among these are only two depictions of women. One, an engineer beaming in her construction helmet, and the other a housewife. While a domestic lifestyle is a perfectly valid one, the lack of equity that we’re asked to present to students is disheartening.
This old-school ideology often affects who we’re allowed to teach based on our gender. Since the beginning of our contract, its been an un-explained rule that women teach infant classes, while men focus on secondary level. Underpinned by the belief that females are the more maternal sex, males are rarely allowed to teach younger learners and are instead placed in elementary or high school settings.
One fellow teacher in Hanoi noticed he was scheduled to teach Kindergarten in the coming weeks, but these plans changed once our employers met him in person. Their delight quickly turned to concern when the feminine “Olivia” they had imagined turned out to be Oliver, the 6”2 rugby lad. As a result, he was quickly placed in a high school.
It’s in the Kindergartens of central Vietnam that a new, forward-thinking project promoting gender equality is based. The Gender-responsive teaching and learning in the early years (GENTLE) project, has transformed preschools in 15 mountainous districts in central Vietnam into environments of gender-responsive, play-based learning. The founders of GENTLE noticed that in pre-school environments, especially in central Vietnam, gender socialization is reinforced through gender-specific toys and gender-based activities.
Since the project’s completion in 2021, 153 preschools in the Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces have integrated Gender-Responsive Pedagogy (GRP) into their daily teaching practices. Now, they use gender-neutral toys and teaching methods to ensure each child has an equal start in life, regardless of their gender.
Vietnam’s LGBTQ+ Community
For those living in Vietnam’s metropolitan centres: Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the thriving LGBTQ+ social scene is reassuringly present. Every September, the dazzling VietPride event lights up the capital, Ho Chi Minh City, and coastal havens like DaNang for a weekend of vibrant self-expression. The main message of VietPride is "Công khai và tự hào" (Open and Proud).
This would’ve been unimaginable 10 years ago when queer rights and acceptance were still in their infancy. But in 2022, Vietnam has been recognized as one of Asia’s most LGBTQ+ friendly countries, after the infamously liberal Taiwan.
On a more day-to-day basis, the queer community in Vietnam’s cities, whether Tay (western) or Vietnamese, have a panoply of safe spaces and meeting places. Bars, pubs, LGBT-centric cafes, and an overwhelming selection of drag shows make for an eclectic and thriving community. Essentially, this extends to the online world, with many social media groups and campaigns promoting LGBTQ+ events in communities across Vietnam. Just some examples are the ICS Center (VietPride organisers), Girls Love Girls Vietnam (an NGO empowering queer women), and LGBTQI+ People In Saigon.
Not only has Vietnam seen cultural progress regarding LGBTQ+ acceptance, there have been some monumental legislative headway in the last decade. The historic ban on gay marriage has been abolished, and In 2015, changes were made to the Civil Code recognizing an individual’s right to change their legal gender marker.
Despite these crucial legislative steps, the Vietnamese LGBTQ+ population continue to face crippling discrimination. Oftentimes, they are condemned by a society that favours heteronormativity, especially among the older generation.
Nevertheless, hope is in sight. The 2021 elections for the National Assembly and the local People’s Committee in Hanoi saw the appearance of Luong The Huy, the first openly gay candidate running for both offices. At age 32, Huy is much younger than the typical member of the National Assembly or the People’s Committee. While he didn’t end up winning the election (despite vigorous support from young people), this is still a critical ray of hope for the Vietnamese LGBTQ+ community.
Gender Politics In The Ethnic Minorities of Sapa
As dense fog rolls in, the hot pink legwarmers of our guide become beacons leading us through the valley. We stop for a water break and observe a cluster of other tourists, helping to prepare the rice paddies for planting in a few days. “I’m too old for this kind of work!” wails a man no older than twenty-five. Our guide scoffs beside me, “there are women in my tribe older than eighty who work harder than he does!”
This is our second day of trekking with our guide’s help, and in perfect English, she tells us how being a woman here is both helped and hindered by economic necessity. The hill tribes around Sapa have become famous for their textile industry, weaving beautiful garments from local plants such as hemp. In fact, the first thing that hits you upon arrival is the dizzying kaleidoscope of colour. Predominately women and children are laden with beads and patterns, with the designs dependent on which tribe they belong to.
In a largely inaccessible landscape, textile production and guiding tourists go hand in hand for these women. After all, if you help a wobbly tourist down a slippery path, they’re more likely to buy a purse when they stop for lunch. This gives women in the area a level of agency over their own living and allows them to carve identities outside of being a wife and mother.
In this strive for independence, companies such as Sapa Sisters were formed. They offer guided treks, overnight stays, and the promise that your money will reach the women who make such experiences possible. Their clear emphasis is on “girl power”, with this phrase being the Wi-Fi password in their office.
As we walk and talk, our guide, only twenty-two herself, tells us how working for Sapa Sisters has benefited her life. Contact with westerners allows her to perfect her English- opening more doors for her own career as well as for the future of her own children, to whom she teaches the language. This, as well as independence from her husband and autonomy over her own life, is only possible because Sapa Sisters pay her fairly, she explains.
All this begs the question, what are these companies protecting women from? For Sapa Sisters to so ardently assure the ethical treatment of their employees, there must be a more harrowing side to life.
Once upon a time, girls as young as thirteen would be forced into arranged marriages and would be fitted for silver earrings worn only by married women years before. Our guide assures us that the marriageable age has since been raised and that many couples are even in love these days. Even so, anyone over the age of thirty, regardless of gender, is considered firmly ‘on the shelf’, which leads to perhaps the area’s most sinister problem.
We pass a stone building hidden among fruit trees and are told it’s the only secondary school in the area. All is silent, save for the lazy fluttering of a few banners and hens pecking in the dust. It may be a national holiday, but the tourist industry never rests, and so students have made for the trekking routes to sell fabric bracelets. Our guide tells us that all girls must leave their homes and live at school if they are lucky enough to attend. We ask why, perplexed, and she continues that it’s too dangerous for them to walk home after class.
Many girls are preyed upon by men who are considered too old to get married and have turned to abusive methods of gaining a companion. While this disturbing behaviour is, fortunately, becoming less frequent, Confucianism (an ancient Chinese philosophy favouring men over women) is still present. Hmong females are seen as belonging to their husbands, are discouraged from completing education, and are discriminated against for seeking divorce.
However, change is on the horizon in these communities, thanks to companies like Sapa Sisters. Many husbands of the women working as guides now see the economic benefits of their wives’ work and support it by taking over domestic responsibilities such as childcare while their spouses are working. In a society, where men have traditionally been the main providers, this is an important step toward gender equality for these rural communities in Vietnam.
Vietnam: A Gendered Society On The Brink Of Change?
The social construct of gender has long restricted beings across the world, not just in Vietnam. While the country has lingering gender roles and associated inequality issues, it is changing for the better at an alarming rate. Much of this change is helped along by a culture that puts family before all else.
There’s a Vietnamese saying that goes “family is not an important thing, it is everything.” Phrases like this are at the heart of understanding gender politics in Vietnam. The majority of people in this country put the happiness of their relations before all else, which, increasingly, is a love surpassing sexuality, or gender. If any nation can strive for the autonomy of all its citizens, Vietnam can.