Women in Vietnam are a force to be reckoned with — strong, determined, and unbreakable in the face of adversity. And as International Women's Month comes to a close, we celebrate women's incredible strength, resilience, and tenacity in all their diverse forms.
But what makes someone truly strong? It's not just physical prowess or mental toughness; it's a combination of emotional intelligence, empathy, and self-care that allows one to thrive in adversity. Vietnamese women, expats in the country included, understand this better than anyone, as they have faced countless challenges with grit and determination.
In a world that often seeks to pit women against each other, these women know the importance of lifting each other and building a solid community. By practicing compassion, honesty, and kindness, they have created a network of support that helps them overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.
However, the fight for gender equality is far from over. We still face barriers such as unequal pay, limited access to education and healthcare, and gender-based violence. But rather than being deterred, they have continued to push for change and demand their rightful place in society.
Sheroes among us
Throughout our lives, we encounter countless women who leave an indelible mark on our hearts and minds. These women come in many forms – mothers, sisters, mentors, friends, and more – and their influence can be felt in big and small ways.
To 29-year-old Australia-born Hannah Phuong Nguyen, three women inspired her the most: her mother, aunt, and grandmother. Even if they didn’t speak English, it didn’t stop them from making a mark for themselves in a foreign country. Growing up abroad and back in Vietnam to establish herself through her catering business while nurturing her family of four, Hannah sees the world differently, thanks to the three women in her life.
“They all had very different stories but shared the same moral; these women ahead of me were so selfless in their decisions. Without them, I would not be half the woman I am today.”
As they say, not all (s)heroes wear a cape; some are in full PPE (personal protective equipment) gear. “I work with superwomen who inspire me every single day,” Leigh Jones, the regional academic training leader at Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, told Vietcetera.
The Scottish expat also said she is constantly humbled by the “doctors who worked tirelessly in hospitals during the COVID pandemic, lab workers who performed diagnostic testing, community members who strive to understand public perception on important issues such as vaccine hesitancy, and multitasking Ph.D. candidates who balance a multitude of responsibilities both at home and at work.”
Like it or not, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And to the 23-year-old freelance Vietnamese-English teacher, Kim Kelly, looks up to her friends for inspiration. She has a friend she calls “Love Philosophy Professor,” giving her the most helpful dating advice, and another who keeps her going when life gets more demanding. “Most people would tell you they think you’ll get it. But my friends tell me they do hope I get it, but her biggest hope is that even if I don’t, I will still love myself, have faith in the future, and keep going.
(S)heroes can come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be people we know personally or public figures we admire from a distance. Apart from her mother, sister, and two childhood best friends who taught her how to love fiercely and to always stand by your loved ones, Skye Maconachie, the co-CEO of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, was recently inspired by New Zealand’s 40th and third woman prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her capability always to put kindness on top of anything political.
As someone who has seen the not-so-kind side of Vietnam, Skye believes one of her greatest strengths is seeing the strengths in others.
“The most important issue I’m focused on addressing is ending human trafficking,” the Hanoi-based Australian expat shared. “I am also most passionate about protecting children and vulnerable people, ensuring they are safe, receiving the care and love to thrive, and having a safe and peaceful world. I wish that all humans have the opportunities and resources to create a beautiful life for themselves and their community.”
Who not How
Women's concept of strength and resilience is relative and varies on some levels. Recognizing the diverse range of experiences and challenges that women encounter is crucial. Despite obstacles like gender inequality and discrimination, women are rising, breaking barriers, and making their voices heard.
“Women face many challenges today, and one of the biggest is how divided we are,” says Susan Li, the co-founder and one of the admins of the Facebook group Fexpats - Female Expats and Locals in Ho Chi Minh City. “Modern society has pitted us against each other, but what we can do is try to lift each other up and find ways to connect and work cooperatively together.”
When asked about cultivating strength and resilience, Susan advises: “Get rid of negative self-talk and keep a growth mindset. Changing that voice in your head is easier if you surround yourself with the right people.”
Once, Susan heard her inner voice saying, “You idiot, you should have known better!” She was stunned at how mean she was to herself. She knew this type of self-talk did nothing but lower self-esteem and momentum. “It takes time, but you have to start being a good and fair manager to yourself and not just to others.”
While women are being divided, women of today also have so much on their shoulders. Skye believes that women “play so many different roles in our daily life, we are so many things to so many different people, we wear a lot of different hats. And if you don't have the resources or the opportunities, if you're disadvantaged, this weight on our shoulders can become a burden.” Making them vulnerable to exploitation and harm.
To overcome this challenge, Skye said we all – not only the women – need to take action and create opportunities for women to “have a voice, have a choice, and reduce barriers so they can thrive.”
Women are, by default, problem solvers. However, we get stuck in the “how” mindset and try to do everything ourselves, limiting our progress and leading to burnout. Instead, we should focus on identifying the right people or “whos” who can help us achieve our goals, whether that be through collaboration, delegation, or outsourcing.
Growing up in a Vietnamese household in Australia taught Hannah several life lessons she wants to share with her daughters and the other parents she knows. When she volunteered to represent her daughter’s class, her goal was to bridge the gap between those parents who aren’t comfortable with the English language and help them feel at ease at school.
“I remember when I was in school, my parents were always so busy running their bakeries and had low self-confidence as they spoke very little English, and they never had the chance to sign up for any social events. They never really knew what was going on at school or had any other friends besides work. I want to avoid that situation for more families as much as possible because I can thoroughly remember the difficulty my parents faced.”
To Hannah, one of the biggest challenges women face today is “firstly accepting their body shape and size.” At least in her household, she addresses it by teaching her daughters to love themselves just like they are, regardless of their color, shape, or size. However, she also knows that most Asian families don’t get to discuss anything openly. “To overcome this issue, I feel like schools should start building campaigns with the involvement of parents to teach their kids the acceptance of their own body.”
As for Kim, besides teaching, she’s also passionate about mental health and social justice. “Therefore, I take on volunteer roles at NGOs like Wintercearig, where I helped raise awareness on mental health through the arts, or Beautiful Mind VN, where I write internet articles about the matter. On social justice, I am a feminist, an anti-racist, and an ally for the LGBTQA+ community.”
Although she acknowledges that times have changed in Vietnam – she can now go to drag shows in the city and learn from female head teachers – “we still have a long way to go.”
‘We are our strongest allies’
On top of internal and physical issues and societal standards, women must achieve, there remains inequality in the boardroom. Not all women want to prioritize their personal lives over their professional careers, and that's completely valid. Women need to pursue their passions and ambitions, whether in their personal lives or careers. However, balancing both aspects of life can be challenging, facing additional obstacles in their professional lives, such as gender bias and discrimination.
Women must build a robust support system and network to overcome these challenges, personally and professionally. This can include mentors, colleagues, friends, and family members who can provide guidance, encouragement, and assistance. And Leigh is an advocate for supporting women at work.
Leigh uses her strength by supporting women to get the qualification that gives extra validation to what they do. The current system favors men due to the status quo and lack of diversity, affecting everyone's lives.
If a boardroom or government is full of identikit blokes in suits, all of a similar age and background, how do we expect the world to keep innovating and moving forward? How do we overcome it? We keep pushing, and we keep questioning. We support each other.