Some women inspire, some influence, and some fight. During the Vietnam War, women served as soldiers fighting for independence. While there’s little official data of female war veterans, the country estimates that approximately 11,000 military women were stationed across the country.
Over the decades, women’s roles in the country have changed. They have taken on roles in modern society, cementing their names in different fields and leading initiatives that brought Vietnam into the world. From climbing the corporate ladder through unparalleled hard work and competence to building their own empires, the Vietnamese women of today are epitome of influence, empowerment and inspiration.
As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, we have listed five of the most powerful and influential women creating monumental changes in modern Vietnam.
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao
It all started with an inkling that Vietnam would become a major tourist hub in the years to come and the demand for air travel will grow to a great extent. Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao launched her own budget airline, VietJet Air, in 2011, making her the only woman to have started and run a major commercial airline in a traditionally male-dominated business. Today, Thao is the wealthiest self-made woman not just in Vietnam, but in all of Southeast Asia, with a net worth of $2.8 billion.
From only a handful of domestic routes when VietJet first flew the Vietnam skies, the airline slowly but consistently expanded to dozens of aircrafts servicing over 30 regional destinations. And Thao said she’s not done yet. “Our strategy is to expand to any regional market within a radius of 2,500 kilometres so we can create bases that cover half of the world population,” she said in an interview with Forbes.
“I have always aimed big and done big deals. I have never done anything on a small scale. When people were trading one container [of goods], I was already trading hundreds of containers.”
Thao had one starting goal: to give Vietnam’s growing middle-class an opportunity to travel by air (which was previously perceived as “only for the rich”. And so she did. Before VietJet started its operation, only 1% of the local population had access to air travel. Through inexpensive fares that uphold the same safety standards as that of full service airlines, Thao’s VietJet helped expand the country’s aviation industry, and boosted domestic and regional tourism by bringing in travelers to their dream destinations.
“The reward for us comes from the feeling that taking flight is a sign of civilization. When stepping out of their village, our passengers feel like another person and become global citizens,” she said in an interview for Harvard Business School.
A decade since her airline’s first flight took off, “Madame Thao” has been honored with numerous accolades, including being named as one of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes, 100 People Transforming Business in Asia by Business Insider and as Asia-Pacific CEO of the Year.
In the summer of 1997, Hong Hoang became the first Vietnamese to visit Antarctica, a six-trip designed to expose the complexities of climate and waste issues on the planet. She was just 24, but she knew she had been transformed. She spent her post-Antarctica years getting relevant experiences on environmental preservation and wildlife conservation. When she was ready, she launched CHANGE, an environmental not for profit organization, that works directly with Vietnamese youth.
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it,” she said in an interview with Climate Heroes, a platform that documents women and men who fight tirelessly to protect the environment.
An acronym for the Centre of Hands-on Actions and Networking for Growth and Environment, CHANGE educates individuals and mobilizes the community into taking action on reducing their impact on the country’s most serious environmental issues.
Despite the uphill battle she faced to keep her organization moving and prove its effectiveness to a skeptical audience, Hoang devoted herself to positively influencing young Vietnamese from all walks of life, letting them understand how climate change endangers their future.
In 2018, she took part in the inaugural round of the Obama Foundation Scholars Program, where she collaborated with fellow resign leaders and worked on building skills and experiences that she would later on implement in her own organization.
“We [Vietnam] are one of the most influenced by climate change, the fourth biggest plastic polluter, and the top wildlife consumers. We are always on the top of the worst lists – we want to just step down a little bit! Don’t be the champion in these categories! But it’s a long way to go, believe me,” the passionate environmentalist told Southeast Asia Globe.
It’s safe to say everyone in Vietnam knows who Linh Thai is, from being the founder of textile company Rita Phil, to taking the role as CEO of VinGroup Ventures and being “Shark Linh” on the investment reality show Shark Tank Vietnam.
These roles and many others she has taken for over two decades speak of Linh’s mission in life: to unlock people’s potential by providing them the tools and inspiration.
“When I was 18, I already knew I wanted to be a business leader someday—and not a basketball player,” said Linh in an interview with Vietcetera for the “How I Manage” series.
Knowing too well that the road to entrepreneurial success isn’t strewn with flowers, Linh Thai now uses her resources and knowledge to invest in local start-ups. The start-up community in Vietnam has evolved so much over the years, she said, with leaders who have actual experience and a mindset that sets no limits to what they can achieve.
“For some, being an entrepreneur was out of necessity, in order to make a living for their family. For others, this is a passion project. Whatever their motivation, most of them lack experience and mentorship, and yet they are still able to create growing businesses. That is really inspiring: that if you put your mind to something, you will achieve it,” she explained when asked about the lessons she learned from Shark Tank during an interview with Forbes.
Van Thi Nguyen
A social entrepreneur and disability rights activist, Van Thi Nguyen co-founded Nghi Luc Song, which means the “Will To Live” in 2003 to create opportunities for disadvantaged Vietnamese youth, especially those with disabilities.
Van was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare neuromuscular disorder that results in the loss of motor neurons and progressive muscle wasting. Van’s brother, Hung, had the same condition. Bringing with them big dreams to help people with disabilities, the siblings founded the Hanoi-based centre mainly to train disabled people and to teach them English and technological skills they can use to connect with the world.
When Hung died, Van continued running the organization and launched another social enterprise called Imagtor, which employs many disabled Vietnamese working on digital real estate photography.
"We have had more than 1,000 graduates, 80 to 90 percent of them are now employed. Some of them are their family’s breadwinners," Van told BBC in 2019, when she was named among world’s 100 most influential women. She was also awarded as one of the 50 most influential Vietnamese women by Forbes Vietnam in the same year.
“The power inside you and the people involved in your life are very important. It is not just about having a skilled job, but it is about their ability, their dream, and their ability to follow their dreams and recognize the power within,” Van shared with writer Rina Patel in 2015.
Kelly Marie Tran
Though Asian representation in foreign films and series has grown over the years (thanks to actors who continuously advocate for diversity in Hollywood), Asian actors are still pigeonholed into narrow and reductive parts.
But the release of Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” comes as a celebration of this decade-long struggle -- although the fight is far from over. Voiced by actress Kelly Marie Tran, the animated film stars the first ever Southeast Asian Disney Princess. And she’s Vietnamese!
Kelly had a rough start in Hollywood, having been inundated with racist and sexist online abuse when she starred as Rose Tico in Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi, a project she thought would be her ultimate ticket towards stardom. But the abuse was too much for Kelly, she deleted her Instagram account for peace of mind.
Now that she’s back, the talented actress carries with her a new sense of certaintainty of who she is. And it shows. Paying homage to her roots, Kelly stunned fans during the virtual red carpet premiere of the film with a beautiful black and gold ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese garment, created by Thai Nguyen. She was every bit of a royalty, her hand beaded with intricate art that represents the culture of Vietnam and a headdress khăn đống” that symbolizes power. The overall look was inspired by a phoenix rising from the ashes -- a perfect metaphor for what she had gone through and what she’s capable of doing now.
For Kelly, earning the role was not only a bucket-list item for a diehard Disney nerd, but also an opportunity to represent her heritage for the first time in her career. "I've never had this experience before where I've looked at sides and read words that were taken from the Vietnamese language," she told Hollywood Reporter.