When I travel I love to understand the culture, society and order of things. This is quite hard when you have a short trip, but I like to try and be observant without judgement and see what I can see. Vietnam is one of my favourite places, I’m dying to get back. In fact I’d happily live there for a few months to get a better understanding of it’s complex culture and systems. I could see these layers, there is a very recent, and still apparent history of war and conflict, a socialist political system, and a relaxed and welcoming attitude that stems from their unique folk religion, which stems from Taoism, Confucism and Buddhism. I noticed an interesting acceptance of death. Where the goal of the west is in many ways for eternal life, I felt like there was an openness to mortality and grief. I saw this in the way that loved ones are buried in pride of place in the front lawn, how a funeral procession moves through the streets, and a contentedness in the present.
Another of the things that really struck me, was the high regard for women. I first noticed this on my meanderings through the Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Art, where many portraits and paintings depicted the strength of the female. Their value not portrayed in their physical appearance, but through their support of family, their leadership and a certain reverence of emotion. I noticed in a lot of paintings women were in the front, and there were several sculptures of female figure, and in general, I was just astounded at the dominance of the female in this story of modern history.
It got me thinking, about the strength of women who would have carried the family when men went to war. They got on with supporting and providing for children and loved ones, and that is so apparent in the running of daily life in Vietnam even now. It was clear to me that this recent war had impacted gender roles - although I have no reference really for what it was like before. I could see that these women were about getting shit done. Women are boss. It’s the women who run the business, answer the questions when men don’t know the answer, and take the money. Here’s a few things I observed while I was there, about how girls rule the world here.
1. BOLDNESS. Many of the women I saw weren’t afraid to approach people where they’re at. As someone who is constantly anxious, I am so amazed at the boldness to continually approach people despite knock backs. You’ll be taking a leisurely stroll and they will be in your face with their offerings, even if you say no, they’ll still try. At Hoi An beach, you have to pay to park your bicycle somewhere so you can go to the beach. NB this is probably an unregulated business operation that someone started, and now everyone does it. So we pull up to a sign that says “Free Parking”. A woman approaches, literally out of nowhere, and says, yes you can park here. Great! We think. She goes on to say.. “You buy some things from my restaurant and you can use a chair for free.” We discuss, and say, ok. We’ll get a beer.
She looks indignant.
“Just beer? No no, you buy food too”
We say we aren’t hungry.
“Cannot buy only beer, must buy food”
Yeah, nah, we are hungry, we just want a beer and sit at the beach.
“No you cannot. Must buy food”
We laugh and leave, and she was happy to let us go, because we wouldn’t buy food she was trying to force on us. Very amusing, and kind of inspiring. So bold.
2. UNIQUENESS. They understand their own product. The know what they’re selling. They know their bottom line. They’ll push up where they can, but know how low they can go and don’t move past that. If you get into a bartering battle, and they welcome it, there will be a limit. They have a process, and many are the same, but they all use their own personality, or something unique depending who you talk to. In fact, this is how an interaction went with a lady I bought some earrings from, and it was very unique, and definitely got my attention, because it was very unlike the majority of transactions I’d had in a market scenario:
Me: These are lovely, how much?
Lady: Well, I will tell you an amount, and then you’ll say another amount lower, and then we go back and forward, so I’ll just tell you. 60,000 dong.
Me: Well, I appreciate your honesty, so I’ll take them.
(That’s the equivalent of about $4, so, wasn’t gonna argue.)
3. INNOVATION. They are innovative. I could see women using whatever it is that they’ve got and adapting it. Whether it’s a bicycle hung with dried squid, or a suitcase filled with cigarettes, there are many inventions people have created using very little, and they head out from dawn until dusk to sell their wares, moving quickly from customer to customer, searching for opportunities. A woman in Can Tho was surrounded by Vietnamese police at her market stall. It looked like she was getting a fine for selling fake goods (whatever you can get hold of, right?) What struck me about this, was her lack of fear. She clearly felt no intimidation by the uniformed men, and it appeared even as though she might have been trying to flirt her way out of it.
4. NICHE. They’ve got a niche and they stick to it. Before I travelled to Vietnam, I saw a Luke Nguyen show where he told the story of these two Vietnamese women who were famous for their fresh rice noodles. The women, in their 70’s, had been making rice noodles for no less than 50 years. FIFTY YEARS! Day in, day out, they pound the rice, and make a paste, smooth it out to dry and cut it up. They have nailed their niche, and making an adequate living from it. I remember thinking how simple their life was, and how happy they were. No striving and struggling with social media and selling online courses for them! Just pounding rice with your bestie all day everyday. The street vendors are similar, they sell one product. They have their thing, and they do it.
5. RECOMMENDATIONS. I noticed women making sure they get recommendations from happy customers. They will ask you to tell people about their restaurant, store or travelling food stall. It was as natural as anything for someone to say, you like this food, tell your friends! Oh you like the dress I made you, tell your friends. We are so shy to tout our skills, I just had such admiration for the confidence.
6. SALES. They’ve nailed the sales funnel. Ok it’s a little forceful, but they lure you in with an offer, perhaps a lie, with something like “Take my photo, no money!” then... they force you into a sale of some sort with “Buy pineapple! Only this much!” It’s the sales equivalent of incessant emails. Truth is, I don’t want to buy the daggy old fruit that’s likely been washed in septic water, but I also don’t want to be chased down the street. A couple of bucks is a small price for interaction and a beautiful portrait.
The women of Vietnam are very tenacious, strong, and running the show. I think this helps when culturally, that is supported and normal. I hope to take even a small amount of their attributes and work it into my world.
Read more and look at some photography from Vietnam here. I LOVE TRAVEL!