Half the sky and the clouds

My first impression of Hanoi was this: women working, hauling heavy, wooden shoulder poles; caring for children and elderly relatives; cooking, cleaning, keeping house.  It’s the same story throughout the world but I haven’t seen much evidence of a Vietnamese feminist movement, perhaps because I have not been here long enough, perhaps because I don’t know what to look for.    Maybe it seems silly to focus on issues that affect specifically women when Vietnam already faces a multitude of challenges; however, women’s issues affect us all.  Women’s lives and work are integral to each society, not only because none of us would exist without them but because women are key to the efficiency of an economy.  They are, after all, the ones shopping in markets, raising chickens to sell and paying for their children’s school uniforms.  As the famously-quoted Chinese proverb puts it, “Women hold up half the sky.”  In Vietnam, they work hard enough that they deserve credit for holding up the clouds as well.

A woman knits while she waits for customers to her tea stand on Christmas Day along Ly Quoc Su street in the Old Quarter.

Most of the street vendors and sellers in the markets are women.

To market, to market…

This picture was taken near Cao Bằng, a town on the Chinese border.

Working in rice paddies is especially hard physically.  These women work in rice fields near Cuc Phuong National Park.  Most of the planting and harvesting is done by hand.

Sapa, a town nestled in a valley of terraced rice fields, is a popular tourist destination because it is a melting pot of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, including Red Dao, Dzai, Black Hmong and Flower Hmong.  What’s remarkable is that women, particularly Hmong women, run the tourist industry.  They coordinate homestays in small villages, act as tour guides and sell their textiles and jewelry. The photograph is of Mai, 17, our Black Hmong guide on a 20 kilometre trek.  She’s only attended school for a few years but learned English from talking to tourists; her English was better than many of my wealthy students who have lived abroad.

Red Dao women sewing in the market in Sapa.  Their embroidery and jewelry is gorgeous, vividly coloured and minutely detailed.

A woman weaving in a market on Ham Nghi in Ho Chi Minh City just before Tet.

For more on International Women’s Day in Vietnam, read:

The City That Never Sleeps In

Talking Gender on International Women’s Day (Oxfam in Vietnam)


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