Friday, 9 March 2012

International Women's Day in Vietnam

Yesterday it was International Women's Day, the theme of which, according to the UN, is "Empower Women - Ending Hunger and Poverty".

In Vietnam, the theme of International Women's Day is "Have I Somehow Entered A Wormhole Which Has Transported Me Back To Valentine's Day?"

While women in many other cities use International Women's Day to rally together for equality, here in Hanoi women receive over-priced bouquets and heart-shaped balloons, and get taken out to lunch by their male colleagues.

There is no bigger day for flower sales in Hanoi than International Women's Day. The elaborate bouquets, always bolstered with a lot of size-enhancing packaging, are toted awkwardly to lunches all around town, often in plastic bags slung from the handlebars of motorbikes. 

Yesterday I cycled behind a bike carrying several bouquets in such a manner, their aluminium foil-wrapped handles dragging along the road creating two sprays of spectacular sparks. It was like a scene from The Fast And The Florist. It seems that no matter what the holiday, Vietnam will always find a way to make it a public safety risk.

On International Women's Day, a number of observations are compulsory:
  • Make a joke about how you're an "international woman"
  • Comment on how all the flowers will be in the bins tomorrow
  • Say you wish women in Vietnam received as much recognition as they do flowers.

All these points are valid, the last one in particular. I'm a holiday party-pooper from way back (Melbourne Cup Day? Horse torture! Australia Day? Invented as a money-making scheme by the pavlova industry!), so I'm expert in harping on about how International Women's Day in Vietnam is a load of tosh and flowers to distract from the real issues women face here.

Vietnamese women are amazing and inspiring, and face social pressures which I can barely conceive of. This post by Nguyen Thi Hoang Yen on the Oxfam blog gives you an idea of the difficulties that even educated, successful (and amazing and inspiring) Vietnamese women face day-to-day. For them, gender equality is about women being able to "do what they want to do, say what they want to say, or even be able to have better sleep". Funnily enough, flowers and a complimentary glass of champagne with dinner didn't make that list.

I spent much of my International Women's Day working at home (WHERE I BELONG), with the sound of raucous lunchtime revellers echoing across the lake. The ubiquitous, male, beer-sculling cry of "Một hai ba, YO!" carried on long into the afternoon, leaving me wondering if the women had all returned to the office so their male colleagues could celebrate International Women's Day in peace.

Then there was a knock on our door, interrupting my dangerously emancipated thoughts. It was our jolly landlord, Mr Chien, with a bunch of roses and a card:

I could say I was struck by this unobtainable wish, and how it reflects the pressures placed on women in Vietnam to maintain impossible standards. But I wasn't. I was simply delighted, and charmed, and actually said "For me?! Oh you shouldn't have!" like a veritable southern belle.

It was a perfect example of the rose-scented smokescreen of International Women's Day. But as I was arranging my flowers in a vase, I realised that Vietnamese women know what time it is. Gender equality is a long way off, and accepting the flowers won't make it any longer. It's not like they have to choose between gender rights and flowers. So next year, wherever I may be for International Women's Day, I won't be shutting up about women's rights, but I will be buying flowers for all the amazing and inspiring women I know. Because getting flowers is always nice, and God knows, they've earned it.


  1. Tabitha I write this from a secret location using IP-Address masking software.
    The pavlova industry KNOW it was you all along. The minute you're back in Australia you're in for it. Save yourself and don't return.

  2. I got an email from SOS advising they were giving us chicks 10% off Pap Smears. I would have preferred flowers....or a pavlova.

  3. Az celebrated international women's day by attending a cocktail party, while I stayed home and looked after the baby.

  4. Hey Tabitha, it was very nice of the landlord to give you some flowers in the International Womens day. Are you sure you are not perhaps reading too much into his wish? I agree there is a small extent of exaggeration in our Vietnamese wish, but if we wish our friend "forever young", in no way do we place pressure on them to "maintain impossible standards", like you said. When we wish "good luck" to our friend who is about to enter the exam, do we truly wish him the best outcome or do we force him to earn the highest score? In short, it's very much a way of saying, that's all.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Chi. I was joking about my literal interpretation of Mr Chien's wish! If only I could possibly be "always young"! :)

  5. Brilliant post and an accurate reflection of my different experiences of International Women's Day in Vietnam and in Australia.

    My first experience of IWD was in high school. We were given ribbons of green, purple and white, informed of the struggles of females past and present and the continuing inequalities experienced between the sexes in Australia. Later that afternoon (after some cake) we were taught how to use power tools, repair a punctured tyre, put a condom on a banana. It was very empowering stuff for a bunch of 15 year old girls. Don't accept inequality: Women can do anything was the message.

    Fast forward to IWD Vietnam in 2012: the men in our office took us out for a delicious seafood buffet and presented us with an exquisite arrangement of flowers. Then we were all given the day off work. A fantastic cultural practice and one that should be introduced into Australia and everywhere else.

    We should still demand gender equality for women around the world because women can and should be able to do anything!


    1. Hear hear, Jo! Your school sounds awesome. I still don't know how to change a tyre. Or put a condom on a banana.

  6. Coming from "Maza" Russia, ex-USSR, I can confirm 100% - 8th of March is the communist era Valentine! With additional twist - it's for women only, hence even more special :)..... Love your blog, love Hanoi (where my hubby proposed to me) and waiting impatiently for new chapters...

  7. Thanks Tchou! Glad you're enjoying the blog, and thanks for that Russian intelligence. It's interesting to see the other countries that officially celebrate International Women's Day, according to Wiki:

    Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macedonia, Madagascar, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia.

    Definitely some Communist and ex-Communist representation in that rag-tag bunch. Socialism is for ladiez.


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