Three Things I Learned About Women’s Leadership in Vietnam

I just got back from a three-week (plus travel days) vacation in Vietnam and Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as the Cambodians prefer). So yeah, I’ve been off the grid for a while, which is why my LinkedIn activity has been so light. It was such an amazing trip, seeing incredible countries and wonderful people. I wanted to be truly present and absorb every moment of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But it doesn’t mean I wasn’t thinking about leadership. How could I not? Which brings me to women and leadership in Vietnam, and what I learned there (or re-learned, in some cases).

Vietnam has a vibrant, market economy, in which the majority of people are entrepreneurs. They own and run shops, restaurants, coffee shops, farms, processing facilities, and a variety of other creative enterprises that literally took my breath away.

And women are at the heart of many of these businesses, often in partnership with their families. The families depend on these businesses for survival because there are no government subsidies, no universal healthcare, nothing but their own hard work and ingenuity to depend on – unless the government decides to move you, but that’s a different story entirely.

So, here are three things I learned from the women leaders in Vietnam:

1)  Leadership Does Not Require a Title. Yes, we all know that – intellectually, at least. But I was struck by the respect and admiration with which the Vietnamese men I met talked about their wives and mothers. It was very clear that the women played large leadership roles in their families and family businesses, even if they didn’t have “titles” to back them up.

The thirty-six-year-old guide for our Vespa Foodie Tour in Hanoi referred to his wife as a “tiger” – fierce and determined, someone he said he was afraid of, although he laughed when he said it. He told us that all Vietnamese women were tigers, ready to fight for their families and keep the household and family business running at peak performance.

We witnessed one young woman on that tour, as she managed the myriad of customers converging on her family’s restaurant to witness the main attraction: the passing of the freight train en route from Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) to Hanoi through the narrow alleyway in which the restaurant was housed. Talk about creativity! And this young woman had us all hopping, demonstrating a leadership and presence beyond her years. I was reminded just how much we can demonstrate leadership in every situation, whether we have a title or even authority.

2)  It’s Okay for Women to Fight. When we went to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong fighters from North Vietnam created an underground network to fight the South Vietnamese and their allies, including the U.S., I was surprised to see how much the women’s participation in the active fighting was celebrated. Women were depicted in many of the “scenes” that showed the life of the Viet Cong during that time.

Politics aside, the women’s fighting skills, perseverance, and bravery were highlighted with special pride. It reminded me that women can fight, proudly and forcefully. We’re often told that we shouldn’t, that we should be lady-like, but these Vietnamese women didn’t worry about that then … and it doesn’t look like they worry about it much now either.

3) Creativity is The Backbone of Leadership. Over and over again, I was astounded by the creativity and ingenuity of the Vietnamese entrepreneurs. They could take the most mundane situations, like a train rumbling through their restaurant, and turn them into something of value to offer their customers.

They also demonstrated creativity in other aspects of their lives – like getting around. So, scooters are the primary mode of transportation in Vietnam, and they are used for literally everything, including hauling water buffalo, furniture, produce, flowers, and just about anything else you can think of. Our guide told us that just about the only thing he hasn’t seen on a scooter is an elephant.

Women ride the scooters, often with their entire family aboard, but also to commute to and from their businesses or jobs. I saw women riding scooters in every possible type of attire, including pants, dresses, suits, and even traditional Vietnamese “Aoi Dai”. Sometimes, they hitch up their skirts, and sometimes, they ride sidesaddle to be more modest (or practical). It’s amazing.

So what does this have to do with creativity and leadership? Well, if you can be that creative in getting from point A to point B, how much more creative can you be in solving business problems? It’s clear that nothing is off the table when it comes to business in Vietnam, and women are right in the fray of being creative and ingenuous to support themselves and their families.

I love visiting new places and learning about the history and the people that live there. It’s always eye-opening to see how other people approach life – especially when it’s so different from your own culture.

Good leaders learn from others. They observe, they watch, and they take in different approaches, even if they don’t use them immediately.

I learned so much from the Vietnamese people, especially observing how the women interacted in that society. Do I know all the details? Of course not, but on the surface, I saw a lot to admire and emulate in the way Vietnamese women participate in business and life. What lessons have you learned – or re-learned – from other cultures?


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