On account of Vietnam’s long and often tumultuous history, women have always played a larger, more crucial role with regards to work than in other countries. Even as traditional roles for women are changing in Vietnam’s urban environments, for those living rurally – especially within ethnic communities – life is very different and change is yet to sweep through areas like Bac Kan. Speaking with Vietnam News, Dr Khuat Thu Hong, Director of the Institute for Social Development Studies, said: “When we look back at the development of Vietnamese society, particularly economic development, women hold a key position, as they directly participate in the national labour force and in paid labour. For instance, in agriculture – one of the country’s key sectors – women make up some 70 percent of the labour force.”
Vietnam is not just the bustling mania of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, nor is it just the backpacker’s oasis of Saigon’s hectic Bui Vien street. The cosmopolitan lifestyles of Hanoi vanish when you drive five hours up north from the capital. Gone are the gourmet international restaurants, cocktail bars remain unheard of and good luck finding a Grab driver to get you through the mountainous terrain. In short, it is a very different pace of life. For a nation that consumes over 20 million tonnes of rice per year, it’s eye-opening to see the role that rural women play in producing the national staple ingredient. Largely, the women in rural and ethnic communities – and this is true of Tày, H’mong and Dao communities in Bac Kan – form the backbone of agricultural working society. While their efforts are impossible to miss, one thing sticks out purely through absence – men.
“My husband died two years ago. My five sons are all married and live in other districts, but my two daughters still help me out here in Na Ri,” says Dinh Thi Nhoi, a Tày rice farmer from the district of Na Ri in Bac Kan province. If you’ve ever laid back in your plush soft bed and dreamt of escaping the pressures of modern life to become a farmer, I assure you know that the simple life is far from easy. Harvesting rice with a very limited range of machinery is no fun by anyone’s standard, but for Dinh and the other women of Bac Kan, it’s a vital and daily reality.
For Li Thi Huyen, another farmer who I met in the baking heat of a summer afternoon, harvesting rice, this has been her reality for as long as she can remember. “I’ve worked in the fields my whole life, since I was a young girl. I usually spend four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon in the fields, but it’s dependent on the weather. The rice needs to be dry when we harvest it, so sometimes we have to work extra hard in the heat.”
The rice harvest is a process that wreaks merry hell on the body. From wading through the boggy marshlands that make up the rice paddies, right through to the rhythmic wielding the petrol-powered weeding machine that glides through the stalks of the rice plants, it is an arduous task. Once Li and her colleagues have carved their way through the paddy, more women rush over and carry the fallen rice plants over to the thresher, where the only working men in sight were stood. It’s worth noting that the majority of the workers in the fields of Na Ri were Tày women. “The men that don’t leave help us, but it’s mostly women here. Some men return home to Na Ri in February and October to help with the busiest weeks of the harvest, usually the planting of rice or digging the irrigation ditches, but women take care of the fields daily and checking the rice is growing well – it’s a lot of work.”
The female-dominated workforces in Bac Kan’s fields stem from a variety of reasons. The traditional expectation for women in this province is to take care of the family – except this extends beyond just home-making, this includes providing food. For many ethnic families, a daily food budget of VND30,000 is a grim reality that is endured unquestioningly, as such many women are charged with farming and gathering ingredients from nature in order to keep their families fed. But, while some men are working jobs that take them outside the area in a bid to bring money back into Bac Kan, there are those who simply don’t work. Li explained the issue of alcoholism that cyclical poverty has allowed to fester in some parts of Bac Kan. “A lot of the women are out working because the men are out drinking.” Rice wine is as ubiquitous in Bac Kan as Hondas are in Hanoi and due to the relatively low-cost production of rice wine – it’s both cheap and easy to access – which places extra burden on those women who’re supporting men that can’t (or won’t) work.
More often than not, it is the women of these societies who retain and pass on the traditional recipes that help to ensure the survival of their culture. “The banh khau si recipe is not one I was ever taught, my grandmother showed me how to make it when I was only little and now I can reproduce it just by sense, but it’s not written down anywhere, so I must show my children how to do it too.” Banh khau si is a type of rice cake made from pounding the rice into a paste, mixing it with taro, rice wine and cassava powder to form small chewy balls of donut-reminiscent joy. They’re served at special occasions – certain points of the lunar calendar that warrant a celebration for the Tày community.
It’s a notion that I was reminded of by Linh Thi Sinh, a member of the H’mong village of Na Pha – some three kilometres away from Ba Be Lake. Living much higher up on the mountain faces than the other ethnic groups in the north of Vietnam, the H’mong have adapted to far harsher conditions. “Life here is tough for women, many are expected to be married by as young as 13, so from an early age they’re taught how to cook the traditional meals.”
The issues facing women in rural ethnic communities are hardly new, but slowly the world is waking up to the plight of these women and action has been taken to improve their lot. The Australian government has taken great steps forward in working for a solution for women – especially those belonging to ethnic minorities. Under DFAT’s (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) initiative GREAT – Gender-Responsive Equitable Agriculture and Tourism – launched in 2016, DFAT have worked alongside the Vietnamese government to address the imbalance of prosperity and representation of women in ethnic communities. In a final draft of their proposals and forecasts, written in August 2016, GREAT stated: “Within the agriculture sector, women play a predominant role in many of the region’s markets, and yet their economic returns are typically low. There is an acute need to reduce women’s labour burdens, increase the returns on their labour, improve the quality of their economic engagement, and increase their decision-making influence and their leadership within the sector as a whole.”
The results of this initiative are set to be evaluated in 2020, but for now in Bac Kan, there’s no rest for the women.