x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

In Vietnam, girl power fires up the economic frontline

Just 20 years ago, entrepreneurship was banned. Today, this South East Asian country's economy is picking up speed, driven largely by enterprising women.

Female entrepreneurs and small business owners are responsible for up to a third of the country's Dh367 billion GDP. Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters
Female entrepreneurs and small business owners are responsible for up to a third of the country's Dh367 billion GDP. Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters

Steam rises from the pooling rainwater on Hang Bac street, as hordes of vendors, oblivious to the downpour, sell live frogs, gutted fish and other mysterious foods from baskets. All very Blade Runner; all that is missing is a killer android.

The din is unbelievable. But once my overwhelmed senses begin to adjust to the chaos of Hanoi's old quarter, it becomes apparent that almost everyone working in the street is a woman. The reason I am here, it happens, is to meet a woman named Ha Nghe, who runs a small gallery.

Vietnam is still a long way from taking its place among Asia's tiger economies. But when it eventually does, it will mostly be because of the colossal energy of the country's female entrepreneurs.

I find Ms Ha's gallery tucked between a rundown hotel and a store selling what could be coffee beans. It's here that she runs a studio of about half a dozen artists.

The interior is gloomy, but the artists are hard at work, squatting on the floor, dabbing at the canvases propped up in front of them. All are young women in their early 20s.

I find Ms Ha and we talk for 10 minutes. She is all business. Soon, we agree to a price for a bulk order of paintings. In two days, I'll return and pick them up. I have no doubt she will honour our bargain.

"I do this because my husband is dead," she explains. "I work every day, seven days a week, because if I don't, my family will not eat."

It's not a plea for pity. She's proud of what she has achieved. The little studio churns out paintings and does a brisk trade with foreign buyers. Her staff work long hours, but are well taken care of.

According to Vietnamese government figures, women entrepreneurs like Ms Ha are responsible for up to a third of the country's US$100 billion (Dh367bn) GDP. From noodle stands in the street to manufacturing companies, they are represented at nearly all levels of business. Elsewhere in Asia, the norm is about 10 per cent.

This is astounding when you consider that barely 20 years ago, private entrepreneurship was banned. The victorious communists imposed a command economy in the south even as the last American helicopters were fleeing the smoke palls of Saigon.

But in 1986, the government launched Doi Moi, its economic renewal campaign. Rules were relaxed and people were allowed to set up their own businesses. Today, some 125,000 women are registered as entrepreneurs, according to government figures. Countless more make a living selling food and vegetables on the streets.

The high prevalence of women in business stems from a history of them enjoying an unusual level of equality. Given the country's tortured history, it's not such a surprise. During the war - the American war, as the Vietnamese call it - tens of thousands of women took up arms alongside the men.

The "long-haired warriors", as they were known, took on all the dangers and suffering that male soldiers did. They carried heavy loads of weapons and ammunition along the Ho Chi Minh trail, braving mines, air attacks and ambushes.

Often, they were the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the men on the front lines. They enlisted en masse, so that several generations of the same family would serve together. Fighting and dying as equals led to a change in the status of women. By the end of the war, they had won recognition as equals in a previously male-dominated society.

Quan Van is a member of the war generation. Her husband, Than, is a decorated war hero. His unit regularly carried out attacks on American forces in the demilitarised zone. She would run messages between his squad and other units. Frequently, she would have to cross enemy lines to do so.

Today, the couple run a successful furniture export business outside Da Nang, once the entry point for American soldiers shipping in to the country - and from where many would leave in body bags. Her husband oversees the intricate carving of tables, chairs and dressers, many destined for the homes of wealthy Chinese to the north. Mrs Quan takes care of the business itself.

"Because my husband is a hero, we have permission to enter the forests for wood," she says. "He makes beautiful things. I take care of the money".

She does indeed. Mrs Quan is a formidable negotiator. She will patiently haggle for an hour or more over piece of woodwork. All the banking, shipping, packaging and book-keeping falls to her. Along the way, she has raised four children and cares for her elderly parents.

"In the war, we learnt there is no women's place and no man's place," she says. "Bullets don't care if you are a man or woman. It's like that now, too. Business does not care about that. If you can keep the customer happy, you get the business."

For the vast majority of self-employed women, the street is where they do business. Until the Doi Moi campaign was launched, food stalls were run by the government, but now are entirely privately owned. And because women have traditionally taken to trades such as cooking and sewing - skills they learnt from their mothers - they dominate this sector.

"I learnt to cook from my grandmother," says Bich Ngoc, a vendor in Ho Chi Minh City, as she spoons Vietnamese noodles, or pho, into a bowl. "I can feed my family two times - with the food I make and the money I make."

Food vending is now the main microbusiness in Vietnam. The sector has become so important that it is the chief source of nutrition for the country's urban population. Cheap, fresh and, above all, healthy, it's the staple diet of the poor and rich alike.

"Some of the young people now want to work in a factory making iPods or shoes," says Ms Bich. "I think it's better to work for yourself. One day, the factories might close. But people will always need to eat."

pf@thenational.ae