It’s easy to notice the outward manifestations of Vietnam’s growing prosperity. But beyond the dollars and the dong, the shoes and brand name bags, the motorcycles and the minivans, profound social and cultural changes are taking place as well.
Everyday roles are being rewritten on the fly, as Vietnam and the Vietnamese are navigating a sometimes disorienting maze of shifting class, gender and family dynamics.
Talking with scholars and a number of Ho Chi Minh City residents reveals that young urban dwellers are engaged in a balancing act, holding on to some traditions while simultaneously embracing change and in the process defining what it means to be a modern Vietnamese.
Finding the Middle
If you’ve been to one of the two international-style Megastar Cinemas in HCMC, you’ve probably seen the public service announcement regularly shown before the main feature. In it, a man is jabbering away on his phone in the theatre, oblivious to the annoyance of everyone around him. Suddenly the scene changes. The same man is still on his phone, guffawing and talking loudly but now he’s dressed like a rural peasant, squatting in the countryside.
The message is clear: only a country bumpkin (hai lua) uses his phone in the cinema. And while the clip is obviously played for laughs, it’s also saying something deeper about the kind of social transformations taking place in Vietnam.
One of the most remarked-upon developments in post-doi moi (reform) Vietnam, particularly over the last decade, is the emergence of a distinct middle class. While this is usually talked about by marketers and researchers as an economic and consumer-oriented phenomenon, there is also a powerful, accompanying sense of a cultural identity being formed.
What does it mean to be middle class? It’s in some ways still an uneasy question in Vietnam.
“Vietnam doesn’t like to think of itself as a stratified society,” said Professor Hung Cam Thai, a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) sociologist who splits his time between Pomona College in California and doing research and consulting in HCMC.
The Vietnamese term for middle class, tang lop trung luu, is a bit of airy, academic jargon that no one really uses and growing economic inequality and class divisions are not often discussed.
Anthropologist Rylan Higgins of Loyola University Chicago, said being middle class was very much a “socio-cultural project,” a constant and continuing process of defining values and behaviors. And one of the core issues, he found while conducting his Ph.D. research on the middle class in HCMC, was the distinction that people regularly made between “modern” and “appropriate” (i.e. urban, middle class) norms and behaviors and those deemed “backward” or “too traditional” (i.e. rural, poor).
While this divide occurs in most cultures, it seems especially powerful in Vietnam at the moment, as the country is undergoing a rapid process of urbanization.
Ann Ha is a 27-year-old public relations professional who has studied and lived in New Zealand and Scotland. Asked what defines “middle class” in Vietnam today, one of the first things she said was is “Civilized behavior. Don’t spit, don’t litter. You may not think so but these things are important.”
Hence the movie announcement. There are lots of words in Vietnamese to describe what is essentially uncivilized, or inappropriate, public behavior: hai lua, sau (ugly), vo duyen (charmless), nha que (literally, country people), and their uses can range in tone from playfully mocking to bitingly classist.
Being middle class is not only about differentiating yourself from those poorer than you but also those richer, particularly if the wealthy can be perceived as tacky or showy in their wealth. As an example of going too far, Ann mentions seeing a woman in a lavish Gucci dress at the Saigon Superbowl bowling alley, talking on her mobile phone in the restroom.
Another 27-year-old, Quyen Mai, a marketing consultant, talks disparagingly of seeing expensive Porsches and Lamborghinis on crowded HCMC streets.
“The middle class is created by juxtaposing themselves in opposition to both rich and poor,” Higgins said. “Money is thought and talked about in moral ways. The ways you get and spend money can be morally reprehensible. The idea is that poor people will do anything for money, while the rich and elite obtain and spend their money in questionable ways.”
For the middle class, the rich can carry a whiff of inside connections, cronyism or corruption. And those who receive their wealth from overseas remittances are considered déclassé. In these senses, Vietnam is much like many other places when it comes to developing middle class values - education and hard work are the cornerstones of the modern middle class narrative.
The roles of men and women, particularly in the middle and upper classes, are also being redefined by Vietnam’s developing economy. As women have increased access to education and job opportunities, their expectations are changing, often at a different speed than their male counterparts.
Women in almost any society are quick to embrace the economic and social empowerment that allows them to break out of traditionally prescribed roles. For men, this kind of change is not always as welcome.
“Women are moving much faster in terms of social equity acquisition,” said Hung Thai, who studied and wrote about Vietnam’s changing gender roles in his 2008 book “For Better or Worse.” “Men are just slower to adapt. The way many local men see it, women are gaining more than them.”
In many instances, women who are educated and financially independent are looking for open-minded partners. Men, however, are less eager to give up many of the advantages they’ve had in the past, or are still constrained by social mores.
Quyen Mai, who is engaged to a British expat, is quick to point out that many younger Vietnamese men are changing their behavior in noticeable ways to be more considerate - asking if it’s okay to smoke indoors, for instance, where that never would have been a concern previously.
However, she notices certain old-fashioned habits are slower to change. “Look at most families on the street,” she said. “You never see the men carrying babies. They see it as losing face.”
Ann Ha is also careful not to paint things with too broad a brush but she said she sometimes didn’t know how to act around her male contemporaries. “I have a strong personality. They might think I’m too loud or be intimidated by my appearance,” she said.
Women are still facing a glass ceiling and gender discrimination in the workforce as well, Hung said, and many who have full-time jobs are working the “second shift” of being responsible for the family and the household chores.
“They’re gaining parity with men in some ways but the burden on women is still a serious issue in economic progress in Vietnam,” he said.
Among younger urban Vietnamese, the differences are leveling out and a norm in line with Western or economically advanced countries like Japan or Korea is emerging.
Urban middle- and upper-class teenage girls are far more outspoken and bold in their behavior and in the way they dress than girls just a few years older and romantic relations are on a more casual level than they used to be, said Nam Quan, a 19-year-old university student and photographer.
Nam sees changes happening even faster with kids just a few years younger than him. “These 15 or 16-year-olds are going out to clubs and burning through their parents’ money. They date, have sex and if it doesn’t work out, no big deal,” he said.
As the Vietnamese saying puts it: “A drop of blood is worth more than a pond of water” (mot giot mau dao hon ao nuoc la). Even in contemporary Vietnam, family bonds are still extremely close, if not always harmonious and multi-generational households are quite common. But due to the demands of a globalizing and a mobile work force, long hours and other modern influences, this too is changing.
Tuan Nguyen, 35, an IBM sales executive, is a modern Vietnamese balancing the demands and rewards of a contemporary career with keeping the bonds of family together. He and his wife, Phuong, moved to HCMC from Hanoi five years ago, in part because he saw the working environment as more modern and Western in the southern hub.
Tuan lives in a modern duplex apartment in Phu My Hung with his wife and their two-year-old twin daughters and drives a seven-seater Mazda Premacy. The family takes regular trips out of town to Nha Trang and Phan Thiet and Tuan has also traveled extensively around the world for work and pleasure, even attending the World Cup in Germany in 2006.
Yet he maintains the kind of close family ties that would seem unusual in most Western countries. For instance, when Tuan moved to HCMC, he asked his parents to move into the apartment with them as well. And while they decided to stay in Hanoi to be around extended family and friends, his parents still come down for extended visits and Tuan returns to Hanoi regularly. Phuong’s mother, meanwhile, has been living with them for six months to help with the children. Tuan also organizes vacations for the entire family - they all went to Singapore recently.
“Family is still the most important thing to me,” he said.
Changes are again taking hold more rapidly among younger generations. While reverence for the family is still high, most people are looking increasingly for the kind of privacy common in more economically developed countries.
Quyen, who lives with her fiancé, said many married couples her age prefer to live on their own. For one thing, they want the privacy to raise children their own way. “You’ve got a grandmother saying you’ve got to feed your children this or that,” she said, “while now we know better.”
And Tuan said he can already see the difference in his sister’s children, who are teenagers. “They want privacy, their own space. They’re becoming more like the West.”
Part of the world
While contemporary Vietnam is undoubtedly influenced by the outside world in ways it perhaps has never been before, at the same time a common trait you’ll find among most people, even the most modern urbanite, is a deep sense of patriotism and pride in Vietnam and its development.
This, in many ways, is a driving force behind some of the social changes taking place. Vietnam is not just looking inwards but outwards at its place among the rest of the world. Greater exposure, through media, traveling, and working and studying abroad, has allowed Vietnamese to measure themselves in comparison to what they see beyond their borders. Vietnam’s ascension on the world economic stage has also made many people aware that the world is watching Vietnam more than ever before.
“I’m conscious of the perception of Vietnam by the rest of world,” Ann Ha said. “I get offended if people have a distorted image of Vietnam as backwards, or just as a kind of money-making machine.”
Quyen Mai also said she consciously thinks about how to make Vietnam a better place, even in small ways like being polite or queuing properly.
And yet no one wants to give up Vietnam’s culture and traditions.
“Vietnam is moving faster and faster,” Ann said, “but the rest of the [modern] world wants to slow down. They’re turning back to slow food, spending time with their families again - in some ways the world is treasuring what we already have.”
It’s a fine line to navigate, between embracing modern developments but not letting go of Vietnamese heritage; of consuming, but in the proper ways; of striking just the right balance.
“It requires a lot of energy,” Higgins said. “It takes real work [for the middle class] to maintain and define their cultural lives.”
And while much of that energy is undeniably spent on the consumer, lifestyle-oriented culture that is taking a strong hold here, there’s more going on underneath the surface.
“It’s more than just superficial materialism,” Higgins said. “Everyone has a stake in their way of life being respectable.”
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