PHOTO: Catherine pictured with Mr Ha Nguyen Hoang from the Hanoi office of the International Labour Organisation.
Along the dimly lit tracks of Hanoi’s Long Bien market, female traders sell fruit and vegetables throughout the night. As morning breaks, I sit with Ms Bing, a 78 year old drinks vendor, at her bottle-lined cart. She tells me she has lived through French, Japanese and American domination, and lifts up the bottom of her trouser leg to show me a badly scarred shin. The injury is not historic, though. A permit-less Ms Bien fell during a police pursuit last year and the marks still remain. When I later ask to take her picture, she declines, worried that neighbours from home in the Bac Ninh province might find out she is doing this job.
I arrived in Vietnam on Sunday interested mainly in the experiences of female migrants working in manufacturing and textile industries. As I walked around Hanoi with a Vietnamese friend on that first night and spoke to some of the women behind the stalls and carts of its crowded market streets, I realised that the scope of this project would need to expand.
Ms Bien is one of many Vietnamese migrant workers to eke out a living in the informal sector of cities like Hanoi. Though agriculture remains the main economic activity in rural Vietnam, its importance is decreasing as labour demand shifts from traditional to non-farm production, which women often find more difficult to secure work in.
Female migrants typically receive significantly higher wages in urban areas, but they remain among the most vulnerable groups in society. According to 2011 research by ActionAid Vietnam, nearly 80% of female migrants live in temporary accommodation with poor living conditions and sanitation, while only two-thirds of formal female workers have work contracts. Migrants’ access to public education and health is also restricted as a result of their temporary residence status.
Less than 4km away from the Long Bien market where Ms Bien works, powder brushes are sold for up to six times her average daily wage in an upmarket mall in the Hoan Kiem district.
Hanoi has changed drastically since the Communist Party of Vietnam introduced what it calls a “socialist-oriented market economy” through its Doi Moi programme in 1986. Tiny clothes and electronic shops, food stalls and street vendors occupy virtually every nook and cranny of the city centre. Internet cafes are filled with young people, WiFi codes are printed on restaurant menus, and air-conditioned taxis compete with droves of motorcyclists on the bustling streets. Speaking in Hanoi this week, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung attributed Vietnam’s relatively stable macro-economy and improved social welfare services to the success of its market economy.
Of course, this is still much that is not openly discussed in Vietnam. As a foreign journalist, you are accompanied to all appointments by a government official. Uniformed men, or “watchers” as my Vietnamese friend refers to them, look out from huts on street corners, and the daily newspapers sold by vendors across the city are all government-owned. The recent arrest of several independent bloggers is another story best left to another day.
And yet I have still to meet a woman who feels that life is not improving in Vietnam. For most of the older women I speak to, hope lies with the next generation, and research suggests this optimism is not unfounded. According to the CIA World Factbook, the country’s poverty rate has decreased from 75% in the 1980s to 10.6% of the population in 2010. Its average yearly income has increased from an estimated US$635 in 2005 to US$1,960 in 2013. A study released last year by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that Vietnam’s middle class is the fastest growing in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam has clearly made huge economic advances in recent years. The challenge now is to ensure all sections of society benefit from this progress.
Follow Catherine’s progress in Vietnam on Twitter: @Chealy_