In September 2021, Ipsos MORI conducted a representative survey of the population of Vietnam aged 18 and over. One of the survey’s questions was “For some people, it is important to be rich. How important, if at all, is it for you personally to be rich?” In response, 39 percent of Vietnamese interviewees said it is “very important” for them to be rich and as many as 37 percent said it is “fairly important.” Only 7 percent said it is “not very important” for them to be rich, while a mere 1 percent said it is “not at all important.” Expressing a neutral opinion, 16 percent said it is “neither important nor unimportant” for them personally to be rich.
Overall, 76 percent of Vietnamese respondents agree that being rich is important to them. This compares with an average of just 28 percent in Western countries (the U.S. and Europe), 43 percent in Japan and 50 percent in China. At the same time, Vietnam is the only surveyed country in which women are even more likely than men to want to be rich: 80 percent of Vietnamese women and 72 percent of Vietnamese men say they want to be rich. In each of the other 11 countries where the survey was conducted, more men than women say that being rich is important to them.
In Hanoi, I speak with Din Tuan Minh, the head of a private think tank. He highlights the key role women play in the Vietnamese economy. According to a 2019 survey by Grant Thornton, 36 percent of executives in Vietnam are women, compared to 19 percent in Thailand. In my home country, Germany, the figure is 29 percent. In a profile of Vietnam, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the leading Swiss quality broadsheet, wrote: “Unlike women in other Southeast Asian countries, the door to all professions and management levels is wide open for Vietnamese women.”
While I am in Hanoi, I give lectures at several universities, including the renowned NEU (National Economics University) and the Foreign Trade University. At the Foreign Trade University, I am invited to a workshop on the motivation to become rich. According to the director, 70 percent of the students are women – and the proportion of female academics teaching at the university is similarly high.
In Vietnam, all of this has been achieved without feminist ideology. I meet Xuan Nguyen, a 36-year-old self-made entrepreneur. She says: “In Vietnam, it’s less about demanding rights for women and more about doing something yourself to succeed as a woman. We don’t want to rely on men, we want to rely on ourselves.” This is something I had already observed in China: Asians, who are supposedly “collectivist” from a European perspective, are much more individualistic in this respect than Europeans and Americans. They don’t think you should expect the state to do something for you, they believe you should do it yourself. They do not expect more equality from legal and political reforms; their recipe is to personally strive for wealth and success.
Xuan herself is a good example: She started her first company, a chain of sandwich restaurants (similar to Subway), when she was only 23. She now owns 12 eateries in Vietnam and 20 in the South Korean capital, Seoul. Once her restaurant chain was up and running, she started a chain of pharmacies and, three years ago, a publishing house for audio books, which has since published 700 titles.
Today, Vietnam is home to seven billionaires. This wealthy circle is still dominated by men, but at there is at last one woman among them: Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao (in the U.S., in comparison, there is only one woman among the 20 richest individuals, Alice Walton, and she is an heiress). Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao was born in 1970 and is among the 1,000 richest people in the world with a fortune of USD 2.4 billion, according to Forbes (September 2022). She earned her first million at the age of 21 as a student in Moscow by selling fax machines. In 2011, she founded the low-cost airline, VietJet Air. She had a great affinity for marketing from day one. In 2012, her airline hit the headlines with commercials that showed flight attendants in bikinis. Flight attendants could choose whether they preferred to fly in traditional uniforms or bikinis, and most opted for the latter. Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao says she has no problem with people associating her company with bikini stewardesses: “If that makes people happy, then we are happy.” In response to allegations that this turns women into sex symbols, she says: “If a beautiful image helps our customers feel happy, we will always try our best. In this world, there are a lot of beauty contests where the contestants wear bikinis ... The bikini shows beautiful characteristics. Our message at VietJet is we did this for the benefit of beauty and happiness.”
In 2017, the Saigon-based company went public and Thao became a billionaire. In addition, the entrepreneur is invested in the banking sector (HD Bank) and in the real estate sector, including owning three beach resorts.
The pursuit for wealth does not have to be about millions or even billions. Even on a smaller scale, many women in Vietnam look at how they can earn a little more money, for example in the shadow economy. Cosmetic products are often very expensive because of customs duties and taxes. I noticed this myself when I wanted to buy sun spray in a store and had to pay the equivalent of 30 dollars for a tiny can, much more than in Germany. My interpreter Huong explained to me that very many women today source cosmetic products from China or the U.S. and then sell them online. What they are doing was originally part of the shadow economy, but has since been brought into the mainstream and is now subject to a 7 percent flat tax.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the important role women play in Vietnamese society is the fact that no great fuss is made about it, because many simply take it for granted that women start businesses and occupy leading positions in the economy. Nevertheless, there are still significant differences between Vietnamese men and women when it comes to how interested they are in finance and investment topics: A successful YouTuber from Ho Chi Minh City who makes videos on these topics has 250,000 subscribers and 75 percent, he tells me, are men, which is no different from the percentage you’ll find on most financial portals in Europe and the U.S.