Nguyen Thi Phuong Cuc
50 Years Old
General Manager of Cho Hom Market
“The weight of responsibility on me makes it very hard to enjoy this job,” says Cuc. “I have to be tough on everyone and I have to be strict. But as a woman, I’m still approachable and I have compassion. If someone here has a family problem, they know they can come to me with it.”
A Hanoi-born mother and grandmother, Cuc has been the general manager of one of Hanoi’s largest markets, Cho Hom, since 1983. A serious and authoritative woman, Cuc was assigned the job when it was just a humble place of worship — employing only ten staff members.
“Now we have up to 2,000 people through the doors every day, so I’m in charge of more than 150 staff members.” Describing the challenges and responsibilities that go hand in hand with her job, Cuc explains her biggest concerns.
“There’s a lot of pressure on me to make sure we don’t have a market fire. The repercussions of that are very heavy both personally and for the premises itself. I often drive home after a long day at work and then just turn around and go back again to check that things have been closed down properly.”
Cuc describes her management style as firm but fair. “I work hard and I always try to do my absolute best; I was made to do this job.” — Debbie Clare
69 Years Old
Author and Translator
Lady Borton is not afraid of complexity. On the contrary, she leans into it. She leaned into the complexities of being an American in a Quang Ngai hospital in 1969. She took in the difficulties of what she experienced in 1975 from Hanoi, and again later in interviews with military strategists. And she did not shy away from the conflicts of writing two non-fiction accounts of Vietnamese perspectives after the war: those who fled — Sensing the Enemy — and those who stayed After Sorrow.
As a writer and translator, Lady strives for accuracy. Whether it’s the memoirs of General Giap, the musings of Uncle Ho, the ancient or contemporary poetry of Vietnamese women, or introductions to the articles on rhetoric of the 1960s, getting the voice right is crucial.
“I’m always getting the story wrong,” she says. “I know that and it’s okay to get it wrong because then people correct you and they tell you more, they tell you something they didn’t tell you before.”
Lady has maintained this sensitivity to truth and self-awareness her whole life — from introducing the Internet to Hanoi’s top officials in the mid 1990s to introducing like-minded people over lunch today. “When I make choices, I try to do things that only I could do or would do… There are some pieces that only I can put together.”
We could tell a thousand stories about Lady Borton because Lady Borton has a thousand stories to tell. Her life is steeped in them.
— Kaitlin Rees
Dr Khuat Thi Hai Oanh
42 Years Old
Executive Director of Supporting Community Development Initiatives and Vietnam Civil Society Partnership Platform on AIDS
“We create the environment we live in. If we try to be pro-active and make positive changes, then life will improve, but if we don’t, we’re just victims of that environment,” says Oanh, a founding member and director of SCDI (Supporting Community Development Initiatives) and VCSPA (Vietnam Civil Society Partnership Platform on AIDS).
With more than 8,000 service users across Vietnam, the societies aim is to empower and unite marginalised sections of the community: those living with HIV, drug users, sex workers, people with faith-based issues, issues of sexuality, and students and women in need of support.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is that society is becoming more open-minded towards the most marginalised and stigmatised people,” she says. “In the past, it was always suggested that those with HIV would have to lead a life full of suffering, but it’s not the case; people can still contribute positively and lead normal lives, and we aim to show them how.”
With a family based in Laos, and much of her time spent in Hanoi, Oanh’s commitment to her work comes at a price.
“The hardest thing is not being able to spend much time with my family,” she says. “I see my husband and children twice a month, but I could not do this without their support — I’m very lucky.” — Debbie Clare
Dr Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuong
52 Years Old
Director of Thanh Xuan Peace Village
Mother-of-two Dr Phuong became the Vice President of Thanh Xuan Peace Village in 2000 and is now the Director. The centre provides rehabilitation services for victims of Agent Orange and houses between 20 and 120 patients at any time. “One of the greatest things about this job is being able to help people work towards having a normal life. Some of our patients have been able to go to university, some have gone on to get jobs; if we can diagnose patients early enough, they can recover relatively quickly.”
But with these highs inevitably come the lows. “It’s very hard seeing people who have not had treatment early enough — those who cannot live normal lives, those whose symptoms are incurable, and those who are dying.”
Dr Phuong’s hopes for the future lie in making the site more accessible. “Access for the disabled isn’t great; I’d like to make it easier for people to move around the building. I’d also like to serve more people with mental health issues.”
Hailed as an inspirational woman by her peers, she vehemently shies away from such praise.
“I’m just doing what anyone else would do in the same situation,” she explains. “My motivation is what I can do for people and how I can help their lives. You’re only as valuable as the quality of your work.” — Debbie Clare
Pham Nhue Giang
55 Years Old
“I love this job,” says Pham Nhue Giang. “Being a director means I can live the lives of many different people, people who have really touched my heart.”
In an industry where the number of male directors far exceeds their female counterparts, Giang is paving the way for other women to follow in her footsteps. A humble and talented director, she has received both domestic and international acclaim for her work, most notably The Deserted Valley and The Mother’s Soul. She also won the 2001 Silver Lotus Prize at the National Film Festival.
“[Cinematography] is a real art, where the meaning can be delivered in a liberated way, not through too much dialogue,” says Giang, adding that her aim is to leave audiences feeling both warm and contemplative about humanity.
But with tight budgets restricting available resources, the number of films that one director can produce is limiting. “It’s quite common for a director to only make three or four feature films in their entire career.”
When questioned about whether or not the challenges female directors face are different to those of men, Giang is defiant in her answer.
“[The job of] director is difficult for both men and women. You have to overcome your own success. Once you’ve created something you have to move on and create another success.” — Hoa Le
Pham Kim Hue
30 Years Old
Former Captain of Vietnam’s National Women’s Volleyball Team
Having led her team to its first silver medal in the 2001 Southeast Asia Games as captain of Vietnam’s National Women’s Volleyball Team, Hue has long since been an inspiration to her peers. With a career that began when she was just 14 years old, Hue was the captain of the national volleyball team for seven years. Having overcome a serious injury, which left her out of the game for three years, Hue was afraid she might never be able to play again.
“Most athletes who have an operation can’t get back into the sport. So I felt incredibly depressed.”
Passion and determination brought Hue and her signature spike back onto the court in 2009, where she remains the beating heart and soul of the team today.
“I have strength and passion and the desire to win,” she says. “I always tell my team that we need to play at our best. If they spike us once, we have to spike them back. We can never give up. And even if we lose, it has to be in a beautiful way.” — Hoa Le
Nguyen Thu Trang
27 Years Old
At 21, while Trang was a student at the Institute of Banking, she opened her first clothing store called I’ME.
“I studied business but not officially in school,” she says. “I studied outside, from older friends who were very good at business and my brother. I learnt from mentors and by networking.”
On a typical Saturday, Trang is up at 5 am. On the day we catch up with her, she’s just returned from Ha Nam province where she delivered clothing to a charity she started. “Whenever I have a chance, and if I can help, I go.”
Trang is also on the go twice a month to China to hunt out new items for her fashion stores, of which she currently has three in Hanoi. The other business venture that takes up her time is Mam Restaurant — a stylish Vietnamese eatery on the outskirts of the Old Quarter. Though it’s exhausting, it’s rewarding enough for Trang to want to take the business to Saigon. She’ll open a few of her I’ME fashion stores in the south as well.
Thinking big is what Trang has been doing since her entrance into the workforce. From a city tour guide at 17, to a stationery distributor, manager at a wine shop, employee of Toyota and then work with a media and television group, she’s had her share of experience working for others.
“Though I like the office culture, I’m not born to be an office worker. I’m meant to be an entrepreneur, not working for anyone else...” — Kaitlin Rees
63 Years Old
Director of Art Vietnam, Curator, Promoter and Educator
“All of life is uncertain,” says Suzanne Lecht. “Once we really understand that and accept that, I think it frees one to really try to follow where your heart is and go where your heart lies and cross that fear barrier.”
After being widowed at 43, Suzanne decided to start over. Following up on an earlier promise between her and her husband, she set her sights on investing in and promoting artists. But it wasn’t until she read an in-flight magazine article about a nascent group of artists in Hanoi called the Gang of Five, that she found her calling. In January 1994, Suzanne arrived in Hanoi. The US had yet to reinstall diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and she was one of the few Americans then living in this country.
“I had many moments in Vietnam in the early years when I was just devastated. It was hard,” says Suzanne. “Dreams, as one of my artist friends told me, are 90 percent hard work.” Eighteen years later, Suzanne represents 30 of the most prestigious artists in the country. She’s helped discover and develop talent. She’s put others on the map through hosting their expeditions around the globe and secured artists residencies abroad.
“Too many people equate courage with not failing. Samuel Beckett has a wonderful phrase — something to the effect of, ‘if you do something and you fail, do it again. If you fail again; fail better’,”says Suzanne. “Courage is really just believing in yourself.” — David Stout