Pho is a serious business in Vietnam. In the city formerly known as Saigon, the noodle soup became popular first when millions fled from the North during the partition of the country in 1954, and it quickly took on southern characteristics by adding cinnamon basil and hoisin sauce. For the women of the Binh Tan factory district in eastern Ho Chi Minh City, getting men to help with the preparation of dishes like pho is central to their efforts to change attitudes to unpaid care work.
Inside a Women's Union office in Binh Tan, Mai Thi Bach Lan becomes animated when she and her friends discuss a cooking contest for Vietnamese Women's Day in October. The local community Masterchef project was instituted to help men face up to their growing responsibilities in the home.
Lan’s husband, not previously known for his contribution to domestic work, was required to prepare a traditional meal with the family.
"We cooked a daily meal, with stir-fried meat, vegetable soup and rice which we prepared at home. He stir-fried the beef with ginger and broccoli – he didn't cook the pho, he just tasted it. We had an hour to make a basic meal, and we came third," says Lan proudly.
Despite Vietnam’s socialist ethos, which formally values equality, most remain moored to traditional Confucian values that place women, expected to be meek and subservient, at the bottom of the hierarchy. Against this background, getting men to do their share of unpaid care work, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, is a real chore.
Outside the open-fronted building, thousands of scooters zip through the balmy heat in the southern metropolis, which many still refer to as Saigon.
Cycle of poverty
There is a sign on the front of the building testifying to the collaboration between ActionAid and Irish Aid with the local authorities here on the Women’s Rights programme, which works to end violence against women and ensure women and girls can break the cycle of poverty.
Inside the office, it is cooler. Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese founding president, looks down benignly from a golden shrine, wrapped in red communist banners.
Helping prepare the pho, even stir-frying a few vegetables, may not seem like much, but for Lan to get her husband into the kitchen was a major advance in promoting gender equality in her household.
With labour costs getting more expensive in China, manufacturing jobs are moving elsewhere and one of the big recipients has been Vietnam.
Migrants have moved to Ho Chi Minh City in large numbers. The urban population is about eight million, but the broader metropolitan region covering the industrial zones is 14 million, which is set to rise to 20 million by 2020, according to some forecasts.
Gender equality at home is essential because so many women are taking jobs in the new factories springing up.
Binh Tan District is home to 700,000 people, about two-thirds of them migrant workers. The district is home to industrial giants such as Pou Yuen Vietnam, a footwear maker for Nike, Adidas, Converse and Reebok, which employs 95,000 workers, most of them female.
The district has been the focus of a number of women's health initiatives. Pou Yuen collaborated with Marie Stopes International and the Australian government on a women's health initiative to provide sexual and reproductive health services. In 2015, nearly half of the female workers at Pou Yuen quit after giving birth, which had a big impact on their ability to provide for their families and inevitably drove them back into unpaid care work.
Growing female participation in the workforce leaves less time for women and girls to do unpaid care work, as they simply don’t have the time to both do work in the home and put in a 10-hour shift in a textile factory.
"The men help women do the housework, but deep inside they think that if other men know this, they will lose face. This is the cultural effect, where men think they don't do small things inside the house, they do big things," says Huynh Thanh Toi, director of the ministry of labour, invalid and social affairs (Molisa) in Binh Tan.
We meet in the local offices of Molisa and share oranges around a long meeting table, which is also attended by a police officer and party officials.
“Even young men think this. But nowadays, because of economic pressure, the men also have to do housework so they can contribute to the family, it’s unavoidable,” he says.
The officials also refer to a policy document prepared by ActionAid and funded by Irish Aid, called Make a House Become a Home.
“But we are seeing indications that men are sharing the housework with the women, in cooking, in taking care of the children, in cleaning the house. Using questionnaires, we asked how many hours a day do women and men do housework and there are signs that men are doing more,” says Toi.
Cooking and cleaning
Unpaid work contributed more than one-fifth of Vietnam's gross domestic product last year, so someone has to do it. This means the men have to learn how to cook pho. And clean. And look after the kids.
Nguyen Thi Bich Thuy was born in 1966 and has lived in Bin Tanh for 20 years. She has two children, a son Thai Duong, born in 1991, and a 17-year-old daughter Thao Dayen.
“In general I want to spread the work to include more men directly. Make the men know how important is unpaid care work and make them appreciate it. The woman has to raise her voice in the family, make herself heard,” says Nguyen.
“My daughter is still studying in high school. Because of the Confucian culture, a woman has to stay in the kitchen and doesn’t get to go outside much. But right now we get to do more and go outside more. My daughter is learning a lot in school and her knowledge is a lot greater than mine,” says Nguyen. “Right now the young generation know much more about gender equality.”
A typical day starts at 5am. Her husband and son are both teachers so they all go to school together, with the daughter. After breakfast, she prepares lunch and they all come home and eat, have a nap and then go back to school.
“Since the training sessions, all the work has been organised very logically. The boy does the dishes, the girl does the laundry, the father cleans the house. I don’t have to clean the house all by myself anymore,” she says, sounding relieved. “When I’m out now working, the boy takes care of the dinner. The new changes mean that the community outside has to pay attention. Formerly the woman did everything in the house,” says Nguyen.
One area the women's group has been exploring as a way of empowering women has been low-interest loans to start small businesses, says local community leader Tran Thi Thu Em.
So far, four households have been given funding to start a small business.
“Most of the people are migrant workers without official documents so it’s important as they can borrow the money at low interest. After nine months, they have already paid off much of it,” she says.
For the past year, Lan has been heavily involved in the various programmes and training groups offered by the local Women’s Union and she is confident things will change.
“My husband didn’t realise he had responsibilities but, after all the training sessions, he realises that I have the right to do more things. He now realises he has to do more housework,” says Lan.
“When my husband sees me in the morning he doesn’t ask me to make the breakfast anymore, he cooks it himself. We are a happier family,” she says.
* This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund