This interview with a Vietnamese girl comes from my good friend Andy. Check out his website—Andy Traveler.
I have to confess.
This article had a different title when I started working on it. I planned to write about my relationship with my Vietnamese girl, and how it compared with girls from other cultures. But after toying with some ideas, I realized this had been done so many times.
But what we rarely hear are stories from local girls.
What was it like growing up in a country that went through massive changes, like Vietnam? What is the sentiment about local girls dating Western men? What does the family structure look like?
Normally these are difficult questions to answer. The typical Vietnamese girl doesn’t speak English well and is usually shy around foreigners. Generally most men traveling to Vietnam on shorter trips only meet girls on Tinder or in nightclubs. While this is fine, those are not what I would call typical Vietnamese girls. She likely is somewhat Westernized and her parents are probably less traditional.
I believe I am in a unique position to answer some of these questions. I lived in Vietnam for some time and have been in a long relationship with a local girl. Instead of writing from my own point of view, I decided to interview my Vietnamese girl about topics such as family, culture, religion, dating foreigners, marriage, divorces, etc…
Without further ado, let’s lift the mysterious veil of the Vietnamese girl.
Andy: Thank you Phuong for letting me do this interview. (FYI: Not her real name)
First question; how was growing up in Vietnam?
Phuong: Well, when I was a child, Vietnam was very poor (she is in her early twenties) and still suffering from the war. My family did not have much money. My mother could not afford milk when I was a baby, so she fed me water she boiled the rice with. Beef and chocolate were too expensive for the average family. I remember my aunty giving me a piece of white chocolate when I was 8 years old. It tasted so good haha.
On the streets, most people used Cyclos (FYI Vietnamese bicycle taxi) or bicycles to get around. Only rich families had motorbikes. There were not many cars on the streets. My parents had only one bicycle for commuting to work. I got my first bicycle when I was 10 years old and it was a dream come true. I was so happy and excited, such a memorable moment.
For entertainment, the average Vietnamese family only had a simple black and white TV that mostly showed Chinese and Korean movies. Only occasionally did they show Western movies. And the only way to listen to music was on the radio. That sounds like hard times. But I feel lucky because my childhood wasn’t heavily influenced by technology like today. I had many friends and we often played outside.
In the 90s, you did not see many Westerners in Saigon. When I was 13 years old, I traveled to Nha Trang with my family, and I remember how surprised I was to see so many Westerners!
But after the year 2000, things started to improve. Foreign investment created more jobs. More people could afford motorbikes and other luxury items.
Also, more Westerners started to arrive in Vietnam. I remember it was strange seeing big Western men with small Vietnamese girls haha.
Andy: How is the family structure in Vietnam? Is it patriarchal? How much weight does a Vietnamese girl’s words carry?
Phuong: In Vietnamese culture, generally the man will be the leader of the family. He has more responsibility for income and guidance of the family.
But when I say leader, I don’t mean he is a dictator. He always listens to his wife’s opinion. This is especially true for us in the younger generation.
Andy: Does the wife usually stay at home, or does she work?
Phuong: In my opinion, I believe it’s a 50/50 split. But for the 50% working women, maybe 10 – 20% wish to stay at home. But money is an issue.
In my family, my mom and all my aunties are working.
Andy: Who is managing the money in Vietnamese families?
Phuong: There is a joke in Vietnam where a couple goes to a restaurant, and if the girl pays the bill, they are married. But if the boy pays, they are just lovers. It may be a joke, but it’s not that far from the truth!
Generally, the wife manages the family’s money. I guess that’s the case for 70% – 80% of married couples. I think the usual reason is the wife does not trust the husband with money! She’s afraid he will spend it all on gambling, drinking or other girls. It’s actually true in many cases!
My mom is managing the money in our family. But it caused so many problems between my parents, so I don’t really support this.
Andy: Who does most of the household work?
Phuong: It used to be the wife who did all the household work. Today, it’s still the wife that does the majority of the work. But the husband usually gives a helping hand. For example, my dad always helps my mom. Plus he is an excellent cook!
Andy: How involved is the wife’s mother in her daughter’s family, such as taking care of the kids, etc…?
Phuong: Today, I don’t think the wife’s parents will interfere much in their daughter’s family affairs. But after she has children, generally the wife’s parents will give a lot of support, especially with babysitting. My cousins and I used to stay with my grandmother when my parents were working.
Andy: Is cheating outside the marriage a big issue in Vietnam?
Phuong: I think cheating is a big issue everywhere. But, in Vietnam, people are very afraid of divorce. If it happens, they usually work hard to save the marriage and try to get their partner back. Divorce is always the last option.
Andy: What is the number one issue in the family (money, cheating, lack of intimacy, etc…)
Phuong: It’s money! Second is cheating.
Andy: Ah ok. Money is usually the number one issue in the West too. But do you think many Vietnamese couples can have a healthy sex life even after being married for many years?
Phuong: It depends on the couple. Some of the traditional girls believe the man has to do all the work in the bedroom. That will be very boring. Also, Vietnamese people generally don’t take care of their bodies after they get married, so their partner may get turned off. Furthermore, after marriage, the wife is required to take care of the husband’s family in addition to the kids and her own family. That’s a lot of work. After all that, she may have no energy for sex.
Andy: Are single mothers viewed negatively in Vietnam?
Phuong: In Vietnamese culture, being a single mom is not easy. Some have to leave school. However, some of them still can recover and live a good life. But it used to be worse. Just one generation ago, an unmarried pregnant girl usually had to move to another province to give birth.
Andy: I understand. But what about after a divorce? Are divorced moms accepted by the society? Does the government give any kind of financial support to single moms?
Phuong: On the countryside, divorce and single moms are viewed negatively. Divorce is not common so you don’t see many single mothers. It’s more accepted here in the city and many people get married a second time.
Our government can give financial support to poor people if they neither have a job, nor enough income to survive. However, financial support comes with conditions, so it’s not easy to obtain from the Vietnamese government.
Andy: So divorce is not common in Vietnam?
Phuong: In Vietnamese culture, people are afraid of divorce. I believe there are several reasons for this. First, the marriage is defined not only as the relationship between two people, but also the connection between their families. It’s generally understood that a divorce would damage the whole family’s image. Furthermore, Vietnamese people truly respect the value of love. Family is really sacred and precious. Finally, people don’t want their children to experience a divorce.
Not long ago, the divorce procedure was really complicated and took a long time. The law did not favor women and the man’s signature was required for a divorce. That forced some women to stay married to very bad men. Now things are slowly starting to change. Today you can get a divorce finalized in just three months without your partner’s approval.
Andy: Who usually gets custody of the children in case of a divorce?
Phuong: For a new-born baby, the mother always gets custody. For other cases, it depends on what the couple agrees to. Generally the children lives with their mother and their father will give financial support. But there are exceptions. For example, if the mother has no financial means to support her children, the children have to stay with their father. One friend got divorced after having 3 babies and she had no job. Her children now live with their father. That’s a sad story.
Andy: How are money and property divided between husband and wife in a divorce?
Phuong: If it’s decided by the court, I think they divide the assets acquired after the marriage 50/50. Normally the couple prefers to decide this outside of the courts.
Andy: How many years did you go to school?
Phuong: First we do five years of primary school and then four years of secondary school, starting from age six until age fifteen. Then we have three years of high school from ages sixteen to eighteen.
Andy: Did you have to wear a school uniform?
Phuong: Yes we had to wear school uniforms until high school. But at the university, we could wear casual dresses except for the physical education, where uniforms were required.
Andy: Shortly describe a typical day in a Vietnamese school.
Phuong: I can give you some examples from my secondary school. Every Monday morning, we all had to wear the flag on our chests and stand in straight lines. Some kids played the drums and all students sang the national anthem, while holding our right hand in a military salute. The lectures began afterward.
The other weekdays began with everyone gathered in the school yard. Then teachers would randomly select students to check their homework. A very stressful moment!
Like most students, I ate my lunches at home. But some parents paid extra for their kids to eat at school.
And in my generation, most children had to walk to school. I remember that my cousin and I had to walk 30 minutes to school every day.
Andy: Did they teach English in school?
Phuong: They started teaching English from age 11. But it was more about grammar and writing, and we didn’t get a chance to speak or listen much. By high school, nobody could speak much English, even those who got good grades!
Andy: How did you learn English?
Phuong: I studied on my own. I learnt it mostly from reading books and watching TV. Some people prefer going to language centers, but I don’t think it’s worth the money since they are not cheap.
I think the best way is being in an environment where you can practice English. For example, when I studied at the university, I used English a lot while working as a waitress.
Andy: How strict was the school? Did the teachers enforce discipline?
Phuong: If you forgot to do homework, the teacher might hit you with a stick. Usually on the hand. Sometimes you had to face the wall and the teacher hit your butt with the stick. Other punishments included kneeling at your seat, standing for hours, or go out and sit in lobby. And I got hit sometimes — usually in math class because I am very bad at math haha!
Andy: Wow. Is this still going on?
Phuong: Yes, but I think it’s less now because many parents complained. Today, the kids have to bring a paper to the parents about what they did, and the parents have to sign that paper.
Andy: What do they teach about the West in Vietnamese school? About Americans?
Phuong: Most teachings about the West were about art, music, literature, history and wars. They do talk about the sins our enemies had committed to Vietnam. But they also said it was the past, and now our country has to cooperate even with our old enemies.
Andy: Do they have sex education in school?
Phuong: Nothing! Many girls at my school became pregnant because they didn’t know about safe sex! Especially after camping trips. Sometimes girls came back pregnant from them!
Nobody gave us any education about sex. Not even our parents. Consequently, teen pregnancy is high in Vietnam. For example, one friend in high school already had 3 kids!
Andy: At what age do the Vietnamese start to date seriously?
Phuong: It depends. I think generally after 18 years old, they are mature enough for a serious relationship. But some of my friends began dating at 16-17 years old.
Andy: How common is it to be intimate with your boyfriend before marriage?
Phuong: It used to be very strict. But now, especially young people, they are more open minded about it. Today, I am guessing over 70% of couples have sex before marriage. Their issue is finding privacy since they can’t go to their parent’s house. Sometimes they find a hotel room.
Of course, the parents don’t usually support this.
Andy: Why would a Vietnamese girl prefer to date foreign men?
Phuong: It’s an interesting question haha! Of course no Vietnamese girl is the same, but I think there are some reasons. I will try to clarify them below.
Andy: How does the Vietnamese society view a local girl dating a foreign man? How does her family react to this? They are generally accepting of it?
Phuong: Well, today it’s very common to see a local Vietnamese girl dating a Western man. You even see couples with big age differences. I think most parents won’t have any issues with their daughter dating a Western man. I think the ones that don’t support it are concerned about language and religion, or that their daughter will move to another country. But my family has no issues with this.
Andy: Is the typical Vietnamese girl open to move with her husband to another country?
Phuong: In Vietnamese culture, we say that after the marriage, wherever the man is, it’s the girl’s home. Normally she will accept to move to another country. However, the man also need to consider many things, including the girl’s family situation.
Andy: Are there things a Westerner need to know when visiting his Vietnamese girlfriend’s family?
Phuong: Yup! Of course! I think you need to know some basic customs, otherwise you will be viewed as impolite haha. For example, if they invite you for dinner, it’s customary to let the eldest family member pick up the chopstick and start eating first. It shows respect. Also, during the meal, feel free to serve food to other people. This shows you are caring and the Vietnamese really like this. Also, when you greet a senior family member, you should bow.
To bow is one of the first things we teach our children!
Andy: How big of a part does religion play in Vietnamese daily life?
Phuong: In Vietnam, 50% of people are Buddhists, 30% are Catholics and 20% have other religions. Religion plays a significant part in our life. For example, I am a Buddhist and I have been going to temples ever since I was a child. Sometimes my religion gives me guidance when I need to make decisions.
Andy: Are there any issues if the boyfriend is from another religion?
Phuong: If the family are Buddhists, I say no. But I am not sure about the other religions. I had one Christian friend that married a Buddhist man, and he had to change his religion because of pressure from her parents. My parents would never do this.
Andy: I have heard many stories that the Vietnamese are a bit superstitious and believe in ghosts. Tell us a little about that.
Phuong: Haha yes! Since I was a child, I have heard many ghost stories from my grandparents. Sometimes you will see Vietnamese people burning items on the street like fake money, clothes, jewelry, etc. They might also spread out rice, salt, wine, candies, cake, etc. We believe when the evil spirits receive it, they will bring us luck. If not, they will interfere with our life or business. But once you start doing this, you can’t stop, because the evil spirits will remind you in some bad way haha.
Andy: Well, we have now reached the end of our interview, and I want to wrap it up with a few final questions.
What is the best thing about living in Vietnam? Worst thing? What would you like to change about your country?
Phuong: Well, starting with the best things first, I think Vietnam has cheaper cost of living compared with other countries. Also, life is less stressful because people don’t work like crazy. We always find time to spend with our families and friends. Finally, Vietnamese people are very friendly, you will have no problem getting along with most people here.
Regarding the worst things, I would say safety. There are many thieves and robbers on our streets. And then we have crazy traffic and bad air pollution.
If there is one thing I’d like to change about my country, it would be selfishness. I believe this is the number one reason my country is improving too slowly. For example, we need to throw the garbage into trash cans and not on the street. We also should not cut in line, etc…
Andy: And my last questions are — what do you think is the worst quality in a Vietnamese girl? What is the best?
Phuong: I think the worst quality is their dependence on other people. It’s not only for financial support but also can be a variety of things. They are also bound by many ancient rules they believe are correct.
Their best quality is that they are very faithful and have a strong dedication to family. Our concept of family is very valuable and sacred, so we won’t give up on the relationship so easy!