Bangkok is the perfect springboard for exploring southeast Asia. Flights are short and inexpensive. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve visited Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines – 6 of the 11 southeast Asian nations. (Of the remaining countries, Laos is at the top of my list.)

When I was a child, I bought pencils and keychains as souvenirs. Then it was t-shirts, but I found that in Asia, they don’t fit me very well, so now I buy art and sometimes books. In Singapore, I bought The Little Singapore Book, a children’s book with beautiful illustrations that is also perfect for adults. At the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi, I bought Women on the Move: Hanoi’s Migrant Roving Street Vendors.

Women on the Move is about rural Vietnamese women who travel from their villages to Hanoi to sell produce. These women are referred to as “circular migrants” because they are constantly going back and forth between their villages and Hanoi. These women don’t move to Hanoi because their families want to live in the village, but they have to leave their villages to earn enough money to survive.

Two of the authors (who I believe are American) are economic professors at Connecticut College in the US, while the third, a Vietnamese, is a political science lecturer at Vietnam National University in Hanoi.  

This book is the culmination of a 13-year project that began as a Connecticut College faculty-student research project in 2000. To collect information, two approaches were used: beginning in 2000, the students conducted surveys with more than 2,000 vendors; beginning in 2003, the researchers interviewed 30 vendors in detail and kept in touch with 8 of these women over a period of 5-6 years (pp. 8-9).

Besides an introduction and conclusion, this book looks at village life, the decision to migrate, and life in Hanoi.

Here’s what stuck out to me, followed by what I thought of the book. For a quick read of what interested me, read the bolded portions; what follows these are excerpts from the book. All italics are mine.

Chapter 2: Village Life

*the number of gifts villagers are expected to give at various ceremonies/times of the year, though these are not actually gifts, because the receiver will essentially pay you back when it’s your turn to receive a gift

“The demands of time and money associated with weddings, births, funerals, and death anniversaries are also important in that they help shape and reinforce notions of mutual obligations and responsibilities among rural families. This is also true for a variety of other ceremonies that are held to mark important occasions in the life of a family…In accepting a gift, a family implicitly assumes an obligation to reciprocate that gift at some time in the future. Alternatively, a family giving a gift may itself be reciprocating a gift that was received on a similar occasion sometime in the past.” (27)

*the pressure village families feel to build nice houses so others will think they are doing well; they rarely have much money but are still concerned about their neighbors’ opinions

“From our discussions over the years with roving street vendors, it is apparent that poverty, no matter what the causes, is something to which a certain amount of shame is attached. They say that they are not alone in thinking this way, and they go on to say that the house itself is looked at as perhaps the most apparent indication of a family’s economic well-being…street vendors themselves feel a strong pressure to live in a house that gives the appearance of a family that, while perhaps not rich, is at least in line with village norms regarding living standards. This could include not living with the husband’s parents for too long after being granted independent household status. It can also mean not living in a house that is too old or one that is in a state of disrepair.” (34)

*the fact that street vendors have to go into debt after having a child/for daily living expenses; I can’t help but think about the abundance of money in this world and how such small amounts, along with education and relevant support, could actually PERMANENTLY lift these families out of poverty

“Many street vendor families also find that they have to go into debt after the birth of a child. This is usually because they are poor and because they cannot rely on money a woman might otherwise make as a migrant street vendor to cover the cost of child rearing and other living expenses.” (53)

*the inability of the villagers to repay a debt when they are able to

“It often happens, consequently, that a family that is in a position to pay back the money it owes will be told by the people who lent it to them that they do not need it. For many families, any money not accepted for debt repayment will be spent on other pressing family needs, so street vendors say that they often do not have the money to pay back a loan when it is finally called in.” (59)

Chapter 3: The Decision to Migrate

*the street vendors’ heartbreaking acknowledgement that they, rather than their husbands, should be the ones to stay home with their children

“…the overwhelming majority of basket ladies say that, given a choice, it would be better for the mother to be at home to take care of her children than for the father.” (83)

*why women go to Hanoi and not men

“…street vendors say that if men were to migrate, they would spend a lot of their money on themselves for things like cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, and, while they are usually unwilling to speak of their own husbands in this way, other women.” (83-84)

*again, the pressure street vendors feel to adhere to village norms, this time when it comes to the age their children should be when they start going to Hanoi

“Most street vendors say that each village has very strict norms about when it is appropriate for a woman to leave a child at home so that she can go to Hanoi to work. They also say that they would be extremely reluctant, no matter how much they needed the money, to violate these norms. In some villages, it is considered acceptable to leave a child at home once the child has stopped nursing or after the child is two or three years old. In other villages it is not, and it is customary instead for a woman to remain at home at least until the child can attend nursery school and very often until the child enters elementary school. The fact that more women are beginning to work as migrant street vendors even before they start having children, together with the fact that women who are already working in Hanoi when they become pregnant tend to return to work after they stop nursing, suggests that these norms are being tested in many villages as rural living costs go up.” (87)

*the favors done for sons but not for daughters

“It is rare for a woman to be able to entrust the care of her children for extended periods of time to anyone but close family relatives, and even within the network of family relatives, this task is most frequently undertaken by the husband’s parents. This is part of the culture of gender in rural society whereby parents will typically take care of the children of their sons but, except in an emergency situation and even then only for short periods of time, not the children of their daughters. This is true even for a woman who has married someone from the same village and who has not moved very far away from where her parents live. She may see them almost every day when she is at home, but she would rarely think of asking them to look after her children while she is working in Hanoi. In those cases where a woman can count on her own parents to help out, it is almost certainly because she does not have any brothers whose children also need to be looked after.” (89)

*the age at which children learn to cook, which is about the same age Worchihan learned to cook

“It is common for children to know how to cook rice by the time they are seven or eight years old and to be able to cook an entire meal shortly after that.” (96)

*how the women, when they’re home, end up doing most of the chores when they’re home in their village, so they never get a break

“…when they are at home, the burden of performing chores falls most heavily on women. Cooking meals, washing dishes, going to the market, cleaning the house, and washing clothes are all chores that in more than 50 percent of the cases women said they do by themselves.” (98)

Chapter 4: Life in Hanoi

*the bond the street vendors are able to form in Hanoi that they aren’t able to form in the village; this was the most hopeful and encouraging thing I read

“The village group plays another important role in shaping the life of a roving street vendor while she is in Hanoi. Although the group is structured largely on the basis of a social network that is rooted in village culture, it also offers a degree of freedom from that culture. In village culture, gender and kinship relations involve a complex set of codes of social conduct among individuals that affect the way those individuals see and interact with each other. In many ways, village women see each other in terms of their relationships to men. Who her husband is, who her father or brother may be, and what the relative age of each of these men is within their own respective families all shape how other women are expected to interact with her and how she is expected to interact with them. When women are in Hanoi as part of a street vendor group, however, many of the expected codes of conduct are relaxed, and there is a tendency for women within the group to view and treat each other on a different, if not more equal footing. Some women say that the time they have together, especially in the evenings before they go to bed, affords them the opportunity to talk with each other about things that they might not talk about back in their villages and to form bonds with other women in ways that also would not be possible in their villages.” (104)

*the difficult conditions in the rooming houses the women live in when they’re in Hanoi

“Hue stayed in a rooming house with 19 other women from her village…They all shared a single room with another group of street vendors from Thai Binh and Nam Ding provinces, and the total number of people living there at one time could reach as high as 35 people. In 2005, the women in Hue’s group decided to move to a new rooming house, but what they didn’t know about the new place before they moved in were the landlady’s three house rules. First, a fixed amount of water was put out each day, and the women who stayed there were not allowed to have more than this. Each person was given a plastic pail containing 5 liters for bathing and two small bowls of water for washing their clothes. Hue says that they need more than this to get their clothes clean, and they often try to steal a third bowl when the landlady isn’t looking. Second, the fan in the room is only allowed to be turned on at night. If Hue returns home early, she will try to turn the fan on when it is hot, but she almost always gets caught and has to turn it back off right away. Third, the women who stay there are only allowed to use the toilet to urinate. Hue says the landlady sleeps in a room next to the toilet and listens to how much water is used to flush it. She can tell from this whether or not anyone has broken her toilet rule, so Hue and the other women in her group must all wait until they get out on the streets each morning to use a public toilet.” (119)

Van listed for us what she saw as the advantages and disadvantages that Hanoi and her village both offered…

1-sentence review: Women on the Move is a detailed look at the lives of the rural Vietnamese women who leave their homes to work as street vendors in Hanoi to support their families and would make a perfect supplemental coursebook for a class related to a variety of topics, including Vietnam, gender studies in southeast Asia, poverty in southeast Asia, etc.

What I liked the most: The stories of the women, little snippets scattered throughout the book, added life and color to the facts and were my favorite part of the book.

Several pages of pictures were included at the end of the book, which provided a glimpse of where the women live in Hanoi and where and how they sell their goods.

How this book could have been better: This book was not written by writers and it shows. It would have benefited from a professional editor.

Also, I would have liked to have read an extended story, preferably a chapter’s worth, of a Hanoi vendor, like one the authors followed for 5-6 years.

Let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for books on southeast Asia.

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