Vietnam's Wide Array of Women Warriors

For centuries, Vietnamese women have been fighting for independence, justice, and social change in a multitude of ways. In celebration of Vietnamese Women's Day (October 20th), VNT writer Glen MacDonald shared a list of influential Vietnamese women and their important causes.
October 20, 2022 | 06:05

The "Warrior Spirit" of Vietnamese Women

Vietnam's Wide Array of Women Warriors
A statue of a Vietnamese mother in a Saigonese park. Photo by Glen MacDonald.

"Well-behaved women seldom make history" is a quote by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, explaining how women must overcome gender norms to successfully advocate for positive change. The Vietnamese have a similar expression; "When the enemy is at the gate, the woman goes out fighting."

Contrary to popular belief, Vietnamese women are not just submissive mothers and housewives but profound warriors, striving for a better world. As Vietnam celebrates another Vietnamese Women's Day, I wanted to highlight several women from modern Vietnamese history who pledged their lives for important causes.

When researching this topic, I was amazed by the strength and persistence of these women. Although they are all from different fields, the Vietnamese women on this list face challenges with unlimited perseverance. Some fought in bloody wars, others work as peace activists. Some wield rifles, while others use only a pen or simply the power of their voices. No matter their background, these tenacious women are emblematic of Vietnam's warrior spirit.

Nguyen Thi Dinh - Vietnam's First Female General

Vietnam's Wide Array of Women Warriors
The general and her beloved comrades. Photo courtesy of VoV.

As the youngest of ten children in a poor family living in French-controlled Ben Tre province, Nguyen Thi Dinh's life changed dramatically by the time of her death in 1992. Determined to rid her homeland of colonial invaders, Nguyen Thi Dinh joined the Northern restistance and led an impressive insurrection in her province in 1945. Thanks to her familiarity of Vietnam's southern region, she became known to historians as "the most important southern women revolutionary in the war."

She eventually became the leader of her own battalion of female fighters, known as the "Long-Haired Army." Despite the pressures of leadership and horrors of war, Nguyen Thi Dinh is remembered as a kind and supportive general who treated her comrades as family. She was known to treat everyone as if she was their sister.

Vietnamese writer Nguyen Ngoc believed there was some political advantage to her kindness.

"Perhaps she is a Vietnamese with the most friends in the world, from ordinary people to famous heads of state and many different political regimes," wrote Nguyen Ngoc for the Kien Thuc Newspaper. "She brought friends to the nation. And that is one of the most important factors that decided the strange victory of Vietnam in the last century."

After the reunification of Vietnam, she was awared the rank of major general, making her the first female general in the Vietnam People's Army. Though her dedication to Vietnam and its people, Nguyen Thi Dinh became a role model for female patriots across the nation and the world.

A month before her death, Nguyen Thi Dinh reflected on her life during a government meeting in Ho Chi Minh City.

"How did I survive all those years? You've got to be extremely alert, sensitive, clever and resourceful in order to turn an adverse situation to your advantage…. Had we been fearful, we would have either been killed or died of nervousness. In 1960 the South Vietnam government declared a reward of $1,200,000 for anyone who could get hold of me. They thought that if I were arrested the revolution would lose its force. They didn't realize that the revolution was carried on by the whole people, not only me."

As an expat in Vietnam, I am moved by military women such as Nguyen Thi Dinh. Instead of following a more traditonal route by becoming a homemaker, Nguyen Thi Dinh helped create an independent Vietnam.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc - Victim of War, Advocate for Peace

Vietnam's Wide Array of Women Warriors
The "Napalm Girl," all grown-up. Photo by Thoi Dai.

Sadly, the name Phan Thi Kim Phuc is not as well known as her other names; "The Girl in the Picture" or simply "The Napalm Girl." During her wartorn childhood in Trang Bang, Phan Thi Kim Phuc and her family were attacked with napalm. During the aftermath, Vietnamese-American photographer Nick Ut captured the nightmarish scene; nine year-old Kim Phuc running naked and severly burned.

The image was entitled "The Terror of War" and published by the Associated Press. Being such a disturbingly grim image, Ut's photograph caused many Americans to reconsider their pro-war stance. More gruesome images of war appeared causing dwindling support for the American invasion of Vietnam. Eventually, with the sins of colonization and warfare well documented, America ultimately withdrew from Vietnam.

In her adult life, Kim Phuc attempts to overcome her childhood trauma by becoming a staunch advocate for peace. In 1997, she set up the Kim Phuc Foundation, an organization dedicating to providing psychological help to children affected by war. She is very sensitive to this issue because, according to Kim Phuc, her mental scarring has outlasted the burns covering her backs and arms.

"But even worse than the physical pain was the emotional and spiritual pain," she said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Despite everything she went through, there is not hate in her heart. Kim Phuc has some deep thoughts on the powerful nature of forgiveness. In her spoken essay for the National Public Radio (NPR), Kim Phuc asked the world a very poignaint question; "Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?"

This year, Kim Phuc reclaimed her identity in an op-ed for the New York Times, entitled "It's Been 50 Years. I am not 'Napalm Girl' Anymore."

"Photographs, by definition, capture a moment in time," wrote Kim Phuc. "But the surviving people in these photographs, especially the children, must somehow go on. We are not symbols. We are human. We must find work, people to love, communities to embrace, places to learn and to be nurtured."

The story of Kim Phuc is a sad tale but one with a happy ending. Her musings on forgiveness, war, pain, and trauma will help people going though similar situations. Additionally, I admire Kim Phuc's quest to reclaim her identity from proprogandists, causing the world to rexamine her famous photograph not as an image of war but through the eyes of a child.

Tran To Nga - A Fighter for Agent Orange Victims

Vietnam's Wide Array of Women Warriors
At 80 years old, Tran To Nga still fights for Agent Orange victims. Photo courtesy of VoV.

As another victim of war, Tran To Nga's life has been forever changed by the exposure to Agent Orange, a deadly chemical used by the Americans to clear the dense jungles of Vietnam. This terrible toxin poisoned herself and countless other victims on both sides of the war. Additonally, Agent Orange is so destructive that it can even warp a victim's genes, causing health problems for the next generation.

Agent Orange is a tragedy from Vietnam's past that can still harm its future. This is why, even at 80 years old, Nga continues to seek justice for the victims.

Nga wants for her people to be treated with dignity. While she is visibly unaffected by the disease, she knows far too many who are forever scarred or disfigured by the chemicals. With them in mind, Nga has taken on some of the most powerful companies, such as Monsanto, in order to get compensation for the millions victims.

Last year, Nga and her international team of activists and lawyers began a lawsuit against the nineteen companies responsible for Agent Orange. While the French courts have thrown out the case, Nga plans to appeal it.

Even though her story is tragic, her determination is deeply moving. She explained her mission to the French press; “My objective in this fight is to demand justice for me and my family, and after, to have legal precedent so that all victims of Agent Orange - not only in Vietnam, in other countries too - have a path in front of them to get justice for themselves.”

Tran To Nga's journey through the French and American court systems has been long. I am amazed that an elderly woman still has so much fight left in her. As I believe the use of Agent Orange is one of the top crimes against humanity, I find myself rooting for Nga and her crucial misson of justice.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai - Writer of War Stories, Trauma, and Empathy

Vietnam's Wide Array of Women Warriors
Nguyen Phan Que Mai is telling her deeply personal Vietnamese story to a global audience. Photo courtesy of VoV.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai grew up with no grandmothers, as both died before she was born. This maternal abscene has haunted the talented Vietnamese creative, inspiring her to write a fictionalized account of the lives of women she never met. In 2020, she released the novel "The Mountains Sing," chronicling the lives of a fictional Vietnamese family over multiple generations. The novel's poetic detail and focus on trauma caused Vietnamese-American writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, to dub "The Mountains Sings" as the "Vietnamese version of 'Grapes of Wrath.'"

In order for her book to have a global reach, Nguyen Phan Que Mai wrote her debut novel in English. Although written in her second language, the writer took great care to present the Vietnamese mindset for foreign readers. While the words are in English, the characters and story are distinctly Vietnamese. Her impressive work paid off for her, as "The Mountains Sing" has became a global bestseller with critical acclaim.

While she currently enjoys an adventerous life filled with travel, Nguyen Phan Que Mai came from humble beginnings. As a child growing up during the American embargo, life was quite difficult for Nguyen Phan Que Mai and her family (much like the family in her novel). Before going to school, she would work in rice fields, catch shrimp, sell cigarettes, or make crafts out of bamboo; anything to keep her family from starving.

Surprisingly, Nguyen Phan Que Mai is grateful for the hardships of her early life.

"I could only write 'The Mountains Sing' having lived through difficult times," she said in an interview with NPR. "Only through experiencing by myself the challenges faced by the poorest of the poor, the most desperate, could I have that empathy."

Nguyen Phan Que Mai's second novel, "Dust Child," is coming to bookshelves next March. In this story, the bestselling author examines the lives of Ameriasians in Vietnam and how their struggle to find acceptance.

As an American, very rarely do I come across an authentic Vietnamese account of the war. Even though it is ficton, Nguyen Phan Que Mai's work helps me connect not only with the Vietnam-American War, but with the hopes and anxities of the Vietnamese who come from that generation.

Van Thi Nguyen - A Voice for Vietnam's Disabled Citizens

Vietnam's Wide Array of Women Warriors
Overcoming expectations with a huge smile. Photo by Thoi Dai.

Despite being born with muscular atrophy, Van Thi Nguyen faces every new challenge with a beaming smile. During her youth, there was little care for disabled people in Vietnam, leaving many with few to no options. Fortunately, Van Thi Nguyen set out to create more options for disabled Vietnamese, immensely adding to the quality of their life.

In 2003, Van Thi Nguyen co-founded a non-profit named "Nghi Luc Song" which means "The Will to Live." Since beginning this special project, Van Thi Nguyen has helped more than 1,000 disabled Vietnamese by providing them with important life skills such as vocational training, English studies, and experience with IT.

As a disabled woman, Van Thi Nguyen is aware of the oppresive nature of beauty standards, especially towards those with disabilities. To combat this issue, Van Thi Nguyen created a fashiion show to celebrate disabled Vietnamese women. This was the first time a show like this was held in Vietnam.

“We grow up with conceptions and standards that we create, but we cannot let them become invisible barriers separating people with and without disabilities," explains Van Thi Nguyen in a documentary about her event. "We need to change conceptions and standards.”

In 2019, Van Thi Nguyen recieved the HER Award, honouring her work as a female disabilities rights activist. Yetnebersh Nigussie, a lawyer and activist from Ethiopia, presented her the award and thanked her for efforts.

“The work Nguyen Thi Van has done to elevate the position of women with disabilities in Vietnam is wonderful," said Yetnebersh Nigussie. "People with disabilities want the same independence other people enjoy; they want to earn and learn. Through her philanthropic and business activities, Van is achieving just that.”

While discrimination towards disabled people still exists in Vietnam, I am happy that people like Van Thi Nguyen are fighting for their rights. While her work is only just beginning, Van Thi Nguyen's investment in Vietnam's disabled community will surely benefit people across the nation.

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Glen MacDonald
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