This is Vietnam’s Renovation Generation. Sonic portraits of young minds re-shaping the country’s future. For episode eleven we met the two NGO workers Trang and Mai who have dedicated their working lives to reducing poverty and fighting inequality in Vietnam.

They first crossed life paths on their masters degree a few years ago, and have remained close friends ever since. They often meet up  to talk about your typical things like public policy, Vietnam’s masculinity crisis and equality in pay and love.

This time, we joined them in their conversation..

I think among our friends I only have the same path with Trang. Other of my friends say “why do you do a PHD, why don’t you stay in Vietnam, settle down and get married doing something like that?!”

That’s Mai

I like hanging with her, at least I can talk about the topics that I am interested… I don’t think many of my friends are interested in listening to those things.

And that’s Trang

They were both born in 1987 in rural areas just outside of Hanoi, but eventually collided when they won scholarships to study micro-finance, development and poverty eradication in the UK. These are things they became interested in during their studies in Hanoi.

I think my friends, like my close friends think I’m independent, strong and ambitious…most of people think I am ambitious, but I’m not sure whether it’s true or not.

We’ll let YOU be the judge of that.

This is them speaking back in 2013 from their student houses in Brighton where they were studying in the UK.

In the first few weeks I was really confused with the way people study here. In all the lectures and seminars every problems that we were discussing the conclusion is we didn’t know enough or it’s not good. So it’s really confusing then so what is the good thing and what should we learn. What I figure out is that yeah the reality is not good and that’ why we are here trying to study and later we can improve the reality.

It got easier for them after a while.  When we met, Trang was working as a freelance consultant for charities, and Mai was full-time at an international NGO in Hanoi.

Live in England was really free, I was alone, independently. Coming back it’s like bring ourselves back to all types of social  relationships and social pressure. How to deal with family and jobs and college.

I have the same feeling. I feel a little bit lost for a couple of months, especially before I found a job. And friends started asking: Ok, so now you’ve finished your master, when will you get married? You must have a lot of money.

People ask you like really openly how much money do you earn?

Always the first question


Yeah. I always tell them 5 million a month.


But having to lie about salaries is not the only thing that changed after they returned home.

Coming back, it seems that the men look at me differently and I become somehow scary for them, so they didn’t even dare to ask me out.

Sometimes in the conversation, it seems that they hint “she’s well educated”, I didn’t even think about it, but in their perspective I’m somehow little bit higher. And for a man to accept the woman is somehow at a higher rank than them it’s really difficult. Somehow they become more and more conservative, rather keep a distance..

Traditional pressures of relationships often come from within families. And neither Trang nor Mai are doing what a Vietnamese woman “should” be doing, aged 27. They are pursuing their true passion – academia. Trang explains more…

I am flying soon. So how come I can settle down? That’s why I am a big headache for my parents… maybe for this I am not making them happy, but anyway I am trying to explain to them that this is my life, so actually I am happy. I believe that deep down, they still wish that I’ll become a traditional woman.

Being trained to think critically about society in their masters, we wondered what their perspectives are on gender and the changes happening to the Renovation Generation…

From my point of view, women are growing more independent, faster than men. Vietnamese men somehow are kind of trapped in some masculinity issue of the past. More Vietnamese women prefer to stay single or more Vietnamese women prefer to have a relationships with foreigners. At the same time Vietnamese men stay more traditional and  under the patriarchy idea of the past.

I still think that it’s easier to be a woman than a man in Vietnam. Somehow the men in Vietnam are under a lot of pressure and those pressure kind of put that mindset on them. Like they in charge of the family, financially responsible, have promotion, good job, good position and all those things….

And Trang has decided to go further, as this year she embarks on a PHD in the U.S.

I’ll be doing PHD in public affairs. So it will be like public administration, public policies. Actually it took me quite a long time, like two years, over two years to come to this decision. I know that this is kind of a life decision, it will be a very long commitment if you do a PHD in the States, it can be like four, five, six years. So the loss is very obvious. But the thing that I expect to gain back is that if I want to do serious work in academia, like a PHD course will be very useful.


I think for myself it’s better to go into acedemia, the research area. I am looking for a PHD course in the US.

As hopeful future policy-makers, we had to ask them to end the episode by telling us what policy they would change.

If I were prime minister and I could change something, a policy in Vietnam, I think I would change the education policy. Because in my opinion education is the most important thing which leads you to other freedoms, like economic freedom, political freedom, individual freedom. If people really want democracy, political freedom, we first focus on education, that is to make people think critically and have a wider knowledge about their rights. Yeah, I would change education. 

This has been The Renovation Generation. Follow us on SoundCloud or subscribe to The Renovation Generation on iTunes, Stitcher or MixCloud to never miss an episode.

It is produced by Eliza Lomas and Fabiola Buchele, our production assistants are Trang Nghiem and Trang Ngo.

And research is done by me Maia Do.

Jacques Smit is our photographer and the narration was done by myself, Bill Nguyen.

An & Of Other Things production.

In Episode 12 we will talk to composer Mew Amazing, Lê Đức Hùng, about his musical success, working with his idols and where he finds inspiration.  

Be sure to listen!