Washington Women's Delegation to Vietnam
Vietnam Women’s Union

It’s been a whirlwind of events since arriving in Vietnam. Our itinerary has been packed with meetings and educational sessions, and we have had the opportunity to meet incredible women leaders, who have so generously shared their time to tell us about their work, answer our questions and share their perspectives. Throughout all of our meetings, the Vietnam Women’s Union (VWU) kept coming up as an incredibly important, influential and effective organization in Vietnam.

Shortly after our arrival in Hanoi, the Vice-President of the Vietnam Women’s Union of Hanoi, graciously received the delegation and provided for us an in-depth look at VWU, their past successes and future goals. Before sharing all that we learned, it is important to provide a bit of information on the organizational structure and capacity of the Women’s Union.         

Founded in 1930, VWU has become a women’s social-political and developmental organization, with the mission of protecting women’s rights and striving for gender equality. The Women’s Union is a network that operates throughout Vietnam at four different levels – national, provincial, district and community – with a membership of nearly 14 million women. Because of the way VWU is organized, it truly has far-reaching, nation-wide influence in Vietnam. This has been evident in that, in each community we have been to, we have met with leaders of the Women’s Union specific to that city or town. It has really demonstrated to us the strength and capacity of the organization.

Cooking Class at Hoa Sua School – a true cultural exchange.

On Thursday, September 15, the majority of the delegation had the chance to receive a cooking lesson from culinary teachers at the Hoa Sua School in Hanoi. The residential school serves as a vocational training program for disadvantaged, disabled, minority youth, teaching students skills in hotel and restaurant management, cooking and embroidery. These skills are essential for students to build better lives for themselves and rise above the unfortunate conditions under which they came to the school.

Earlier in the week, we had a chance to eat lunch at one of the school’s restaurants in Hanoi, where graduates of the school work. This time, we participated in the cooking ourselves: chopping, mixing and frying alongside the students.

Donning matching aprons (which we later would learn were gifts for us to keep), we assumed our stations, which each had a cutting board, chopping knife and copies of the recipes we were learning. With each step of the recipe, our chef instructor first described what he was doing, listed each ingredient and then passed that ingredient around the table for us to smell and/ or teach, and sometimes taste. 

See a couple photos below and check out our full photo album of the Hoa Sua School cooking class.


Delegation members with Mr. Vu Xuan Hong, Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations.

Delegation members with Mr. Vu Xuan Hong, Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations.

“Vietnam is a country, not a war.”

— Mr. Vu Xuan Hong, President, Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations

For many members of this delegation, the above quote was the “aha” moment of the day. We were wrapping up our first meeting of the trip, held Monday morning, September 12, at the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations. We received an incredibly warm welcome, as we have at every turn here in Vietnam. Mr. Hong began his opening remarks by extending his sympathy, friendship, solidarity and remembrance of 9/11. He further emphasized the need for Vietnam and the US to work collaboratively, put the “past behind us and look to the future.”

Though we didn’t know it at the time, this would be a comment sentiment expressed to us during the trip. The resilience and quiet persistence shown by our Vietnamese counterparts is truly remarkable.

Following remarks from Mr. Hong and Megan McCloskey, delegation leader, the group had the opportunity to engage in a question and answer session with Mr. Hong and his colleagues, specifically about the issue of Agent Orange/ dioxin.

When asked what steps we, the delegates, could take in to address the consequences of Agent Orange, Mr. Hong responded with three steps: 

1. Explain the reality and consequences to people, acknowledging the problem and creating policy to specifically address the aftermath of Agent Orange/ dioxin.

2. Encourage companies who supplied Agent Orange/ dioxin to provide technical assistance to mitigation efforts.

3. Learn from the past.

With our minds full and hearts warm, we departed the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations.

[Click here to read an article on VUFO’s website about our visit.]

Meeting with Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Secretary of the Party Central Committee and National Assembly Vice Chairperson in Hanoi.  Read the article on how Vietnam improves gender equality policy.

Meeting with Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Secretary of the Party Central Committee and National Assembly Vice Chairperson in Hanoi.  Read the article on how Vietnam improves gender equality policy.

US senator Lisa Brown praised Vietnam’s improved implementation of gender equality policy at a meeting with Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Secretary of the Party Central Committee and National Assembly Vice Chairperson in Hanoi on September 14.

Members of the two US organizations, Peace Trees Vietnam (PTVN) and Center for Women and Democracy (CWD) have voiced concern over solving the consequences of war in Vietnam, especially the future of families of AO victims and treatment for these victims.

Background on Viet Nam

When we think about Viet Nam, we tend to think about rice paddies and water buffalo, and the legacies of the Viet Nam War.  But there is far more to Viet Nam than most of us know. Many members of the delegation have been meeting monthly to discuss books written by Vietnamese and other authors on topics unique to Viet Nam.  If you have missed our book club meetings, here are a few background facts on Viet Nam to place help familiarize you with the country.

The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam is one of the world’s few remaining one-party Communist states.  It covers a geographic area of over 127,000 square miles, bordering China, Cambodia, and Laos, and has a population estimated at just over 90 million, making it the fourteenth most populous country in the world.[1]

There are 54 ethnic groups in Viet Nam, of which the ethnic Viet (Kinh) make up close to 86% of the population. The vast majority of those in national, regional, and local leadership in the economic, political, social and cultural life of the country are members of the Kinh group. Members of the ethnic minority groups tend to be among the poorest and most poorly educated of the national population.

Political history
Vietnamese nationalists have long cultivated a collective narrative defined by resistance to foreign aggressors.  The first foreign aggressors in Vietnam came from what is now China beginning in 111 BC and dominated Vietnamese society for the next thousand years.  As a result, contemporary Vietnamese culture is infused with Confucian ideas and political sensibilities.  The Vietnamese threw off Chinese control in 939 AD but other foreign aggressors followed.  France claimed political and economic control of Viet Nam in 1885 at which time the French took control of all governmental functions.  The Japanese military occupied Viet Nam during World War II, with the assistance of the French Vichy government.  In September 1945, after Japan’s defeat, Ho Chi Minh declared a newly independent Democratic Republic of Viet Nam.  The French, however, were unwilling to release their hold on Viet Nam and a guerrilla war broke out between Vietnamese nationalists and French colonial authorities.  That war lasted for eight years, ending with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  France and the communist nationalist forces signed a cease-fire in 1954 that divided Viet Nam at the 17th parallel into a communist northern zone, and a non-communist southern zone.  Although the division was to be temporary and anticipated a national election by 1956, the government of the southern zone refused to participate in the election and instead declared the southern zone to be the independent Republic of Viet Nam.  The northern communist government sought to reunify the country by force, and in 1961 U.S. military advisers were dispatched to the south to help it resist communist incursions.  What followed was a devastating chapter in the history of Viet Nam that did not end until the final withdrawal of American military personnel in 1975.

Reunification of North and South in 1975 did not end civil conflict as the communist government imposed forced collectivization on agricultural communities, confiscated private property, and sent thousands to re-education camps.  Over the next decade, the economy stagnated and thousands of “boat people” fled to neighboring countries to avoid starvation and repression.  In 1986, the government backtracked on its reform proposals and eased restrictions on commercial development, a policy referred to as doi moi (“change to something new’).  In 1992 the government approved a new constitution that reaffirmed the central role of the Communist Party of Vietnam but also allowed new economic freedoms.  Since that time, Viet Nam has orchestrated a striking reduction in the poverty rate.

Although Viet Nam was once one of the poorest countries in the world, it has made remarkable progress over the past two decades reducing the poverty rate.  In 1993, almost 60% of the population lived below the poverty line but by 2004 that number was down to 20% and by 2008 it had dropped to 14.5%.[2]  The country has met most of the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations, and is witnessing enormous improvements in living standards and economic growth. Viet Nam currently has a 93% literacy rate among adults,[3] and one of the highest life expectancies among countries in East Asia and the Pacific.

[1] Statistics taken from the Vietnam country report prepared by the U.S. State Department, available at http://www.state.gov/p/eap/ci/vm; see also The World Bank, Data by Country, at http://data.worldbank.org/country/vietnam; CIA, The World Factbook, Country Comparison: Population, at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html?countryName=Vietnam&countryCode=vm&regionCode=eas&rank=14#vm.; see also Vietnam country report prepared by the Centre for Intercultural Learning for the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, http://www.intercultures.ca/cil-cai/ci-ic-eng.

[2] The World Bank, Data by Country, http://data.worldbank.org/country/vietnam.

[3] Among 15-24 year olds, the overall rate is higher, and almost evenly balanced between males (97.3%) and females (96.5%).  See UIS Statistics in Brief, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, http://stats.uis.unesco.org/unesco/TableViewer/document.aspx?ReportId=124&IF_Language=eng&BR_Country=8680&BR_Region=40515.

Top: The Vietnamese flag on the DMZ.

Bottom: The Temple of Literature, which is the first university in Vietnam and over 1,000 years old.


Welcome to the Center for Women & Democracy’s new blog, where you can follow the leadership delegation during its program in Vietnam, and learn more about the achievements of women there.

The Center for Women and Democracy is a non-profit non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2000.  The purpose of the Center is to support, stimulate, and foster women’s effective participation and leadership in local, national and global affairs, while respecting the political, economic, and social diversity in cultures worldwide.  Since its inception, the Center has run programs to train future women leaders; to educate women (and men) about achievements and challenges in women’s lives; and to connect women leaders in Washington State with women leaders worldwide.  

The Center’s Global Networking Committee works to facilitate networking among women on an international scale with the goal of bringing women together to share perspectives and foster cultural understanding, and educating women in the U.S. about women’s lives around the world

The Center is committed to a world where people value cultures different from their own, and the belief that mutual understanding and the free exchange of ideas can empower women worldwide to effect positive change in their communities.  We accept, appreciate, and respect that people know and understand what is appropriate for their own communities. 

Viet Nam Delegation

The Leadership Delegation to Viet Nam includes women of all ages and backgrounds who have an interest in actively engaging with women in different parts of the world and fostering deeper understanding. The delegation is very fortunate to have the support of Governor Christine Gregoire and will act as representatives of the Center and as cultural ambassadors on behalf of the United States, and the State of Washington.  

We are also working very closely with PeaceTrees Vietnam, an NGO founded in Seattle that is dedicated to restoring and rebuilding relations between U.S. citizens and the Vietnamese people.  In its sixteen years of operations, PeaceTrees’ teams have cleared landmines and unexploded ordnance from over 523 acres of land and removed more than 60,000 unexploded bombs, grenades, and other ordnance to make land usable again.

The delegation’s program will begin in Hanoi with meetings with leaders in the national and local government, the Women’s Union, and Vietnamese NGOs. We will then travel to Hue, the former imperial capital of Viet Nam, and from there to Dong Ha, Quang Tri Province, one of the hardest hit areas during the war between the U.S. and Vietnam. The trip concludes in Ho Chi Minh City, where we will meet with women academics at Hoa Sen University and the founders of Tri Viet University.

Stay tuned here for updates, stories and photos as we travel throughout Vietnam. We would also love your input on key issues that are likely to arise during the journey.  Please check back often and feel free to share your comments and suggestions.

You can learn mores about the delegates who are on this year’s trip by clicking the Delegate Bios link on the right.