Another Women’s Day recently whizzed by – oh how quickly they come, go, and are forgotten. One day out of the entire year (ok, two days are celebrated here in Vietnam) with a bouquet of flowers, maybe a box of chocolates or a cake, a meal out, then in the blink of an eye it’s in the rear-view mirror.  

Even if all 48,566,839 men (49.4 percent of the population) in Vietnam were on board regarding the tribute, the fact is most women don’t have time to stop what they’re doing and enjoy a special celebration totally dedicated to them, ironic as it may seem.

They’re simply too damn busy keeping the ship afloat.

Just walking down the street in any neighbourhood in Vietnam, women are seen humping away in markets and supermarkets, washing, preparing produce, cooking, serving food and drinks in restaurants and cafés, then cleaning up the mess left behind.

These old hands have seen…

These old hands have seen…

We all know those activities, see them each and every day, but what about some niches and sectors in which women make major contributions, but are less noticeable, taken for granted.

Stick your nose in a local bank and check out who’s doing the heavy lifting.

A bank?

Oh boy, let me tell you, as odd as it may sound, a visit to the bank reveals a lot about how well things work here in Vietnam. In most countries, banks are austere and intimidating (they hold the cash we need and often send subtle messages through their posture and mannerisms to remind us), but not around here, we actually feel like customers, hooray!

Queuing up for service is not one of the highlights of commercial transactions in Vietnam, so there is no taking a number and a seat while awaiting one’s turn. It’s more like jostling for position in the Tokyo subway at rush hour, everyone pouncing on the teller announcing their business simultaneously and expecting immediate service.

That local flare adds to the challenge we customers face, but just imagine being on the receiving end of all that commotion as the tellers are!

To add to the ambience, the Vietnamese dong still includes smallish denominations of banknotes and the economy has been expanding at breakneck speed for years on end, so the VND500,000 notes are a dime a dozen. 

It’s not uncommon for a client to stagger up to the counter with an entire backpack stuffed to the gills with VND500’s. Ever notice it nearly always seems like a nondescript, humbly dressed person that has the biggest clump of cash? 

I vividly recall sitting in my Da Nang bank branch a couple of years ago waiting for my little transaction to conclude, during which time an elderly lady pulled up in an SUV chock-a-block full of cash. 

I’m dead serious, the cash was piled up everywhere inside the vehicle, no way you could roll down the windows or it would have started blowing all over the parking area.

It turned out it was VND8 billion (US$350,000), which I know  because  the lady informed me with great pride that she was buying a hotel and had brought all that money to the bank to seal the deal.  

That begged several questions, which of course I could not ask, such as:

* Where did she get so much cash from? (Under the mattress seems unlikely given the sheer volume.)

* Why schlepp it over in an SUV instead of doing a wire transfer? (Mistrust of electronic transactions, fearing money will disappear into cyberspace.)

* What happened when she stopped at stoplights and other drivers saw all that money piled up all over her vehicle? (Nothing, this is Vietnam.) 

* Did the lady toss a few notes to any needy people she encountered along the way? (Nope, in a hurry.)

* Who counted it prior to hauling it over to the bank? (Her staff I guess.)

Anyway, the lady’s minions hauled the huge mountain of cash into the main office of the bank and an entire brigade of sharp-looking female tellers magically appeared through a discreet rear door and started counting the whole mess at a feverish pace.

If every note had been of the VND500,000 denomination, that would come to 16,000 notes, but I saw lots of stacks of VND500’s and VND200’s, so there must have been a lot more to count.

All I wanted that day was change for a couple of large notes (I hate giving them to vendors, forcing them to run around looking for change, plus the VND500’s draw attention in the wet market). I received them in a flash, then got the hell out of there, terrified something would happen and I would somehow be implicated in the drama.


That huge deposit was a special case, no doubt, but the overall point remains: those tellers are sealed tightly in the pressure cooker all day, every day. 

Just prior to Women’s Day, and completely unrelated to the festivities, I popped into my local branch once again, this time to deposit a payment into my buddy’s account.

Outside, I saw a female staff member placing a note in Vietnamese and English kindly advising customers that their ATM was down, going that extra step.

Bilingual warning: ‘ATM not working’

Bilingual warning: ‘ATM not working’

Thanks to ATMs and online options, I rarely set foot inside the actual branch itself. The first thing that grabbed my attention is most (if not all) of the employees running the show were women. 

Once again, endless questions popped into my mind, but people can’t just hang around in banks observing the workflow and asking questions while trying to be inconspicuous. So I had to make due with a few furtive sideways glances at the operation here and there.

The tellers are like machines, moving at a blistering pace and leafing through mounds of cash, slips, and signed papers. The bill counting machines clatter away like a locomotive in a Western movie, bills of VND500,000 flying by faster than the eye can follow. 

Rat a tat, rat a tat, then a tidy clunk when the end of the stack is reached.

The teller was going like a one-armed wallpaper hanger, yet never lost focus of my little transaction, while at the same time fending off other customers. She even grabbed the wad of small bills I had placed on the counter because I forgot how much the service charge was for a deposit. 

She then deftly removed the requisite VND11,000, waved those bills at me as proof, and neatly put the rest of the cash back.  

Now, that is a take charge, professional attitude, quick and efficient, smooth and seamless, focused on the customer.

Truly, banks are the ideal showcase of women’s contributions to this country, but that’s just one example. They’re omnipresent, on construction sites, struggling alone to deliver heavy, bulky items by motorbike, selling trinkets, and hauling recycling items around with their ‘don ganh’ (shoulder-borne carrying poles). You-name-it, they’re doing it. 

It’s high time we men turned it all up a notch, less flash, more class, choosing informal scenarios and random moments scattered throughout the year to show our gratitude, instead of a big hoopla once or twice.

This revolutionary approach has a boatload of advantages over the current celebrations, which are predictable, and, quite frankly, boring. And, gentlemen, we all know how women love surprises (as long as they’re good, that is), so let’s surprise them.

Bear in mind that if you do decide to take a gift for your favourite bank teller, make sure it’s in a transparent container or plastic bag, lest it be confused with a weapon. I can see the headline now:


Random gestures, treats, goodies, and gifts big or small, invitations, it doesn’t matter, they’ll all be appreciated. Let’s just do it, every change is like a journey, starts with the first step taken.