Four Inspiring Lessons from the Women of Cambodia and Vietnam

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I've just returned from a life-changing three-week trip through Vietnam and Cambodia. I was humbled and inspired by the “Tiger” Women I met during my travels, and have so many insights to share from my conversations with them!

Many Westerners cling to the outdated stereotype of the Asian woman as quiet, meek, and retiring. Most of the women I met were respectful and soft-spoken, but absolutely none of them struck me as meek or weak. They were wise, determined, clever, and proud of their rich heritage. Here's what they taught me as I made my way through their amazing country.

Cambodian culture is a matriarchy!

Cambodia has long been a matriarchy—a culture in which women are considered to be the more powerful and important gender. Females, especially mothers, often hold the central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property. In fact, the first person to rule all of Cambodia, Queen Liu Ye, was a woman and because of her history and power, many Khmer (Cambodian) terms that reference status and power also reference women. Cambodian women still struggle for gender equity on many fronts, but their culture's female power roots go deep.

For Cambodian school girls, bikes provide more than just transportation

Young Cambodian girls often have to travel long distances to get to the schools closest to their homes. Since they are at high risk for rape or abduction by sex traffickers, many families choose to keep their daughters at home rather than put them at risk by sending them to school. Because of these well-founded fears, only 11% of Cambodian girls attend and graduate from secondary school. But give those girls bikes for their daily school commutes, and they are much faster and substantially harder for potential abductors to catch. And when they can commute safely, they can attend school and learn and grow. Several global non-profit organizations donate bikes and repair kits to girls in rural Cambodia, enabling them to get to and from school safely.

Cambodian and Vietnamese women benefit from bikes, too

Vietnam and Cambodia have enormous stretches of sparsely populated rural land, which means that farming families may have a difficult time getting supplies or selling their crops. Although large amounts of cargo cannot be moved on bikes, women are able to transport small deliveries, carry messages, and travel to local markets by cycling.

Both women and men have also been seen to use their bikes as mobile market stalls. Bikes 4 Life has donated hundreds of bikes to children and adults in Cambodia, and the organization's founder, Ebony Butler, reported seeing riders with stalls full of goods constructed on the backs of their bikes. What a creative way to make the most of your mode of transportation!

Vietnamese women can become powerhouse entrepreneurs

While planning my trip, signing up for one of Ms. Vy's cooking classes quickly rose to the top of my wish list. She is a third generation chef whose family recipes have garnered recognition throughout the country.

Ms. Vy opened her first restaurant, Mermaid, in 1992 in her hometown of Hội An. It quickly became a destination for international diners and travelers, and she eagerly began to expand her empire. In 1994 she started offering cooking classes, and soon afterwards opened the Market Restaurant and Cooking School which still welcomes hundreds of students every year. More restaurants followed, and Ms. Vy now runs Cargo Club (a gorgeous café and patisserie) and Morning Glory in addition to Mermaid and the school. In 2012, she published Taste Vietnam: The Morning Glory Cookbook, which sold more than 10,000 copies in its first two years in print. This is not a woman who rests on her laurels, but a driven, whip-smart entrepreneur!

Meeting the strong, independent women of Cambodia and Vietnam made it crystal clear to me that assuming Asian women will sit quietly in the background of their own lives is a huge mistake. It was utterly inspiring to meet so many talented, driven women who honor their inner tigers every day.

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