Girls in the ethnic minorities of Son La Province in northwestern Vietnam are challenging gender stereotypes by trading paddy fields for soccer fields.
For years, many members of ethnic minorities in mountainous northwestern Vietnam have believed that being a female soccer player is not much more than a good way to become a spinster.
Fortunately, one group of girls are challenging that image.
Lo Thi Hong, 20, lives in Mon Village, Ta Bu Commune, Muong La District. Hong said she and her parents knew nothing about women’s soccer when the recruiter from the Son La women’s soccer team came to the village in 2012.
“We only heard about men playing soccer. It never occurred to us that girls could too,” Hong spoke in broken Vietnamese. “When the coach selected me for the team, my parents didn’t let me go, thinking it was a human trafficking scam. Before that I had never picked up a soccer ball in my life. My peers usually get married at the age of 15 to 17, so you could say I’m a spinster.”
Ca Thi Thu, an 18-year-old resident in Thuan Chau District in Son La, said her parents had strongly opposed her joining the soccer team after she had been selected by the coaches.
“They said it was girls’ job to get married and tend the terraces, not play soccer, but by that point I had already made up my mind. Playing soccer is way more strenuous than tending the terraces, but the feeling of playing on the field and scoring a goal excites me. That feeling kept me motivated to pursue a professional soccer career,” Thu confessed.
Even with gender barriers beginning to fall, some of the women who left their villages in pursuit of their soccer dreams have had the determination to overcome objection from their families and the sexism in their community.
Lo Thi Thu, 17, returned to her village after a brief foray into the soccer world to tie the knot in a marriage arranged by her parents.
Playing soccer to provide for family
Being a member of an ethnic minority with little money to spare, many of the female soccer players from Son La use their monthly salary and allowance sparingly, putting much of it aside for their families.
Le Thi Hong Van, 16, is the youngest player of the team. Her salary is VND40,000 (US$1.80) a day, with an additional VND600,000 ($26.80) monthly allowance.
“There are only me and my older sister, who has already got married. My mother was a single mom and worked hard to raise us. Before taking up soccer, I would sell logs taken from the forests after school to help her. It was fortunate that my height of 1.61 meters barely qualified me for the team. I hope one day I will be summoned to the national team,” Van said.
Tong Thi Huong Hien’s story was different. Hien had dreamt of becoming a pharmacist but her family could not afford to help her turn that dream into reality.
“When I retire from soccer, I will become a pharmacist and sell medicine to people,” Hien confessed.
Lo Thi Hong said if it had not been for soccer, she would not have had the opportunity to leave her district and see the outside world.
“Though I play soccer like a boy, I’m also a great cook and love making delicious traditional Thai dishes,” Hong said.
A young team
The Son La women’s soccer team was established in 2012 under a joint project between the Departments of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in Ha Nam and Son La Provinces.
Speaking of the hardship of training a team comprising female novices from ethnic minorities, head coach Luong Van Chuyen said, “Communication is difficult, as the girls are shy and reserved. Their techniques are also a problem since they literally knew nothing about soccer and were all clumsy when they first touched a soccer ball."
Fourteen of the nineteen players on the team are Thai and Muong, two ethnicities in northwestern Vietnam and the team has been training with a lack of balls and training clothes, according to the coach.