Boys, boys, boys

Attitudes are changing, but the preference for sons lingers on in Vietnam.

By Le Diem on October 18,2017 02:45 PM

Boys, boys, boys

photo: viet tuan

Nhat nam viet huu, thap nu viet vo’, or ‘One son counts as one, ten daughters as zero’, has been a commonly held view among Vietnamese families since way back when. Many Vietnamese still value men above women, even before they are born. So many ‘creative’ ways are pursued to ensure that a new-born is of the male variety.

The traditional role of a son is very important in Vietnam, particularly the first-born son. He is ‘socially’ responsible for living with his parents and the only one they can rely on when they grow old, while daughters become ‘the children of someone else’ after getting married and moving in with their husband’s family. A son is also responsible for maintaining the practice of worshipping the ancestors. Not having a son is therefore considered bad luck, as no one can officially continue the family line or worship the ancestors.


There are many things considered helpful for couples to give birth to a boy. These usually start with diet. Many believe that food containing high levels of zinc, salt, potassium and sodium will help the development of Y sperm and provide a better environment for it to live longer in the mother.

Believing in this for months, Le Thu, an accountant in Hanoi, drank a cup of pure fish sauce every day and fed her husband a daily meal of beef, seafood and eggs. ‘I don’t like salty food,’ she said ‘It was really hard for me. But I had to do it because I need a son. My parents-in-law told me that I had to do what I could to have a son, or they would allow my husband to try for a son with someone else.’

Her efforts were rewarded, as she has given birth to two sons, who she calls ‘Mam’ (fish sauce) and ‘Muoi’ (salt) at home. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that food determines the sex of a baby, but Thu’s diet definitely gave her a stomach ulcer and her husband gout. Regardless, she believes it worked and has recommended it to friends. Most, though, have had daughters.

The direction the marital bed faces is also deemed important. Pham Dong, a teacher in the northern province of Hai Duong, was told by her mother-in-law to arrange her bed to face east, as in Asian culture the sun represents ‘yang’ and also male characteristics. Others have invited a soothsayer to their house to select the ‘right’ direction for the bed.

Not only the bed but also the time of planned conception needs to be given due regard. In Asian philosophy, a day is divided into two halves: one is yang (male) and the other is yin (female). Accordingly, 12pm is considered as the ‘most masculine’ time of day, when the sun is at its zenith, and the best time to get down to the business of creating a son. After taking her mother-in-law’s advice on this, however, Dong and her husband found it hard to get the deed done during their short lunch break. ‘His office is not close to home,’ she explained. ‘We also have to eat. It felt so mechanical, rather than relaxing and having fun.’

Hoang Kien, a salesman in Hanoi, used another ‘scientific’ method. He and his wife already had a daughter, who they both loved dearly, but he needed a son to determine his role in the family and society. As an only son himself, his parents reminded him on a daily basis that he needed to have a son to continue the family line. He also didn’t want to be mocked by relatives when visiting his homeland in the northern province of Phu Tho, as those who don’t have a son must eat at the table for women, a common custom in many rural areas. Kien and his wife faced a lot of pressure and wanted to make sure the second child would be a boy.

They did some research online and found that the Y chromosome was faster and stronger but lived a shorter time than the X chromosome, which could live for two or three days in the mother’s body. The day the egg ovulates, therefore, is the best time to snag the Y chromosome.

Following this notion, Kien and his wife tried to not do anything until the ‘right’ day. Whenever and wherever he was, if a text message came from his wife saying ‘It’s time’, he knew what to do. Sometimes he had to ask his boss for time of or had to reschedule appointments with clients. ‘I know it’s unprofessional, but I had no choice,’ he said. ‘Fortunately, my boss understood, as he has two daughters and is also trying to have a son.’

The couple soon fell pregnant, but despite their best efforts an ultrasound showed the baby was a girl, so they terminated. ‘Maybe we will take some medicine or ask the doctor for help,’ he said.

There are also some questionable practices out there. A few years ago, a healer became famous for allegedly having the ability to determine the X and Y chromosome status of a man by feeling the man’s pulse and spinning a safety pin in his hand, then prescribing ‘appropriate’ medicine, which he also just happened to sell.


Psychologist Linh Nga from the Psycho-Pedagogy Research and Application Centre said the ‘need’ to have a son creates a lot of stress for Vietnamese couples, even among the well-educated. The centre regularly treats patients with depression and anxiety triggered by the prejudice of not having a son. Many women believe that only by having a son can they fulfil their responsibilities to their husband and their family and feel secure in their familial position. Such attitudes also have a harmful effect on little girls, who often feel unrecognised and lack confidence, which can continue into adulthood. Meanwhile, boys are spoiled from birth. There are many examples of teenage boys whose sense of entitlement, nurtured in the home, sees them wind up in prison.

There’s also no guarantee that their son will continue the family line and produce a son of his own. On top of the fact that a child’s gender is simply a lottery, the gender imbalance in Vietnam is becoming a serious issue and the son may not even find a wife when he’s older. According to the latest figures from the Ministry of Health’s General Office for Population and Family Planning, released in June, there were 116.1 boys born for every 100 girls in the first half of this year, up from 113.4 last year. The natural ratio, according to the World Health Organisation, is 105 boys for every 100 girls. The General Office has predicted that, by 2050, 4.3 million Vietnamese men will be unable to find a wife.

Attitudes are changing to some degree, with many young people nowadays, especially those living in the city, believing it’s no longer so important to have a boy. Local media, in particular, now depicts the important role women play in a much more positive light than in the past. ^

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