Don’t Be Different
Gay Vietnam: like subtle patterns woven into a rich tapestry, gay life in Hanoi is enfolded within intricate traditions of family, village and country, all framed by the present communist social system. It is nearly impossible to live any sort of gay ‘lifestyle’ as it is known in the west-two same-gender partners cohabitating privately in their own dwelling, separately from their families, socializing with a circle of gay friends and attending meetings. Such a gay household is unknown here in Hanoi–as unfamiliar as a Zulu mud hut in the fashionable Hamptons.
This invisibility is not the result of organized persecution by religious or government zealots or by any particular villainy by the military to wipe out a pestilent lifestyle. Rather, the most pervasive inhibitor of any emergent gay community is ignorance, unfamiliarity, indifference-the non-existent concept of what homosexual desire means.
Homosexual desire is a strange unlabeled feeling for most people here with no access to understanding. Eighty percent of the population are rural peasants gathered in remote villages of varying sizes. You are born to the land, work on the land, marry young to provide baby workers and die worn out. Life is family, farming and fraternity. Gay affections or attractions (conscious or not) are plowed under like last year’s rice fields. A furtive occasional moment of sex or sensuality may happen, but like the weather it passes on to become another condition, another time.
Although virtually invisible, homosexuality is not technically illegal in Vietnam. ILGA (International Gay and Lesbian Association) reports: “According to some research posted on the VN-GBLF e-mail forum, homosexuality has never been explicitly illegal in Vietnam. The current Penal Code doesn’t mention homosexuality; indeed, it seems that there is no mention of homosexuality in Vietnamese law. “Sex buying and selling in any form” are prohibited. However crimes such as “undermining public morality” (similar to “public indecency” or “soliciting” in certain other jurisdictions) can be used to prosecute homosexual conduct [that takes place in public?].”
More recently (1998), after a couple of notorious gay weddings Hanoi that received international press notice, ILGA notes: “legislators banned same-sex marriages after several homosexual couples tied the knot in recent months, distressing local officials who were unable to stop them. After the legislation passed, Communist Party officials descended on the Vinh Long home of Cao Tien Duyen, 23, and Hong Kim Huong, 30, and secured their signature on a promise that they would never again live together. The two women had wed March 7 in a large public ceremony.”
This came as no surprise to my friend Nic (not his real name), a 22-year-old native who works in Hanoi for an NGO. Sitting at lunch in the trendy Moca Café near the Catholic cathedral, he stated, “People in power have no intelligence about homosexuality. These weddings would be unknown but the lesbians wanted to take a big risk. I’m glad they did, but it came to a sad end. What is so ‘funny’ is that most gay people in Vietnam get married anyway-but not to each other. They take a heterosexual spouse because they cannot face the consequences of being different-gay is very unusual here. It’s not part of good oriental thinking.”
Nic’s Traditional Family
Nic is one of two children of a traditional family from Hanoi. His father is retired (on a pension of less than $50 a month) and his mother takes care of the home. At the present time, his father lives with Nic’s sister to help take care of her child while she and her husband work. Both grandfather and grand daughter love each others’ company and bring much delight to one another. When the child is older, grandpa will move back home. Nic lives with his mother and helps here with chores after work and she keeps house and cooks for him.
This seemingly convenient and cooperative family has the appearance of a standard Vietnamese unit. Indeed, their modest home has three rooms, a tiny kitchen, and a rooftop deck which serves as the laundry. A prized washing machine makes some of the housework easier. Nic’s mother goes out to buy food daily since there are few private refrigerators in Vietnamese homes, weaving her way through the crowded morning market teeming with merchant chatter, bicycle bells, children squealing, caged ducks and clucking chickens. She is immersed in a kaleidoscope of fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat, as well as the usual plastic and metal housewares, and plenty of clothing stalls.
Yet among all this daily tasking, working, schooling and the busywork of life, Nic has succeeded in achieving an unusual delight: a romantic gay relationship. He and Tran met on the Internet. They exchanged messages then phone calls for several weeks and felt a mutual connection of attitude before they met. For Nic, this was his first serious romance, while Tran had a previous boyfriend who left him under irresistible pressure to get married.
Neither Nic nor Tran have plans to introduce each other to their families. They want to keep their affairs very private, except for a few gay friends. The two manage to arrange regular visits since Tran works for a bank with an office in Danang as well as Hanoi. Going out of town with a ‘friend’ for a short trip, or going camping is quite acceptable in this tightly hetero culture.
At 22, Nic is deeply happy to have a soul mate for talking and touching. As we conversed, he could scarcely contain his expansive feelings of excitement and desire for his new love. Being gay in a straight society, as we all know, trains us to mask our passion and subdue our truth. But in the presence of other gays, even western strangers, Nic could not help letting his exuberance reveal the rainbow of delight that was unfolding in his heart and opening it to full size for the first time.
Pulse of Hanoi
Hanoi is a seductive city. At first it seems enormous, noisy, dirty and poor with it busy-bee denizens peddling and scooting about on millions of motorbikes. But that’s just the view from the sixth floor. The real pulse of this city is down in the narrow tree-lined streets where this giant anthill teems with local merchandise and miniature mom-and-pop free enterprise shops each packed into 10X10 spaces sprouting domestic hardwares, souvenirs, groceries, photo developing, paintings, clothing and of course countless restaurants.
But the newest offering is typically Vietnamese, who adapt to any expediency or circumstance (from war to rice pads): Internet shops by the handfuls. Much to the delight of the newly arriving tourists who flock around the Old Quarter, most of these shops sport six or eight terminals glowing with invitations to pay 150 VNDong per minute (about 75 cents an hour) to send e-mail or cruise the Net. In the past decade the Dong here has slipped drastically, along with other Asian currencies. In the seventies, there were 450 VND to one US dollar. In March 2001, I exchanged a hundred dollars and received 1,450,000 Dong (14,550 to one US dollar. This makes Vietnam one of the least expensive Internet connected countries in the world.
There could hardly be a more striking contrast between the reserved attitudes and flattened expression of passion in the public culture and the upstart presence of the Internet in Hanoi. For the younger generations, gay and straight, this invisible potent high tech force has opened wide avenues for contact and personal expression unseen previously in gay Vietnam. It has created a virtual gay community unknown by most of the population and the government. As in China, it has revolutionized the quality and quantity of gay social contact as never before.
The other technical wonder that has revolutionized daily life from the smallest village to sprawling Saigon is the motorbike. There are nearly eighty million people in this little country smaller than California who live with about twenty million motorbikes-mostly Hondas and Suzukis (50-150 cc.) The upside of this is the lack of cars on the narrow roads, seemingly less pollution and the affordability of cheap transport. The down side is the chaos of traffic–in the cities the bikes are like swarms of flies. Add to this the constant ratchet of irritating little horns as drivers plunge down streets too fast, as if a finger on the horn is some protective shield. Yet there are relatively few accidents considering the vast number of machines.
However, these motorbikes do cost a lost of money in native currency ($500-$2500) and most Vietnamese, especially in the rural provinces, are very poor so bicycles still outnumber the motos easily by three to one across the country.
My first trip to Vietnam included only Hanoi and the north, with a three-day trip to Halong Bay on the northeast coast as well as a week in the rugged mountains and jungles in the northwest near Laos and China. In conversations with three gay men in Hanoi, I was told how the traditional family unit, along with the village community and the socialist government provide a person from birth with a life structure pretty much devoid of personal privacy. It’s not given and it’s not expected across the life span. As one person said to me, “there are no individual rights beyond the bathroom.” There is little room for the individual to vary from these traditions.
Not surprisingly, being gay is very different–different enough to be incomprehensible to most people in the north. But, as Nic described it, gay life in Saigon is quite different. Pretending to be shocked, but really delighted, he said with amazement, “they kiss each other right on the dance floor! And they press against each other. It’s very wild there.”
For most gay Hanoians, such public display,even in a club,is beyond local standards. This capital city is much quieter and more traditional. It remained distinctly native during the convulsions of the “American” war, as it’s called here, from 1965-75. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City (most people still call it Saigon). As a result of the war, Saigon was heavily doused in western ideas, goods, diseases and illegitimate children. The native fabric was shredded so today it is not surprising that it is much more sexualized than Hanoi
The Next Generation: Li
Li is a 17-year old high school student born with silver spoon privilege. His mother is an important government official and his father is a doctor. All habitate in a comfortable suburban house of several rooms and have a housekeeper (who is Li’s sometime ally who separates his occasional ‘personal’ mail from the rest of the family’s.) When Li and I first met, he looked fresh and bright-eyed behind wire rim specs, short black hair and very eager to hear about western gay ideas. From the Internet he already knew about western gay styles and attitudes, but he had not spoken live to many gay westerners
I surprised him with a copy of the new ‘XY Magazine’, a non-porno glossy and hip journal aimed at young gay people. His eyes got even bigger as he scanned the pages of text and images covering a variety of topics from clothes to recent movies and recent happenings.
A few days later we met again for lunch at the trendy Hanoi Café (he likes Italian food) during which he pointed out an article in XY about teen love and it’s real possibility. Li has a boyfriend: “I’m having a very wonderful life with a cool boyfriend, very sweet, very gentle and he’s the most wanted gay in HCMC…But I don’t have much time for him. I have to study so much to pass the university exam,” he lamented. Of course, their feelings are a deep secret. As I have seen so many times in Asia, the ‘crime of culture’ was causing these young men to suppress the truth of their authentic selves.
Recently he wrote, “yes, our love is still on and we are getting much closer. He is three years older than me. I met him through Outpersonals.com and then met him in Hanoi. His mom knows that he is gay but she gives no idea to him.”
In his busy young life, Li is also the Vietnamese representative of an international youth organization which organizes around education, human rights, health and environmental issues. He has been to India, Singapore, Hong Kong and New York for organizational conferences and as plans for study abroad. He is a fortunate and courageous young man who may well help bring a better understanding of lesbigay issues to Vietnam in the future.
This is a country with no gay social or community network other than various furtive cruising locations at a few known spots. Aside from the newly emerging virtual community online, contacts are often confined to quick peeks and pleasures in discrete places such as the public toilet along Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the old town. Adjacent to the toilet is a ‘pick-up’ promenade along the lake under the tall trees and among the picturesque gardens overlooking the calm water.
On my way to buy a copy of the International Herald Tribune (capitalist newspaper in communist Vietnam!) I passed the infamous T-room. I’m not an aficionado of such places, but I thought a quick look would be interesting. It was more than that: it was a very bold and brazen den of desire.
There were at that moment about six guys in various states of desire. Some stood in the corner eyeing others as they stepped up to the urinals and manipulated their wares. Some disappeared into stalls for a few minutes. Mostly there was looking and I saw no personal contact. The energy seemed like bees desperately drawn to honey, watching carefully, moving to get a better view; a mixture of desire and anxiety, aching hormones and skittish fear that lead men to take personal and social risks for the sake of a grain of furtive pleasure. It was obvious these men were nervous, but this was more than matched by their bold behavior. I was surprised at their willingness to take such risks, but I also did not see any (uniformed) policemen in the park.
Outside, as I left the buzz of the ‘secret garden’, a plain-looking man named Trong in his thirties approached me, walking his bicycle, speaking clipped English. He was quite open and unusually forward as he asked me if I wanted to go to his place for sex, bragging about what he had to offer. His boldness caught me off guard, but he obviously saw me leaving the restroom and assumed my availability. I declined his offer with playful cheeriness and sat down on a bench with him. His name was Trong and he lived about a kilometer away.
Trong was one of the lucky few who managed to have his own room, a private little space upstairs in one of those anonymous urban apartments blocks along a labyrinthine alleyway. He was a ‘seamstress’ and worked as a tailor. He acknowledged he was gay, but had told no one his secret, “that way more better to live my own place. No bother from other people.” Did he take people men home for sex? Did anyone say anything? Was it risky for him? He said he had to be careful not to raise suspicion, so he only rarely took someone there. “Much easier and faster here,” indicating the T-room with its constant cautious mix of ‘money boys’ and closeted spouses pretending to be out for a stroll in the park. Given his forwardness with me, I thought his ‘rare’ activity might be a bit understated, but he was relaxed and easy going and willing to answer questions.
Later, for all his apparent ease with cruising and talking to strangers, I could not help wondering about his own comfort with his life. He said he wanted a boyfriend, but he acknowledged there was no practical way to achieve that without causing family or neighbors to be wary of him. And few Vietnamese are willing to risk the ostracism and critical looks from their community, even though no one would actually say anything to him. The gossip and averted glances would be awkward enough punishment in this society of high conformity.
In contrast to the seedy rendezvous on the lake, the most respectable gay watering hole in town is the Golden Cock bar and café on the other side of the lake. It is a lively, nicely appointed gathering place for a mixed clientele, east-west, gay-straight and comes as close to a regular gay social center as anything in Hanoi. Li told me that a bar called Apocalypse Now, across town, sponsored a gay night as did the New Century Disco club.
Halong Bay, several hours northeast of Hanoi, on the China Sea, is a delight for the artist and the geologist. Great ragged karst formations thrust up out of the water to form stunning islets. Some are big enough to land on; many others are sheer rock shafts too steep to climb.
I joined a group and we sailed among these thousand dramatic formations for a few hours to reach Cat Ba, small resort village struggling to keep up with the waves of seasonal tourists, native and foreign, who come to enjoy the beaches, fishing harbor and hiking trails. Getting there, of course, is very much a part of the village’s appeal. Many people take picnic lunches to some of the tiny inlets on the various islands.
Our two guy guides, ‘Sy’ and ‘Hy’, both in their mid-twenties, were disarmingly cute and politely charming, chatting to us in good-enough English about the geology and history of places on our trip.
I also learned from them how casually physical Vietnamese young people are with each other. At any time they would lean on each other or caress one other. Touching is an integral part of friendship here. During our three-day trip these guides tested for signals to touch westerners (among our group of twenty) whether sitting together, walking or playing in the surf at the beach.
Some folks don’t like to be touched by strangers, so Sy and Hy were subtle and careful to test the boundaries. When they sat down next to someone to chat, they gently pressed a leg or an arm against the person to sense their reaction. Often it was favorable and amiable; spontaneous tactile contact is so common here that visitors find little offense. It’s an expression of liking. Occasional hand holding between two men or two women is not unusual either.
One morning, along Cat Ba’s main street, I watched two young construction workers in their overalls walk with their arms around each other’s waists on their way to work. It was a refreshing pleasure to enjoy and see the easy unfettered reaching out, the natural expression of ineffable feelings uncomplicated by sexual energy
As part of Halong stay, most of our group went on a morning trek in the rugged hills near Cat Ba. Tropical growth and tall trees canopied the jungle trail. The path was ragged, slippery, steep, winding, sometimes elusive-not a casual stroll. As some of us lumbered and clambered over roots, slipped on mossy rocks or sat down to catch our breath, I watched a small Vietnamese woman, older than most in our group, bustle past us with a shoulder pack loaded with soda and water. She was on her way up to the summit where she would sell them to withered trekkers arriving after her, overheated and thirsty.
I couldn’t help being impressed at her speed and light-footed agility in negotiating the ragged uphill terrain. As I watched her disappear into the foliage ahead, it was not hard for me to translate that moment back in time to 1970 and imagine countless other little ladies carrying weapons and supplies along the hundreds of miles on the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail.(photo right)
It was a poignant moment for me to stand there in the dense jungle, sweaty and tired, and recall how these diminutive foot soldiers plodding through mud and weaving among crags defeated the mighty high tech forces of the US military so many years ago.
(I was told, one day, that young Vietnamese students are taught about the ‘American war of aggression’ with very little propaganda or active resentment. As a result, many of the current youngest two generations carry remarkably little hostility toward Americans. Indeed, I encountered no edgy attitudes or comments during my weeks in the country. More common was a cheerfully curious greeting to this western stranger.)
Stressed Gay Life
Back in Hanoi a few days later, I was sitting in my hotel lobby talking to another gay guy, Luc, who initially (on the Internet) seemed willing to talk about being gay in Vietnam. But now, in person, he was obviously ill at ease and evasive with his replies to my questions. His lover was from Australia and they currently lived together. The arrangement sounded ideal from the outside. But as we chatted more about gay life in Hanoi, Luc reluctantly admitted that their conjugal life was anything but peaceful.
A year ago, Luc’s family discovered the truth about his sexual orientation and were very upset, accusing the lover of corrupting their son and dishonoring the family. Luc’s mother created a teacup tempest by demanding that Luc go with her to the lover’s apartment and remove all his clothing. Luc felt humiliated and very angry but was helpless against the force and tradition of Vietnamese motherhood. As the storm subsided over subsequent months, the family prepared to renovate their house necessitating their moving out. It was then decided (I didn’t ask by whom) that Luc should stay with his ‘friend’ during the reconstruction.
Talking further, it was clear he was an openly torn man, uncomfortable, ashamed and nervous that his identity had been so violated and demeaned. After their house was finished, the family, including Luc, planned to move back in, much to his dismay. It seemed all this stress had taken its toll on his relationship with his partner and the bond between was being weakened. A few days later as I stopped by at “GC’ (Golden Cock bar) where I saw Luc apparently cruising other men. We did not speak there. If he saw me, he chose to ignore any acknowledgment. I suspected all was not well in his heart or his nest.
So Hanoi remains an overgrown provincial capital, steeped in centuries of conservative conformist traditions that few commoners dare to challenge. The Chinese invasion endured for a thousand years, the French colonization lasted a hundred years and the American war convulsed the country for ten.
Today, Hanoi and the north are more modern but in many ways unchanged.
The pace and presence of life in gay Vietnam remains furtive, subdued and nervous. Gay love, when it can be found, is mostly fragmentary and part time. Gay sex is scattered, unpredictable and often only fantasized. A move to Saigon is sometimes the only viable choice for finding both that can endure. But for those who remain, whether a teenager with a computer, a twenty-something guy in love or an anxious partner in a troubled dyad, Hanoi is still home. And gay life and love will nevertheless continue to adapt quietly like silken threads in an intricate tapestry.