(Updated January 2017)
My first interview about southern Vietnam was not about gay Vietnam but rather accidentally along a bustling city center street when I unexpectedly came upon a street vendor selling knock-off copies of the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam and other southeast Asia countries.
“Yes this is a fake but the price is very cheap, 0nly 90,000 dong (about U$6)” declaimed the street vendor eagerly. Earlier that day I had browsed the official Vietnam Tourist Authority bookstore and saw other knock-offs of Lonely Planet that were stripped to bare essentials—missing information, no subjective evaluations and poor quality substitute photos.
“Do you want to look inside; I will take the plastic cover off,” The street salesman handed me the latest guidebook that looked like an original–a better knock-off than the Tourist Authority’s version. (Lonely Planet claims it is helpless to stop this kind of pirating in Vietnam.) My vendor went on, “ if you buy this in the store it will cost 400,000 dong (U$25) and you can see the photos here are very good.” (In the Bangkok airport the day before, the books were about U$40.)
Although I was persuaded by the price I was much more persuaded to buy this fake because of the person offering it. He was ten years old and looked a diminutive seven or eight with a cascading shock of black hair topping a cherubic face–as endearing as any child model in an Abercrombie ad. (photo below)
Further enhancing his heart-warming smile was his excellent fluency in English and beyond-his-years articulateness in explaining that he was helping a friend—sitting on the curb with more books—sell the books. “No this is not my mother, She is a friend and I help her sell the books and she gives me a commission. It’s a very good copy; do you want to buy it,” he pressed in his cheerful happy voice.
By now I could hardly refuse the offer from this beautiful, intelligent and persuasive young person. I handed him a hundred thousand dong bill (about $6.60) and he handed back the change (about 60 cents) with both hands.
Then in a disarming direct manner he asked if I would buy him some milk. It was not begging, not obsequious, not pleading—just a straight-forward clearly stated request. He would have said OK even if I had declined. But my partner and I were too enchanted to deny him such a modest and healthy request.
“Milk?”. I said.
“Yes, powdered milk. The kind that has calcium to make me grow stronger. The other milk we get doesn’t have calcium.” He pointed to a large brightly lit department store splashed with colorful Christmas decorations and said we could buy the milk there. When I said yes, he asked, “are you sure? I want the big can please.” There was no turning back.
The three of us walked half a block along the noisy motorbike-filled street with thousands of early evening shoppers and commuter motorbikes converging at intersections like swarms of locusts. This is clearly the land of motorbikes and rice paddies. Dodging the swarms (there are no pedestrian privileges here) to cross the street we passed the restored ornate opera house, a couple of shiny marble and chrome upscale hotels, some boutique fashion shops and then into the huge Parkson department store where on the fifth floor little Ti knew where to find his food.
“That’s the one I want,” as he pointed with his little finger to the top shelf. His hand could have fit three times into mine. On the top shelf was a gallon-sized can of Enfagrow, enriched powdered milk for infants and children with added vitamins and minerals. The can was half the size of his little chest. He beamed at me with dark darling eyes. “Do you want anything else, I offered. Yes please, some rice for my mother. He picked out a 5 lb sack of rice and we headed out. He wanted to carry both items but together they were a heavy load for one who weighed barely 70 lbs himself so I carried the rice.
On the way to the store, Ti had asked if Michael was my son (Michael has no grey hair at the age of 55).
I said “no”.
Ti said “friend?”
“No, he’s my boyfriend.”
“No! I don’t believe it. Are you gay”
“Why not? Do you know other gay people?
“Oh, I know many gay people. They dress with make-up and ride on bikes to sell massage.”
“Not all gay people dress like that,” I said.
That conversation ended as we entered the store and I asked him questions about himself. During the day he went to a private school founded by an architect whose son was Ti’s best friend. As a result Ti could go to the school for half price, $50 a month (a heavy expense in Vietnam). He had been studying English since he was four years old, which explained his fluency and barely discernable accent. He lived with his mother and a brother. His father had “gone off to live with other women” so his mother worked selling rice and Ti sold pirated books on the street to make ends meet.
Before we parted Ti gave me his full name and his e-mail address so we could stay in touch. After a photo in front of a faux snowman (Saigon stores try to outdo each other with elaborate Christmas decorations) he went back to his vending location hauling his rice and milk much like Dickens’ Oliver hauling a sack of flour. An unforgettable street-wise, articulate and literate urchin with a private school education in socialist Vietnam: a touching introduction to this country of bamboo, free enterprise, hip discos and smart kids.
Correction About The Above Story
A few months after I posted this story a reader sent this message to GlobalGayz:
“In Bombay, on a short holiday, a small boy approached me. His English was polished and confident, and I was immediately on my guard. Why would a boy with such an advantage be wandering the streets and talking to strangers – yet not obviously begging? After a moment or two, the boy told me he was seeking kind people to buy milk powder for ‘the orphanage’, and that he was not asking anything for himself. He produced a fake identity, claiming to be a resident of the orphanage, where he had, he told me, learned his English skills.
“The boy said that the best price for milk powder was just round the corner. As I expressed some doubts, one kind man came from a shop and told me the boy was bad, part of a gang which roams the streets working the same scam, and that the boy was trying to steal from me, returning the milk to the same store after I’d gone. In spite of the boy’s protests nobody paid him any attention. All the locals knew the scam, and some even chased the boy away.
“Later that evening, around 10pm, I waited with some Indian friends and watched as a dozen boys, along with some young girls, were loaded into a truck and driven away – not to any orphanage, but back to criminal headquarters, where boys and girls, I later found out, are taught English so they can speak to tourists. Next time I was in Bangkok on business I spotted the same scam, and some time later again in Singapore, Korea and Bangladesh – all places I visited for business. Indian friends of mine confirmed the scam; said that the police were in on it, as I later saw in Bombay. The police met the driver of the truck which was taking the children away late in the evening, and money changed hands.”
See the 2008 movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ which includes scenes of similar bogus criminal work.
Saigon’s Gay World
It doesn’t take long to scope out the gay Vietnam in Saigon, a city of 7+ million. If you want to find the trendy ‘gay’ venues here you only have three choices (four last year), and even there the crowd is mixed.
If you want to find lady-boys offering massages and more you can cruise the streets in the downtown tourist area, but the reviews are not good. Scams abound and gay passion is minimal.
There used to be a cruise park but it dissolved under police pressure after complaints about thieves and money-boys.
If you want to find most gay folks in this vast sprawling metropolis of commerce and restaurants you can search the phone book under Mr. and Mrs. since 90% of LGB folks in Vietnam are married, especially if a comrade is a member of the Communist party.
“It’s impossible to stay single here. When you are twenty; people start asking when you will get married,” explained Guy (his real name must be masked in this story since authorities can use any excuse to supress any person or venue that is ‘different’), the owner of one of Saigon’s best mixed gay/straight bars on De Tham Street in the heart of the café backpacker district.
The prevailing attitude toward homosexuality in Saigon—and most of Vietnam—is that it doesn’t exist. There is no homophobic campaign, no criminal statutes, no sex police or gay bashing from the churches, temples or the government. Same-sex appeal is unknown for most natives, a mystery for some and a secret for queer ones. Police generally leave gay people alone unless they start to organize or become obvious. Attracting the lady boy crowd is not something a business owner wants so these folks have no neighborhood watering hole and hang out on street corners until they are told to move somewhere else.
Sexual orientation in Vietnam is decidedly hetero and virtually every gay man and woman is seriously conditioned not to reveal their truth to family or friends or strangers. It’s not a legal crime but it is certainly a social stigma that can lead to lifelong misery of scorn and rejection by one’s peers.
As usual there are exceptions, as Guy pointed out. Two of his friends are a long term couple in Saigon and have shared an apartment for years with the knowledge of their accepting families who protect the men’s secret. But it’s easy to pass in a big city like Saigon. It’s not unusual for men to live together since they can pass as friends or coworkers. City communal living in Vietnam is a traditional way of life.
Guy observed that long-term couples don’t hang out with other long-timers because it’s more obvious when a group of men appear together. Many such couples don’t want to be known as gay. Anonymity is important to their secret which results in no visible ‘community’.
But for most others being gay is a burden not a fulfillment. There is virtually no hope for any emotional truth let alone sexual freedom. Secret liaisons, fleeting quickies, furtive rendezvous are the norm for most of Saigon’s LGBT citizens.
As usual there are closeted politicians, police and celebrities who have secret boyfriends and who constantly face the specter of blackmail for their passions.
For the ‘T’ community (transvestites) there is a noticeable and noisy lady-boy sub-culture. Even little ten year-old boys know about these cross-dressers. But it is a problematic population and strains the meaning of ‘gay’. As universal as they are, Asian lady-boys are often more brazen and aggressive. Their common evening profession is prostitution rather than gay socializing. They follow the money and that means tourists at Guy’s bar and other foreigner hangout in District 1. But since they are not much welcome there they have migrated to District 8, said Guy.
“Lady-boys money-boys are a headache for me,” explained Guy. “I have to chase them away. They make trouble and fight over customers right in front of my bar. They have jealous fights and that upsets customers who they complain about this. So I always watch for the lady boys and chase them away before they become a problem,”–except on Halloween when Guy can’t tell between lady boys and everyone else in drag. It’s very popular then.
The police mostly ignore the assorted gay cruising on De Tham Street. But if it’s suspected that any underage drinking or drugs are involved they swoop down and may take away the liquor license, as happened once at the now-closed Samsara.
Guy said that sometimes lady-boys are invited to perform singing and dancing at straight funerals after which they join in the feast and the gossip; the problem is that they cruise the straight mourners for further feasting. This occurs more in the southern part of the country than in the more conservative north, according to Guy.
Eden Bar and Apocalypse Now and More
Although Guy is a proud businessman, it is too risky for me to identify him and his work openly. So I will mention the venue selection where gays feel comfortable to hang out.
The first is Eden Bar a 5-year-old comfortable hangout, decorated in primary colors and served by friendly bi-lingual staff (mostly non-gay to avoid awkward cruising). Evenings there are tables out front for food and drink but often the ambience is intruded upon by endless street vendors selling guides books, trinkets, postcards or chewing gum to foreigners.
Upstairs is a sedate restaurant with a large menu of Asian food. We ate there twice and were well satisfied with the service and flavors. Alcohol service stops at midnight on police orders. On the third floor is a guesthouse with four rooms, three of which are rented out long-term. Aside from Eden Bar there is Apocalypse Now (mixed crowd, lots of female hookers). To fully explore gay Vietnam, because it’s discreet, a visitor must converse in the local language. (Also check the Utopia-Asia.com web site for more.)
A further comment from a GlobalGayz reader about gay Vietnam here: In my recent trips, I have distinctly observed a growing gay presence in Saigon, if only one knows where to find it. There are more young people looking for connection and companionship, both in private and in public places. On the Internet, many gay Vietnamese websites are found, providing forums for gay expression and contacts. In Saigon, there are many coffee shops, clubs, neighborhoods, where gays can meet. There are also callboys and gay brothels available, if one knows the right contacts. Gay life in Viet Nam is not out in public the way it is in Bangkok, for example. But my personal experience is that the Vietnamese people, at least in Saigon and in Vung Tau, show no outward hostility toward known gay people, whether because of their politeness or their tolerance, or both, I am not sure. I know for a fact that the so-called “gay bashing” is almost unheard of in Viet Nam.
The “New” Vietnam
Guy is one of countless business people who have invested in the tourist industry in Vietnam in recent years. The result is a well-established infrastructure all over the country offering a wide range of services and accommodations to visitors, from five-star palaces to backpacker hovels, from sparkling and trendy stores to good trains and buses up and down the thousand-plus miles of its coastal terrain. From water buffalo plodding in rice paddies (Vietnam is the world’s second largest rice exporter) to wealthy merchants (few in number) in SUV’s, Vietnam has shaken off the ragged mantel of a post-war society to embrace free enterprise since 1989. It is now a nation of worker bees who mostly till the soil and raise an abundance of food. No one is hungry.
Indeed, arriving at the shiny new airport terminal in Saigon a visitor is deluged with neon-lit advertising for Samsung electronics, Sony appliances, software, steel, Eriksson cell phones. There are airport cafes, ATM’s, ads for Sofitel and Sheraton, and masterful reproductions of world famous paintings on sale.
On the thirty minute ride into the city the main streets are so busy one could be in Bangkok given all the construction, sidewalk kitchens, discos, twenty-somethings on their motorbikes and cell phones. Countless restaurants blaze with light and action, including wedding receptions (November must be a big month for weddings; we saw many merry and lavish receptions during this trip, one featured a bride dressed in a chartreuse gown!) All this of course adjacently mixed with dark laborers’ houses with a single light bulb and no running water. I noticed a construction worker taking a sponge bath half naked from a rain barrel of water, and scruffy kids playing with sticks and tin cans on side streets. Poverty still prevails in this country of 83 million.
Lesbian Hidden Lives
As for lesbian love and life, Guy said women have it even worse than gay men. The public and private repression is greater for them and few women would ever risk the fierce rejection they would face if they tried to shirk their family marital duties.
It is a very closed sub group. Women do share apartments but not as lovers but as co-workers to save money on rent. Guy has some women on his staff he suspects are lesbian but even they are not out to him.
For many Asian men like Guy who are attracted to western men, life is incomplete. Access to stable and enduring love is very difficult as most Caucasian men usually come to Vietnam as visitors or for short term business assignments. Guy craves the day he can return to Europe (where he had a fitful and ultimately hurtful relationship with a married man). “I am young, sexy and I want love,” he said plaintively. “I can’t be out at work either because I have to be a role model.”
Once out of the action and lights of Saigon life in all its forms slows down and fades into agricultural routines performed by many along traditional means–buffalo plows, bicycle carts, pointed straw hats, small delta boats transporting fruits and vegetables to market. There are acres of grain drying along roadsides and mountainous coffee plantations as well as sugar cane being threshed by hand. All book-ended by Catholic churches and Buddhist temples.
Gay life virtually evaporates from view, well hidden behind closed bamboo doors in small villages and towns. Life’s daily agenda is virtually all work and little ‘self-fulfillment’, marriage, kids then back to work.
Only by ‘deliberate accident’ does a visitor discover little pockets of gay activity or awareness in secondary cities such as Hoi An, Dalat or Hue. (This trip did not include the northern half of Vietnam. For that story go to Gay Hanoi)
Hoi An and the Flirt Zone
Ho An is a coastal city along central Vietnam that has been fortunately spared excessive urban redevelopment. The old town is built on a river with fishing boats lined up along the front. Old red-tile-roofed shop houses have patinas of worn yellow streaked with dark water stains. It’s a place where dozens of tailor shops can custom make any item of clothes to your size overnight. I had a pair of black leather shoes made for $28.
At the far end of the beach area is the elegant Victoria Hotel where we had dinner one night in the richly wood-paneled restaurant serving western and Asian food. In Vietnam meals at such deluxe venues can average about $5-7 a person. It’s hard to resist the experience and sophistication that’s in such contrast with most working class cities and towns.
Our waiter was named Linh, (not his real name) a smiling and chatty waiter who seemed easy going and of a playful mind. I asked if there were any gay bars in town. Without skipping a beat he cheerfully replied “no, but there is something at the central market. A place where they go to flirt; guys go to check out each other.” The place was in the area surrounding a particular tailor’s shop.
Linh was not able to elaborate as he was still on duty. I offered him my card hoping we could exchange e-mails regarding the little scene here. “Thank you, I will give your card to Mr Lhan (the tailor),” he said, which suggested Mr Lhan (not his real name) was a central figure in the tiny ‘community’ of gay Vietnam men who wandered in the vicinity of his shop with some regularity.
As often is the case, I don’t expect I will hear from the tailor. Like most Vietnamese men with a secret to protect he is not about to risk his reputation or the carefully choreographed dance of delight—meager as it is—that gives some small breath to the homoerotic needs of the men of Hoi An.
Hue and the Cyclo Boys(Note: regarding the following episode in Hue, GlobalGayz received two messages in October 2008 protesting that the two young men described here are in fact not gay and that one of them is married with a child. One protester, a friend of theirs, said “keep in mind that homosexuality is a taboo in Vietnam. But ask any Vietnamese if he’s homosexual, he’ll say yes, just for fun.” The second message sender was the owner of the Brown Eye disco who wrote: “we are not a gay bar and honestly my opinion that whoever come to my place as customers we dont care who are they coz it is not our business.”
As for the two guys being gay, Brown Eye said: “I have see them many times and they are not gay either or homosexual and how much English they can speak I think not much, when you thought they can coz they didnt even know how to write Vietnamese… so what you know about this people to write on your page I think it is not truly at all.” In consideration of these comments GlobalGayz has removed their photo and we are willing to leave the guys’ sexuality as uncertain. Otherwise, the evening’s activity described here is accurate.)
One night we serendipitously discovered the thin slice of gay life in Hue, the ancient capital on the Perfume River. As we emerged from our hotel we were approached by a couple of cyclo (bicycle pedicab) drivers touting their services with the usual ‘Hello mister, where you go?’ When we didn’t respond they tried the usual second line of approach, ‘You like lady?’ To which I impulsively responded “No, boy.” Not skipping a beat, the younger, cuter and more assertive of the two shot back “Ok, you like boy? Ok, no problem.”
“Where is a boy bar,” I asked.
“Not far to here. We take you. Your friend go too?”
“Yes. How much for cyclo ride?”
“What you like. We go.”
So we climbed into the wobbly seats attached to the front of their bicycles (one each) and sat down as they shuddered under our western frames; these rickety bicycle rickshaws are clearly made for Asian asses in strength and size. But off we went into into the swirl of other cyclos, motorbikes, bicycles, a few trucks, buses and cars (taxis are few). But we quickly turned down a street with little traffic and fewer lights. It was much quieter so we could talk to our peddlers and the guy banter started.
“You like boy?,” my driver asked.
“Yes, do you?,” I replied.
“You like me?”
“You like my friend?”
“Yes, he is nice. You like him?”
“Yes, are you gay?”
“Yes, you like?”
I wasn’t sure if he was truthful or just pimping himself for a few dollars. So I pressed him.
“You have boyfriend?”
“Yes, him,” pointing to the other driver as we bumped along the roads passing some elegant but worn colonial mansions (the French colonized Vietnam for a hundred years until 1954) and numerous mom-and-pop shops selling low tech services and goods: bicycle repair, food, hair cutting, coffins, cosmetics and the ubiquitous new deal in town–Internet shops where video games are very popular.
“So you are gay,” I questioned.
“Yes,” he said spiritedly.
“This is your boyfriend?,” I said pointing to the other driver.
“Yes. My boyfriend. You gay?”
In Vietnam we found it often necessary to say things two or three times when conversing in English before local folks seem to understand. Otherwise, they ascent to anything but not understand what’s being said, which of course leads to confusion for both speakers.
I replied, “Yes. This is my boyfriend,” pointing to Michael in the other cyclo who was trying to figure out whether there was enough moisture in the air to open his umbrella. November and December are the rainy season in Vietnam, especially in the central and northern areas.
The driver seemed taken aback slightly but laughed and smiled. “You like him? You boyfriend?”
“Yes, boyfriend for a long time.”
“He my boyfriend,” said driver one pointing to the other.
Driver one was named Long and his boyfriend Tu.
So with a single stroke of luck I had found two gay guys in Hue–soI thought at the time.
“What is the name of the gay bar?”
“Brown Eye, not far from here. We go.”
A couple of more turns down some streets lined with still more dimly lit street shops and street kitchens and we pulled up in front of Sao Dem Bar, (25 Hai Ba Trung Street) a disco with neon signs on three sides of the entrance. One sign showed a guy and a girl dancing with the words disco and dancing splashed around them.
By this time Long and Tu had made it obvious they were available to us if we wished. But that conversation had to wait until we checked out this ‘gay‘ bar.
In we went, very welcomed by two or three eager staff with happy smiles opening the double doors. Immediately we were hit with a tsunami of enormous sound from the cavernous place. The thunderous loudness of the sound system blasted out pop/disco dance music. It was impossible to talk and almost hard to breathe.
Yet the place had a few dozen customers who withstood the aural onslaught while they danced or sat at tables watching and drinking. The strobe lights made it difficult to see clearly who was here. There were men and women but I wasn’t sure if the women were sitting with women or men with men. It was too distracting and nerve-wracking to stay for long, so I can only say the place was mixed and it felt like an easy place for same-sex dancing and oogling.
We tried to be polite for leaving so abruptly but we happily greeted our charioteers who cheerfully awaited us. “You no like?”, Long said.
“Too loud,” I replied as we thankfully climbed into our shaky and resilient seats again.
Long and Ti had said there was a lady-boy karaoke bar a few blocks away and asked if we wanted to go.
“Sure,” I said. And off we went again into the city and night.
The karaoke bar was a bust as it consisted of three plain rooms with white walls, no decoration or ambience and lit with the ubiquitous fluorescent strip light. Each had an imitation black leather sofa, a TV monitor for reading lyrics and a microphone. No one was there except staff members who were very encouraging that we try their facilities. I notice the doors had no windows so I was left imaging that perhaps singing was not the only sound emanating behind closed doors. The place was not at all inviting so we again left shortly after we arrived.
Back on the street our escorts were hardly surprised at our quick turnaround, merely shrugging their shoulders when we said the place was not good and no one was there.
A further detail about this trip to gay Vietnam in Hue was that we had been tailed by two guys on a motorbike almost from the time we climbed into our cyclos. The driver was rather scruffy and unappealing while behind him sat a small wispy kid surely no older than mid-teens, but it’s hard to tell since many Asians under thirty look younger than they are (while the over 35’s don’t age well since many smoke and have poor oral hygiene). Evidently the driver was trying to pimp his seat mate to us although he never spoke to us. But one of our drivers said he was a ”very bad man” and did his best to ignore him.
Shortly after, we cycled back to our hotel and sat out front talking for a while. Our guys had little else to do and seemed content to answer my questions about their lives. Even at midnight, the streets of any major Vietnamese city are alive with activity. Street kitchens still steam with the smells of meat and vegetables and deep-fried somethings.
Hawkers still offer their post cards or whisper “want lady” when they see western guys. As well, tourists wander in and out of Internet shops, restaurants, convenience stores, tour offices, cafes…
So we were not alone in the light that emanated from our hotel and illuminated this young gay couple who cheerfully answered questions about their families, occupations, history and sex lives (“at least once a day!”).
They lived together on a tourist ‘dragon’ boat, one of dozens docked along the Perfume River front promenade, each with similarly painted dragon heads on the bows.
(The most popular tourist venues were the several enormous and elaborate tombs of the 18th, 19th and 20th century emperors of Vietnam, buried in great splendor—and built by countless penniless slaves. To assure the secrecy of some actual burial site (containing valuables for use in the afterlife) some emperors were in fact not entombed at the ceremonial site but a distance away followed, in one case, by the beheading of the servants who performed the secret burial.)
The lives of foreign tourists were far removed from the day-to-day lives of Long and Ti who were essentially homeless like many city peasants. But they were resourceful and managed by sharing food, tips and shelter. Although they had numerous friends none of them knew they were a gay couple. Virtually no one knew–and for good reason. Long said that if his family knew about him he would be put out of the family.
Homosexuality in Vietnam is considered a cross between a mystery, a curse and a disease that doesn’t happen to normal people. Tu also agreed that he would never tell his family for the same reason. Within that secret framework they were free to hang around—and on—each other as much as they like since good same-sex friends do just that. They touch each other, hold hands, sleep together, eat together, work together. Within the secrecy of silence, Tu and Long visit each other’s parents and sleep in the same room with no suspicious or scornful looks from mom and dad.
It’s easy to generalize, as some do, that lower class Vietnamese are more tolerant and laid back about homosexual family members because there is little status to protect. But Ti and Long contradict that simple assumption. Poor people clearly have their personal pride. A family confers legitimacy and acceptance in the social order, rich or poor, especially in a socialist state (even as it careens toward serious capitalism).
Tu and Long have been a couple for three years. They met as cyclo drivers near the riverside after noticing each other for a while and wondering about the other. A mutual friend helped with the connection by letting them know the other was interested. Tu is the more silent one. He listens while Long happily chatters with strangers, tourists and friends, occasionally adding a correction or thought of his own. Both look younger than their age—Long is 20 while Tu is 26.—with the usual thick crop of shiny black hair, silky amber skin and ebony eyes.
I asked Long if his mother expects him to get married. ‘Yes, of course’. But he doesn’t worry about he future much. For now he is able to offer excuses such as not having enough money or no girls are interested in him. As long as he doesn’t live with his parents he will probably resist marriage, unlike 90% of gay men and women in Vietnam (according to Guy in Saigon).
Not marrying, for most twenty-somethings, brings dishonor to one’s family and deprives parents of grandchildren. For most Vietnamese producing children (two are recommended) fulfills one’s duty to the state and family. It is the ‘highest’ achievement since there is so little material wealth available to show off one’s legitimacy and status. Children are the trophies of the poor.
In socialist Vietnam education is not free. School fees can range from US$20 a year (for the younger years) to US$50 for secondary schooling. Because Long’s family is poor he did not go to school. He can write English a bit but he really has no language skills other than speaking his native tongue. Tu had some early schooling but had to quit to go to work to help support his family when he was about 13.
The lack of professional skills or educational ability assures this young gay couple a predictable life, living hand to mouth, day to day on their bikes and boats, on the periphery of social acceptance. Their love will always be hidden and their lives will always be peripheral. They will fend for each other and keep their precious secret forever hidden.
News report from Agence France Presse as printed in the Taipei Times.
Gay Vietnam Seeks an Identity
Although relatively free from discrimination, some Vietnamese gays feel their existence is ignored rather than accepted (AFP)
With his pink lipstick, eye makeup and black nail varnish, Ti prefers not to shake hands and instead raises his arm into the classic, clichéd limp-wristed position. “I knew I was gay from the age of five or six,” said the 27-year-old, sitting in a coffee shop in Vietnam”s southern business capital of Ho Chi Minh City.
“I started wearing girls” clothes at first, and then when I was about 14 I started wearing makeup.” Ti stands out everywhere he goes in the city, whether he is with other gay men or not. “I don”t care what people think. I don”t feel discriminated against anyway. I”ve never been attacked or verbally abused,” he said. While cross-dressers are few and far between in the bustling metropolis, homosexuals are not. Two years ago, Chung A, the head of the country”s anti-AIDS, prostitution and drugs committee, declared that the number of gays in Vietnam could be counted on the fingers of his two hands. By March this year, Chung had changed his tune.
“The number of LGBT citizens in gay Vietnam has increased a lot and the issue of AIDS prevention in this group needs to be addressed,” he was quoted by the Lao Dong newspaper as saying. The dramatic increase in the number of openly gay men in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi has sparked considerable media interest, with most newspapers labeling homosexuals as being either ill or victims of a current trend. In the women”s magazine The Gioi Phu Nu, a married man wrote in to an agony-aunt column in May to express his distress at having fallen in love with a young man. The response was less than sympathetic.
“It’s fortunate you and the young man are conscious of your “horrific love affair” and that you want to find a way out,” said the magazine”s advice columnist. “I suggest you find a doctor who specializes in this field, be brave, admit your sickness and get cured.”
The family magazine Tiep Thi Va Gia Dinh also did not mince words on the topic of homosexuality. “Loving people of the same sex is deviant behavior that is incompatible with the good morals and time-honored customs of Vietnam,” it asserted in a March issue.
But Le Hoang, the popular director of the controversial sex and drugs movie Bar Girls, struck a softer tone when he answered questions about homosexuality on a Vietnamese Web site in May. In response to a man who said he could tolerate neither the genuinely “ill” gays nor the fashion victims, Hoang said: “Why? Are you gay yourself? Gays are ill, but there is no law saying ill people should be punished.”
“Qualities such as morality, talent and dignity do not depend on sexuality. In Denmark, gays can marry. Well, Vietnam may not be Denmark, but we”re not back in the Roman times either.” Outward discrimination of the kind sometimes found in Western countries is rare in Vietnam, possibly because gay Vietnam does not yet exist as a firm concept here and also because a large degree of same-sex tactility is accepted as normal in Southeast Asian cultures.
“LGBT identity is not well established in gay Vietnam. A man could have sex with another man and not consider himself gay,” said Donn Colby, a Fulbright Research Scholar who conducted a survey entitled Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) in Ho Chi Minh City in 2001. “Because of this the number of men who experiment with sex with other men is probably higher here than in the West.”
(Full text of Colby”s report: http://depts.washington.edu/hsedp/profile/pdfs/colby1.pdf) (Highlights of text can be read at: Click Here #6)
Those who do identify themselves as gay are careful about how, and to whom, they reveal their sexuality. Tam, a 24-year-old graphic design artist, has never told his parents, fellow students or work colleagues that he is gay. “If you don”t officially announce it, then people are obliged to treat you equally,” said the slightly-built amateur DJ.
There are no laws or regulations on homosexuality or homosexuals in Vietnam, and no mention of gays as a risk group for HIV and AIDS. Donn Colby believes the omission of homosexuals from public HIV prevention messages has encouraged MSM to underestimate their vulnerability to infection. The misconception is worrying, given that Colby”s survey of 219 MSM concluded that members of this group have multiple sexual partners, do not use condoms regularly and are at high risk of contracting HIV.
“But things are changing slowly,” said Colby. “A programme (funded by the Ford Foundation) on men”s sexual health in Nha Trang includes MSM.” Male prostitution and public sex venues are widespread in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Zoos, parks, lakes, swimming pools and saunas have all been identified by state-run media as venues for sex between men. But while police find it hard to take action against gay activity in public places, they move decisively on male brothels.
One of Ho Chi Minh City”s few male brothels was closed down last year and its owner slapped with a 10-year prison sentence. The mainstream gay scene in the southern metropolis is also facing hard times, with its only gay club shuttered, ostensibly for refurbishment.
Minh, a 24 year-old architect with a French boyfriend, expressed his frustration at the gay community”s lack of clear identity. “I just think we should think more about us as a group. We should let people know that we exist,” he said. “Coming out is not enough. Gay Vietnam needs a voice.”