Prostitution in Vietnam in Recent History: Continuities and Discontinuities

Prostitution in Vietnam in Recent History: Continuities and Discontinuities

Article by Hanh T. L. Nguyen

Abstract: This article explores the continuities and discontinuities of prostitution in the three most recent periods in Vietnam’s history: the French colonial era (1884-1954), the second Indochina war (1955-1975), and the Đổi Mới era (1986-now). The absence of a discussion of prostitution between 1975 and 1986, known as the socialist period when every economic activity was under the state’s strict control and surveillance, is due to the unavailability of any documentation about commercial sex during this time. 

Keywords: Vietnam, prostitution, French colonialism, American war, Đổi Mới era

Header image “Saigon 1960s – Bar girls” by Manhhai is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

1. Continuities

The main commonalities between these periods include the consistent stigma faced by prostitute women and the financial motivation to enter sex work. There is no doubt that the whore stigma is a continuous thread throughout all three periods. This stigma, in the Vietnamese context, came from Confucian principles about female chastity and the strict physical segregation of the sexes. During the French colonial era, this belief was reinforced by the influence of the Catholic emphasis on female purity and innocence. In contemporary Vietnam, the official socialist ideological beliefs of prostitution as a subordination of women and a social evil have perpetuated this stigma. 

Nevertheless, the “whore status” was much more visible under the colonial regime: prostitutes were to be distinguished from “respectable” women, or women from so-called respectable families. Under the colonial authorities’ heavy regulation of prostitution, brothels were marked out with red numbers at their doors to distinguish them from other houses (Vu, 1937; Tracol-Huynh, 2010). Thus, to the women seen in and out of red-numbered houses, no matter how discreet their activities were, the whore stigma was literally attached to their entrance. Prostitutes were also required to have regular sexual health examinations in dispensaries that were specialised for sex workers called nhà lục xì or dispensaire in French. If one had venereal disease, she would be detained there for at least six months or until she was “clean”, which doubtlessly furthered the stigmatization. During the American war, the discrimination against prostituted women was less “official” but no less obvious. They were looked down upon as not only prostitutes but the enemies’ prostitutes, which doubled the alienation. After the war, they were sent off to reeducation camps, and their mixed children were oftentimes persecuted (Koh, 2015; Duong, 2020). Today, it may require a more nuanced observation to distinguish between a sex worker and a woman of another occupation due to the much more open attitudes towards fashion and the blend of men and women in different social settings. Nevertheless, the stigma faced by prostitute women is still intense.

Another shared feature among these three periods is concerned with the main reason women enter prostitution. For women throughout all these three periods, the biggest motivation to start sex work has always been money. Vu (1937) reported on rural women selling sexual services in Hanoi to feed themselves. Job opportunities during the colonial era were extremely scanty for these women, especially when they were mostly illiterate and came from destitute peasant families. Between 1955 and 1975, prostitution was a byproduct of the American war. The United State’s devastation of rural livelihoods in areas under the control of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam using bombs and defoliants drove millions of people from the countryside to cities, especially Saigon, and areas around military bases. Ten million were refugees between 1965 and 1973, when the population of South Vietnam was only 17-18 million (Ngo, 2013; Tagliacozzo, 2008). Since the economy of the country was largely agricultural, the farmers that were forced off their land had to find new means of living, and prostitution became a major livelihood among women. According to Lewis (1972), these women “had no choice” and that they could “be blamed in no way for being prostitutes” (p. 4); it was the U.S. army that destroyed their villages and forced them into refuge and prostitution. Given the U.S.’s tactical destruction of South Vietnam’s rurality, it would not be baseless to say that a part of the Vietnamese population was coerced into prostitution by the U.S. military (Tagliacozzo, 2008). In contemporary Vietnam, studies have also identified the main reason for women’s entrance into sex work as better incomes (Luân, 2015). Specifically, a street sex worker, who typically earns less than venue sex workers, earns 50% more than an average urban worker (Lainez, Nguyễn, Lê, & Blanchard, 2020). In the higher niche markets, sex workers and mamasans earn more than a Master’s degree holder in a managerial position in Ho Chi Minh City (Hoang, 2015). Nevertheless, although they all seem to engage in prostitution for economic reasons, it appears that more prostitutes in the French and American times were coerced into sex work to feed themselves and their families due to extremely limited job opportunities and the loss of homes and livelihoods. Meanwhile, in today’s society, women may have more job options and choose prostitution to, at the very least, escape poverty (as opposed to feeding themselves), and have better material lives.

2. Discontinuities

Besides the commonalities, there are also disparities regarding prostitution from the French colonial era, the time of the American war, and the contemporary Đổi Mới society. The first difference is the increasing visibility of public opinions about prostitution today. While the literacy rate of adults aged 15 and above in Vietnam in the last decade has always been over 94% (Statista, 2021), it was only 5-20% throughout the colonial rule due to imperial France’s “keep the people stupid” policy (Chính sách ngu dân) to keep a docile Indochina under the colonial yoke (DeFrancis 1977, cited in Malarney, 2012). Today, the high level of literacy and the invention of the Internet have helped Vietnamese people to engage in online forums where they express their opinions about social issues, including prostitution. An array of online newspaper articles that analyzed prostitution and related issues in Vietnam have engaged readers in discussions that reveal opposing views on the matter of prostitution. While some consider prostitution morally corrupt and a cancel button for the family unit, others see it as inevitable and support the legalization of sex work to protect women and public health (see, for example, Thục Quyên, 2014; Khánh Hạ & Hà Phương, 2018; Sangnguyen, 2016; Long, 2012). A survey in 2014 on public opinions regarding prostitution revealed a surprising equilibrium between opinions for and those against prostitution and the legalization of sex work. Especially, young, male, urban adults seemed to perceive sex work as an occupation that should be recognized by society instead of being a “social evil” to be stigmatized and eradicated (Nguyễn, 2014). Public opinions like these were seldom heard in the previous periods; if some opinions were publicized on newspapers or television, they most likely were made by elites.

Also related to recent technological developments, sex work in contemporary society is drastically different in the way that it can be brokered and facilitated with the help of technology such as the cellphone and the Internet (Oldenburg et al., 2014; Luân, 2015). While sex work under the French regime and during the American war most likely had to be conducted in person, today, it can be done through the screen or the phone, such as webcamming. Apparently, sexual services have been expanded to adopt new forms that would have been impossible in the past.

The final discontinuity between these periods involves governmental policy and strategies about prostitution and the prostitute in each society. Different from the latter periods, prostitution under French colonialism was legal. It was regarded as a natural outlet for French and other European men’s sexual needs because men were seen as unable to remain chaste and male abstinence was considered impossible. To meet these men’s needs, there were “legion[s]” of prostitutes “everywhere” (Collomb, 1883, p. 28, cited in Tracol-Huynh, 2010). In 1914, 74% of French soldiers in Tonkin had venereal disease (Tracol-Huynh, 2010). Venereal disease and prostitution were indeed so rampant that the dispensaries that treated prostitute women with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in Hanoi were usually overworked (Vu, 1937). Thus, prostitution was heavily regulated to protect French and European soldiers’ and servicemen’s health. Under strict regulations, the freedom of prostitutes was highly restrained. Registered prostitutes had to present themselves for regular sexual health examinations and, if infected with an STI, were detained for months in a nhà lục xì/dispensaire until they were cured. In this way, infected prostitute women were treated not much different than prisoners. Unregistered prostitutes would be subjected to the same process if caught, and the vice squad (Cảnh sát xướng kỹ/Police des Moeurs) made regular arrests of unlicensed prostitutes (Vu, 1937). More importantly, once registered as a prostitute (cầm giấy, to hold the paper/license), a woman would not be able to legally remove her prostitute status due to a woman’s limited legal entitlement. She would need a man (husband or father) to annul her status as a prostitute (xé giấy, to tear off the paper/license).

Today and during the American war, there has been no paperwork that would require a man to “emancipate” a woman from prostitution; thus, theoretically, a woman could leave sex work at any time. They are also not detained in a dispensary specialized for sex workers as under the colonial regime. During the American war, although prostitution was considered illegal, the authorities turned a blind eye on and even encouraged prostitution since, as put by an unnamed South Vietnam minister: “[T]he Americans need girls. We need dollars. Why should we refrain from the exchange?” (cited in Tagliacozzo, 2008, p. 262). In the cities, prostitution was housed in bars and massage parlours; near military bases, there were sin-complexes and prostitutes who presented themselves in front of the bases’ gates (Tagliacozzo, 2008), who would later be permitted to enter these bases as “local national guests” (The New York Times, January 1972). At some point, the epicentre of Saigon’s red-light district, Tự Do street, was estimated to house 200 agencies for “recruiting” and 20,000 bars, hotels, and brothels offering “women for sale” (Tagliacozzo, 2008, p. 262). As the war raged on, the U.S. army became increasingly indulged with prostitution, which concerned authorities that this would corrupt the army, so much so that videos and films, such as Where the Girls Are — VD in Southeast Asia (1973), were made to educate soldiers about sexual health and venereal diseases (Sun, 2004).

From 1975 to 2012, prostitution was not only illegal but criminalized by the Vietnamese government. All acts related to prostitution, such as pimping, housing sex work, and selling or buying sex, were considered criminal offences by the law. However, the Law on Handling Administrative Violations in 2012 (Luật Xử Lý vi Phạm Hành Chính) decriminalized the selling and buying of sex. These activities since then have been treated as administrative violations. This means that sex workers and clients, if caught, are to pay fines but not jailed or convicted of any crime. Other activities such as pimping, procuring, housing prostitution and buying sexual services from underage persons are still considered criminal offences, and perpetrators could be imprisoned in addition to paying fines.

In the Vietnamese state’s official discourse, prostitution is condemned as a “social evil”, along with gambling, drug, superstition and so on. The condemnation of prostitution matches socialist ideology and socialist progressiveness regarding the liberation of women from male oppression and gender equality ideals. However, with the Đổi Mới marketisation of Vietnam’s original centrally-planned economy, also came the commercialization of sex and intimacy. Examining the practices of doing business in Vietnam in the era of economic liberalization, Nguyen-vo (2008, p. 23) contended that “the use of pleasure to facilitate business connections was the main engine fueling the widespread commodification of pleasure involving women’s bodies for men.” In fact, she termed Vietnam’s economy a “hooking economy” based on the heavy reliance on personal connections to do business, specifically the practice of catering to potential business partners by wining and dining them in commercial establishments where young and attractive girls provide services, ranging from serving food and drinks, entertaining (such as singing and dancing) to fondling and even sexual intercourse. As such, the “hooking economy” metaphor also draws on the economy’s heavy reliance on the facilitation by “hookers”, or sex workers. By listing endless, multi-scaled establishments that house prostitution, Nguyen-vo (2008) implied that prostitution is rampant in the Đổi Mới society, housed in “hugging beer bars”, “hugging karaoke bars”, “massage parlours”, “barbershops”, “hammock cafes”, “thatched-hut cafes”, “hugging lounge chairs on the beach”, “thousand-star hotels”, “hugging sea bathing”, luxurious hotels and so on.

Figure 1. “There is no prostitution in Viet Nam” by Michal Bielicki is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The “hooking economy” has also been reinforced by other developments of the global political economy. For example, the 2008 global financial crisis, which most heavily affected the U.S. and Western Europe, prompted people to move to Asia. Many people in these parts of the world lost their jobs overnight, among whom many came to Asia to find jobs in emerging and promising emerging markets such as Vietnam. Others came to do budget travelling while waiting for the economies in their home countries to improve. The Western men that came to Vietnam after 2008 created a particular niche market in Vietnam’s sex industry: that which caters to Western businessmen and backpackers (Hoang, 2011, 2014, 2015). Another development is the rise of Asian economies, such as Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, which have become Vietnam’s biggest investors for the last couple of decades (Statista, 2021). Many, if not most, of the business deals with the men from these Asian countries have been conducted in hostess bars and restaurants where hostesses facilitate the brokerage of these deals (Hoang, 2015). In the West, the practice of doing business in such an informal environment and with the involvement of entertaining women may be considered unethical and corrupt. To Asian businessmen, however, it is building trust and enjoying a good time in business handling (Hoang, 2015).

Besides, while remittances make up over six percent of Vietnam’s GDP (World Bank, 2020), making Vietnam one of the ten biggest remittances beneficiaries globally (Agribank, 2020), sex workers also have a part to contribute to attracting this kind of money. According to Hoang (2015), payment for sex work could be in the form of remittances from overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) and Western clients. In her ethnography, most hostesses received regular remittances from their Viet Kieu and Western clients/boyfriends.

Altogether, although labelled a “social evil” in the socialist state’s official discourse, prostitution ironically contributes massively to Vietnam’s thriving economy. Perhaps this is why, on an unofficial and pragmatic level, the government has not really been pushing the agenda of eradicating the prostitution problem. In fact, the handling of prostitution seems rather selective. For example, more sporadic crackdowns have been carried out on lower-end prostitution such as on street corners or small-scaled karaoke bars (Rushing, Watts & Rushing, 2005). Besides, ineffective and corrupt local authorities could easily be bribed to overlook businesses such as bars and restaurants during their sweeps (Koh, 2001).

It is also noticeable that campaigns against prostitution have been brought to the front during times of political pressures. For example, the 1995 original campaign was thought to have started as an attempt of the conservative fraction in the leadership to ward off deeper integration into the global economy by arguing that opening up the country had led to the spread of social evils in Vietnamese society, including prostitution (Elliott, 2012). Likewise, the campaign was heightened in the 2006-2007 period as a tribute to the then U.S. President George Bush who was an avid anti-trafficking politician and had recently signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in 2005. Conflating sex workers with trafficked victims, the government made efforts to shut down bars and pubs in the weeks preceding Bush’s visit to Vietnam in November 2006 (Hoang, 2015). It was also an effort on Vietnam’s part to gain America’s support for its succession into the World Trade Organization, which had been initiated for years and which eventually happened in January 2007. As such, other than suffering from the stigmatizing and debilitating effects of gestures like these and arbitrary raids, especially when big amounts of money and/or public figures are involved, the sex industry, despite its status as a social evil, is often, and I suppose strategically, overlooked.

Koh (2001) argued that the party-state did not act as one and that the inefficient and corrupt parts of the governing system, usually local authorities, failed to implement anti-social evils campaigns. As early as 2001 when Koh’s study was conducted, this observation might have been true. However, in today’s context, perhaps the popularity of sex work against the backdrop of the persistent anti-social evils policy is not so much a failure in policy implementation but a governmental strategy. More than three decades after the initial acts of reform in 1986, Vietnam has become deeply integrated into the global political economy. From being a reserved nation that was only opened to visitors from socialist countries, one of Vietnam’s biggest industries is now tourism, which invites tourists from all over the world regardless of their political affiliations. Besides, its biggest FDI investors are from Asian countries such as South Korea, China, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, whose businessmen are accustomed to informally doing business in bars rather than offices (Hoang, 2015). In such a context, the fact that the government is not pushing an agenda of eradication even though it still labels prostitution a social evil and still issues big programs to fight against it every five years perhaps should best be understood not as a failure but as a governmental strategy.

As a concluding note, although the colonial regime, the Republic and the Socialist Republic have handled prostitution and prostitute women differently, under all of these governments, prostitution has always had a functionalist characteristic: it is considered morally wrong, but necessary to various degrees and for various reasons. Women’s sexual labour has always been exploited, either implicitly or explicitly, to serve “the nation” and what it has prioritized. Perhaps it would not be an overstatement to say that over history, Vietnamese women have always been “pimped out” to foreign men in power, be they French and European colonizers, American imperialists, or Asian businessmen. It is interesting that what was said to describe the French colonial period a hundred years ago can also apply to contemporary Vietnam: “The same authorities that defined prostitution as a social evil organized it and financially benefitted from it” (Tracol-Huynh, 2010, p. s83).



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