“I have a question. Those women, down there at the bar, are they working?”
“You mean selling sexual relationships?”
“Do you look down on them?”
“Then yes, they are working.”
Vietnam is no Bangkok, but here sex sells. Women stand in alleyways seeking single foreign men, congregate at Saigon night clubs and bars in search of foreign currency, and know exactly what to say and how to say it to attract a second look.
The way those who have never been to Southeast Asia would tell it and like to believe, female prostitution is as abundant as rice in this part of the world. While this could not be further from the truth, paid sex, for those who want it and are willing to seek it out, is available any time, anywhere.
Tu Xuong, one of the most popular prostitution streets in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 3, was my home during my first ever stay in Vietnam four years ago. Nightly, women on mopeds would sweep the street looking for local Vietnamese men and foreigners alike with whom to do business.
Seeing the women, who are by slang called flower sellers, became so commonplace after a time that they blended into the scenery of the country. They were no more apparent to me then than street lights or corn sellers and remain no more noticeable now than moped drivers or other fellow travelers. Even with bar after bar lining the major tourist streets in downtown Saigon, I simply don’t notice Vietnamese prostitutes the way that first time visitors recognize them.
By nature, I am a cynic and a realist. Prostitution neither surprises me nor outrages me. I do not feel upset when propositioned for sex on a nightly basis in Vietnam, and, more importantly, do not judge the women who choose to take that risk with backpackers, sex tourists, and locals in this country. I do not pity every prostitute I meet or believe that every single woman who sells her body in Vietnam was forced into it, but at the same time feel a sense of sadness for those who have no other choice of work.
Despite the inordinate amount of pornography back home, Americans generally look down upon prostitution industries, especially those in Southeast Asia. Arguments take on the form of blaming perverted Western men for the Asian sex trade while concurrently pointing the finger at soulless Asian women who seemingly have no morals or self respect. Relationships between Western men and Vietnamese women are put under scrutiny ad nausea, and Western men, self included, have to fight to prove that not all of us come here for sex, or at least the paid kind.
On the contrary, local Vietnamese discuss prostitutes with me the same way that an American would speak about a single mother of three working a dead end job on a minimum wage. Locals show pity for sex workers, making it very clear that the women who do what they do have obligations to their families first and foremost, and deserve no condescension or condemnation from people in more priveledged positions.
Reasons for prostitution given by Vietnamese countrymen always go back to poverty being the source and they rarely take on a moralistic or self righteous tone. It’s not so surprising when one keeps in mind the Buddhist undercurrents that float under city streets in Vietnam.
Though sex isn’t discussed as openly in Vietnam as it is in America, I do a lot of thinking about prostitution in this part of the world and the many variants of prostitution that are available in the country’s more populous cities. Prostitution can mean going for a massage with a so-called happy ending, taking a night at a seedy hotel with a woman paid for and picked up at a club, or developing a transparent sexual, and monetary, relationship with a Vietnamese flower seller over the course of several months. Whatever the given form, I think about it quite often, and wonder if I am wrong for accepting things as they are in this country.
It’s difficult to explain why I have become so comfortable, or not surprised, at the sight of prostitutes in Vietnam. Part of me knows that paid sex is available in every single city, in every single nation in the world, and accepts Vietnam as being part of the status quo. Another part of me truly does buy the argument that some of the women who do what they do have no other choice. And at the same time a very small part of me holds on to the notion of free will, accepting Vietnamese prostitutes’ decisions as their own and ending any further speculation or judgements for all parties involved, tourists included.
That said, I do cringe at the site of very old men who jaunt down Saigon streets with barely legal Vietnamese teens, young boys included. There was an elderly white man staying at my hotel last month who had a young Vietnamese boyfriend. Surely the relationship was a monetary arrangement. The fact that it was a sexual relationship between two males didn’t bother me at all, but seeing such an old man being escorted to his room by a teenage boy sent chills down my spine. If there ever was a break in my logic of free will, the age of all parties involved would be the reason.
Ultimately, it’s difficult for me to get worked up over prostitution in Vietnam when there are so many other pressing matters that affect so many more people in the country—and that are so much more visible—like exploding inflation, disabled agent orange victims turned street beggars, and pollution. From dawn to dusk, prostitution seems invisible to the naked eye and it only really comes out in full force once the sun has gone down and the freaks have come out for the night. This metered exposure to prostitution, in contrast to the barrage of daily images related to povery in Vietnam, constantly falls into the cracks of Saigon streets and into the back of my mind.
I wonder if I am wrong for being so blase about the sex industry in Vietnam. Social training suggests that I should deeply care about the conditions of those involved, but my reality here doesn’t facilitate a great deal of concern for the small percentage of women and men who fuel Vietnam’s sex trade.