Sex, Communism and Ho Chi Minh City

A brief guide to the Vietnamese sex industry.

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A version of this was previously published by SpliceToday.com.

HO CHI MINH CITY—Vietnam can’t compete with Thailand for tourism, but it’s working hard when it comes to the sex industry. Vietnam is an extraordinary place to visit, though sadly I was only there for a few days, and only in Ho Chi Minh City. It was formerly known as Saigon, when it was the capital of the corrupt and brutal South Vietnamese government backed by the United States.

The only real unpleasantness is getting into the country—though in fairness, Dulles Airport near D.C. is every bit as horrible. Dulles has always been terrible, with its idiotic shuttle bus between terminals, which is more like a people mover that the creators of The Jetsons would have imagined in the early 1960s. 

In Vietnam, the torpor problem at the airport can only be traced to the country’s hideous, Communist bureaucracy. I’d obtained a letter from a Vietnamese tourist company online from Jakarta the day before I left, which should’ve made the customs process smoother. It didn’t.

At a karaoke bar, in a private room. Photo by Ken Silverstein

I had to go to the “Visa on Arrival section,” like just about everyone else. I filled out a lengthy form that looked like it had been created in 1975 and handed it over to one of the few workers, all in military uniforms. I sat around about an hour before my name was called, then paid a cashier $25 and still had to go through an endless line at customs. About two-and-a-half hours after landing I was in a cab on my way to the city.

After that, my visit was wonderful, other than a minor but fortuitous hitch at my hotel. When I arrived, the woman at reception said they were going to have to move me across the street to a “more luxurious” sister property because of construction next door. It was nicer; “luxurious” it was not. But at $25 a night it was hard to complain.

Right after checking in a young man who worked in the lobby asked if I wanted a woman sent up to my room in a few hours. I had no intention of paying for sex during my trip—but asked how much it would cost. He said it would be about two million dongs, the local currency and worth a little less than $100, to have company for the night.

When I declined, he asked me how much I would pay, and I never found out how low the price might drop, but I’m wagering I could’ve chopped it in half. Incidentally, the hotel rules, posted very prominently by the elevator, stated that no prostitutes were allowed in the rooms.

Ho Chi Minh is a relaxed party town in the south, unlike Hanoi to the far north, the capital now and during the Vietnam War when the country was divided. Ho Chi Minh is a little bit bigger, with more than eight million people, while Hanoi has about 7.5 million.

The rulers in Hanoi don’t like the free spirit of Ho Chi Minh City, but they’re hard pressed to do much about it because the southern city brings in a lot of tourist revenue, and the sex industry is a growing part of the city’s tourist appeal. I wrote yesterday about the sex industry in Thailand, and Bangkok in particular.  

Thailand was a constitutional monarchy until 2014 but a repellent military junta called the National Council for Peace and Order has ruled since a coup that year. Vietnam has been ruled by Communists since the Viet Cong defeated the United States. Whatever your politics, one has to admire the resistance of the Vietnamese people against the United States and before that the French, who they defeated in 1954, when the country became independent. But over the years Vietnam has devolved into a Communist dictatorship and one-party state, with a very active Stasi-type internal security service. Vietnam has shown brave resistance to foreign interference, but its rulers are fundamentally corrupt, and are plundering the country in a grotesque fashion. They live lives of extraordinary wealth and leisure while most of the population lives in poverty. 

How have the differences between Thailand and Vietnam shaped the modern sex industries? The modern Vietnamese sex industry emerged, or at least was heavily impacted, after 1986, when the government established a policy called Doi Moi that transitioned the country from a socialist to a capitalist economy. Economic liberalization and more tourism inevitably helped the sex industry grow and flourish.

But the Vietnamese sex industry doesn’t just cater to tourists, and it’s a lot more complicated than one might think. And for the sex workers, it might not just be about money and for the customers; it might not just be about sex. 

Kimberly Kay Hoang, a brilliant academic now at the University of Chicago and the author of Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work, has done a great deal of field work about the Vietnamese sex industry. (Be sure to check out Perverse Humanitarianism and the Business of Rescue: What’s Wrong with NGOs and What’s Right about the “Johns”?)

In one 2011 academic paper about Vietnam she analyzed: 

A sex industry in a developing economy where not all women are poor or exploited and where white men do not always command the highest paying sector of sex work…in three racially and economically diverse sectors of Ho Chi Minh City’s global sex industry: a low-end sector that caters to poor local Vietnamese men, a mid-tier sector that caters to white backpackers, and a high-end sector that caters to overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) men…I argue that sex work is an intimate relationship best illustrated by the complex intermingling of money and intimacy. Interactions in the lowend sector involved a direct sex for money exchange, while sex workers and clients in the mid-tier and high-end sectors engaged in relational and intimate exchanges with each other.

In a 2010 story for the BBC, she noted that in June of that year, the U.S. State Department issued a report listing Vietnam as a Tier 2 country on their watch list for human trafficking. She wrote: 

Conservatives and liberals alike raise funds from around the world and build NGOs in attempts to save women from being trafficked across borders or forced into sex work. But many women willingly enter into sex work in Vietnam. Hostesses doubled as sex workers for many of the clients, and earned an average of $2,000 on tips per month and roughly $150-$200 for going overnight with a client. Very few women in HCMC viewed themselves as women forced into sex work. Many saw sex work as less exploitative than working as servers in restaurants, housemaids, or in textile factories. Van, a twenty-four year old sex worker, said to me, “The girls in the village who are scared or slow are the ones who end up getting stuck working in factories making 700,000 dong ($37) per month. The smart ones leave the factories and work in bars because they can make that much money in one hour and the customers treat you better than the bosses in the factories.”

I spoke to many sex workers and while I wouldn’t say they necessarily would, in a perfect world, want to date and marry a much older Westerner, many are open to the idea. Obviously part of it is money and a desire for a better life, and that means they can retire from sex work.

Another incentive, based on many conversations in spots where sex is available, is that local women have a very low opinion of Vietnamese men, who are not only often philanderers but also verbally and physically abusive. I didn’t speak to a single women who wanted a local boyfriend or husband. They preferred a Western man, who are seen as less prone to violence. Japanese men—many customers at sex industry spots come from Japan—were also viewed positively, but were a clear second choice.

In Thailand, sex is available everywhere. In Vietnam, it’s available but not as omnipresent. The epicenters are in District One, where a lot of tourists stay and where, sadly, you can hear Smooth Jazz; around the backpacker street of Pham Ngu Lao, which has a lot of street bars and cheap restaurants; and around Bui Vien Street, Pub Street, where expats gather.

My hotel was not in any of these locales, but just outside of District One and an easy walk or motorcycle ride to any of them. There was one Western-style food plaza near my hotel, but I avoided it and went to a street stand with amazing soup. Vietnam is famous for its roughly two dozen types of soups — and the same number of different spring rolls — and the one I had came in a large bowl with pork, noodles, vegetables and a few things I didn’t recognize. It costs the equivalent of about 85 cents.

There’s not a lot of street prostitution in Ho Chi Minh City; sex is more available indoors, at massage parlors, restaurants and bars. Some people joke that bars offer beer and football, which in Vietnam means soccer. The football refers to the waitresses’ boobs, which are easy to spot in their low-cut tops.

In a Japanese section of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Ken Silverstein

I was more interested in seeing one of the two Japanese areas of town, both for the food and to check out the sex scene. My friend told me about the area around Le Thanh Ton Street, a major street surrounded by small alleyways and sidestreets with a nice mix of sushi restaurants, whiskey, massage and karaoke bars. The sex workers are all local women—I asked one of them if there were any Japanese sex workers and she told me that of course there weren’t, wages are higher in Japan; Vietnamese women travel to Japan to work there.

I looked for a high-end Japanese restaurant where sex could be purchased along with the food. The sushi is served on a naked woman who serves as the table, with her most private areas strategically covered with lotus leaves. The woman fasts for a day before serving as the table, in order to be pure. I couldn’t find it and thing it had closed up.

But after a sushi and sashimi dinner elsewhere I went to a karaoke place, decorated beautifully with Japanese ceramic objects and paintings. I told the madam at the entrance that I wanted a karaoke room and she escorted me to a private room down the hall and told me to wait.

She soon returned with four women, all quite pretty. I picked two to go to the room, on the fifth floor, with me. It costs about $60 for the room, including a fruit plate and as much booze as we wanted to drink. The madam told me “all her girls spoke English and sang,” but that wasn’t true. Neither sang, though we listened to music, and only one spoke English, not perfectly and we filled in the gaps by using Google translate on our phones.

It was a lovely evening and I stayed for hours. The room was large and comfortable and we had a great conversation. One of the women, who was thin and had long hair, was heartbroken as she’d recently broken up with her Japanese boyfriend, who lived in the city. She kicked her foot and I thought she meant he’d been violent, but it turned out he’d kicked her aside for another woman.

We talked a lot about sex, but I never asked what it would cost to have sex with them. I’m not even sure that was an option, but I think it would’ve been, or surely with someone else from the karaoke bar. It was getting late and the woman I spent most of the time talking to suggested I go to a massage parlor. I asked her what it would cost and she said it depended on what I wanted; they offered a full range of services. I could get a massage first, then anything I wanted. 

I left soon afterwards and walked to a major street and there were many massage parlors and bars. Women in Western clothes and long Japanese robes stood in front trying to lure in customers. It was about midnight and the streets were packed. I asked about prices and it was very cheap for a massage and sex, with the price depending on what precise type of sex you wanted. But a massage and sex were well south of $100.

It’s worth pointing out that whatever you think of the morality of all this, wages in Vietnam are generally abysmal and sex work, as Hoang notes, pays more and conditions are generally better—not always, and some women are no doubt trafficked or coerced—than in apparel factories.

Those factories employ a lot of young women from the country’s interior—the same women who form the base of the sex industry labor force—and the shit pay is what drives women into sex work.

When I was in Vietnam I spoke to a number of young female workers who’d worked for a factory producing for major U.S. brands. One woman, the best paid I spoke to, made the equivalent of about $350 a month, which is not terrible in Vietnam. But she started out 10 years ago (the factory closed without notice and she’s unemployed) making about $45 a month and her base pay now was about $260. The extra $90 came from 33 hours of overtime and bonuses for good performance and attendance.

The factory didn’t have air conditioning, though it did have a water-based cooling system that provided some relief. But the factory often wouldn’t even turn on the cooling system because it caused a mold on the apparel so the factory owner preferred to make the workers suffer rather than damage its products and risk losing customers.

This makes condemning sex workers outrageous and something only the most closed-minded, moralizing prig would do. 

As to the customers, some of them are most definitely disgusting, but as Hoang points out, not all of them are horrible.

Moral of the story: sex is complicated.

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