00. Sex in Vietnam during 1985-1990 (Revisited)
NOV. 24, 2022
In this out-of-office episode Ryan revisits the topic of Sex in Vietnam in the late eighties. Unravel the economic transformation that caused sexual upheaval in society, learn how the government helped Vietnamese lovers canoodle in the park, and discover the face-based immigration system applied to the children of GIs in America.
The ‘Socialist Republic of Vietnam’ is a South East Asian country on the South China Sea bordering China to the North and Laos and Cambodia to the West.
It has a 2,140-mile-long coastline, with 5,800 islands and 80% of the country is dense tropical forest or mountains.
Located in the tropics, Vietnam has a monsoon-influenced tropical climate, so it’s warm, wet and humid, with a population of around 96 million people sweating it out.
It seems to suit them, Vietnam is ranked the 5th happiest nation in the world, despite having one of the world’s lowest employment rates, and one of the world’s lowest wages.
The country is noted for cashew nuts, black pepper, coffee and rice as exports. The main religion in the country is Buddhism is the religion, and the Lotus is the national flower
The first president of Vietnam, Hô Chi Minh, died 40 years ago, but still travels 8000 miles a year. His body is on display at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, but travels to Moscow every year for maintenance - despite his wish to be cremated.
Vietnam is also home to the largest known cave in the world, Son Doong is approximately 5.5 miles long, 650ft wide, and 500ft tall and it’s spacious enough to fly a Boeing 747 through. Not that you’d want to.
Parts of the roof have collapsed, and now trees, plants, and wildlife have made the cave their home and you can even find clouds in this capacious cave.
When in Vietnam, try not to give anyone a banana, as this symbolises failure (so you have to sell the banana, not that you can never have a banana. And to wash it down, you can get snake wine - a traditional drink, made from rice wine, herbs and, er, snakes. As with any wine, let alone snake wine, it should not be drunk to excess.
Despite the allure of the serpentine treat, beer is actually the most popular drink - the most popular brand being... Saigon Beer.
History of Vietnam
It all starts, as it always does, with early man, leaving bits of himself around for archaeologists to discover.
However, by 2879 BCE, various tribes in the area united and formed the Hồng Bàng dynasty. This survived for an impressive 2500 years, during which time irrigation was introduced, rice was cultivated, and bronze metal became popular.
Then, around 700 BCE, an influx of Chinese people arrived and 400 years later in 300BCE, Buddhism arrived too.
The Hong Bang Dynasty ended in 157 BCE and it’s replacement, the Thuc Dynasty started. But that was a mere blip in history, lasting only 40 years, because the neighbouring Chinese started to take an interest in the area.
In 111 BCE, China’s Han Dynasty absorbed Vietnam into their empire and the Chinese dominated Vietnam for the next 600 years or so.
In 544 a successful revolt against the Chinese resulted in Ly Nam De becoming the first Vietnamese emperor, and he managed to hang on for 60 years before the Chinese conquered Vietnam again, this time staying in charge for 400 years when in 938CE, another rebellion kicked the Chinese out once again.
A succession of Vietnamese dynasties then ruled over the next 400 years, each successfully fending off various attacks by invaders who came in both Chinese and Mongol flavour.
The year 1516 saw the first contact with Europeans… those plucky Portuguese were once again first to arrive by sea, followed swiftly by the other Europeans.
300 years later, in 1802, the Nguyen Dynasty took control of the country and Vietnam formally becomes known as Vietnam. This coincided with becoming the last ruling family of Vietnam, because fifty years later in 1858, under the direction of Napoleon III, France attacked and took Vietnam as a French colony.
The French promised to improve medical care, education, and transport and then didn’t do any of those things, but they did succeed in creating a hierarchy of wealthy landlords and poverty-stricken peasants. Nice.
Perhaps inevitably, a national resistance movement formed and in the early 20th century, mass demonstrations took place. The French stamped down on this, and by 1925 the protests had gone silent. Except for one man - Nguyen Ai Quoc, otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh – who formed the Communist Party of Vietnam, and staged another peasant uprising.
This uprising was bloody, and many officials and wealthy landlords were killed and it was eventually suppressed by the French, just in time for World War II to begin and Japan to invade Vietnam - wrestling control from the French anyway.
At the end of the war, France occupied just the southern part of Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh sees this as an opportunity to seize control of Northern Vietnam and declare independence.
So the north and south went to war.
Terrified that Minh might win and spread Communism across the country, the United States joined the fight, lending their support to the French
Peace negotiations fell apart, and North Vietnam gained the upper-hand through a formidable guerrilla campaign, shaking France who, in May 1954 agreed to negotiate a peace which sees the country remain in two parts, with a Communist North and a Capitalist South.
It was a short lived peace, lasting just four years. In 1959 Ho Chi Minh attacked the south again.
In 1965, U.S. troops arrive to support the South in the war against the North and communism, and so the Vietnam war started.
During this conflict, the US conducted three years of intensive bombing in the North, but the Viet Cong held out until finally the United States makes the political decision to withdraw and leave.
The North and South continued to battle each other until finally in 1975, Southern Vietnam surrendered. The North had won, the country unified, and the Southern city of Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The war had lasted 15 years and resulted in the deaths of around 4 million people.
300,000 southern collaborators were rounded up and sent to ‘re-education camps’ which were less education-focussed than the name suggests.
Having failed in their mission to prevent the spread of communism, the United States levied a trade embargo on Vietnam – cutting it off, economically, from much of the world, and Vietnam quickly became one of the world's poorest countries.
To deal with this, the Vietnamese government set out a ‘Five-Year Plan’ for growth which involved the nationalisation of all businesses - Rice production, agriculture and factories all becoming state-owned.
Cash was replaced by food stamps and vouchers and farmers and fishermen were forced to sell their goods to the government at low prices.
This resulted in a devastated economy, causing 2.5 million people to flee the country, at great risk, with many suffering terribly and even dying in the effort.
At this point, Vietnam appeared a weak nation, and this gave the neighbouring Cambodian government (under Pol Pot’s ‘Khmer Rouge’) the opportunity to make a land grab.
In 1978, the Cambodian army raided several Vietnamese villages on their border. But despite appearances, Vietnam was well positioned to defend itself, as it still boasted the 4th largest army in the world.
So, in response to the attacks, they invaded Cambodia and removed their government from power. This in turn upset the Chinese government, who began their own incursions into Vietnam.
This meant conflict on two fronts for Vietnam, which they simply could not afford. So, they asked the Soviet Union to help – and they did, to the tune of ~$3bn. But even this wasn’t enough.
Overall, unifying the north and south into a socialist economy was deemed too difficult, and by 1982 it was decided that the current government had "utterly failed to improve the people's living standards, check corruption, or instil a more flexible, non-dogmatic outlook on life". But other than that, it was doing great.
Changes were needed, so the communist party was purged, and a new government formed. They withdrew from Cambodia, slashed spending, and began a new capitalist approach that allowed Vietnamese citizens to once again open and own private businesses.
In 1992, a new constitution allowed for even more economic freedoms, an act which drew the attention of the United States who lifted their trade embargo and restored diplomatic relations.
Today, nearly 50 years since the end of the Vietnam War, and more than a quarter century since the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, Vietnam is a rising power. What was once one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries is now a middle-income country with a dynamic, young population and a promising future, predicted by many financial analysts to become one of the largest economies in the 21st century.
Which is quite the turnaround.
Sex – what is it exactly?
Today, sex doesn’t just mean intercourse. In fact, it can mean different things to different people. There is a spectrum of people with a diversity of gender identities and sexual orientations, kinks and urges, mean that the word ‘sex’ now carries a broader meaning than perhaps it used to.
In fact, it can be described as ‘a consensual act involving genital contact between one or more people for the purposes of pleasure’
But the word sex is also used to describe the categorisation of living beings, traditionally as male or female. But, much in the same way that the traditional view of sexual experiences has been challenged, this binary categorisation of male or female has changed. Chromosomal markers which once helped identify sex are not always clear-cut, and physically, some babies are born with genitalia that cannot easily be categorised as one or the other.
And it gets more complicated because sex is different to gender, which is a term that describes how a person identifies – rather than the sex with which they were born.
Culturally and historically though, the Vietnamese have tended to lean into a more traditional view of sex, so much of this episode reflects a binary view of the sexes as male and female, with sexual activity relegated to matters between a husband and wife.
Old Vietnamese coins used to picture couples making love - they believed that the prosperity of the nation was tied to the happiness of its people, and sex made people happy.
According to recent surveys, Vietnamese women have an average bra cup size of A and Vietnamese men have an average erect penis length of 5.7 inches.
In Vietnam there is a growing fashion for Vietnamese men to undergo surgery on their - having small metal balls inserted under the skin - usually two or three, but sometimes up to ten, with the intention of creating additional pleasure for women.
The Vietnamese like to use flowery, euphemistic vocabulary when they speak about sex because it helps them feel less embarrassed, so…
o a man having sexual desires might say, "I am going to buy a tree"
o a ‘white rice flour cake’ means a virgin
o ‘the pulpy interior of a breadfruit with sticky juice’ refers to a vagina
o ‘scooping water in a rice field’ and ‘sucking a honey flambéed banana’ both refer to sex acts
The most preferred position for sexual intercourse among traditional Vietnamese partners is lying face-to-face or side-by-side, because a lot of Vietnamese beds are made using bamboo slates that might cause lovers to scrape the skin off their knees when using other positions.
The women of Ha Dong are such fierce wives that they are known as the "Ha Dong Lionesses" and their husbands said to belong to an ancient club called “the Society of Men Who Fear Their Wives"
Historic Sex in Vietnam during 1985-1990
By the mid-1980s, Vietnam was in trouble. The old Soviet model for development had not worked and international sanctions were restricting the ability to generate any meaningful income. Relationships with the Chinese was tense, keeping troops in Cambodia was costly and financial assistance from the Soviets was drying up.
Clearly something had to change. So it did. Doi Moi was a policy which focused on the removal of barriers to progress, meaning reducing the amount being paid in subsidies to state-owned enterprises, liberalising the domestic market by allowing companies to be private businesses and, encouraging foreign investment.
And it seemed to work.
From a country that was close to poverty in 1980, by the end of the decade they had a booming economy. Foreign companies like Nike, FedEx, and Coca-Cola had set up shop and they had become a major exporter of rice.
As a result, financial growth was rocketing, but few social changes come without some cost or side effects. And one of these was the development of changes to the idea of traditional marriage
Vietnam had always been an intensely family-oriented society, especially in the countryside where three generations would often live under one roof.
For females, their role was clearly defined as being about marriage and children. Finding a partner was relatively simple, especially in remote and small villages where options were limited and easily organised – in remote areas villages might often co-ordinate ‘love markets’, where young local single people would come together and try to find a partner.
Overall, girls were expected to remain virgins until marriage, which would happen quickly after a brief courtship,a nd newly wedded wives were then expected to have children.
In short, the woman’s role in society was as a mother, first and foremost.
But when the communist regime took power, they shifted away from the traditional view of women as being mothers and wives with policies that focused on greater equality between men and women.
Their first constitution in 1949 stated that, "women are equal to men in all respects", and that "State and society shall see to the heightening of women's level in all spheres political, cultural, scientific, technical and professional.
When, in 1959, a Marriage and Family Law was drafted which overhauled the marriage system entirely, women suddenly found themselves protected from being considered lower status than men.
Ho Chi Minh, called the Marriage and Family Law "an integral part of the socialist revolution” – saying, “This law aims at the emancipation of women. It is necessary to liberate women."
A Women's Union was formed, which advocated for women's rights and suddenly, women were receiving ‘equal pay for equal work’ and the availability of maternity leave.
This, perhaps unsurprisingly, impacted the allure of marriage. By 1962, the total number of marriages fell by 20 percent. Women were going to work, which they did in great numbers, forming a considerable part of the agricultural and industrial labour forces.
And these numbers grew even more during the war against the Americans, when men were conscripted into the military.
In fact, by 1967 women represented at least 35% of all jobs, including education, medicine - and politics.
It wasn’t all rosy for women. Men continued to retain leadership roles, with fewer than 10% of villages having a female president, director, or doctor, but it was progress.
However, when the war ended, things started to change. Men returned home in huge numbers and there were no jobs.
To cater to this, the government reversed in policy and the number of employed women dropped and social pressures slowly reverted back to the way they had been.
This only got worse, when, in the 1980s. Under Doi Moi, the country’s new government implemented policies which put the household at the centre of a plan to help drive the economy.
In particular, two policies were introduced in 1986:
(1) the Marriage and Family law, in which they said that a woman’s identity must be tied to being a mother, and
(2) the Happy Family campaign, a policy that linked efforts to modernize the nation with “happy, wealthy, harmonious, and stable families.”
Put simply, the government wanted their people to make lots of babies. Women no longer had a choice – they had to find a partner, or else face being ostracised.
To help the women in the cities achieve this, the government made efforts to help out. In particular, they encouraged the use of public parks as venues for socialising.
In Hanoi, one tree-lined boulevard called Thanh Nien (Young People) became a famous “lover’s lane” with couples meeting at night to kiss and cuddle. Young people would arrive at night and sit on their motorbikes with their backs to the road cuddling and kissing. Others would sit under trees, while others would hire swan-shaped paddle boats to get some alone time together out on the water.
The government literally turned a blind eye, turning off streetlights at 8pm and not turning them on again until midnight.
And it worked.
Between 1985-1990 – there was a surge in pregnancies with 2,000,000 babies born - a 2% rise in population every year.
But again, big social changes bring unexpected consequences. With women averaging 4 babies each, the government saw another problem - population numbers were getting out of control and the economy was unable to support that growth.
So they created a new directive which called for a maximum of "one or two children" per couple.
And guess what? More unexpected consequences.
After the war, there were about ninety young adult males to every one hundred females, a dangerously unbalanced ratio for a society. There were more women than men, which created an imbalance in the marriage market. Women were being told to get married and have kids, but had less choice in available partners.
As a result, many were forced into marriages with undesirable partners, with little to no chance of getting remarried should they ever try and get divorced.
Men, on the other hand, had a surplus of women to pick from, a wide range of jobs available to them and a government telling them that they were the most respected sex.
So when it came to having a baby, people wanted to have boys, rather than girls. But of course the one or two children law meant if you failed to have a boy on the first one or two attempts, that was it.
So naturally parents attempted to tweak the odds themselves. Books were published which described various chemical and dietary preparations which were thought to increase the likelihood of conceiving a male child. Newspapers advertised prenatal sex testing equipment and hospitals were flooded with pregnant couples looking for prenatal testing to help them determine the sex of the foetus - and of course abort any that were unwanted.
The mortality of infant females skyrocketed.
Nguyen Kieu Oanh
One woman who navigated this difficult time, and established herself with a legendary reputation is Nguyen Kieu Oanh. Born in 1969, Oanh took up swimming at the age of 5 and showed an incredible talent.
By aged 10, she had been spotted as a potential talent and asked to join the HCMC swim team. Two years later - aged 12 - she broke two National Championship youth records.
But just as her talent was blooming, her family decided to leave Vietnam for the United States. Oanh loved her home and wanted to pursue swimming, so she begged her family to stay. Fortunately, the family cancelled their plans to migrate - and she continued to swim.
By 1983, Un was 16 years old and recognised as the best swimmer in HCMC, and her phrase, "getting into the water is golden" became the swim team’s motto.
In 1985 at the age of 18, she entered into a relationship with Do Trong Thinh, the swimming coach who had trained her since she was 13 years old. There was a 14-year age difference between them, but Thinh said he felt his heart had "unusual beats" towards his student, and had been happy to keep that a secret until she turned 18
People didn’t approve of the relationship, they said that the age difference was too great; they criticized Tin for immorality in pursuing such a young girl. Even their two families publicly objected to the relationship.
But their love persisted, and they soon became known as the most beautiful couple in the swimming village.
At the first National Sports Congress in 1990, Un won 14 gold medals and set 5 national records. During 1980 - 1995, she broke the national swimming record more than 60 times and she represented Vietnam in two World Olympic Games: Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992).
At the National Sports Congress in 1990 she won 14 gold medals for the Ho Chi Minh City sports team and broke 5 national records, which was even harder than you might think.
"It's easy for you to imagine, due to the swimming distances of men and women arranged alternately, so that when I got to the finish line, I didn't have time to relax, but hurriedly ran back to the new starting point to prepare. At the last few distances, I was very tired, but I tried my best, so I still finished first"
She was so good that the sports industry amended the rules of their swimming competitions, limiting each athlete to a maximum of 3 individual events.
In her last tournament in 1995, Oanh won all 3 gold medals. Of course.
She retired after this, with a career boasting of 26 national championships - a feat unparalleled across any sport in Vietnam.
In 1997, she married Tin and had two sons. And in retirement, she coached the Ho Chi Minh City youth swimming team, became the deputy director for the Yet Kieu Aquatic Centre, and became a representative of the trade union.
Oh, and she gained a 1st in a doctoral program at the University of Sports and Physical Education of Ho Chi Minh City, studied English – and graduated with a bachelor's degree, represented HCMC as the lead athlete in a "Golden Generation" tour of Australia, which led to her joining a swimming coach training program after which she was awarded a degree as a swimming coach and received a master's degree in sport and physical education.
Then she studied politics and gained a PhD.
So, safe to say, she kept herself busy.
Let’s talk Condoms
In the eighties, overpopulation was a challenge throughout the region, including countries like China, Laos, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
To look at the problem, a global non-government organisation was created called the ‘Program for Introduction and Adaptation of Contraceptive Technology (PIACT)’, which had a mission of promoting local production of contraceptives in developing countries.
Margaret Morrow, the first full-time PIACT employee, took responsibility for this multi-country project and began negotiations with various governments, to assess the feasibility of setting up local factories to produce condoms.
The Vietnamese government agreed to the proposal, but stressed that any American influence would not be welcome. So, Mrs Morrow hired a young British citizen called Dr Michael Free to help her.
His first assignment was to travel to Vietnam and explore the feasibility of setting up a condom factory
In 1980, Michael travelled to Vietnam and recalled, “As I flew into Hanoi, I was struck by a few things, the city was surrounded by pockmarks, shell holes from the war, which contrasted with the fact that the city itself was not broken down. The city was dark at night, it was pitch dark, and the Chinese were messing around on the border, so there was some fear of them.
There were a few things that did not remain upright.. Ho Chi Minh bridge was still being used, but it leaned to one side and all traffic had to move to the other side while they tried to straighten it out.
The Vietnamese were very interesting and friendly people, not brooding over their losses after the war, they were getting on with life and change was happening almost in front of your eyes.
By the time they decided to go to a market-like economy, the culture had already adapted, changed, adjusted and was ready for a whole new era”
Michael met a ready-picked team set aside by the government, a young team of engineers that knew nothing about condom production, but understood manufacturing generally, making condoms is not rocket-science.
Together they met with rubber farmers in southern Vietnam and conducted a survey of the quality of local latex.
Dr Free was given a warm welcome by local business owners, and he came away impressed with their level of foresight and dedication.
Michael’s team travelled to India where they worked with the London Rubber Company, the company behind the ‘Durex’ brand, who had the technology and experience to design, produce and supply dipped-latex rubber condoms and over a period of three years they brought London Rubber Company technology to Ho Chi Minh City.
A factory was set up, the technology deployed, and condoms started to be mass produced.
The factory continued to make condoms for at least ten years or so.
In 2011, Dr Free was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of his achievements in improving global health and his dedication to increasing the availability of health technologies designed for resource-poor settings.
Nice work, Dr Free.
STDs or, what happens if you don’t use condoms
With condoms being manufactured in the country, in the late 1980s the Vietnamese government started an aggressive family planning promotion, enabling two channels for the distribution of condoms:
1. free condoms that were available through the public health sector
2. the sale of condoms through private pharmacies and roadside stalls.
People were keen to receive the free public health condoms, but they’d often have to travel a long distance to reach a medical centre, and when they got there, there would be no choice of type or brand. Oh, and there was a requirement to register their name before any were handed over.
Consequengly most people chose to go through the private sector, but even there quality varied, there were limited brands available to choose from, and they were expensive.
The net result of all this was that few condoms were actually being used.
Which had its own side effect, and a predictable one at that. In the late 1980s, the world was facing a threat of sexually transmitted disease through unprotected sex.
As former US President Donald Trump once said, avoiding an STD in the 1980s was 'dangerous and scary.. my personal Vietnam.. I feel like a great and very brave soldier'
What a hero.
And in Vietnam, unprotected sex was starting to put people at risk of contracting HIV - a condition which causes the immune system to shut down and prevent the body from fighting off infections and disease, ultimately leading to death.
The first reported case in Vietnam wasn’t actually recorded until 1990, but that was likely just the tip of the iceberg, because that first case was found just when testing started.
As testing became more commonplace, cases were being reported across all 61 provinces, with the number of infected rising every year – to a high of 230,000 in a single year.
Condoms might have helped stem the rise in HIV, but with only 45% of the population using them in 1988, the problem only got worse.
And one booming industry that didn’t help this problem was the sex industry.
By 1985, social transformation had given men the upper hand economically and socially. The awakening of capitalism in the country had started to put money in their pockets and by 1986 the overall standard of living had doubled.
Foreign investment in the country had brought consumer items such as VHS players and foreign films – things that had not been available on a large scale a decade before.
The male attitude towards life shifted – and nowhere more than in the bedroom.
While extramarital sex did happen prior to Doi Moi, it became much more frequent afterwards, especially with sex workers.
Not that sex work was unknown in Vietnam before this. prostitution has been a part of Vietnamese life for as long as there have been people living there. Statues dating back hundreds of years depict female prostitution.
Sex workers were also entertainers, with higher‑end prostitutes enjoying a reputation of prestige. The Tale of Kieu, written by Nguyen Du in the 19th century, tells the story of Thuy Kieu, a talented young woman who was forced into prostitution by her husband, who became highly sought-after for her singing, courtship and artistic talents.
During colonial years, the French laissez-fair attitude to sex work, meant that prostitution became more accepted, being made legal in 1888 when the Hanoi Municipal Council passed legislation with the intent of regulation.
Brothels called maisons de tolerance were built where sex workers would register, get medical examinations, and let "civilized" men enjoy life without the threat of syphilis.
The introduction of American servicemen during the Vietnam war also caused the sex industry to boom with the number of prostitutes rising from roughly 40,000 to 300,000.
This had an unexpected side-effect – liaisons between US soldiers and Vietnamese prostitutes resulted in the birth of approximately 50k mixed-race children known as Amerasians.
Considered outsiders in Vietnamese society, life was difficult for these children, as they were shunned by their community – becoming known as bui doi or 'dust of life'.
In 1975, the Americans coordinated an effort to relocate orphaned children and those of mixed parentage to the United States to find families who would take them in. Called ‘Operation Babylift’, this was a series of 30 planned flights aboard military aircraft.
The initial flight departed on April 4, 1975, but twelve minutes after takeoff, an explosion in the rear of the plane caused the loading door to open. This caused rapid decompression, and loss of controls to the rudder. The crew wrestled at the controls and prepared for an emergency landing.
176 people survived the crash, however 138 people were killed, including 78 children.
A decade later, in 1987, the United States congress drafted the Amerasian Homecoming Act which allowed for Vietnamese-Americans to obtain a U.S. visa based on appearance alone. The Act was implemented in 1989, and approximately 23,000 Amerasians became American citizens.
In terms of prostitution, post war, the communist government tried to close all the brothels and even sent 14,000 prostitutes to ‘re-education centres’ to complete sentences of up to 10 years hard labour. Again, it wasn’t really a study camp.
By 1985, they claimed that prostitution had been eradicated.
Poverty under the communist regime and family conflicts such as abuse at the hands of their husbands, resulted in women, especially those in rural areas, seeking to find work for themselves.
So, by 1985, there was an estimated 1,000 brothels and 40,000 prostitutes across Vietnam with women were having 40 or 50 sexual transactions every month.
Many of the prostitutes actually worked from bars, where home-brewed beer was sold for as little as $0.15. The men who visited the bars were known as Khach lang choi and would drink beer and negotiate sex with the serving girls.
New establishments started to pop up all over Vietnam, with entrepreneurs making businesses geared to providing private spaces for clients to eat, drink, and enjoy the services of sex workers.
In fact, sex didn’t even need to be sought out, it became common for sexual favours to be offered to men when getting a haircut, or checking into a hotel room, with young women knocking on the bedroom door and offering to keep men company.
So by the mid-eighties, the sex industry in Vietnam had grown to accommodate a demand and by the late 80s, at least half of the male population are estimated to have had extramarital sexual relations with sex workers.
A phrase became common: “Rice six days a week and pho (noodle soup) on the seventh” suggesting a weekly dalliance outside the home was normal.
Men’s desire to spend their disposable income on women outside the home grew and a new notion of masculine identity became tied to sexualized leisure.
Sex for pay started to demonstrate social mobility and social class and men’s ability to pay for food, drink, and prostitutes gave them a new sense of masculinity. Office mates would boast about their weekend exploits and bosses would take pride in having an affair with an attractive young secretary.
Groups of men started socializing with one another, eating, drinking, and spending time with “pretty girls”. Of course, not all men went out looking for sexual intercourse; but those who didn’t felt peer pressure from other men.
Meanwhile, the underlying criteria for the government’s ‘Happy Family’ policy was that the success of a marriage was in terms of reproduction and economic stability - not in couple satisfaction or where the husband was on a Friday night.
In fact, surveys show that the number one characteristic for a husband during this time was ‘economic stability’… Basically - if a man could provide for his family, he was fulfilling his moral obligations. ‘Being faithful’ wasn’t about sexual loyalty, it was about committing to financial responsibilities. So if their husbands remained financially faithful, women would accept their husband’s affairs.
Whatever gets you through the night.
The effects of Doi Moi in the late eighties on sex in Vietnam are huge. Decades after the promotion of the Happy Family campaign, the sex industry has changed the urban landscape and social dynamics.
Prostitution remains illegal today, with Article 115 of Vietnam’s Penal Code stating that any person who buys and sells women shall be sentenced to imprisonment from 5 to 20 years in prison but in reality, the penalties are not so severe. The usual fine is just 50,000 Dong (about $3).
Further, the government has issued a Three Reductions Campaign, which labels sex work as 1 of 3 evils in the country.
But if you tour downtown Hanoi today, you will see men of different ages and backgrounds still looking for sex workers. Ironically, a well-known place to find prostitutes is right across the street from the Hanoi Women’s Union.
And the growth of sex work in Vietnam since Moi Doi has seen a boom in sex tourism with international travellers coming to Vietnam looking for cheap and safe sex tours. Worse still, the misconception that children pose less danger of HIV, means an increased number of children entering prostitution.
In fact organised networks are paying poverty-stricken families to give up their children, and taking kids out of orphanages and onto the streets of cities in Vietnam, and abroad to brothels in Hong Kong, Macao, and Southeast Asia.
In Cambodia, for example, Vietnamese children make up one-third of the prostitutes.
The risk of HIV infection remains a major public health threat too. It is estimated that 100 people are infected with HIV daily and this shows no sign of slowing down.
Criminal practices such as reuse of condoms don’t help. In 2020, Vietnamese police seized more than 320,000 used condoms that were due to be resold. Stored in dozens of bags weighing up to 360kg (794lbs), the used condoms were found in a warehouse during a raid by police. The owner was arrested and confirmed that the condoms were due to be washed, reshaped with wooden dildos and then repackaged before being sold.
It’s not all bad news though.
The organisation that Dr Michael Free worked with in Vietnam during the eighties is still working on the condom supply chain.
Today known as PATH, they are still working with local rubber farmers and factories to develop condom supplies, but they’re also working with manufacturers, distributors, start-ups, entrepreneurs, online businesses, the mass media, and local communities to build a sustainable supply and demand for condoms for those most at risk of HIV/
Plus a number of charities like Alliance Anti-Trafic (AAT) are working to protect women and children in Vietnam and across Southeast Asia from sexual exploitation and trafficking.
So if you’d like to support their work, please visit allianceantitrafic.org and do what you can to make a difference.