3 things I have realised about the sex industry in Ho Chi Minh City. Who are the sex-workers in Saigon? What does prostitution here look like? Why do people do exploit themselves? And do you think you could ever be driven to it?
This post began in my mind about a week ago when I was sitting in the local park with my boyfriend, eating a picnic.
Strange time and place, I know, and I think that’s why it has stuck with me until now.
You see, on that lovely day in that quiet park with that picnic…and next to that wonderful, beautiful man I call my boyfriend, a beautiful siren of Saigon reality brushed past and made me remember that I was, in fact, still on Earth.
I was not in some magical cloud-palace where sandwiches, free-time and dragon fruit float around in tandem with park benches… No. Not at all.
Actually, I swear I recognised her. That siren, that woman was tall and had the bossom of a goddess. She was just so damn familiar. Her chin was high, but her clothes slapped of the sort of mess that only happens when you stop caring about yourself. And as she approached I realised where I had seen her before – every night, waiting, at the bar beside my house.
Saigon, Vietnam’s “city-of-dreams”, is well-known among travellers as one of the most thriving sex tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. With its maze of red light areas, strip clubs, massage parlours, bars, clubs and street prostitutes, Saigon attracts thousands of tourists every year who are looking for a good time and, if possible, a ‘happy ending’.
But is is not just the West which brings money to this lucrative and notorious industry – the sex-worker scene here is as varied as it is flourishing, and it caters to tourists and locals alike.
As I sat there on that bench in plain daylight, nibbling the homemade bánh mì my boyfriend had brought, I watched this woman totter past us in her broken, glittery wedges. Her face was strikingly empty, like a shell. I followed her with my eyes, and watched her take a seat quietly on another bench nearby. She sat nicely, and took out a book to read.
The sheer paradox of someone from Saigon’s cold, harsh world of clubs, cash and cocaine, sitting on a park bench, reading, was enough to get my brain going. I just didn’t understand. I am so ignorant aren’t I?
But ignorance aside, it did make me wonder – how much more is there that I don’t know about the sex industry here in Ho Chi Minh City? About that thriving world of sex, money and night-time erotica literally right outside my door? As it turned out, there was a lot…
1. They ride bicycles
If you’ve been to Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 you will have seen the young, often very attractive men who ride around on bicycles with metal rattles. They shake the rattles as they ride, and will do as many as fifty loops of the backpacker strip Bui Vien in one night.
Occasionally one will stop to talk with a pedestrian, a white-haired western business-man, a group of gangly backpacker boys, or he will be hailed by someone and pull up next to the sidewalk, to converse.
But does he converse about?
The reality of prostitution in Saigon is that most sex workers don’t do business out of girly bars or massage parlours. Many work on the street, from motorbikes or from the park.
I was curious about these men on bicycles, and did some probing – I talked with local friends, observed a lot and consulted Mr Google.
In the end I discovered that they are in fact male prostitutes who will sleep with or “massage” a male client in the safety of a private hotel room.
The law in Vietnam prohibits overnight stays for men with unmarried Vietnamese women, but I don’t think that applies for two men! The bicycle prostitutes negotiate with their client in public, and charge a hefty sum for their service.
I am so ignorant aren’t I?
Street prostitution in Saigon in general is rampant. There are apparently a number of hot spots around the city but the only insight I can give you is from my own observations driving around near where I live and work. Driving home from my job in Phu Nuan District, I pass the same strip of famous Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street every night, and every single night there is a woman there. Just one.
She has short wiry hair tamed into a bun and wears the same pant-suit combination every day. She waits, and men drive up to her piece of pavement on their motorbikes. They negotiate, make a deal, and she gets on behind him to fly away into the night…hours later and she is dropped back, to do it all again.
How do I know? Well obviously I don’t sit and watch her all night, but every time I pass she is at a different stage in her evening.
Back in the notorious red light district of Ho Chi Minh City, District 1, the sex work scene of Saigon is even more blatant. One very sad dimension of this already upsetting industry are the women who sit in 23/9 park, right in the middle of the backpacker area.
So many of these women are heroin or meth addicts, and it is a commonly known fact among the locals here that people use the park as a place to shoot up.
Many users sit in groups. At the end of Park A many men and women with these drug problems sit, broken, opposite that phone shop which has such loud, bouncing music blaring just outside that you wonder how the parking security resist the urge to leap up and start raving. Families brush past them. Men and women, tourists, couples, locals, business-men and tiny children…and they sit there.
I wrote another post about this actually, about one terrifying thing I saw one night when I was walking home. Children should NEVER be exposed to this kind of thing. You can read it here.
Many of the women in this group use prostitution to pay for their habit. Many prostitutes in District 1 also walk the strip and approach people, some perch in bars with one drink all night and the promise of commission to the bar owner, and many arrive after midnight when most revellers on the strip are too intoxicated to care much about their wallets. Sad, immoral, horrible, but clever.
2. They are mothers, sisters and students
I know I am ignorant, but it shocked me to hear from my friend Ami that she was studying full-time to be an accountant. Ami works at a bar in Pham Ngu Lau. She is ‘absolutely exactly NOT a prostitute!’, but more of an escort, and she lives off handsome nightly tips from besotted sex tourists.
Ami is just one of many many women, men and even children who prostitute themselves around the world in the hope of a better life.
People are captured from their city every day and taken to other countries with the promise of a good job and good money. And in Saigon, mothers sell their bodies to support their families while next to them a budding accounting student works nights to pay for her degree.
Many people move from the provinces to Saigon to make the most of the city’s thriving sex trade. Some send money home, and others use it to pave their way out of the cycle of poverty to a better life.
I know many of you will be reading this and wondering why they don’t just get a good job?! Sure pave your way out of poverty, but why use sex to do it? Why enter that world of cash-in-hand degradation? Whatever happened to a good old part-time job?
At the end of Park A many men and women with these drug problems sit, broken…
Well, mothers have families to care for. Many here have dependent children and grandparents, and most don’t have a lot of time. Students study all day. Many here send money back to their families in the provinces, and they also don’t have time. Poverty is a viscious and never-ending cycle. If you are born into a poor family, you learn how to live in a poor family. There is neither time nor money to invest in skills like art, music, and sometimes even school.
You grow up, and your options are slim. Many families break their backs to get their children some sort of education, but it often isn’t enough. Poor children often end up working the poor jobs of society – as cleaners, waiters, bar girls and labourers. Freelancing like I do is often out of the question, simply because they never learnt the skills to do it!
Many of the women in this group use prostitution to pay for their habit.
Many poorer people in Saigon don’t know English either because they didn’t go to school, or didn’t have the perspective to think outside their own, difficult world, and in Vietnam a lack of English closes even more doors. Poor people here work for nothing, stay poor, and their children have the same life.
Mothers are desperate to give a better life to their children and students are desperate to fight their way out of this cycle, but to escape they need money. So put yourself in their position – if you had their lives, and could choose between 7 hours a week as a waitress for a measly USD $150/month and 3 hours in the evening for the same price every day, what would you do?
I could never imagine turning to prostitution myself, never ever. Ever. But there are times on the road where you have literally $200 to your name, bills to pay and not enough income to do it… and honestly?
You come glimpse the feelings that would drive people to do it.
No money is scary. You feel like there is no way out, and often there isn’t. Everything becomes harder, you eat less and you get thin. I’m sure many of you readers can relate to this too.
For me the solution has always been to work harder – I sell more art, I scour Elance for freelance design jobs, I take on more hours at my teaching job. I also have friends who I have leant on – couches to crash on, meals to share, etc.
But if you’ve no skills to freelance with, limited access to the internet, no friends and no way to help yourself, your options are very different.
Students study all day. Many here send money back to their families in the provinces…
3. They are creative
Unlike many cities in the West, Saigon’s prostitution scene is surprisingly public. It’s definitely policed, but questionably. In fact, if I am honest with you I bet that the police force and government officials are some of the industry’s most frequent customers.
This means that the red light district here is full of a variety of strange services created by people who have a lot of freedom to be creative. A lot of massage parlours in District 1 are not brothels, but ‘happy ending shops’. This means that the usually beautiful young women working as beauticians also double as masters of the hand-job, and will demonstrate their skills for a hefty tip.
There are also escort services in the city where women simply accompany a man for an evening, act like his girlfriend and stop him from feeling lonely. Maybe offer a kiss. The girls often work out of a bar and this is the way many bars on the backpacker strip Bui Vien function, though you will certainly come across conventional sex workers here too.
Finally, I came across what was perhaps the most surprising version of sex work last week on that very same park bench I mentioned earlier. Nguyen (the boyfriend) and I were sitting, sharing lunch like we usually do before running back to work. We sat close, watching the lake in 23/9 Park B, and after a moment’s silence Nguyen nudged my arm. ‘Over there’ he said.
‘Over there, don’t look yet. Over on that bench…he’s, erm..’
Now, I am no idiot. I’m also no ninja, but I do know how to be subtle. I waited a few minutes before casually turning my head, to see a middle aged Vietnamese woman clothed head-to-toe and wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sitting next to a wrinkly Vietnamese man who had to be more than 60 years old.
As I watched, he moved his hand inside her shirt and began to massage what he found in there. My goodness! After maybe 10 minutes of this the man got up, they exchanged some cash, and he walked away.
A few minutes after another gentleman of a similar demographic arrived and the process continued. And this was in broad daylight, in the middle of a public park, fully clothed. Gosh some people are weird.
A lot of massage parlours in District 1 are not brothels, but ‘happy ending shops’.
I guess what I’ve realised most of all about the sex industry in Saigon is that is is dangerously multifaceted. There is literally something for everyone, and the reasons why people both offer and take services are varied.
A look at this industry is possibly the most blatant slap of pure humanity that I have ever experienced.
It fascinates me to understand why people do things, and it upsets me. But one key thing we can all take away from this particular example is that we should never judge anyone, ever. If someone is deliberately doing something that degrades them, that hurts them, you would have to be a real witch to hate them for it without understanding why.