Country Report: Vietnam
Some notes by Ian Walters
In both established and recent literature dealing in whole or in part with sexuality, gender or with prostitution in Vietnam (e.g. Marr 1981; Le Thi Quy 1993, n.d.; Ngo Vinh Long 1993; VNA 1998), or on related factors, such as work and migration (e.g. Nguyen Van Chinh 1997), or on the historical development of modern Vietnamese culture (Jamieson 1993) there is a silence on the issues concerning transgender.
In Vietnam, male to female (MtF) transgender people are categorised as lai cai, bong cai, bong lai cai, dong co, or be-de. Some of these terms encompass gay men as well. When transgender people are pointed out to foreigners and labelled in English, it is as “half man half woman” or “half boy half girl”, or simply, “gay” or “gay boys”. I know nothing of female to male transgender, though I suspect I have seen some in the street.
Topics such as prostitution, homosexuality and high risk sexual behaviour are difficult to talk about in public, and even more difficult to write about. They remain “in the exploratory stage” of research (Khuat Thu Hong 1998:61). Attempts by foreigners to find out more, or to undertake research, are often thwarted. One Vietnamese researcher, having taken postgraduate training in the USA, was courageous enough to write that more “in-depth studies should be conducted with sex workers”, and in particular “homosexuals” (Khuat Thu Hong 1998:61). She continued: the “history and the development of prostitution and homosexuality as well as the sexual behaviour of gays and lesbians, bisexuals, transvestites and transsexuals should be examined” (Khuat Thu Hong 1998:61).
Within two years of publishing this document Dr Hong had changed jobs and was no longer doing sexuality research. She ceased returning my phone calls and emails.
Though the modern stance is denial, Vietnam has a long history of transgender presence. Unfortunately it has mostly been reported by unsympathetic scribes.
In the late 1890s, “trance dancers were well known to include many a trans-sexual”, and Baurac, a French medical practitioner, reported his encounter with “wandering homosexual performers and singers in his travels through My Tho and Go Cong provinces” of the Mekong Delta region (Do My Thien 1995:170).
They have for a long time had some religious or spiritual function as mediums (Do My Thien 1995:156-157)
However, because of Confucian, Buddhist, Christian and Communist moralities and strictures, there has been a pattern of “oppression of singers, mediums and homosexual groups by central power dating back a long time before the nineteenth century”. An early royal decree against such dancers and singers may have had its intent in targeting “the homosexual relationship between army officers and their singers” (Do My Thien 1995:189).
In the nineteenth century, the practice of keeping transgender singers on soldiers’ payrolls “was for more than entertainment” (Do My Thien 1995:189).
More recently, in the mid-twentieth century, the premier English language novelist of Vietnam wrote somewhat condescendingly about a night out in Saigon:
“Then came the turn of the evening: a troupe of female impersonators. I had seen many of them during the day in the rue Catinat walking up and down, in old slacks and sweaters, a bit blue about the chin, swaying their hips. Now in low-cut evening dresses, with false jewellery and false breasts and husky voices, they appeared at least as desirable as most of the European women in Saigon.”
Not a lot of understanding or sympathy from our classic writer.
Still more recently, in a CARE Australia study of HIV and sex workers in Vietnam, the sample included 15 “transvestites” aged between 17 and 30 (Franklin 1993:8). These “men” were defined as “homosexuals, bisexual cross dressers or transexuals [sic]”, having in common the “desire or need to spend at least part of their time dressed as women” (Franklin 1993:11).
Not much understanding there either.
Thompson (1998:108), a gay travel guide writer, in describing a typical disco happening in the big city, says you could be there while “a lithe young man [sic] with platinum Dynel wig and a metallic miniskirt loses a falsie”. One venue on Tran Hung Dao had a “fashion (drag) show” (Thompson 1998:109). On the street a
“gorgeous young woman on a scooter will slow to your pace, perhaps whistle, or even drive onto the sidewalk to block your path. Beneath the perfect hair, the makeup and the traditional Vietnamese gown you are likely to find a young man [sic] selling sex ... Surprise! Practically every foreigner who lives in or visits Sai Gon has a story of a personal adventure with a ‘Lady Man’.”
And so it goes on.
A decade ago, MtF transgender people had quite a high profile on the streets in downtown Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon]. These days they are less commonly seen. When referred to, they are often derided as “money-boys”, or pickpockets. Life is obviously not easy for them. But at parties and private functions they are able to reassert themselves in a semi-public way. Much remains unknown and a research project beckons.
Do My Thien 1995. The Mountain’s Shadow and Reflection in the River: Vietnamese Supernaturalism in the Mekong Delta. PhD Thesis, Australian National University.
Franklin, Barbara 1993. The Risk of AIDS in Vietnam: An Audience Analysis of Risk Factors for HIV/AIDS Amongst Men and Commercial Sex Workers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. CARE International in Vietnam Monograph Series No.1.
Greene, Graham 1973 [orig. 1955]. The Quiet American. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Jamieson, Neil L. 1993. Understanding Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Khuat Thu Hong 1998. Study on sexuality in Vietnam: the known and the unknown issues. South & East Asia Regional Working Papers, No.11. Hanoi: Population Council.
Le Thi Quy 1993. Some ideas about prostitution in Vietnam. Paper presented at the Conference on Joining Forces to Further Shared Visions, Washington DC, USA, October 20-24, 1993.
Le Thi Quy n.d. Prostitution in Vietnam. Manuscript. No publishing details.
Marr, David G. 1981. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ngo Vinh Long 1993. Vietnam. In Nanette J. Davis (Ed.) Prostitution: An International Handbook on Trends, Problems, and Policies, pp.327-350. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Nguyen Van Chinh 1997. In search of work: socio-economic change and seasonal migration in northern Vietnam. In Social Change in Rural Vietnam: Children’s Work and Seasonal Migration, pp.39-65. Political and Social Change Working Paper Series No.13. Canberra: Department of Political and Social Change, Research School of Pacific & Asian Studies, ANU.
Thompson, Douglas 1998. The Men of Viet Nam: A Traveler’s Guide to Gay Vietnam. Bangkok: Floating Lotus.
VNA (Vietnam News Agency) 3/3/98. Seminar examines prostitution. avsl-l 5 March 1998.