Sex Work in HCMC, 1867–Present
The urban geography of Ho Chi Minh City (called Saigon until the end of the Vietnam War) is shaped by a multilayered history that structures the spaces occupied by Westerners, Viet Kieus (overseas Vietnamese men), and local Vietnamese men as clients of the contemporary sex industry. Economic and geopolitical shifts transformed the structure of the sex industry under French colonialism, under American imperialism during the Vietnam War, and in the aftermath of Vietnam's reunification and eventual accession to the WTO. Men's differentiated participation in the contemporary sex industry is part of a long history of imperial domination coupled with recent economic transformations occurring in Vietnam. As men participate in the multiple niche markets of HCMC's sex industry, they may draw upon contemporary imaginaries of Asian ascendancy in a globalizing economy or of First World benevolence toward developing countries, but both of these tropes are drawn from the shadows of Vietnam's colonial and imperial past.
The stratified structure of Vietnam's contemporary sex industry in HCMC is embedded in three major shifts in Vietnam's political economy. In the first shift, Western men embedded themselves in the highest-paying markets of prostitution under French colonialism and U.S. occupation until the fall of Saigon. In the second, Vietnam's economic liberalization under the 1986 Doi Moi (economic renovation) program attracted Viet Kieu to Vietnam in droves. These men established themselves in the highest-paying niche market of HCMC's global sex industry through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Under the Doi Moi program, Vietnam effectively transitioned to a market economy as the Communist Party maintained its political monopoly, opening the country to foreign trade, investment, and large-scale tourism and marking the beginning of Vietnam's prolonged and continuing period of growth and development.
Doi Moi set the stage for the third political and economic shift that transformed the HCMC's stratified sex industry: Vietnam's accession as the 150th member of the World Trade Organization, on January 11, 2007, which led to the subsequent boom in foreign direct investments (FDI). In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis that rocked the United States and Europe, Vietnam began to rely less on the West as a source of foreign investment and more heavily on capital investments from the more developed economies in Asia. These new economic arrangements allowed local Vietnamese and other Asian businessmen, responsible for directing foreign investments from Asia to Vietnam, to replace Viet Kieus as key players in the highest-paying niche market of Vietnam's global sex industry.
In short, the historical tensions between Westerners, Viet Kieus, and local Vietnamese elites matter because their relationships are fraught with histories of sexual domination, not merely of sex workers, but also of other men and other nations. The historical context provides a backdrop for the contemporary stratification of HCMC's sex industry through an exploration of geopolitical and economic power relations. Specifically, it examines the frictions produced by the long, gnarled transition from French and U.S. dominance (from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s) to Asian ascendancy in a neoliberal, globalized marketplace. Historical and contemporary hierarchies of men and nations clashed as Vietnam began to imagine its pathway toward modernity and set the stage for competing hierarchies in Vietnam's contemporary sex industry.
FRENCH COLONIALISM, 1867–1954: THE PRESTIGE OF WHITENESS
French involvement in Vietnam began after Britain acquired Hong Kong in 1842, when France worked to establish a trading base in Southeast Asia. In 1867, France invaded southern Vietnam (known as Cochinchina) and developed a French colony. Then in 1883, France invaded and seized northern Vietnam (Tonkin) and central Vietnam (Annam), establishing these regions as French protectorates. In 1887, France created the Union Indochinoise, which consolidated the territory by bringing together Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, and later Laos. Under French colonialism, a culture of large urban centers—with new concentrations of administrative power, trade, and financial services—replaced a predominately rural peasant culture. Saigon's population rapidly increased from 13,000 in 1883 to 250,000 by 1932.
This urban growth fueled new forms of prostitution that catered to French men. Saigon-Cholon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War) became known as the "pearl of the Far East," a place where Westerners could partake of exotic cuisine, trinkets, and women while enjoying the comfort of French influence. In the early years of French colonialism, the influx of unmarried French soldiers created an unbalanced ratio of seven men for every woman in the European community. This imbalance, alongside the permanent establishment of French troops in Saigon, fueled the growth of local prostitution.
In cities like Saigon, colonial men and colonized women interacted intimately with one another, often in commercial relationships. To protect colonial men from sexually transmitted diseases, the Hanoi Municipal Council officially passed legislation in 1888 to regulate prostitution. This legislation required prostitutes to register in local municipalities and created several dispensaries in which to examine the women's bodies for venereal disease. However, underground prostitution rings dominated the sex trade, and the burgeoning sex industry was difficult to regulate. By 1936, Saigon-Cholon had an estimated five thousand women working as prostitutes. Of these, only six hundred were registered at local dispensaries, while the rest were involved in clandestine prostitution rings operating out of "singing houses," where men went to listen to women sing; opium dens; cafes; and dance halls.
In Saigon and Hanoi, a variety of establishments ranging from cheap brothels to expensive hotels catered to men of different classes, including minor civil servants, French businessmen, army administrators, and servicemen. Prostitutes who operated in a low-end local Vietnamese niche market provided low-cost services to local men in thatched huts, while wealthier French male clients could afford to have relations with prostitutes in upscale hotels. It has been documented that French colonial military men were generally the highest-paying clients, especially in relation to local Vietnamese men. Although there is little documentary evidence on relations between prostitutes and local Vietnamese men in the French or Vietnamese national archives, the writings that do exist indicate that the French allocation of military funding created a racial hierarchy that privileged whites. The prestige of whiteness transformed local brothels from the exclusive domain of literate Vietnamese elites to spaces for male European office workers engaged in commerce.
After almost a hundred years of colonialism, the French were defeated in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, marking the end of French involvement in Indochina. This defeat culminated in the country's division along the seventeenth parallel between North Vietnam, led by the Viet Minh, and South Vietnam, led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Following the withdrawal of the French military and French economic aid, the United States increased its involvement in South Vietnam by providing political advisors and hundreds of thousands of troops to the South to fight the Viet Cong (the North Vietnamese military). The replacement of French colonialism by United States political and military interventionism fundamentally altered the structure of the commercial sex industry in Southeast Asia.
U.S. INTERVENTION, 1962–1975: R&R FOR AMERICAN GIS
U.S. involvement in South Vietnam dramatically transformed the local political economy, which triggered major transformations in the sex industry. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military fought alongside the South Vietnamese republican forces against northern Vietnamese communist fighters. Between 1962 and 1975, the United States spent more than U.S.$168 billion on the Vietnam War. This was more than the total amount of economic aid given to all other developing countries during those years. This massive injection of U.S. capital into Vietnam triggered the large-scale growth of prostitution, not only in South Vietnam, but also in other parts of Southeast Asia, as outlets for rest and recreation (R&R) were established to entertain foreign soldiers. In addition, forced urbanization, bombings, and defoliation caused an estimated 10 million Vietnamese to flee their villages between 1965 and 1973, eventually swelling Saigon's population from half a million to 4 million people. As a result, the traditional economic marketplace was drastically altered by war and overpopulation, substantially altering the commercial sex industry as new niches rapidly took shape in the urban centers of Saigon.
During the Vietnam War, the official policy of the U.S. Department of Defense was to suppress prostitution wherever possible. However, unofficially, the U.S. military relied on prostitution to ease American soldiers into the country and help them cope with battlefield trauma. After soldiers spent several months fighting in the war, the military sent them off for R&R in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Hawaii. In each of these locales, hundreds of nightclubs, massage parlors, and bathhouses lined the streets, featuring local female entertainers awaiting the arrival of American GIs. Visits to Southeast Asian brothels and bars became so prevalent that the U.S. military produced films to brief soldiers about local customs, attractions, and dangers. Officials warned GIs of getting robbed when drunk and highlighted safe sex practices that would prevent the spread of venereal disease.
Although most men left Vietnam for their R&R, by 1966 the city of Saigon contained over one thousand bars, one hundred nightclubs, and thirty cabarets. At the height of the war in 1968, there were over two hundred agencies that recruited women into prostitution and thousands of bars, hotels, and brothels offering sex for sale in a national sex industry involving five hundred thousand women. The streets of downtown Saigon and those near U.S. housing compounds and military bases were thick with bars that catered almost exclusively to American men. At the time, Senator J. William Fulbright said that U.S. forces in South Vietnam had turned the city of Saigon into a "brothel." Unlike the class-segmented sex industry of the French colonial era, this "brothel" was structured by access to U.S. dollars, with American GIs commanding the vast majority of the sex trade. There were, however, subtle status markers that differentiated sex workers catering to American GIs on the streets and in inexpensive bars from the higher class of sex workers that catered to U.S. civil servants in hotels or discotheques.
Two narratives exist of women's experience of prostitution during the Vietnam War. The first, advanced by feminists like Susan Brownmiller and Kathleen Barry, asserts that women refugees had little choice but to engage in prostitution to sustain a livelihood for themselves and their families. Women brought into military compounds as the "local national guests" of the United States lived and worked in curtained cubicles, where they provided "quick, straight, and routine" sexual services for which they were paid as little as two dollars per sexual transaction. In addition, rape and sexual violence were prevalent in Vietnam's sex industry during the war.
A second narrative of sex work during the Vietnam War emphasizes pleasure, desire, and mobility as a part of women's stories. In one of the first oral histories conducted of bar girls working during the Vietnam War, Mai Lan Gustafsson captures the stories of women who described their work in the bars in positive terms, as full of good times, camaraderie, and exhilaration. All thirty-two of the women whom Gustafsson interviewed reminisced that the war represented one of the best times of their lives, mentioning that prostitution allowed them to break free from gendered "traditions" and expectations that were imposed on women by local society. These two narratives—both reflexive of real aspects of women's experiences—highlight the complexity that characterized relationships of intimacy between local sex workers and Western clients during the Vietnam War.
As prostitution burgeoned in the South, the Viet Minh in the North worked to abolish all forms of prostitution as part of their efforts to equalize men and women and to incorporate women into the military. Women from Hanoi and the countryside fought alongside their male counterparts in the Viet Cong against the South Vietnamese government and its French and American allies between 1945 and 1975. The national liberation movement held a strict code of ethics that prohibited the rape and prostitution of local women. As such, according to official records, prostitution was virtually nonexistent in Hanoi.
COMMUNIST PARTY RULE, 1975–1986: RECOVERING THE "FALLEN SISTERS" OF IMPERIALISM
On April 30, 1975, the war between communist North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam culminated in the fall of Saigon. South Vietnam crumbled as Americans evacuated and thousands of Vietnamese fled the country. The capture of Saigon by the Viet Cong in 1975 marked the reunification of North and South Vietnam and the expansion of the Soviet-style closed command economy. During the period between 1975 and 1986, the state defined prostitution as a vestige of the imperialist American presence and the southern puppet regime. The protection of women from sexual exploitation thus allowed Vietnam to assert a new sense of nationhood defined against Western imperialism.
The revolutionary society sought to conquer the social evils of prostitution that were left behind by the American military with a campaign to "lead the fallen sisters back to a happy future life." Under the "Recovery of Human Dignity" campaign, the state sent former prostitutes to schools organized by the Vietnam Women's Union. There, women were treated for sexually transmitted diseases and provided with vocational, cultural, and academic training to become productive laborers. Northern leaders cited the absence of prostitution as evidence of a successful new regime.
In this era, prostitution emerged as a pawn in the political economy as the Communist Party used its eradication as a symbolic weapon against Vietnam's imperial past. It was not until Vietnam reopened its doors to the global economy that signs of a commercial sex industry began to reemerge.
DOI MOI, 1986–2006: VIET KIEUS' NOSTALGIA AND CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION
The fall of Saigon in 1975 marked the end of over one hundred years of foreign colonial domination and military occupation in Vietnam. While this political triumph created independence, it did not deliver economic prosperity. The nation remained poor and underdeveloped in comparison to Western countries and other industrializing Asian economies. In 1986, after a decade of lagging productivity and rapid inflation in the context of communist reform and other worldwide transformations (glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union and the Deng Xiaoping reforms in China), Vietnam introduced the Doi Moi program of economic liberalization, which effectively transitioned Vietnam into a socialist-oriented market economy in which the Communist Party maintained a political monopoly. These reforms opened Vietnam to foreign trade, investment, and large-scale tourism, setting off a prolonged and continuing period of economic growth and development.
Between the late 1980s and the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the local economy was bifurcated between those with access to U.S. dollars and those who could access only the local currency. The normalization of ties with the United States in 1995 provided Vietnam with access to American markets and a sizable Vietnamese-American community, dramatically reorienting the local economy. Viet Kieus and Western tourists began to return to Vietnam in large numbers, increasing the flow of overseas remittances to the country from U.S.$35 million in 1995 to nearly $3 billion by 2005. The United States and Europe were the two main sources of overseas remittance money brought into Vietnam. The new flows of foreign tourists into Vietnam helped to fuel the local economy in such a dramatic way that Viet Kieus with access to U.S. dollars commanded the highest-paying niche markets of Vietnam's sex industry.