Vietnam has been a star on Asia’s tourist map for years, but it usually falls under Thailand’s long shadow as a gay party or play destination. On the surface, it’s easy to thank the country’s communist regime for that. But like many countries in this region, contradictions are the norm in Vietnam. Despite a totalitarian government, the country proudly reminds anyone who’ll listen that it has never had laws against same-sex acts, and that laissez-faire attitude comes to the surface in some surprising ways in its major cities.
Gay communities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are admittedly not as visible as those in Thailand. This discretion however, offers its own freedoms, particularly for those looking to explore the community’s friskier side. Saunas and massage spas are ubiquitous throughout both cities, and are likely to expand in Da Nang, a gateway city to central Vietnam that’s one of the country’s fastest growing destinations.
Many, if not most, saunas operate as “massage spas” but incorporate traditional sauna elements such as steam rooms, dry saunas, chill-out area, and smoking lounges. Some will allow guests a choice of masseur, while others will assign based on availability. The level of professionalism and sexual service also varies widely, so check with reception if you’re not sure. Most spas will be upfront about the services they provide, and expect clients to communicate their needs clearly. Hanoi’s ZSpa and Polar, for instance, happily advertise on their website that their massages include sexual service. Others, such as Namspa in Ho Chi Minh City, keep the focus on health and traditional spa therapies. Some will also include your masseur’s tip in their rate, so be clear on this point before the start of any treatment or massage. Staff will typically not advise patrons on what is considered a standard tip, however a one-hour massage should not set you back much more than VND500,000 (C$31), tip included.
Ho Chi Minh City also boasts one of Asia’s best saunas, Nadam Spa. Though a good 20-minute drive from the tourist centre of Saigon, Nadam is a clean, well developed sauna offering 20 massage rooms, VIP rooms, herb infused hot pools, a deceptively traditional and relaxing setting, and a wide range of spa therapies. It’s the perfect escape from the crippling heat and frenetic pace of Saigon, but it takes some finding! More than a few queer visitors have passed the address to a hapless cab or moto driver, only to wind up circling the neighbourhood. For a small fee, Pink Tulip Hotel, a gay owned and managed boutique hotel in the heart of Ho Chi Minh’s entertainment district, arranges a dedicated, return moto service to Nadam for its guests.
Note that Vietnam’s saunas and massage spas typically close between 10pm and midnight, so plan your visit accordingly — perhaps as a way to unwind after a busy sightseeing day.
But Ho Chi Minh City’s hedonistic iceberg plunges much deeper. Sex here is a 24/7 business, conducted on the street like any other, while the authorities turn a mostly blind eye. Many locals insist Saigon has replaced Bangkok as Southeast Asia’s most liberal and decadent city. It certainly has no shortage of eager-to-please promoters, and it isn’t at all unusual for these endlessly energetic young men to offer some arranged evening company to tourists they’ve corralled into the rowdy bars of Bui Vien. Nobody bats an eye about your preferences in Saigon.
“Meeting the locals” this way obviously involves negotiation, clear communication and a component of risk. Your companion will typically be young, polite and well-spoken in English, and the length and extent of their services will depend entirely on you. Your only obligation will usually be to cover their drinks. Some, however, will also expect you to pay for their time, and of course you’ll be able to negotiate for more intimate services. Fit Vietnamese men hauling massage tables on bicycles and motos is another common sight along Bui Vien and the adjoining streets, and they too can be procured for a negotiable fee.
When it comes to safety, sex workers in Vietnam are usually eager to make a fair deal. Just remember this is still an underground industry. Keep your wits about you and know what you’ve agreed to. Once a deal has been struck and services procured, you’ll be expected to honour the negotiated price. If the worker thinks they’re being cheated or smells trouble, it won’t be the police who come to their rescue. HIV is also prevalent and poorly addressed in Vietnam, so protection or preventative treatment is highly recommended.