5 min

Good evening, Vietnam

Queer sex flourishes in the communist holdover

EMERGING FROM DENIAL. Old oppression still abounds, but a new generation of homos are coming out. Credit: Dan Gallagher

I knew Saigon was not going to be like Bangkok the night my guest house manager kicked me out in a jealous fit of rage.

I’d been staying at a café hotel in one of those backpacker districts that seem to be cropping up all over Southeast Asia. My host, a 28-year-old closet case, had poured out his heart to me, a white guy from Canada, on the first night and after a shared bottle of snake wine ended up in my bed.

The next day, it was clear that he wanted me to spend the rest of my two weeks in Ho Chi Minh City as his live-in boyfriend. When I registered my distaste for the idea by bringing another boy back to the hotel that night, he punched me in the chest a couple of times, told me he never wanted to see me again, and sent me packing.

It was a sobering introduction to the fragile Vietnamese heart, and I learned not to make that mistake again.

Saigon, renamed for the revered communist hero Uncle Ho after the Viet Cong victory in 1975, is an enchanting place to visit after the decadence of Bangkok. After a brief reunion with a Vietnamese ex from London, there were excursions to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the beach resort of Vung Tau, and the Mekong Delta.

But it was Saigon’s growing reputation as a gay city that really intrigued me.

Before leaving Bangkok I went out for a drink with Doug Thompson, American-born author of The Men Of Vietnam (Floating Lotus, 1998), the first book ever published on the Vietnam queer scene. Thompson is a veteran traveller, unabashed rice queen and partner in Utopia, a gay travel company that runs tours throughout Asia.

He spent a good part of the 1990s in Vietnam. It was an exciting period of promise that peaked in ’94 when the US lifted its economic embargo and normalized diplomatic relations a year later. During this time, the communist regime appeared to be shaking off some of the old cobwebs. Political opposition and press freedom were still non-existent, but the country as a whole had recovered tremendously since the end of the American War.

For all the limitations imposed by the state, Thompson didn’t bat an eye when he referred to the former French colony as “the most idyllic gay place in the world.” Despite the lack of a visible, Western-style gay or lesbian ghetto and economy, he explained, “there are enormous numbers of men who culturally have some openness to what we would call a gay identity.”

In Ho Chi Minh City, most of these men can be found in District One. Sitting at a roadside café on my first night in town, I was joined at the next table by a friendly young group of seven university students. Slightly inebriated, they all appeared to be straight. But one of them couldn’t take his hands off me and all but invited me to his room.

A few days later, two pretty boys drove up beside my motorbike and began flirting. Later, at the Apocalypse Now disco (could there be a club in Hiroshima called Ground Zero?), well-coiffed young men stood off to the side, fussing with their hair and looking shiftily about for signs of action. Another nightclub called Samson held all-gay dancing on Tuesdays and Fridays. On both occasions I visited, the floor was crowded with young lovelies decked out in designer labels. Boyfriends embraced openly. I was the only white guy in the room.

Also on the dancefloor one night were a handful of drably-dressed fellows in their late 50s. These men wore military-style khaki and, judging from the dour expression on their faces, appeared to be long-time party members. But these dancing cadres were not there to spy on us.

They were men whose erotic lives had passed them by until now – who may have known they were queer before reunification but had married and raised families, repressing their sexuality until the Westernizing aspects of doi moi (“openness,” the Vietnamese communist equivalent of 1980s glasnost) began to take effect. Now they were cracking open the closet door, dusting off the old ideological blinders, taking cues from the next generation on how to be In The Life.

Then there was the District One swimming pool. Part of a large, recreational park located directly behind Reunification Palace, it looked like a studio set for one of Bruce Weber’s famous film shoots. The patio was separated by rococo-style pillars in the Roman aesthetic. Speedo-clad muscle boys did stretching exercises opposite the pool. Scattered throughout the area, among the children and families, were scores of single young men with wandering eyes and very attractive bodies. Thirty years ago the pool was a favourite playground for US soldiers. Today it must be among the cruisiest gay pickup joints in the communist world.

On my second visit to the patio, two muscular lifeguards on opposite sides of the pool sat, Sphinx-like, atop their towering chairs. Soft, Vietnamese love songs played on the overhead sound system. And fresh young men wandered back and forth, making eye contact. Before I’d completed five minutes of swimming I found myself being hit on by at least eight different cuties, one of whom had groped me in the change room moments after my arrival and eventually escorted me back for a private rinse-off.

In a place like Saigon, “cultural infractions” like homo sex in a public shower stall can net jail time for the unlucky – which fortunately I wasn’t. On this day, public sex seemed a lot like how it must have been in 1950s North America: furtive, foolhardy, and very, very fun.

But even as I lapped up the adrenaline rush of the place, I knew that such days were probably numbered. As Doug Thompson explained, the innocence and exuberance of the Vietnamese gay scene is gradually disappearing as the country opens up to foreign trade and the tourists come pouring in. Police continue to shut down bars, discos and other nightclubs for cultural infractions. Official party newspapers run articles warning youth how homosexuality is destroying Vietnamese society.

And a friend of Thompson’s living in San Francisco recently became the first Vietnamese immigrant to be granted refugee status in the US based on sexual orientation. So Vietnamese gay men and lesbians still have much to fear.

Before leaving Bangkok I looked up a Saigon AIDS organization that seeks international donations on the Internet. According to its web page, the Nguyen Friendship Society (NFS) is “a group of about 50 volunteers working to prevent HIV/AIDS among gay and bisexual men in Ho Chi Minh City.” The group is forced to do its work underground, it says, because of homophobia “and because groups like ours are not considered legal.”

I contacted the NFS by e-mail, offering to profile its work in a North American gay newspaper. Nothing doing, I was told: “If you come here as a journalist, you will be accompanied by a member of the Ministry Of Information And Culture. We do not want to be involved with government officials.”

The group’s reluctance was not surprising, since the “purpose of visit” section on Vietnam’s immigration/visa form includes boxes for “tourism,” “business” and “journalism.” Visiting scribes who sign Box Number Three risk spending most of their waking hours in the company of a cheerful Hanoi apologist who will take great pains to ensure that they see all the “right” things about Vietnam. (British author Justin Wintle described the suffocating effects of this arrangement in a 1990 chronicle of his three-month journey, Romancing Vietnam. According to the locals I spoke with, the “buddy system” is still in effect.)

Sadly, my second e-mail to the group assuring them of confidentiality never got a reply.

Needless to say, groups like NFS aren’t getting much help from the domestic press, which serves as a tool of the state.

Just before leaving Saigon, I gave Doug Thompson’s book to my young friend Hung, the student I began seeing the night I got kicked out of the guest house. Hung didn’t know there were cafés and restaurants in his own city that catered mostly to gay men and lesbians. Starved for information about a scene only Western visitors to his country were allowed to read about, he clearly needed this book more than I did.