On Ho Chi Minh City’s main backpacking strip, Phạm Ngũ Lão, seating has been confiscated by local police officers. Hundreds of tourists and locals have poured onto the pavement and line either side of the thin inner city road, sitting on sheets of linoleum, drinking local beers.
Under the glowing halo of a Heineken advertisement, wearing Ralph Lauren polo shirt and chatting to an Australian backpacker, Tran Quan Anh is an example of the new Vietnamese youth.
Well educated, fluent in English and dressed like the lead in a Hollywood rom-com.
Youth in Vietnam represent a huge majority, and the disparity between young and old is no more obvious than in the arena of social contention.
When rumours started circulating late last year that a marriage equality movement was gaining momentum in South East Asia, many were shocked that it was not sexually-permissive Thailand at the forefront. It may not have the sexually buoyancy of its South East Asian neighbour but Vietnam’s traditionally conservative culture is opening itself up to homosexuality.
The driving force behind the social shift towards greater acceptance of homosexuality is Vietnam’s uncharacteristically young population. In 2013 43 per cent of Vietnam’s population was under the age of 25 and 87 per cent was under the age of 54.
Homosexuality was once deemed a “social evil” by the Vietnamese government. These days it is slowly seeping into mainstream cultural and social acceptance in the socialist state.
In August of 2012 Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, hosted the nation’s first ever gay pride parade. The Vietnamese Government decriminalised same-sex marriage in November of last year. The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Justice came out in support of same-sex marriage – a radical transition for a society that is built on strong, conservative family values.
Dang Quang, an openly homosexual man living in Ho Chi Minh, believes Vietnam’s youth is quickly progressing in their attitudes towards homosexuality.
“Younger generations seem more open-minded and accepting when it comes to homosexuality. I wouldn’t say it is completely accepted as some aspects such as transgender or cross-dressing may still seem abnormal to them.”
When you ask a young Vietnamese person whether homosexuality is accepted in society the answer is almost always no. Yet few young people I spoke to had an issue with homosexuality. Most perceive homosexuality as an unacceptable lifestyle to older generations despite its acceptance among their generation.
Vietnam’s embrace of homosexuality is not universal. Quang Le, a student from the central Vietnamese city of Hue is accepting of homosexuality but believes she has friends who are hiding their sexuality from her.
“I think some people are afraid of rumours. They don’t want to be different and treated differently. I think that is why many people are afraid of admitting their sexuality.”
In school Dang recalls being bullied by other students, and even staff members.
“A maths teacher made jokes about me because I liked art instead of his lessons. He said that boys should study maths and girls study art, and asked me if I was a boy or a girl,” he says.
The line of division homosexuality has drawn in Vietnam, sometimes runs straight through families. Dang has never told his family that he is gay, sharing the information only with his close friends.
“I don’t think now is the right time. They don’t seem to take the idea of homosexuality with zero judgment. It always takes time to really accept it.”
“At this phase of my life as I’m trying to settle in regarding jobs. I don’t feel quite ready to handle more stress—if that’s the worst case that would happen—from my family,” says Dang.
As he points out, social acceptance of homosexuality in Western cultures was a slow transition as well.
“It took decades for America and England to legalise homosexuality. Politically and socially, the old and conservative mindset still exists in the common people in Vietnam and LGBT seems very ‘new’. I think it might take some more time until LGBT is legally and culturally equalized,” says Dang.
In the buzzing districts of Ho Chi Minh City, market sellers share the streets with chain coffee shops and Cadillacs share the roads with beaten up push bikes. Advertisements parade images of ideal beauty — white-Asian hybrids, with defined cheekbones, coloured hair, large eyes and fair skin. Ideological communism seems like a distant memory in the booming metropolis where neon symbols of capitalist wealth beam on every street corner.
Anh believes that it is this idolisation of the West that is contributing to the cultural shift in views towards homosexuality.
“We adapt to modern culture here in Ho Chi Minh City. I think some people think accepting homosexuality is good because it has happened a lot in Western countries,” says Anh.
Ho Chi Minh City is regarded as the most modern city in Vietnam. Since the Vietnamese economy opened up to the world in 1986 – the so-called Doi Moi – the country has been modernising at an astounding pace. It has ascended as leader in foreign trade and is one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Modernisation has been a rapid process in Vietnam and while it has been embraced by the youth and in major cities like Ho Chi Minh, large factions of the population still hold traditional values.
“Attitudes change between the south and the north. I have been told by some northerners that it’s quite discriminative there and homosexuality is very subtle,” says Dang.
British ex-pat, John Lidbetter, who has lived in Vietnam for over five years, believes that homosexuality in Vietnam is a present, yet concealed reality.
“There were places in Hanoi I would always go with gay friends, so there is a scene. It seems to be a lot more underground.”
“I think the generation divide is true in a lot of respects. It feels a little bit like the 1950s in the UK to me, in terms of gender and sexual equality.”
Through the haze of cigarette smoke in a Ho Chi Minh nightclub, Katy Perry’s bisexual experimentation anthem “I Kissed a Girl” is blaring through the speakers. The congregation of intoxicated Vietnamese club goers are (possibly obliviously) singing passionately along with the lines “I kissed a girl and I liked it, the taste of her cherry chapstick.” The combination of alcohol, sweat, cigarette smoke and sexual freedom is being set to the soundtrack of American pop music.
Homosexuality is slowly beginning to infiltrate organic Vietnamese popular culture as well. Last year a YouTube series, created by an openly homosexual Vietnamese film student garnered nearly one million views per episode in its 15-episode season. Creator of Bộ ba đĩ thõa (My Best Gay Friends), Huỳnh Nguyễn Đăng Khoa wanted to portray homosexuality in Vietnam as a normal part of life.
“I wanted to show people that homosexuals have ordinary lives, full of emotion, friends, family – very normal lives,” said Khoa.
The show makes no political statements and never blatantly preaches equality. It follows the sitcom format, complete with a laugh track, and jokes are found in outrageous personalities rather than gay stereotypes.
The departure from mainstream Vietnamese popular culture that often portrays comical characters with effeminate attributes — hinting rather than stating character’s sexuality — was welcomed in the Vietnamese LGBT community and a second season is in the works.
The warm reception of My Best Gay Friends was not universal. After effectively “outing” its stars, Ngô Xuân Nhật, who plays one of the main characters, says he felt opposition from neighbours and relatives.
Khoa says he has no plans to put the series on Vietnamese television, as he believes the subject matter is still too sensitive.
The show’s explosion into Vietnamese popular culture is one of only a few examples of homosexuality in mainstream media. In 2005 Cindy Thai Tai, a well-known makeup artist, travelled to Thailand for sexual reassignment surgery. Following her rise into popular culture, sexual reassignment surgery became legal in Vietnam in 2006. She went on to become a famous singer in Vietnam, and now stars in My Best Gay Friends.
Dang suspects there are other homosexual celebrities in Vietnam that have not openly stated their sexuality.
“They would never publicly come out but everyone knows.”
The MSM community in Vietnam has more than just the ideological battle on their hands. Like MSM communities in many countries they are suffering an internal HIV epidemic. Vietnam has successfully contained HIV in the general population at only 0.4 per cent. However, in identified ‘high risk’ communities they face the constant struggle of trying to contain the epidemic.
Ho Chi Minh City Province presents the highest rates of MSM HIV in Vietnam, at 15 per cent. Some statistics suggest slight drops in these figures but Nguyen Hue Thien from the Ho Chi Minh City Provincial AIDS Committee says that although there are potential signs that the situation is stabilising, she still holds grave concerns about the possibility of a reversal.
Even with the Vietnamese government’s public support of the LGBT community, their symbolic actions are yet to be accompanied by pragmatic policy. The HIV funding model in the Vietnamese government’s scheme to ensure HIV prevention from 2013-2020 fails to target the MSM demographic. Instead a large portion of the Vietnamese government money — and all the AusAID contributions — are channelled into preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV: a far less prevalent method of HIV transmission.
Although rumours circled last year that Vietnam might become the first Asian nation to legalise gay marriage, many people living in Vietnam still believe this possibility is a long way off.
In Dang’s opinion, there is hope in the future for the LGBT community in Vietnam.
“From my personal experience as a gay teenager in high school, I want to tell all the young gay kids struggling in high schools that it may seem an endlessly dark time but it always is before the dawn. Hold on, because it is getting better.”