Prostitution is illegal and deemed a "social evil" in Vietnam, but this has not been an inhibiting factor in its exponential growth over the last few decades.
Official pronouncements as well as assessments by other agencies of this growing "problem" stick to the conventional rationale of women forced into the profession by poverty or by criminals running the flesh trade.
However, Kimberly Kay Hoang, a PhD sociology candidate at the University of California, says such assumptions do not stand up to close scrutiny. In fact, she says, the illegal sex industry in Vietnam offers little evidence of trafficking or coercion.
"Vietnam has been marked as a Tier 2 country by the United States State Department and people from all around the world have been concerned with "˜saving' Vietnamese women from being trafficked," she told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.
Tier 2 refers to the degree of compliance with minimum standards set by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act enacted by the US government in 2000.
In June, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga rejected the US Department of State's findings that the human trafficking situation had worsened in Vietnam, saying they "do not rightly reflect the real situation."
Hoang said she agrees with the spokeswoman.
"I think that the media has over-sensationalized this idea of "˜forced' sex workers. In 2006-2007 NGOs, journalists, and academics alike came to Vietnam looking to "˜save' women, myself included. However, when most of us got deep into the thick of our research we were shocked to find that in Vietnam (not across borders) very few women were forced," she said.
In analyzing why many Vietnamese women choose to be a sex worker despite its illegality in the country, Hoang said, "I think that people need to pay more attention to corporations and factories who are not paying their workers livable wages. Many of the women in my project started out as factory workers making VND700,000 (US$36) to VND1 million ($51) and according to them, the "˜smart ones' are the ones who got out of the factories and are actually working in places where they can "˜turn their lives around'," she said.
In a paper titled "Economies of Emotion, Familiarity Fantasy and Desire: Emotional Labor in Ho Chi Minh City's Sex Industry" published in the Sexualities Journal this April, Kimberly found that sex work was an "emotional labor" and that the industry has experienced a shift in major clientele following the recent economic crisis.
More than sex
The paper finds that the Vietnamese sex industry is highly stratified and economic difficulties are not the only reason why people enter sex work.
"I think that we should recognize that sex work involves more than sex. It is an intimate relationship with porous boundaries where women sometimes marry, migrate, and fall in and out of love," Kimberly said.
"Women in the lower end sector certainly entered the sex industry for economic reasons. However, women in the highest paying sector actually came from wealthy families by local standards. In the mid-tier sector, women served as tour guides and provided men with what I call "˜expressive emotional' labor, making these men feel loved," she said.
Hoang spoke with 21-year-old Kim Ly who frequented high-end bars in five star hotels and was dating two Viet kieu men from the US. Ly, who was from a relatively well-to-do family, said she got more out of her clients by engaging in a form of emotional labor by showing concern for the latter's well-being.
Hoang also quotes Thanh, an overseas Vietnamese man [or Viet kieu] in the study who works as a computer technician in Paris, as saying all the women at a District 1 bar he was at were "working" and that "you just have to put out the right price."
Thanh bought a bottle of Remy, a Cognac bottle that costs about $100, and invited some women to drink, including 24-year-old Hoai. Thanh took a liking to Hoai and they began to dance seductively with each other. At the end of the night they exchanged numbers and over the course of two weeks, the two spent time with each other on dates in cafes, restaurants, and bars.
"I'm only here for two weeks and it's nice to have someone beautiful to be with here. I bought her jewelry, clothes and give her money to spend while we are together."
"These girls are expensive because they are young, pretty, and other guys want them"¦ I knew if I didn't give her enough money she would move on to another guy. I don't want to go for those ugly girls that you see with old white guys," he said.
As a high-end client, Viet kieu men like Thanh come to Vietnam to consume more than just sex, Hoang finds. These men are purchasing the services of high-end sex workers who are young, beautiful, relatively well off, and desired by other men, and who, most importantly, make them feel desired.
Hoang reports that Tram, another sex worker, continues to work in the sex industry even after she has secured herself a foreign husband, because her socioeconomic position was not secure and she needed to ensure that she could send money to her family, her former husband and their children.
"It's not that I don't love William [her husband]. It is just a different kind of love; the kind of love where you grow to love the person because they have done so much for you. There is no guarantee that William will be my ticket out of Vietnam. The embassy does a lot of investigations into fake marriages and they could easily deem my marriage as a fake one since I am a divorcee. So, I need to have back-up plans."
Viet kieu are no longer major clients of the high-end sector due to the impacts of the global economic crisis that hit many other countries harder than Vietnam.
"While the rest of the world has been suffering through a major economic crisis, Vietnam's economy has experienced a 7 to 8 percent growth per year... Vietnam has received a lot more in foreign direct investments since it joined the WTO in 2006 and much of those investments are coming from Asia," Kimberly said.
"As a country regionally positioned in Asia, Bill Hayton has argued that Vietnam is an emerging dragon. In this way the highest paying sector of the sex industry now caters to wealthy locals and Asian businessmen and not Viet kieus or Westerners," she said.
Hayton, Vietnam correspondent for BBC News in 2006 to 2007, authored "Vietnam, Rising Dragon," published in March this year.
In an article on the BBC News website, Kimberly said the change in major clientele happened around 2009 and the locals could spend an average of $15,000- $20,000 a month in expensive bars.
These bars have karaoke lounges like others but are advanced to a high-end level. Bartenders here are also sex workers who earn some $2,000 a month from tips and between $150 and $200 per night with their client, she wrote.
Thang, a 56-year-old local entrepreneur in Kimberly's story, said: "The Viet kieu era is over." Local men now drive Bentley cars costing half a million dollars, he noted, adding, "Once Vietnamese men play," other Asian men or Viet kieu cannot match them.