A transgender customer receives injections of a silicon-like substance at a house in Ho Chi Minh City on April 29. PHOTO: NGUYEN HAI
A man lies flat on the floor of a small room littered with bottles, bandages and syringes.
Whimpers come softly from his pale face which pours so much sweat that his hair sticks to his head.
A woman in her 50s massages his bare, bruised buttocks as she applies three band-aids to a trio of injection holes which ooze a thick liquid.
The woman, identified only as H., says she's not sure what the liquid is, only that it is a silicon alternative that helps plump out certain parts of the body.
Massaging his buttocks helps it dissolve instead of clotting up, she said dressed in a pair of pajamas with her hair tied up in a bun.
She said her business is highly sought after by artists who need to refresh their looks once in a while and men who wish to become women, like the one she's just served.
H. is transgender herself. Though she's been providing her amateur beauty service for years, she says she's kept a low profile as she knows it is illegal.
Her injection clinic lies on the second floor of a house on Su Van Hanh Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 10.
A Thanh Nien reporter managed to tag along with some of her customers on the afternoon of April 29.
A local xe om (taxi motorbike) driver instructed everyone to leave their motorbikes at a house in a nearby alley. A woman only opened her door after the driver said they were looking for H.
And closed it quickly after the bikes were inside.
The group walked some 300 meters to H.’s place where a woman, who looked to be about 70 years old, lay across a sofa on the ground floor next to two little girls playing.
Some greetings were exchanged and the old woman pointed upstairs after recognizing a few familiar faces.
The stairs were dark and one had to mind each step while holding the rail.
“Who?” H. asked in her raspy voice from inside the door as they knocked.
“It’s me honey. I’m coming for the silicon. I called you early in the afternoon honey!,” one person said, convincing her to open the door.
In the ensuing hour, a Thanh Nien reporter watched H. give injections to three customers.
After the whimpering man got up, another named Th. lied right down.
H. emptied the thick transparent liquid from a 200 millimeter bottle with no label into a stainless steel cup. She soaked some pieces of cotton in sanitizer and wiped Th.’s buttocks while hunting for spots to administer the injections.
Th. makes a living singing at weddings and funerals. Though she's received many of these injections -- six to her breasts, six to her buttocks, and one time each to her cheeks, fingers, lips and eyelids -- she still screamed and strained her body at each shot.
She asked H. to slow down while other the customers kneeled down from their seats to mop up her sweat.
H. said the liquid is smuggled in on boats from Malaysia or Indonesia.
“It is banned but people bring back a whole container each time as the demand is high, mostly in Ho Chi Minh City, then Hanoi and other provinces.”
H. said she had tried to produce a similar substance in Vietnam, it clotted up after sitting for some time, so she didn't dare to inject it into anyone's body.
The smuggled liquid costs VND3-4 million (US$142-190) a liter but H. manages to charge ten times more as people trust her experience.
So far, she says, she's had a good record and offers the special prices of VND5-6 million a liter to transgender men.
H. shrugged and laughed out loud when asked about her training.
“No one does this job with a license. We're all amateurs. We did our own shots before doing this to others for money.
“But one needs a little cold blood to do this.”
Still, she doesn't dare to provide breast injections, as “they're so close to the heart, and the liquid can form clots and stop it from beating.”
Doctors have issued grave warnings that liquid silicon and the like can cause fatal blood clots or contamination after a woman from the Mekong Delta died at a Ho Chi Minh City hospital on April 28.
Her body was riddled with liquid silicon injections .
Another 19-year-old transgender died two years ago after receiving injections to the buttocks. That teenage patient had used meth to weather the painful procedure; but died two days after hospitalized with high fever and difficulty breathing.
Dinh Hong Hanh, an activist from Ho Chi Minh City-based LGBT network ICS, said she knows three men who died recently after seeking out liquid silicon injections for a more feminine appearance.
One died in late 2013; the other two passed away in March.
"We receive information every once in a while about a transgender hospitalized for silicon injection complications," Hanh said.
Transgender and lady boy customers at H.'s said they know it all, but they are desperate enough to take the risks.
Th. said they need to be beautiful in order to earn better money at their performance jobs, so they can save up for old age.
“We have nothing to lose, no family, no career, no social recognition or respect.
“We know [the service] carries many health risks, including death, but we have to make a bet with our life to survive.