Vietnam experiences a "quiet" sexual revolution

HO CHI MINH CITY (Reuters) - A young woman lives with her boyfriend but hides it from her family, girls write blogs about love and relationships and couples seeking privacy cuddle in public parks at nightfall.

A “quiet” sexual revolution is unfolding in Vietnam, an intensely family-oriented society that holds strong traditions of women being married by their mid-20s and having children.

Huyen, a 30-year-old public relations executive, came to work in Ho Chi Minh City two years ago from Hanoi. After first staying with an aunt, she secretly moved into her boyfriend’s apartment.

“I didn’t tell my aunt,” she said. “It is quite popular to move in together. Besides, Saigon is big and many couples who have moved together from other provinces live together.”

Young people are dating more before marriage, having pre-marital sex, and have more outlets through the Internet to talk about the joys and problems of relationships than previous generations.

Parks in the city still called Saigon are popular at night among canoodling couples for whom privacy is a premium. Although economic change has altered the model of three generations living under one roof, it is still the norm for most.

Sitting on motorcycles with their backs to the road and oblivious to the surroundings, these couples are usually in their 20s, the age group that makes up more than half of Vietnam’s 85 million population.

In the heart of the capital, Hanoi, a tree-lined boulevard aptly named Thanh Nien (Young People) runs between two lakes and is known as a “lover’s lane” for romantic trysts. Couples cuddle and kiss on their bikes under the trees or in swan-shaped paddle boats out on the water.


The tradition dates back to the early 1980s when assignations were tacitly permitted by the straight-laced authorities, recalled sociologist Le Bach Duong.

“I still remember they would turn off the lights on Thanh Nien street at 7.30 or 8 at night so it was like an unwritten agreement between the electricity authority and the youth,” said Duong, director of the Institute for Social Development Studies.

“At midnight, they turned the lights back on again.”

Nowadays, the lights stay on.

It is all part of the socio-economic transformation in the communist-run country that was relatively isolated only 15 years ago after decades of war and economic failure.

“Somebody said it is a time of sexual revolution in Vietnam but it is a bit quieter than that, than what happened say in America in the 1960s and 1970s, but it’s growing,” said psychologist Khuat Thu Hong.

“It’s difficult to explain such a rapid change.”

The changes are especially sharp for single women, whose job opportunities and mobility have become equal to those of men in recent years of high economic growth and increased incomes as agrarian Vietnam moves toward industrialization.

Living arrangements are changing, especially for migrants who left home villages to study at university or work in offices and factories around the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City.

Internet chat rooms, web sites, blogs and columns in the state-run “mass media” have become forums for young people to discuss love and sex and sexual orientation.

Vietnamese say attitudes towards sex and relationships have become much more open. However, most preferred not to use their full names in interviews, a telling sign that traditional family values still hold sway.

One outspoken woman is Nhu Khue, a petite 30-year-old who writes her own blog and is an active member of a web site for women

“In Vietnam, old people still want girls to be virgins but times are changing,” she said.

Khue and others said that there is a perception that only Vietnamese women who date foreign men have pre-marital sex.


In general, Westerners living in Vietnam view Vietnamese as abiding by traditional norms, but it is not a prudish society.

“Rice six days a week and pho (noodle soup) on the seventh,” is a comment some Vietnamese make to indicate an extra-marital affair or liaisons with a prostitute.

Sharp beeps or vibrations on a married man’s mobile phone can elicit quips about “the cat” (lover) calling.

Research on youth by a variety of organizations show that young people are sexually active at the same age as their parents, but the difference is that their parents were married and they are not.

These and other phenomena indicate that sex is no longer seen just for reproduction of children or an heir to work the farm, but more than that, experts said.

“Through our counseling we hear a lot of young people both girls and boys, talk about their pleasure,” said Hoang Tu Anh, a medical doctor with the Consultation of Investment in Health Promotion non-governmental organization.

“In the last two or three years, there has been an upsurge in short stories or novels written by female writers on female sexuality,” Tu Anh said.

The group runs a web site that provides a forum for people to chat under the auspices of a moderator about marriage, relationships and reproductive and sexual health.

Donors such as the United Nations Population Fund and others back a Sunday evening call-in show on Voice of Vietnam radio called “Windows of Love”, a forum for people of all ages.

“It is quite remarkable that at least outwardly, all this change has not resulted in a break-up of social cohesion,” said Ian Howie, UNFPA representative in Vietnam. “The rapidity of change seems to have been accommodated.”