Rice University, The Urban Institute*
Kimberly Hoang, Ph.D.
Chu Xanh, a wealthy local Vietnamese businessman, directed to me to translate this phrase to the eight Taiwanese businessmen he was entertaining one night. We were in Khong Sao, an exclusive cash-only bar reserved for an elite network of local Vietnamese and Asian men in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) who spent approximately US $1,000-US $2,000 per night. For the first two nights, Chu Xanh paid the bill in cash. That night however, Chu Xanh ordered the bar’s serviceman to show his Taiwanese partners the bill, but not allow them to pay—knowing full well the Taiwanese did not carry enough cash. He purposefully wanted to “see the shock on their face.”
The Taiwanese men were indeed shocked. When they nervously asked to split the bill, Chu Xanh informed them: “the Vietnamese do not split bills.” The female hostesses who accompanied the men at their table shifted their faces downwards while still looking upwards in order to subtly embarrass the eight men. As Chu Xanh pulled out a wad of cash, settled the bill, and also gave each of the female hostesses a VND$500,000 banknote (US $30), I translated his phrase.
Why did Chu Xanh set out to embarrass his Taiwanese business partners? According to Chu Xanh, “I have to show them that we are serious and that we have money…. I embarrassed them on purpose because I want them to know that Vietnam is not poor.” Chu Xanh, and many other men I encountered during my fieldwork, was asserting his masculinity and demonstrating his masculine superiority. The elite bar with its accompanying female hostesses provided the stage for this display.
It is also important to understand Chu Xanh’s actions in the context of Vietnam’s economic rise. For 22 months, I worked as a hostess and bartender in several bars that represented four niche markets of HCMC’s sex industry, which is where financial investments and transactions are frequently made. My fieldwork occurred during two particular timeframes – 2006-2007 and 2009-2010, which was before and after the 2008 financial crisis. When I returned to HCMC in 2009, American and European markets had declined, while the rise of Vietnam’s market was barely impacted by the crash. In 2009, local, elite Vietnamese businessmen were far more dominant than western expatriates whose capital was no longer as valuable. Chu Xanh’s actions asserted this new dominance.
The financial crisis’s impact on assertions of masculinity and dominance was apparent in all sectors of the sex industry that I studied. In Khong Sao, the middle managers who accompanied their bosses into the bar could not afford the exorbitant cost of table service and the accompaniment of the hostesses. Instead, they displayed their masculinity through other ways, namely by grabbing the hostess’s breasts, kissing them, and touching them inappropriately. Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) men, who frequented a bar called Lavender, also found ways to capitalize on Vietnam’s rise. In order to differentiate themselves from the bar’s Western clients, the Viet Kieu men performed aggressive displays of consumption: they ordered bottle service, such as US$150 bottles of Belvedere Vodka, instead of individual drinks, and observed tipping rituals. As a result, bouncers gave them VIP access and female hostesses feigned special interest and gave preferential treatment. However, the Viet Kieu clients were aware of their inferiority to the elite local Vietnamese businessmen due to the losing value of their Western dollars.
The Western clients expressed their feelings of loss and inadequacy in the new economy through different assertions of masculinity. The Western expats who frequented the bar Secrets were disappointed at working in HCMC instead of a more global city, such as Hong Kong or New York City—oftentimes they had lost former, more lucrative banking jobs to the financial crisis. These men made up for their losses by asserting dominance over the Vietnamese hostesses, such as speaking to them in Vietnamese in order to force the use of Vietnamese honorifics. And Western backpackers who frequented the budget bar Naughty Girls came to Vietnam to experience a Third World fantasy by capitalizing on wage differentials and the higher value of their Western dollars. Many of these men were also not able to achieve their economic ideals either, such as their desire to be the breadwinner husband to a homemaker wife. They could, however, potentially afford to do so in Vietnam, and spoke of their desire in racialized terms—they thought they could better satisfy Vietnamese women sexually due to their perceived stronger sexual prowess and economically due to their perceptions of Vietnam as a still-developing country. The female sex workers in Naughty Girls fulfilled these fantasies in return for remittances and other financial resources—they strategically darkened their skin and wore more revealing versions of “traditional” dress based on what the Western clients expressed as desirable.
The men in all four niches of HCMC’s sex industry asserted, displayed, and contested their masculinity in the physical space of the bars which they frequented and the female hostesses they encountered. The elite Vietnamese and Viet Kieu men contested Western superiority and demonstrated their newfound dominance through consumption and ritual familiarity, while the Western expatriates and backpackers compensated for their declining fortunes through re-assertions of their dominance over the female hostesses. HCMC’s sex industry, therefore, was more than just a space for financial transactions—it was also the space in which intersecting and competing hierarchies of masculinities were reaffirmed and declared in a shifting global economy.
For more on the embodiment practices of the hostesses who worked in each type of bar, see Differing Feminine Ideals in Various Sectors of Vietnam’s Sex Industry.
For more stories like these, check out:
Hoang, Kimberly Kay. 2015. Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. Oakland: University of California Press
Hoang, Kimberly Kay. 2014. "Flirting with Capital: Negotiating Perceptions of Pan-Asian Ascendency and Western Decline in Global Sex Work." Social Problems 61 (4):507-529.
*The views expressed here are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Urban Institute.