Dating in a new culture is like finding one’s self as a Stranger in a Strange Land. As any local might tell you, it’s “same same … but different!”
My friend Bill is going through the meat grinder again. But it’s his own damn fault.
Bill is 40, a never-married British-Australian man who, ever since I met him a year and a half ago, has been in a constant state of relationship crisis.
He came to Vietnam in October 2019 to pursue an affair that began online. When that foundered, he discovered the hostess bars and massage salons, and quickly learned that sex is far less expensive when you’re not buying lady drinks, when you just get right down to business.
Bill subsequently had a lot of coffee dates with Tinder links that led either nowhere or to doomed dinners. He went out for a brief time with lovely Nguyet, but that soured when he realized that her unexplained wealth could be explained by her association with organized crime. He fell madly in love with Thuy, owner of a bar on the infamous Bui Vien walking street, but their 10 weeks of passion came to an abrupt halt when Bill tearfully confessed he got terribly jealous every time Thuy chatted up a customer in her bar, and he “got even” by getting drunk with a hooker down the block.
He doesn’t let go easily. A social worker by profession, Bill is a highly emotional fellow. He knows that he wears his heart on his sleeve. He desperately wants a girlfriend. But binge drinking isn’t helping his quest. And it has gotten worse since he lost his younger brother to illness in Australia last year. He expects every woman he meets to not just sympathize, but to soothe his tortured soul. And not a lot of women have the ability to do that in a second language.
Bill is still angry at Jane, his first Vietnamese girlfriend who continually berated him for his drinking behavior. Their affair led him to the conclusion that Viet women don’t understand him, and perhaps don’t try. It’s true that empathy sometimes seems in short supply. Then again, try walking in the shoes of someone whose every step sloshes.
Pressure to marry
As in any culture, each woman is different from the next, and every man is different. That said, Vietnam is decidedly more socially conservative than Western countries. Family ties are extremely strong here. Parental opinions matter a great deal. Young women, even more than their brothers, are under tremendous pressure to marry young (almost upon graduation, if they’ve gone to university) and start a family.
Those who do wed young often regret their decisions. Again and again, I have met single mothers with school-age children who choose to work in career-oriented positions rather than be supported by breadwinner husbands. Five years seems to be a common threshold for women to cut the matrimonial knot. With marriage behind them, these women often take lovers, even if they still live with husbands who accept the arrangement.
Before marriage, premarital sex for fun is frowned upon, or at least is made extremely difficult by watchful parents. Girls barely out of their teens, who may leave their homes in rural provinces to hustle drinks in Saigon hostess bars, often refuse lucrative propositions until their suitor has met the hometown family.
Of course, there are the pay-for-play girls, who either negotiate independently in bars or work in massage parlors. Many of them speak excellent English or another language spoken by visiting businessmen who frequent their bars: Chinese, Japanese or Korean. If they’re lucky, they might find a paramour, or several, who will (let’s call it what it is) keep them on a retainer until their next visit, and beyond. One of these swain might indeed come carrying a “golden ticket” to financial freedom and a life overseas.
Practical makes perfect
And then there are the exceptions, the bright young university grads who move to Ho Chi Minh City or to Hanoi for career opportunities rather than husband-hunting. They are far more open to liberal Western attitudes toward dating. If I were my friend Bill, or any other lovelorn Westerner in search of an enduring coupling, these are the women I’d want to meet.
Now, don’t ever blunder by underestimating a Vietnamese woman. Make no mistake: They run this country. Many of their menfolk may be irresponsible oafs, spending hard-earned dong on beer, gambling or “massages,” but the women maintain a keen sense of how to manage a family or a business. They often are well-schooled in investment and real estate. They understand how to work the “system” — in other words, which palms to grease and when. Is it legal? Oh, hell, no. But forget about ethics. By Vietnamese standards, it is the way business is done.
In a word, Vietnamese women are practical. Ruthless, many times, but practical. When Diem, my first semi-serious Saigon girlfriend, decided she was done with the relationship, she simply emptied her things out of my closet and texted me a “goodbye” later that day. It was straight out of a Paul Simon song: Just drop off the key, Lee. Was it cold? Obviously. Did it hurt? Of course. But it was certainly practical: Don’t need to discuss much. In retrospect, it was the same way Diem told me she had left her husband years earlier, with a message that said little more than “I’ve got the girl, you keep the boy.”
I was lucky. I’ve heard other versions of this story from foreigners whose longtime girlfriends and sometimes spouses had left in similar fashion, clearing out their joint bank accounts as they did so. In such cases, the law doesn’t offer a lot of protection to foreign nationals.
Savvy at seventy
My own love life in this Southeast Asian country has presented challenges of its own, but nothing like Bill’s. I have found it remarkably easy to meet beautiful women — smart, sane, often stubbornly sassy women — without many of the traumas that my friend continues to experience.
And consider that I am 70 years old. Age is not the stigma in dating that it is in the United States or elsewhere in the Western world. Since my arrival in Vietnam, I have dated women in their 50s, 40s, 30s and 20s, all of them gorgeous. There was the real-estate broker, the corporate CFO, the ballroom dancer, the singer-actress, the plastic surgeon, the model, the screenwriter, the professor. All of them are quality women. I would probably still be with the last of them had I not been transferred to a different city.
My current girlfriend, a business owner, is 25 years my junior. She trains me in yoga, practices physical therapy and Oriental folk medicine on my willing body, cleans, shops and cooks delicious traditional Vietnamese meals. I know I’ve said it before, but I think I’ll keep this one.
**Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty.