This may appear a classic “he said-she said” legal conundrum, but there are too many twists and turns that can disorient even the most attentive of viewers and listeners.
Truong Ho Phuong Nga, the 30-year-old "beauty", has been accused of swindling VND16.5 billion ($725,000) from a Vietnamese businessman in an alleged housing scam.
Cao Toan My, the plaintiff, 40, has pursued the case since 2015. Among his main evidence is the alleged proof that he sent her the money in 2013 to secure a home deal that he claimed never existed.
Nga and her high-profile defense team have argued that it’s not fraud because they were in an extramarital relationship and that it’s not wrong for her to receive money as gifts.
A court in Ho Chi Minh City is now trying to work out all the details and who to believe. But the main question is simple: Is this a case of fraud, or is it just a love affair gone bad?
Also standing trial is Nguyen Duc Thuy Dung, Nga’s friend who has been accused of abetting the alleged scam.
This has been one of the biggest celebrity legal cases in Vietnam’s modern history. It’s not on the same level of O J Simpson or Monica Lewinsky, but the media’s borderline obsessive coverage may suggest otherwise.
Videos of what happened inside the courtroom went viral and discussions of the case have dominated all platforms from social networks to drinking tables to legal forums. Memes inspired by the case are also widespread.
Moral and legal issues have gotten tangled up in this case, which possibly involve fraud, adultery, post-break up betrayal and coerced confessions.
Before the scandal, Nga was always in the public spotlight with various roles: winner of Miss Vietnam 2007 in Russia, an actress, a businesswoman, a multi-lingual intellectual, a model and a music lyricist. She has a dual Vietnamese-Russian citizenship.
In Vietnam, slut shaming is not uncommon, a harmful practice that thrives in the age of Internet, trolling and cyber bullying.
Vietnamese women in suspected extramarital affairs have almost always been unfairly condemned for infidelity. It should be noted that married people can face prison terms for cheating on their spouses, even though it’s still treated more as a moral issue.
Nga has somehow navigated this legal and PR crisis much better than most would expect, earning a surprisingly huge outpour of public support.
She smashed gender stereotypes and stunned the whole nation with a strangely calm composure and her delivery of soundbite-ready testimony. And those who had expected crying or begging were certainly disappointed.
While some Vietnamese may treat this case simply as gossip, the case has sparked a slate of serious conversations that the country needs.
It’s not only ready for a film script, but for lengthy studies on law, ethics, media coverage, female criminality and perhaps more importantly on how a society sees and chooses to see its women.
Our feelings were not the boyfriend-girlfriend type.Cao Toan My
I don’t trust the prosecutors. I have no responsibility to prove that I am innocent. That responsibility is for the prosecutors and investigators.Truong Ho Phuong Nga
When the court resumed on Thursday, June 29, a ruling was widely anticipated. But due to newly emerged allegations that the investigation might have been compromised, a mistrial was declared.
In what was deemed a temporary victory for Nga, she was immediately released to house arrest, pending further investigation.
That only means the case will continue to live in the public discourse for quite some time.
The Vietnamese will keep talking.
Story by Vi Vu. Nhung Nguyen contributed
Photos by Quynh Tran
Editor's note: The final part of the story was revised on June 30, 2017 to reflect the new developments in the case.