Prostitution in Saigon: sex trade finds a new face

By Duy Tran, Van Pham   July 16, 2016 | 01:01 am PT
More cafes go "decaf". More barbers offer the no-cut. Risks bubble.

Photo by VnExpress/Quoc Thang

Illegal in Vietnam, prostitution can still be found all over the country's biggest cities, with those controlling it coming up with countless ways to dodge the law and authorities seemingly helpless to stop its unchecked development.

There are shops in Saigon with “cafe” signs above them, but they won't take a drinks order. After some exchanges, girls show up grinding, sitting on and rubbing clients’ thighs. That was the insight given by an anti-prostitution official in Ho Chi Minh City.

At a recent conference to evaluate the city's efforts to curb what the authorities call "social evil" over the last six months, Tran Van Ngoi, a social affairs official in District 12, said that the number of so-called cafes offering girls had surpassed what inspectors are capable of checking. Along just a few kilometers of highway in his district, there are some 40 cafes that offer prostitution services, marked by two coconuts and a colored light at the front.

He said the cafes don’t do drinks, and there also barber shops full of girls but void of scissors and clippers, where female staff only offer massage sessions.

In central HCMC, prostitution has abandoned the streets and moved indoors, rendering most inspection efforts useless, said Le Thi Phuong Cham, another social affairs official in District 1. As it goes underground, prostitution is spreading across the whole city, said a representative of Cu Chi District’s social affairs agency.

According to Nguyen Thanh Huyen from HCMC’s Police Department, prostitution rings have gone online and are using social networks like Facebook and Zalo to woo clients. Sex tourism is also showing signs of returning.

HCMC has 17,545 businesses offering services likely to attract prostitutes such as clubs, bars, beer clubs and cafes.

As prostitution continues to grow, authorities are struggling to get a handle on it because as soon as they close down one brothel, others are alerted and shut down. A license revoked here will become another license issued there.

In the first half of 2016, inspectors checked 2,767 businesses and found more than half of them had violated regulations, fining them nearly VND11 billion ($500,000).

In 2013, Vietnam abolished compulsory rehabilitation for sex workers, slapping fines of $25 to $100 on them instead. The reason for the increase seems to be prostitutes returning to the streets after being encouraged to abandon their jobs and being given VND5 million ($240) for vocational training. The range of jobs available from this is narrow, and most of them pay a lot less than prostitution, according to a representative from HCMC’s Women's Union.

Concluding the conference, Huynh Thanh Khiet, vice director of the city's Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, said that the increase in prostitution was due to legal policies that do not give officials authority to punish prostitutes who don't pay their fines.

The city looks to compel all businesses offering services that could be linked to prostitution to sign an agreement not to do so and hang it on their shop fronts.

Vietnam's abolition of compulsory rehabilitation for sex workers in 2013 has since sparked fierce debates among researchers, officials and lawmakers on whether the country should legalize sex work.

Proponents of legalizing prostitution in Vietnam say the move is critical because it could significantly reduce the transmission of HIV among sex workers, citing studies that indicate that in places where prostitution is illegal, sex workers are more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases.

They also say even though Vietnam has declared its “war on prostitution”, it has continued to thrive anyway. The intent is not to stem prostitution, but to better manage it.

But those in the opposing camp are adamant that prostitution is an emblem of moral decadence and is strongly associated with organized crimes such as drug trafficking, human smuggling and money laundering.

Prostitution has been regulated by law in about 70 countries, including regional neighbor Singapore. The United Nations Development Program said in a report that sex is legally tradable in several countries in ASEAN, while all other activities such as soliciting prostitution or organized prostitution are not allowed.

Vietnam admits the presence of 33,000 sex workers, 2.6 percent of whom are HIV positive, according to official figures. Unofficial figures say there are 200,000 sex workers in Vietnam, 40 percent of whom are said to be HIV positive.

Of the estimated 250,000 Vietnamese suffering from HIV/AIDS, female sex workers are among the three most vulnerable groups, along with drug users and homosexual men.

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