Vietnamese brides find out it's not milk and honey in foreign lands

By Phan Duong   April 21, 2022 | 09:19 pm PT
Nguyen Hai Van used to think that her marriage to a South Korean architect was a "stairway to heaven" before discovering he was a grumpy farmer.

When the girl from the northern Hai Duong Province graduated high school, her family encouraged her to marry a foreigner.

She agreed because her two cousins had wed South Koreans and did not have to go for work after their marriage. Yet they were sending money home to their parents and visiting home every year.

A matchmaker introduced her to "an architect living in Seoul, earning ₩40 million (US$32,000) a year."

Van was 19 years old at the time of the wedding in 2016 and 13 years younger than her husband.

When she arrived in South Korea, she realized she had been duped. Her husband was a farmer in the countryside and not an architect.

Things got worse. She was not allowed to spend money, use the phone or go out, and had to do everything under strict supervision. Her grumpy and irritable husband constantly yelled at her and beat her.

Things got worse when she failed to give birth to a son as he wanted, and he treated her worse by the day.

She endured it for two years because she did not want her family to be concerned or her friends to mock her.

He beat her on New Year's Eve in 2018 after she refused his demand for sex.

"He broke a picture frame of me and my mother and told me not to expect to go home without a son," she recalls amid sobs.

She wanted out by then.

She managed to call a lawyer in Vietnam, Le Hong Hien, and reveal her circumstances.

After her call, Hien, of the Hanoi Bar Association, went to Hai Duong to collect her marriage documents, other evidence and filed for a unilateral divorce.

"This was not just a divorce; it was about saving lives," Hien says, adding that most Vietnamese women who marry through matchmaking do not understand the law and believe they cannot get a divorce once they are married and their husbands keep their documents.

Van is one of thousands of Vietnamese women who have married South Korean men through matchmaking services.

Many live happily of course, but there are also those that face discrimination and abuse and even die at the hands of their foreign husbands.

A 2017 survey by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea found more than 42 percent of foreign brides facing physical, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse.

The rate was only around 29 percent if the wife was Korean.

Over the course of her 10-year career, Hien has assisted in hundreds of divorce cases involving foreign couples, primarily Vietnamese women who married through matchmaking in Asian countries.

"Most of them are disillusioned, having been duped into marrying in remote rural areas where they must serve their husbands and care for their elderly in-laws. In many cases, they are like maids".

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of Vietnamese women marrying men from Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

According to Ministry of Public Security statistics, since 2008 around 18,000 Vietnamese citizens married foreigners every year, 72 percent of them women.

The General Department of Population said following a 2018 study that the number of Vietnamese brides in Taiwan and South Korea exceeded 170,000.

A few years ago South Korea's rural areas began to face a gender imbalance, and the government encouraged men to marry through matchmakers, paying them ₩4-6 million if a Korean male farmer was successfully married to a foreign woman.

Vietnamese brides accounted for the largest number as of 2018 in South Korea: more than 6,300 out of a total of 16,600.

But even women who marry for love and not through matchmaking find entering a multinational marriage in a new environment difficult.

Phuong, 32, has been married to a Japanese man for five years, four of which were spent in Vietnam when they had a happy life.

When the couple returned to Japan after the husband's contract expired in 2019, conflicts began to erupt between them. He went from being a gentle, quiet person to a man in a rage, and quarreled with his wife every day after returning from work.

After a few quarrels, he threw her out of the house one night, and even forbid her from seeing her child.

"I felt cheated and betrayed when my husband transformed into a different person," the Hanoi woman says.

She intended to divorce as soon him as possible and bring her child back to Vietnam.

On the sixth day her husband returned home from work, apologized to her, and suggested that the two should sit down and reconcile.

Meanwhile, their daughter became ill with a fever and diarrhea. Phuong wanted to take the child to the hospital, but he refused.

She took her child to the hospital and then to a hotel to spend the night.

"He tracked me using GPS and told the police that I had abducted my child, resulting in my daughter being taken to a child protection center."

The three-year-old girl was separated from her parents for three weeks.

Both of them adored their kid, and for her sake hoped to reconcile.

Phuong was not with her husband during this episode, and had time to reflect on her marital relationship.

She could feel some sympathy for her husband since he had to adjust to a new working environment and was under a lot of pressure to put food on the family table.

"I realized one characteristic of Japanese husbands was that they often overthink in a crisis," she says.

After doing some introspection of his own, her husband apologized to her and offered several solutions to save the relationship like discussing all their worries, being clear about expenses and making more friends to expand their social life.

Counseling sessions at the child protection center also helped alleviate some of his distress.

Linh Nhi, 31, of HCMC, was once of the firm opinion she would only marry a foreign man since she was haunted by her patriarchal, domineering father who frequently used to whip his wife and children. But after a few dates with western men, she changed her mind.

"From my experience of dating two foreign men for quite some time I found they are not loyal," she says.

"When I was dating a French guy, he kept seeing a slew of other girls".

In 2018 she met and fell in love with an American man, and they even planned to get married.

But they ended up parting ways since they could not see eye to eye on handling money.

They lived together, equally dividing all expenses despite being engaged.

"He later told me he wanted a pre-nuptial contract before we settled down in the U.S. saying he will be the sole owner of his parent's house when they pass away instead of splitting the ownership.

"I was offended. I planned to accompany him to America for love and not for his money".

Nhi, who works for a multinational company, says she decided to call off the marriage, fearing the differences between them would be irreconcilable if they ended up marrying each other and she could be stranded in a foreign country.

"Now it doesn't matter to me if my husband is foreign or [Vietnamese]".

On forums and social networking groups, ‘Western and Vietnamese men’ is a highly popular topic.

Nguyen Kim Oanh and her Sweden husband during a trip to central Khanh Hoa Province. Photo courtesy of Oanh

Nguyen Kim Oanh and her Swedish husband during a trip to Khanh Hoa Province. Photo courtesy of Oanh

Nguyen Kim Oanh, author of the book 'Yeu Di Dung So' (Don't Be Afraid To Love) and 'Lam Phu Nu Khong Kho Ti Nao' (Be a Woman Without Suffering), says she frequently gets questions from women about this topic.

Hoang Anh Tu, a journalist and public speaker, says foreign men might be more gallant than Vietnamese, but if a woman marries solely for that, she is doomed from the start.

"There are good and bad foreign men. Abusive men can be from any nationality".

A Vietnamese woman faces some uncertainty when marrying a foreign husband since she often does not know foreign languages and about cultural differences, especially when in a foreign land.

The reverse is also of course true.

For instance, when a Vietnamese husband is reprimanded by his wife, he often laughs it off since it is arguably part of the marital landscape, but a western could construe it as an insult or abuse, Tu points out.

"Many of my friends marry foreign husbands for love and not because they want to marry foreigners. However, many say marrying foreigners is not as dreamy as it sounds."

He is unambiguous in his opinion that women should only marry for love and not other purposes like foreign nationality for their kids or because western men are more gallant than Vietnamese.

Oanh, who is married and lives in Switzerland, says in order to not feel disappointed, women should consider men for who they are and not for their origin, background, skin color, job, or religion.

"Of course, you can use those factors as a guide to see if he's the right match for you, but don't use them to judge someone".

Van returned home safely a few months after being assisted by Hien.

"You gave birth to me again," she told Hien when they met each other again in Vietnam.

Indeed, on that New Year's Eve, she desperately looked for phone numbers all over Korea and Vietnam to call, but only Hien answered the phone and advised her not to think about doing anything foolish.

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