The trial that all Vietnamese are talking about, explained

A suspenseful courtroom drama between a ‘beauty’ and a ‘businessman’ that has turned legal and moral standards on their heads.

Who’s who

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.

  • March 2015

    Nga was arrested as police built a criminal case after she reportedly confessed to the alleged fraud.

  • September 3, 2016

    Formal fraud charges were filed.

  • September 21, 2016

    The case went to trial for the first time in Ho Chi Minh City. Nga took the stand and retracted her confession, saying it had been coerced.

    She insisted that she was a lover of the plaintiff.

    The trial ended after the panel of judges ordered a fresh investigation.

  • September 2016

    Around this time, Internet users started sharing what appeared to be a “50 Shades”-esque sex contract between the accused and the plaintiff.

  • June 22, 2017

    The trial resumed, this time evoking massive interest from the media. Over the following week, reporters packed the courtroom and provided up-to-the-minutes updates.

    Public reactions began to build up, so did concerns about trial by media and potential undue influence.

  • June 23, 2017

    My, the plaintiff, rejected allegations of a love affair.

    Nga refused to answer most of the questions, saying she had the right to remain silent.

  • June 26, 2017

    Nga started answering questions. She threatened to countersue My for defamation.

  • June 27, 2017

    A mysterious witness was subpoenaed but refused to appear publicly. From a room, the woman answered questions, only to muddy the waters.

    Nga accused this witness of fabricating evidence to help the plaintiff frame her.

    The court decided to take a one-day break.

Why everybody is interested

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

What's next

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.

By Vi Vu