I must admit, when asked to write an article on female safety in Vietnam, I laughed. Just one article? Not a novel? Not a series of articles? Just one? Where do I even begin?
Coming from Australia, I’m certainly no stranger to ogling eyes, cat calls, and some excuses which casually run along the lines of ‘boys will be boys’. I’ve been told to take harassment as a compliment, and it’s even been suggested I will miss the attention once I’m old and grey. This desensitization to casual sexual harassment starts early and internalizes fast for most women. In other words; don’t complain, instead, feel lucky.
Some readers might disagree, but as part of the basic furniture inside every woman’s head, there’s this flashing neon sign reading ‘I am a female, I am alone’. God forbid, we be caught without company, in public, like sitting ducks. Remember, “earphones in but music off”, eyes down but stay alert, and your phone is your friend.
Not to mention, ‘someone’ is always waiting for you at the next coffee shop down the road (if anyone dares ask).
So I packed my bags for Vietnam, and made to sure to include a ‘leave me the hell alone’ resting face – along with plenty of sturdy, proverbial walls. I was ready to move abroad, solo.
The guard I created and put up was not specifically gender related, though. To be perfectly honest, concerns for my risk and safety as a lone female were lower on the list. At that point, I was more concerned with avoiding cliché travel mistakes like scams or thieves. I was 23 years old and by that time, I thought that I was already very well versed in cautious, self-preserving behavior. I had to deal with life admin.
I first had to navigate the bustling city that is Saigon, get a tiny apartment, and land a job. Once I’d done that, I made some interesting friends and settled in and was finally able to find the time to observe two ends of the social spectrum – local VN culture, and expat culture.
Not All Men
As I get into the nitty gritty details, it is the begrudging and reluctant obligation of every woman who shares her experiences to say “Yes, I know. Not all men.”
Before any male readers find themselves outraged at the notion that the female population be wary of men, please bear in mind I am sharing my stories. This article is not intended solely for women – I would hope that male readers also learn something from this. No woman reading this will learn something they don’t know already, trust me. But, on the flipside, I have spent years trying to explain my position to male friends, but being a woman and facing sexism can often be an accumulation of hundreds of daily subtleties which would be unseen to innocent male eyes.
So, into the nitty gritty, I must go.
What the Police Have to Offer
Expat life gives you a strong sense of freedom, but this freedom also applies to other expats and their interests. Some might stay long term, but the majority of foreigners here in Vietnam will be quite transient. Locals may view you as here for a good time, and not for a long time (long enough to make a police report anyway).
Local culture is outside of my grasp to properly comment on, but from what I understand, there are widespread issues with domestic violence, sexual assault and rape. I understand there are few solutions fdrior victims and police tend to see domestic issues as personal, family problems. Even crimes of sexual assault are filed under civil charges, which as an additional insult to injury, only get fined the equivalent of 8USD.
The VN police have only recently set up guidelines on how to handle domestic abuse against children. It’s a good development as most things go, but that conference was just in 2019.
Additionally, police training is almost non-existent in dealing with victims of rape and sexual assault, meaning the crimes are greatly under reported. Even the UK government has to spell this out:
Please be aware that few Vietnamese police officers have received special training in handling rape and sexual assault cases, and you are likely to experience a lack of professionalism when reporting an incident to the police.https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rape-and-sexual-assault-in-vietnam-information-for-victims/vietnam-information-for-victims-of-rape-and-sexual-assault
With this shining example from local law enforcement, we can see why some male expats feel comfortable with flying their creep flag. Perhaps it’s also a case of Vietnam already being so overrun with certain negative behaviors, that many of these individuals manage to fly under the radar.
Expat Life in Asia
I’m certainly not claiming to be an expert on the every single facet of culture amongst all expat groups here in Saigon either, so I’ll just focus on what I’ve learnt, personally.
A lot things about expat life can prove to be a good test of individual self control, and perhaps even “morals”. One very common way you can see this with expat life in Vietnam is the drinking culture.
Venues will serve unlimited amounts of alcohol, I have never heard the words ‘cut off’ in this country, you drink at your own risk and even past any ounce of rational thought. Hell, you can still order another beer whilst being held up by the bar. Traffic laws are a case of being in the right place at the right time, look left and right for police, then zoom along on your merry way.
Sure, silly fun and games… but let’s take it further. Scrolling through my social media, I see many posts from people hunting for:
- Expats who have fled the country while still owing months in rent.
- Expats who have borrowed money from locals, then fled the country.
- Expats who have rented motorbikes, never returned them, then fled the country.
- Expats who received an advance on their salary, never showed up to work again, then fled the country.
I’m not sure of the outcome of the above situations, but I am fairly certain of one thing; the majority do not get caught.
Freedom. This is the foundation of expat life and is something I really love about life here in most regards. Complete autonomy. You are solely responsible to look out for yourself, and this has helped me build a backbone over the years. As an expat, I recognize that I live but a fleeting moment in my time overseas. Perhaps there are some people who might feel the same, just that the result is they feel they can treat others just as fleetingly.
As an expat, you are accountable for your actions only when you show your face or reveal your location. There seems to be a undercurrent of “if you can get away with it, then give it a try”.
This attitude might lead to some actions that fall through the cracks of common decency, and my god, those cracks can run deep. Expat society in many regards is not governed by national laws or social consequence, but merely each living by our own moral compass.
Legal paternalism is perhaps a newer concept in Vietnam, and has yet to reach smaller, expat bubbles. I would argue some travel to Vietnam for this exact reason. There’s a reason then why amongst expat circles you will find those who are simply “too strange” for their home countries find solace in the “anything goes” land of Vietnam.
Let’s Say It Again: Not All Men
I will never know for sure, whether predators move to Vietnam to seek “freedom” to act as predators, or whether they just develop new opinions which are shaped when they’re already foreigners in a foreign land. Men traveling to Asia to objectify women is not news.
No, not all men who move to Vietnam have this goal, but the vibe is very much alive. Whatever the case, I know predatory behavior is rampant, and unfortunately crammed behind closed doors – which are just about ready to burst.
It’s hard to report less noticeable tactics such as:
- Stalking your social media to attend the same events as you
- Gaslighting and guilting you by saying ‘I’m just being nice’
- Befriending your male friends for free entry into your social circle
- Breaching your personal space during a social gathering
Believe it or not, when you’re around others, it’s much harder to speak up and point out predatory behavior, just to avoid causing a scene. Because at the end of the day, if he’s such a nice guy to everyone else but you, then you must be the problem.
Adding another chip to my delicate, feminine shoulder, I am surrounded by sexist, slapdash quips inferring women exist only to look good and satisfy the male gaze. “Give us a smile”. This is hugely ingrained in culture: you must serve your purpose and be easy on the eye. Perhaps this is not just here, perhaps it’s everywhere.
It may seem as though I am making small, insignificant observations here and there. Sure, I am indeed making small observations – but these small behaviors are carried into our culture and society in general. Perhaps, now we can see how this sort of atmosphere that’s unfriendly to females is created.
Comments and Consequences
On the lower end of the scale, there are comments. On the higher end of the scale, there are actions. I strongly believe actions begin with comments. I strongly believe comments begin with culture. I strongly believe that culture determines consequences. And I strongly believe consequences can determine the actions of an individuals.
As mentioned earlier, consequences for anti-social sexual behavior are few and far between. The culture here seems to dictate you are solely responsible for your experiences, whether or not in your control. Women are often blamed and shamed for being victims, whilst also getting questioned and treated with doubt.
Whereas “men will be men”, and they will act accordingly.
It seems as if predatory behavior is seen as a crime of opportunity, and how dare we as women provide those opportunities?
Things That Have Happened
Given I am a 30-year-old woman who enjoys solo travel, I have experienced both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between. If the reader takes only one thing from this article, then remember this: it is simply impossible to safeguard yourself from 100% of harassment and assault.
I’ve taken Grab bikes where the driver has constantly shifted backwards into me, reached behind him to search for something (it’s certainly not in my lap, mate).
I’ve taken grab bikes where they tell me the ride is free in exchange for a kiss, or drivers who save your phone number and message sweet nothings at midnight.
I always share my grab ride information with close, trusted friends but what can they do whilst we are on the road? Should I take a grab car to feel safer? Locked inside a small compartment with a stranger is surely a better option.
I’ve done many solo motorbike trips around the country and been amazed at how kind local people can be, helping me when I’m lost or pushing my broken bike to a mechanic. Regardless of how many nice encounters you have though, the one that sticks out in my mind is the Vietnamese guy who pulled up beside me on a quiet beach road and exposed himself. Something to write home about.
I’ve been out for dinner and drinks with friends and encountered a drunken father of one of my kindergarten students. I’m guessing he did not recognise Teacher Sam at the bar when he suddenly put his hand on my thigh and squeezed. Imagine my lack of surprise when reading a news story, in which he groped a woman in an elevator at Sun Avenue and got away with an $8USD fine. Lesson learnt, I’m sure.
These offenders are not one in a million, or even random attacks, they are everywhere and sometimes the people you know.
Even in a professional setting, you can get burnt. Scratch that, especially in professional settings you can get burnt.
Nobody wants to muddy the business waters with an accusation of sexual assault. No one likes a whistleblower and I’ve certainly internalized the shame and guilt of being sexually assaulted during a work assignment. At the time it felt like I had the dilemma of sweeping the incident under the rug in order to keep my job. At the same time, I was too ashamed to share the gruesome details with my company.
I don’t think anyone realized the affect it had and will continue to have. Speaking up can mean reliving the trauma, it can also mean you leave yourself open to scrutiny.
It’s depressing to think there will be at least one person out there who will justify the man’s actions or question mine. Because chasing a fleeing woman down the street on your scooter, trying to drag her back to your hotel, could only hold good intentions.
Which brings me to my next point, I will never forget the uncomfortable faces of the bar staff who watched this man drag me onto his scooter, kicking and screaming. They watched helplessly and wordlessly.
Why Do Women Get Asked These Questions?
I don’t blame them. This is the culture; you don’t intervene in the personal problems of others. I’m actually sorry for them. I’m sorry they had to see that. I’m sorry they were conflicted. And I’m sorry they still don’t know whether I survived or not.
I’ve been taught my entire life to look out for myself and I’m tired. I’m tired of being asked:
- how was I dressed
- how well did I know the perpetrator
- how much have I had to drink
- why did I trust the man in question
- whether I really want to ruin this great guy’s reputation.
Let me answer those questions with more questions. How can I avoid taking grab bikes, getting a drink at a bar, attending business meetings, riding a motorbike on the road, going for a walk, running in the park, going to the gym? These are standard daily activities. Are women expected to lock themselves indoors? Wear winter coats in the Saigon heat? Never leave the house without male company or hire a security guard?
It often feels women are expected to live these half-lives due to the threat of men. I would love to see how a man would react if told to avoid these things.
The imbalance of power and blame is so strong it’s sickening.
You can never escape it, regardless of what role you are in or what figurative mask you wear. It puts you on edge and suddenly every stranger could be danger. Something as nonchalant as a smile could be leading someone on.
Don’t ever wonder why a woman walks around with a perpetual scowl on her face, it acts as a repellant.
To add a tiny sliver of silver lining to these storm clouds, it does make all the difference to have male friends who you know and trust. Although, not without frustration. Men seem to respect other men, but not women. When in the company of male friends, I am off limits and protected, maybe even spoken for.
The difference is palpable and also, instant.
I am a huge fan of road trips, camping and exploring the beaten paths. Regardless of gender, we all practice safety in numbers. However, I will never forget the immediate change in atmosphere when being left to ‘man the campsite’ whilst others ran out for supplies. Suddenly, I was alone and a target, easy pickings to surrounding campers (mostly male).
Trying to relay the discomfort and fear when my friends returned was hopeless. How can they see what doesn’t happen when they are there? It’s like trying to explain you saw a ghost, but it’s gone now.
Resources and A Few Closing Thoughts
I began this article thinking I could educate women in safety whilst living in Vietnam and enjoying themselves. Now, I have hit a wall and have come to the morbid realisation there are no sure-fire ways to protect yourself unless you avoid all of the male population, or simply life itself.
Perhaps this is why this needs to be a collective solution. I am not a woman against men, I am a woman against assault.
I do implore male readers to notice all the small comments, the small actions and the small behaviours that all add to the greater picture. Listen to your female friends and don’t wave off concerns as paranoia.
And for the female readers: we need to have male allies in this struggle for change and improvement. We simply cannot create change without a collective effort.
Refusing to end on a low note, I would like to promote local and international efforts in Vietnam for all victims of violence. I feel Vietnam is a long way from radical change, even further from proper legislation, but nonetheless, it seems the tides are being shifted both internally and externally.
For victims of sexual assault or rape, it is recommended you go to your own embassy to report the perpetrator. To quote the UK Government website yet again:
The local authorities rarely speak good English, are difficult to contact, and are not experienced in dealing directly with foreigners, so we suggest you speak to us before attempting to contact them.Vietnam: information for victims of rape and sexual assault – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
You can also get support with the Fexpats Group in Saigon.
Lastly, there are also NGOs such as Planete Enfants et Developpement, and even smaller, local community support groups for victims are making great differences in lives. For those who might find it useful, Planete Enfants has an office in HCMC.
You are able to contact the organizations directly and even anonymously for all types of support.
If we are to look at the root causes of the problems, I believe it is not as simple as sexual misbehaviour. As a systemic problem; we need to create a stronger foundation and education for every individual, male and female of course.
I believe it begins with discussion and acknowledgement of what is happening to so many. Yet, we must not limit these discussions to only women. Unless the whole population becomes aware to the severity of the situation, change will not happen. I believe one of many first steps is involving men in these discussions.
Providing all victims with a voice, a way to move forward, and a way to heal is obviously tantamount to healing as a community and understanding the effects of these issues. After all, it’s not an individual woman’s suffering but as a collective, and as a community.
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Beautifully-written and so important. Thank you for writing this, Sam.
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