Monday, May 25, 2009

Prostitutes, Part 2: The Girlfriend Experience

I was sitting in an Indian restaurant, celebrating the fact that my diahhrea had cleared up, when they came in: an older American man and a and a younger local woman. After two months in this city, I was fairly sure I knew what was going on - she was the second variety of Saigonese prostitute, the kind favoured by older, better-moneyed men, who don't just pay for sex, but also pay for companionship.

As I strained to hear their conversation - always stilted and awkward, and always a source of mirth for me - I learned what a fool I was. I couldn't hear much through the din of the restaurant except one sentence – “you’re so much like your father was during the war.”

Oops. What I had assumed to be a dinner between a prostitute and her client was actually a heartfelt meeting between an ex-soldier and the daughter of his compatriate, who I assume had been in the South Vietnamese army.

Clearly, it is unfair to assume – as my experience indicates – that every white/local combination is paid for at an hourly rate (or nightly rate; I’m not really sure how the transaction works). But exceptions notwithstanding, there are a large amount of couples in and around the tourist area who have met through an agency, an agency that doesn't just sell sex, but rather sells a full girlfriend experience.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell an actual date from a rented one. For one, legitimate dates sit across from their partners. Prostitutes sit next to them. Obviously, really – they’re not here for conversation.Also, they cannot keep their hands off their men, who sit there nonchalantly, passively accepting all the massages but never reciprocating them.

When they do speak to their girlfriend-for-the-evening they refuse to look at her. Rather, they look at their meal or straight forward to a point in the distance. Their overall demeanor is that of a reluctant hero, of someone who would rather not have a woman hanging onto his every word and limb, but whose combination of stellar looks and scrumptious pheromones have made it his cross to bear. It's an elaborate, unnecessary charade, as everyone, from restaurant employees to passers-by, knows the truth.

Essentially every restaurant in Saigon's tourist has at least one of these "couples." The man will be middle-aged or older, and the woman in her twenties or very well-taken-care-of thirties. They’ll sit next to one another, and eat their meals.

They’ll behave in one of two ways. Both seem, to me, absolutely excruciating. Some customers will regale their contractor with stories and jokes, deliberately oblivious to the fact that she does not have anywhere near a strong enough command of English to understand them. She does, however, know exactly when to laugh and when to appear suitably impressed.

Other customers, however (mostly older, seasoned veterans of the game) do not have such illusions, which makes me wonder why they bother with the whole charade anyway. They sit there, in absolute silence, eating their meal while their prostitute sits beside them (never across from them) and does the same.

No matter which template the customer has decided to follow, the prostitute will be unable to keep her hands off her man. If they’re talking (rather, if he’s talking), she’ll underscore her laughter and amazement by constantly grabbing at his limbs and touching his chest in a lingering semi-massage. If they’re the non-speaking variety, her hand never strays from his neck, his back, his thigh, and, bizarrely, his face.

It’s this latter one that I really don’t understand. I’m not averse to public displays of affection by any means. It’s just the pragmatics of it – do these guys really need to be touched on their face while they eat? Do they really enjoy that? Personally, I wouldn't be that into someone massaging my face while I try to chew. But then, I’m not the kind of guy who rents the girlfriend experience. I say that with considerable smugness and an overwhelming feeling of superiority.

Paying someone to laugh at your jokes makes at least a little sense. I’m lucky enough to be someone who tells funny jokes, so I don’t require this service. Not everyone is blessed as me, though, so they pay for it. Fair enough.

But the non-speakers. Why do they pay for their prostitute to just sit next to them and touch them? Clearly, they don’t require the validation that the other guys do. Wouldn’t it be more efficient, not to mention cost-effective and less awkward, to simply eat alone, then hire a prostitute? They must enjoy simply having a woman next to them, even if they don't really do anything. It's just paying for presence.

I think these women have a harder job than the streetwalkers, and I hope they're appropriately better-compensated. Lying down and allowing someone to have his way with you is hard enough; pretending to be enthralled by all his stories, rendered speechless with laughter at his jokes, overcome with lust at his body, and then lying down at the conclusion of the whole show is something completely different.

This was made abundantly clear when I found myself sitting in the same cafĂ© as an elderly Australian man and his contracted girlfriend. They were sitting in silence, as is par for the course, when he, out of nowhere, absolutely lost his cool. “Where is my 100,000 dong!?” He yelled at her. “It was in my wallet! Where is it?!”

The girl – she can’t have been older than me – protested that she didn’t know anything about it, but the man persisted. “You have it! You stole it!”

This went on and on, over an amount that is equivalent to scarcely more than US$5, and he used it as a platform to move onto other grievances. “You think you’re so sexy that you can get any man! Well you can’t! You can’t have me!”

The woman decided that life was too short for this, and calmly stood up to leave, which brought a degree of truth to the man's allegations.

As she was walking out, her client followed her, repeating his stunning insight over and over. She continued to ignore him, and he became more and more distraught, revealing his crippling speech impediment. Stuttering and stumbling in his old, decrepit, beaten-down frame, he stopped at the top of the stairs (which he was unable to go down without assistance) and shouted, as a parting shot “I’m n-n-n-n-n-not your b-b-boyfriend anyway!”

Never let it be said that prostitution is easy money. These women work.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Prostitutes, Part 1: Street Walkers and Riders

Since it was past 9pm, I wasn't surprised when the motorbike whizzed up from behind and stopped next to me. Driving was a scantily-clad, heavily made up local woman with teased hair and a huge smile. “You wan’ massa’?” Being the seasoned Saigon resident by this stage, I knew that she wasn’t offering your standard, traditional massage, so I kept walking. 

This wasn’t the case when I first ran into one. I had no idea what this smiling woman wanted from me, and I had to lean in to understand her halting English. Big mistake.

“Boom-boom?" she clarified. "No thank you,” I replied, ever polite, as the reality of the situation began to dawn on me.

“I rub your boddddddddy! Ten dollars one hour!”

“Really, I’m fine,” I said, as my thought processes clicked into gear and I realised what she was offering. I also realised that she was making it harder to move along by blocking my path with her motorbike, edging me towards the buildings adjacent to the sidewalk.

Then she reached out and stroked my bicep, which struck me as a little unfair. Were I to do the same to her, she’d balk, or charge me. But she gets to touch me for free? 

Eventually, after accusing me of homosexuality with a limp-wristed hand motion, she took off. The first of many such encounters.

Vietnam’s sex industry is wholly different from neigbouring Thailand’s, with its strip clubs, sex shows, and various other very public displays of carnal affection. It is not in any way a spectator sport here; customers are all-in or all-out. This is a shame for those who, out of sensibility, fear, stinginess, or a combination thereof are unwilling risk STDs, robbery, and other possible downfalls of sex-for-hire, but for those prepared to take the plunge, the options are endless, with prostitutes of all shapes, ages, and sizes, and prices for the discerning consumer.

I must hastily clarify that I fall firmly into the former group.

I’m lucky enough to have made the acquaintance of a handful of expats in their forties, all of whom are positively aching to tell me about their experiences with prostitutes. While a tad bewildering, it is also very convenient: I’m able to get all the information I need about the whole sordid industry without having to actually do anything other then lend an empathic listening ear.

And then go on to write about it, but that’s beside the point.

From what I’m told, however, is that the motorbike women offer no delusions: you pay an hourly flat fee, and while bodily fluids are exchanged, pleasantries are not. It’s straight to business, and if the show’s over in less than an hour, the rate’s the same and both parties go their separate ways. 

The reason I mention the pricing is because it lends a certain insight into these women’s behaviour. They’re only paid for time on their back; with every minute that goes by without a customer, their hourly rate goes down. Thus, they are the queens of the hard sell. Their flimsy grasp of the English language is more than made up for by their saleswomanship. They know all the tricks, and execute them far better than any dimwitted laptop, used car, or real estate salesman I’ve ever met. 

They target white men walking alone. Obviously, really. Even if someone does include prostitutes among his tastes, he’s not very well going to hire one while he’s with his friends. It may not even be a matter of feeling ashamed. It’s just this: why would you abandon your friends? Sex will be available on the way back.

Not all of them ride motorbikes. Some walk the streets, pursuing potential clients on foot, and these women become more persistent as I continue to say no, rather than less so as the motorbike women do, as walking alongside someone is a much bigger investment of time than approaching them on a motorbike. So they fall into step beside me and begin peppering me with questions. “What your name? Where you from?” 

I ignore them, but they still won’t leave, so I lengthen my stride, which shakes off all but the most committed– the Vietnamese are a small race, and the women especially so. If I take long steps, most prostitutes literally have to break into a jog to keep up, which is not a good situation for teased hair and litres of makeup. 

I recently discovered a method of making them disappear, however. In a particularly ingenious combination that I’m surprised I don’t see more of, a team of two prostitutes approached on a motorbike. One drove, and the other jumped off and chased me in the manner of the streetwalkers. “Massa’ boom-boom? Why not?” She whined in a plaintive bleating that they all use, that suggests that the one thing that she wanted from this life was to have me, and only me, pay her for sex. 

I ignored her and kept walking, but she persisted while her friend flanked me on the other side. 

Luckily, I was snacking on a piece of pastry. Impulsively, I broke off a piece and offered it to her; I wish I could say that I did it because she looked hungry, or because I thought it might make her go away, but really I didn’t think it through at all. Inexplicably, however, it was like Kryptonite to her. She smiled a tight-lipped smile, said something to the woman driving the motorbike, mounted it, and left.

I ate my pastry and pondered what I had just learned. Refined ignoring skills, quickened steps, and “no’s” will eventually make these strong-armed saleswomen clear off. But all this pales in comparison to the power of the fried carbohydrate in terms of deterrence.   

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


ANZAC Day was on the 25th of April, and someone asked me if I’m upset that I’m not in New Zealand to go to the parades, wear a red poppy, and watch the 21-gun salutes.

No. But I am upset.

ANZAC Day's  original intentions were reasonable: to remember the men who died during the failed 1916 attempt to take the Turkish penninsula of Gallipoli. By remembering them, we could protect future generations from undergoing the same fate. By taking once  a year to reflect on the profound waste of life that the battle had been, maybe some good could come from it, and the errors would not be repeated.

But then, like a parasite, it evolved. Before anyone knew it, the holiday’s intention was not just to remember those who had died at Gallipoli, but also the men and women who fought and died in every battle of every war, both previous and subsequent to Gallipoli and World War I.

Soon enough, all these holidays (as the Canadian and American equivalents were founded on similar ideals) became not sombre remembrances of mistakes passed, but gaudy celebrations of war and those who fight in them. Or, to be more specific, celebrations of death and those who kill. Celebrations of destruction, and of those who destroy.

We fire off the guns, we parade the veterans onstage, we read poems, and, of course, we pin the blood-red poppies to our chests. But it’s all lip service. Not only is it lip service, it’s lip service that celebrates exactly what the holiday was sworn to eliminate: meaningless waste of life.

Because this is a point that is not said enough, if at all. The ANZAC Day theme is that Gallipoli was a waste,  but it was a discrete waste; every other battle was worth it. And this is incorrect. This isn’t an opinion. It’s objective fact. There is no such thing as a good war. There is no such thing as a war that was worth its profound economic, social, and political, and moral cost. World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – every single one of them is just a larger-scale Gallipoli.

World War II is everyone’s favourite. Most can agree that the other ones in my list are or were unnecessary, but World War II somehow has this sacred, mystical quality as the “last good war.” Hitler was Evil and we were Good. He was the Joker to our Batman,  the Lex Luther to our Clark Kent. It was a just crusade, and justice prevailed.

Justice prevailed by allying with Stalin. Yes, we fought evil. But we fought it by siding with evil, siding with a man who was just as genocidal, just as megolomanical as the man we defeated. It's hard to accept that siding with one despicable leader in order to defeat another can be in any way described as a good war.

The Holocaust is also mentioned a lot by World War II apologists (Stalin's Great Purge notwithstanding). “Hitler was hell-bent on exterminating Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and a host of other people!” 

And he was. I’m not going to deny that. And he succeeded in exterminating a great many. And that’s horrible. But let’s look at it with some perspective.

Hitler killed an estimated six million. This  is a staggering number; it’s New Zealand’s entire population plus another fifty percent. It’s such a large number that it’s actually impossible to conceptualise.

But if that's hard to conceptualise, here's something harder: sixty million. That's the total cost, in human lives, of the war. In sheer number terms, the Holocaust was terrible. But the war, which the Holocaust is used to justify, was ten times more terrible.

Not to mention the fact that the Holocaust is an after-the-fact justification; nobody knew, or cared, when the war was raging.

The justification while it went on was that Hitler was hell-bent on conquering the world. That couldn’t be allowed; someone had to stop him! 

Why? Really, why? What does an American, Kiwi, or Briton care who’s running the show in France, Belgium, Italy, or the Balkans? Why does he care enough to die over it or send someone else to do so? The French, still feeling the sting of the First World War, were quite clear about this; with their pre-war cliche of “better to be a living German than a dead Frenchman.” 

We wouldn’t have that, though. Policies and men that we celebrate every year on ANZAC Day took war to those who expressly professed their lack of desire for it. We bombed their cities, wrecked their houses, killed people whose only crime had been to live on the wrong strip of land. When's their holiday? When is Collateral Damage Day?  It's easy to celebrate the people and institutions who deal in death. It's much harder, and much messier, to celebrate the millions of faceless people who had it dealt to them.

Refugees trekking through the Eastern European winter on barefeet, entire families incinerated, of children starving to death. That is war. The adolescant, selfish, cowardly act of of sending boys to die for reasons defined by men who should know better. That is war. Strip away the poppies and uniforms, the parades and the salutes, the comraderie and the espirit de corps, and all those other superfical trappings we hide behind on ANZAC Day, and what is left is a gritty, ugly reality that we are so afraid of talking about that we'd rather repeat it.

I’m not upset that I missed ANZAC Day. I’m upset that a cowardly society deliberately missed its point.