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 café 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.