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.