PROSTITUTION IN SAIGON has its own special characteristics. The most obvious is xenophobia. Thirty thousand girls work in the 1,429 bars in Saigon, Gia Dinh and Bien Hoa, but very few of them will spend the night with a foreigner. There are 14,000 brothels in Saigon, but most of the women, girls and children who work in them will refuse a customer who is not Vietnamese.
Another feature of prostitution in Saigon is that it has all the appearances of prostitution right up to the moment when the money is paid. Payment is always in advance, and as soon as it is made the woman almost always disappears. Prostitution is only one of the many cogs in the mechanism of the immense swindle that lies at the basis of the Saigon economy. The simplest and oldest law of economics — paying out money to receive something in return — does not apply in this city. This extraordinary situation, which can make you feel like a sleepwalker in a dream world, makes Saigon and South Vietnam unique.
The Vietnamese women are among the most beautiful women in the world. To describe a Vietnamese woman one must describe the way she moves: she has the natural elegance, the litheness and the authority of a fox headed toward some prey. This prey is the United States.
The Americans, to find a girl, go to the thousands of bars that are lined up, like booths at a fair, along the main streets of Saigon. Every evening they wander around the streets where the asphalt is warm and soft and studded with beer-bottle caps and where the air is a white and poisonous cloud of exhaust fumes. Their faces are lit by the neon signs of the bars — “Eldorado,” “Miami,” “Tahiti,” “California,” “Diamond” — while a crowd of cunning little black men drive round and round them in small cars, circling and manoeuvring closer and closer with a deafening uproar until their victims have been hemmed in so closely that they are forced to climb in. If they do succeed in escaping from this swarm of motorized pimps, they still have to get beyond the cyclo-pousses (bicycle rickshaws) waiting in ambush in every dark corner or at cross-
roads and cutting in front of them, the drivers repeating the same few phrases in English: “Nice girl, very young girl, girl number one, foki foki, exciting movie.” Finally they enter one of the bars.
This is the moment when tens of thousands of Vietnamese girls begin their fraudulent, parasitic work, clinging to the body of a GI like smiling and very delicate little spiders; and every evening, in the darkness of the private rooms, there begins once again a colossal practical joke at the expense of the conventional, industrial and puritan ethics of American civilization. The bars, in fact, are a masterpiece of Vietnamese cunning, a sort of erotic guerrilla warfare which, in its methods and results, can be compared with the tactics of the Viet Cong. This is how it works:
A young GI comes back from one of the war zones after months of exhausting missions
searching the forests where, more often than not, he has succeeded in finding absolutely nothing. He goes to Saigon on leave and the first thing he wants is a girl. He has two ideas of what Vietnamese girls are like. One, which he has gotten from films and paperbacks, is the conventional Technicolor picture of the Asiatic woman as a gentle, extremely feminine, submissive and tender-hearted creature who falls in love with a foreigner — something on the lines of Sayonara or Madame Butterfly. The second and opposite idea is the one put over by the announcements on the armed-forces television programs, in which the Vietnamese woman is depicted as grasping, cunning and avaricious. These announcements, which, in line with the usual American methods, may interrupt a crime movie at its high point of suspense, show the GI a house, a car and a pile of dollars. Do you want them? They’re yours. How? Save your money, don't waste it on Saigonté (the tiny cups of tea that the girls drink and which cost about 200 piastres each). Keep away from the bars in Saigon.
The young GI is confused. Somewhere between these two pictures there exists the reality,
the warm smooth body of the girl standing next to him in the dark bar. Her chirruping voice whispers words of love to him and she fondles his hand while he kisses and strokes her face. After a few hours the boy suggests that they spend the night together. The girl is shocked. She says that her body is too small and fragile and the American is far too big: they’re out of proportion. This phrase, which is a standard part of the repertory of the bars, appeals either to the young man's better feelings or else to his conventional ideas of love in the East. He decides that they need time, at least a couple of evenings, and that they should “be in love.” The next evening he comes back to the bar, but the girl can't go to bed with him that evening because her grandmother is sick; maybe tomorrow evening. The boy goes back the next evening — in fact, he spends all the evenings of his leave in the bar.
Gradually, without realizing it, he falls into a state of morose drunkenness. Every so often he becomes suspicious. Sometimes when he leaves he sees the girl laughing as she gets onto the back of a motor scooter driven by a young man who is waiting for her. The GI asks who he is. My brother, or, my husband who treats me badly and takes all my money, or, my father who is very strict and won’t allow me to go home by myself.
Finally, the last evening comes around. This time the girl has promised that she’ll spend the night with him. She gets up, goes to the toilet and disappears. It’s half past 11, getting close to the hour of the curfew. The young man looks for her, he throws himself against the door of the toilet and starts hammering on it with his fists. He's thrown out of the bar, which is closing, and finds himself out in the street — drunk, alone, and unhappy. But here once again arc all the pimps and touts. Indefatigable children swarm around him, prodding him with bamboo sticks tipped with little pieces of sugar cane . . .
“But don’t they complain?” I asked a bar owner, a Vietnamese woman of about 35 who spoke fluent French and wore European clothes. She had a large diamond ring on her finger.
“Of course the GIs complain, but it doesn’t do them any good and they always end up by coming back. / continued on page 46
SAIGON’S BAR GIRLS continued from pape 25
Sweet talk and hustle pay: up to $400 a month for a B-girl
They tried getting the government to do something and there were posters and police everywhere, but it didn’t come to anything. Then they said that since the prices were so high the girls should get the same kind of drinks as they do. They sniff the girls' drinks and if they can't smell any alcohol they refuse to pay for
them. They go into long arguments and take out paper and pencils and arrive at sums to prove that they have a right to insist on this. They’re crazy. These girls never touch alcohol, so how could they swallow 20 whiskies in an evening? It would kill them.” "Do the girls sleep with the customers?”
“Very few, and then only after a long time and if they’re in love. Most of them are respectable girls who live with their families. Others have jobs during the day and come to the bars at night to supplement their salaries.” “What percentage do they get of the price of the drinks?”
“How much do they make a month?”
"It depends on the drinks. They can make between 15,000 [SI 50] and 40,000 [S400] piastres a month.”
“How much does a middle-ranking government employee earn?”
“Officially, he gets 5,000 or 6,000 piastres, but with what he makes on the side you can never really tell. Some of them drive Mercedes.”
"What about a university professor?”
“About 15,000 piastres.”
On the last night of his leave the young GI, drunk and with only five minutes to go before the curfew hour, finds his way to one of the brothels.
A typical example was one in the centre of Saigon, on the third floor of a building that was still under construction but was already decaying, the wall crumbling from the damp and the hallways littered with garbage. It consisted of a single room with six large beds. Each bed could be closed off by a curtain to form a cubicle with cloth walls. Two of the beds were in use, a fact made obvious not just by the closed curtains. A few women were lying on the other beds. Their ages varied but none of them was young. They were made up in the crude manner of Oriental prostitutes, which made them look like large, cheap Chinese dolls. One of them, a peroxide blonde, was twisting about on her bed and complaining. She had a fever, and a friend was bathing her forehead with a wet handkerchief.
The door onto the landing was open. Men. women and children were going up and down the stairs, glancing indifferently into the room as they went by. In the back wall there were two doorways without doors. One led into a small kitchen where an old woman was preparing food; the room was filled with oily smoke that smelled of fish. The other, covered by a curtain, led to the toilet. The women lying on the beds looked at me with bored expressions, and then one after the other they mechanically patted their hands on the dirty sheets, inviting me to join them. No one spoke.
There was movement from inside the two occupied cubicles and one of the beds suddenly collapsed, with loud shrieks from the woman inside. A very loud and panting voice swore a single oath in English and the shrieking stopped. There was another long silence and then a soldier emerged from one of the cubicles. He was wearing his combat uniform and hat, and he had brought his helmet, automatic rifle, armored jacket and even his canteen with him. He finished dressing and left without saying a word.
Vu NO TAU, 75 MILES from Saigon, is a little town that faces the South China Sea and it’s the site of the largest “rest-and-recreation centre” for American servicemen in the whole of South Vietnam. It consists of two hotels side by side, only a few yards from the beach. The larger of the two has a sort of patio of red-hot cement surrounding a little pool containing brightly colored fish. The patio is surrounded by a high wall surmounted by a thick network of barbed wire three or four yards high. During the day. GIs of all ages, wearing Bermuda shorts, lie stretched out in silence on deckchairs that have been set out
under umbrellas on the patio. Every now and then one of the GIs gets up from the disc of burning-hot cement and makes his way through the crowd to the sea. He dives in and soon afterward returns to his deckchair, where a Vietnamese girl wearing a bathing suit brings him an iced drink.
At night the patio is illuminated by powerful floodlights. The umbrellas have been removed and the patio has become a nightclub for single men. No women come here. In the centre of the patio a small band plays American tunes which are sung by Vietnamese girls, but the noise of the electric generator almost drowns out the band and the singer. The men stand motionless; they look decent but sad. From time to time one picks up his glass from the table with a slow and mechanical movement and takes a drink. But most of the time they stand as stiff and rigid as plaster casts dressed in checkered shorts and imitation Chinese satin shirts of pistachio green, canary yellow or China blue.
A few yards away is the hotel where 1 stayed and where American soldiers who can't find a room at the rest-and-recreation centre keep arriving in a continuous stream. The entrance hall of the hotel is usually crowded with women waiting for the new arrivals. The pedicab driver who brings them to the hotel also takes them up to the rooms. The hotel manager pays him 100 piastres, and he also gets a third of what the girls make.
Between the rest-and-recreation centre on the one hand and. on the other, my hotel, which is little more than a brothel, the hundreds of other brothels — stables jammed with fat women who doze and complain — and the thousands of filthy bars, there exists the same relationship as that between American puritanism and sin. On one side there is the rest-and-recreation centre where practically everything is forbidden, with its pure men neat and refrigerated like a row' of Coca-Cola bottles, and on the other there is life with all its explosive and mysterious disorder, its animal movement, its smells, colors and throbbing blood. It's the relationship between unreality and reality.
In one of these bars I met a 19year-old boy who had been wounded four times in combat. He had his girl on his knee and was quite willing to talk with me. He was a "quiet American."
It seems fitting that I should end
this article with our conversation. We talked, naturally enough, about Vietnamese women. He was enthusiastic about them:
“They're fantastic — gentle, tender, passionate. But they've also got personality. I’ve known them for more than a year, so 1 know what I'm talking about. Prostitution? The bars? But there's nothing unusual about that; the women are forced into it. With their living conditions, what else could thev do?
"See this girl? Let me introduce her to you. she's my fiancée. She's called Han. which means 'orchid.' What a poetic name. Yesterday I asked my commanding officer for permission to marry her."
"And do you let her work in a bar?”
"She doesn't do anything wrong, and besides she's the one who wants to go on doing this work."
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
"Quite sure. Anyway, look at her. Can't you see that she loves me?"
As he said that he took the girl by the chin and turned her face toward me. I looked at her. She, too, was a child, and not good-looking. Her long and deceitful eyes pretended to smile while she stroked her young man's cheek. She did it with cool calculation, but it needed more than a 19-year-old American boy to realize that. ★
Reprinted from Atlas magazine. Sept. 1967; translated from 1.'Espresso, Rome.
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