Sunday, April 14, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vietnam's Prostitutes Are Back, By Tens Of Thousands


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - Ha sits between women painted in lipstick and rouge, her face as naked and soft as a child's. "I like to be natural," she says shyly.

The older prostitutes laugh indulgently. At 21, Ha has been streetwalking for only one month. She still has big dreams.

"I think I won't do this very long, only until I earn enough money to go into business," she says, sipping lemonade and imagining herself owning a little shop stocked with pens or hats or cakes.

Sitting on tiny stools next to a sidewalk snack cart, she and her companions try to catch the eyes of potential customers.

Sex is one of the biggest growth industries in rapidly changing Vietnam.

Brothels flourished in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, but the victorious Communists herded prostitutes into rehabilitation centers in 1975. Some resumed work upon release, but they were few and inconspicuous.

Now with incomes rising, more urban men have money to buy sex, and more rural women see prostitution as a way to a better life. Not just in this city, once called Saigon, but in beer halls, truck stops and marketplaces all over Vietnam, prostitutes are more numerous and obvious than ever.

Tens of thousands in city

Authorities put the number nationwide at about 70,000, with 50,000 in Ho Chi Minh City. But social workers say these figures are several years old and far too low. They've seen a flood of newcomers.

"I came to Ho Chi Minh City by myself six years ago," says Ha. "My village was very poor. The conditions weren't suited to me."

But the only work she could find was selling vegetables on the street.

"Police used to drive us away; they made it very hard to do business," she says. As a prostitute, she finds police bother her less.

Prostitutes can be seen on many nighttime streets. Few wear miniskirts, plunging blouses or spike heels - that would ensure speedy arrest. But their air of waiting sets them apart.

The government orders vice crackdowns now and then, prompting hundreds of arrests. The rest of the time, payoffs from pimps, favors from women and preoccupation with other kinds of rising crime encourage police to ignore the sex industry. Many share a cynical assumption that as more foreign businessmen and tourists come, prostitution inevitably will grow.

Husbands are pimps

Prostitutes who cater to foreigners are the most visible. They hustle for drinks, dances and more at bars and discos. Some grab the arms of men on the sidewalk and boldly offer: "Want massage, mister? One hour, two hour, 20 dollars."

Not bad for a country where per-capita incomes are less than $150 a year.

But for most, such rates are only a dream.

Chien is a plump, motherly woman of 46. She has a husband and two children. And this night she already has served one customer.

Her situation is not unusual, she says as she joins Ha at the snack cart. Many prostitutes are married and mothers. Sometimes their husbands pimp for them.

"My husband is a laborer," Chien says. "He makes 20,000 dong ($1.80) a day. It isn't enough to put the children through school."

Why prostitution?

"I don't know anything else to do."

A stout woman with permed hair walks by, giving a cheery wave.

"She's 54," someone says. "She's been working a long time." Despite Ha's hopes, most women find prostitution a dead-end job, with little opportunity to save and the constant threat of harassment by street gangs. Foreigners may pay $20 an hour, but most customers are Vietnamese paying 20,000 to 30,000 dong ($1.80 to $2.70).

Prostitutes' working expenses

From that, some women have to deduct the cost of renting clothes if they can't afford to buy attractive outfits, and visiting public baths if they live without running water.

Hairstyling, makeup and condoms are other working expenses. Many don't earn anything toward their rent and food bills until the night's second or third customer. And few are very good at budgeting or planning ahead.

"The women are usually of low class," says Truong Hong Tam, a social worker. "When they don't work, they gamble. They spend money on silly things.

"If police arrest a woman, her pimp usually buys her out with two taels (ounces) of gold. Then she has to pay him back 2 1/2 taels. These are all ways the women stay in debt. They don't usually save much."

Condoms and alternatives

A prostitute herself until four years ago, Tam now is part of a pioneering peer outreach program for prostitutes funded by Britain's Save the Children. Its focus is distributing condoms and AIDS information, but the workers also try to help prostitutes who want to start new lives.

It's not easy. Urban unemployment is over 6 percent, not including the estimated 1 million peasants who have flocked to Ho Chi Minh City. Many prostitutes don't have city residence permits needed to get business licenses or take vocational training.

"We sometimes tell young women they should stop," says Nhung, a prostitute in her 40s who helps Tam. "But unless we have another job to offer, it's empty words."

On this day, Tam arrives at the snack cart by motorbike, clad in jeans, a baggy sweater and a jade necklace. The snack cart is one of her regular stops. The owner lets her keep a plastic jug of condoms next to the bottles of Coke and plate of cakes.

Usually Tam pulls out a gruesome picture book showing the damage caused by sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS - full-color photos of genital sores and skin lesions. But Chien and Ha already know Tam and her message, so she just checks to make sure they have condoms.

"I'm very scared of AIDS. I always insist the customer uses a condom," Chien says with a shudder.

Although only 3,439 cases of HIV infection and 314 full-blown AIDS cases have been officially reported nationwide in Vietnam, health experts believe the numbers are far higher and that prostitutes will be the channel for spreading the disease into society's mainstream.

Tam says the women's resolve often collapses if a customer offers to pay more for doing without the condom. Many women are fatalistic, she says.

"They think it's a disease God will send to you if you're unlucky. They think if they get HIV they can live nine or 10 more years, but if they stop working, they and their families will die of hunger."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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