While prostitution and abortions are widespread, sex remains a taboo subject in schools and in the home. The Vietnam Family Planning Association estimates around 1.4 million abortions are performed annually in Vietnam due to a lack of sex education among teenagers and contraceptive use. Public discussion of sex is considered taboo. In movie theaters, parents and grandparents tell their children not look whenever there is a scene that has the slightest hint o sex. One survey found that 25 percent of female university students had premarital sex but did not know how to prevent pregnancy.

Sex education is not taught in school and parents are generally reluctant to talk to their children about sex. The result is that many young people are naive about sex. One doctor who ran a medical questions column in a newspaper was surprised about the questions he received. One woman wrote: "I think we made love a few days ago, but I was very scared so we did it with our pajamas on. Doctor, Is it bad we to make love that way? What is real sexual intercourse like? Another wrote: "I’m very worried. We kiss every time we go out. Will I get pregnant. We also go swimming and I was told swimming can make you pregnant. Is that true?" [Source: Vie Nam News]

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Although Vietnam can be regarded as a fairly liberal society when it comes to sexual behavior, talking or writing about sexuality is a totally different matter. Vietnam never produced sex education books like the Indian Kama Sutra or the Chinese and Japanese pillow books. Most young people get married without the least elementary knowledge, as a collection of interviews in Khuat Thu Hong’s (1998) book shows: 1) "On our wedding night, neither of us knew anything - meaning that we slept together as friends. We even tried to do something, but we didn’t know what we were doing (born 1959)." 2) On my wedding day, I didn’t understand why when we slept with another, one person laid atop another. ... I thought we were only supposed to lie side by side (born 1957). [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality */ ]

After 1950, a few books on sexuality and sex education were published. Most prominent was Dr. Nguyen Manh Bong’s book, What Lovers Should Know, published by Huong Son Publishers in Hanoi in 1949. Similar publications appeared in the south of Vietnam during the succeeding years. In 1970, one Saigon newspaper ran a column called "Replying to Your Questions on Sexuality," which was written by two psychologists. In the North, prior to doi moi, there were almost no publications on sexuality. In the 1970s, the sole publication on sex education was Girl’s Hygiene, which included quite sketchy information on female sexual organs, menstruation, and how to maintain personal hygiene. In 1988, David Reuben’s book, Answering Those Questions You Don’t Dare Ask, was translated from English and attracted much attention, but was banned from official circulation until 1989. Other books were translated from German, including Rudolf Neubert’s Marital Relations, published in 1989. In 1991, David Elia and Genevieve Doucet’s book, 1000 Questions and Answers About Women and Their Bodies, was translated from French and published in Vietnam. */

In recent years, many books by Vietnamese on sex and sexuality have begun to appear in bookstores. Ho Ngoc Dai’s 1991 book, Chuyen Ay (That Conversation), which talked about sexuality within a philosophical and psychological framework, drew much attention. Books based on scientific knowledge are more common and include Doan Van Thong’s book, Nhung Thac Mac Tham kin Cua Ban Tre (The Secret Questions of Young Friends) published by Tien Giang Publishers in 1991, and Minh Phuong’s book, Hoi Dap ve Gioi Tinh va Tinh Duc (Questions and Answers About Sex and Sexuality), edited by Dr. Le Van Tri, published by Medical Publishers in 1995. Psychologist Dr. Pham Con Son has also written about love, sexuality, marriage, and family in books such as Nhung Thu Dich Cua Hanh Phuc Lua Doi (The Foes of a Couple’s Happiness), published by Dong Thap Publishers in 1996. The Research Center for Gender, Family, and Environmental Development is the first social science research institute to begin writing books on sex and sexuality, including Dr. Dao Xuan Dung’s book, Gia Duc Tinh Duc (Sex Education), published in 1996 by Youth Publishing House. In addition, there are series of other books written by local and foreign authors mainly from Russia, the Czech Republic, and Poland (Khuat Thu Hong 1998). */

Sex Education in Vietnam

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Many aspects of everyday life in Vietnam are politicized through governmental mass education and mass mobilization campaigns. In fields as diverse as diet, marriage, religion, and pregnancy, there are politically right and wrong answers to any question, and everyone knows precisely what is politically correct and socially desirable and what is not. This is particularly true for family planning issues, which have been given a very high priority on the government agenda since the late 1980s. There are efforts to educate people about sexual issues, as may be exemplified by this report: One morning at the shrimp factory I watched as 700 women in identical white smocks cleaned the shrimp. Suddenly their work was interrupted - all had to stand and watch a video on AIDS prevention. Some cases had appeared in town, a manager told me. That night the scenes were the same in boomtown Nam Can. AIDS is just another risk of frontier living. (National Geographic, February 1993:35) [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality */ ]

Sex education has been limited because of Vietnam’s traditional bias against the public mention of anything sexual. Although this situation may seem similar to other countries, in Vietnam much of the opposition to "sex education" comes from administrators and teachers, of whom many are reportedly too embarrassed to discuss intimate sexual matters with the students. Faced with an increasing HIV-infection rate and an abortion rate thought to be among the highest in the world, Hanoi health officials opened the city’s first sex education café in November 1999. The café fills a void in sex education, as the subject is not taught in schools, and many parents admit they are too embarrassed to raise the issue with teenage children who are becoming increasingly sexually active. The idea for the Hanoi café stemmed from a study that detailed how young people spend their time. It is also modeled on a similar initiative in Ho Chi Minh City. The café offers a place where young people can spend time talking with their friends and freely ask for information about sex and AIDS. Although the café will not distribute condoms, a female physician specializing in reproductive health, and an HIV/AIDS counselor are on hand to answer questions. On average, about 50 customers, ages 16 to 24, have visited the café on a daily basis (Watkin, South China Morning Post, December 20, 1999). */

In 2000, a pilot project sponsored by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities was started that allows high schools in eight of Vietnam’s 61 provinces to offer advice on obtaining contraceptives at government clinics and pharmacies. Three thousand pharmacists in five provinces are being trained to provide customers with better information on contraceptives, and state-run radio airs a weekly show answering youths’ sex-related queries (Cohen, Far Eastern Economic Review, 6/29). As far as homosexuality is concerned, only in the last three years has a grassroots group emerged with the aim of reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS among gay and bisexual men in Ho Chi Minh City. The Nguyen Friendship Society consists of about fifty volunteers who prepare and print leaflets about sex education to be handed out to patrons in bars and clubs. */

Sex Remains off Limits in Vietnamese Schools

Reporting from Hanoi in 2003, Huang Haimin and Thai Thanhvan of OANA/Xinhua: "While parents and teachers often feel embarrassed with the thought of discussing sex with youngsters, Vietnamese teenagers are eager to find out everything they can about the topic, said a latest survey. The survey conducted by the Sociology Institute in several northern provinces of the country found that sex education in local schools is still inadequate as many teachers are reluctant to touch on the subject in front of a class full of students. The problem is further exacerbated by the embarrassment of the pupils. "Our teacher talked about it in a very dry way, and many of the boys used it as a way to tease the girls. Most students in class do not really understand it," said one secondary school student. If the survey is correct, her opinion reflects the problems faced in sex education across the north of the country. [Source: Huang Haimin and Thai Thanhvan, OANA/Xinhua, January 31, 2003 \\]

"I have been having my period for two years. I have got a boyfriend in the same class and we have hugged and kissed, though we kept our clothes on. Am I pregnant?" inquires one 13-year-old student. Such queries are not unusual. This is one of the most common questions being asked at doctor's clinics in the region. Education on population and family planning was introduced to the country's curriculum in the early 1980s. However, it tends to focus on demography rather than on biological reality. \\

"Now, the programme is giving center stage to reproductive health education, focusing on sex, population and development, protection against sexually transmitted diseases, the structure of sex organs, love, companionship, safe sex, gender equality, contraception and safe abortion. Nevertheless, these issues are only covered from secondary school level upwards. Sex education has yet to be allotted separate subject status and still falls beneath the joint mantles of morality, geography and biology. \\

"According to the deputy head of the Population and Family Planning Education Department, Professor Dang Quoc Bao, from the Ministry of Education and Training, most of the teachers in charge of these three subjects prefer to concentrate on them, shunning any active discussion of sex. Only a few are genuinely keen to promote population and family planning propaganda. Teachers are further hindered by their inexperience in giving lectures on sex. Consequently, many students aged between 17 and 19 have only the vaguest notions about how sex and contraception actually work. \\

Another survey conducted on nearly 5,000 teenagers in the capital city of Hanoi and provinces of Thai Binh and Vinh Phuc found almost half of them carrying genital diseases. Exasperated by the situation, one teacher at the Nguyen Dinh Chieu Secondary School in the southern province of Tien Giang said: "We need to be talking about how to teach students about sex rather arguing about whether it's necessary or not." Many are suggesting that the best way to approach the issue is by using pictures and photos to stimulate group discussion. This would help students put forward their queries in a relaxed environment, and give them an opportunity to decide how they would combat their problems. \\

"According to the chairman of Vietnam's Family Planning Association, Pham Song, sexual health care among adolescents is not "a cause for great optimism." It is estimated that in Hanoi, 15 percent of teenagers aged between 15 and 19 have sex before marriage. In Ho Chi Minh City, 2.5 percent of them have had sex. In the nation as a whole, five percent of women under 18 have given birth. Most Vietnamese parents still recoil from the idea of sex education, believing that their son or daughter is too young to need it. The reality of the premarital teenage sex life is becoming more and more apparent, but many adults are still unprepared to accept it, according to local media. As many parents are busy making a living almost all the time, their children are often free to live as they wish. This situation has brought about immeasurable consequences and can only be dealt with by ensuring detailed and readily available sex education. \\

Pornography and Erotica in Vietnam

Jacobus X. (1898) reported that in the second half of the nineteenth century, Chinese merchants were famous for selling Chinese and Japanese phalli (dildoes) and the colored albums of Chinese erotica. At first, the merchants had quite a bad reputation, but this changed gradually, with the merchants becoming esteemed for their business. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality */ ]

During the Vietnam War, the main sources for pornographic photographs were the black market moneychangers who always had some pictures to sell to GIs. The Tu Do Street was the main center to purchase pornographic material, according to Marnais (1967). During the early 1960s, the only pornographic pictures and books available in the city were imports from Hong Kong and Bangkok, where little cartoon folios, pornographic poems, and photographs were turned out by the hundreds of thousands. By 1967, with the influx of GIs, the market had grown, and a group of domestic entrepreneurs has sprung up to take advantage of it. Pornographic paperbacks, featuring young Vietnamese girls and boys sold along the "Rue Cat," were printed on Saigon’s presses. */

The "blue" movie houses were located on the same street in little rooms above shops or bars, and the locations fluctuated frequently to keep the authorities away. The windows were painted black or covered with heavy curtains. The movies usually showed a young women waking up in her small room, taking off her few clothes, starting to masturbate with some kind of dildo or fruit, and ending with a male or female visitor to her room having intercourse with her. As in the 1960s, they were usually short 16-mm films, mostly in black and white and without sound; some were more expensively produced in color, some with threesomes or bestiality. In the background of the rooms were prostitutes waiting for potential customers, most of whom were Westerners. Prostitutes also used pornographic pictures and movies to get their clients "in the mood." European pornographic films existed for homosexuals. Although pornography is forbidden today, according to Stephanie Fahey (1998), government research institutes are known to import pornographic magazines for resale. */

Vietnam Struggles with Online Pornography

Pornographic websites are officially banned in Vietnam but easy enough to access if you know how to skirt censors and firewalls. In 2006, The Ministry of Culture and Information ordered Internet cafes to install software on all computers to monitor customers and stop them from surfing pornographic sites.

Vo Khoi and Thanh Trung wrote in Thanh Nien in 2005: "The vast expanse of cyberspace and a growing online audience in Vietnam spells trouble for police efforts to control pornography websites, with huge databases of pictures, videos, and links to the sex trade. Many sex sites have been disguised as adult-only forums but turn out to be "marketplaces" for prostitutes and sex toys. There has been rampant posting of live videos of "love affairs" with prostitutes and even girls who were cheated by their boyfriends using camera cell phones. [Source: Vo Khoi & Thanh Trung, Thanh Nien, July 18, 2005 //\]

"Many paid membership forums of that kind offer door-to-door delivery of sex toys. A series of sex sites with attractive domain names are accessible to young net users who surf the Internet without parental control. Even many net cafés in HCMC guide clients to sex websites to satisfy the wide variety of demands. An emerging new entrepreneurial trade now sees sources of pictures and videos from websites copied onto CDs for sale. //\\

"Hunting and destroying web sex sites is a tough job for Vietnamese police as cyberspace is not the real world, and many operators live abroad. Despite police initiatives to crack down on the sex industry, many dead sex web sites have been resurrected under new domain names, with an email keeping clients ‘in touch’. With website owners on the run to different domains at the first sign of trouble, police control is all but impossible, even after successfully closing down two porn sites recently. According to police, they "acted" as a paid member to download porn from a webpage of founder Tran Minh Quang, who lives in the US. Quang has "set up" an agent network in Vietnam to promote his website. With one of the two prohibited websites already re-opened under a new name, police in Vietnam may soon realize that controlling Vietnam’s oft chaotic motorbike traffic is nothing compared to controlling that in cyberspace. //\

Vietnam Government Offers Sex Education Movies Online While Blocking Grapefruit 'Sex' Site

In 2006, Reuters reported: "The straight-laced government of communist-run Vietnam, plans to offer dowloadable movies on an Internet site to educate married couples about healthy sex, a newspaper said today. The Viet Nam News quoted Khuat Thu Hong, Deputy Director of the Institute for Social Development, as saying ''an orthodox sex Web site'' would help couples learn more about ''healthy sexual intercourse''. Hong cited cases of married couples who had not had sex for a year, a rising divorce rate and rampant prostitution as reasons to publicise more information about sex. The images offered on the Web site, yet to be named, would be only educational, Hong added. [Source: Reuters, July 20, 2006]

A few months earlier, Deutsche Presse Agentur reported: "Vietnam's internet authorities rejected a website for a grapefruit wholesaler this week over fears web surfers might think it was a sex site, an official said. The attempt to register was turned down because without proper Vietnamese tone and vowel markings the word "buoi" (grapefruit) might be confused with "buoi" (penis), said Minh Ngoc, an officer at the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center. [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur, February 9, 2006 ]

"It's very sensitive .. it could cause misunderstanding," Mr Ngoc said yesterday. The man who tried to register the apparently legitimate site, advertising a grapefruit wholesaler in central Ha Tinh province, was advised to look for a new name, she said. "In written Vietnamese, the two words are distinct, with the citrus fruit using a rising-falling tone, while the part of the male anatomy has different "u" and "o" and a falling tone." However, in the western alphabet most commonly used for Vietnamese websites, the two words are indistinguishable.

Condoms Sold at Universities for First Time in Vietnam

In 2002, the Financial Times reported: "The Vietnam Family Planning Association will launch a campaign to distribute 60 million subsidized condoms over the next three years to universities, aiming to halt escalating HIV infection rates caused by unsafe sex among the sexually-active younger population. The campaign will initially aim for Hanoi's three biggest campuses, Chairman of the Family Planning Association Pham Song said. Each condom will cost VND150 (one US cent). Sociologists say that in addition to ignorance, embarrassment about buying contraceptives in Vietnam's deeply traditional society where sex is still a taboo topic remains a significant factor in the low rates of condom use. [Source: Financial Times, September 30, 2002 *]

"Heavily affected by both traditional culture and social prejudice, Vietnamese men still find it deeply uncomfortable to ask for condoms. But it's time to change the situation," Song said. According to the National Committee on AIDS, Drugs and Prostitution more than 51,500 people are HIV-positive but the true figure is thought to be greater than 200,000. Around 58.7 percent are aged between 13 and 29. *

"International experts estimate that Vietnam needs at least 150 million condoms a year to protect its citizens from HIV and unwanted pregnancies. But last year the country used only 80 million, of which 43 million were distributed by DKT International, a non-governmental organization that mainly supplies condoms in Vietnam. The organization's target for 2003 is 76 million. A study in five provinces by Care International estimates that around 30-70 percent of single men and women have sexual relations before marriage, while the younger generation have limited access to reproductive health education and do not know how to protect themselves from the epidemic. *

Novelty Condoms Destroyed in Ho Chi Minh City

Huw Watkin wrote in the South China Morning Post, "The seizure and destruction of a large number of exotic condoms in Ho Chi Minh city has again illustrated how traditional attitudes towards sex are hampering Vietnam's efforts to control the spread of HIV and a rise in teenage pregnancies. According to a report in yesterday's Thanh Nien newspaper, the condoms - fashioned and colored to resemble animals in the Chinese horoscope - were seized from street traders along with a range of sex toys and flavored lubricants. [Source: Huw Watkin, South China Morning Post, April 5, 2000 /~/]

"The sale of condoms by street vendors is not technically illegal and the head of UNAids in Vietnam, Dr Laurent Zessler, said the seizure was disappointing, as novelty had proved an effective method of promoting condom use in many other countries. "We would like to see condoms for sale in bars and other places young people go, and the National Aids Committee supports that approach," he said. "Unfortunately, other sectors of Vietnam's administration do not." /~/

"Dr Zessler said the country's two condom factories were still producing well below capacity, despite a shortage and increasing trends towards sex before and outside marriage. The HIV infection rate is expected to peak at 160,000 by year's end, with nearly three quarters of victims aged between 19 and 30. Vietnam has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. Family planning officials have been instructed not to release figures for last year, but in 1998 1.5 million terminations were conducted in state clinics alone, 20 percent involving girls under 18. /~/

Vietnam Gets First Ever Condom Vending Machine

In July 2004, AFP reported: "Vietnam unveiled its first ever condom-vending machine as part of a campaign to cut unwanted pregnancies and prevent the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The machine, which was installed at a "bia hoi" or local pub in Hanoi and attracted a few curious onlookers, came as US Global AIDS Coordinator Randall Tobias visited the communist nation to assess the impact of the disease. His three-day trip followed last month's decision by US President George W. Bush to add Vietnam to the list of countries eligible for funding to help tackle its emerging HIV/AIDS crisis. [Source: Agence France Presse, July 9, 2004 ==]

"Vietnam is a country where the epidemic up until about this time has been largely contained in commercial sex workers and intravenous drug users but is on the verge of exploding into the general population," he told reporters. Organizers of the campaign to encourage greater use of condoms said more prophylactic dispensers would be set up in bars, cafes and public toilets across the Vietnamese capital throughout the year. ==

"Condom vending machines are common in many countries around the world," said Lin Menuhin, the deputy director in Vietnam of the non-governmental organization DKT International, which initiated the project. "We hope that the initiative will lead to greater acceptance of condoms in the marketplace in Vietnam." Use of condoms in the Confucian-oriented nation is extremely low, partly due to the stigma associated with buying prophylactics and a perception among males that they degrade their virility. Consequently, Vietnam has a high abortion rate, and the spread of HIV has soared in recent years. ==

"While the communist nation still has a HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of less then one percent, drug use and unsafe sex has seen rates soar to more than 20 percent among sex workers in major cities, according to the United Nations . The health ministry estimates that more than 215,000 people have contracted HIV in Vietnam, but only around 80,000 have been diagnosed with the virus. Independent experts say as many as 300,000 could be HIV positive. ==

Vietnamese Aphrodisiacs and the Year of the Goat

Durians, water bug extract, turtles, snake meat and snake wine are among the things consumed by Vietnamese men as aphrodisiacs. Fertilized duck eggs are consumed as an aphrodisiac by Filipinos, Chinese and Vietnamese.

In January 2003, AFP reported: "The Year of the Goat is eagerly awaited in Vietnam, where the animal is revered for its sexual capacity. "The sexual power (of one male goat) is legendary: it can satisfy 30 or 50 goats," said the French-language Courrier du Vietnam weekly newspaper. Restaurateurs are also convinced of the animal's aphrodisiac qualities, saying that eating goat meat can boost a man's performance in the bedroom. [Source: Agence France Presse, January 30, 2003 |-|]

They also recommend drinking rice wine distilled for six months in a bottle containing a goat's penis. "In general, the goat has an easy-going nature and prefers to work in a team rather than on his own. He hates any sort of discord or uneasiness and does not like to be bound by a strict routine or rigid timetable," says Dao Dang Phong, a US-based expert on Vietnamese culture. Among the signs in the Chinese zodiac, the goat is probably the most gifted artistically." |-|

Vietnam Legalizes Viagra and Makes Its Own Version

In May 2006, AFP reported: "Vietnam has legalised the sale of Viagra years after smuggled and copied versions of the anti-impotency drug first hit the black market, a health ministry official said on Thursday. The blue pill made by US drugs giant Pfizer will now be prescribed in public hospitals, said an official in the ministry's pharmaceutical products management department, who asked not to be named. Viagra has been sold illegally in the communist nation for around two dollars a tablet, and generic Indian, German and locally-made versions have been sold on prescription for the past two years. According to official figures, around two million of Vietnam's more than 40 million men suffer from erectile dysfunction. [Source: Agence France Presse, May 25, 2006]

In March 2005, Indo-Asian News Service reported: "Vietnam will unveil its own low-cost version of Viagra, Xinhua reports. A pharmaceutical producer in Vietnam will launch the pill, Adagrin, targeting nearly three million Vietnamese men who suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED) or impotence. "We realise that a large number of Vietnamese men are affected with ED. No locally produced drugs and few imported ones to help them are now available in the domestic market," the ICA Pharmaceuticals said. "Adagrin will be available this month in hospitals and pharmacies with the retail price of 63,000 VND (US$4) per pill," the company said, noting that its product was being used on a trial basis in hospitals. [Source: Indo-Asian News Service, March 2, 2005 |^|]

"Nearly three million out of 40.3 million Vietnamese men are affected with ED. The Binh Dan Hospital in Ho Chi Minh city said it had received over 2,100 ED patients aged 18-78 between 2000 and 2002. To effectively treat the patients and prevent new cases, Vietnam's health ministry plans to disseminate information about ED, which is usually brought on by heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes or due to an injury or side effects of drugs. Over 150 million men worldwide are affected with ED. |^|

Vietnam to Stage First Nude Photo Exhibition

In 2007, AFP reported: "Vietnamese authorities have given permission for the first ever exhibition of nude photographs in the conservative communist country, state media said. Photographer Thai Phien said he got the go ahead to exhibit 48 of his nude photos in Hanoi in November 2007. "I was the first photographer in Vietnam that received a licence to open this type of exhibition," he said. Phien said he had to submit his photos to the censors, adding "it's lucky that the authorities accepted them." He also expects a collection of about 70 of his nude pictures will be published prior to the exhibition. [Source: Agence France Presse, October 31, 2007 +++]

"The Thanh Nien newspaper said "Nude photos have gone on display in Vietnam before, but never has an exhibition consisted solely of nudes." The daily said censors in the southern commercial center of Ho Chi Minh City earlier this year refused to allow a similar exhibition by a female artist because "they were not in accordance with Vietnamese customs and morality". Vietnam Photographers' Association head Chu Chi Thanh was quoted as saying authorities were always cautious because it was difficult to distinguish the boundary between erotic and artistic photos. Phien agreed it was hard to draw a line. "The boundaries between pornographic and artistic photos are very slim. It depends a lot on personal impression," he said. +++

"Films, books, photos and artistic works are often censored and those on sensitive topics such as sex are usually banned. An amateur sex video featuring the popular teenage host of a TV morality show sparked public outrage, with four students arrested for allegedly posting the clip on the Internet. +++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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