Nha Nghis in Hanoi’s Long Biên district.
Vietnam has its priorities firmly in place. A pack of Marlboro Reds is cheaper than a cup of coffee, a liter of Hanoi Vodka costs less than a box of cereal, and the best part of two months each year are given over to a huge party called Tết, which is kind of like New Year's Eve and Mardi Gras rolled into one, but with a few more firecrackers, masks, and games of "catch the duck blindfolded" (note: that is not a euphemism).
But it's at lunchtimes when Hanoi, the country's capital, really comes into its own. While the rest of us are stuck wrestling with a cost-benefit analysis of splashing an extra buck on a sandwich with real animal meat in it, horny Hanoians are meeting in specialized motels called Nha Nghis across the city for some afternoon delight.
The Nha Nghi (which translates to “rest house”) is a fairly modern phenomenon, but in the past decade the hotels have sprung up throughout the country’s major cities, and it's easy to see why they're so popular among people sneaking in quickies with either their lover, a stranger they met online, or a prostitute. Considering they start at just three dollars an hour, the rooms are remarkably clean and well-furnished. The one I checked out in Hanoi’s Long Biên district reminded me a bit of a Travelodge, only without the continental breakfast of cereal and stale danishes.
An alley full of Nha Nghis in Hanoi's Hai Ba Trung District.
In Vietnam, sex before marriage is common but still considered a bit too taboo to engage in openly, so Nha Nghis provide the ideal cover for young lovers eager to escape the judgment of their parents. But the hotels aren't just for the young—adults all the way into their late 60s rendezvous with their bit on the side at Nha Nghis. Some of them book rooms months in advance for Valentine's Day and public holidays. Officially, the national sport is đá cầu (it's sort of like badminton with your feet); unofficially, it's doin' it.
“Contrary to their repressed image in the West, Vietnamese people are actually very liberal and affairs are extremely common,” one hotel worker informed me. “My ex-partner was a wealthy man and would meet up with three or more girls a week. When it's so easy to hook up, Vietnamese find it difficult to be faithful—especially the men.“
As with most tales of 21st century sordidness, the internet had a large role to play in the explosion of Nha Nghis. Yahoo Chat became wildly popular in Vietnam during the mid-2000s and, all of a sudden, cyber Casanovas had an endless amount of potential partners to poke, persuade, and plead into the sack. All they needed was a place to do the deed.
Hung, who didn't want his face pictured, sits in a coffee shop in Hanoi's Old Quarter.
Hung, a borderline sexual deviant who claims to have bedded over 60 girls in Nha Nghis across a two-year period before doing the “honorable thing” and marrying the first girl he impregnated, said chatrooms gave a new lease on life to his brand of no-strings-attached recreation. “For me, it was very simple—I would say some nice things to a girl and let things move on from there,” he told me. “Once we’re talking, I can date her; once we date, I can kiss her; once I kiss her, I can touch her boobs; and once that happens I can fuck her.”
As you can probably deduce by now, Nha Nghi liasions can come with a sizeable dose of misogyny. Though many Nha Nghi users are couples who just want to hook up without attracting the scorn of society, the hotels are also used by serial sleazebags like Hung and his peers, who have been known to swap phone numbers of girls who put out (referred to as “one knots”). Lauxanh, Vietnam’s most popular porn website, has a forum where men share photos of their conquests and rate girls' “assets” out of ten.
Of larger concern is that though hookup culture has made its way to Vietnam, contraception isn't often used, especially by young people. Vietnam has by far the highest rate of teen abortions in Southeast Asia, and incidences of STDs are also thought to alarmingly high, though since it's common for people to quietly get treated by private doctors those statistics are difficult to find. According the Ministry of Health, there were 213,400 people living with HIV in Vietnam as of May; many of them are likely sex workers.
Trang, a sex worker, waits for clients near Thuyen Quang Lake in Hanoi.
Trang, a 33-year-old prostitute who has worked Hanoi’s streets for ten years, services up to eight customers a day, either in Nha Nghis or public toilets for around $4.50 apiece. “I contracted HIV from one of my clients—I don’t know who—and my health is declining,” she said. “I’d like to get out of it, but this is the only way I can afford medicine. Nha Nghis aren’t ideal, but they’re a lot safer than the streets, and most owners make sure nothing dangerous happens.”
Although they have been targeted for their links to prostitution, Nha Nghis seem safe from government censure for now—the Communist Party seems more focused on tackling the spread of HIV. The rest houses are popular across all sections of society and most people I spoke to felt they provided a useful service for carefree couples in a country still calibrating its moral compass. But while most Nha Nghi visits simply serve to scratch an itch, some cost the vulnerable a lot more than a few dollars.
Follow Jak on Twitter: @JakPhillips
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