No pictures please...
When Westerners spend time in Vietnam there is one subject that almost always comes up - older white males and young Vietnamese women. The streets are full of them. The combinations are limitless and they all generate reactions and speculation. Are these relationships different from other December-May relationships? What are they about? Some of them are about hope. Some are about sexual validation. Some are about romance. Some are depressing. Some seem perfectly normal. Some are disgusting. Some are funny. Some are about predatory sex. Some are sweet. Some go sour. Some are scandalous. Some are about not wanting to age. Some are hard to look at. Some are vets returning with nostalgia for another time. Some are just what you think they are. Some are simply inexplicable. Most of them are about money one way or another.
One of the best places in Saigon for people watching is the square at the top end of Dong Khoi Street where the Cathedral of Notre Dame stands as a reminder that the West has been involved with Vietnam and its people for centuries. Every Saturday and Sunday morning Marilynn and I sit across the square from the cathedral on the terrace of the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf Company and watch the human parade. There are brides having their wedding photos taken even though their weddings won't take place until weeks or months later. There are balloon vendors, shoe shine boys, lottery ticket sellers, models, and tourists all milling about. But,inevitably there will also be a number of old white guys with young Vietnamese women. Vietnamese women are exceptionally beautiful. Human traffickers prize them because of their light skin and fine features. It's not a mystery why men are drawn to them or why Western men come all the way to Vietnam to meet them.
When I see an overweight older white man with a tarty looking girl in short shorts I am repulsed, but I remind myself that I have good friends who are CEOs of multi-national companies that go home every night to their lovely and well educated Vietnamese wives. Sometimes I can set the sexual tourists aside in my mind and see the people I know in a different light even though many of them are still mysterious to me.
My friend, James, is a 55 year old businessman from Boston. He's well educated and successful. He seems very straight and normal but he was unmarried in Boston and I imagine that he had trouble attracting good looking, successful women who were his peers. Things changed for him in Vietnam. One night 6 years ago, as a tourist, he and a friend met a couple of Vietnamese girls in an elevator at the Caravelle Hotel. They invited the girls to sit with them in the Saigon - Saigon Bar even though the men didn't speak a word of Vietnamese and the girls did not speak English. A year later after a telephone relationship with an interpreter on the girl's end they were married. Now James is doing business consulting in Vietnam and they have a 3 year old child. The "insurance child." More about that later.
Another 62 year old friend moved to Vietnam after a successful career in telecommunications in Australia. Here he met and married a 28 year old Vietnamese banker. A year later they were the parents of twins - the insurance children. The stories are endless. A friend in Thailand, almost 60 and never married, is now happily married and has a 7 year old insurance child. Another friend, Chairman of one of the Big Five accounting firms, is married to a lovely and talented Vietnamese designer and they have two insurance children.
The insurance child is shorthand for a lifelong commitment. It seals the deal. It is almost a certainty that these women will have a child within a year or two of marriage. Vietnamese women are very smart, and when they talk about relationships they talk about being taken care of. It's all about the money. My 62 year old friend will be in his 80s when his girls graduate from high school. His wife will be in her 40s. When a Western man marries a Vietnamese woman he takes on a lot of responsibility. He gets the girl, but he also gets her family. That generally means he becomes financially responsible for them, all of them - parents, siblings, siblings children, grandparents - and they're not in the background. They are there, in the house, much of the time. As Zorba the Greek says, "the full catastrophe."
For the women the dance leading up to marriage can become a risk management challenge. Most Vietnamese women see the Western man as an insurance policy and they are fully invested in securing their future. But, sometimes it doesn't work out. There are thousands of beautiful girls in Vietnam and they are very available. A Western man can have as many servings as he wants. A particularly beautiful friend of ours has invested 5 years in a relationship with a semi-permanent expat CEO. He was married and she, like her counterparts worldwide, thought he would divorce the wife and marry her. He's got a great deal, but the plan hasn't worked out for her and now she's in her late 30s and other prospects are fading. She never got the insurance child.