A night with male sex work in Saigon

It’s a typical wet season evening in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Humidity fills my lungs as I leave my apartment. I breathe in familiar smells and sounds – roast pork sizzling on a barbecue against the backdrop of the din of honking scooters. But tonight I’m not on the search for tasty streetfood, or drinking a quiet beer under the neon lights of the city. Tonight I’m going on outreach with AloBoy. 

I’m Simon Williams, International Trainer for Mainline Foundation. I’m in Vietnam to help members of local community based organisations improve their outreach for people who use crystal methamphetamine – a relatively new phenomenon in Vietnam. Aloboy is one of these organisations. Earlier in the day, the AloBoy team had filled my training room with their lively personalities, though one would be a fool to assume that these guys were all humour and no substance. Within their bright eyes lay the unmistakable look of experience and a seriousness towards their vocation - reaching out to and providing harm reduction interventions for young MSM who use methamphetamine across Ho Chi Minh City.

There I stand
My two training colleagues meet me under the night sky, and we bundle into the waiting taxi. As they direct the driver in the musical sing-song of the Vietnameslanguage, I sit in the back, passive, watching the traffic weave its way in and out of the busy street. I feel excited, would the male sex worker outreach be miles different to the female sex worker outreach I had experienced before? Suddenly, the car lurches over a long, wide concrete bridge, typical of those found in this sprawling metropolis, and comes to an abrupt stop. I’m ushered out of the taxi and there I stand. In a perfectly normal street scene. An old woman selling snacks from an old wagon with glass windows, a group of stylishly dressed friends sitting and enjoy a drink, a stray dog searching for old bones to pick at.

Another glance is all it takes for me to realise that my first impression of this scene wasn’t quite right. With the group of friends, amongst other young guys, sit the AloBoy outreach team, perching on the low plastic stools typical of Vietnamese streets, looking as comfortable as they would look reclining on their own living room sofas. Tuan, a tall, muscular outreach worker, jumps up to greet me enthusiastically, and introduces me in Vietnamese to the equally beautiful boys sitting around the table, some of whom flash bright white smiles towards me before retreating back into their designer clothed shells.

The boss arrives

I immediately feel the discomfort a deer feels when he’s under the glare of approaching headlights, how anyone feels when they’re thrust into a situation they’re unaccustomed to. After my own possibly overeager greetings, I’m steered towards an empty stool beside a man I hadn’t noticed before. Older than the rest and sitting with an aura of placid coolness, his eyes also scan me, though it’s with the calm assurance of a person who knows he’s in charge. Suddenly I notice that the young boys are grouped in an untidy circle around this man. This isn’t a group of friends. This man is running things. A boss. A pimp.

I sit down and politely accept the drink that is offered to me. Hung, a particularly outspoken member of the team, whispers to the boss in an uncharacteristically quiet tone. The boss nods slowly, looks down at his neat white linen shirt, then at me with a smile. Though no words are spoken, I understand this gesture as an unmistakeable ‘so, what would you like to know?’.

How’s business?
Suddenly, my mind is flooded with a thousand questions. What should I ask? How can I phrase them to avoid causing offense? ‘Shit Simon’, I scold myself, ‘maybe you should have prepared some questions!’ But the truth is I wasn’t expecting a question and answer session with the boss. I take a moment to compose myself, smile a smile which betrays my discomfort and ask an awkward first question. ‘So how’s business’? Apparently, business is well. He describes a large apartment that his boys live in, each in a room of his own. The boys wake up at midmorning and go out to the street in the early evening. The clients then visit the street scene and pick them up for sex and meth use until well past midnight.

Easily replaceable
Mid-question, the boss jumps up and hops over to greet another man with the excitement of a young boy opening his first present on Christmas day. This takes me by surprise, but I take this as an opportunity to cast my eyes over the boys, all of whom had been completely quiet up to now. After asking their permission, I start directing questions towards them in the hope that they will be more forthcoming than the boss. Why do they use meth during sex with clients? As it turns out, for many reasons – the most basic being that meth just feels great. Though it isn’t always that straightforward. They also use because some clients pay a higher price if they do. They also use it to be able to close their eyes and pretend they’re somewhere else as they engage in their sexual routines. 

But surely they don’t have to engage in sex acts with men who they don’t actually want to? Surely if business is so good they can have the luxury of cherry picking their clients? Seemingly not. I’m informed that they must pay a 30% kickback on all business conducted to the boss, and competition is high amongst the boys, who are easily replaceable. So even if the clients are old, or overweight, or grubby, or the client forces them to use meth, or all of the above – the boys are likely to accept it, and potentially engage in unsafe sexual practices for fear of losing the client, or angering the boss.

HIV and STI testing
How do the boys come to start using meth? A thin, young looking boy with sparkling white teeth to my left baulks at this question. I had noticed him from the very start. Small framed, with childlike, feminine features that can only be described as cute. He’s dressed impeccably, with coca cola branded converse adorning his feet. He looks no older than 13, though I am later told that he’s 16 and by far the most popular boy for the clients. The slightly older boys are more open. I try to hide my surprise as I’m told that state run ‘job introduction centres’ refer young boys who cannot get a legitimate job to the pimps and brothel owners – vicariously fuelling a spiral towards meth use.

I steer my attention towards the outreach team, who have so far been sitting and listening intently to the conversation, and the job that they do to protect the health and rights of the young men they work with. I’m especially interested in the services that AloBoy offer. With a steady voice, Thuan tells me that the first priority is providing HIV and STI testing, as a large number of the boys engage in regular unprotected sex with clients. If the boys test positive, they are referred to services for treatment. They also aim to engage the boys by arranging teambuilding days, individual counseling sessions and group discussions to educate them about the effects of methamphetamine and STI transmission.

Ready to ride off
Suddenly, I get the feeling that I had trespassed enough. I might be an invited guest, but these boys are as much on shift as the truck drivers who trundle past carrying their loads. As I thank the team and summon a taxi, I notice the youngest boy hopping on the back of a motorcycle, coca cola shoes glistening, arms wrapped tightly around the man sat in front of him, ready to ride off into the night. I can only hope that tonight, he remembers the advice of the AloBoy team.

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