Gay Vietnam may seem like an oxymoron given the violent, fractured nature of
the country's history. But the opening up of the nation to the outside world in
1986 (and the lifting of the US economic embargo in 1994) has seen it adopt free
market principles similar to Communist comrade China, sparking unprecedented economic
growth, increased affluence and desire for change, writes OutUK correspondent Robin Newbold.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people in Vietnam may face legal challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Both male and female
same-sex sexual activity is legal and is believed to never have been criminalized in Vietnamese history. However, same-sex couples and households
headed by same-sex couples are ineligible for the legal protections available to opposite-sex couples. Although homosexuality is generally considered
a taboo because of the Vietnamese tradition, awareness surrounding LGBT rights has risen during the last few years. Vietnam's first gay pride parade
peacefully took place in Hanoi on August 5, 2012 and has been annually taken place in dozens of provinces.
While there are no out and out
gay bars, it's impossible to feel uncomfortable on the frenetic streets of Saigon
(Ho Chi Minh City as it's officially known), where smiles from passers by are not
uncommon, hinting at a certain gentility and innocence.
Saigon is undoubtedly one of the engines of growth of the "new" Vietnam and there's
such a vibrancy and energy about the place. In this world of perpetual motion, amid
the streams of motorbikes, street hawkers and businessmen with mobile phones
clamped to their ears, there's a new-found confidence and a feeling that people
can be who they want to be, without fear of the government interference of old.
Though the state-run media denounced homosexuality as a "social evil" in May 2002,
there have never been any laws against homosexual activity and in a sign that
things are actually moving in the right direction, the delightfully titled Communist
Youth Newspaper recently carried a story about homosexuality that opined: "Some
people are born gay, just as some people are born left-handed." Quite!
In Saigon, it's not unusual to see youths of the same sex draped over each
other on the seemingly only mode of transport, the suitably named Honda
Dream motorbike. And, on a Saturday night, when the roads are even
more teeming with bright young things than usual, don't be surprised if you catch
someone's eye while at the wheel.
Foreigners are still a bit of a rarity in these
parts and being on the street is the traditional Vietnamese place to flirt.
In fact, it's a bit like the 1950s, because at the weekend especially, the parks are full of courting couples,
which creates a wonderfully romantic throwback to more genteel times against the
backdrop of the stunning architecture from the French colonial era.
Flirting aside, you can't come to Vietnam and avoid the history of the place since
almost around ever corner there seems to be something of significance. And even
though the American war (1965-73) may be seared into the Western consciousness,
being here, surrounded by Vietnamese, makes exhibits like the War Remnants Museum
all the more resonant.
There's a harrowing section called Requiem, which is a
photographic journey through the war, with accompanying and unbiased commentary
by the international journalists of the day.
There's also a fair amount of American
military hardware scattered about the museum's grounds, trophies taken by the
Viet Cong and a startling reminder of what the North Vietnamese were up against.
The Reunification Palace is a wonderful piece of 1960s kitsch smack bang in the middle
of District One but again, it has a bloody history. It was here in 1975 that Communist
tanks smashed through the gates to herald the country's "liberation" and the start of more than 30
years of autocratic rule.
Now tourists stream through those gates to marvel at the
creation of Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu, whose grandiose vision
won him the coveted Grand Prix de Rome for design. There's a bust of Uncle Ho
(the "father" of Vietnam's Communist movement) in one of the grand halls and
various other "Red" paraphernalia.
Other sights include such French-built gems as Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office
(no, really!), Hotel de Ville (now a grand Communist bolthole renamed the Ho Chi Minh City
People's Committee), Ben Thanh Market and the Municipal Theatre, which was restored at
the behest of the makers of the 2002 movie, The Quiet American.
A no doubt linen-suited
Graham Greene penned the 1955 novel on which the film is based in The Continental
Hotel opposite the theatre.