Surely the families involved knew what was going on, or did they? And for those readers who think we are talking here of Vietnamese prostitutes, we are not. We are talking of the basic, single, teen-through-early adolescence girls that worked the bars of South Vietnam… serving drinks, chatting up, dancing with and snuggling into the arms of American soldiers. The fact of the matter is that demographic studies of the Vietnam War have shown that the girls that worked those local bars were by and large not prostitutes, per se. Died in the wool prostitutes made up less than 12% of the women who worked the bars of Vietnam. That being the case, what of the other 88%? Why were they in these bars too?
Last month we were lucky enough to find the answer to this 50 year long question. In surfing the web we found a blog that had posted on it a story by an American-Vietnamese anthropologist who had interviewed Vietnamese women on this very topic—women who had served as bar girls during the Vietnam war. In her work she talked with some 32 of these women, over a decade. With insight she recorded their stories, eventually compiling them into an article, a condensed version of which she posted on the web.
Part of a sixteen-year oral history project, Ms. Mai Lan Gustafsson, the author and an American-Vietnamese, interviewed these Vietnamese women who—again—had served as bar girls during the Vietnam War. Through the voices of these women she discovered a story of reverence for, rather than condemnation of, the Vietnam War. More surprising though, she found that rather than the life of these wartime bar girls serving American G.I.s being one of pain, humiliation and sorrow, almost without exception they all looked back on their experience as being one of the best things that ever happened to them.
Having been an American G.I. sitting on the other side of the bar from such girls, this happy view on their part of their wartime life seems impossible to believe. Yet the story Ms. Gustafsson presents makes the case. What she proves is that even in times of war, within the chaos of an off-base bar in the middle of a war zone, two strangers with little to nothing in common can find solace and tenderness in each other’s time of need.
Likely as not then you, as a younger than young American soldier freshly released from your mother’s apron strings, finding yourself serving in South Vietnam, with a chance—on occasion—to spend a night chatting with one of these bar girls, perhaps buying her drinks, or snuggling with her in the darkest spot you can find in the bar... you too know of the tenderness and happiness these war time liaisons can bring. For your lady, a sense of freedom and empowerment. For you a sense of comfort and love. For both of you, respect for the other… enemy or not.
We contacted the website where this article appeared (diaCRITICS.org), and requested their permission to reproduce it here. In early January we received the o.k. to do just that. The story that is told about Vietnamese bar girls is fascinating. You must read it.
Editor’s Note: The box at right cites the original blog and authors to the story The Warlore of Vietnamese Bargirls, which is posted below. The story as shown here is verbatim, except for minor editorial changes we have made to make the text flow more freely. To read the unedited version, please click on the box at right.
We also strongly encourage our readers to visit the diaCRITCS.org website where these stories were first posted, and read the website itself.
Focused on matters of interest to American Vietnamese, with content by Vietnamese, it is full of fascinating and well written articles about the people we fought… and failed… to free.
Note: pictures shown below were part of the original story, and are believed to be pictures of the actual women interviewed and cited in the text.
- - - - -
The Warlore of Vietnamese Bargirls
Mai Lan Gustafsson, Author
Part I: War and Remembrance
Perhaps the quintessential image capturing the essence of wartime Saigon is that of the bargirl: the young Vietnamese woman dressed to maximum effect in halter and mini-skirt, hawking her wares—be that cigarettes or liquor or herself—in broken English to passing American GIs. What led her to the city? How did she live? What is she doing now? I met 32 of these women over the course of a decade, starting in 1994 when I began Master’s research into Vietnamese folklore.
Five years later, I took a position as the director of a community center for Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants in upstate New York. There, over the years, I met the remainder of my informants. All 32 are former bargirls, most of them having come to the United States as refugees. They are women in their late fifties, sixties, and seventies who long ago left their villages in southern Vietnam to take up life in the emerald city of Saigon, where they encountered and even loved the American Other. For the past sixteen years, I have been interviewing these women about their lives, and whatever memories we conjure in our work together, the war in Vietnam is never far away. Although over now for 35 years, the war looms large for those who lived through it. Here and in Vietnam, the stories people have told me about the war have been haunting tales of destruction and horror, but not these women: they speak of the war as the best thing that ever happened to them.
A vast literature exists on the Vietnam War, written by historians, journalists, and veterans, detailing key figures in the conflict, major campaigns, social and political consequences, and more. For myself, the war has always been a subject of deep interest. My parents met in Saigon in 1967—my father an American soldier, my mother herself a Vietnamese bargirl. (For many years my parents maintained the myth that they had met in a sewing shop. It was only after I entered college that my mother admitted that she had in fact been working as a bargirl.) They married and raised their family in the U.S., rarely speaking of the war that brought them together. No matter, I had a seemingly endless number of books with which to familiarize myself with the war. Of them all, it was the oral histories that most captured my interest. Potent and painful, the structured recollections of those who experienced the Vietnam War first-hand impressed upon me the power personal stories had to bring distant events to life.
These oral histories transformed the war from a dry recitation of dates and battles into the nightmare it was for young Americans fighting in jungles far from home. Most of these works feature the experiences of American soldiers in Vietnam, a very few tell the story of the Vietnamese soldiers. Of women and the war, even less has been written, and what does exist in the literature deals almost exclusively with American nurses or female Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters. As I blithely entered into my first research experience as a master’s student in 1994, my goal was to capture the oral histories of Vietnamese refugees in the United States—particularly those of women—who had fled the war in their homeland. For these refugees, as for the Vietnamese and American soldiers, the nurses and insurgents—the war was a—if not the—defining moment in their lives, and I wanted to add their voices to the chorus.
In the first stories I collected, Vietnamese refugee women mourned the loss of their homeland and the lives they had expected to lead. If the stories were not about the traumatic experience of flight, then they dealt with life in Vietnam before the fighting began. Whatever walk of life these women came from, today as refugees they have painted an idealized picture of Vietnam. Their remembrances of pre-war Vietnam are full of joy and peace and family closeness, of customs both beautiful and unique. Whatever life was being led prior to the war has been recast today as a Vietnamese norm, as glorious tradition. It was the war that ruined their lives, forcing them to flee their beloved Vietnam and struggle to rebuild some semblance of their culture in the U.S. Their stories are heart-wrenching tales of struggle and misery and loss, of pain and death and despair. As the destroyer of all they held dear, the war is hated and talked about with vigorous loathing.
A Different War Story
“Hey you! What you do there?” This, shouted at me from across the playground of a housing project in a run-down neighborhood near Boston, Massachusetts. The shouter was a woman named Hai, who lived in the projects with her daughter. I’d seen her several times over the course of the summer, as I was living in the development in pursuit of Vietnamese women’s war stories. The housing project was the perfect place to collect their oral histories, informally designated as it was for refugees. Consisting of several duplexes arranged in a square around a small playground, there were twelve such squares in this housing complex, inhabited most of all by Vietnamese. Hai’s friendly shout was our first interaction, and the start of our now sixteen-year collaboration.
Hai invited me into her home that day, and I went, explaining my research into how her people remembered the war. “My people?!” she barked laughter at me. “These are not my people,” she declared with a dismissive wave of her hand. No indeed. She had been a bargirl in Saigon during the war, entertaining American GIs. In fact, her daughter was Amerasian, a “child of love” according to Hai. What little truck she and her neighbors had with each other was perfunctory at best, usually followed by each party saying something derogatory about the other when out of earshot. I know this from residing that summer with the Nguyen family – mother, father, aunt, uncle, and their seven children. They’d arrived in the Boston area in 1984, after a perilous journey by boat out of Vietnam and an even more dangerous time spent in a Malaysian refugee camp. The Nguyens, and their many friends in the complex, warned me almost daily after my first meeting with Hai to stay away from her. “She no good,” they told me.
Intrigued, I continued to visit with Hai. She knew the others discouraged me from seeing her, and she approved of my “stubbornness” in spending time with her each day anyway. Hai was a breath of fresh air, a respite from the suffocatingly maternal interactions with the other women. Several times a day they would lecture me on the appropriate way to be or do something Vietnamese, sternly correcting me when I made mistakes. When I was not being indoctrinated into the correct way to make a spring roll, they told me harrowing stories of survival in Vietnam and equally terrifying tales about their flight from it. It was exhausting at times. Not so with Hai. “Leave me alone!” she gestured at the door, pantomiming a fight with the others. “They should leave you alone, too.” I smiled, and told her I wanted to hear their stories, I wanted to know more about the war. “Shit,” Hai replied. “You want to hear the truth about the war? You don’t ask them. They suckers. The war, that whole time, was the best time for my life. I loved it.”
Hai was the first woman to express her love for the war, but not the last. She introduced me to two more women in that Boston housing project who felt the same; all three led me to eleven others scattered in various Vietnamese communities in the northeast. When I became director of a community center for Southeast Asian refugees in upstate New York, I met eighteen more such women. Although each was thrilled by the prospect of an American audience reading about their lives, none of them were comfortable with their Vietnamese neighbors knowing their personal details. They are considered fallen women in their culture, and some of their stories would bring shame to their families. Thus, while they wanted their stories told and felt our work together to be an important addendum to the history of the Vietnam War, all wanted to remain anonymous for this project.
Happily, all 32 of these women remain alive and well, even the oldest of the group, 79 year old Cao. Cao is certain she will outlive all of the other women in my study, not to mention myself – “I never die, Mai Lan! I write about you after you die, haha!” I asked for her secret to longevity, expecting her to cite regular exercise, or prayer, perhaps even yogurt. “Sex! And whiskey! And laugh a lot at stupid things. Hahaha!” Indeed, whenever I visit with these women, there is much laughter and joking. This is in stark contrast to the oral histories I collected from the more traditional Vietnamese women, who spoke solely of their suffering and the horror of war. The former bargirls, on the other hand, talk of good times and new friendships, fun experiences and freedom. They are the heroines of a fairy tale set during wartime, not the victims of politics and violence as other refugee women paint themselves.
From the mid-1960s through the early 70s, much of the Republic of Vietnam organized itself around the American war machine. Soon after the arrival of the first U.S. troops in 1965, a gargantuan black market was spun around the American presence. This elaborate network of suppliers, dealers, transporters, and all-around hustlers reached across the whole of southern Vietnam. The crossroads of this was Saigon.
The 32 women in my study worked in some capacity in the Saigon bar scene. The Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket includes a scene with a Vietnamese hooker—tottering on high heels, in micro-mini, she promises to “love you long time” because “me so horny.” Some of my informants were outright sex workers like the woman depicted in that film, others were strippers and dancers, some waitresses. Most worked in bars where their job was to charm American soldiers into buying them expensive drinks. Where it proceeded from there was usually left up to the women themselves. “If we want to do sex, we do. No one tell us. No pimp, you understand?”
The other women who were regular prostitutes worked in brothel bars, not on the street, and all say they were treated decently enough by both customers and management. For the ex-hookers, sex work was just that: work, a job, a way to generate income. Selling themselves, whether their sex, youth, charm, company, or conversation, is not in the recollections of these 32 women what defined the war for them. The sex work—even if it was peripheral to actual prostitution—was incidental. It is not why Hai said she “loved” the war. What made the war so special and wonderful for these women was the freedom it gave them—freedom from the drudgery of domestic work, from the dominance of husbands and fathers, from the expectations of their culture.
All 32 women were born and raised in villages in southern Vietnam—“country girls,” as they told me. Most claim very poor childhoods and none had more than a grade school education—if that. Thu Loan, now in her sixties, explained what it meant to her to be a country girl:
“That mean you work like a water buffalo for your mother, your father. You do everything they say. You lucky if you go school. I did but later we have no money so I stop. Anyway, too much to do at home. Wash. Clean. Cook. Plant rice. Later when you become big, you marry Vietnamese man and you water buffalo for him. You always busy. You always boring.”
In contrast to how more traditional refugee women like to talk about their happy, golden pre-war lives, these former bargirls prefer not to speak about life before the war at all. When they do, what they recount is invariably “terrible.” Indeed, sixteen of them came from what could charitably be called dysfunctional families. Allusions to sexual abuse and physical torments, rape, and near-starvation occasionally pepper the stories told by some of the women in my study. For the others, while violence may not have ruled their childhoods, lack of love and parental neglect certainly did. Trac, 68 and the mother of two Amerasian sons by her American GI sweetheart, speculated that “If I had love over there, I probably never go Saigon, never come here [meaning the U.S.].” Abandoned by her parents, she and her siblings were shuttled back and forth between various relatives, none able or willing to permanently shelter them. For Trac, Vietnamese life was loveless, empty, and cold. “Hungry all the time, you know? For food, yes, but not always for just food.”
Life in the villages as country girls is not looked back upon with any kind of positive sentiment. At most, there is grudging recognition by the women of the importance of the village for the family at large. The Communists knew better than anyone how important the villages were to the people. Starting in the north of Vietnam and, after the end of the war, extending into the south, the Party moved to break the autonomous power of the villages and redirect the allegiance of the people from family and village to Party and state. Speaking of her tiny village, Cao remembered, “My family been there for long time, never go anywhere. We stay through everything, everything. Our land is all we got, lose it if we go somewhere.” Most of the women echoed Cao’s words, telling me that despite the war against the French—which they say did not affect village life—and the war against the Communists—which did—their families stayed put. All of the women came from rural families with historical and deeply spiritual ties to their villages. “Every people in my village had my last name,” said Tran. “You leave and have no name.”
Even when the fighting was brought into the villages during the American phase of Vietnam’s war, these women’s families were rooted to their homes. Family graveyards going back well before French colonization were the norm for these women, who, in keeping with Vietnamese custom, visited the graves of their ancestors regularly. Binh Minh, 66, remembers how as a child she helped rebury the bones of her grandparents, as was customary in pre-communist Vietnam. “It not so fun,” recalls Binh Minh, “but it a good thing to do. You take care of your grandmamma and grandpappa, make them happy in heaven.” Chi, 58, hailed from a destitute family, with no money to properly tend the graves of their ancestors. Chi:
“It sick, you know, because I play outside all the time and when it rain so hard then mud everywhere and bones in mud. I play in the mud many times, bring up bones all the time. Heads, legs, arms, all bones!"
When I asked if she had been frightened, Chi responded, “What for? They belong to me. They my family.”
Trapped by Tradition
Why did these women go to Saigon in the first place? What led them to abandon their lives as self-proclaimed country girls to become Saigon bargirls? Traditionally, Vietnamese girls belong to the realm of the home and village, rarely venturing beyond them until marriage, after which time the bride becomes part of her husband’s family, and then seldom leaves his home or village. Sons are much preferred over daughters in Vietnam. It is sons who are obligated by religious and social custom to look after elderly parents and to ritually care for their souls after death. Because of the tremendously weighty duties assigned to senior sons, they are entitled to keep the family home and, if the family owns land, to a larger share of the estate than their siblings.
Many of my informants remember feeling out of place in their own families, passed over for their brothers, neglected by dint of their sex. Hiep:
“Everything boys this, boys that. My brothers, they go to school, but not me. I have to do all the housework. I was slave for my family. My brothers come home from school or from play outside, I serve them like maid. I have to do this. I hate it.”
Even gentle Lieu, who I rarely heard speak ill of anyone, had this to say about her parents’ favoritism:
“I had two brothers and three sisters. At first, we all played and helped each other. But my parents showed us they wanted boys. If we go to market, the boys get candy. Us girls get nothing. At dinner, my brothers got the most rice and the best meat. Me and my sisters got the cracked, hard rice and the meat juice. At night, my brothers would play with my parents but the girls had to clean up and go sleep. Unfair, don’t you think? It hurt us very much. The girls, I mean. My brothers didn’t care. I did not cry about it but I wanted to.”
Life in the villages for my informants was miserable, most of all because of the restrictive nature of a Vietnamese girl’s life. The 32 former bargirls in my study all chafed at the traditional role of the Vietnamese girl—and later woman—they were expected to fulfill. Hai remembers feeling trapped:
“Shit. Even when I was a kid, I like to take care of myself. I had to, you know? But I had to take care of everyone else, too. They so lazy! They can’t cook food? They can’t feed pigs? They can’t fix clothes? They can’t buy food in the market? Why me? I tell you why: because I’m a girl. And girls don’t mean shit in Vietnam.”
Hai, and the other women in my study, wanted more out of life. Certainly, they wanted nothing to do with the role assigned to them by their culture.
[In this regard] care needs to be taken not to judge the experience of these women in terms of Western notions of oppression. None of my informants ever described themselves as feminists—and they all knew what that meant, more or less—nor did they categorize their actions as resistance. What they speak of now, as older women, is freedom and desperately wanting it as they grew into womanhood in their villages. As teenagers, they were miserable, but did not know why.
“Oh, yes, honey dear,” Nga said to me. “I always felt sad, or mad, lonely. No reason.”
The others also mention being unhappy, or tired, or bored throughout their adolescence and teenage years. Trac was even exorcised for her lethargy, while Linh recalls, “every time we sit down to eat, my father say to everyone in family ‘pray for her that she smile.’” Quy was forced to stand in waist-deep, leech-saturated water for a whole day because of her sullen insolence. For all 32 women, there was a definite sense of otherness, and powerful feelings of not wanting to belong or conform.
Part II: Liberation
What happened to these country girls to make them relocate to Saigon? For most of them, it was impending marriage. In the mid-1960s, as the U.S. became publicly and deeply involved in Vietnamese politics, [the people I interviewed] were teenagers and of marriageable age. Twenty eight of these women explicitly stated that their move to Saigon—alone, nearly penniless—was precipitated by their families’ insistence that they marry. Arranged marriages are typical of rural Vietnamese families, and another source of discontent for [the women I interviewed]. No doubt, the prospect of leaving the familiarity of the family home for the strangeness of one’s husband’s is met with trepidation by many a Vietnamese bride. Hai remembers anticipating with dread her parents’ announcement that they had found a suitable husband for her:
“My mother knew I was very, very angry about it, so she try to make me feel better. She told me that when I am married, I become boss of my children, and one day I will be dragon lady mother-in-law. But I mad anyway even though she so nice because I am not dragon lady—I am dragon Shit!”
When the inevitable occurred and their families began shopping around for appropriate husbands, these 28 [women] were forced to decide between the life that had so far left them empty and unhappy, and another life, as yet unknown. They claim the choice was simple: avoid marriage at any cost.
Trac: “Vietnamese men bad, they mean to their wives, hit them, sleep around, make them do work. They nothing.”
Tuyet: “When my father told me to marry, that night I could not sleep. Felt like the world blow up. I think all night what I do. Cannot marry!”
Quy: “They keep saying to me get married, get married. I think no! Never! When I seventeen, my grandmother always take me around, show me off, try to get some man to marry me. I say okay, okay, but I never get married. She cannot make me. My uncles tell her I have to get married soon before too old, but they could not make me.”
Kim Oanh: “I supposed to marry this boy named Three, he came from a village very close, my mother knew his family. He was very nice, come to see me with fresh shirt and we sit at one table and try to talk to each other. I could not stand to do that—so uncomfortable! He nice, he good-looking, yeah, but what we say to each other? How can I marry him? He like a fly. Everyday he come to see me like a fly. I want to kill that fly, but instead it was me—I fly away.”
She did fly away, three months after Three was named as her future husband. Kim Oanh, and the 27 others like her who faced marriage, flew to Saigon—away from their intendeds and away from the traditional lives their families intended for them. The other four—Hoa, Tran, Thom, and Nga—had not yet been promised in marriage when they escaped their villages. These four fled the pressure put on them by the Viet Cong to take up the Communist cause. “Two or three times every week we all have to go to V.C. school. We so tired all the time because at night could not sleep, had to go school,” remembers Tran. Hoa, Thom, and Nga were also subject to V.C. orientation.
It was anger, and the realization that their lives would only get worse, that drove these women to leave home and head for Saigon. The situations they found themselves in—on the verge of becoming wives or guerillas—had become untenable. Wartime chaos had lifted the constraints imposed on women’s lives somewhat, enough so that Thom could go to Saigon with the approval of her mother. “There was no money,” as she told me, “so my mother say okay for me to go to Saigon. She wanted me to send money home.”
It was also easier to slip away unnoticed, for the men whose duty it was to watch over them were serving in the military and thus not home. Quy’s uncles were in the army and could not enforce their command to marry, nor could they prevent her from hopping on a bus to Saigon. Hiep, too, was able to leave unobstructed: “When my father told me to marry a Vietnamese boy, I ran away. I went to Saigon. He could not find me—everything crazy then.”
Sixteen-year-old Hiep, who had never before left her village, was inspired to trade her one possession, a jade pendant, for a place in a car headed to Saigon, sixty miles away. Upon reaching the city, young Hiep snatched her pendant from the driver and leapt from the car. “I scared, sure, but it fun!”
For a Vietnamese girl to leave home, in search of adventure and in defiance of her family’s marriage plans, is a treasonous act, a betrayal of the very foundations of Vietnamese society. To do so creates an imbalance in the social order, one which deems that girls and women fall naturally into the domestic realm. By disobeying her male elders, as each of my informants did, a woman runs the risk of tearing apart the fabric of society since family relationships provide the model for social organization in Vietnam. All of my informants knew the ramifications of their break with tradition, that by flouting social and family expectations, they would be outcast. This was indeed the case, for none of these maintained close or regular ties with their families during their time as bargirls, and only reconciled with them to varying degrees of success after the end of the war. “I lost my family when I move to Saigon,” says Hai. “But it was worth it. I was free.”
Life and Love in the Big City
When the war offered these 32 women a chance to escape from the drudgery of traditional village life, all of them seized the opportunity and migrated to Saigon. Most were in their teens and twenties at the time of their “escape.”
Unsurprisingly given their lack of money and education, all were funneled into the entertainment industry. They joined a culture of bar girls in Saigon, clustered in distinct neighborhoods close to where American service personnel were quartered. For the few women who kept in touch with their families during this period, the job descriptions they reported home sounded safe enough: seamstresses, secretaries, cooks. In reality, all 32 were working as dancers, waitresses, hostesses, strippers, escorts, or prostitutes in any number of the many bars and clubs catering to American soldiers.
For the bargirls, Saigon was a paradise. The city offered what their villages could not: excitement, independence, novelty, and the exotic. They were not alone but were surrounded by more experienced denizens of the Saigon bar scene who showed them the ropes and helped them find housing and work. Within a few weeks of their arrival, all 32 had found places to live in the bargirl neighborhoods of the city, rooming with women like themselves who had gone to Saigon to find better lives.
Binh Minh had become fast friends with two other new arrivals and together they posed as sisters and nursing students to rent rooms in a respectable boarding house run by an elderly couple. All three worked at a nightclub frequented by American GIs, who they eventually began to bring home for late-night poker games. “The old people never complained about the noise because we told them that one of the girls had seizures and always made a lot of noise. We told them the Americans were doctors from the hospital.” Binh Minh grins at the memory of the good times she had with her friends.
My Anh’s sister—who was married to a city man and also lived in Saigon—paid her a visit shortly after My Anh’s arrival, intent on convincing her younger sister to go home. Seeing the impeccable quarters My Anh shared with four other young women, and meeting the woman introduced as their boss in a sewing shop, the sister apparently made a favorable report to their parents. The pressure to return home ceased. How could they have known that Madame Xinh owned a bar across the street from the dress shop, where My Anh and her friends served drinks to and danced for American soldiers?
The war opened up for these women a world of welcome possibilities. They all enjoyed the freedom made possible by the anarchy of the war and tell vibrant stories about being single women, independent, free, and monied in the capitol city.
As bargirls they were meeting men who seemed to them all that Vietnamese men and life were not, and experiencing things that would have been inaccessible to them had they remained with their families. Their stories are not the sorrowful stories I heard from the more traditional refugee women, but rather epic tales of good times and romantic encounters. They came into their own in Saigon, quickly becoming urbanized, Americanized, and savvy about men and life. This was a far cry from their lives in the villages, and exactly what had been lacking. “I was never sad in Saigon,” remembers Khoa, now 56. “I had so many friends, and so much money. I did what I wanted every day. Fun, fun, fun!” Hai jokingly says that had she known how good life would be in Saigon, she would have run away there at age ten. “No compare,” she says of the difference between being a country girl and a bargirl.
Wartime Saigon was very much a time and place in which normal social distinctions blurred or collapsed, thus allowing these women to escape the traditional expectations of their gender: marry, give birth to sons, be quiet, obey men and elders, work hard. The culture contact and disorder inherent in any war enabled them to shrug off what Diep calls “the stupid, know nothing” girls they were in the villages and adopt new, exhilarating personas. “I was like a movie star in Saigon,” bragged Diep. Like her, the other women tell me that life during the war was “sweet,” “exciting,” and “wild.” In particular, the women tell many stories about their American boyfriends. There were no expectations of them, just romance and novelty and the coming together of two strangers, each of whom had little knowledge of the other’s culture.
The Americans they met as customers and later took as lovers were well-liked marks. “They treated me like a sister, sometime like a friend,” remembers Kim Oanh, adding “Vietnamese men look at women like slaves.” Lieu treasured her friendships with American soldiers, who taught her to swear in English, take pictures, and drink beer: “I was just one of the boys, and I like it.” Tran sympathized with the soldiers:
“The American GIs were very young, boys still. They far away, they scared, they just want to have good time. I feel sorry for them in my heart. I be very nice to them, and they nice to me too.”
Gullible American teenagers fell easily and hard for the bargirls they perhaps identified with, particularly the ones who learned how to dress again in their country girl personas. Trinh:
“I worked in three different bars, and each place if I see a new face, I pretend to be real scared, you know, like an innocent girl. When I bring them beers, I make my hand shake, I sometimes pretend I cry. American GIs love that, they fight with each other to take care of me.”
Tuyet’s pathetic naïf was so convincing she had American GIs serving drinks for her while she was gallantly persuaded to sit down and “take a load off.” For Huong, the innocent act worked a bit too well: “Every American GI want to be Romeo. We have to find new place to live because every night some American Romeo climb the wall and sing to us from the balcony.”
Like many of the women, Thu Loan worked in a bar where her job was to get the soldiers to buy her drinks. She made half the cost of these outrageously overpriced cocktails, all the while downing the non-alcoholic drinks made specifically for her and the other bargirls. Of course, the soldiers were served the real thing, and in their inebriation, continued to ply their hostesses with fruit juice and seltzer water. Thu Loan:
“One boy came back every day for two weeks because he thought I was so special—girl who never get sick from drinking. Last night he came in I drank three real cocktails so he would be happy, and he gave me a big tip. I liked him for that.”
Despite their affection for American men, the only people these women trusted were other bargirls. Only bargirls could understand and help with the lifestyle that went with the job—rising late, learning English, dressing well, shopping at the American PX with their sweethearts. These women, of the same relative age and occupation—and temperament—became each other’s families. Cooperation, not competition, was the norm, perhaps because “there were enough men to go around,” as Thanh observed.
These women protected one another from their detractors and predators. Bargirls were frequently victims of petty crime, for they were known to leave their workplaces with pocketbooks full of American dollars, on their way to apartments filled with gifts from their American suitors. Thom dredged up this hilarious memory:
“You have to watch out for Vietnamese boys. So many around all the time. They ride on motorbikes and steal your purse, grab your jewelry. So, when we go to work, we walk with long sticks. When boys ride by, we put the sticks in the wheel. Boys fly off, we ride to work. We take their motorbikes!”
When children were born of the liaisons with their American sweethearts, fellow bargirls played a crucial role. Much more so than their American boyfriends—most of whom did not know of or involve themselves in the lives of their children—these friends acted as surrogate mothers. When my informants went to work, their children were safe and happy being tended by the designated “mom.” Bargirls relied on each other for the familial assistance they had lost in the move away from their villages. Tuyet:
“My baby had many aunties in Saigon. When I took him to my mother’s village, he didn’t know anybody. He cried for his aunties in Saigon.”
These single mothers maintained a tight knit network of babysitters and companions, as loving as the web of relations that presumably would have been there for them in a village Vietnam had they elected to stay. It is this camaraderie and care that my informants miss most about the war. When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, whole sectors of the artificially inflated economy of Saigon collapsed, including those which had employed the girls I interviewed. The bargirl phenomenon, having arisen in response to the perceived American need for it, ended. The heady days of wartime romance were over, and most of the women participating in this study returned home to their villages. A few were lucky enough to marry their American boyfriends and come to America as wives. All left Saigon bearing the strength and cleverness they’d developed in their time as bargirls, and brought their memories of the war with them as they eventually resettled in the U.S.
Birth of a Warlore
By 1990, all 32 had arrived in the United States. A few came as wives of American servicemen, some as “boat people” refugees, and the rest as mothers of Amerasians, following the implementation of the Amerasian Homecoming Act in 1989. Former bargirls—whether they had “mixed” children or not—who stayed behind in Vietnam after the end of the war in 1975 were subject to abuse and discrimination if their scandalous pasts were known. Indeed, two of my informants, Kim Oanh and Thom, were sent to Phu Quoc Island, one of many prison sites that, as Lesleyanne Hawthorne points out, was for women labeled vagrants, prostitutes, psychotics or husband killers.
After Thom had been there for a year, she met Kim Oanh and they became friends. They tell me there were many bargirls there, but that they have no idea what happened to them. Both were released after one and two years respectively, and sent to a New Economic Zone (read “reeducation camp”) outside Da Lat. Three years of back breaking labor and continual “treatments” later, they were allowed to return to their home villages, catching up with each other ten years later in the U.S. Today, they live next door to each other.
Lieu, who sought refuge with her family back in the village after the war was sent to a reeducation camp along with her brother, a former corporal in the southern army. Thu Nga, Huong, Hiep, and Tuyet were also sent to the euphemistically titled New Economic Zones with their children. Certainly, these women were targeted for their wartime activities, but they might have been sent away regardless of their pasts as bargirls.
In short, life in post-war Vietnam between 1975 and their individual arrivals in the United States some time by 1990 was “crap” according to Huong. The misery was of a different sort than that which they experienced as country girls prior to the war. From traditional limitations placed on what girls can properly do in Vietnam, the former bargirls who had yet to migrate to the States now had to cope with the multiple deprivations experienced by the Vietnamese after the war ended. “Hungry all the time,” recalls Khoa. “Never know if you have lunch that day. Scared, too. Scared they send you away again or want talk to you about Saigon.” Binh Minh appreciates the irony of the situation: “I was fat during the war. Fat and happy. So much food and so much fun and good time all the time. Then, war over. Skinny and sad and mad all the time. Terrible.”
In 1994, I began listening to these war stories, shocked and delighted at the ribald tales of daring and adventure these women shared with me. Their stories are gripping and entertaining, epic tales in which they cast themselves as clever heroines, triumphant over birth, men, family, politics, suffering, and destiny. Their tales are not delusions of grandeur, for these women did indeed do something extraordinary: not only did they manage to come to America and build new lives here, but they flouted the conventions of traditional Vietnamese society in the process. Separately, they had each made the decision to move to Saigon as young women, where they lived unsupervised during a war, earned their own money and spent it as they liked, loved strange men and had children by them. These women had had the will, the audacity, and the sense of adventure to do what they never should have done. Moreover, even today they continue to behave in non-traditional ways and often boast of being stronger, smarter, and craftier than everyone else. This is what makes them interesting historical subjects, as well as great storytellers.
War was not a catastrophe for them, but rather a joyous time. It was the catalyst marking the birth of their “true” selves—the selves they still are, who have outwitted anyone or anything looking to hold them down.
Hai said it best: “The war was my dream. It gave me so much. Freedom. Money. Fun. Love.”
None of the women in this study ever expressed regret for having gone to Saigon in the first place, nor for being bargirls. However, all of them do recognize that their experience of the war is unacceptable to many, particularly to other Vietnamese. “I cannot tell my son what I did in the war, he would not understand,” says Lieu. Hai was sure her daughter would hate her if she admitted to loving the war: “Shit, how can she understand that? She watch TV, she see news about war. Can I tell her my war was like happy days? No.” If the approval of their relatives and peers never counted with these women, the same cannot be said of their children. This is an important point, for it explains perhaps why I had the privilege of hearing their stories.
When we first met, I told these women about my own mother, how she had at last “owned up” to her experience as a bargirl, finally dispelling the myth that she had met my father when he walked into her sewing shop to buy a Vietnamese dress for his mother. As I let all of my informants know, my reaction was not one of horror or shame, but of admiration and acceptance. Knowing this, these women felt secure in telling me their own deep, dark secrets—bits of their history and personality they had kept from their own children. Catharsis might be going too far, but certainly the times we spent together were intensely merry as they recreated their exploits for me. From the very beginning, it was clear to me that the warlore of these women was different from anything else I’d heard or read before, and so I listened carefully and continue to do so.
Editor: Our sincere and overwhelming thanks to Ms. Mai Lan Gustafsson, Jade Hidle and the online blog site diaCRITICS.org for allowing us to reproduce this story here. Thank you.
Go ahead and click on it. You know you want to...
Like this article? Let us know by helping us with our scholarship fund efforts. A $30.00 donation to our Scholarship Fund will help us get one step closer to helping another deserving High School graduate attend college. Your donation is tax deductible and your kindness will go further than you think in making it possible for another young American to fulfill their dream of a college education.
This page originally posted 1 February 2017