Why Im Working as a Saigon Massage Girl

New America Media, Commentary, Lan Pham as told to Andrew Lam Posted: Apr 12, 2010

Lan Pham, 21, works in a massage parlour in District I of Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon. Its where most tourists stay when they visit Vietnam. Like millions of young people from the rural, Saigon is a big magnet with promises of better life for those who come from backbreaking work in the rice fields and cycle of debts. Pham spoke with NAM editor, Andrew Lam, who visited his homeland on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - Im from Tan Chau district in An Giang province. There are six people in my family. Were all farmers. Ive been to Saigon for four years.

Do you know how hard it is for farmers? The life of a farmer is a life thats always in debt. You live dependent on the crop. All those months waiting for the rice to ripen you need to feed your family so you borrow money. When the crops ready youll pay it all back with interest. When something happens, flood or failed crop, youll have to borrow more money to survive. And youll stay in debt. After a while you end up doing things you dont want to do.

My parents were always in debt. They couldnt feed four kids. My sister got married at 17 to this old Taiwanese man she never met until he showed up and married her. She had to make money. She sent money home for about a year but now we dont know what happened. Its been several years since shes kind of disappeared. So we fell into debt again because we started fixing the house when she was sending money but we didnt have enough money. So it was my turn to take care my family.

Im second to the oldest. My family is more important than my own life, so Id do anything for them. Anything. Do I like doing what Im doing? Are you crazy? No. It already ruined my life. But let me tell you something: this is way better than watching your family starved or get kicked off their land.

But who am I to complaint? Saigon is full of non-Saigonese, people like me, people who come in from the rural areas trying to make a living, trying to survive. Come Tet [Vietnamese new year] and the streets here are emptied. Every one goes home to the province to be with family. Its the only time that we take a break from whatever we do to support our family to be with our family.

When I got to Saigon I never imagined life here was so wealthy. All these big houses and shiny new cars. But the Saigonese they look down on us from the provinces, they look down on peasants. They think were stupid. But I actually was always near top of my class. I read books and newspapers but they think Im stupid or illiterate. I had to drop out of 9th grade to help my family. I couldve gone on if I had opportunities.

What do I read in the papers? More golf courses being built. Billion of dollars being invested. But wheres the money for the rest of us? Big shots built villas with gold plated ceilings. Big shots play golf but the bridges built [by the government] in the provinces collapse repeatedly. Big shots play tennis then they come here for massages and treat the girls like dirt.

If I were president I would feed the poor, build shelter for the homeless. I'd do something that makes poor people feel like they are being helped. I wouldnt drive people off their land so the rich can have their tall high rises and their golf courses.

As far as my customers go, I dont like Americans. I like Australians. Theyre nice and polite. Theyre funny. A few said they wanted to marry me after I make them feel so good - but its all lies. Theyd come back a few times then theyre gone.

But I dont want to marry a Vietnamese man. They are so full of trickery Vietnamese men are not to be trusted. They treat women like trash especially my kind. We are things to be tossed aside when they re done. They are lousy tippers they dont tips unless you tell them that that its expected. Sometimes they insult you after you serviced them. Sometimes when I step on their backs [Back-walking massage] I wanted to stomp on their necks.[laughs]

But I make money now. I make enough so my family survives and my two younger [siblings] can continue to go to school. And I even have money left over to pay for massage myself sometimes [laughs]. Im serious. Its hard work what I do.

I know I cant go on like this too long [starts to tear up.] But if I were to work as a cook or factory worker, I wont make any money and my family will face difficulties. I know I need skills to survive but what kind of skills can I get without money to go to school?

My biggest worry right now is that its hard to get married. The moment they know Im a masseuse they think Im a bad person. I have no chance with anyone decent. I dont see a way out.

But even massage girls have big dreams. I dream one day Id find a good husband. I dream I have enough money so I could go find my sister and take her home. Then Id build us a nice house so the entire family can live together. But I dont know how thats ever going to happen.

Vietnamese version: Tại sao ti lm gi massage ở Si Gn

Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book is "East Eats West: Writing in two Hemispheres" due out in September, 2010.

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User Comments

Loc on Apr 28, 2010 at 16:44:15 said:

Peter and Nhu, you both are idiots. And Peter, if you had a local friend they can point out to you where such "massage parlors" are. Of course they are not going to blatantly advertise it, geez. Also, Vietnamese tend to be polite at least on the outside, so no they won't tell you to your face. But if people, be it Americans, treat you like crap, sure you can hold a grudge. The author said nothing about the war. There are worse stories than this, you idiots living in a bubble!!

vq in Vietnam on Apr 25, 2010 at 02:26:35 said:

I am an Australian Vietnamese living in Saigon. In regards to Peter\\\\\\\'s comments, the girl\\\\\\\'s story is a very true scenario to many Vietnamese girls and families living saigon.

True, Saigon is now a very progressive city and the the gap between the rich and the poor is slowly bridging with it\\\\\\\'s doors open and more and more opportunities are here for the Vietnamese people. The younger generation now have more opportunities to live decent lives and are in less need to marry or migrant overseas for a good life.

But if you live in Saigon, you can still see many far less unfortunate people... there are many massage parlours, cafes and karaoke with girls dressed in skimpy outfits to serve the men. Foreigners, Viet Kieus, and dirty Vietnamese men.

It\\\\\\\'s true that Americans are less liked amongst the local, but it is a generalization more reserved to the Vietnamese-Americans, rather than White-Americans. As the Vietnamese-Americans like to come back to Vietnam and boast and show off, treating the locals with less respect. It\\\\\\\'s the Vietnamese nature, when you have a bit of money you start to boast and become conceited... even by the locals here. Having said that, I know many nice Americans here... so it is only a generalization by the locals. It still a very class-defined society.

If you would like to know more insights about someone who lives in Vietnam, I have just started a blog and will contain light-heart stories about Saigon. I\\\\\\\'m new to blogging, so any comments would be much appreciated. You can find me on blogger dot com as vqinvietnam

CP on Apr 17, 2010 at 08:08:48 said:

40 years ago my godfather the opera singer Thanh Duoc was famous for a drama he played with the legend Thanh Nga called Nua Doi Huong Phan telling the story of The a girl from countryside coming to Saigon looking for job to support her family. She was lead to become a call girl and even though there was a goodman undertanding her and asking to marry her, his family totally disapproved and did everything in their power to stop the wedding. This was one of the best classics.

Too much similiarity between now and then. I feel as if 40 years Vietnam hasn't changed. If there's any change that change would be that there are new millionaires with unbelievable luxorious lifestyles. The lives and fates of those at bottom are just forever unchanged!

Nhu on Apr 15, 2010 at 08:24:34 said:

Oh, come on. I never believe in this made-up story. And in Saigon, I never heard that Saigonese and non-Saigonese looked the massage girl as you said. If want to collect the compassion, please make it better!

Peter Kauffner on Apr 14, 2010 at 01:55:27 said:

I find this story hard to believe in so many different ways. She massages "big shots"? Really? I have no idea where big shots go to be massaged, but I doubt that it is same place as where tourists go. Saigon is not Bangkok. If you walk around as a tourist, you won't sex for sale or any business openly run as a massage parlour.

At least half people you meet in Saigon are from somewhere else -- it's like New York. So nobody's "looking down" on people from elsewhere.

I never heard Vietnamese say anything negative about Americans. Does the author imagine that massage girls hold grudges about the war? This idea is out of touch with contemporary Vietnam. There are few countries where people are less politicized. Of course, it is true Australia is very popular and many Vietnamese have the ambition to move there.

David on Apr 12, 2010 at 14:54:36 said:

Andrew - please email me. Perhaps my wife or I can help this young lady get a proper job. Compensation may slip, but it would be a new track nonetheless. I assume you can see my email when I post a comment. If not, reply in a comment and we will figure out a way to get in touch.
Cheers, David




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