In a sixteen-year oral history project, anthropologist Mai Lan Gustafsson interviewed Vietnamese women who served as bar girls during the war. Through the voices of these women, the author discovers a story of reverence rather than condemnation for the war. Read Part 1 here.
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, my informants were teenagers and of marriageable age. Twenty eight of these women explicitly state 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 my informants. 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 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 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 my informants. 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, wasfor 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, 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.
The relationship I share with these women surpasses that of 32 storytellers and one listener. The collection of oral histories is in practice an active and collaborative project, during which the teller constructs and presents an identity at the instigation of and from the feedback of the collector. As I came to know each of these women and they me, an experience with one would direct the flow of stories in another, and so on and so on until, ultimately, I have now become the vehicle by which these women get to compare and celebrate their experiences with each other. In my work as an anthropologist, objective distance and detachment have always been overrated: it was only through my very subjective and personal relationships with my informants that I have been able to gain access to their memories. Although some anthropologists have struggled with the question of how much credit to give their informants, I feel no such conflict: there are 33 people responsible for this work.
Sixteen years have passed since I first met some of these women. They have grown old, and I middle-aged. Whatever they have to tell me in the future, I will once again be proud to midwife their stories into being. The warlore of former bargirls, presented here, would have been stillborn if not for our encounters with each other, and an important part of the Vietnam War experience would never have been heard.
Mai Lan Gustafsson is a professor of anthropology at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, where she teaches courses on magic and religion, refugees, evolution, gender, and cultural anthropology. She is the author of War and Shadows: The Haunting of Vietnam (Cornell University Press). This post is a condensed version of her article “‘Freedom. Money. Fun. Love.’: The Warlore of Vietnamese Bargirls,” first published in the Oral History Review.
Jade Hidle edited the original article into a two-part series. She is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian writer and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach and is working on a PhD in literature at UC San Diego. Her work has appeared in Spot Lit, Word River, and Beside the City of Angels.
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