In a sixteen-year oral history project, anthropologist Mai Lan Gustaffson interviewed Vietnamese women who served as bar girls during the Vietnam War. Through the voices of these women, the author discovers a story of reverence rather than condemnation for the war. Part two will be published on Thursday.
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. 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.
End of Part 1
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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