Pic: AP.

Prostitution is alive and well in Vietnam these days. In fact, much to the consternation of the country’s officials, it appears to be flourishing. There are currently around 32,700 sex workers in Vietnam, according to the Department for Prevention and Control of Social Ills. This number represents an increase of 9.3 percent compared to 2012, and the 2014 figures are expected to show a similar increase in the number of sex workers.

Areas reporting high levels of prostitution include Quat Lam (Nam Dinh), Do Son (Hai Phong) and Binh Thanh (HCMC).  Tourist areas in particular are hot beds of illegal sex activity.

While women make up the majority of the sex workers, there are also a growing number of men who offer homosexual services.

Government officials have candidly admitted that their efforts to battle the spread of prostitution have proven to be largely ineffective.

Aiding the spread of prostitution is the proliferation of “sensitive services”.  These are businesses such as karaoke bars, massage parlors, hotels, etc. that are able to act as legal fronts for prostitution activities.

Legalize it?
While there are those calling for stricter measures to be taken against sex workers, others are advocating a more liberal approach.  There has been an ongoing debate in many quarters of Vietnam about the feasibility of legalizing prostitution.

Chung A, former deputy chairman of the National Committee for Prevention and Control of AIDS, has stated that he believes that Vietnam should consider creating a number of “red-light districts” as a way to help regulate prostitution.

Additionally, at the beginning of 2013, Ho Chi Minh City’s Anti-Social Ills Agency put forth a proposal suggesting that the city create certain areas for “sensitive services” in which prostitution would be allowed to take place and could be regulated.  However, the city government has stated that it will not consider this as a feasible solution at this time.

Little to fear
There are few repercussions for those who are caught practicing prostitution. Fines tend to range from VND300,000 (US$14) to VND4 million ($189), amounts not high enough to discourage those engaged in the illegal trade.  Many working girls report that they can easily make VND2-3 million per month, although they can make much more if they work in a hotel or karaoke bar.

Those caught paying for sex can be fined from VND500,000 to VND5 million, depending upon the circumstances involved.

Additionally, the requirement that those arrested for prostitution attend a rehabilitation center was dropped last year.

Interestingly, there appear to be few, if any, punishments for those caught committing sex acts that do not include intercourse.

A good time turned bad
Alongside the rise in prostitution has been a rise in the types of organized crime activities commonly associated with the trade. For some unfortunate patrons, a brief trip to visit a working girl can turn into a terrifying experience as they find themselves being robbed by a gang of criminals instead of the rather more pleasurable experience they had imagined. However, this sort of action does not help repeat business and wiser gangs tend to opt for overcharging unknowing foreigners.

Public health worries push search for a solution
Government officials and health workers worry that with the increase in prostitution there will be an accompanying spread of sexually transmitted diseases.  In 2013, there were reportedly over 213,000 people living with HIV in Vietnam.

Many NGOs have sprung up in order to try and steer sex workers into legal forms of employment.  However, the process is fraught with difficulties – many of the workers are drug addicts and are struggling to make ends meet in a life of poverty.

Do Thuy An My, founder of the  Hoa Cat Tuong Group NGO, says that, “Some women over 60 years old are still working as prostitutes. We have offered them small amounts of money to start small businesses. Many of them continue as sex workers at the beginning and then gradually shift to legitimate forms of trade exclusively when their business becomes stable.”

But these and other similar efforts have hardly made a dent in the industry. It seems that as long as there are customers willing to pay for a “good time”, there will always be those willing to provide it… at a price.