Romancing the Hanoian male? Tricky -- for a female Westerner, anyway. I’ve seen Western gays have more luck.
And I feel compelled to point out, for vanity’s sake, I’d had solid success with most other sorts of male when I turned up in Vietnam expecting to acquire a special friend in no time.
The cruelty of the whole thing is that Vietnamese males lit up my visual cortex like candy, yet after 18 months in the country I was forced to accept the truth: my cross-cultural ambition was doomed to fail.
Western women of all ages go to countries like Indonesia and Nepal to team up with local boys in a trice. I know of several instances of women having a fling with a local in next-door Laos, and any number of cases of women finding themselves a Japanese partner.
But while I’m aware of a handful of Western women who have married Vietnamese men, on balance there are very few such cases.
The fact is, in general, Asian women are more appealing to Western men than Asian men are to Western women.
I know I’m in the minority here (and if this calls my heterosexuality into doubt, I can live with that). But why are Vietnamese -- especially Hanoian -- men so notoriously unwilling or unable to charm a Western woman?
You can’t love an older woman in Vietnamese
Confucianism, with its emphasis on family traditions may go a long way towards explaining it. Most men share their fathers’ opinions that they should marry a girl from their own culture. Anything non-marital is a simple financial transaction, carried out at the hairdresser two doors away.
At this point, my value as a friend with benefits has begun to look shaky. But there’s more.
The bride will be younger than the groom, and this is encrypted into the Vietnamese language, since there’s no pronoun available to say "I love you" to an older woman, unless that love is platonic. (When I briefly acquired a Vietnamese boyfriend a couple of years younger than me, he was forced to use the wrong pronoun for whispering sweet nothings.)
The girl will be a virgin -- an unlikely condition for a Western woman -- although, of course, this is not expected of the groom. If all goes well, she’ll also be happy to accept the burden of domestic duties, often also involving her in-laws' household, and eager to become a mother.
I’m now officially out of the running.
It’s a little boy’s world
And parenthood is where the staggering gender divide really gets locked in.
A Vietnamese male friend of mine and his wife were expecting their first child. Ultrasound tests showed it to be male. A modern, well-travelled and well-educated Hanoian, my friend did not hide his delight and relief, because, as he put it, a boy child has "higher status." (I’m not implying that this phenomenon is unique to Vietnam, by the way).
From my observations, the boy is likely to be pandered to more than a baby girls, have his genitals and other parts fondled more, and more publicly. They are given wildly different playthings, encouraged to vocalize more and urinate anywhere, and he will notice from infancy that he is served and doted on by females.
Not really an assembly line for the production of Sensitive New Age Guys.
Visting my landlady, Nga, one day, I asked who was home. She paused from maneuvering her screaming toddler’s penis into a drinking cup for peeing in to reply, “Just me and my boy.”
“Where’s your daughter?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s here too,” said Nga.
Her sweet-natured daughter, Chanh, was sitting in her room, completely forgotten. The memory persists. In my imagination, Chanh is just sitting on the bed, looking at the wall, waiting to be needed for something.
My friend Phuong taught me a Vietnamese proverb: Du co gia den dau thi nguoi dan ong van chi cu xu nhu mot cau be con -- “Even as he gets older and older, a man still behaves as a little boy.”
Her mother taught Phuong that when she marries she “must remember that you have to become his older sister.”
She hasn’t yet married.
How do you make up for being mature?
For all this, society turns on its own axis as it has done for centuries. It’s conspicuously stable. Girls marry boys and they have families. They eat together, sleep together and they grow old together.
And they enjoy no hours of the day more than the ones they spend with their families, as 95 percent of students in a large English class once revealed to me when I asked them about their favorite activities.
Confucian culture also stresses the virtue of honoring and respecting one’s elders. And yet the emphasis on the importance of youth beggars belief. Tell a 21-year-old girl she looks young for her age and watch the gratitude. She’s flattered.
Many Vietnamese consider that at 30 a woman is well past marrying age, and her life therefore has little meaning. She’s unlikely to find an unattached older man, and younger men aren’t looking in her direction.
I learnt the Vietnamese for "without meaning" early in my stay, as well-meaning Vietnamese often described my life this way. It smarts a bit.
My local café employed a cute Vietnamese guy, only a couple of years younger than me and seemingly interested in a roll in the hay. I was pretty thrilled when he approached me flirtatiously for a chat one day. Then he wiped the floor with me.
“Me and my friends, we talk about you! Yes! we say you must have been very attractive when you were 12 or 15.” He smiled, ready to receive my gratitude for the compliment.
It can be liberating for a Western woman to be freed from the constraints of sexual objectification, but being regarded as a romantic non-entity at 30-something -- an experience I have not encountered elsewhere -- was pretty galling.
However, I took on board the considered advice of my landlady, Nga, who was at least as troubled as I was by my single status. “You must try to wear more make-up,” she implored.
Carolyn Shine is a musician and author who moved to Hanoi in 2002. She has now returned to Sydney, where she will release her book, "Single White Female in Hanoi," next month.
Edited by Active Travel Vietnam