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Dr. Charles Silverstein, our Travel Editor, is a licensed psychologist in New York City. He is best known for having presented the case for the deletion of homosexuality as a mental disorder before the American Psychiatric Association. He is also the founding director of two gay counseling centers, and the founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality.

He's author or co-author of six books about gay life, including the three editions of the popular Joy of Gay Sex, contributed chapters and articles in professional books and journals. He is considered an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of relationships between men and problems of sexual disorders. Further information about him and his practice may be found on his website:



Vietnam Journal (Part 2 of 2)

Vietnam Airlines is first rate. They've gotten rid of all their Russian built planes (did they run by steam engines?) and replaced them with immaculately clean, new Western jets.
Announcements are in Vietnamese and English, the food good, and the four planes we took on our trip departed and arrived on time. From Danang we hired a cab to Hoi An, on the South China Sea coast. It's a very popular seaside town known for its silk merchants. "Rapacious" silk merchants is more like it. It's the only place in Vietnam where we experienced rudeness. It spoiled an otherwise charming town.

From Hoi An we took a car to Hue, the old Imperial capital. The cost of hiring guides was minimal and we hired one to join us for the morning. The heat and humidity was so high that a morning was all we could do that day. In Hue we became acutely aware of the dual system of admissions in Vietnam (and a number of other underdeveloped countries). Westerners pay an exorbitant admission fee to enter archeological and historical sites, while locals pay very little. Some argue that we can afford it and they need the money. I found some of the admission outrageous and refused to enter.
(This article was first published in both The Guide and Mandate Magazine in 1997. It is a description of my two-week trip to Vietnam, accompanied by my friend and colleague, Judy Clarke. Judy had been given a stack of money for her birthday in order to spend a vacation anywhere she wished. She used it to join me in South East Asia. I've divided the article in two parts because it's so long. This way you can read it in two readings if you choose to do so. I've left out the names of most of the gay bars in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City because they are not there anymore. You'll have to search the Internet for up-to-date information about gay venues.)

One of the more interesting tourist itineraries in Hue is to hire a boat to be taken up the Perfume River stopping at old tombs and temples along the way. Getting a boat was easy enough; I reserved it through a travel agent. The next morning, Judy and I found the boat, which was about 40 feet long, and came with a family of Vietnamese, including three children, all of whom lived on it. It cost us $15 for the whole day.

Only a month before, two gay men had gotten "married." One was a local Vietnamese, the other an "overseas" Vietnamese, someone of Vietnamese ancestry, but who was now the citizen of another country. They booked a restaurant, invited a load of friends and appointed someone to officiate at the marriage. From what I gathered the entire corps of foreign and domestic news reporters showed up, since it was obviously a more interesting event than writing up official Vietnamese news bulletins, like the amount of bamboo cut last month in the highlands. News of the event was published in many Asian newspapers. The police also arrived. They controlled the huge crowd of onlookers but they did nothing to interfere with the proceedings. The restaurant owner said he didn't know a gay marriage was being held but continued to serve the party. Every gay man I met heard about it.

Charles on top of one of the mountains in Petra
Since I was an active participant in the anti-war movement in the United States, I made the "War Remnants in Vietnam Museum," my first sightseeing stop. It's name had been changed the month before. Until then, it was called "The War Crimes Museum." Outside the museum were shot down American helicopters, jet planes, tanks and artillery pieces. You'll find these war mementos displayed throughout the country. The museum itself consists mostly of photographs, with explanations in English -- of all the terrible things we did to the Vietnamese. The name of the museum was changed, softened in tone, because the government is trying to establish new diplomatic and economic ties with the United States. (Our new ambassador had arrived in Vietnam just the day before I did.) They also had a new display, pictures of the anti-war movement in the United States.

For $45 we hired a car and driver for the day in order to visit the two most popular day trips outside Ho Chi Minh City, the Cai Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The temple is about 90 kms away and consists of a very large, multi-colored building, with large eyes looking at you both inside and outside the temple. Cai Dai is a religion that combines Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, plus three other religions. It's saints are Confucius, a Vietnamese poet, and Victor Hugo. (Don't ask!) They hold a colorful service at noon and midnight every day and tourists are welcome to watch it from the second floor. In order to enter the temple, tourists must take their shoes off and there are separate entrances for men and women - though you're allowed to mix inside and on the second floor during the ceremony.

Charles on top of one of the mountains in Petra
The Cu Chi Tunnels are 60 kms from Ho Chi Minh City. These narrow passages are on three levels, in their heyday hundreds of miles in length, and contained as many as 5,000 Viet Cong soldiers fighting first against the French, then the American forces. They are now a tourist trap and small tourist buses from Ho Chi Minh City stop there to hear short explanations of the fighting, and to duck down and walk very short stretches of the tunnels. A guide is provided. Ours was well rehearsed, repeating a constant patter of cliché jokes. Perhaps I'm a bit harsh, but the levity seemed to diminish the extraordinary dying that went on during the war.

This is the time to discuss the attitude of the Vietnamese toward Americans. I had been assured by friends that the Vietnamese are friendly and hospitable toward Americans. I never saw anything to contest this. The people were never hostile, never refreshed my memory about the death and maiming of so many innocent people by our bombs. I rather envied their ability to forget. I don't think that I would have been able to do so had I been in their place. I learned that 60% of the Vietnamese people are under 24 years of age and their youth, the fact that they were born after the war, probably contributes to their lack of hostility. But I met many men who fought in the war, a Vietnamese war photographer, a number of artists who documented the ravishes of war, and to a man, they were gentle in manner and looked forward to a new relationship with the United States. Perhaps too, it may be their sense of pride that they kicked the crap out of us the most powerful military force in the world.

English is the second language of Ho Chi Minh City. "Hey, where you from?" you'll hear from cyclo drivers, or children on the streets, or the waiter who takes your order in a restaurant. Beggars speak English, young children on the street asking for money, adults with withered legs or none at all, the silk merchants that call you into their shops. I had been warned that Saigon was more dangerous and far more frenetic than Hanoi, but that wasn't my experience. It was no noisier than Hanoi and the air not as electric as I had been told. Virtually anywhere you want to go, a special restaurant, a museum, a river boat, most of the first and second class hotels, a gay bar or disco is within walking distance.

It was unbearably hot and humid during the day. At night it cooled down, and Judy and I strolled the streets. We were followed constantly by cyclo drivers who seemed to take an offense at the idea of a tourist preferring to walk than hiring them to take us the two or three blocks to our destination, if we had one at all. I finally learned to respond to them by pointing to whatever hotel was on the street I was walking, and they moved on.

One evening we spent on a boat ride. We were on the water for about four hours, had beverages and listened and watched the entertainment. It cost about $6 for both of us.

Flesh is peddled on the streets of Saigon, as it is nowhere else in the country. "Want a girl?" I was asked by one man as I passed, but who took my ignoral of his invitation quietly. "Want a boy?" another man inquired on the next block as if they were in league to test all the parameters of flesh peddling. And then blocking my path was a "Lady Man," attractively dressed in the au dais, the distinctive dress worn by the women of Vietnam. A quiet "No," and the Lady Man vanished to search out greener pastures. Only a "drama queen" would agree to such liaisons.

There are a few places for outdoor cruising. "Turtle Fountain" (it's called "Con Rua Fountain" on some street maps) is an ugly place not far from the National Theater. It's said to be active after 11 p.m. Expect a commercial set of boys ages 12 to 21, who were described to me as "very dangerous."

To the right of the main gate of the Zoo, which is on Nguyen Binh Khem, is a night time cruising area. It has all the charms and hazards of the other night time cruising areas, and a bit of money often changes hands.

Prostitution was one of the serious problems of the Vietnamese government after the fall of Saigon. So many tens of thousands of horny American soldiers created a cottage industry of prostitution and the government has made many attempts to curtail it. They are obviously only partly successful. This is particularly disturbing to a gay visitor because the government made it unlawful for a tourist to bring anyone into his room between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. in the assumption that any visitor during those hours will be a prostitute. They are even more suspicious of a male tourist bringing a Vietnamese man to his room. It's not that they think you're queer and that you'll have sex. According to OrchidMania, and to the gay diplomats I dined with in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the government doesn't quite understand how two men could enjoy having sex together, or the mechanics of it - unless it's a Lady Man. From their vantage point the only reason for a Vietnamese man to visit a tourist is that the two of you are going to talk seditiously about the government.

We were walking along Le Loi Street in Central Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, at about 9:30 p.m. "We're late," said Linh, a Vietnamese business man raised in the United States, and lover to a European diplomat in Hanoi, with whom he shares an apartment.

We were hurrying to "Boy's Night" (Fridays) at the Sam Son discotheque, one of the most popular gay spots in cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City. Unlike the United States, dance clubs in Vietnam open early, are roaring with energy by 9:00 p.m., and close long before gay men in New York start dressing for the night. I wondered what the locals would make of the new "Rice Queen," me, entering their turf. A Rice Queen is slang for a Westerner who's interested in gay Vietnamese men. A Vietnamese interested in Westerners is called a "Potato Queen." Vietnamese who are turned on only by other Vietnamese are known as "Sticky Rice." How I love slang!

Judy preferred to remain in the hotel that evening. She was disappointed that there were no signs of lesbian life anywhere in Vietnam. We couldn't even find anyone, including gay men, who knew a lesbian. Of course they were there, but being women, far more repressed than men.

Outside the club were hundreds of small shiny motorcycles carefully lined up in rows, with just a small passageway between them. They all looked exactly the same to me as if the whole street belonged to a Saigon Honda dealer. I couldn't imagine how the owners could tell them apart.

In order to enter the club, you pay for one drink in advance. We paid for our drinks downstairs and tickets were written with the price of the drinks noted. There is otherwise no admission fee. After paying, we walked up the long flight of stairs, through the door, and into the melee. I looked around.

I felt as if I had just barged into a junior high school prom. A Westerner is spotted instantly by the crowd since we tower over them by at least a head. It is so packed with jumping young bodies that we had to forge through the crowd and create a space for ourselves in the non-air conditioned room. This was particularly difficult for me, since, in my naiveté, I had brought my camera and flashgun, in order to take pictures of the crowd dancing. I never took them because the Vietnamese were terrified that the pictures would fall into the hands of the police.

For a few minutes I was sure they were all teenagers. "Wanna dance?" asked Bentley, the Australian diplomat who had come down from Hanoi to spend the weekend with Linh. On the dance floor I could see that I had misjudged them -- most were in their 20s, a few in their 30s. And they were all well dressed, full of energy and having fun. In the middle of the dance floor a bunch of Vietnamese forced open an empty runway and started vogueing, each of the boys and girls displaying lots of attitude they practiced in the past week.

A young Vietnamese boy suddenly slipped between me and Bentley, and without looking at either of us, danced first in front of me, then turned and danced in front of him. He never looked at either of us - and he never left our side. Bentley shrugged his shoulders while the gesture of his hand said "I'm taken, you can have him." Then, another Vietnamese bumped into me. Actually he bounced his butt off mine and I turned around and spied a beautiful young man, the most attractive of any Vietnamese I had seen in my two week trip. He was dressed all in white, a closely fitting t-shirt tucked into white trousers, separated by a black belt. As I turned, he smiled radiantly at me, waiting for my response. And at the right moment, and in time with the music, I bumped into his rear end - and he jumped with glee.

We bumped front and rear, with thighs, shoulders, virtually any part of the body we could manage to connect, and after the dance he walked with me over to my group of friends who were watching in awe. There, other gay Vietnamese cruised me -- not just interest in a Westerner - but cruised me. "Go for it," said Linh. "Take him home with you." "You mean to the United States?" I asked. There was no way that I could take him back to the hotel where Judy was already in bed, and I was mindful that I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get to my plane. The young man looked dejected, probably feeling that I wasn't interested in him. I felt as if I were a child left alone in a candy store, surrounded by so many sweets, but unable to reach them.

The beautiful Vietnamese man in white disappeared into the crowd. "O.K., you blew it," said Bentley. "It's time to leave and go to another bar. You could have taken him to a Mini-Hotel."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"A Mini-Hotel might let the two of you register for the night. Then he wouldn't be a guest and you could have sex together all night. He knows which ones to go to."

Now you tell me?" I started pushing my way through the crowd trying to find the boy in white. I wanted to grab hold and bring him back to Linh and Bentley who could ask him where we could go for the night. It was always possible that he lived at home with his parents, but still, a few hours together would be the perfect coda for the trip.

As I walked by the stage, I noticed a few small groups of gay men with their (I assume) straight girl friends. They were staring at me and giggling. As I passed, the girls pushed their gay boy friends into me, who then pinched my bottom or gave me a quick, furtive hug - and just as quickly fled back to the safety of their girl friends.

What the hell is going on here, I asked myself? There were many Westerners in the club and they were all decades younger than I. Bentley was quite handsome, tall, very charming, and a good catch for anyone, Vietnamese or otherwise.

But the Vietnamese boy in white was nowhere to be found. I felt guilty that I might have hurt his feelings. If only "Boys Night" had been days earlier in the week giving me time to acclimatize to gay life in Ho Chi Minh City. It wasn't just a matter of sex. I wanted to learn about the lives of these young men, how they felt about being gay in an authoritarian Communist culture, whether any of them could come out to their families, or reject a fraudulent heterosexual marriage, and instead develop a long-lasting gay relationship. These are the kinds of conversations one has in bed, pillow talk, that two men can have after their physical needs have been met. In this I was a failure, not only because I didn't spend the night with the beautiful Vietnamese boy, but even if I had, I don't speak Vietnamese.

We went to Apocalypse Now, a mixed bar only a few blocks away. Many gay Vietnamese go there after the Sam Son closes. I was obviously scanning the room, looking for "him," hoping that he would show up. He didn't, and the time we three spent there was dull. How could it be otherwise? I kept reliving bumping our butts together, his moving closer to me, so that we were spoon-like on the dance floor, my arms encircling his t-shirt while his lower-body grinded against mine, his head tossed back upon my chest.

That's the way I remembered him as I walked back to my hotel, and as I packed for the trip back to New York, since I was much too energized to sleep.

That's the way I remember him now.

I will surely return to Vietnam, but next time, I'll plan my itinerary to coincide with every "Boys Night" in every club, and in every city. It's not about sex. After all, I live in New York City where one can find a cornucopia of sophisticated sexual delights. For me, it's about sentimentality, about touching, in a metaphorical sense, a naïve culture not yet sexually jaded. Perhaps too, I envy the fact that these young Vietnamese gay men have virtually no consciousness of the war that devastated their country. Whatever charmed me, the culture, the simplicity of their lives, their physical beauty, or something more basic - just the fact that so many of them stroked my ego -- I know this - I want to be a Rice Queen again.


You must have a visa stamped into your passport before you arrive in Vietnam. It cost $75. You can write, call or fax the Embassy of Vietnam at 1233 Twentieth Street, NW Suite 501, Washington, DC, 20036. Phone 202 861-0694, fax 202 861-1297. If you live in or around New York City, you can phone or fax the Mission of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to the United Nations, at Waterside Plaza, NY, NY 10010, phone 212 679-3779, fax 212 686-8534. Expect a Visa to take up to two weeks.

If you fly via Hong Kong, you'll have a long layover until your plane to either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Consider taking a "day room" at the Airport Hotel for a nap and a shower. If you fly via Bangkok or Taipei, find out how long your layover may be, and consider checking into an inexpensive hotel for a nap.

The Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City is on the river in District 1, the center of all the action, gay and straight. It's first class, first rate, and a beautiful restoration of an old French Hotel.

The Hoi An Hotel is one of the most popular hotels in the country. It's inexpensive, has good rooms and just a few blocks from the center of town.

The Century Riverside Hotel in Hue was beautifully sited on the Perfume River, and they have a good tourist office to arrange local trips.

Eating is very cheap in Vietnam. It is almost impossible to spend $15 a person, even at the best restaurants unless you order hard liquor. You can get a decent meal for $5, and a first class one for $10. Backpackers can eat for less than it would cost them to ride a New York City subway. (One night, five of us ate for $6.50.) Deluxe hotels will charge much more, but aren't worth the extra cost. Their buffets are like buffets anywhere, overcooked - in price too.

Don't listen to people who tell you that the food in Hanoi isn't very good. It's excellent, and if you're the friendly type, you'll bump into many equally friendly ex pats and diplomats. Three of us pigged out at the Seasons of Hanoi at 95B Quan Thanh, where we had two tuna teaks, Peking duck, appetizers and dessert, all of which cost us $53, including the 10% government tax. In a party of five, we paid $13 each at the Indochine Restaurant, 16 Nam Ngu Street, which is often called the best food Hanoi has to offer. It was very good, but not my favorite place.

No Noodles is a cheap sandwich bar at 51 Luong Van Can Street, in the old city. It's a very popular place, and three of us had a sandwich and a beverage each, for a total cost of $9.

There are two Darling Cafes, each claiming to be the original. They're both in the old city, on Hang Quat Street. The one at 33 Hang Quat is a good tourist café where they will book local tours and sell you their Darling Café cotton t-shirt for $2.

My favorite restaurant was the Nam Phuong at 19 Phan Chu Trinh. It takes up two floors of an old, restored French mansion. I ate lunch and dinner there on a number of occasions. There's an entertaining Vietnamese band in the evening. A meal will cost from $8 to $10 a person.

Ho Chi Minh City
The Lemon Grass is just a couple of blocks from the Hotel Majestic, at 4 Nguyen Thiep Street. It has a well deserved reputation, and supper there cost us $10 each.

The Tan Nam Restaurant is at 60-62 Dong Du Street, also a couple of blocks from the Majestic. The food was sensational, and four of us paid $8 each for dinner. Just to the left of the restaurant is a shop owned by Hoang Van Cuong, a representative of United Press International. He photographed the war, and many of his photographs are for sale. He speaks English, and his photographs are displayed on the third floor. They are for sale. He is an extremely interesting man.

You can use credit cards in all the first class hotels and restaurants. Contrary to what you may read in some guide books, ATM machines haven't arrived yet anywhere in the country.

You'll need many inoculations against disease in Vietnam, and especially so if you go into rural areas. Your best source of information is the CDC on the internet. Bring all your medications including some cipro for dietary bacterial upset, penicillin or a substitute, an insect spray that contains DEET, a spray for jock or foot itch. I also recommend bringing your own hypodermic syringes and needles just in case you need a shot of something. It's a poor country, and they can't afford to throw any "good," but used needles away. When I left, I gave mine to Tom.

If you buy silk in Ho Chi Minh City, and you want it hand-tailored, go to "Albert," the tailor at 22 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3. His phone is 84-8-220-902. He speaks English, delivers the work on time - and he's a hunk.

Want to ask a question about Gay travel or submit your own travel stories? Email your questions or submissions to Dr.Silverstein at: psychs@mindspring.com.

photos by Dr. Charles Silverstein


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