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Saigon Tea, Bar Girls and ‘Boom Boom’

The jarring reality of life as a bar girl during the Vietnam war

In the Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon, American GI Chris (played by Jack Fraser) and Vietnamese orphan Kim (played by Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio) meet in a Saigon bar where Kim works as a bargirl.

The French had designed Saigon to accommodate 300,000 people. By 1972 there were over three million people in the twenty-one square miles of Saigon proper, and another million on the outskirts. It had become the most densely populated city in the world. South Vietnam had transformed from 90% rural to 60% urban. “The French left three permanent features; boulevards, bread and brothels,” wrote Anthony Carthew for the Canberra Times in 1966.

During the American Vietnam war, the bars in central Saigon were the haunt for thieves, confidence men, beggars and gangs of children who’d rob soldiers as they left. Brawling was common.

“Le Thi Xuan, at 16, has already had considerable experience peddling cigarettes and prophylactics at the entrances to bars where Americans congregate, and she is just beginning to work as a bar hostess, Xuan asserts in her rapid pidgin English, ‘Someday of the war in Vietnam I get American husband, go States. I got American boy-friend work ship … all time go Manila come back Vietnam. He make beaucoup [big] money. He talk maybe pretty soon we marry, go States.’

“For all Xuan’s confident assertion, there is apprehension in her voice. She knows it is unlikely she’ll marry an American. She’s much more likely to bear an illegitimate child who will inherit her kind of life.”

“In order to enter the society of bar hostesses, she lies about her age. The police make a half-hearted attempt to see that the hostesses are at least 18, but abuses of age limits and activities far outstrip enforcement.” [1]

SOUTH VIETNAM. Saigon. A bar where GIs find prostitutes and heroin. 1971. Image: Magnum Photos.

Many of Saigon’s bar girls came from villages in the Mekong Delta – the vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands at the southern tip of Vietnam. Others were war widows with young families to support.

“One feels sorry, of course, for these men, many of whom die from wounds because their slender bodies have so little resistance to infection and shock. But their widows are in need of a deeper sympathy. In some cases, Vietnamese-fashion, they have to support the entire family, ranging from grandparents to obscure, penniless cousins. When her man is killed, a Vietnamese wife is paid one year’s salary by the army – about $220 (£110) for private. After that – nothing.

“If she is pretty she can become a bar girl and hope; to make enough money to open a little street stall in the market, which is every bar girl’s ambition. If she is not pretty, and does not have the education which would win her one of the few jobs open to women, she has no alternative but to become a prostitute.” [2]

All were ostracised from ordinary Vietnamese society. Yet their weekly earnings were reported to be more than that of South Vietnamese cabinet ministers. [3] “A prostitute earned as much as $180 per month. The average government civil servant earned roughly $30 a month, and even cabinet ministers and Assembly members had fixed salaries of $120.” [4]

Mai (20) works in one of the many bars in the area of To do Street in Saigon. She earns more keeping soldiers ‘company’ and keeping them drinking than does any member of the Vietnamese Cabinet or Assembly. Mai claims she supports her mother and 5 young brothers and sisters on her earnings. When she first went to work in the bar she cried all day, but later she got used to the job. Her biggest worry is that she will never find a “nice” Vietnamese man willing to marry her because of what she does. She hopes to move to another part of the country when the war is over and start a new life. She can earn as much as $180 a month. Source: Magnum Photos.

Australian troops were considered much tighter with his money than their American counterparts. They were nicknamed ‘Cheap Charlies’ by the bar girls who had a little ditty they used to sing to the tune of ‘This Old Man’:

Lester Mengel, The 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR) with Kim, a Vietnamese prostitute. Source: Australians at War Film Archive.

Uc Dai Lot. Cheap Charlie
He no buy me Saigon Tea .
Saigon Tea cost many, many P [piastres, the local almost worthless Vietnamese currency]
Uc Dai Lai, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He no give me MPC, [Military Pay Certificate]
MPC costs many many P,
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie
He no go to bed with me,
Bed with me costs many many P
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
Make me give him one for free,
Mamma-san go crook at me,
Uc-da-loi, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He give baby-san to me,
Baby-san costs many many P,
Uc-da-loi, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He go home across the sea,
He leave baby-san with me,
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie

Image from website: 24 pics of prostitutes of the Vietnam War

Saigon Tea

Saigon Tea bars were usually narrow places, with a bar and stools along one side and small padded booths on the other. The manager was called ‘Papa -san’ and he looked after the cash register. Middle-aged women, called ‘Mama- san’, kept the girls moving.

Once inside, the customer would sit at the bar and order a drink, paying around $2. The local brew, Ba Muoi Ba (33), was best avoided. It was low quality, unfit for human consumption according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and rumoured to contain formaldehyde – but it was cheap! [5]

About 20 seconds after sitting down at the bar, a girl would sidle up and introduce herself to the GI. The dialogue was unromantic and, to the uninitiated, incomprehensible:

“Hey, you. You No 1 (the best). Come here, sit down’, the bar girl begins as she spies a GI.

“How long you come Vietnam? How long you stay? Where you work? Work Bien Hoa, huh? You kill beaucoup VC (Big Vietcong) you No 1. You buy me one Saigon tea? I love you too much.”

If he showed interest, she would ask him to buy her a glass of Saigon tea, a one-ounce glass of almost colourless liquid costing $2 and tasting faintly of mint.

“With it comes a paper tab in two parts. The girl tears off her half of the tab, for which she will later collect $1.”

“By the time the customer has bought two glasses of Saigon tea, and had two drinks himself, he can be persuaded to sit in one of the padded booths. Once there, he is kissed, cuddled, tickled and petted — and encouraged to buy Saigon-tea — until he either regains his senses or runs out of money. Generally, these two things happen to him at the same time.”

“A tea-bar girl is slim, dark and fascinating. Her age is between 17 and 30. Working eight hours, she can earn up to $40 a day. Often her earnings provide food and lodging for her large refugee family who would otherwise be destitute.”[6]

Photo from manhhai on Flickr captioned: GI and bar girls in a bar during the Vietnam War in September 1967 in Saigon

Deluxe class joy-girls

Some bar girls will promise anything to sell another glass of Saigon-tea with no intention of giving the customer anything other than attentive company and superficial affection. Others, however, are prepared to go further. “They’ll bat their dark eyes like a schoolgirl and ask the GI: ‘How much you pay?’” [7]

From dingy back street bars to the ‘the de luxe class joy-girls’ on the verandah of the Continental Palace, ‘a relic of the French Colonial days’, bar-girls were everywhere. [8] There were between 100,000 and 300,000 girls who were prostitutes, bar girls and temporary wives of GIs, heavily dependent on the American presence. [9]

“The dignity of Vietnamese women has also suffered tremendously during these five, six years since the arrival of the American troops. The women who have been driven from the countryside because of the heavy bombing have to flock into the towns, can’t find any jobs, and so have to prostitute themselves. It’s the only way left to them—they are sold as sex objects. The families with daughters who have gone to that point suffer. Even the husbands have to shut their eyes when their wives have to prostitute themselves in order to feed the children. And it’s moral torture for the husbands”, said Madame Van of the People’s Liberation Government. [10]

With the wartime boom in prostitution, the courts no longer committed a girl solely for being a prostitute, as “that would be like trying to stop a tidal wave”, said Sister Mary, an Irish nun who ran a centre for delinquent girls in Vinh Long, South Vietnam, 50 miles southwest of Saigon. Girls from ages 10 to 18 were admitted to the centre founded in 1958 by the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem (1954-63) after a crackdown on vice. The girls had often been involved in more serious crimes, such as kidnapping other girls. Sister Mary pointed out some of the girls and spoke matter-of-factly:

“There’s Lisa, she’s 10. She was working in a brothel in Saigon. She still has marks on her body.”

“That is Rose — she used to steal 10,000 piastres ($A40) a day.”

“She [16-year-old Margaret] was kidnapped, drugged, and put to work in a Saigon bar”.

SOUTH VIETNAM. Saigon. A bar where GIs find prostitutes and heroin. 1971. Image: Magnum Photos.

The Economics of War

When the Americans withdrew from 1974, a significant source of income left with them. The new government found themselves responsible for “an unknown number of prostitutes, drug addicts and other social misfits whose existence had until then depended on the corruption generated by rich foreigners.” [11]

The Communist government claimed 350,000 prostitutes were left behind and set about a programme of ‘re-education’ establishing the ‘Centre of Rehabilitation for the Dignity of Women’ in Saigon. Between 1975 and 1985, over 14,000 women in the newly named Ho Chi Minh City were sent to these centres.

Sister Françoise, a French Roman Catholic nun and government advisor, spoke of the prostitutes as generally simple peasant women driven into the trade by the economics of war. The majority were common women forced to migrate into the city either because of the fighting or bombing or through the Strategic Hamlet Program, the plan by the governments of South Vietnam and the US to combat the communist insurgency. [12]

Like the American resort at Vũng Tàu where ‘boom boom girls’ serviced the needs of GIs on leave, the French, after 100 years of occupation, also had some experience in this area:

“After a 56 day siege beginning March 13, 1954… French colonialism died in Indochina after almost 100 years, in one of the 20th century’s crucial battles.

“There were women then, too, inside the French encampment. … There were also two ‘bordels mobiles de campagne’, French mobile field brothels, with 18 Algerian and Vietnamese girls. When the siege ended, the puritan Vietminh sent the Vietnamese girls and their madame for ‘re-education’, as happened to Saigon bar girls after 1975. Yet now, my hotel, like others in Dien Bien Phu, had its own willing courtesans in a large annex marked ‘Thai massage’. Puritanism has gone the way of state central planning as the free market flourishes. So much for ‘re-education’,” wrote James Pringle for Reuters in 2004. [13]

“In the French as well as in the American period, the ‘Flower Boats’ or sampans plied their trade. They were frequently family operations, with the daughter(s) working as prostitute(s) while the brothers pimped on dry land. Some of the larger junks, however, were professionally run, often by the Saigon underworld. Prior to 1975, statistics from the Ministry of Society of the Saigon government reported about 200,000 professional prostitutes. In Saigon alone in 1968, there were about 10,000 professional prostitutes. By 1974, the figure had reached 100,000.” [14]

Photo from manhhai on Flickr captioned: Saigon 1972 – Photo by Raymond Depardon – Rạp REX chiếu phim Love Story (Chuyện Tình) American soldiers and Vietnamese women in front of a movie theater.

Sightseeing and ‘sweet nothings’

When the American military withdrew from South Vietnam and Thailand, the extensive sex industry created for the rest and recreation of the troops had to find new markets. The Asian sex industry turned to other countries to find ways to continue to profit from the estimated 100,000 prostitutes who had been recruited to meet military needs. One route to profit was though sexual tourism. [15]

By the end of the 20th century Vietnam’s southwestern neighbour, the impoverished, corrupt and lawless Cambodia, had become the centre of the child sex trade – a favourite destination for sex tourists.

Poor Vietnamese parents caught up in the country’s thirst for consumer goods, sold their children for as little as £200, condemning them to torture, humiliation and disease in neighbouring Cambodia. They were joining the children from India, Thailand and the Philippines working as prostitutes in Asians squalid brothels.

“When I first met one of these children, 12-year-old Dah Vit, it was clear she had been tortured. Cigarette burns scarred her rest and hands. We were sitting in the back room of a brothel a few miles outside of Phnom pen, the Cambodian capital.

“‘She’s a virgin, fresh, no diseases’, the mother-san, the brothel’s madam, told me.

“Dah Vit’s mother, Trang, believe she had sent the Dah Vit and her other two daughters into the restaurant trade ‘for three months’. The money they would earn would help the whole family.”

“When they come home we will all be better off. Maybe, one day, we will even have a television,” Trang told reporter Nick Daniel in 1996. [16]

Ten years later, Deborah Orr reported in The Independent that Vietnam had become a primary source and destination country for forced labour and sexual exploitation.

“Criminal gangs operating in Vietnam are known to recruit children promising jobs or marriages abroad, or to purchase them from guardians eager to be rid of them.”[17]

Hagar New Zealand is a charitable organisation which supports the recovery of women and children who have survived severe human rights abuse in Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan. They said of Vietnam:

“Vietnam remains a significant target for traffickers. Vulnerable women, men, and children are at risk of sex trafficking and forced labour. Women are trafficked as brides to neighbouring countries, as well as further afield, with incidents of trafficking that reach as far as Europe.” [18]

The willingness for families to pimp their own daughters and for women to seek out prostitution as a career has been attributed both to greed and capitalism on the one hand, and poverty and war on the other. Combined with the ancient ethnic value called ‘phuc duc’ or merit-virtue- which can be created by women and handed on to future generations – and filial responsibility, these may help explain why prostitution was so prevalent during the Vietnam War.

The Tale of Kieu, a significant work of Vietnamese literature, is a poem which recounts the life, trials and tribulations of Thúy Kiều, a beautiful and talented yet tragic young woman, whose story is used to illustrate phuc duc. Like Kim in Miss Saigon and tens of thousands of other Vietnamese bar and ‘boom boom’ girls during the Vietnam War, she sacrificed herself to save her family.

Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky.
[19]

The Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon is at the Isaac Theatre Royal from 27 September 2019

The Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon is at the Isaac Theatre Royal from 27 September 2019


Other stories: Mai Lan Gustafsson’s “The Warlore of Vietnamese Bargirls,” Part 1 | Part 2


Sources:

[1] The forgotten waifs of the war in Vietnam (1969, December 17). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 68. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[2] Weary Vietnam no future (1966, February 23). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 20. Retrieved August 3, 2019.
[3] ”Clean-Up Drive in Central Saigon Shifting ‘Tea’ Girls to Outskirts.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 14 Mar. 1972, p. 5. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013,
[4] http://www.sexquest.com/ccies-kinsey/vn.php.html Accessed 30 August 2019.
[5] The delights of Vung Tau (1972, March 9). Woroni (Canberra, ACT : 1950 – 2007), p. 7. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
[6] Tea for two in Saigon (1969, October 20). Papua New Guinea Post-Courier (Port Moresby : 1969 – 1981), p. 12. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[7] GI JOE LOSES HIS HUMOUR Vietnam- the very unfunny war (1966, November 3). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 27. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[8] “Vietnam: the empty promises.” The Listener, 6 Feb. 1975, p. 162+. The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, Accessed 27 July 2019.
[9] South Vietnam (1970, May 5). Tharunka (Kensington, NSW : 1953 – 2010), p. 10. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[10] Steinberg, Marsha. “Women of the South.” The Second Wave: A Magazine of the New Feminism, vol. 2, no. 2, 1972, p. 9+. Women’s Studies Archive. Accessed 28 July 2019.
[11] Indo-China’s first year of peace (1976, May 18). Papua New Guinea Post-Courier (Port Moresby : 1969 – 1981), p. 5. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
[12]Prostitutes Rehabilitated.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 29 Jan. 1976, p. 2. International. Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013. Accessed 6 July 2019.
Becker, Elizabeth. “French Nun Helping Vietnam to Rehabilitate Prostitutes.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 29 Nov. 1976, p. 4. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, Accessed 28 July 2019.
[13] Pringle, James. “Au Revoir, Dien Bien Phu.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 1 Apr. 2004, p. 9. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013. Accessed 29 July 2019.
[14] http://www.sexquest.com/ccies-kinsey/vn.php.html Accessed 30 August 2019.
[15] ‘Terror and Coercion: The Female Sexual Slave Trade‘ 1979. 1979. TS Grassroots Feminist Organizations, Part 1: Boston Area Second Wave Organizations, 1968-1998: Women Against Violence Against Women Records, 1972-1985. Northeastern University. Women’s Studies Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[16] Daniel, Nick. “Children sold into sex slavery on Street of Flowers.” Sunday Telegraph, 1 Dec. 1996, p. 26. The Telegraph Historical Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[17] Orr, Deborah. “The cruel hypocrisy that demonises the world’s most vulnerable people.” Independent, 19 Aug. 2006, p. 11. The Independent Digital Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[18] https://hagar.org.nz/vietnam/. Accessed 28 July 2019
[19]  From Lê Xuân Thuy’s (1968) Kim Vân Kiều, second edition, page 19