Since Vietnam abolished a ban on gay marriage in 2015, there has been a rise in LGBT tourists visiting the country. But are there any more incentives on the way? By Lorcan Lovett. Photo by Vinh Dao.
As a gay Hanoian, 33-year-old Nguyen Anh Tuan noticed an increase in LGBT visitors to Vietnam over the past few years and, being of the Vietnamese entrepreneurial spirit, he saw an opportunity.
There was a chance to bring gay travellers together and provide them with a tour guide that would make their experiences here more comfortable.
“Just like French tourists would like a tour guide that speaks their language and understands them,” Nguyen explains.
He launched Gay Hanoi Tours in 2014 and since then there’s been an annual growth of 30 percent in the business, while group bookings have gone up by 10 percent per year.
There are no official figures of LGBT tourists to Vietnam, although people in Tuan’s field have acknowledged a definite rise aided by a bolster in the country’s reputation among the global LGBT community.
This is partly due to the Communist Party abolishing a ban on same-sex marriage in 2014, which then went into effect on 1 January 2015. Gay marriages still do not have the same rights as those of straight couples, whose marriages are protected by laws dictating rights to assets.
But the progressive change helped attract 700 customers to Tuan’s tours last year. He says 70 percent were gay clientele, 15 percent were women who felt more at ease among gay people, and 15 percent were straight people referred by their gay friends.
“The recent changes have had an impact by just putting Vietnam in the news in a positive light and illustrating how welcoming to all the country is,” says Tuan.
“This has caused more people to know about our culture and history which has led to more people coming.”
The tours take in “real everyday Hanoi amid the chaos”, he adds, as well as “off the beaten track” locations.
“I hear from clients that they have ‘done the other countries’ and now want to explore somewhere new.
“I feel that there is a growing market and potential but it is up to the industry and the country as well as individuals to make sure that everyone who comes, leaves with a positive view of my country, as well as the urge to come back and explore more.”
Many countries across the world debate gay marriage and the acceptance of the LGBT community in the context of the church. For Vietnam, which is relatively unmarred by religion, the heated discussions take place in the family home.
The latest survey from the Institute for Society, Economy and Environment (ISEE), a non-governmental organisation based in Hanoi, revealed that more than a third of Vietnam’s gay population is closeted.
Out of the 2,362 people asked, 68.4 percent admitted they were closeted. The participants were aged 13 to 54.
“The younger they are, the more open they are with their sexuality,” says ISEE’s LGBT rights program manager Luong The Huy.
Online LGBT forum leaders in Vietnam strongly developed their community in the early 2000s and were then asked by ISEE to establish the program. Started in 2008, it is the first organisation in Vietnam to work exclusively at promoting the rights of LGBT people.
Luong and his team advocate with lawmakers, media, and leaders in education and the private sector. One of the fears of coming out, he says, is because of discrimination from those closest to the person.
“It is not usual to get attacked by strangers or when you are walking in the street, but it is quite common to have violence from members of the family if they find out that you are LGBT,” he says.
“A lot of people face struggles and discrimination from members of their own family. The situation is changing now because the social attitude is getting more and more accepting.
“(There is) more discussion on LGBT rights; equality is happening on social media, in the press and in every day life. However when the issues come to traditional values or family norms, LGBT is not considered a part of them.”
Luong agrees that the show of tolerance in abolishing a ban on gay marriage has contributed to the rise in LGBT tourists, although he says the importance of improving LGBT-centred services – hotels, bars, clubs, etc. – should not be underestimated.
He also points out that unlike countries like Thailand and Taiwan, Vietnam does not have a plan to promote itself as an “LGBT tourism country”.
Despite this, Vietnam has never actually outlawed homosexuality. That alone can be viewed as an achievement when compared with the draconian laws imposed by other nations, even today.
And in November 2015, the country passed a law allowing those who have undergone gender reassignment to register under their new gender. The law will come into effect early next year after 282 of 366 lawmakers voted in favour.
Advocacy groups hope the legislation will pave the way for the surgery to be made legal in the nation. For now, people tend to have it done in Thailand.
The next step is gay marriage with all of the benefits enjoyed by straight couples. Then gay tourists who visit the country may even stay.