Vietnam is modernising, but traditional values that prohibit sex before marriage in Vietnam aren’t keeping pace. By Phuc Duy. Photo by Johnny Murphy.

Just about everything was set for Ngoc and Nam’s wedding, from the photo shoot to the reception hall. But, two months before the big day, Nam’s mother discovered a life-altering secret: Her son’s fiancee was not a virgin.

The mother, a senior university professor in her late 60s, had heard whispers from colleagues and students that Ngoc had had sex with an ex-boyfriend. She confronted her prospective daughter-in-law, who confirmed the rumours.

“His mother forced us to cancel our wedding,” Ngoc says tearfully. “She accused me of not being a virgin, calling me a slut.”

Ngoc and Nam, whose names have been changed, are both teachers in their 20s living in Ho Chi Minh City. Premarital sex is increasingly common in Vietnam, especially in their age group. And yet, traditional values continue to dictate that couples must wait to consummate their marriage, according to Nguyen Hoang Khac Hieu, psychology professor at the local University of Pedagogy.

He said Vietnamese hold onto these old-fashioned beliefs for two reasons.

“First, banning sex before marriage would help prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, since the health care system was not well developed in the past,” Hieu says. “Second, for moral values, keeping a woman’s virginity would lead to true love and a healthy marriage.”

It’s not just a generation of parents who dwell on virginity. Even some of Nam’s male friends agreed with his mother and advised him not to marry Ngoc in light of her supposed indiscretion.

This is despite the fact that a 2011 survey by UNICEF found that 10 percent of married couples in Vietnam, age 15 to 24, said they’d had premarital sex. A third approve of the practice.

In a separate poll released in December, the Ministry of Education and Training said half of minors admitted to having sex. No wonder, then, that young people place less emphasis on virginity as a prerequisite for love now.

“It is unacceptable to judge a good woman by the thin hymen,” says college student Nguyen Thi Nga, 20. “You should respect your parents, but you do not live with them forever.”

She also worried that obsession with virginity — notably skewed towards just one gender — motivates women to lie or undergo risky operations to “restore” their hymens. Indeed, San Hai, an investigative journalist at Vietnam Student Newspaper, reported that hymenoplasties costing $100-350 are on the rise.

The medical procedures pose real, physical consequences, compared with the mostly emotional and psychological impact of discovering a deflowered bride-to-be. The more pressing matter that couples should worry about, Hieu says, is safe sex. The December survey reported that one-third of young people having sex did not use protection.

“If a man and a woman really love each other, it is their right to have sex before or after marriage,” says Hieu, the psychology professor, “but they must have good knowledge of how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases.”

He adds, “Virginity is not a guarantee for a life-long marriage.”

Some parents are taking that to heart, like Khanh, a 58-year-old mother of three adult sons.

“Even if the parents force their kids to follow the tradition, they will have sex before marriage,” she says. “As a mother, what I care most about my daughter in-law is her personality and that she really loves my son, not just about virginity.”

Unlike Khanh, other parents, as well as secondary schools, continue to teach their children that women must preserve their virginity until marriage. It is less common now, but mothers have been known to check bed sheets for blood after the wedding night.

Of course Nam and Ngoc didn’t make it that far. The one-time fiance says he loved Ngoc even though he was disappointed to find out she had had sex. The couple, who are former students of Nam’s mother, had been dating for a year. Ngoc tried to change the matriarch’s mind, unsuccessfully.

“My mother said if I kept a relationship with Ngoc, I would not be her son anymore,” Nam says.

He went ahead with her wishes, and agreed to call off the wedding.