Behind closed doors, sex shops in Saigon turns a generous profit. However, in such a conservative culture there seems a long way to go before Vietnam becomes comfortable with such a taboo subject. By Dana Filek-Gibson.

Standing in the customs line at Tan Son Nhat, Clare waited as her bag went through the X-ray scanner once, and then again. On the other side of the humming machine, customs officials studied a monitor. The suitcase inched along, back and forth, until finally it slid down the conveyor belt. Within moments, a uniformed guard was at her side. He requested that Clare open the bag for inspection and she complied. After all, there was nothing to hide: beyond shorts and t-shirts, underwear and a couple basic necessities, there were few things inside that would set off alarm bells, though Clare did have an inkling as to what had so concerned the local customs agents.

And so, before a group of patient onlookers, authorities unzipped her bag, reached inside and pulled out the generous dildo that had popped up on the X-ray scan. At first, Clare blushed, offering explanations for the item; that it was meant to be a joke for the expat friend she was visiting. But the guard was not amused. In a moment that went from awkward to embarrassing to tense, authorities confiscated the object and Clare received a fine of a few million dong for bringing contraband into the country. Escorted by a customs official, she wandered the airport grounds, attempting to withdraw money from several ATMs, but to no avail. In the end, she was reprimanded and grudgingly released. Clare left the airport shaken, her luggage in tow, no longer in possession of the fake phallus but now acutely aware of the fact that Vietnamese law prohibits dildos, even as a prank.

Yet, despite this strict disallowance of sex toys, Saigon residents require little more than a cursory Google search in order to track down that same contraband. Vietnamese law may ban the sale and possession of sex toys, but behind closed doors business is booming. According to a news report published by Tuoi Tre late last year, ‘condom shops,’ as they’re advertised, can turn a profit with only a few customers. Though legal wares, such as condoms and lubricant, are also available, shop owners claimed that these businesses would go under if it weren’t for the income provided by their smuggled goods, which come from as near as China and as far away as Europe and North America. Depending upon the origins and quality of the item, vendors can rake in upwards of several million dong on a single sale.

Outside of these shops, of course, sex toys remain a topic too taboo for polite conversation. Even among today’s urbanites, the mere mention of sex is likely to elicit at least a few red faces and nervous laughter. Around downtown District 1, you’ll find trace evidence of safe-sex campaigns. For instance, there are large blue-and-white posters plastered on street corners that depict a loving couple standing inside a giant condom. 

However, few Vietnamese are willing to discuss sex in any detail, sometimes even with their partners or spouses. As such, sex toys have earned a reputation as perverse, unhealthy objects. In a culture reluctant to acknowledge this aspect of a person’s private life, even those purchasing the contraband are often too embarrassed or shy to speak up, and so the illicit trade carries on, concealed from the public eye out of shame.

Clearly, though, someone is buying. When VietNamNet interviewed sex shop owners in Hanoi late last year, the general consensus was that women, especially middle-aged women, made up most of their clientele, followed by couples and young men. According to their clientele, these illicit items – mostly dildos and vibrators – offer a safe, monogamous solution for dissatisfied spouses or those with faraway husbands.

“My husband works abroad and only returns to Vietnam once a year,” said NT, a sex shop customer. “Sometimes I also need to have sex. A close friend suggested that I get a sex toy. This way, I stay faithful without having to give it up altogether.”

That said, NT’s husband had no idea that she even owned a sex toy. Like most, she purchased her items online and had them delivered to her door. While a handful of physical shops exist, this is how most sex toy businesses operate, allowing them to skip the overhead involved in opening a shop and go straight to making profits.

“There are months when we receive as many as 70 or 80 orders; there are other months when we barely receive any,” VT, a shop owner, told VietNamNet. “However, because we don’t have to pay for employees or a business location, we’re able to stay afloat.”

The prohibition of sex toys certainly helps business owners in the long run, provided they are able to keep their dealings under the radar. When it comes to customers, however, there is often little to no information available regarding the origin of these products, not to mention instructions for proper use and care. 

Because of this, Nguyen Huy Quang, director of legal affairs at the Ministry of Health, recently suggested in an interview with Vietnamese newspaper Doi Song & Phap Luat that the sale of sex toys be regulated. With most shoppers too embarrassed and sex still very much a taboo topic, Quang argued that acknowledging the lucrative sex toy market would help create safer conditions and increase awareness among consumers, which could ultimately benefit society.

“In order to have strict management and prohibit the problems associated with sex toys, we must allow these businesses to trade,” said Quang. “When people have sexual needs but are not in a relationship or married, [sex toys] ensure that these individuals don’t visit prostitutes and that their sexual needs are satisfied in a safe way.”

While there is a vocal minority that agrees with Quang’s opinion, legalizing the sex toy trade may be too much too soon. Opponents of Quang’s view raise concerns that these products may have damaging effects on marital relationships, decrease individual self-esteem and possibly even lead to sex addiction. 

On the other side of the argument, Nguyen Thi Kha, a member of the National Assembly’s Committee on Social Issues, countered with the fact that little tangible evidence exists regarding how many consumers actually purchase sex toys. If, she suggested, the number is small, then perhaps Vietnam was not yet ready for such a move.

“From a societal perspective, many people believe sex toys are a sick game,” said Kha. “In my opinion, the Ministry of Health should carefully consider whether this is the legitimate demand of many or few. If this is simply the desire of a small portion of society then we shouldn’t yet open the market to regulation because to do so would contradict the previous ban on sex toys.”

Whether legalisation is on the horizon or not, the controversy has at least managed to get people talking. Though the number of sex toy users in Vietnam remains unclear, what is apparent is that consumers’ shame may, in fact, be the most harmful aspect of the business. In the meantime, changing attitudes will go a long way to erasing the stigma that surrounds the use of sex toys, though government officials may need the aid of public opinion before they come around to the idea.