Some sex workers in Vietnam end up marrying western husbands — but when they move abroad, life turns out to be far from the fantasies they expect. Kimberly Kay Hoang finds out firsthand by working as a bartender/hostess at bars frequented by rich locals and foreigners. Photo by Fred Wissink.

I first met Tram in 2006 in a tiny bar on Pham Ngu Lao Street. Tram and other sex workers in the backpacker bar, disguised as bartenders, catered to western budget travellers seeking brief encounters or longer relationships-for-hire. They were the bar’s key attraction, but the women received no wages from the owner; they were independent entrepreneurs in a niche of the sex trade.

Tram, 27 years old and adorned with bracelet, rings, and a diamond necklace, was a model of success and economic mobility. She lived in a brand-new luxury condo with two servants, a full-time housecleaner and a cook who prepared western food for her new American husband. Tram had come from a poor village, she told me, where the only jobs were in the rice fields. In Ho Chi Minh City, she worked first as a maid and then in a clothing factory. But after two years of earning no more than the equivalent of $70 a month, Tram had saved no money, could barely cover food and rent, and saw no hope for improvement. “Life in the city is so expensive,’’ she said. She saw sex work as her best route out of poverty.

Tram met William, 70, as a client, and quickly began to develop a more intimate relationship with him, hoping her emotional labour might lead to ongoing economic support — in a remittance relationship, or marriage. Western men who come to Vietnam seeking wives, or who become attached to women they hire once there, often sympathise with their plight and want to take them out of the sex trade and care for them. Six months after they met, William asked Tram to marry him and move to North America. They were married in 2007.

In 2009, I reconnected with Tram, along with William and their three children at an airport outside of Montreal, Canada. As we drove the three hours to their home, passing lumber farms, acres of undeveloped land, and pastures sprinkled with sheep, I commented on its beauty and tranquility. But Tram expressed no such sentiments. She had never intended to escape small-town Vietnam, she said, only to end up in another small town in rural Canada. She had hoped to move to the United States, and had dreamed of living in Los Angeles or New York, “a big city, like the movies”.

Instead, she found herself isolated in a cold climate and working long hours. Williams’ savings had dwindled, thanks to the expense of immigration, and they had arrived in North America smack in the middle of a global recession. For a year and a half, she worked nights and weekends for her brother-in-law’s lumber company. She did see progress: By June of the year I came to visit, she had saved more than $20,000 and, with her sister-in-law, opened a small shop selling local produce. But she was now the primary breadwinner, while William, retired but without much of his savings, stayed home with the children. “This is not what I thought my life would be like,” she said.

The story of Tram and William, like that of other couples in my study, suggests a reversal of the usual trajectory of marital journeys. In Vietnam, the opening to the west in recent decades has inspired some women, usually between the ages of 17 and 32, to seek strategic marriages with western men through sex work. While women who travelled from Vietnam to western countries to be with their husbands did not intend to seek out employment, two-thirds of the women in my study ended up becoming their family’s primary breadwinner — reversing typical expectations.

William, like most men in my study, had come to Vietnam deliberately seeking a wife, while others discovered these opportunities once they arrived on visits. Either way, they were eager to find women who would enter a marriage with traditional gender roles that were fast disappearing at home. Their expectations were simple; the men would provide the economic support and the women would provide care, housekeeping and emotional labour.

What happened instead was a classic case of “gender vertigo”. Sociologist Barbara Risman used this term to describe the dizzying effect on people who adopt, or find themselves having to embrace, a radical and unfamiliar social role that upends their ideas of how family structures and society work.

In my study, most of the women had expected to end their working days once they reached their destination. Instead, most of them quickly ended up finding jobs, looking for income to supplement that of their husbands’, and hoping to send money home to family in Vietnam. Many women quickly became the main breadwinner, often working double shifts, with husbands working less lucrative jobs or at home doing childcare.

This experience of transnational gender vertigo reframes our understandings of sex work, migration, and gendered relationships across transnational spaces.

These couples stayed married, for better or for worse, as the transformation of marriage, migration, and love gave rise to new and different dreams for the future. As one source told me, “Do tinh den bac,” a phrase that means when you have luck with love or romance, your economic luck may decline. While Tram and the other women I studied embarked on migration journeys believing they were sacrificing love for economic fortune, many ended up struggling economically — and some found love along the way.

Kimberly Kay Hoang is an assistant professor of sociology at Boston College. This is an excerpt from her full-length article, which originally appeared in Contexts magazine (Contexts.org/articles/spring-2013/transnational-gender-vertigo). More about her at Kimberlykayhoang.com