Cowboys in Asia

My first night in Saigon, I haven’t slept in two days. I am past the point of being tired—wired, where no self-medication will suffice. The host at the front desk says I look weary and suggests that I go to the spa, “Ahh, night massage. Good for you. Help you get rest.” After cramming my Germanic body into a sleeper bus (the ergonomics clearly unsuited) for over 15 hours and the trepidation of arriving in a new country, I didn’t hesitate and scheduled an 11:30 (PM) appointment.

The ride is prearranged—on the back of a motorbike, through the night market and the back alley to a place called, “Entranced.” I climb off the back seat and return to the driver his weathered and cracked helmet. The tinted doors swing open to a bright waiting room with gold, green and pink floral wallpaper. I am greeted by an overly enthusiastic male and two soft-spoken women wearing long silk nightgowns, one slightly older, both half my height.  They bow,  the man hands me a cup of tea, and I am lead upstairs by the older woman who is now pulling me by the hand. Trying not to spill, I climb a winding dark stairwell, “Wat-cho step,” she tells me, anticipating the forthcoming trip on a piece of loose carpet.

On the third floor, she opens the door to a darkly lit room with four beds separated only by white linen curtains. There is steam unfurling from a bucket of hot stones and a loud fan that masks the sounds of honking motorbikes below. Before I can set down my purse, she points to me and gives me the directive, “You. Take off clothes.” She doesn’t look away and waits until my shoes are off, my pants are in a pile on the chair, and I am draping an arm over my chest, before she gestures to a bed, “Here.” I awkwardly climb on the table, lie down on my stomach and within seconds she is straddling me dumping oil from a jar on my arms and back. The massage is made up of quick, violent movements—fist pounding, lifting and dropping my limbs, cracking my toes and fingers, and a prolonged period of forceful kneading; in short, not relaxing–painful.

Wanting to leave, but having the suspicion that I had only been there about 20 minutes, I commit myself to the long haul, clench my fists and close my eyes. At some point, the younger woman enters and says something hurriedly in Vietnamese. The curtains are drawn closed around my bed and I hear the muffled sounds of a man outside. I recognize his American accent. The pitches of the women change, becoming more drawn out and sultry as they arrange his bed. I listen to him go through the same routine as myself, before he settles in and I am forced to endure the following conversation:

“How ohl ah-you?” she asks him.

He pauses and I can hear through his smile, “Forty six.”

After some hesitation, he asks, flirtatiously, “How old are you?”

“Nine-teen,” (giggles), then “You have fam-i-ry?”

“Yes.”

“You married? You have wife?”

I can tell he is reluctant, wanting to avoid this conversation, but answers, “Yeah.” (Silence, then heavy breathing).

I then listened to a series of questions that I can only imagine were answered by head nods and gestures:

“You like?”

“You want dis?”

“Dis, good for youuuu?” the last word drawn out and punctuated by a slight moan. There is only a curtain between us and I am trapped between sloppy banter and slurping sound effects until my own massage finally ends. I am thrown a towel and whisked away, past his curtain, to the steam bath room two floors up, where the woman demands that I take off my underwear and closes the door. Looking around at the rotted tiles, the air so thick I can hardly breathe, I leave my underwear in place, and cling to my towel. I refuse to sit down. I am suffocated and the entire experience is becoming, not just a waste of money, but unbearable.

Abandoning the remainder of my “spa package,” I decide I want to leave. I open the door and start wandering down the hallway and the dim stairwells, looking for my clothes and purse. I hear her from a floor below when she yells, “NO! You go back in room!” I realized they took me up there so they could finish what was started with the American. She is intercepting me, when she yells, “You come here!” pulls me down  a flight of stairs,  and pushes me into a room without explanation, slamming the door in my face. I look around and realize, I am now, locked in a bathroom, standing in a towel (and my underwear, at least) waiting for this American guy to get off.

Great.

I jiggle the door handle and start knocking. First softly, then I am pounding. After a few minutes, the militant older masseuse opens the door smiling, as if nothing happened, and I say, “Just give me my clothes, I want to get out of here.” She understands, not my words, but my tone, and leads me back to the room where I quickly get dressed and grab my purse. The man has already been escorted out. Again, she takes my hand, holding it between hers, “My friend, my friend, you like me? You give me tip?” I hand her a five dollar bill just to end it all. She hugs me and says, “You are so beautiful. You very pretty,” a line I am certain she has used before.

This wasn’t my first run-in with the sex industry in Asia. I went to “Soi Cowboy” in Bangkok, where the street is lined with strip clubs and brothels, the women free to rent for an evening, or plausibly, a lifetime. The women stand impatiently, lined up, smoking cigarettes with painted, pouting lips, and drooping fake eyelashes, faint peach fuzz belying the gender of the surreptitious ladyboy.

I also went to a karaoke bar in Chiang Mai which operates as a front, the women hike up their skirts and bat their eyes as we enter. I feel bad for them, they look bored, withdrawn, sex appeal sucked dry with their own disinterest, “Let’s have them come in and sing with us!” I suggest.

“If you want to pay $1000 bucks to sing with them, go ahead,” my friend replies. I decide it’s not worth it.

There are some cities that look better in the dark: Austin, Tucson, and New Orleans, I suppose, most desert towns, and the American south, generally. This is my experience in cities throughout Asia, where nightlife, incandescence and the glow of entertainment, hide the smog and dirt your feet will kick up in daylight.

One night in Ho Chi Minh City, I head out with an English guy I met over breakfast. We had spent the day at the War Museum, examining the Agent Orange formaldehyde fetuses and decide that drinking was a necessary antidote. After a few beers on a busy corner, we are carving our way through narrower streets with blinking signs, when he asks, “Want to go to a brothel?”

Here we go.

The brothel is lit in blue lights, and marked by the shadows of dancing women in tight dresses. They have surprising curves. There is a man getting a lap dance in the back. After some cursory broken English is exchanged, a few of the women who are unoccupied sit down at the bar with us and take a shot.

We compare breast implants (this makes them trust me).

I see that the woman behind the bar is crying on the phone. When she hangs up, I ask her if she is okay, what is wrong. She is clearing mascara from under her eyes as she tells me that the man on the phone was an American, from Pennsylvania. He got her pregnant 10 years earlier and was very, how should I say, unreliable, about sending any support money for their daughter. From what I gathered, he also has a double life going on in a suburb back home with a bonus round wife and three kids. I imagine middle-management sloth and pudgy children with names like Steven, Sally, and Grace. His wife has no clue that he has fathered a child in Vietnam or that he left this woman begging and tending brothel.

She is still beautiful.

After being in Thailand and Vietnam, I felt the increasing compulsion to protect Asian women from Western men. I start getting pissed that there are no international child support laws and (drunkenly) consider waging a campaign before the U.N. As it gets later, the white men start trickling into the brothel and I pretend we are at a normal bar, just to put them off. They do not expect a blunt, American woman to come up and ask, “Hey, where you from? How long will you be here?” No one wants to answer questions and they know I can see through them. I successfully force at least three back out into the street. I am not doing these girls any favors, but still, I feel accomplished.

After leaving HCMC, I am in Nah Trang, a beach town about 12 hours north. There is a divorced man in his late 50’s from Chicago working up a story about the younger Asian women he has bagged on his short trip: “I feel like I am dreaming,” he says, making me mouth-barf. He is short, bald and unattractive, the kind of guy, you know, couldn’t get it back home. I think, “You are dreaming, buddy. A nice poverty stricken, war wounded afterthought. Glad scarcity is working for you.”

We are both staying in the same hotel, so we cannot help the daily run-ins. One morning he comes stumbling into the lobby. His forehead is bleeding and is eye is purple and half-shut. He is dabbing blood from his face with a dirty napkin.

Before I even ask, he starts in, “I like nightlife,” he says, “I like to go out late, you know. Maybe I had too many drinks.” I ask him what happened. Apparently, after he left the “club,” he was attacked by three Vietnamese women who charged him, knocked him down and stole his wallet. I hide my smile when I turn away, thinking there was some poetic justice in this robbery.

When talking to a younger Vietnamese man, I ask him what he thinks the older white men parading around his country, with young Asian women dangling like bracelets from their forearms. He thinks it is gross, especially when the men are really fat (he makes gestures of a swollen belly), but also concedes that he is not in their position. He says he doesn’t know what it is like to be a poor, Vietnamese woman: “They just want better life,” he says, “They want car, house, someone care for them.”

Not to glorify the exchange, but, these women are hard-asses, not to be pitied. They have been tried more than I can imagine or ever will. They are not  helpless victims of culture, though they are the victims of poverty, which could force any of us into making different decisions, including unleashing some battery on an ugly, rich, fat white dude trying to get laid.

The Asian sex industry is not so foreign, like most differences once you examine them closely: to quote an American hero and our old friend, Puff Daddy, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”