SHORT TIMERS

Available by the hour, nha nghi, or rest houses, provide moments of intimacy for those looking to express their love or lust.

By LE DIEM on August 18,2017 10:59 AM

SHORT TIMERS

photos: LE DIEM

Perhaps apocryphal, a popular anecdote in Vietnam has it that a teacher asked her class ‘What’s the quickest way to get HIV/AIDS?’, to which a student replied ‘Go along Nguyen Van Cu and Pham Van Dong streets.’

There is at least some truth in the anecdote. Nguyen Van Cu and Pham Van Dong are known for having the first ‘nha nghi’ in Hanoi and now have the most. All around Vietnam and especially in major cities, nha nghi are everywhere. Despite its literal meaning, ‘rest house’, few customers visit them to rest, at least not initially.

By the hour

Neither do they rest by themselves, as nha nghi help people do freely what the previous generations found so difficult.

About 20 years ago, Thanh Nien, which runs between West Lake and Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi and is dotted with lots of green trees, was known as the city’s ‘Lovers Lane’. As is still the case, most young people at that time lived with their parents and having intimate encounters prior to marriage was fraught with problems and actively discouraged. Many used to head to Thanh Nien not only for the beautiful view but also for its romantic setting, where affections could be almost privately expressed.

There was a time when the street burst with life in the evening, especially on weekends. Dozens of couples, about half a metre apart, would pack the entire street, exchanging passionate kisses and perhaps a little more. Given the limited space, most arrived early, before 7pm, or risked missing out.

But the street quickly lost its reputation after nha nghi began to appear. The first, it’s said, opened along Nguyen Van Cu Street in Gia Lam district and Pham Van Dong in Cau Giay district, which were soon rumoured to be red-light areas. Providing a private space, nha nghi gave lovers the chance to do what couldn’t be done at home or in public, similar to Japan’s love hotels but still uniquely Vietnamese.

As demand surged, nha nghi soon sprang up throughout the country. In addition to overnight stays costing VND150,000 ($6.6) on average, guests could also stay by the hour, for about VND60,000-70,000 ($2.6-3) a time. Discounts of 30% on the second hour and 50% on the third were also pretty common.

Anyone could disappear for a few hours then reappear as though nothing had happened. Though the younger generation are more open-minded, the near-absence of sex education in the classroom and the home make nha nghi the scene of much experimentation. And the more naïve among them can be all too easily seduced or, at times, tricked.

Like Ngoc Van, a 20-year-old student, who rebuffed her date’s request to head to a nha nghi more than once. She knew the score, and it wasn’t something she was ready to do. Once, though, he complained of a stomach ache and said he needed somewhere to lie down. She agreed. ‘I was so embarrassed at the receptionist desk, but he said he was feeling ill,’ she remembers. ‘As soon as we were in the room, though, he miraculously recovered.’

Stomach aches, headaches, tiredness - all seem to strike many Vietnamese guys when they’re hanging out with a girl. And all seem to believe that nha nghi are the magic cure. And maybe they are, given how many guys seem to feel better as soon as the door closes. But once the ruse works once, it’s not needed a second time. ‘Most girls never say “No” the second time,’ said Tran Thanh, a self-described ‘hot guy’ who claims to have had a lot of success with women over the years and probably a few stomach aches as well.

Only age is falling

Since their advent, nha nghi have arguably helped Vietnamese become more openminded. The age of people’s first sexual encounter is becoming younger and younger and is now between 14 and 17, similar to many Western countries, according the recent Survey Assessment of Vietnamese Youth conducted by the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and UNICEF.

SHORT TIMERS

A source of great shame for previous generations, pregnancy before marriage today is only a little shameful. ‘Nha nghi are everywhere and it’s impossible to forbid my children from going there. They’re adults,’ said 55-year-old Ngan Hoa, a retired accountant. ‘But I can’t let them bring their boyfriend or girlfriend to our home. It’s better that they go somewhere and I just don’t know about it.’

While some people view pregnancy before marriage as a good sign, proving the couple are capable of spawning progeny, not all pregnancies are wanted and the country’s abortion rate, especially among teenagers, has been heading ever-upwards. Vietnam is now among the Top 5 countries in the world for abortions, with 20% being between the age of 12 and 19, according to the Institute for Family and Gender Studies.

Also on the rise is the instance of married men taking on a lover or two. For many it’s a source of pride. ‘I won’t get divorced,’ said one, a 36-year-old director of a small company. ‘I still love my wife. We dated for five years before getting married. She’s a great woman and a great mother. But I’m a man. We’re always attracted to new discoveries.’

Many women tell each other to just accept it. ‘I don’t like it but it’s become so common,’ said office worker Quynh Trang. ‘Many women chase after married men, and the men are too weak to refuse. It’s difficult to avoid affairs today. So I choose to trust my husband or just remain ignorant. As long as he’s good to me, I don’t want to know about anything else. I want to stay with the father of my children.’

Expat men are also getting in on the act. An English teacher from Australia living in Hanoi, who married a Vietnamese woman and has a son, visits nha nghi a few times a month with different local girls. ‘Honestly, I never cheated in Australia,’ he said. ‘There are so many lovely women here and nha nghi are so cheap and easy, which encourages me to have affairs.’

Married people therefore join the unmarried as being regular customers of nha nghi. Their timetable is divided equally: nights for the unmarried and lunch breaks for the married.

Happiest of all, though, are the owners of nha nghi. They even have to put up the ‘No Vacancy’ on special occasions like Valentine’s Day, when reservations are essential. ‘Even if you book in advance, you have to pay double or even more,’ Thanh said, before adding that some nha nghi don’t accept reservations but act on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, but charge exorbitant prices. Just the same, they’re always full.

Not that it’s all plain sailing for the owners. Rows between couples can happen and are unsightly, and an unemployed man was arrested recently for photographing people entering a nha nghi then blackmailing them. Phuong Anh, the daughter of a nha nghi owner, has seen so many people having affairs that she’s lost faith in true love and marriage.

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