When the Cessna L-19, the first all-metal fixed-wing aircraft ordered by and for the US Army, was used in the American War, no one knew that it would later become a symbol in Vietnam, not for its function or historical duties but for something else entirely.
Also known as Bird Dog, the observation plane enabled pilots and their rear-seat observers to search for and locate enemy ground positions. However, in Vietnam, it was called ‘old-lady-plane’ for its slow speed and noisy engine, like a talkative old woman. Although the aircraft retired from service in 1974, it still ‘appears’ in Vietnam today in the new shape of ... a woman. When a woman is dating or in love with a younger man, she is called an old-lady-plane. Her man bears the title ‘young pilot’.
Bad weather, rough airlines
Just a decade or so ago it was rare to see couples where the woman was older than the man. Traditionally, women should be with an older man who is a stable bread-winner for the family. Therefore, it was unusual for ‘a young pilot to fly an old plane’, and such couples usually received curious glances and mocking smiles.
When Bich Ngoc, a 28-year-old businesswoman, took her younger boyfriend to hang out with her friends for the first time, they were surprised to hear her calling him ‘anh’ even though he was seven years old younger.
Different from English, where the personal pronoun ‘you’ and ‘I’ provides equality between two people, Vietnamese pronouns are familial, following Asian culture. If the age difference is small (usually less than 15 years), the younger person should refer to themselves as ‘em’ (which literally means younger) and the older person as ‘anh’ (older brother) for men and ‘chi’ (older sister) for women. In love, however, no matter the age gap, the woman is ‘em’ and the man ‘anh’, or it becomes awkward and not at all romantic.
So Ngoc’s friends winked at her, knowing how old her new boyfriend was. But they were also confused about what pronoun they should use. They’re the same age as her, but neither ‘anh’ nor ‘em’ seemed appropriate. Eventually they settled on calling each other by name.
She wasn’t too happy, though, when her friends asked her what the trick was to trapping a younger guy. ‘They couldn’t believe a younger guy could fall in love with an older woman,’ she said.
The friends of Bao Hoang, her boyfriend, felt the same way. When he told his friends how old his new girlfriend was, their first question was ‘Is she rich?’ or ‘Is she super hot?’ ‘When I answered “No”, their next question was “So why do you choose a mommy, there are many young pretty girls out there?”’ he recalled.
For a long time, a young man dating an older woman was traditionally looked upon as a loser. If he is good, why can’t he find a younger woman? There is also the fact that there are indeed young men offering their ‘love’ to rich women who are the same age as their mother.
So the paucity of support from friends is perhaps understandable. It’s just the first barrier, however. Family is the most difficult security check these planes and pilots must pass through.
When Thuy Linh, a 26-year-old overseas education consultant, took her 21-year-old boyfriend home to meet her family, there was widespread objections. ‘My mother and older married sister said there would be no future for us,’ she said. In their eyes, he was too young for her and was still studying while she had a good job. He wouldn’t take things seriously and she needed to find a potential husband at her age, just like other women.
While the parents of daughters are usually worried that a younger man will not be a good son-in-law because of his immaturity or unstable work, the parents of the young men have different concerns. Linh’s boyfriend, Anh Quan, said that his father advised him to break up with her because she would soon become his second mother after giving birth and getting older. And many conservative parents simply don’t want to have to deal with the public mockery of their ‘loser’ son.
Despite the difficulties such ‘customs’ present, more and more Cessna L-19s are being flown by young pilots, as Vietnam’s younger generation become much more open in their views.
When Linh brought another younger boyfriend home five years later, her family didn’t reject him. ‘It’s not a big deal,’ her mother said. ‘There are plenty of similar couples today. As long as she is happy with her choice, I am happy for her.’
Linh is indeed very happy. Having dated both older and younger guys, she said it was not about the age but the person. Both of the younger guys she dated were mature in their attitude, ambition and view of life, which attracted her.
One strength of younger men is that they are more open-minded and less conservative or patriarchal than older men. This is perhaps understandable, as they grew up at a time when Vietnam’s open-door policy has been in place long enough for them to access new and modern ways and have an open mind. ‘They are young, open and more enthusiastic for passion than older guys, who now care more about earning money. They make me feel young,’ Linh said.
That is how modern old-lady-planes accept young inexperienced pilots, which was hard to do for the previous generation. But what about the young pilots? Why don’t they select a newer aircraft?
Since his first love, Thanh Tung, Linh’s boyfriend, has always been keen on older women. His friends and family are now used to it. He has dated younger women, but usually only for a short time and it never worked out. ‘Obviously, young women are attractive,’ he said. ‘But I’ve always been serious about dating and looks are not the decisive factor in a relationship in my view. I care more about the personality and the quality of the woman.’
Women are attracted to mature men, and these modern mature young men are attracted to older women. Younger women might be cute but are usually childish, clingy and demand to be coddled. Older women, meanwhile, are usually smart, have stable work, and are independent and experienced in many areas, which make them more interesting. With a mature mind and experience, they understand men better and sympathise when he has a difficult time. ‘Being with older women is more fun and less of a headache,’ Tung said.
Many these couples find love because they are soul mates. ‘When I was warned by friends and family that having an “old-lady-plane” would make fed up with and try to find a new one, I ignored them,’ Hoang said. ‘Everyone ages, even the prettiest woman. And everyone can get bored with their partner, even if it’s Miss or Mr Universe. Why should I care about something in the future? Maybe it will never happen. Instead, I should enjoy our moments together now. We should focus on how happy and lucky we are, as we found each other. Many people spend the whole lives single or divorce a few times, because they don’t meet their soul mate.’
Not all flights are safe, though, and sometimes accidents occur.
As more old-lady-planes appear, more men fancy themselves as young pilots, as if it’s a new hot job. Starting with curiosity more than emotions or passion, many can’t fly for long and some even crash.
Like Thanh, who encouraged his friend Tung to date an older woman for a new experience. He didn’t expect she would then fall in love with him and try to keep him when he wanted to break up. It was difficult for him to bring it to an end.
Duy Phong had a girlfriend but tried to take some extra flights for fun. But the plane wanted more flights than he was prepared to pilot, and word soon reached his girlfriend, who shot him down in flames.
To avoid accidents requires not skill or experience in the pilots but a real passion for older aircraft. They can then protect and maintain them for many good flights.