Published February 17, 2017 in Episode 66
It’s February, and in the spirit of romance, I wanted to talk about dating and flirting culture in Việt Nam. However, as a preface, I confess this is NOT my wheelhouse. Reporting on food is great. But flirting and dating? Not so much.
"Chào cưng. Anh đẹp trai ơi đi cà phê không?"
“Hello, cutie. Would this handsome fella like some coffee?”
Clearly, I need some help. I’m out of my depth, So I went and asked someone who knows the scene a little better: Hoàng Giang Sơn.
“I’m Hoàng Giang Sơn. I’m currently working as a communication assistant for a local NGO that promotes human rights.”
Aside from his non-profit expertise, 22-year-old Sơn is a keen observer of couple culture in his hometown, Hà Nội.
Sơn says: “It’s very funny, because I have never thought of that [question] before you asked me, because it just happens naturally. In Hà Nội I think that people are more and more open to express[ing] their feelings in public areas, like people holding hands. People kiss on the cheek, not really the French kiss, but like the kiss on the cheek, on the street. People hugging each other, yeah, it seems very natural, and people are not reserved doing that.”
Việt Nam is known for being more conservative in terms of PDA, but Sơn says it has gotten more open in the last three to five years, with all sorts of couples being openly romantic.
But one can’t be romantic unless one has someone to be romantic with. So, how do young Vietnamese people meet to date in the first place? Like everywhere else, one of the ways is with a mobile app.
Sơn says: “It’s so funny, apps. I think that the number of people using dating apps in Việt Nam is increasing rapidly in [the] past few years. I don’t know if this is common, but we always want to meet quality people, right? We want to meet quality people only.”
Using apps is pretty common because of the quality controls people can have over their choices. People have high standards, so it’s a way to filter your choices. If that doesn’t work, there’s always the second way, which is the old fashioned ask-a-friend.
“The second way is, Vietnamese people love referring people. Like, okay I hang out with you and then, you know a very cute friend, and they refer. A referral is another way which is very popular also, which is safer. Those are the two most popular ways,” Sơn tells me.
And when you do finally land a date, where do you go? Turns out, dinner and movie is super common, as is karaoke or going to a coffee shop to chat. But Sơn has noticed a new trend for young people lately too: meeting up in a more pretty setting.
“I recently noticed that the young people tend to go to some very exotic places in Hà Nội [on] a date. They just find a cool private place and they go there and talk. For example, it can be a garden, it can be the top floor of some very tall buildings in Hà Nội. It can be the bridge, because there’s a new very fancy bridge in Hà Nội that has a very good view, and people can go there and date as well.”
"Anh ơi anh đi đâu thế?"
"Honey, where are you going?"
Let’s say you’ve used an app or asked a friend and landed a date. And you’ve even found a great place to go. Maybe you’re even onto a second date. But what do you call your date?
The answer might be a bit complicated. Many languages, including English, don’t have major kinship terms when addressing one another. Vietnamese does, which makes talking more nuanced.
For example: I'm older than my friend Kevin, so I technically should be called “chị,” the term for elder female, and he would be “em,” the unisex term for whoever is younger. But Kevin is actually my boyfriend, so instead, due to Vietnamese patriarchal tradition, I am em and he is anh, which normally refers to elder males. He’s not older. Just... male.
And apparently it’s even more confusing for queer couples.
Sơn tells me, “For example, a gay couple, a lot of gay couples they also they set roles...like the wife roles, the husband roles. A lot of them do that, and I don’t know why? So the husband role will be anh, and the woman role will be em, and I don’t know why they have to to like, follow the same roles as like het[erosexual] couples. Which is so weird. And obviously the guy as a husband role [will] have more power than the one who has the wife role, and they can be the decision maker.”
There seems to be an implied power hierarchy in pronouns that match up with traditional gender roles in the country. The implication that the male honorific automatically has more power isn’t lost on Sơn.
“In hetero[sexual] couples, for example, the girl is older than the guy, but the girl will still call the guy anh. Because... I don’t know, I’ve always questioned my friend [about] that. I mean, why do you have to follow the same old rule that only applies to heterosexual couples? We’re LGBT. It’s so diverse, and we don’t need the rules anymore. Why not call each other by names or whatever we want? Why care about the rules?”
It’s true that language can subtly inform our experiences and biases sometimes. Gender stereotypes are still prevalent in Việt Nam, and perhaps one of the ways it manifests is the playbook or pickup strategies that still play out for chasing dates. Sơn explained a concept I didn’t know about – cua con gái or cua con trai:
“Yeah, how to get that girl, or get that boy. That is the channel of how we do that. If people use the word ‘cua’, then people will be more specific, like what would I use to say, what actions are you going to make? When two guys are talking to each other and they say, ‘So yesterday I just flirted with some girl.’ When we talk about cua gái, then he’ll be very very specific, like what he did or what strategy he used, not just by the channel.”
That is some valuable pickup artistry. Thanks Sơn.
Anyway. That’s enough learning for me. I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve got a bit more game now