Thu is a sought after sugar momma, entrepreneur and lesbian who is well-known around a swanky expat neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City—Vietnam’s notorious Saigon. Though she’s only 26 and looks every bit her age—girlish cheeks and a dazzling smile—some call Thu, chị, a Vietnamese term that directly translates to “big sister.” In Thu’s case, it’s a sign of respect, and often reflects her role in relationships, the “older” more “stable” partner.
I’m here on a summer trip through Asia while at work on my first novel, house sitting for an American friend who has gone home for the summer. He introduced Thu and me on Facebook because, he said, “She’s got all the stories.”
When I meet her, Thu is wearing a grey straw hat, white tank top and baggy ripped jeans that altogether give her the appeal of Brad Pitt in Snatch, if only he were smaller, an Asian woman, and gay.
“You like Vietnamese coffee?” she asks from her place behind the bar. It’s an inside/outside foyer and it smells like coffee and rain. Thu doesn’t wait for my response. She pours cold coffee over ice and douses it with a healthy layer of cream.
Like Pitt’s character, Thu is covered in tattoos. One arm is painted with koi fish that swirl around at her elbow, swimming in an ocean of her brown skin. The other is adorned with a Japanese dragon. “They’re not done,” she says when I ask her about them later, the two of us sitting on rickety metal chairs in the front of her shop. “There’s still so much I want to do.” But Thu tells me that under no circumstances will she ever tattoo her back. “I have a beautiful back!” she exclaims.
Unlike Vietnamese women all over the country who hide from the sun, covering every inch of themselves in cloth and elaborate garments like sheets for skirts, full face masks and traditional conical hats because they want their skin to be as pale as possible, Thu isn’t concerned with the sun darkening her skin. She moves with a carefree vibe that seems to say: Bring it on.
She’s a business owner, and by 26, she’s already owned three: a coffee shop on wheels, a bar, and the brick and mortar coffee shop where we meet often. Thu is the only female friend I’ve met in Saigon and I come here a lot, to sit among this woman’s force. She’s welcoming, a feeling I’ve missed since leaving my country four months ago. She reminds me of some of the women I know back in America, business owners of the scrappy get-shit-done sort. My stepmother, one of the few female builders in Scottsdale, Arizona, raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be, and both my two sisters and I have become entrepreneurs of sorts. This is, I have grown to realize, a privilege we take for granted.
Thu’s first business, a coffee shop on wheels, was her introduction to business, a lesson in the dos and don’ts of Vietnam. She carted around the neighborhood peddling gourmet coffee at the curb much to the delight of the expats who live here. She learned early and fast that there was power in the paper these foreigners brought—the euro, pound, dollar. The business was co-owned by three people—Thu, her then-girlfriend, and an expat named Luis—and they split responsibility based on their skillsets. Thu’s girlfriend was good with numbers, so she took accounting, while Luis managed branding. He designed the logo and the look and feel of the cart they wheeled around. The day-to-day management and the personality of the business was Thu’s responsibility, not surprising when you meet her. She’s charming, with a disarming smile and deep set dimples. Expats nod to Thu as they enter the coffee shop—her current business—where we sit, some wave to her mother, who’s also well-known, though she doesn’t speak any English.
Thu tells me she built her first business from scratch, that although it was co-owned, the risk was always hers. It’s illegal to sell from the street in Vietnam, though Saigon is teeming with street vendors. This meant she had to move every few weeks, a seemingly easy task since it was on wheels, but one that hurt their client base. “You’re selling coffee,” Thu tells me, “If people don’t know where to find you at the same time every morning, they’ll go somewhere else.”
When the trio split, Thu gave Luis the business, knowing she’d open more. “Expats like to drink,” she said, “beer and coffee.” Not long later, she opened a bar and another coffee shop, establishments known around town as “gay.”
Saigon is progressive when it comes to LQBTQ expression, more so than many other parts of the country. It’s not uncommon to see gay couples around town, especially in certain areas, and Thu isn’t afraid to hold hands with her partner or kiss her in public. But even here, there’s a certain connotation that comes with this. One night when I suggest to a Vietnamese friend—a musician who’s been taking me to see live music around Saigon—that we go there for a drink, he looks at me and says, “Isn’t that … the gay place?” Nervously, he agrees, “But we don’t stay too long,” he says.
It’s monsoon season in Vietnam, and the rain falls in gusts, turning the sunlit streets to rivers. Storms are so short and sudden, motorists pull over to tuck their bikes and themselves beneath an awning or a tree. Moments later when the thunder has been carried off in the distance, and the sunlight returns, they pull away back on track. Saigon resumes its bustle. It’s not too different from how Saigonese live their lives despite the authoritarian government that overshadows them here, powerful and all present. Like the storms, the government comes barreling in at any moment bringing life in Saigon to a screeching halt (and especially here, where much of what happens is unacceptable, even illegal). But like the storms, it’s a brief pause. The moment they’re gone, life resumes. Flying beneath the radar until the next downpour.
Nevermind reputation, taxes are insane, Thu tells me, and even though many don’t pay them justly, she does. She tells me that in Vietnam, countless business owners run things illegally in an effort to prevent the government from skimming any desired amount of profit. But not Thu. “They decide what to charge,” Thu explains, “Whatever it is, I pay.”
“Why?” I ask her, “Why go along?”
“For the visas,” she says. Thu wants to travel. More specifically, she wants to go to France to see her new girlfriend, Lan. Lan is a French-Vietnamese graphic designer who spent several months in Vietnam recently. The two met on Tinder and fell in love, despite Thu’s being engaged at the time. The relationship already rocky, Thu broke off her engagement and began dating Lan. It’s been several months since they’ve seen each other, and she’s counting the days until they can be together again.
Visas are difficult to get because foreign governments are concerned that visitors (from particular countries) won’t leave once they arrive. Thu doesn’t have a husband or political connections to vouch for her. She keeps her business legal so the French government will see the commitments she has in Vietnam to come back to.
As she does with most of the women in her vicinity, Thu calls me “Honey.” Despite the fact that I’m nearly ten years her elder and tower something like two feet over her, and I’m straight to boot, I kind of like it. “Whatever you want, honey, I’m easy,” she says when I ask her to lunch. “Yes, honey, whatever you need,” she says when I ask if I can take her photograph. “You don’t pay for anything with me, honey,” she says at the club. Thu has an air about her, one that might be more suitable to a 6 foot rich older man rather than the 5 foot tiny little tattooed Vietnamese woman she is, but it suits her, and—I’ll soon learn—it’s deeper than meets the eye.
As it happens, I’m covered in tattoos, too. Vibrant green jungle trees and animals swirl around one arm and pink and orange tiger lilies dance up another. I’ve experienced first-hand the surprise and then occasional fade in someone’s eyes when they see me pull up a shirt sleeve or take off a jacket; and I’ve seen the opposite, a blazing interest. Thu says she smiles at strangers as a way to assure them that she’s not dangerous. In Vietnam, there’s a long history of gang affiliation when it comes to tattoos, in Saigon in particular. Gangsters get tattoos to show their loyalty and often, aggression. In certain parts of the country places like hotels and bathhouses don’t allow tattooed clientele for this very reason. But outside Saigon’s city limits, it’s increasingly rare to glimpse tattooed people, especially women.
Thu’s smile is so disarming it could flip the mood of any room. Her small teeth are slightly crooked and very white. Her two sweet dimples are so deep in each cheek, it’s as though they’re pierced. It’s off putting, this girlish smile attached to this badass woman.
Because of all the things I’ve long learned to associate with such a sweet, feminine smile—tenderness, kindness, maybe even simplicity, complicity—I’m not expecting it. But for Thu, this smile is her armor, and in a country where her very existence pushes against the grain, she’s learned to wield it whenever she needs at whoever she needs to.
Thu had her first real relationship when she was sixteen, the year she says she came out to her family, though she knew long before that she preferred the same sex. She and her girlfriend began doing what a lot of teenagers did, skipping class, and Thu was dangerously close to failing when her family figured out what was going on. Her mother, father, and 22-year-old brother cornered her in the family living room. A conversation that started about Thu’s grades gravitated toward her relationship with a woman. “Did you fuck her?” her brother asked, “Are you still fucking her?” His interrogation was personal, frightening, but Thu did not deny it. Her brother began beating her, slapping her face and head, leaving marks that would bruise for days.
It’s not uncommon for men to beat women in Vietnam, Thu tells me. Although it’s illegal, little is done to prevent it. Her father beat her mother, and her brother beat her. “I’d never hit anyone,” Thu insists, “I never lift an aggressive hand.” Thu knows what her brother did was wrong, but she didn’t report him. She worried she’d be taken to an orphanage before her brother would be punished for his actions. But she did fight back, in her own way. The family was in the middle of moving houses at the time. Her brother planned to move in with his new wife, while Thu and her mother and father were going to a new place. Over the next week, while the family packed, Thu plotted. She stole the family’s red book—a kind of registry the government provides each family that acts much like a birth certificate in securing work permits and drivers licenses, proof that the family exists in the government’s eyes—and fled. She moved in with her then-girlfriend, whose parents knew Thu’s situation and allowed her to stay.
A month went by when Thu finally answered her mother’s calls. She begged her to come home, and Thu relented. “Bring the family book,” her mother instructed. Without it, the family couldn’t do official business like register their names under their new address or travel. Red books have been in effect in Vietnam since the 1960s and during post-war time they were used for things like food rationing and job allocation. When Thu took her family’s, she needed it to find work, but today I wonder if there was something beneath that. As a gay woman, she’ll never have her own red book.
Thu tells me she lives in the present. She doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the past or fretting about the future. When I ask if this is cultural, she tells me it is, but not to all Vietnamese people. The North, historically the part of the country that supported the Communist party during the Vietnam War, plans for the future. Northerners get married young, save to buy houses, send their kids to college, while the South (the part of the country that fought alongside America for independence, and lost), is more concerned with today.
Today, Thu wants to travel. Everyone in the coffee shop is buzzing about it, the visa. They slap her on the back and ask, “France?” She shakes her head, smiles, and lights another cigarette. “Not yet!”
Thu and Lan are in an open relationship, a freedom she didn’t have in her previous relationship, and likely its downfall. “I can’t commit,” she tells me, though paying exorbitant business taxes, hiring a company to assist with a visa, shutting business down to travel to another country for weeks—these all seem like commitment to me. She loved her fiancée, she tells me, and the businesses they owned together. She kept trying to make it work. “But I kept having mistresses,” Thu says. Her current relationship seems especially important to Thu because Lan understands her need to be open. But while they’ve figured out how to overcome these challenges, their relationship introduces a bigger, more impossible feat—distance.
A few days later, I happen upon Thu mere moments after she’s talked with the visa assistance company. She’s been rejected. “I don’t give a fuck,” Thu tells me, tossing her phone onto the table in front of us. She pulls out a cigarette and tempestuously lights it, and I see a flash of the sixteen-year-old girl who ran away from home, her smile—a mask—stripped off.
“Of course you care,” I hear myself say. I morph instantly into the nanny, babysitter, big sister, aunt, mentor I’ve been for nearly twenty years. I see the pain behind the cigarette Thu uses to cover her face, its smell burning my nostrils. “Of course you do, honey,” I say again. It’s the only time in my countless interactions with Thu that I feel our roles switch, slipping into their more natural place of me the wiser elder, and she the struggling youth.
After she calms down, Thu tells me the government declined her application because they thought she might be a terrorist, a statement that astonishes me. The French government has obviously not seen Thu’s smile.
Days later, though, Thu explains that she was declined because the particular travel insurance she had selected wasn’t suitable according to the French. She’s an unmarried Vietnamese woman and she didn’t prove well or fully enough—despite paying large quantities of money, providing evidence of an owned business, and a welcome letter from a reputable contact in France willing to host her (Thu’s girlfriend’s father)—that she wasn’t a threat, either physically or financially. “That’s not the same thing as terrorist,” I say, but she says it was a “catch all,” at least, she thought it was. In the windy road of complicated French paperwork and back and forths with her visa assistance rep, it will take Thu a few days to sort out the truth—she needs better insurance.
As an American, visa trouble like this is virtually nonexistent for me. Most countries—like Vietnam and France—welcome me at the airport, offering me a visa upon arrival without so much as an application. I don’t need to purchase travel insurance—I usually don’t—and I don’t need to prove employment or marriage. The requirements for Americans to travel are minimal: a valid US passport, a fee.
Thu and her agent select another, more reputable travel insurance company, and reapply, paying the exorbitant fees again. Although she tells me if she gets declined this time, that’s it, her girlfriend will have to come here, I don’t believe her. She’s a woman who is used to standing up for herself. She’s accustomed to negotiating obstacles in order to live.
All afternoon, Thu is on and off her phone, receiving a constant stream of text messages. Expats—mostly men—stop by and pull up a chair beside her, patting her shoulder, slapping her on the back, or shaking her hand. All this while Thu sits beside her middle-aged-mother who jabbers away in Vietnamese non-stop. Some linger, long enough to smoke a cigarette, finish a coffee, and then most of them leave, replaced by others a few minutes, maybe an hour, later. Some brave, or perhaps reckless few light up and hang out all day.
In my country, albeit only in certain states and with a lot more restrictions, what Thu’s doing would be entirely legal. In Portland, Oregon where I live, I can walk into weed shops all over the city and place orders over the counter. If I lived in Denver, Colorado, I could order from a bar. Still, the fact that we’re in Vietnam is inescapable. Expats are discreet because they know the risks, for her. For the expats, getting caught would likely result in a fine, unwanted attention, but for Thu? They could take everything away, even her freedom.
Vietnamese cannabis laws are strict on paper, but in practice they’re harder to ascertain. Vietnam still has the death penalty for drug affiliation, but I’m told this is specific to narcotics, that weed is a lighter sentence. Unsurprisingly, weed laws are rarely enforced, especially with foreigners. Throughout Saigon, cannabis wafts through the streets. Ask a few locals and you’ll quickly discover where to purchase it. In light of that, what Thu is doing isn’t that wild. She’s doing what it seems like a lot of Vietnamese are doing, figuring out how to operate—and thrive—within the confines of an all present government.
Many neighborhoods in Saigon feel kind of like little nooks where everyone is doing just that—flying below the radar—expats and locals alike. Although there’s a strict helmet law in Vietnam, those zipping around within the district’s limits do so with their heads bare. They know where and when the traffic police operate and they steer clear of them. The moment they hit the freeway, those helmets are strapped on tight. It’s a little like the Wild West. As long as you don’t catch the attention of the local authorities, life passes rather normally, within a ten-mile radius.
Thu doesn’t seem worried about the fact that she’ll never marry or have a relationship recognized in any legal way here. She’s not an activist. And why would she be? It’s hard to worry about certain freedoms when there are more concerning things happening. A bar manager nearby tells me the government recently imprisoned a 16-year-old for reporting on his Facebook page about a chemical spill that damaged 200 miles of the coastline. Of course, I can neither confirm or refute his claim, but in 2019, Human Rights Watch estimated over 30 Vietnamese activists were sentenced to life in prison for exercising their opinions, as stated in the World Report 2020.
“The Vietnamese newspaper is a joke,” the bar manager tells me. He’s a Kiwi expat who’s been living here for 15 years, the last two of which have been in this neighborhood he calls a haven. “Life is different here,” he says. “The rest of Vietnam—it’s another story.” It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s going on anywhere in Vietnam. The paper is full of half-written stories that are so obviously propaganda they’re humorous. According to the press, nothing is happening here, and most around this neighborhood act like it. In a country where dissidents disappear, nobody protests. Easier to be inconspicuous, to remain free, alive.
The businesses Thu owned with her ex-fiancée had to be under one name, either hers or her ex’s, and the other took a leap of faith. Everything in their partner’s hands. The only way to have two names on a business license is if the two people are married, or if the two create a larger corporation which is extremely difficult, a far cry from how easy Thu made opening a business sound. Two women owning a business together, or two men for that matter, isn’t allowed. Similarly, two people of the same sex aren’t permitted to rent a one-bedroom apartment. The landlords would just turn them away, Thu tells me. The country’s laws are enforced socially.
Still, things are changing. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have encountered a woman like Thu, openly gay, covered in tattoos, even in Saigon. Back then, women with tattoos were associated with gangsters, but more like property than gangsters themselves. The tattoos were like brands, marked by their pimps. Thu’s sleeves carry a different message today. They remind me of a line from a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins I used to love as a girl: Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
Thu stands in the open-air entrance to her coffee shop, beaming as I say goodbye from the seat of my rented motorbike. My summer in Saigon has come to an end, and I’m headed back to America. “See you in another life, honey!” she says, smiling ear to ear, her blue hipster baseball cap cocked slightly to the right. In a month she’ll get approved for her visa and she’ll go to France where she and Lan will travel like tourists for several blissful weeks, clinging to each other everywhere they go, kissing beneath a cherry blossom tree.
Thu’s life is evidence that times are changing, here and everywhere, though real freedom for a Vietnamese woman like her is still a long way off. As I make my way back to my country—where the freedoms are immense compared to Vietnam, and yet, still so limiting—I think that real freedom for all women is in our pursuit of happiness despite it all. In being ourselves, just like Thu.
Names and other identifying details have been changed in this piece
Kristina Tate is a writer and traveler based in Portland, Oregon. She has lived in Arizona, San Francisco, South Lake Tahoe, New York City, Australia and elsewhere. Her work has appeared in Narratively, Guernica, BOMB and others. She is currently working on a memoir and a novel.