Why you should care

Because in Vietnam, times are a-changin’.

In Hanoi’s old quarter some streets are still named after the product traditionally peddled there: Hang Giay (Paper Street), Hang Luoc (Comb Street), Hang Non (Hat Street), Lo Su (Coffin Street).

It’s only fitting, then, that a candy shop down Hang Chieu (Mattress Street) is also quietly selling sex toys — a product gaining popularity in this socially conservative country.

Sex accessories occupy a legal gray area in Vietnam, but if brought blinking into the bright light of day, they would likely be classified as illegal, which is currently the status of pornography in the country. Nevertheless, the market is booming here, as it is in Cambodia, Taiwan and a few other Southeast Asian countries. Driving the trend is a combination of online advertising and changing views on sexuality, according to businesses and experts consulted by OZY.

Advertising on social media enables buyers and sellers of sex toys to connect more easily — and anonymously.

It’s a tip on a Facebook page for expats and Vietnamese women seeking romantic advice that leads me to the candy shop on Mattress Street, which turns out to be one of several underground sex toy emporiums that have sprung up in the city. Barely 10 feet deep for customers, the shop is stocked with multicolored bags of Vietnamese gum and sweets.

A brief mention to the woman at the counter about a gift for a girlfriend prompts her to show me a display case in the back with a sliding door like a parent’s liquor cabinet, except this one is filled with vibrators. The counter lady notes that it’s a popular product line on Mattress Street. For a different selection, she says, go down the block and look for an old woman sitting on a stool. Show her a picture of a sex toy you fancy and watch her disappear into the alley and return with something that might interest you.

A distributor I’ll call Eu sells sex toys to the candy shop and claims he has worked in the business for seven years. He used to own a condom shop with toys in the back that attracted visitors from Japan and the U.S. “It had potential,” Eu says.

But he had trouble getting the word out about the backroom business, so he was forced to close. A few years later, he created a Facebook page and began to advertise there and on message boards — surprise, surprise, business boomed. “Now I can sustain myself and no longer need another job,” Eu says. But he’s had to adjust to sharing. Ten years ago, there were only a few shops peddling what he sells; today, there are too many to count. “The competition was inevitable,” he says.

Another Facebook page takes me to a Korean barbecue joint on a leafy boulevard near a university. Fortunately, the page included a phone number, so there’s no need to converse with the restaurant staff. I call the number, and a minute later, a young Vietnamese man emerges from the restaurant wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt with holes in it. Looking and acting very much like a laid-back college student, he introduces himself as Nguyen Mạnh Cuong and leads me to the back of the restaurant. We rattle up a few floors in a tiny elevator that takes us to a sparsely furnished apartment. Along one wall is a row of computers and boxes of sex paraphernalia: condoms, lubes, fleshlights, vibrators and what looks like a blow-up doll still wrapped in plastic.

Cuong explains the situation. Three years ago, when he got into the sex toy game, there were maybe five competitors in Hanoi. Now, many more — too many for him to count. Like Eu, his customers include all kinds of people: young and old, men and women. And, like Eu, he has seen an increase in sales since starting his business. Demand has always been there, Cuong thinks. It’s just that advertising on social media, as he does, enables buyers and sellers of sex toys to connect more easily — and anonymously.

Dr. Mai Do has spent much of her academic career studying the sexuality of Vietnam, especially premarital sex. A professor of global community health and behavioral sciences at Tulane University in New Orleans, Do confirms that attitudes toward sex are changing in formerly straight-laced Vietnam. People are getting married later and dating is more common among the young, especially in cities and most especially in the relatively more liberal southern capital of Ho Chi Minh City, where a sex toy market also exists. “But it doesn’t seem to have changed as fast as you’d imagine,” she notes. At least not as fast as places like Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong, which recently held a huge sex toy trade show. And there’s the usual double standard at play in Vietnam: Male attitudes toward sex may be loosening up, but grooms still expect brides to be virgins, according to Do’s research.

Maybe so, but some guys are getting woke. Six years ago, a wife and mother I’ll call Ha was surprised when her husband gave her a vibrator. Ha enjoyed the thoughtful gift so much that she started purchasing other sex toys, including a dildo from an outfit that delivered it to her in person at a café near her house. “More people are talking about sex nowadays, thanks to the internet,” says Ha, who frequently discusses the topic online with friends and members of a forum — conversations that would never happen with strangers.

A lot of Ha’s friends have purchased sex toys — she’s even recommended some shops to them. In the future, she hopes to meet others interested in exploring this side of sexuality. She might even meet them in person.

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