IN almost every town in Cambodia one can find prostitutes. For a lot of Cambodians
there is a clear connection between prostitution and Vietnamese women. Estimates
on the percentage of Vietnamese among prostitutes in Cambodia vary widely, but usually
tend to exaggerate the number of Vietnamese prostitutes compared to the number of
It was not my objective to 'count' Vietnamese prostitutes, but to hear some of their
life histories. I talked with Vietnamese prostitutes in the brothel area of Svay
Pak, 11 km north of Phnom Penh, as well as in some provinces. The brothels in Svay
Pak had almost all Vietnamese girls working in the house.
They were between 17 and 21. They didn't want to go into prostitution, but were forced
by others or by poverty. Still all of them had hope and wishes for the future. In
their view, working as a prostitute was only temporary- they all wanted to go back
The stories of Vietnamese prostitutes in Cambodia usually do not begin in the brothels
or bars, but in Vietnam. Their stories helped me to understand their economic motivations,
and their undiminished hope for home.
One girl had just arrived at the brothel the day before. Her mother had offered her
to the brothel owner in exchange for a loan of $200. This young woman had been in
Cambodia for three years; this was her first day as a prostitute. She explained that
she was born in a poor family in Vietnam, the youngest of nine children. Her parents
had great difficulty earning money because they lacked land to crop. Three years
ago, she and her mother decided to come to Cambodia, engaging first in a small business,
selling food at the market.
It was there that she met a Vietnamese man who worked as a clock repairman. They
were married and had a baby soon afterwards. But her husband was not good to her,
she said; he didn't love her and she had a hard time living with him. Eight months
ago she decided to divorce, though this created financial difficulties for her and
her mother. They didn't have money to live on. Her mother decided that the baby should
go back to Vietnam to live with one of her sisters. While her mother was to bring
the baby to Vietnam with the money they borrowed from the owner of the brothel, the
daughter would work as a prostitute to repay the loan. But there would be some delay.
She could not start working yet, because she was breast-feeding her baby. Her breasts
still had milk.
This is not a unique story. For most girls, poverty is the main reason for becoming
a prostitute. Some of them were brought to a brothel by their own family. One brothel
owner explained that it is usually the mother who brings the girls to his brothel.
They make a contract which says how many months the girl has to work; this depends
on the amount of money he lends to the mother. The girls are required to work every
day until they have re-paid the loan. The only exceptions are for periods of menstruation;
then they work to clean the house.
The girls have little or no resentment at being sold by their families. As one said:
"My uncle and aunt [i.e. the brothel owners] told me I can help to build a new
house. They gave money to my family to build the new house and now I have to earn
it back. I need to work here for maybe six or seven months more and then I can go
Some women are tricked into prostitution, but an exchange of money is always involved,
and debt shapes the relationship between the brothel owner and the prostitutes.
A prostitute in Kratie came to Cambodia when she was 15, invited by a man she had
met in Vietnam. In Cambodia she would have a nice and happy time if she wanted to
go with him for a visit, he told her. After they arrived in Cambodia, he brought
her to a house in Svay Pak. She didn't know it was a brothel. He only said she had
to wait for him while he went inside to meet someone. She never saw him again. Later
she found out he had sold her to the brothel for three chi of gold ($US47).
But many girls do make their own decision to work as a prostitute. They did not want
to be prostitutes, rather being a prostitute offered them the only way, they said,
to find a solution to financial difficulties, the only possible way to them to earn
some money with which they can support their family in Vietnam.
Customers pay between 6,000 and 10,000 riel, depending on their wealth. The girls
usually receive one to three customers a day. One girl in Kratie said that in the
past she had two or three customers a day; now she sometimes had only one per month.
Usually the girls are required to pay half of the money they make to the brothel
owner for living in his/her house. The other half is used to pay back the debt, to
buy new clothes, make-up and medical services.
In some brothels the owner keeps all the money and maintains an account of all the
income and expenses of each girl at the end of the month. If a girl needs money to
buy something or to see a doctor, she has to borrow. In this way debts can get higher
and higher, while the brothel owner keeps control of all the money. The financial
dependence that results also makes it very difficult for the girls to go anywhere
outside the brothel. But fear is another reason that keeps these young women in the
Usually the girls don't go outside the brothel because they are not allowed to do
so. Some of the girls expressed their wish to visit the pagoda. Lack of money, absence
of a pagoda nearby and fear keeps them from leaving. One girl said she used to go
to the Catholic Church in Vietnam. She said that she learned about Jesus' life: "Jesus
doesn't allow people to be prostitutes. It is no good. Sometimes I go to church I
want to cry. Then I pray for forgiveness."
The girls say that they need to stay in the brothel to receive customers. One of
them said that even if she went to visit girls in other brothels, it could cause
her problems. Even if girls live near one another, they don't dare speak with each
other. If another girl runs away from a brothel and they are known to be friends,
accusations can result against the prostitutes who stay.
This happens more and more often. A few days before the interview two girls tried
to go out of a neighboring brothel. One girl said the brothel owner told her not
to go out, because Cambodian policemen could arrest or hit her. She had no identity
card or residential papers. If she stayed in the brothel, her brothel owner would
take care of her and protect her from the police. If she went out she would lose
Two months before I interviewed girls in Kratie, local police had organized a huge
raid against the brothels. One girl said that before the raid there were a lot of
Vietnamese prostitutes in the town, perhaps more than 100. The police came to the
bars and restaurants where they worked and asked them for their papers. All of the
Vietnamese prostitutes were arrested and sent to prison. Now the provincial governor
only allows Khmer girls to be prostitutes, not Vietnamese. She was afraid that the
police would come and arrest her like the other Vietnamese prostitutes.
Vietnamese women are often regarded as the tools which Vietnamese use to enter Cambodia.
This theme finds its roots in the history of a Vietnamese princess who was given
to a Khmer King in the seventeenth century in order to pursue Vietnamese encroachment
on Cambodian territory, and the theme recurs to the present. Prolong Cheat News (4/15-12-1995)
reported that Vietnamese girls could cross border posts easily because of their powers
of seduction. Kim (1993) describes how, according to him, Vietnamese prostitutes
intrude into Cambodian society. He said: "Our Khmer culture hates the problem
of prostitution", and continues: "The power of [the] flesh has poisoned
a number of Khmer youth who become very addicted that leads to many problems in society.
And slowly some Khmer women sell themselves. This disease for the society gives a
bad name to the Khmer women throughout the country." (Kim 1993)
Prasso (1995) states that prostitution is considered by Cambodians to be un-Khmer.
"The rationalization is, because all Khmer women are virtuous, all prostitutes
must be Vietnamese."
But there is a market for prostitution. CARE's report "Men are Gold, Women are
Cloth" discusses the importance of commercial sex workers (CSW's) for the sexual
pleasure of the Cambodian men. "Men visiting CSW's is a normal part of the culture
as... men cannot control their sexual desires, and require immediate gratification"
(Phan and Patterson 1994). According to Prasso (1995) "the majority of the Khmer
men now (in urban areas) have their first sexual experience with a prostitute."
But not only Khmer men, also Vietnamese, expatriates and tourists make use of prostitutes
in brothels, coffee shops, massage parlors or dancing places.
But Vietnamese girls find that private beliefs differ from attitudes shaped by public
fears of the intentions of Vietnam. Several of the girls said the Khmer men prefer
to have sex with a Vietnamese prostitute. Vietnamese girls are considered to be prettier
and more experienced than Khmer. However, as most of the Vietnamese girls don't speak
Khmer, or only very basic Khmer, communication with Khmer and foreign customers is
poor. One of the girls said that she didn't mind. She prefered to have Khmer customers
rather than Vietnamese, because Vietnamese always ask her a lot about her life. She
didn't want to tell them; she wanted to keep it in her heart, she said. Another girl
said Vietnamese customers were bad men. They told her they want to marry her, but
never came back. The Khmer customers only wanted to sleep with her and afterwards
Most of the women had relatives in Vietnam to go back to. Sometimes the families
of the girls knew about them working as a prostitute, but not all girls tell their
family about the kind of work that they do. One said: "I didn't tell my grandmother
I work as a prostitute now. If I tell her, she'll get angry with me, because since
her grandparents lived, there was no one in the family who worked as a prostitute
before. If she knows about me working as a prostitute... maybe she'll die because
Some of the girls told their relatives in Vietnam they sold coffee or did some small
business. Even in Cambodia they feel like they are looked down upon. One girl said
other people in town look at her "with those eyes as if they hate me and look
down on me."
The Vietnamese girls who work as prostitutes usually have a doubly hard life in Cambodia,
being both prostitutes and Vietnamese.
Of course this is not the only story of Vietnamese prostitutes. And there are lots
of Cambodian women with the same kind of background. But in daily life there seem
to be very limited relationships between the Vietnamese prostitutes and their Cambodian
counterparts. The restricted possibility of movement for prostitutes which are stuck
in a brothel, the language problem, and the whole image of the kind of work they
do, makes it difficult for Vietnamese prostitutes to get in contact with "real
The only way out of this trap is to work hard to earn money to set up some business
of their own and to fulfill the wish most of them have: to go back to Vietnam.