Thien Ba Lam, nicknamed ‘Fo’, is a school teacher from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. I sat down on Skype to talk to him about his experiences using Grindr, and what role it plays in the lives of gay men in the buzzing, motor-bike filled city.
How big is Grindr in Vietnam?
It’s huge. Every single gay person has Grindr on their phone.
Why is it so big in Vietnamese society?
Well, we don’t have a lot of places to go to meet other gay people. I hate bars and nightclubs, so we need another medium for meeting which is gay apps. Among all these gay apps, Grindr is the most popular.
What kind of impact may Grindr have for a Vietnamese gay person whose family may not accept their sexuality?
For me it’s a way of trying to get close to people who are in the same situations as you. Not many people are open-minded about homosexuality, so a lot of people here who are gay think that they have to hide.
I don’t necessarily think Grindr is putting a positive impact on the gay community here considering the purpose of those who use it.
What do you mean it’s not positive?
Well I don’t know about Grindr in other countries or cities but in Saigon one out of five people on Grindr are involved in what they call here ‘high fun’. It is where they use meth and other drugs while having sex. For me that will never be okay because that is one of the most dangerous things here.
Another thing is that people who use Grindr as a way to find hookups. They are still trying to hide the fact that they are gay so that is one of the ways for them to express their own nature. Lots of them actually have wives and kids so I don’t think it’s a positive thing.
What is it about Vietnamese society that makes it hard for a gay man to come out?
First and foremost it is an Asian country and it’s a thing that men have to be the role model and the backbone of the family. So men cannot be weak. And you know being homosexual is a sign of being weak because it has a lot to do with femininity.
Most gay guys here are totally feminine. Some of them look very effeminate, so it’s very hard for people in Saigon to accept that gay people are still men. They have a very strong thought that gay people are on the way from changing their gender from male to female. And that’s how we’re misunderstood.
Do you think Grindr has had any positive impact on the community?
I think initially when these gay apps were created they came from a good place. They were created to lead communication among gay men.
But it still depends on the society and the time.
Gay guys in the closet here don’t necessarily think that true romance, like real dating and having a family, is something they can have with other gay people. I don’t necessarily think they use Grindr to make friends. They only look for each other when it means sex.
When I was in Vietnam there was an almost man/woman role that people took in relationships. Can you tell me more about that?
So here in Saigon and some other Southeast Asian countries, the person who looks more masculine is considered ‘top’ and the ‘husband’ of the two. The more feminine one who most of the time is the ‘bottom’ is considered the ‘wife’.
Here in Vietnam, because of our Oriental background, we want hierarchy.
The husband is the person who controls the family. You can’t have two men in the family unless they are father and son or brothers, so if two people like each other romantically one has to be the husband and one has to be the wife according to the traditional family in Vietnam.
Do you feel that that limits people or is part of the culture?
I honestly don’t agree with that. I think it’s very insulting because let’s say if you look feminine you have to be a wife. Unless you want to – I wouldn’t interfere in anybody’s choices – nobody can force you to be the wife. You were born with male anatomy. Why do you have to be in a girl’s role?
Secondly, being a wife in a traditional Asian family, you are inferior to your husband.
So there’s a sense of inequality in the relationship?
Exactly. There’s not much of equality there. Maybe when they’re together alone something else would change, but in public most of the time the bottom, or the wife, has to follow the top.
Foreigners and Grindr. How is it when foreigners appear on Grindr to local guys?
Okay. I cannot hold back, I’m just gonna lay everything on they table.
There can be a white man who comes to Saigon to visit or for work and when they look on Grindr they will look for something that is not permanent.
So Vietnamese gay men who don’t want a relationship would want money or more passionate sex, because they think white men have bigger penises that would satisfy them more.
But then there are people who have more of a plan.
To them it doesn’t matter what that foreign person looks like as long as they have citizenship in a country like Canada, Australia, The States. They would follow that person and try to be with that person so that they could go to the other country.
Some gay people are like that here – they try to catch any opportunity that they have.
White men who come here always think that gay men in Saigon come after them for money or a greencard.
What have your experiences been like?
I’m fortunate enough to speak English well, so when I approach a foreigner on Grindr I would say five out of ten of them always ask me this question:
“Are you after me for money or are you after me for a greencard?”
I always get offended by that.
I understand that they have to be extra careful. Asian men always think foreigners come here for younger hotter guys who they can stay with forever. But in contrast foreigners come here to look for something temporary.
How do you think it is for young gay people growing up in Saigon?
Here’s the thing. A lot of gay Vietnamese men are a lot more successful than straight men in Saigon. I think it comes from the fact that we were the underdogs when we were younger, and we could not date girls because that would make us vomit –
I’m sorry but I’m being honest, I can’t hold back anymore.
We can’t date guys because that would totally tarnish our family’s reputation here. So we have to focus on studying, getting a job, something that if we can achieve it we will be able to make people say “hey, you’re so useful even though you’re gay.”
Growing up, I was very confident knowing who I was but I’ve seen so many of my friends trying to hide the fact they were gay by trying so hard doing so many incredible things. And from that they became so popular that they came out.
How have your experiences been being openly gay?
Nobody can say anything because I would actually come back at them.
I think it’s about how much you know that you’re a good person.
It’s all about belief.
If you know you’re a good person you just have it, and you don’t let anybody step all over you.
You can listen to my full skype interview with Fo below: