Prostitution in Colonial Hanoi (1885–1954)

In: Selling Sex in the City: A Global History of Prostitution, 1600s-2000s
Isabelle Tracol-Huynh
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The celebration of the millennial anniversary of Hanoi in 2010 reminds us that this city has a very long history. 1 In 1010, the emperor Lý Thái Tổ moved his capital to the Đại La Citadel 2 and Hanoi was officially born, albeit with the name Thăng Long. 3 It remain the capital until 1802, when the Nguyễn dynasty moved it to Hué. Even though Hanoi was an important city and prostitution was not a colonial invention in Vietnam, studying the precolonial period is difficult because sources are quite scarce. In addition, the available sources do not explicitly mention prostitutes but generally discuss songstresses and courtesans. One of the most famous Vietnamese novels, Kim Vân Kiều, was written at the turn of the nineteenth century, well before the beginning of French colonization, and its heroine is a courtesan. 4 The words “prostitution”, “prostitute”, and “brothel” do not occur in this long poem; rather, Kiều was a ca nhi, a courtesan, trapped in a lầu xanh, a green house. 5 Yet, the sexual and venal dimension was quite present in her life: “Birds flocked the branch, wind stirred the leaves—she’d speed / some beau at dawn, wait for some spark at dusk / […] poor body bees and butterflies gorged on.” 6 Courtesans were the elite of prostitutes and the prostitutes of the elite, but they were still viewed as prostitutes. They were morally condemned and relegated to life outside the city. In Hanoi, songstresses lived in Thái Hà district, which is on the southern outskirts of the city. 7

The same ambiguous distinction between courtesans, songstresses, and prostitutes can be found in Vietnamese imperial law. Article 340 of Gia Long’s Code, which was enacted in 1812, referred to both prostitutes and songstresses. 8 It did not, however, make a clear distinction between those professions. The attitude of the authorities towards prostitution was ambiguous as well. Article 340, and in particular the notes and comments of the legislator, mentioned prostitution as a social category, and yet the same article forbade civil and military servants from interacting with prostitutes and songstresses. Further complicating the issue was article 332, which prohibited prostitution as well as other illicit sexual relations, such as extra-marital sex and homosexual relations. 9 It should be noted that since China was the suzerain of Vietnam until 1885, Vietnamese law reproduced a Chinese law; Gia Long’s Code was based on Qing’s Code, which tried to moralize Chinese society by condemning all illicit sexual relations, and after 1723, “the legal space for tolerated sex work entirely disappeared.” 10 The same process occurred in Vietnam after 1812, but there was a discrepancy between the law, its application, and reality. In his comment on the Vietnamese law, Philastre stated that “legislators condemned the principle but did not try to punish the fact itself, because they may have considered that to be impossible.” 11

The colonial period was a turning point in the history of prostitution in Vietnam because it was no longer forbidden but authorized and regulated. In colonial Hanoi (1885–1954), the regulation of prostitution was a concern starting from the establishment of the Hanoi municipality until the end of French rule. 12 Physicians, police, and administrators tried to control the world of prostitution because Hanoi had a significant European population as well as troops, and the authorities were concerned about protecting them from venereal diseases. The regulation of prostitution was also implemented to protect morality and, as the city was the capital of Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and of the whole of French Indochina, authorities believed that Hanoi should be a “perfect” colonial city and an example of French colonial success. Colonial authorities used several means such as architecture, hygiene, science, and education to control the population by setting up a process of dressage (breaking in) of souls and bodies, which included the regulation of prostitution. 13

The mission of the municipality was difficult because Hanoi had a unique administrative status. Although it was the capital of the French protectorate, it was not part of the protectorate itself because the city had been granted to France by the Vietnamese emperor in 1888. Hanoi was therefore a French enclave where French law applied, and it was surrounded by the Tonkin protectorate where Vietnamese law still held sway. As it has been noted, “Hanoi’s borders are not just municipal; they are national frontiers.” 14 This situation had consequences for the administration of prostitution. Regulation in Hanoi did not apply outside the city limits and the vice squad police had no authority over suburban areas and the many prostitutes who lived and worked there. It was noted that “a dozen clandestine prostitutes and prostitutes running from the vice squad police are working in a furnished room located right outside the city limit. They scoff at the police since they are protected by the city post which is as powerful as the China border post.” 15 This complex situation lasted until 1943, when the Special Division of Hanoi was created with the aim of controlling prostitution, both inside and outside municipal limits. However, even after 1943, the problem still remained since this inclusion only drove houses of prostitution further away.

The transformation of prostitution during French colonization explains how, for some authors, prostitution was a colonial invention. One of Dr Coppin’s former students (Dr Coppin was the director of the municipal clinic of Hanoi where prostitutes were examined) stated that venereal diseases and prostitution had been brought to Vietnam by the French, and he argued that “before the conquest, they did not exist.” 16 Dr Dang Van Chin, the director of the municipal clinic of Saigon in the 1940s and ‘50s, corroborated this idea when he wrote that prostitution had existed in Vietnam for just a century, referring to the beginning of French colonization. 17 The same stance can be seen in some contemporary researchers’ work. According to Ngô Vĩnh Long, “prostitution in Vietnam was a nineteenth century phenomenon born out of the impacts of colonialism, imperialism, and war.” 18 Although prostitution did exist before French colonization, it is true that because of all the changes that occurred, colonial prostitution radically differed from the precolonial one. 19 In the 1880s in Hanoi, the setting up of the French municipality and the regulation of prostitution marked the beginning of a new era for sold sex, which drew to a close in 1954. After this date, prostitution was strictly forbidden by the Communist Party in North Vietnam, and prostitutes were sent to re-education camps. Nowadays, prostitution remains illegal in Vietnam, but it exists nonetheless. Unfortunately, there is no literature on prostitution in contemporary Hanoi, and the few studies that exist focus mostly on Ho Chi Minh City and more precisely on post-Đổi Mới Ho Chi Minh. 20 This period is seen as a major turning point in Vietnamese history, especially for gender studies, because there were numerous changes which impacted women’s place in society. In these studies, the private, political, and economic spheres are linked together to explore the new governance of the Vietnamese state in the global economy: 21 “The role of the state and the politics of đổi mới or reform are thus gendered projects and the đổi mới state uses constructions of gender as a form of state power.” 22

This focus on the colonial period is related to the global coherence of the era and the lack of sources and information for the pre- and postcolonial eras. There is a fairly significant amount of archival material about prostitution in Hanoi during the period of colonization since the city was the seat of several administrations, not just the municipality but also the Résidence supérieure au Tonkin (the government of Tonkin) and the Résidence générale de l’Indochine (the government of Indochina). There were medical associations as well, such as the Medical Society of Indochina and the Prophylactic League of Hanoi. However, the materials available are quite fragmentary because the majority of documents, for example the vice squad police reports and medical texts, have not been preserved at the archives. 23 In short, the existing sources are by no means exhaustive. While it may be easier to obtain information about the regulation of prostitution or about venereal diseases, it is more difficult to find out about prostitutes’ lives or glean information about the brothels since the colonial authorities, whether medical, police or administrative, did not pay much attention to such subjects. Their main, if not only, concern was medical; although the most detailed report about prostitution in Hanoi provides a wealth of information about the various kinds of houses of prostitution (brothels, songstresses’ houses, maisons de rendez-vous, etc., along with their addresses) and the names and amounts of drugs used to treat prostitutes’ diseases, there is no information about their ages or social backgrounds, for example. 24 The available sources are also biased because they are largely univocal; French men wrote about Vietnamese women with all their incumbent stereotypes about their race and sex. In the 1930s, however, some Vietnamese journalists took interest in the issue of prostitution in Hanoi. 25 These works provide an abundance of information about prostitutes’ lives, but still, they were not written by the prostitutes themselves. The journalists were men and they likely had their own agendas when they wrote news stories about prostitutes. In these articles, prostitutes tend to become the object of a discourse that overtakes them in the sense that the stories were used to denounce either the women’s living conditions, the danger that venereal diseases posed for society, or the occidentalization of Vietnamese society. 26 Because of the nature of these fragmentary and biased sources, some aspects of the world of prostitution will not be covered in this article.

A Complex Definition of Prostitution

In metropolitan France and in the French empire, prostitution was neither a crime nor an offence, unlike soliciting and procuring. The authorities perceived it to be something immoral but inevitable because they believed that men could not remain chaste, especially when they were soldiers: “Are the colonial troops chaste? It may be a good title for a novel, but this question is too ridiculous to even think about seriously.” 27 Prostitution was therefore accepted as a natural outlet for masculine needs, but only if strictly regulated. For the authorities, prostitution was a better solution than concubinage, which “was replaced by more restricted sexual access in the politically safe (but medically unsatisfactory) context of prostitution, and, where possible, in the more desirable setting of marriage between ‘full-blooded’ Europeans.” 28 The French regulatory system was therefore exported to Vietnam in the early years of the colonial period. The protectorate of Tonkin was officially created in 1885, and, in the same year, the Military Commandment and the Military Health Services laid the foundations of the first prophylactic campaign. The French military authorities were concerned about the physical health of the troops and about the conservation of manpower, since the tropical climate had already taken a toll on their military forces. The first civil regulation regarding prostitution was adopted in 1886 in Haiphong and Hanoi. After this date, the mayors of Hanoi issued several decrees with the aim of improving the regulation of prostitution, and sold sex was still regulated in the 1950s, even after the replacement of the French municipality by a Vietnamese system in 1949. 29 The decree issued in 1951 was a translation of the one enacted in 1915 by the French authorities.

In the first decrees, there was no precise definition of prostitution, as if the authorities believed it to be sufficiently obvious. 30 The 1906 decree mentioned women who were “notoriously known for being prostitutes” without explaining what that meant exactly. 31 The 1907 decree was more precise and, even though it did not provide a clear definition of prostitution, it gave some criteria: A woman was deemed to be a prostitute if she often spent time with other prostitutes, frequented brothels, breached moral standards by soliciting on the streets, if she was diagnosed with a venereal disease, or invited various men into her house. 32 Later, a prostitute was defined as “a woman who exchanged her own body for money to all and sundry without choice.” 33 One issue, however, was clear; even in the first succinct decrees, in the authorities’ eyes prostitutes were women and women only. 34 However, male prostitution did exist in Hanoi and in Vietnam in general, but it was not regulated even though homosexuality was no longer specified as a crime in France after 1791. 35 In Hanoi, male prostitution existed in clandestine brothels which were referred to as maisons de boys. 36 Despite their well-known existence, male prostitutes were not included in the regulation of prostitution because it went against accepted gender roles in the world of prostitution; prostitutes were thought only to be women, while men were conceptualized as clients by the authorities in charge of the police and members of medical committees of regulation. The discourse about male prostitution in colonial Tonkin was therefore highly moralizing; male prostitution, as well as homosexuality in general, was described as an “unnatural and despicable vice”. 37 In parallel with this discourse, justifications were made which asserted that European men were “corrupted” by “depraved” Vietnamese boys, opium, the tropical climate, and so on. 38 The main goal was to protect the virile image of the European colonizers and, therefore, colonization itself.

Prostitution was defined as an exchange between a woman and a man in which the man paid money for the sexual services provided by a woman, but prostitution was certainly not limited to this legal definition. There were many situations prostitutionnelles, and male prostitution was one of them. In her study of prostitution in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City, Kimberly Kay Hoang writes that “women [can] offer a variety of services that go beyond sex, in return for various forms of payment beyond money.” 39 This analysis was valid for the colonial period as well, and the French authorities were well aware of the issue. They thus tried to apply the regulation of prostitution to other categories of women, such as songstresses and the concubines of Europeans, as though they were trying to control all women who were in contact with Europeans. Nevertheless, they failed in this attempt and Europeans’ concubines, taxi-girls, and songstresses were not officially treated like prostitutes in Hanoi. The taxi-girls and the songstresses had their own regulation which clearly distinguished them from prostitutes. One of this decree’s articles stated that “prostitution is strictly forbidden at bar-dancing and songstresses houses.” 40

In this way, the boundaries between prostitutes, taxi-girls and songstresses were more ambiguous, as shown by the example of songstresses. 41 Originally, songstress houses were not brothels but places where men listened to traditional Chinese music. 42 In the 1920s, these houses began to evolve into regular brothels and the sexual aspect of the relations between prostitutes and their clients tended to prevail, if not become exclusive. This evolution was deeply regretted by some Vietnamese journalists, one of whom noted, “Nowadays, in a century where materialism prevails, songstresses who claim to respect the honourable manners of Ng-Công-Tru and Yên-Dô’s times are nothing but truly established prostitutes.” 43 Songstresses were an issue for the French colonial authorities in the whole of Tonkin. 44 The authorities tried to subject them to regulation, but they were unsuccessful because songstresses did not fall within the scope of the juridical definition of a prostitute. 45 In 1944, the mayor of Hanoi ordered the police to raid songstress houses and arrest the women working there, with the aim of taking them to the dispensary. After the raids, an arrangement was made; the police would no longer raid songstress houses and the owners would rent a quiet place where their employees would undergo medical examinations. These examinations were part of the regulation of prostitution and therefore a tacit indicator that songstresses were, in fact, prostitutes. The resident superior in Tonkin approved this arrangement but pointed out that “the measures are difficult to reconcile with the 22 May 1939 decree which forbids prostitution in songstress houses and is still in force […]. This experience should therefore remain unofficial.” 46

An Ineffective yet Long-lasting Regulation

Officially, prostitution was strictly regulated. The main aspects of the regulation of prostitution were the registration of every prostitute with the vice squad police, a weekly medical examination the results of which had to be noted on the prostitutes’ cards, the automatic confinement of diseased prostitutes at the municipal dispensary or in hospitals, the compulsory placement of a washbasin, soap, and prophylactic products in brothels, a permit had to be issued by the district authorities when brothels were opened, and the taxation of brothels. The first decrees were accompanied by the creation of a vice squad and a dispensary, the two indispensable tools for establishing a regulatory system along French lines. In 1886, prostitution was regulated in Hanoi, and archival documentation indicates that in March of 1888 for the first time there was a municipal clinic for prostitutes, and in December of 1888, a vice squad was created. 47 The police were in charge of implementation of the law, as “all prostitutes [had] to register with the vice squad police.” 48 After registration, each prostitute was provided with a card which included her photograph and a physical description of her, and she had to show it to policemen whenever they requested to see it. 49 When she registered with the police, she also had to provide information such as her name, age, place of birth, last address, last occupation, and, more importantly, the address of the brothel in which she would work. 50

Prostitutes’ lives were, in theory, under the constant surveillance of policemen and physicians. In practice, however, regulation failed due to the discrepancy between the regulations and the actual extent of state power. The vice squad was never given the necessary resources to enforce the regulation; in 1912, there was only one policeman responsible for registering prostitutes, guarding the dispensary, watching over the nurses, and so on. He was also charged with finding clandestine prostitutes and brothels throughout the whole city, which meant that he had to do eighty kilometres of rounds on foot, since he had no vehicle at his disposal. 51 The vice squad also lacked the means to keep tabs on all the prostitutes and brothels. In the 1930s, attempts were made to rectify this situation, and the number of police on the vice squad was increased fivefold, but these agents were still unable to monitor the 3,000 to 5,000 prostitutes in Hanoi, a fact confirmed by the director of the local Health Board; he noted, “Due to the qualitative and quantitative deficiency of an inexistent or embryonic vice squad […] we check 5 per cent of the prostitutes at most.” 52 In the 1940s, there was one European policeman and an additional twelve Vietnamese policemen on the squad, but this was still not enough because the number of prostitutes and brothels continued to increase. 53 The police were also faced with the fact that brothels were spread throughout the city, which made it almost impossible to control them. 54 From the very beginning of regulation in the 1890s, the police requested that brothels be gathered together in one red-light district, as they argued that this would make it easier to control them: 55 “The creation of a red-light district is essential, but this measure will be quite problematic.” 56 In Hanoi, the question was recurrent throughout the colonial period and the municipality placed this idea on the agenda several times (in 1916, 1917, 1926, 1932, and 1951), 57 yet it was never implemented. The geography of prostitution in the city did not change much between the 1890s and the 1950s, and as one commentator stated, “The brothels are scattered in the city, as they used to be in the past”, 58 as seen in map 21.1. The areas where prostitution was carried out remained largely the same; around the Citadel, in the Vietnamese quarter, and in the suburban zone which was known as the “Venus belt” of Hanoi. 59

Map 21.1
Map 21.1

Official brothels in Hanoi, 1896–1951

Source: Annual reports of the municipal Bureau of Hygiene, vna1.
The primary role of the vice squad was to identify and register all prostitutes and to make them visible to the authorities, but this goal was rather utopian:

There are more than 2,000 prostitutes in Hanoi [in 1915]. Among them, only 909 are registered and among those 909 prostitutes, only 82 are regularly examined at the dispensary. The surveillance which is carried out by just one vice squad officer is extremely inadequate because only a few prostitutes are checked. 82 prostitutes are examined but only about 40 receive regular medical examinations. 60

There were therefore two categories of prostitutes. On the one hand, there were prostitutes who had registered with the police and who obeyed the regulations and were called filles soumises; on the other hand, there were all the other prostitutes who were described as clandestine and who outnumbered by far those of the first category. The number of clandestine prostitutes indicated in graph 21.1 is far lower than the actual number because it only indicates those that the police were able to arrest, and by no means could they arrest them all.
Graph 21.1
Graph 21.1

Annual activities of the vice squad police in Hanoi, 1913–1942

Source: Annual reports of the municipal Bureau of Hygiene, vna1.
For the most part, prostitutes did not want to register with the police and be medically examined, so they did everything they could to avoid registration. They also were terrified of being confined at the municipal dispensary, which was likely little more than a prison. Even the municipal doctor criticized the Hanoi dispensary for being too coercive: “This sanitary institution is in fact a prison. The poor girls are confined behind thick wire fences as if they were wild animals. The harshness of this confinement is not even compensated by the quality of the treatment because this treatment is notoriously inadequate, due to a lack of means and staff.” 61 In the 1930’s, improvements were made and the mayor of Hanoi stated:

Despite what some people still say, the dispensary is no longer a coercive hospital. It is a true hospital, more pleasant than an ordinary sanitary institution thanks to its garden, its pagoda, and its sources of entertainment. It is coupled with a charitable organization which works for the moral and material improvement of prostitutes, and their results are very promising. 62

However, the coercive aspect of the Hanoi dispensary was still denounced by journalists such as Thao for “having all the characteristics of a coercive hospital; nothing can escape from it, thanks to the sky-high walls [and] grey doors, which are always silently closed.” 63 Fear of confinement explains why prostitutes, whether registered or clandestine, who had been arrested by the police tried their best to conceal their diseases from the physician and why most prostitutes did not want to register.
Regulation was a blatant failure, even in the eyes of some of the people who had to enforce it. 64 However, it was never abrogated because it was seen as being the lesser evil. The debate between abolitionists and regulationists which was going on in Europe at that time started in Hanoi only in 1930, but it concluded rather quickly because physicians, policemen, and the authorities all thought that the colony was not ready for abolition and that a system of regulation had to be maintained: 65

Abolitionism is an elegant solution for a State because it involves a high degree of evolution and organization that only a few States, even among the abolitionist ones, really and totally achieve. If we choose to adopt that solution, we would claim that pauperism does not exist, that censuses are perfectly conducted, that administrative services are serious and thorough, that the civic and juridical education system is satisfactory, that the sanitary facilities are well supplied with staff and medicine, etc., etc. In a word, we would proclaim that we are extremely civilized and meticulously organized. I do not think that Indochina has reached that level yet. […] In this country, one cannot be regulationist nor abolitionist but opportunist—in other words, evolutionist. 66

The main purpose of the regulation of prostitution was to protect the population from venereal diseases. The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century constituted “the golden age of the venereal threat.” 67 Doctors, administrators, journalists, and even novelists seized on the issue and turned venereal diseases into an issue that threatened to bring about the degeneration of the entire race, especially since syphilis was described as being hereditary. This threat was felt in both metropolitan France and the colonies, but it was more feared in the colonies. According to some physicians, the symptoms in the colonies, and especially in Tonkin, were aggravated by the climate. Venereal diseases were therefore described as “endemic” and the statistics provided by civilian and above all military physicians were particularly alarming; 68 the average venereal morbidity rate was around 30 per cent among colonial troops. 69

Therefore it was argued that prostitutes had to be controlled as rigorously as possible, and they were seen as the main, if not the only, source of contagion. 70 The main purpose of regulation was to keep prostitutes healthy, insofar as the available drugs made that possible, in order to prevent men from contracting venereal diseases, especially European men. Prostitutes were not perceived as being morally repulsive because they sold their bodies but because their bodies represented the threat of venereal diseases which could spread to the entire social body. It was for this reason that they were described as being particularly filthy. 71 Furthermore, prostitutes were “well known for being concerned with neither their own health nor that of their partners.” 72 This, according to physicians, explained the high rates of venereal contamination among prostitutes and more specifically among clandestine prostitutes who did not undergo weekly medical examinations.

A critical reading should be made of graph 21.2. Firstly, clandestine prostitutes were more numerous, so the vice squad police could not arrest them all. Secondly, and more importantly, the figures are distorted by the fact that the arrests of prostitutes and the subsequent reporting of their diseases were often the result of clients denouncing them to the police after they themselves had contracted a venereal disease. This explains the high rate of contamination among arrested prostitutes in the figure. Clandestine prostitutes were, without a doubt, neither more nor less affected by venereal diseases than registered prostitutes. Reports always emphasized the health dangers posed by clandestine prostitutes and this type of argument was invoked wherever the authorities attempted to ensure that prostitutes underwent medical examinations. Vũ Trọng Phụng, Thao, and other Vietnamese journalists shared the French authorities’ anxieties about the venereal danger and, therefore, their ideas about prostitution and its regulation. 73 Vũ Trọng Phụng, for example, gave a scathing description of the prostitutes being held at the dispensary. According to him, prostitutes were “fetid bodies […] ugly, filthy ghosts whose flesh reeks of nauseating cheap perfume, [and they have] saggy breasts, the skin of their thighs is inflamed with scabies or ringworm or marked with scattered black circles, the historical vestiges of the syphilis germ.” 74 Thao entitled one of his pieces “Society of Germs” and warned that the entire population of Hanoi would soon be infected. 75

Graph 21.2
Graph 21.2

Arrested clandestine prostitutes, Hanoi 1913–1929

Source: Bulletin de la société medico-chirugicale de l’Indochine.
There was a consensus on the necessity of regulation; the idea was that it had to be maintained but it also had to be improved. Police monitoring could not prevail because the vice squad did not have the means to fulfil its duty. Chasing after clandestine prostitutes was no longer seen as the right way to protect the population from venereal diseases, especially since there were now new medicines that were more effective than the previous ones. 76 It was argued that prostitutes should go willingly to the dispensary to be medically treated and they should not fear going there. That was one of the reasons why improvements were made to the Hanoi municipal dispensary in the 1930s: 77

All things considered, the dispensary is a hospitable prison where poor girls are incarcerated despite the fact that they committed no crime. They are only suffering from one or several venereal diseases which were given to them by men. No one has ever taken action against these men, and nothing has been done. In order to conceal the harsh truth behind the prostitutes’ detention, the Prophylactic League is endeavouring to create games and distractions [in the dispensary]. 78

Physicians called for the humanization of the way prostitutes were treated, and they tried to develop a more social form of practicing medicine; special consultations for venereal patients in regular hospitals were organized, and visiteuses sociales (social nurses) were sent to the brothels, whether regulated or clandestine, in order to teach basic hygiene to prostitutes. 79 Despite all these changes, the regulation of prostitution remained coercive and the dispensary was still feared by prostitutes.

Prostitution in the City

In February 1914, the Hanoi vice squad arrested twenty-six clandestine prostitutes. The report issued on this occasion provides information about these prostitutes, such as their place of origin. 80

Most of them were from various rural provinces around Hanoi and from small villages, and they had no education. In a newspaper article, N. T., a Vietnamese journalist, reported that a prostitute told him, “I am just a country girl, with no instruction, with nothing […]. I am wandering around the city with an empty stomach and an empty head.” 81 Urbanization was on the rise throughout the French colonial period; in 1907, there were 51,000 people living in Hanoi, 86,000 in 1913, and 145,000 in 1937. 82 The growth of prostitution was closely linked to the expansion of the city, as indicated by the fact that some legal brothels in the 1930s and ‘40s were located around the train station and in the newly built area in the south and west of the city, as seen in map 21.2.

Map 21.2
Map 21.2

Growth of the city and expansion of prostitution in Hanoi

Source: tracol-huynh, “Entre ordre colonial et santé publique”, p. 505.

This was the cause and consequence of a migratory movement that drove many young women to leave the overpopulated countryside and try their luck in the city. Life there was reputed to be easier than in the countryside, and working as a prostitute might have seemed to be more lucrative than working in the rice paddies. As shown by the 1914 report, most of the prostitutes were young (77 per cent of those arrested were younger than 25), and they had no education and might not have known anyone in Hanoi.

Those young girls from the countryside often tried to get by in the city by selling fruit at the markets and often ended up working as prostitutes, like Lành, a prostitute who was interviewed by journalist Vũ Trọng Phụng. 83 Most of the jobs open to young women were not well paid; in 1910, a woman earned only 3 piastres (hereafter $) per month working at one of the cotton factories of Nam Dinh; $3 was the monthly salary for a housemaid in Haiphong in 1914, but in 1925, the pay was only $1. 84 It is difficult to know how much a prostitute earned per sexual encounter since the archives provide very little information. The price varied depending on the clients (whether they were coolies or soldiers for example, or Vietnamese or European), or it depended on the prostitutes themselves. The Japanese prostitutes who worked there were well-known for being more expensive than the Vietnamese or even the Chinese prostitutes. 85 In 1930, coolies paid from $0.20 to $0.30 for a Vietnamese prostitute; Vietnamese soldiers paid $0.25; Vietnamese officers and European soldiers had to pay $0.50; and European civilians paid from $3 to $5. 86

Telling the story of a prostitute’s life in Saigon, Haydon Cherry wrote: 87

There were few jobs open to Vietnamese women in Saigon and Cholon in the early twentieth century. Some women worked as itinerant merchants who walked the streets, a pole across their shoulders, selling fruits and vegetables. Others hawked bowls of noodles or plates of rice for a few sou on the pavement. In the marketplace, women sold spun goods and small handicrafts that they had made at home, but Luong Thi Lam had run away from home. A few women became midwives or fortune tellers. The homes of the French and the rich Vietnamese also provided jobs as cooks, cleaners, and nannies. For such work they might have received their room and keep and a small sum each week. But Luong Thi Lam came without references and she was not known in the city. Vietnamese nuns worked in the hospitals and orphanages of the colony, but they had often been raised Catholic as orphans themselves. This left the cafés, opium dens, and brothels among the few places open to Luong Thi Lam, and of these, a brothel provided not only a wage, but also a place to sleep.

Those low wages explained why some women had no other choice than to turn to prostitution: “One evening, in Paul Bert Square, an older Vietnamese soldier bought a few pomelo sections and then told her to come with him […]. Her basket was full, and in her pocket she didn’t have the money to buy even a measure of rice. That was a powerful reason to make her decide.” 88 In one of his interviews, Việt Sinh asked a madam to arrange a meeting with a young girl working at the market. As he wondered whether or not the meeting would be arranged, his friend reassured him, saying, “A woman earns only a few sous selling goods all day long at the market, but if she decides to come here, she will quickly earn $3. Who wouldn’t choose that?” 89 In short, poverty was the main reason a woman would become a prostitute. In the 1930s, the global economic crisis struck Indochina and poverty increased, as well as prostitution. Prostitution had become a social problem, as evidenced by the interest shown by Vietnamese journalists in that decade. All journalists’ news stories shared a common theme: poverty. 90 The same process occurred in the late 1940s and early ‘50s because of the Indochina war. 91

Whether voluntary or not, these women greatly increased the ranks of prostitutes, especially as there was growing demand. The development of a Vietnamese middle class with disposable income resulted in “an explosion of pleasure-seeking” and an increase in both the forms and sites of pleasure. 92 Moreover, the presence of colonial troops meant that there were more soldiers, the traditional clientele of brothels, and that was particularly true in Hanoi, a very important garrison town 93 especially during the Indochina War (1946–54). The geography of prostitution in Hanoi illustrates the link between soldiers and prostitutes, because several of the legal brothels were conveniently situated close to the Hanoi citadel. This was even more evident for clandestine houses; a military physician wrote in the 1910s that “the temptation begins right after the barracks’ door, next to the guardroom.” 94 A few years later, another military physician recalled that he “often saw [clandestine prostitutes] in the evening, on the East street for example, leaning against trees in a suggestive posture, or crouching down in groups of 10 or 15 in a ditch against the walls of the barracks.” 95 Prostitutes and brothels were easily found around the Hanoi citadel because “it is written that a garrison cannot operate without a brothel.” 96 Soldiers were not confined within the citadel all the time and they were allowed into the city, so they were able to visit brothels throughout Hanoi. See graph 21.3 for the types of clients that visited the legal brothels of the city.

Graph 21.3
Graph 21.3

Patrons of the 20 authorized brothels of Hanoi in 1930 (%)

Source: joyeux, “Le péril vénérien”, p. 480.

During the Indochina War, Hanoi was a very strategic city where numerous regiments were stationed, and this also increased the numbers of prostitutes. In the 1940s, the army created military brothels called Bordel Militaire de Campagne (bmc), and in 1954, there were ten bmc in Hanoi where a total of around one hundred prostitutes worked. 97

When they came to Hanoi, many young women ended up working in brothels, and as discussed above, with the introduction of the French regulation of prostitution, brothels were opened in Hanoi. There were twenty five official brothels in Hanoi in 1932 and the most important of these housed twenty prostitutes. 98 At first, prostitutes had to work inside the brothels, since this was the only authorized form of prostitution. Later, they were also allowed to work out of their own homes, but brothels remained the ideal for the colonial authorities because surveillance was easier; the vice squad could enter the brothel at any hour of the night in the line of their duty. 99 Brothels had to be clearly identifiable so that men could find them easily and decent people wouldn’t mistakenly enter them. At the same time, they also had to be as hidden as possible for the sake of public morality. At brothels, there was a red-light above the door and the street number was clearly indicated, and thus they were easily identifiable. 100 Houses of prostitution had previously been called “green houses”, but during the colonial period, they came to be known as nhà số đỏ [red houses] because of this light. 101 Brothel owners had to keep their doors and windows shut at all times and prostitutes were not to be seen from the outside and they had to behave decently. 102 Outdoor soliciting was an offense; in short, although prostitution was legal, it was not to be visible. However, some streets such as Hàng Bông Street and Khâm Thiên Street were well-known areas of prostitution and were quite lively at night. In October of 1910, a vice squad agent wrote a report about clandestine prostitutes on Hàng Bông Street, noting the lively evenings where some women showed off their legs, sometimes even above the knee, and he wrote about one woman who strolled in front of her house in a red dressing gown with her hair loose as she smoked cigarettes, and another one accosted the police agent, saying: “Come on, honey!” 103 Prostitution, despite all the authorities’ attempts to render it unseen, was quite visible in the city.

The World of Prostitution

The world of prostitution was a world of violence. On account of their young age, prostitutes were often at the mercy of madams and pimps, even more so if they were sold to them by their own parents or if they were indebted to them. The lending of clothes and jewels was a practice commonly employed by madams to transform prostitutes into debtors and thereby keep them at their establishment. 104 Although it was illegal for madams to hold prostitutes against their will, certain prostitutes nevertheless had no choice but to try to escape. 105 However, one should not think that all prostitutes were being held by force and compelled to practise prostitution. Prostitution was also a matter of free choice, as the vice squad was also confronted with recidivist clandestine prostitutes. Violence existed outside of brothels as well and extended into the heart of the dispensaries, which were described as being very unwelcoming places; the warden behaved brutally towards prostitutes, and he, and even the chief supervisor, extorted money from them. 106 Violence and extortion could also be found in the relationship between prostitutes and the police.

The second characteristic of the world of prostitution in Hanoi was its racial diversity. Prostitution in colonial Hanoi was a multiracial world in which Vietnamese prostitutes outnumbered by far those of other origins, including Chinese, Japanese, European, and Eurasian prostitutes. The Chinese and Japanese prostitutes came from poor provinces of China and Japan and could be found in other Southeast Asian cities at the time, such as Saigon and even more in Singapore. 107 In Hanoi, there were few Chinese prostitutes compared to Haiphong, for example, and they were mostly songstresses, at least officially. There were no more than 100 Japanese prostitutes but they were quite visible since they were easily recognizable by their kimonos and wooden clogs. Their hairstyle, a very elaborate chignon, was also specific and made it possible to distinguish Japanese prostitutes from their Vietnamese and Chinese counterparts. The Japanese were therefore a visible alien element of Indochina and easily classifiable in French exotic stereotypes. 108 Colonial discourses depicted Vietnamese prostitutes as being dirty and dangerous in terms of the transmission of diseases, whereas Japanese prostitutes were regarded as being safer, medically speaking. 109 Japanese prostitutes did not belong to the same category as the Chinese and Vietnamese, and their higher prices were an obvious distinctive sign of this difference. Their prices were up to ten times higher than those charged by the Vietnamese but they were still cheaper than the European prostitutes who were considered to be the most luxurious. In this racial hierarchy of stereotypes, Chinese prostitutes were located somewhere in the middle, as they were perceived as being not so different from Vietnamese women in the European mind, although they were not colonized. This racial hierarchy could be found in the regulation of prostitution which clearly distinguished between prostitutes, and granted some of them privileges; for example, from 1902 until 1918, European and Japanese prostitutes had a special room at the dispensary. 110


Japanese prostitution disappeared in the 1920s when the Japanese government condemned it and asked all prostitutes to return to Japan: “It was a question of national honour and prestige, and of being viewed as a ‘civilized’ nation in the eyes of the West.” 111 In this way, prostitution challenged the way that the country wanted to be seen by the rest of the world. That was true for Japan in the 1920s and it was also true for France in its colonies. French and European prostitution was a political issue in a colonial setting, and European prostitutes were seen as a threat. As such, there were fewer European prostitutes compared to native prostitutes. However, the colonial order had to be maintained, and this could not be achieved purely through military force. Moreover, as time passed, the memory of the colonial conquest and of the military superiority of the French army waned. The enforced prestige of the “white man” became the main means of ensuring colonial supremacy. Accordingly, Europeans had to maintain an exemplary appearance at all times. Within this context, it is quite clear that European prostitutes were a major problem for two reasons. Firstly, European prostitutes were not a “good” example of correct “white” behaviour. Secondly, Vietnamese men—the colonized—could buy sex from European women if they had enough money. Indeed, there was no racial segregation for clients. The only criterion was money; if a man had enough, regardless of where he was from, he could choose whichever prostitute he wanted. Therefore, since there were no racial distinctions for clients, the only categories that existed were those constructed by the colonial authorities regarding prostitutes. And these categories were closely linked to racial categories and to political and social domination. European women could not be treated like native women, even if they were prostitutes. A distinction had to be made in order to maintain racial boundaries and, consequently, the colonial order. 112

The first solution for the French colonial authorities was simply to not talk publicly about European prostitutes. The monthly reports of the municipal hygiene service of Hanoi often used the following expression in their reports: “Officially, European prostitution does not exist.” 113 The second was to treat them differently from Asian prostitutes. The European prostitutes were often called Valaques. Valachie was part of mediaeval Romania, and the word Valaque was used for those European prostitutes supposedly originating from eastern Europe. They had their own regulations in which the word “prostitute” did not appear, and Valaque houses were not described as brothels but as more or less respectable cafés. Valaque women were gradually incorporated into the general regulation of prostitution, but they were granted privileges:

Art. 2: The medical examinations prescribed in Article 6 of the aforementioned article will take place at the municipal dispensary twice a week. The hours and days will be determined at a later date. However, if they so desire, the girls are allowed to undergo this medical examination at their own homes. In that case, the municipal doctor will have to receive financial compensation from them. 114

On the one hand, the police and administrative authorities tried their best to shed light on the world of prostitution by chasing down clandestine prostitutes or looking for clandestine houses of prostitution; on the other hand, they hid European prostitutes. “For many reasons, whether good or bad, Tonkinese colonial authorities did not want to register Europeans as prostitutes.” 115

There was another hierarchy among prostitutes which had a major impact on Vũ Trọng Phụng: the social hierarchy. He wondered why “two hundred people are confined because they worked as prostitutes, while at the same time numerous other prostitutes are still known as miss, madam, [and] esteemed lady.” 116 In their reports about prostitution in 1930s Hanoi, Vietnamese journalists carried out research to determine why a woman would become a prostitute. When he began his interviews, Vũ Trọng Phụng was convinced that prostitutes worked “as prostitutes only because they like it” and he was concerned about the moral dimension of prostitution. 117 He gradually changed his mind and, in Chapter 7 of his report, he realized that the reason why some women worked as prostitutes was not moral corruption but destitution. In an earlier text, Làm đĩ, he blamed the rapid social changes plaguing Vietnamese society, and he listed those as materialism, romanticism, the absence of sexual education, and westernization. Other journalists blamed arranged marriages, second-rank marriages, and cohabitation, and more generally the condition of women. The prostitute in N. T.’s interview was forced to marry an older wealthy man who already had a wife. The first wife mistreated her and after one rather brutal fight she left her husband and village and went to Hanoi where she ended up working as a prostitute. 118

Stories about prostitution were used by journalists to discuss, as well as criticize, society. Even though these journalists had their own particular agenda, they provided information and described prostitutes as being actors in colonial society. It would be true to say that violence and domination were, and still are, central in prostitution. However, prostitutes were not passive objects, and they had agency. In one of Việt Sinh’s articles, prostitutes were described as makers of fashion and a bridge between two civilizations. 119 They were deemed to be the first Vietnamese women to discover western civilization and it was said that they had to learn how to dress up to please their European clients. For example, they stopped painting their teeth black, which had been a local tradition, because it repulsed European men. Later in the 1930s, women who thought of themselves as modern did the same, and some of them also wanted to emulate their European counterparts but were afraid they would be called prostitutes. 120 Việt Sinh wrote that the Vietnamese people should not be surprised if modern girls wear high heels, carry purses, and look at themselves in the mirror and powder their faces while on the street because prostitutes already did that. 121

The materials in the archives do not explain how prostitutes left prostitution, nor do the news stories. Prostitutes could ask to have their names removed from the prostitution record, but the formalities were difficult since they had to prove that they had enough ressources to live on their own. 122 They could leave prostitution by marrying a long-term client but the authorities deliberately made this process difficult:

Therefore, getting married is easy; getting divorced is also easy, and after only a little while we again see that the woman who has made the turn must again go back toward the road of prostitution. […] If it’s too easy for them, then in only a few months the man will abandon his wife and the woman will return to debauchery, if she hasn’t been forced by her husband to go back to prostitution to take care of her gigolo. 123

As shown by the 1914 report, prostitutes were young because, after around 30 years of age, they were no longer attractive for clients, who, in Asia, preferred young girls. Even though the legal age to be registred as a prostitute was 18 years old, there was a large number of underage prostitutes working at the brothels, even at the legal ones. Lành, one of the prostitutes interviewed by Vũ Trọng Phụng, started at the age of 15. 124 But what happened to the prostitutes who did not marry and did not die from disease, venereal or otherwise? 125 Some went back, perhaps, to their native villages after having made some money in the city, and others opened their own businesses. The archives are silent on this issue, however, as if prostitutes were no longer interesting once they retired from the occupation.


During the entire colonial period, regulation remained the same; prostitutes had to register with the police and undergo medical examinations at the dispensary, two requirements with which they were not eager to comply. From the very beginning up through the end of colonization, regulation was, nonetheless, a failure. However, for physicians, the police, and administrators, whether French or Vietnamese, it was still better than doing nothing to prevent the spread of venereal diseases. Prostitutes’ lives were defined by the regulatory system, whether they respected it or hid from its agents. Nevertheless, we must go beyond this institutional framework, for it tells us little about the prostitutes themselves or the world of prostitution. In this complex setting, antagonistic notions were inextricably intertwined, such as visibility and invisibility, and violence and agency, when it came to houses of prostitution and prostitutes themselves. The framework remained the same throughout the colonial period, but changes did occur in that prostitution became more and more visible and increasingly diverse. For the authorities, prostitution was supposed to be a regular occupation; in reality, it was more often a second occupation to which women could turn when they ran out of money. Maintaining control over it was therefore almost impossible; prostitution was, and still is, a phenomenon which cannot be enclosed within a system of regulation, no matter how meticulously planned and strict it may be.


I owe a special word of thanks to Mark David Wyers for his help with the complexities of English grammar.


William S. Logan, Hanoi: Biography of a City (Seattle, 2000); Philippe Papin, Histoire de Hanoi (Paris, 2001).


The history of Hanoi is in fact older: the site was mentioned in the sixth century and citadels were built there in the seventh and eight centuries. The importance of the city grew during the ninth century and it became the capital of the Chinese protectorate from 866 until 939. Its name was Đại La.


The city was first called Thăng Long, then Đông Đô, Đông Quan, Đông Kinh, and Thăng Long again. The city was renamed Hanoi (Hà Nội) in 1831. This will be the name used here since this study focuses on the French colonial period (1885–1954).


The author of the text, Nguyễn Du, died in 1820.


Nguyễn Du, The Tale of Kiều, trans. Huynh Sanh Thông (New Haven, 1983), line 62 p. 4 and line 809 p. 70.


Ibid., lines 1231–1232 and 1238, p. 65. The expression “Bees and butterflies” refers to clients.


Charles-Édouard Hocquard and Philippe Papin (eds), Une Campagne au Tonkin (Paris, 1999), pp. 302–303.


Paul-Louis-Félix Philastre, Le Code annamite (Paris, 1909), pp. 546–548.


Ibid., pp. 524–525.


Matthew H. Sommer, Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China (Stanford, 2000), p. 210.


Philastre, Le Code annamite, p. 548. The same comment can be found in P.J. Silvestre, Considérations sur l’étude du droit annamite (Saigon, 1922 [first ed. 1901]), p. 145.


Hanoi citadel was attacked by the French first in 1873, which led to the creation of the French concession in 1875, then again in 1882. In 1885, the French protectorate over Tonkin, and therefore over Hanoi, was officially recognized by China, Vietnam’s centuries old suzerain.


Emmanuelle Saada, Les Enfants de la colonie: Les métis de l’Empire français entre sujétion et citoyenneté (Paris, 2007), p. 79.


Bernard Joyeux and Henri Virgitti, “Le Péril vénérien dans la zone suburbaine de Hanoi”, Bulletin de la Société Médico-Chirurgicale de l’Indochine [hereafter bsmci] (1937), pp. 73–108, 73. See also Philippe Papin, Histoire de Hanoi (Paris, 2001), pp. 43–59.


Joyeux and Virgitti, “Le Péril vénérien dans la zone suburbaine”, pp. 75–76.


Henri Coppin, “La Prostitution, la police des mœurs et le dispensaire municipal à Hanoi”, bsmci (1925), pp. 243–271, 247.


The colonization of the southern part of Vietnam, Cochinchina, started in the 1850s, thirty years before the conquest of Tonkin and Annam, the northern and central regions of Vietnam.


Ngô Vĩnh Long, “Social and Legal Definitions of Prostitution”, in Nanette J. Davis (ed.), Prostitution: an International Handbook on Trends, Problems, and Policies (Westport, 1993), pp. 327–350, 327.


During the colonial period, prostitution was authorized and expanded in both quality and quantity; there were increasing numbers of prostitutes and new forms of sold sex appeared, such as taxi-girls and entraîneuses.


Đổi Mới is the name given to the economic reforms initiated in Vietnam in 1986 by the Communist Party to create a socialist market economy. Philippe Le Failler, "Le renouveau des lentilles d’eau: de la prostitution à Hanoi à la toute fin du XXe siècle", Moussons 29, (2017), pp. 127–142.


The title of Nguyễn-Võ Thu Hương’s Ph.D. thesis illustrates this focus: “Governing the Social: Prostitution and Liberal Governance in Vietnam during Marketization” (Ph.D., University of California, 1998). She published it under another title: The Ironies of Freedom: Sex, Culture, and Neoliberal Governance in Vietnam, (Seattle, 2008).


Jayne Werner, “Gender Matters: Gender Studies and Việt Nam Studies”, in Gisèle Bousquet and Nora Taylor (eds), Le Việt Nam au féminin Việt Nam: Women’s Realities (Paris, 2005), pp. 19–41, 34. See also Lisa Drummond, “Introduction”, in Helle Rydstrøm (ed.), Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam (Singapore, 2004), pp. 1–25.


These are preserved at the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, France [hereafter anom] and, for Hanoi and the Tonkin, in the Vietnamese National Archives’ Centre 1 in Hanoi [hereafter vna1].


Bernard Joyeux, “Le Péril vénérien et la prostitution à Hanoi”, bsmci (1930), pp. 453–675. See Isabelle Tracol-Huynh, “The Shadow Theatre of Prostitution in French Colonial Tonkin: Faceless Prostitutes under the Colonial Gaze”, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 7 (2012), pp. 10–51.


Việt Sinh, “Hà Nội Ban Đêm” [“Hanoi by Night”], in Phóng Sự Việt Nam 1932–1945 (Hanoi, Nhà xuất bản văn học, 2000 [first ed. in the newspaper Phong Hóa, 1933]), pp. 685–705; Vũ Trọng Phụng, S., Lục xì: Prostitution and Venereal Diseases in Colonial Hanoi, trans. Kinglsey Malarney (Honolulu, 2011); Làm đĩ [“Prostitution”] (Haiphong, Nhà xuất bản Hải Phòng, 2001 [1936]); Trọng Lang, “Hà Nội Lầm Than” [“Miserable Hanoi”], in Phóng Sự Việt Nam 1932–1945 (Hanoi, Nhá xuất bản văn học, 2000 [first ed. in the newspaper Đời nay, 1938]), pp. 93–243; Thao Thao, “Gái Lục-sì” [“Dispensary’s Girls”], Việt Báo (February and March 1937).


See Isabelle Tracol-Huynh, “Entre ordre colonial et santé publique: la prostitution au Tonkin de 1885 à 1954” (Unpublished Ph.D., Université Lyon, 2013), pp. 366–381.


Bernard Joyeux, “Projet de lutte antivénérienne à Hanoi”, bsmci (1934), pp. 901–923, 904.


Ann Laura Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-Century Colonial Cultures”, American Ethnologist 16 (1989), pp. 634–660, 639.


Michael G. Vann, “White City on a Red River: Race, Power, and Culture in French Colonial Hanoi, 1872–1954” (Upublished Ph.D., University of California, 1999), p. 302.


Paola Tabet, La grande Arnaque. Sexualité des femmes et échange économico-sexuel (Paris, 2004), p. 7.


Decree of the Hanoi mayor, 24 January 1906, article 1.


Decree of the Hanoi mayor, 25 April 1907, article 35.


Decree of the resident superior in Tonkin, 3 February 1921, article 34.


Words like femme (woman) or fille (girl) were used in the decrees of 1886, 1888, 1891 and 1906.


Régis Revenin, Homosexualité et prostitution masculines à Paris, 1870–1918 (Paris, 2005), p. 166.


Record Group [hereafter rg] Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2583, Correspondances relatives à la prostitution à Hanoi en 1910 (1910), vna1; Adrien-Charles Le Roy Des Barres, “La Prostitution à Hanoi”, bsmci (1912), pp. 21–28, 27; Joyeux, Projet de lutte antivénérienne à Hanoi, p. 911.


See, for example, rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2583, Correspondances relatives à la prostitution à Hanoi en 1910 (1910), vna1.


About these justifications, see Jennifer Yee, Clichés de la femme exotique: Un regard sur la littérature coloniale française entre 1871 et 1914 (Paris, 2000), p. 192; Franck Proschan, “Syphilis, Opiomania, and Pederasty: Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese (and French) Social Diseases”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 11 (2002), pp. 610–636, 622–625.


Kimberly Kay Hoang, “‘She’s Not a Low-Class Dirty Girl!’: Sex Work in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam”, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 40 (2011), pp. 367–396, 368–369.


Decree of the resident superior in Tonkin, 22 May 1939, article 9.


The same process occurred with concubines; the colonial authorities tried their best to control the women living with Europeans, especially soldiers, by forcing them to get cards and be medically examined, like prostitutes. They failed, however, since these measures were illegal as concubines did not fulfil the criteria of the legal definition of prostitute. On this subject, see VũTrọng Phụng, The Industry of Marrying Europeans (Ithaca, 2006 [1934]) and Tracol-Huynh, “Entre ordre colonial et santé publique”, pp. 43–58. For an example of the authorities’ attempt to include concubines in the regulation of prostitution, see rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2587, Correspondances relatives à la prophylaxie des maladies vénériennes (1917), vna1 or rg: rstnf, File 00746, Prostitution pièces de principe (1938–1940), anom.


Hocquard, Une campagne au Tonkin, p. 303.


“Prostitution”, Annam nouveau, 6 February 1936. Nguyên Công Tru and Yên Do were famous Vietnamese poets who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century.


Tracol-Huynh, “Entre ordre colonial et santé publique”, pp. 99–110.


Decree of the resident superior in Tonkin, 3 February 1921, article 34.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2596 Interdiction de faire de la prostitution dans les maisons de chanteuses (1944), vna1.


Decree of the resident superior in Tonkin, 28 April 1886; rg: rst, Serie S15, File 73684, Réglementation de la prostitution. Dispensaires de Hanoi, Haiphong et autres (1888–1913), vna; decree of the resident mayor of Hanoi, 21 December 1888, article 1.


Decree of the resident superior in Tonkin, 3 February 1921, article 4.


Ibid., article 5.


Ibid., article 3.


Le Roy Des Barres, “La Prostitution à Hanoi”, pp. 26–27.


rg: rstnf, File003856 Prophylaxie des maladies vénériennes (1917–1940), anom.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie S03, File 5769, Rapport annuel sur le fonctionnement du service municipal d’hygiène de Hanoi en 1942 (1942), vna1; rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2595, Rapport sur la prostitution à Hanoi en 1943 (1943), vna1.


See, for example, rg: Mairie de Hanoi, File 2585, Correspondances relatives à la prostitution à Hanoi (1915–1916), vna1.


The ideal of a red-light district was first implemented in French Morocco, in Casablanca. See Christelle Taraud, La Prostitution coloniale Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc (1830–1962) (Paris, 2003), pp. 81–125.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2580, Rapport du commissariat de police sur les maisons de tolérance sises à Hanoi (1896), vna1.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2585, Correspondances relatives à la prostitution à Hanoi (1915–1916) and File 2587, Correspondances relatives à la prophylaxie des maladies vénériennes (1917), vna1; rg: rst, File 78667, Dossiers divers relatifs à la police de la voie publique (1921–1942), vna1; rg: Mairie de Hanoi après 1945, Serie D638, File 294, Bài trừ nạn mãi dâm—Quy chê nhà chứa (1948–1953), vna1.


rg: rst, File 78667, Dossiers divers relatifs à la police de la voie publique (1921–1942), vna1.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2593, Mesures prophylactiques des maladies vénériennes à Hanoi (1936–1938), vna1.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2585, Correspondances relatives à la prostitution à Hanoi (1915–1916), vna1.


rg: rstnf, File 003856, Prophylaxie des maladies vénériennes (1917–1940), anom.


Henri Virgitti, Quelques Œuvres sociales dans la ville de Hanoi (Hanoi, 1938), p. 61.


Thao Thao, “Gái Lục-Sì”.


For example, in the 1930s the director of the municipal clinic, Dr Joyeux, and Mayor Henri Virgitti were very critical of the system.


Tracol-Huynh, “Entre ordre colonial et santé publique”, pp. 291–354.


rg: Commission Guernut, File 24Bd, anom.


Alain Corbin, “Le Péril vénérien au début du siècle, prophylaxie sanitaire et prophylaxie morale”, Recherches, 29 (1977), pp. 245–283, 246.


rg: rstnf, File 03856, Prophylaxie des maladies vénériennes (1917–1940), anom.


Abadie-Bayro, “Morbidité vénérienne des troupes européennes”, p. 31; gaide, Le Péril vénérien en Indochine, p. 23.


Annick Guénel, “Prostitution, maladies vénériennes et médecine coloniale”, in John Kleinen (ed.), Vietnamese Society in Transition: The Daily Politics of Reform and Change (Amsterdam, 2001), pp. 233–249; Tracol-Huynh, “Entre ordre colonial et santé publique”, pp. 156–158.


Joyeux, “Le Péril vénérien”, p. 570.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2593, Mesures prophylactiques des maladies vénériennes à Hanoi (1936–1938), vna1.


For example: “No one has ever doubted the existence of the venereal danger in Indochina’s big cities, in Hanoi and in the suburban zone. The Vietnamese were unanimous when they asked the authorities to urgently find a solution to that very dangerous situation.” “Les conceptions modernes de la lutte contre le péril vénérien”, Annam nouveau (1938).


Vũ Trọng Phụng, Lục xì, p. 74.


“Xã hội … vi trùng” and “Dân thành-phố Hanoi sẽ trở nên những dân ‘ốm’ cả”, Thao Thao, “Gái Lục-sì”, Việt Báo, 26 February 1937.


Laurence Monnais, “From Colonial Medicines to Global Phamarceuticals? The Introduction of Sulfa Drugs in French Vietnam”, East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal, 3 (2009), pp. 257–285.


Henri Virgitti was the perfect example of the shift in the French colonial authorities’ conception of the management of prostitution. He was the mayor of Hanoi in the 1930s and also the director of the Prophylactic League which tried to improve the regulation of prostitution and make it more humane. In his book Quelques œuvres sociales dans la ville de Hanoi (the title sums it up) he described the changes he made at the dispensary.


Joyeux and Virgitti, “Le Péril vénérien dans la zone suburbaine”, p. 121.


Starting in 1937, physicians began asking for nurses but they only appeared in the reports in 1942. See rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie S03, File 5769, Rapport annuel sur le fonctionnement du service municipal d’hygiène de Hanoi en 1942 (1942), vna1. However, the reports starting from 1938 and going up to and including 1951 are missing from the archives.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2584, Rapports de police et lettres diverses au sujet de la police des mœurs (1913–1916), vna1.


N. T., “Deux heures avec une prostituée”, Annam nouveau (15 March 1936).


Henri Brenier, Essai d’atlas statistique de l’Indochine française (Hanoi, 1914), p. 48; Le Roy Des Barres, “Rapport annuel sur le fonctionnement du Bureau d’Hygiène de la ville de Hanoi, année 1920”, bsmci (1921), pp. 29–50, 29; rg: ggi, File 53655, Commission d’enquête dans les territoires d’Outre-Mer. Recensement de la population du Tonkin (1937), anom.


Vũ Trọng Phụng, Lục xì, p. 128.


rg: rst, Serie F76, File 55381, Traite des enfants et des femmes annamites (1906–1908), vna1; rg: Tribunal de Haiphong, File 677, Délit de mise en gage de mineur et d’excitation de mineure à la débauche (Art. 334, 59, 60, 344 cp) (1914), vna1; rg: Tribunal de Haiphong, File 1831, Délits d’excitation de mineure à la débauche commis par Nguyen Thi Hai, Nguyen Thi Thuan … à Haiphong (1925), vna1.


Frédéric Roustan, “Mousmés and French Colonial Culture: Making Japanese Women’s Bodies Available in Indochina”, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 7 (2012), p. 70.


Joyeux, “Le Péril vénérien”, p. 480. For more details about prices, see Tracol-Huynh, “Entre ordre colonial et santé publique”, pp. 434–435.


Haydon Cherry, The Woman who Ran Away (Unpublished paper submitted to the vsg Student Paper Prize, 2001).


Vũ Trọng Phụng, Lục xì, p. 128.


Việt Sinh, “Hà Nội Ban Đêm”, p. 690.


For example, “Cô Xuần, cô Hảo, cô Tuyết … Cỏn biết bao nhiêu cô nữa? Mỗi cô là một thảm sử. Những thảm sử trrongf chất trong nhà Lực-sì. Mà nguyên nhân? Không ngoài sự nghèo túng” [“Miss Xuần, Miss Hảo, Miss Tuyết … Who knows how many more? Each of them has a tragic story. There are only tragic stories in the dispensary. What is the reason behind all of those stories? Nothing more than poverty”]; Thao Thao, “Gái Lục-sì” (24 Februrary 1937).


rg: rstnf, File 03856, Prophylaxie des maladies vénériennes (1917–1940), anom.


Nguyễn Văn Ký, “La Société vietnamienne face à la modernité, le Bắc Bộ de la fin du XIXème siècle à la seconde guerre mondiale” (Ph.D., Université Paris 7, 1992), p. 637 [published version: La Société vietnamienne face à la modernité, le Tonkin de la fin du XIX ème siècle à la seconde guerre mondiale (Paris, L’Harmattan, 1995)]. See also Vũ Trọng Phụng, Làm đĩ, p. 17; Trọng Lang, “Hà Nội Lầm Than”, p. 94.


In 1909, there were 2,599 soldiers based in Hanoi and 1,842 in 1914. Adrien-Charles Le Roy Des Barres, “Rapport sur la natalité, la morbidité et la mortalité à Hanoi, année 1909”, bsmci (1910), pp. 179–191, 179; “Rapport sur le fonctionnement du Bureau d’Hygiène de la ville de Hanoi, année 1914”, bsmci (1915), pp. 162–186, 162.


Abadie-Bayro, “Morbidité vénérienne des troupes européennes de l’Annam-Tonkin, moyens prophylactiques proposés”, bsmci (1915), pp. 30–62, 39.


Alexandre Gauducheau, Contre un Fléau (Paris, Stock, 1923), p. 104.


Coppin, “La Prostitution”, p. 246.


rg: 10H, File 2099, Maladies vénériennes (1946–1955); diagnostic et traitement des maladies vénériennes (1952), Service Historique de la Défense [Defence Historical Service], Vincennes, France.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie T12, File 4920, Ville de Hanoi: Liste des maisons de tolérance en 1932 en vue de l’établissement du rôle des patentes (1932), vna1.


Decree of the General Governor in Indochina, 29 November 1924, article 2.


rg: rst, File 80983, Arrêtés des Résuper au Tonkin régissant les maisons de tolérance 1901, vna1.


See for example Việt Sinh, “Hà Nội Ban Đêm”, p. 698; Thao Thao, “Gái Lục-sì”, 16 February 1937; Vũ Trọng Phụng, Lục xì, p. 43.


For example see the decree of the Hanoi mayor, 18 May 1915, article 163.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2583, Correspondances relatives à la prostitution à Hanoi en 1910 (1910), vna1.




Decree of the resident superior in Tonkin, 3 February 1921, article 30.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie D638, File 2584, Rapports de police et lettres diverses au sujet de la police des mœurs (1913–1916), vna1.


James Francis Warren, Ah Ku and Karayuki-san. Prostitution in Singapore 1870–1940 (Singapore, 2003 [1993]).


Frédéric Roustan, “Mousmés and French Colonial Culture Mousmés: Making Japanese Women’s Bodies Available in Indochina”, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 7 (2012), pp. 52–105.


Ibid., and Michael Vann, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Variation and Difference in French Racism in Colonial Indochine”, in Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall (eds), The Color of Liberty Histories of Race in France (Durham, 2003), pp. 187–205.


Joyeux, “Le Péril vénérien”, p. 488.


Warren, Ah Ku and Karayuki-san, p. 161.


Tracol-Huynh, “Entre ordre colonial et santé publique”, pp. 202–210. See also Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable”, p. 636; Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London, 2005 [1998]), p. 135.


rg: Mairie de Hanoi, Serie S03, File 5757, Rapports mensuels sur le fonctionnement du service municipal d’hygiène de Hanoi (1931), vna1.


rg: rst, File 1985, Réglementation des femmes dites “valaques” dans la ville de Hanoi 1906–1910, vna1.


Joyeux, “Le Péril vénérien”, p. 465.


Vũ Trọng Phụng, Lục xì, p. 86.


Ibid., p. 46.


N. T., “Deux heures avec une prostituée”.


Việt Sinh, “Hà Nội Ban Đêm”, pp. 695–696.


Nguyễn Văn Ký, “La Société vietnamienne face à la modernité”, p. 552.


See also Vũ Trọng Phụng, Lục xì, pp. 88, 102–103.


Decree of the Hanoi mayor, 18 May 1915, article 161.


Vũ Trọng Phụng, Lục xì, pp. 142, 144.


Ibid., p. 125.


In 1926, 6 of the 621 prostitutes registered in Hanoi died at the hospital. rg: rst, Serie D64, File 78667, Municipalité de Hanoi—Dossiers divers relatifs à la police de la voie publique 1921–1942,vna1.

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