This study reveals a diverse landscape of sexual relationships among MSM in Hanoi. There was, among the interviewed men, a high prevalence of short relationships, often with concurrent casual partnerships. Unfaithfulness seemed to be frequent and a common reason for break-ups. The men viewed their attraction to other men as part of their nature but for some men this trait was hard to bear. Money, and perhaps more important, the social status that accompanies money, was an important factor shaping sexual and love relationships. The findings may indicate a high frequency of partner change among men in Hanoi. Since condom-use is often more difficult to sustain in emotionally close relationships than in casual sexual encounters
[21, 23], repeated short-term relationships could be a particularly risky pattern.
Contributing to the pattern of unstable relationships was the pressure almost all men felt from their parents to form a heterosexual family and have children. Some of the men, particularly those who were only sons in their families, felt the desire to carry on the family line. One man also talked about his need to be able to return to his village to be buried when dies. If he were to reveal that he is homosexual, he considered this to not be possible.
Patterns of unstable relationships and difficulties in finding a long-term partner have also been described in studies among urban MSM in Shanghai and Shenzhen, China
[19, 24]. MSM in Shenzhen described a strong desire to establish a long-term committed and loving relationship but felt that sexual relationships were overemphasized in the MSM community at the expense of more loving ones and that the lack of possibility of same-sex marriage prevented long-term relationships.
The same themes emerged among the men in Hanoi. Some men were actively searching for, or had previously been searching for, stable, monogamous relationships with strong emotional attachment and trust. However, a number of men did not seek exclusive, long-term relationships, but when reflecting on what upholds heterosexual marriages, rather emphasized the role of laws, traditions, economic needs and family pressure. For these men the heterosexual Western ideal of long-term, emotionally committed, exclusive sexual relationships may not be the model against which they measured and judged their own relationships.
There is a close parallel between the men’s views and changing attitudes among young heterosexual men and women in Vietnam. Among young people, perhaps in particular those with good education and income, dating and pre-marital sex have become much more openly discussed and probably more common. This change is also closely connected to a larger emphasis on personal satisfaction than abiding by tradition and the views of the parents
The idea of, and longing for, romantic relationships, which surfaces in many of the interviews, also has it parallel in heterosexual relationships in Vietnam. It developed quickly in Vietnam with the end of the planned economy. Shops catering to young couples planning their weddings have appeared in numerous locations in Hanoi and the young couple in romantic love is probably the most common theme in music, and other media
Money also seemed to be an important factor shaping sexual and love relationships. Men with money were perceived as more attractive and several men reported having lost a lover to someone of better means. This pattern may be connected to the increased emphasis on material assets in general in Vietnam, following doi moi, the transformation from a planned to a market economy
[25, 27]. Another aspect of the importance of money in shaping sexual relationships is sex work. Prostitution and the means to pay for it has increase sharply after the economic reforms
. Although male-male sex services are less open and smaller than corresponding female–male sex work, these services are nonetheless highly accessible
[28, 29] and some men in these interviews regularly and exclusively bought sex from male sex workers.
The study has several limitations. The interview subject was sensitive and social desirability in the discussions may have been present. We perceived however the atmosphere as open and that most participants talked very freely about their thoughts and experiences. Five of the interviewees called, on their own initiative, the main interviewer (TPV) during the weeks after the interviews to continue the conversations. No local MSM were present at the interviews. This may have led to misinterpretation of verbal and non-verbal messages. It may however also have made it possible for men to speak freely about their lives without needing to conform to prevailing norms or fear that their statements would passed on to other MSM. Findings were also discussed with local key informants to avoid misinterpretations of the data. The sampling was not probabilistic and the number of informants was limited. Caution should be taken in generalizing the findings to MSM in general. We did not investigate the men’s sexual relationships with women but several nevertheless mentioned sex with women and three had been married. Nonetheless, our study has given insight in a complex area, and we believe the men’s narratives can help increase the understanding of patterns of relationships in this group.