two vietnamese guys

Still from the Vietnamese movie, “Lost in Paradise”

If you used the term “gay” in any lecture or speech, I, as an anthropologist, might ask you what you mean by the word “gay.” I do not want to give you a scientific lecture about constructionism and beyond, but terms are really important. And you will see that this is not simply a scientific debate, but it will help you in real life – at least when you are in Vietnam and dealing with Vietnamese “gays.”

I don’t need to give you any deep insight to the meaning of the word “gay.” I think most people know that it has the archaic meaning of “happy.” When “gay” started to be used in English to mean “homosexual,” it was eventually exported as such to the rest of the world. “Gay” for “homosexual” is now a common word in many languages like German and Japanese and also now in Vietnamese. However, in Vietnam, the words “gay” or “boy” do not always mean the same thing.

Let me give you an example. Some years ago I met a Vietnamese guy. He was a friend of my ex-boyfriend. I asked my ex whether this guy was gay. And the answer was, “No, he is 100% boy.” This answer was actually quite confusing. Aren’t gay guys not always boys? (Transgendered aside.)

When you enter a Vietnamese gay chat, you probably will see nicknames like “boyloveboy” or “boylovegay.” This means there exists a dichotomy of those terms. A “boy” is something different than “gay.” Not all “boys” are “gay” and not all “gays” are “boys.” It is related to another post of mine on this page, called top and bottom. But it goes much further than sexual positions.

The answer lies in the Vietnamese language, between the words “kin” and “bong lo.” The first one is considered as “manly,” the second “effeminate.”

If you go into a Vietnamese chat room, you might be asked whether you are “manly” or not. In Vietnamese contact ads you can find “kin dao” which means the same. The meaning is not really a “manly man” – muscular, six pack or others, but a manly-behaving man. Also, a “kin” usually may be manly in that he may even have a girlfriend or a wife and children. (Some may say closeted.) Vietnamese translate “kin” into “boy” in gay slang.

Because of this difference, you never can be sure that who you are talking to is strictly gay or not, at least in the modern western sense of the word as “homosexual” because boy can also mean “bisexual,” “closeted” or “strictly straight.”

2 gay viets

Still from the Vietnamese movie “Hot Boy Noi Loan”

The “bong lo,” called in Vietnamese slang “banh beo,” are gays, who are very effeminate. It does not necessarily mean top or bottom. “Boys” are normally tops, but not all. The “bong lo” usually are bottom, but their effeminate behavior, speech and dress makes it clear that they are gay.

Since Vietnamese society is not very open, such behavior is considered strange. Most conservative Vietnamese consider being gay as being an illness. You can understand that a “kin” “gay” who is very manly and does not show any signs of male-to-male affection will be well integrated into society and can actually do what he wants, as long as it is a secret.

A “bong lo” “gay” cannot, since everyone can see he is “gay.”

“Kin” have to prove every day that they aren’t “gay.” They look for girlfriends, and they are usually totally opposite of anything being “gay.”

Why am I telling you all this? Because, if you ever visit Vietnam, this information can help you cut through some of the cultural differences in language and behavior. You should know how to react and behave.

So, not all “boys” are gay.

But, also… not all “gays” are actually gay. What I mean by that is not all Vietnamese really know that the English term “gay” means homosexual. Some only use it to mean someone who is “fashionable”  or wearing “western-style clothing.” Some do not have any clue about what “gay” means in the western world, because some more affluent straight younger men in Vietnam dress in a way that we might call “metro-sexual” where in Vietnam they call are called “gays” without necessarily referring to their sexuality.

My advice to you: If you come to Vietnam and get acquainted with a “boy” or “gay,” make sure he is gay, in the western sense. There is nothing more stressful in this country as discovering your “gay” is not gay in the hotel room, when you start your little amorous adventure. I have seen many misunderstandings between foreigners and Vietnamese about this topic.

Coming back to my anthropological analysis – before I came to Vietnam, all these gender discussions had been quite theoretical. Gay was gay. When you meet other cultures, you have to be open, that things are not quite like you are used to.

So, before falling in love, or having a hot adventure, ask your friend whether he truly is or not.

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