For those who don’t follow me on Instagram or Snapchat (Which you should! Now!), I am currently wrapping a two-week tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with my 18-year-old niece, because that’s what adults with absentee personal lives do in an effort to “grow” as humans. Although the majority our growth has entailed seeing how much pad thai / coconuts / spring rolls we can consume within the course of a day, we have been fortunate enough to meet some very cool locals who have gone above and beyond to educate us on their customs (and ensure that we stay away from malaria.) Sensing that the Buddhist-rooted culture may have something to teach us in the romantic department, I chose to utilize a 10-hour bus ride to interrogate our fantastic Vietnamese tour guide, Sony, on the intricacies of the Southeast Asia dating landscape.
Marina: Let’s jump right into it. How does dating on this side of the world work?
Sony: I think this varies between different groups of people. For example, in the big city it is quite similar to the Western style. People first meet at school or at work, then they go to a romantic place for a coffee or a drink, see a movie, exchange private messages. Once they start feeling that the person is right for them, they take the next step. Most people have a very romantic way of officially announcing that they are now dating. They might meet at a public place and bring a bouquet of flowers, or a big bear with a romantic phrase like “Will you be my boyfriend?” Some people may even organize a small event to celebrate – go dancing on the street and invite their friends.
Marina: That sounds so formal, like a proposal!
Sony: Yes, it is quite official. In the rural area this is a bit different, as people don’t have the same means. Usually, the boy begins visiting the girl’s home and family and gets to know them. If the girl and her family like him, they can become boyfriend and girlfriend.
Marina: Does this always mean that they will get married?
Sony: No, not at all. It doesn’t need to be their lifetime mate.
Marina: Can they live together before marriage?
Sony: No that’s not the culture. They can only live together when they get married – until then, they both live with their parents. In Cambodia the man is supposed to live with his wife’s family for about two years before the couple can move into their own home. In Vietnam it’s the opposite – the girl has to move in with the boy’s family for the rest of her life. But this is also changing – these days, if people have enough money to buy themselves their own house, they usually do that.
Marina: Wow. For a westerner, the thought of living with your in-laws for the rest of your life is quite bizarre. At what age do people usually start thinking about settling down and getting married?
Sony: I would say that most people start looking for a serious boyfriend or girlfriend around 18. By law, women are allowed to get married at 20 and men at 22. In the city most people follow the law strictly, but in rural areas there is lack of education so they get married quite young, sometimes as early as 15 or 16.Marina: What if a girl isn’t married by her late 20s, or doesn’t want to get married at all? I read that in China women are considered “leftover women” if they are not married by 27…
Sony: Yes, women are expected to get married between 22 and 25, so I suppose that after 27 they are considered a bit old. (Looks at me with pity.) This means they are either in a very high social position, or they don’t have much to bring to the table in terms of money or looks or hard work.
Marina: Speaking of social positions, it is undeniable that there is a pretty serious class system here. Is it possible to move up through marriage?
Sony: Not really. Unfortunately, a man in a high position usually doesn’t want to care for a girl in a low position, or vice versa. You are supposed to be with people at your level.
Marina: Are women expected to work, or does the man have the majority of financial responsibility?
Sony: It depends on the country. In Cambodia the wife usually stays home and raises the children, but in Thailand and Vietnam women have more freedom so a lot of them work. It also depends on the group of people – for example, the hill tribe people* usually live with the boy’s family for a few years and work together to pay them back.
*Hilltribe – Name for the various ethnic groups living in the mountain regions of Thailand.
Marina: What are the weddings like?
Sony: Weddings are very important in our culture. The style really depends on the different groups. City people often prefer a more western style and have weddings in hotels or restaurants. In the country, it is customary to have a wedding in your home. Most people throw a big party that lasts 2 or 3 days and invite all their friends and relatives. They wear traditional dresses that vary for different cultures. In Vietnam the bride usually wears a red or pink dress and the man wears a blue outfit.
Traditional Vietnamese wedding
Khmer (Cambodian) weddings have multiple ceremonies – including one where the couple is blessed by monks. Each one requires a different outfit, the final one being a beautiful gold silk outfit for both the bride and groom.
Sunk Muon – Khmer monk’s blessing ceremony
Marina: Amazing. How many children do most couples have?
Sony: It depends on the country. In Vietnam you aren’t allowed to have more than two children, but many people still do because they want to eventually have a boy. You can get into trouble though – you either get fined, or if you are a Commerce Party member, you can get dismissed from the party.
Marina: That’s really tough.. Are abortions legal?
Sony: No, but a lot of girls, especially young girls who are not properly educated about birth control, end up going to special clinics to get them illegally. A lot of the doctors don’t know how to perform them correctly, so this can be quite dangerous.
Marina: Another problem that I saw a lot in Southeast Asia is prostitution. How do so many girls get involved in this?
Sony: Yes, it is everywhere. Most of the girls who end up as prostitutes are either from poor families, or broken families – they might have divorced parents, or maybe they were raised by a single parent or a grandparent. Nobody takes care of them so they need to take care of themselves. They go to the city to find a job and, the next thing you know, they end up working at strip clubs or karaoke bars, and then they often become prostitutes.
Marina: It’s really sad. And the Western men only cater to the industry.
Sony: Yes, they come here to look for girls and not pay a lot of money.
Marina: You mentioned divorce. Is it common here?
Sony: Yes, but not as common as they are in the West. They are destructive for the family and really impact the children. Family life is very important to us.
Marina: When it comes to relationships, what are some other differences between the East and the West?
Sony: I think that we are more traditional, we are not as free and open with our sexuality. We are also a lot more private. Instead of going to big public bars and restaurants, we prefer to get to know each other in small, private places, really romantic coffee shops or parks, or maybe visit the countryside and take a walk around a rice farm.
Marina: That sounds lovely. In the West, people use dating applications to meet. Do you guys have that?
Sony: What’s that?
Marina: Look! (I show him Bumble on my phone)
Sony: Oh yes, we have that. We also have dating forums where people meet, as well as a radio show. You can call and give them all your information and then they give all of it to the public. People can message you, and if you like one another, you can set up a time to meet.
Marina: Wow! Are there still a lot of arranged marriages?
Sony: Not so much anymore, although it is still practiced among the hill tribes and in some rural areas. But most people have the freedom to marry whomever they want.
Marina: Do you think relationships are more practical or romantic?
Sony: I think it is very romantic here, especially in the beginning when you are falling in love. People love making beautiful gestures to really get to know each other and find a good friend for life.