May-September romances seem to have been around for as long as humanity. You know the type of thing: the aging actor and his barely-out-of-her-teens girlfriend; the septuagenarian president and his model wife; the businessman in a midlife crisis suddenly dating his daughter’s best friend. Hell, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to find out that Eve herself was a good 20 years younger than Adam.
Vietnam is no exception. In the 14th century, the much rumored extramarital fling between then 20-year-old Princess Huyen Tran and Grand councilor Tran Khac Chung, who was touching 60, caused an uproar. Today, Ngoc Trinh, dubbed Vietnam’s national “lingerie queen,” is known for her unabashed, brazen views on materialistic luxury, and it’s no secret that her wealth (largely) comes from being a modern-day ‘sugar baby.’ She’s not shy of the label either, infamously saying: “No money? What am I gonna do, munch on dirt and die?” Perhaps bringing new meaning to the term “dirt poor.”
For those who don’t know, the sugar-daddy/baby dynamic is a business arrangement of sorts, usually informally agreed, where funds or gifts are exchanged for intimacy, companionship and, yes, sex. It’s usually conducted between, but not limited to (sugar mammas certainly exist), older wealthier men and younger women (typically students in need of extra income). To some it is a simple fact of life and only natural that a young woman should chase a man with cash to flash; to others it is prostitution, plain and simple.
The popularity of this relationship dynamic was brought into particular focus in the West in 2006 with the birth of Seeking Arrangement (SA) in 2006, the world’s largest dating app dedicated to the sugar daddy and sugar baby lifestyle. About 1.4 million users (42%) of SA are students, and they reported to spend 36% of their ‘financial gifts’ on tuition fees, according to Phap Luat & Ban Doc. SA maintains its operation by charging the sugar daddies – subbed ‘successful members’ – roughly 70 U.S. dollars per month, but is free for sugar babies.
The dating of considerably older people can be born of love, certainly lust, but with ‘sugar dating’ there is a lot more going on. Vietnam itself has seen a less-than-nascent rise in its ‘sugar babies’ scene, with dozens of commentaries, blogs and newspapers, weighing in on the matter in recent weeks, as scores of websites and Facebook groups appear chock full of young women looking for ‘sugar’ and a seemingly endless list of older males willing to provide it.
A typical arrangement may involve the provision of 5-15 million VND from the daddy, in exchange for meeting up about four to eight times a month (they’re often too busy or too married to meet more often).
So what’s going on with Vietnam’s rising sugar babies scene?
You can find the hastily-written resumé of young women on the hunt, posted on online forums in Vietnam for sugar babies and sugar daddies to find one another almost everywhere.
“I’m 20 years old, 164cm, living in Hanoi, looking for a sugar daddy to provide for me,” reads one straightforward but rather unimaginative post on the Facebook group “Sugar Daddy & Baby Viet Nam.”
It’s not hard to see young girls in Vietnam looking for this type of relationship. You can see it on Twitter pages, Tinder profiles, Instagram, and online websites such as Travelgirls where young women and older men proactively put themselves out there in search of the perfect candidate.
One example is Hoang [who advertises himself on TravelGirls]. Hoang is an introspective individual, describing himself as a real man who claims to “know how to move my body in tune with the melody of the music, guiding us two to pleasure-town.” For this Ho Chi Minh City local, to give is to receive.
Whilst specialized websites abound, the most prevalent platform for those looking for such relationships are not-so-private Facebook groups where endless requests are posted daily. A quick search is all it takes to discover and access these forums, which seem to be popping up by the dozen, easily amassing hundreds of thousands of members – and the numbers are growing. Fast.
In these very groups the transactional nature of the relationships clearly come out into the open. Sugar babies or sugar ‘parents’ make the first move by stating their qualifications on a post, out loud if not proud. We’re talking lengthy lists of bullet points: age group, height, weight, body type, sexual preference, location, funding required per month, ‘cleanliness’ level, marital status, and a general description of what they are looking to gain and willing to provide.
Then, whoever finds what they are looking for proceeds to initiate conversation. A typical arrangement may involve the provision of 5-15 million VND from the daddy, in exchange for meeting up about four to eight times a month (they’re often too busy or too married to meet more often). Wealthier benefactors may also throw in a private apartment for the lucky baby.
While some view the whole thing as a form of legal prostitution, others have simply lost faith in true love and consider it a sure-fire method to find a willing partner. The men who enter into such relationships generally fall into two contrasting groups: those who want sexual favors and nothing more, and those seeking someone to confide in someone emotionally. One man bares it all on the Sugar Daddy & Baby Viet Nam forum: “I’m older now, too busy and don’t have the time to bother with all that courtship debacle, message me if you’re actually serious.”
As for the ‘babies,’ young and hungry, most are looking for straight-up hard cash. Those that feel lost in life and unsure of their future may also seek guidance and life-advice, as with this cub confidently hunting for a cougar:
“I’m a 21 years old babe, currently studying at FTU, look for a sugar mama! I can take care of the cooking stuff, not even looking for financial payment. I can meet whatever needs the sugar mama may have, just hoping she can give me some direction in life.”
“Why do you think men cheat? It is because his woman doesn’t know how to fulfill his needs.”
The requests can be oddly specific, as when a sugar-daddy wannabe who works in IT is teasingly requested to provide math tutoring sessions by a young girl preparing for her upcoming college entrance exam: “Teach me some lines and this ass is yours.”
Though it has caused much chatter across the country in recent months, let’s not pretend the motif of a rich man being with an attractive younger woman is a novelty concept. In Vietnam, we say “the rich man and the pair of long legs” when referring to famous models dating millionaires. But it was only in the past couple of years that this phenomenon became so commercialized and out-in-the-open.
Van Nguyen (pseudonym), a 21-year-old student who has been a sugar baby for almost two years, recently sat down with Chao to explain her lifestyle:
“In order to get a lot of money I have to be high maintenance, look presentable and take care of my body. It certainly wasn’t always effortless for me. It’s a skill I had to learn along the way,” she says. “Sure, it seems like easy money from the outside, but even knowing how to talk is a skill. You gotta know how to keep a man talking and expressing his feelings, learn how to dress, how to behave, and many just can’t do that. Why do you think men cheat? It is because his woman doesn’t know how to fulfill his needs.”
What has caught much of the public by surprise is how brazen and in-your-face these interactions are. The sight of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed girls eagerly ‘selling’ themselves is too much for Vietnam’s Confucian society, where sex in itself is already largely a forbidden topic, still less selling it out in the open.
“Sugar babies should not be made to feel cheap, because from what I know, true quality men naturally want to spend money on their women. You shouldn’t feel low or anything.”
Human Library Vietnam, a project aimed to spread awareness about sensitive issues, tackled ‘sugaring’ in a 2017 Facebook post. Many readers responded angrily upon learning of such arrangements. “No way I can condone these lazy couch-potatoes that feel entitled to enjoy fruits NOT of their own labor!” one wrote.
Vietnamese newspaper reports show their obvious disapproval. The website ictnews refer to the forums as “online prostitution rings.” They remind women that aside from the shiny gifts and gains, there may be unknown dangers lurking just around the corner. It is said that most girls on the forums are too young and naive to make sustainable life choices, and that when the inevitable disillusionment set in they will pay a heavy psychological price.
Binh Pham [pseudonym], a 25-year-old who works in advertising, doesn’t have huge issue with sugar babies. He just doesn’t like the way it has been dressed up. “I’m not putting down this lifestyle as a whole, I’m just opposed to Vietnam’s version which might as well be called the ‘prostitution subscription scene’. Let’s not fool ourselves just because it’s been given some fancy title.”
The way these relationships seem to have become so common, and disguised as something else, angers many people who want the scene to be more clear about what is going on. Under a post on Sugar Daddy & Baby Viet Nam (“Each month, I’m willing to pay 10-15 million for 7-8 times of having sex”), one user responded bluntly: “My good dude, what you’re describing is just straight-up a hooker.”
Despite being relaxed about it, Binh makes it clear it is something he would never do, regardless of any wealth he might gain. “Never. I don’t pay for sex. Or to date. In the long run, don’t you think it would make it hard to have genuine human connection with women?”
Ngan Le (pseudonym), a 21-years-old college student currently attending Vietnam National University, puts her foot down on the matter. “College is supposed to be about self-growth, about how to best equip for future careers. This sugar baby phenomenon is a reflection of how current society, especially the youth, is chasing after vanity and the oh-so-frivolous, letting go of self-worth. I honestly don’t have the problem with the big age gap”, she says. “It’s just the nature of the relationship … that irks me.”
“Many men want a more secretive and safe option, so these girls are like ‘pesticide-free veggies’ for them to farm.”
Van certainly doesn’t disagree that the life she leads is a very materialistic one. “[It’s] a tough dilemma…but, ultimately, it’s always human nature to want the finer things in life. People are greedy, the reason why we survive to this day is because we’re greedy, because we want to live: money is a primal need,” she says. “If I don’t have money, I’m gonna do what it takes to get it. I don’t want to suffer.”
Van’s current partner is 20 years older than her. They have been ‘dating’ for almost two years now. She says the relationship is a regular boyfriend-girlfriend one that just happens to have ‘sugar’ aspects.
“Usually he brings me out to nice restaurants or to go travelling, but right now he can’t because of the pandemic. So as a man, he considers giving me money a nice, generous gesture. But he doesn’t view himself as a sugar daddy, he straight up told me in the beginning, ‘I am not your employer,’” she says.
Van has no issue with age gaps and talks fondly about a previous sugar daddy she went out with who was in his early 60s.
“He’s from Romania, married, and he was so sweet and gentle to me. Sex was just a small part of it,” Van says. “I think sugar babies should not be made to feel cheap, because from what I know, true quality men naturally want to spend money on their women. You shouldn’t feel low or anything. You know, there’s a more emotional aspect than people think. Some men, they don’t need sex, they’re just bored of their wives and want some company.”
While it might be an effective way to make some quick money. The mental burdens such relationships can place on young people are less talked about. Psychologist Dinh Doan discussed the collateral damage the lifestyle could have on people in an interview with Kenh14. “Young women may end up with unwanted pregnancies, acting as ‘working wives’ to already-married men, putting them in danger of being attacked by their real spouses. Moreover, the experience might lead them further down the road to actual prostitution.”
“Many men want a more secretive and safe option, so these girls are like ‘pesticide-free veggies’ for them to farm. They’ve found a loophole in the system, making it hard to handle legally. As a society that strives to move forward, this behavior should be condemned.”
Regardless of whether these transactions are for conscientious young adults just trying to look out for themselves while having a little fun, or money-grabbers participating in a veiled form of prostitution, we are in choppy, complicated waters. Moral outrage aside, dating someone just because they are rich is hardly something you can legislate against. In fact, some families would even encourage it. Yet are these young women fully aware of the psychological damage they might be putting themselves through? There’s no final verdict in sight. But make no mistake, for all its controversy, sugar dating is here to stay.