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By Charles Lam
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Media hype over the recent release of the first survey of political and social values in socialist Vietnam ignored evidence of overwhelming opposition to homosexuality and what the government there views as other "social evils."Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register headlines noted that Vietnamese like their government, army and parliament just fine—results that drew predictable responses in Westminster's Little Saigon, where opinion leaders blasted the survey as bogus.
But other results from UC Irvine's World Values Survey in Vietnam indicate Little Saigon residents may have much in common with their counterparts in the homeland. In the random sample of 1,000 Vietnamese across Vietnam, 82 percent responded that homosexuality was never legitimate, and another 92 percent condemned prostitution. Other bad behavior: suicide (86 percent opposed), abortion (61 percent), euthanasia (51 percent) and divorce (50 percent).
In the U.S., such opinions are often correlated with religious conservatives. But Vietnam, UC Irvine researchers observe, is a secular society.
"Few [Vietnamese] believe in heaven, hell, God, life after death, the soul or other Western concepts," write graduate student Nhu-Ngoc Ong and professor Russ Dalton, who heads UCI's Center for the Study of Democracy, in their report "The Vietnamese Public in Transition."
Indeed, the pair write, Vietnamese are "skeptical about the role religion can play in Vietnamese society: a large majority (82 percent) does not feel that religious leaders can provide adequate answers to the social problems facing Vietnam today." Two-thirds of those polled believe religious leaders should not influence government decisions.
Ong and Dalton say their survey suggests Vietnam is more socially conservative than other Asian countries—which they attribute to the country's Confucian legacy.
The survey results did not surprise Hieu Tran Phan, a former Register reporter who earlier this year co-founded Viet Tide, a bilingual Westminster weekly. But Phan also said there's a difference between what people in his homeland will say officially and what they'll do about it. On homosexuality and prostitution, he says, they'll indicate they don't approve but will do little to stop either. He believes Vietnamese are actually "more laissez-faire" about these matters than Vietnamese-Americans.
News reports bear him out. Although the communist government periodically campaigns against social evils, Communist Party officials and other Vietnamese dignitaries reportedly employ prostitutes. A recent issue of Viet Tidewarned Vietnamese-Americans visiting the country to avoid Vietnam's flourishing sex tours. Meanwhile, gay websites, including one purportedly based in Vietnam (www.guysvietnam. f2s.com), list the country's gay bars, discos and cruising areas. In fact, according to the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) website (www.ilga.org), homosexuality isn't even mentioned in Vietnam's penal code, although other laws, such as those against "undermining public morality," can be used against homosexuals. In contrast, sodomy remains outlawed in half the United States.
Although he's run stories about gay issues in his paper and regularly discussed them on area radio shows, Phan says homosexuality remains a taboo in Little Saigon. "It's not something you can talk openly about here," he said.
Phan noted that AIDS-education groups, such as the LA-based Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, who have a Garden Grove office, do little within Little Saigon but do reach out to Asians elsewhere in Orange County.
Joseph Carrier, a UCI-trained anthropologist, echoed Phan's comments. During the Vietnam War, Carrier interviewed Viet Cong defectors in Saigon for the hawkish Rand Corp.; now he's about to return to Hanoi to consult on an AIDS project. He recalled an Orange County Health Care Agency survey in which Little Saigon residents had their own unusual take on homosexuality: most said it doesn't exist.