Morning after morning, the urban fisherman of Hà Nội give each other plenty of space along the concrete banks of Hồ Tây, or West Lake, the better to avoid tangled lines.
With long bamboo poles they cast far into the murky waters.
Hours after nightfall, the fishermen are gone and young couples give each other space where the road bends around the lotus ponds to become Lovers’ Lane.
These couples, teenagers and young adults, are engaged in a different sort of fishing – for affection, love, perhaps a later visit to a “Nhà nghỉ”.
But now we interrupt this romantic reverie for a public service announcement:
A recent survey about the sexual behavior of Vietnamese teenagers “indicates an urgent demand for sex education for children aged 15 and under,” says Phạm Vũ Thiện, director of the Hanoi-based Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population (CCIHP).
“All the participants admitted that their schools and parents had not educated them on any precautionary methods.”
And so among sexually active teens, only one-tenth of the female participants brought condoms to a rendezvous while one-third of their partners did so.
The CCIHP surveyed of 762 Vietnamese teenagers and disclosed the findings at a recent workshop on reproductive health.
The survey found that about nearly half of teenagers had engaged in sexual intercourse, including about one-third of 16- and 17-year-olds.
What troubled Thiện is that so many teens did little to safeguard themselves against unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
One-third of the young people said they did not take any safe sex precautions when they were in a relationship, simply because they did not see any risks.
“The most common guidance parents often give their children is a ‘warning’ rather than detailed information on advisable responses to insecure situations,”
Adolescents are easily left in the dark, he said, because parents tend to avoid discussing sexual matters with them.
Sexual mores vary considerably between cultures.
Some, no doubt, would be scandalized by such a survey.
But even in the more progressive cultures I suspect parents wrestle with when and how to talk about a very private matter.
I hope to learn from the example from my parents – the bad example, that is, since I was clueless after the hormones kicked in.
(Please do as I say kids, and not as I did.)
In this regard, I suspect that Vietnamese teenagers (and their parents) aren’t much different from their peers in much of the world.
While Thiện found aspects of the survey troubling – and some parents may be shocked – a comparison to some studies of American teens leave the impression that the Vietnamese teens are a bit more innocent and romantic than their American and European peers.
One recent survey, for example, found that American youth, on average, lose their virginity (to use an old-fashioned expression) at age 17 – a bit later than American teens did in the 1990s.
The comparison also suggests that American teens are more likely than Vietnamese to engage in casual sex – to be, as the euphemistic phrase puts it, “friends with benefits.”
Tuổi Trẻ reported that about 8 percent of the teenagers who had sexual experience “revealed that they had sex even when they were not in love.”
By contrast, the American survey found that 16 percent of females and 28 percent of males reported first having sex with someone they had just met or simply a friend.
Funny how when it comes to sexual matters, innocence and ignorance tend to mean the same thing.
That’s the parental dilemma – the fear that sex education will inspire experimentation and a loss of innocence.
Sex, after all, is ultimately something that can’t be explained – it has to be experienced, like love.
And, better yet, both together… with proper precautions.