panic in hanoi

Vietnam’s Gay Scene

Vietnam’s gay scenes may be lacking in nightlife, but as David Mann reports, things are (slowly) changing for the better.

It’s Saturday night and the boys are ready to hit the town. Binh, 25, is a personal trainer, Alex, 23, is a mixed-race marketing executive and Duong, 26, is a successful Viet Kieu entrepreneur.

Our destination is the suggestively named Golden Cock “G.C” Bar. It lays claim to being the oldest gay bar in Vietnam. It’s also the only gay bar in Hanoi. Just steps from Hoan Kiem Lake, G.C. Bar is pretty much empty during the week except for two hours each Saturday night, when it’s packed to the rafters with gentlemen seeking the company of other gentlemen.

Gay rights supporters cycle through Hanoi as part of the city’s annual Viet Pride festival. 

Inside we join a scrum of sweaty bodies waiting in line for drinks as Kesha’s We R Who We R blares on the speakers. The bar occupies the first floor of a traditional Hanoi tube house: long and narrow, with no dance floor and a lone pool table.

After collecting our reasonably priced G&Ts, the boys and I head to a corner where we can safely peruse the local talent. “Do any of these look familiar?” I ask watching Binh’s eyes scan the room, which is filled predominately with locals and a handful of expats.

“Yeah, most of them I’ve seen before, either here or on Grindr,” he says, referring to the popular gay dating app. “But I prefer to go out. I like meeting guys in person and talking with them out in the open — this is really the only place to do that.”

Soon enough, it’s standing only as more boys pack into the already crammed bar to navigate the safari of twinks, muscle Marys and the odd bear. No dancing, though, which is immensely frustrating given the music is perhaps the most, ahem, fabulous in all of Hanoi.

But then at 12am the curfew hits, the lights come on and the bar closes. Some pack into cabs bound for all-night bars, the rest hop on their motorcycles and head home.

Hanoi’s Emerging Scene

Coming from Sydney, widely considered one of the great gay capitals of the world, I initially found myself disappointed with the absence of a vibrant gay scene in Hanoi. Back home, my Saturday nights were happily spent bouncing between the half-a-dozen or so gay bars on Sydney’s iconic Oxford Street.

Indeed, the more time I spent in Hanoi, the more I realised that Vietnam’s conservative social mores had resulted in same-sex people fraternising mostly behind closed doors, rather than out in the open, in the kinds of bars and trendy gaybourhoods that I was accustomed to.


“There has been a gay boom in Vietnam — in both cities,” says Minh. “Twenty years ago, you would have struggled to see openly gay people or couples walking down the street, or even in bars.”


“People are still very discreet because of the community environment. They’re worried about what people think,” Duong tells me over coffee. “Probably like how Sydney or London was 30 years ago.”

An image from “The Pink Choice” a compilation of photos of same-sex couples in Vietnam compiled by Vietnamese photographer Maika Elan.

However, none of this is to say that Hanoi has nothing to offer its gay residents and visitors. In fact, Minh, 35, says that compared with when he first came out 20 years ago, things have improved dramatically.

“There has been a gay boom in Vietnam — in both cities,” he says. “20 years ago, you would have struggled to see openly gay people or couples walking down the street, or even in bars.”

Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence to show that Hanoi’s gay scene is developing. At Com Ga Café in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, owner Anh-Thuan Nguyen has dedicated the fourth floor to The Closet, a gay-friendly café and lounge that hosts bi-monthly events.

Music and cocktail venue CAMA ATK, tucked away on Mai Hac De Street in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung District, hosts a monthly Queer Disco where gay icons Beyonce, Kylie, Lady Gaga and Madonna are the main soundtrack and drag queens proudly strut their stuff for the audience. May’s Queer Disco also saw the launch of Hanoi’s first LGBT zine (hipster speak for “magazine”), Hanoi Panic, which is now stocked at cafes Joma, Daluva and La Bicicleta. The publication’s founders have also, as of September, opened the Hanoi Panic Bar, hosting everything from after parties to speaker events and weekly themed parties. 


“I think more spaces to meet other gay people would really improve the scene here,” he says. “Especially another bar or club with a dance floor to go dancing with friends — that would be amazing.”


There is also the US Embassy-sponsored ASEAN Pride Festival, which for the second consecutive year, saw around 5000 Hanoians gather to watch queer-friendly live music acts from around Southeast Asia perform to raise awareness of LGBT issues and celebrate sexual diversity. [Openly gay U.S. Ambassador - the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador to be posted to Southeast Asia - Ted Osius and husband Clayton Bond also attended the event, accompanied by other members of the diplomatic community.]

Revellers at this year’s Halloween Queer Disco Party at Club CAMA ATK in Hanoi. 

Of course, there are plenty of LGBT-friendly cafés found throughout Hanoi. In Tay Ho District, Maison de Tet Décor is popular with the brunching crowd, while Puku, Boo Cafe and the Hanoi Social Club show their fervent support of gay clientele with rainbow flags on the walls as a sign of proud solidarity.

But for Alex, an American expat who moved to Hanoi six months ago from Phnom Penh, the capital’s gay scene still lags behind other parts of Asia, including neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand.

“I think more spaces to meet other gay people would really improve the scene here,” he says. “Especially another bar or club with a dance floor to go dancing with friends — that would be amazing.”

Meanwhile, in Saigon

Down south, however, a slightly different story emerges. More developed, wealthier and with a larger contingent of expats and openly gay Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh City flies the rainbow flag moderately higher than its northern sister.

In comparison with Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City boasts a marginally more developed scene. Its comparatively high concentration of LGBT residents, including those who have relocated from the countryside or overseas, has also helped the tolerance levels, creating a more open and liberal environment where locals can be more open about their sexual preference.


“It’s not really hard to meet guys or girls here — whether it’s at the office, mixed bars or gyms like California Wow. People are less discreet here than they are in Hanoi,” he says.


“Ho Chi Minh City is more happening and open in terms of gay venues and the visibility of the gay community,” says Huy, an executive at a hip digital marketing agency in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1.

For the younger crowds, Saturday nights are typically split between Centro Lounge, near Lam Son Square, the Republic Lounge in District 1, or Papa Café, a café-cum-double-storey-club overlooking Turtle Lake.

“Older guys tend to go to Apocalypse, a gay-straight bar, but overall the scene is pretty mixed in terms of where different tribes — twinks, jocks, bears — hang out. It’s not really that segregated.”

Huy also says that Le Pub and THI Lounge in District 1 cater to mixed gay-straight crowds, with a strong patronage from gay clientele on weekends.

“It’s not really hard to meet guys or girls here — whether it’s at the office, mixed bars or gyms like California Wow. People are less discreet here than they are in Hanoi,” he says.

Of course, not everyone likes to be scene queen. “I don’t really frequent the ‘scene’ anymore,” explains former Saigon scenester Josh Nguyen. “I did get into it at one point but soon got tired of the stereotypical attitudes. The music is also a terrible mix between Vinahouse and Top 40.”

Wanted: More Lesbians

But while the gay fellas of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City might bemoan their lack of romantic options, women have it even harder.

“I did notice that it’s much, much easier to meet gay men in Ho Chi Minh City, and that the bigger expat community and maybe more outgoing locals meant I was meeting more gay people in general,” says Karen Hewell, an American expat who arrived in Vietnam nearly three years ago, and has lived in both cities.

“Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are not far apart in terms of a community for women,” she says, adding that after some fruitless searches online and asking around, she posted something on The New Hanoian, an English language community site in Vietnam.


“Meeting queer women can be difficult because of local traditions that stipulate children live with their parents until marriage. Had I not met her, I could imagine I would have reached a point of dire frustration”


“I had two ladies respond saying they also had a hard time finding places to meet like-minded women, and we sort of bonded over that.”

Karen, who now lives with her Vietnamese girlfriend in Hanoi, says the two met on a blind date set up by a mutual friend. She says that initially cultural barriers made it tricky to meet other women, regardless of whether they were open about their sexuality or not.

“Meeting queer women can be difficult because of local traditions that stipulate children live with their parents until marriage. Had I not met her, I could imagine I would have reached a point of dire frustration.

“I know that people also use apps like Brenda and OkCupid, and Le Pub attracts a decent crowd of women on weekends, same with trendy coffee shops — but it moves around.”

However, in spite of the challenges, she’s optimistic that a shift in attitudes, along with bigger pride events, will deliver a more open and active gay scene for both men and women.

“Having now moved back to Hanoi after doing a long stint in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s so refreshing to see things like Queer Disco — that gays actually go to — pop up.”

The Apps

While Hanoi may be a little behind the times in regards to gay nightlife, it’s right on cue with its use of high-tech dating apps such as Grindr, Tindr, Jack’d and Her (for women) that employ GPS-tracking to connect you with other like-minded people nearby. Since arriving on the market around four years ago, use of the apps has skyrocketed along with the purchase of smartphones.


“In the past, people would have gone to gyms or saunas to meet people. Now, the apps mean you can meet other LGBT people even more discreetly — whether it’s other Vietnamese, tourists or expats,” says Tuan



“In the past, people would have gone to gyms or saunas to meet people. Now, the apps mean you can meet other LGBT people even more discreetly — whether it’s other Vietnamese, tourists or expats,” says Tuan, a 29-year-old business development manager.

But while the emergence of networking apps such as Grindr and Jack’d means Tuan has no trouble finding dates, he says it’s been harder to find someone to settle down with.

“Most people on networking apps, whether it’s hookup apps like Grindr or matchmaking apps like Tinder, aren’t really interested in a relationship,” says Tuan.

“I don’t like using the apps. But I still know a lot of people enjoy using them.”

Whether you’re heading out for the night or searching for love, it seems like there are increasingly more options on the table for gay people in Vietnam. For young guys like Binh, Alex and Duong, the current trends are encouraging.

“We know things are changing. And it’s definitely changing for the better — albeit slowly.

“As Vietnam develops and becomes more open, we know the gay scene will, too.”


**Disclaimer: This article was originally slated to run in the June edition of Word magazine but was pulled by Vietnam’s censors.