Shadow Dancing

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Shadow Dancing by Amit Gilboa


The Buon Me Thuot region of Vietnam is famous for its potent java brew. But when young Vietnamese talk about ca phe den mo (literally, “dim light coffee”), they’re not referring to a special blend. “Dark coffees” — cafes lit so dimly it’s often impossible to see within them — are a Vietnamese institution, and like American drive-in theaters or the love hotels of Japan, they provide a crucial service for couples: public access to privacy.


Dark coffees can be found all over the city. The greatest concentration is in the Thanh Da area on the western outskirts — Saigon’s “dim light district.” The Mekong runs through it, providing a romantic perch for many of the cafes. Others are tucked into inland side streets, away from city lights and traffic. At minimum, a dark coffee is dim enough so that you won’t be recognized; others are pitch black, and their navigation requires the aid of a flashlight-carrying waiter. All seats face the same direction, so your view is limited to the backs of other couples. Each set of chairs is separated by a divider, usually a vine-entwined screen or a solid partition. Music masks the smacking of lips and emittance of sighs. It’s all atmosphere — at twice the price of a normal café. People don’t come to drink, and waiters don’t cruise around asking people for second orders, so the house gets only one chance to make a sale. And once people are settled inside, they’re usually in no hurry to leave.


It is Vietnam’s stringent sexual taboos that drive couples to dark coffees. Most Vietnamese men will not marry a woman who is not a virgin, sometimes even if she’s only slept with him. An unchaperoned visit to a man’s apartment or a hotel room is viewed as an open invitation for intercourse or sexual assault. And even if a woman leaves such a situation with her virginity intact, her reputation will be sullied. “Of course if they are in a room together, they will do it,” says Bui Ngo Duong, a 30-year-old teacher. “Why wouldn’t they? Whether or not they did it, we have to assume that they did.”


Dark coffees allow women to explore their sexuality without destroying their personal lives, providing a safe environment and an alibi. The cafe’s level of illumination provides a crucial check on libidinal urges while allowing couples to indulge in what feels comfortable — the higher the lumen, the safer the hymen. When a woman chooses a dim café, she’s indicating that kissing and cuddling is a possibility; a darker selection usually means that under-the-shirt fondling is on the menu, and so on. The café acts as chaperone.


But not all dark coffees preclude intercourse. Some have reclining seats that are almost bedlike and partitions so sturdy they are almost rooms. Here is where denial becomes paramount. After leaving a hotel room or apartment together, a couple is assumed to have screwed, and the woman thus tarnished. After leaving a coffee shop, they can still deny it. For unmarried couples, abstinence is not as important as appearance.


Cost is also an issue. To an American, spending $4 for a room rather than $1 at a café would be well worth it, but a Vietnamese citizen earning $80 a month has a different perspective. Hotels are off-limits to unmarried couples, and even monied Vietnamese view them as “a waste of money,” in the words of Mr. Dung, a relatively well-off dark coffee regular who refused to give his first name in order to protect his girlfriend.


Although they’re highly popular, dark coffees are hardly accepted. It doesn’t help that although the majority of the cafés are couples-only, the term also refers to places where a single man can have a “girlfriend” supplied to him. Even women with long-term boyfriends almost never admit going. Some refuse to go at all. Cam Bui Ly, a writer who has studied in Singapore, explains: “I know my friends go, but we can never talk about it.” Some of them complain that their boyfriends are xao qua (horrible) for even suggesting it. Men also disapprove: Nguyen Minh Tan, a recent university graduate, will not bring his freshman girlfriend to a dark coffee because he is afraid of “making her mind dirty.” They may go after she graduates, however. “Then, she enters real life,” he explains.






For all the shame associated with visiting dark coffees, there is a refreshing lack of ambiguity about them. People may go to a movie to watch the film, but nobody goes to a dark coffee to sample the joe. Simply by showing up, couples openly declare their lust for each other. More subtle — but perhaps more important — is the thrill of publicly challenging a taboo. Sex is usually good, but forbidden sex is better. By visiting a dark coffee, young Vietnamese couples are engaging in a quiet but unmistakable rebellion against societal strictures, and they’re doing so with plenty of co-conspirators within earshot.


One evening, a “special friend” takes me to a typical Thanh Da riverside dark coffee. We park the motorbike and allow a hostess to lead us to the make-out area. Under a large open canopy sit rows of beach chairs, placed two-by-two and separated by small wooden trellises with vines. The huge dark swath of the Mekong flows by, silently guarding the couples who are engaged in affectionate whispering and/or intense cuddling (although the low-backed chairs and ambient light make serious lovemaking impossible). After we take our seats and place our orders, the mumbling and rustling of clothes blend into the background, melding with the sound of crickets and frogs. Soon these disappear, and the world shrinks — the other couples, the café’s dusty driveway, the assignments left undone downtown all become quickly irrelevant. Anyone whose sexual experiences have been confined to bedrooms will be surprised at how unnecessary all those walls are, how quickly a public space can become an intimate cocoon.


We leave an hour or so later, and on the way out, we found the café much busier than when we entered. The number of people willing to drive to suburban


Ho Chi Minh City — and pay top dollar for the privilege of sitting in a beach chair — attests to the popularity of these erotic dives. On a Sunday evening, one of the biggest days of the week in the industry, couples must hold their libidos in check for hours as they wait for a seat. As sexual attitudes change, the perception of dark coffees softens from xao qau (horrible) to merely khong tot (not good). Liberal ideas are seeping in from the outside world, state and parental controls are relaxing, and biology perseveres, guaranteeing that dark coffees do a brisk business.


Yet it’s precisely those cultural shifts that may ultimately spell the demise of the dark coffee. Sexual taboos will fade; men and women will be able to visit each others’ apartments unchaperoned. Rising incomes and increasingly liberal laws (or at least, more lax enforcement) will allow couples to rent hotel rooms, thus robbing dark coffees of their raisons d’être. Liberal Westerners might cheer the demise of Vietnam’s harsh sexual double standards, but progress will inevitably exact a price.


Yet for now, progress is coming slowly in socially conservative and politically authoritarian Vietnam. It will be years before dark coffees go the way of the drive-in. In the meantime, fighting oppressive norms and smashing taboos continues to be the arousal method of choice. Certainly sex is more convenient when you can just invite your girlfriend over to your pad, but is it as exciting?



Amit Gilboa and Nerve.com