A national conference last week revealed that more than ten thousand prostitutes work across Viet Nam, pouring more gasoline on the fire of the debate over such a so-called social evil.
The figure, believe it or not, is just the visible tip of an iceberg as it is believed to be much higher and constantly increasing along with a growing economy and the boom of tourism and information technology.
Prostitutes can be seen on many nighttime streets, parks, bar clubs and hotels. Many of them are working secretly in the roles of poor students or fashion models under the supervision and control of bao ke or pimps. Those standing in streets are easy to recognise, very different from those working secretly. Some wear miniskirts, plunging blouses or spiked heels. Their air of waiting sets them apart.
The government orders vice crackdowns now and then, prompting hundreds of arrests every year, but it seems unable to put a real dent in the problem.
Many share a cynical assumption that as more foreign businessmen and tourists come to Viet Nam, prostitution inevitably will grow. But most prostitution involves local men as customers. For many Vietnamese male teenagers, a trip to a brothel is a rite of passage.
Thus, more fierce than ever is the debate on whether or not to legalise prostitution by gathering sex workers into red light zones.
I am against the legalisation of prostitution or the establishment of red light areas.
From the present social reality, enforcing a total prohibition on prostitution is actually impossible, like stopping gambling or smuggling. If it is banned, it means that we should halt, even close forever, all the parks, bars, motels and inns across the country.
But with a society like Viet Nam, where morality comes from ancient Confucianism and prejudice can arise from traditional conservative culture, the idea to set up red light zones is still rejected by a large amount of the population despite the fact that they have been existing de facto for a long time.
To make the sex industry legal may be too far a step to help control and restrict the operation of underground brothels and give sex workers more rights to protect themselves from abuse and discrimination because the country now still has a weak legal system.
On the one hand, it is undoubted that Viet Nam is facing a serious shortage of high standard legal institutions and functional social forces to cover such an issue. The only strong Government ordinance currently includes fines for violations of both sex workers and buyers.
The ordinance says sex workers should be fined VND300,000 (S$19) for their first caught and up to VND5 million for repeating. Those found paying for sex should be fined between VND500,000-5 million, depending on the circumstances.
Such a punishment is not enough to force a prostitute or a buyer to give up their habitual condemned action because both of them already know for sure that they have been rejected by society and the only thing, I think, that matters to them is just making money and satisfying their sexual desire.
On another hand, if a red-light zone is established by considering it as an unavoidable part of society, seeing prostitution as an occupation and giving it a license, it might inspire more people to take part in the sector resulting in negative consequences for the whole society.
Now, "gathering all sensitive activities into one area for easier management" is surely unfeasible. It is worried that once this proposal is approved, it will be the beginning for the appearance of a red light district and the development of a sex industry in many areas. At that time, what will the state management agencies do?
Let's take a glance at a European country in its experience to cope with the situation.
Sweden in 1999 became the first country in the world to introduce legislation criminalising the purchase, but not the sale, of sexual services. This created a model which had been adopted by some other countries across the world including Norway, Iceland, Canada and Northern Ireland.
Social researchers investigated how the provision had worked in practice and what effects the ban had on the prevalence of prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes in Sweden.
They found that since the introduction of the ban on the purchase of sexual services, street prostitution in Sweden had been halved.
More than 70 per cent of those polled in three surveys took a positive view of the ban.
Researchers concluded that the ban on the purchase of sexual services had the intended effect and was an important instrument in preventing and combating prostitution.
Some would say Vietnamese society has its own specific character and it's hard to apply the "model" of other countries in Viet Nam. But if we do not do something right now, the situation will become unsolvable.
The Government should immediately upgrade the current ordinance on prostitution prevention and fight to a law or add to the criminal code with a more strict punishment, even heavy sentences at court.
We need more effective measures, which are strong enough to prevent and reverse this problem, especially for pimps and madams, who have been neglected for a long time. Civil servants and State employees who are detected as pimps and madams must be punished more seriously.
I remember a prostitution activist suggested to make public all the names, occupations, ranks and addresses of men or women who were discovered buying sex from prostitutes as a way to threaten and stop right at the beginning others who want to engage with a prostitute.
A long-term strategy is also needed with the participation of many sectors and agencies rather than just the immediate police who just do their jobs like "doses of medicines" to treat the symptoms.
Steps should be taken right at the grass-root levels in controlling and supervising the movement of suspected prostitutes. The provision of information, education and counseling on the dangerous spreading of prostitution is also one of the most concerns for communal people and authorities.