HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Ha sits between women painted in lipstick and rouge, her face as naked and soft as a child's. "I like to be natural," she says shyly.
The older prostitutes laugh indulgently. At 21, Ha has been streetwalking for only one month. She still has big dreams.
"I think I won't do this very long, only until I earn enough money to go into business," she says, sipping lemonade and imagining herself owning a little shop stocked with pens or hats or cakes.
Sitting on tiny stools next to a sidewalk snack cart, she and her companions watch motorcycles roar by and try to catch the eyes of potential customers.
Sex is one of the biggest growth industries in rapidly changing Vietnam, a product of new demand, limited options for poor women and waning traditional values.
Brothels flourished in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, but the victorious Communists herded prostitutes into rehabilitation centers in 1975. Some resumed work upon release, but they were few and inconspicuous.
Now, with incomes rising, more urban men have money to buy sex and more rural women see it as a way to a better life. Not just in this city once called Saigon, but in beer halls, truck stops and marketplaces all over Vietnam, prostitutes are more numerous and obvious than ever.
Authorities estimated the number nationwide at 70,000, with 50,000 in Ho Chi Minh City. But social workers say these figures are several years old and far too low. They've seen a flood of newcomers.
"I came to Ho Chi Minh City by myself six years ago," says Ha, unwilling to divulge her full name. "My village was very poor. The conditions weren't suited to me."
But the only work she could find was selling vegetables on the street.
"Police used to drive us away; they made it very hard to do business," she says. As a prostitute, she finds police bother her less.
Prostitutes can be seen on many nighttime streets, often sitting at snack stands or outside bars. Few wear miniskirts, plunging blouses or spike heels--that would ensure speedy arrest. But their air of waiting sets them apart.
The government orders vice crackdowns now and then, prompting hundreds of arrests. The rest of the time, payoffs from pimps, favors from women and preoccupation with other kinds of rising crime encourage police to ignore the sex industry. Many share a cynical assumption that as more foreign businessmen and tourists come, prostitution inevitably will grow.
Prostitutes who cater to foreigners are the most visible. They hustle for drinks, dances and more at bars and discos. Some grab the arms of men on the sidewalk and boldly offer: "Want massage, mister? One hour, two hour, 20 dollars."
Not bad for a country where per-capita incomes are less than $150 a year. But for most, such rates are only a dream.
Chien is a plump, motherly woman of 46. She has a husband and two children. And this night she already has served one customer.
Her situation is not unusual, she says, as she joins Ha at the snack cart. Many prostitutes are married and mothers. Sometimes their husbands pimp for them.
"My husband is a laborer," Chien says. "He makes 20,000 dong [$1.80] a day. It isn't enough to put the children through school."
"I don't know anything else to do."
A stout woman with permed hair walks by, giving a cheery wave.
"She's 54," someone says. "She's been working a long time."
Despite Ha's hopes, most women find prostitution a dead-end job, with little opportunity to save and the constant threat of harassment by street gangs. Foreigners may pay $20 an hour, but most customers are Vietnamese paying 20,000 to 30,000 dong ($1.80 to $2.70).
From that, some women have to deduct the cost of renting clothes if they can't afford to buy attractive outfits and visiting public baths if they live without running water.
Hairstyling, makeup and condoms are other working expenses. Many don't earn anything toward their rent and food bills until the night's second or third customer. And few are very good at budgeting or planning ahead.
"The women are usually of low class," says Truong Hong Tam, a social worker. "When they don't work, they gamble. They spend money on silly things.
"If police arrest a woman, her pimp usually buys her out with two taels [ounces] of gold. Then she has to pay him back 2 1/2 taels. These are all ways the women stay in debt. They don't usually save much."
A prostitute herself until four years ago, Tam now is part of a pioneering peer-outreach program funded by Britain's Save the Children. Its focus is distributing condoms and AIDS information, but the workers also try to help prostitutes who want to start new lives.
It's not easy. Urban unemployment tops 6%, not including the estimated 1 million peasants who have flocked to Ho Chi Minh City. Many prostitutes don't have city residence permits needed to get business licenses or take vocational training.