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A popular Vietnam export: brides

More poor women are marrying foreigners: They may not get rich, but they can help their parents get out of debt.

August 24, 2008|Ben Stocking | Associated Press

TAN LOC ISLAND, VIETNAM — Nearly 70 young Vietnamese women swept past in groups of five, twirling and posing like fashion models, all competing for the hand of a Taiwanese man who had paid a matchmaking service about $6,000 for the privilege of marrying one of them.

Sporting jeans and a black T-shirt, 20-year-old Le Thi Ngoc Quyen paraded in front of the stranger, hoping that he would select her.

"I felt very nervous," she recalled recently as she described the scene. "But he chose me, and I agreed to marry him right away."

Like many women from the Mekong Delta island of Tan Loc, Quyen had concluded that finding a foreign husband was her best route out of poverty. Six years later, she has a beautiful daughter and no regrets, she says.

From the delta in Vietnam's south to small rural towns in the north, a growing number of young women are marrying foreigners, mostly from Taiwan and South Korea. They seek material comfort and, most important, a way to save their parents from destitution in old age, which many Vietnamese consider their greatest duty.

Quyen has not gotten rich -- her husband earns a modest living as a construction worker -- but the couple have paid off her father's debts.

Young women have become Tan Loc's most lucrative export. About 1,500 village women from the island of 33,000 people have married foreigners in the last decade, leading some to call it Taiwan Island.

Women in Tan Loc and other delta towns began marrying foreigners in the 1990s, when Vietnam opened up economically and many Taiwanese and South Korean companies set up operations in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's southern business hub.

Poverty and the proximity of foreign businessmen seem to be major reasons for the trend. The biggest complaints come from women's groups, who consider it demeaning, and from young village men for whom the pool of potential brides is shrinking.

With money from foreign sons-in-law, many residents in Tan Loc have replaced their thatch-roof shacks with brick homes. They also have opened small restaurants and shops, creating jobs in a place where people have traditionally earned pennies a day picking rice and other crops in the blistering sun.

The luckier families received enough to build ponds for fish farming.

Western Union has opened a branch to handle the money sent by newlyweds.

"At least 20% of the families on the island have been lifted out of poverty," said Phan An, a professor who has done extensive research in Tan Loc. "There has been a significant economic impact."

Not all the marriages work out.

Dam Psi Kin Sa went to Taiwan nine years ago at age 20 and married a thrice-divorced carwash owner more than twice her age. She met him through a matchmaking service.

Five years later, her husband demanded a divorce and locked her out of the house. Even though she had learned his language, Mandarin, the couple had trouble communicating. "We were angry at each other in a quiet way," she said in Taipei, where she has remained to be close to her daughter.

Last year, one Vietnamese bride was beaten to death by her South Korean husband, another jumped out a 14th-story window, and a third hanged herself on Valentine's Day, leaving behind a diary full of misery.

"A marriage that is not based on love often brings problems," said Hoang Thi Thanh Ha of the Vietnam Women's Union. "How can you live happily ever after when you met your husband three weeks before the wedding?"

Nevertheless, most young women in Tan Loc seem eager to marry a foreigner. Le Thanh Lang recently went to the town hall to get papers confirming that she is single and eligible to marry.

"Any country will do; I'll take anyone who will accept me," she said, waving the papers. "I need to send money to my parents."

Besides the marriage broker's fee, the groom gives about $300 to his bride's family, Lang said. After that, if all goes well, her husband may send as much as several thousand dollars a year to her family.

Many Tan Loc families with married daughters abroad have big homes with color TVs, new furniture and karaoke machines.

Their neighbors live in huts.

Tran Thi Sach's concrete home, with four large rooms and shiny green tile floors, is a mansion by island standards.

"Since my daughters got married, I've retired," said Sach, 59, who used to toil in the rice fields with her husband.

"We lived in a shack," she said. "We had to work no matter how hot it was, no matter how much it rained, from 5 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. Sometimes we could only afford rice porridge."

When her daughter Tho first said she planned to go to a marriage broker, Sach objected. What if her in-laws abused her? Where would she turn for help?

Tho married six years ago and her younger sister, Loi, two years later.

"Their husbands are gentle, handsome and hardworking," Sach said. "They are really fine men."

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