by Nguyen Thu Hien
HA NOI (VNS)— 21-year-old Le Viet Ha (an alias) is folded in her mother's arms in a small house in the outskirts of Ha Noi. Her body shudders as she wails, her tears soaking her mother's clothes.
|Vietnamese women study Korean. Thousands of Vietnamese women have married foreigners via matchmaking services, but their lack of understanding about foreign culture often leads to unhappy marriages and domestic violence. — VNA/VNS Photo Huu Viet
Ha's mother is also crying as she strokes her daughter's long black hair. It is a whole hour before the crying stops.
Ha explains her anguish through gasping breaths: "My husband has never allowed me to come back to Viet Nam since I married him. That was three and a half years ago. Last week, I suffered my fourth miscarriage, and I told him I would commit suicide if I could not visit my mother. So he let me go."
Ha married her South Korean husband after a meeting with a strange matchmaker, who approached her while she was working as a waitress in a restaurant. He asked her whether she wished to live in a foreign country with a rich husband and change her life.
"At that time, it seemed a perfect suggestion. I thought that marrying a foreign man would mean I could live in a dream house and never worry about money again. I thought that love would come eventually if I treated him well and vice versa."
So Ha said "yes, I do," without a moment's hesitation.
Several days later, the matchmaker took her to meet a man 18 years her senior. He wanted to observe her appearance and ask her age. The meeting went well, and the pair spent a three-day holiday together before going to South Korea to finalise the legal marriage procedures.
"It was impossible for me to understand any of his words when we first met. The matchmaker was our translator. But I thought that this wouldn't be a big problem. We could learn."
Many thousands of Vietnamese women aged between 18 and 24 have married with foreigners, mainly from Taiwan (140,000) and South Korea (32,000), via matchmaking services since the beginning of the 21st century – and this is just taking into consideration marriages that have been legally registered. Like Ha, the girls rarely know anything about their future husband and are not prepared for life in a foreign country.
Nguyen Thi Thanh Tam, an expert from the Research Institute of Family and Gender (who have studied the trend extensively), says most of these women hail from rural areas in Cuu Long (Mekong) River Delta provinces such as Dong Thap and Long An, and the northern provinces of Hai Phong, Quang Ninh and Hai Duong.
She says that most see the marriage as a way to a better and financially secure life, which is particularly tempting as often they are unemployed or their families are poor. The illegal matchmakers prey on them for this reason, and take advantage of the belief that life abroad is just like it is presented in TV and films.
When Ha arrived in South Korea with her new husband, she was in for a shock. "As soon as I stepped into my husband's a small apartment, my dreams about a prince and a palace fell apart."
During the first several months, Ha just stayed at home to cook meals and clean their flat. She could hardly communicate with her new husband, but they would have wordless arguments. "He wanted to eat Korean dishes and follow Korean rituals, but I could not do this and it made him angry. I had nobody to talk with and no communication channel to contact my family. I quickly became half wife and half servant."
Eventually she discovered her true predicament. Her new husband had divorced three times before and was maintaining a sexual relationship with another woman.
"I became angry but I knew I did not have any right to complain, as perhaps he explained it to me but the matchmaker did not translate. Still, I thought about running away but I had no money, no help and no permanent residence status."
Previous research shows that most South Korean and Taiwanese men marrying Vietnamese women are manual workers or farmers whose incomes are unstable and low.
Tam says matchmakers who emphasise the financial security the men offer are liars. They usually disguise their business under the guise of tourism consultancy and run weekly tours for foreign men, mainly South Koreans and Taiwanese. These tours are actually organised to help them recruit wives.
Tam says that only 37 per cent of women moving to South Korea can find jobs there, and it is especially difficult for young women who have just graduated from school.
Some Vietnamese wives have been refused access to other people because their husband and his family fear that they will run away. Their money is closely managed by their husbands or mothers-in-law to prevent them from sending money home, and they are rarely presented the chance of getting a permanent residence visa, Tam adds.
"They have no idea about what their rights are because no one told them what they are entitled to," she explains.
Efforts are being made to put an end to this worrying trend. Countries like South Korea and Taiwan have worked hard to support foreign brides, while Viet Nam has tried to crack down on the matchmaking services that allow it to happen.
The Ha Noi-based lawyer Tran Ngoc Khanh Linh says that an amended Government Decree from 2002 prohibits any form of marriage introduction service operated for profit. Services arranging marriage between Vietnamese women and foreign men, and between Vietnamese men and foreign women are prohibited altogether, and violators stand to be fined up to VND20 million (US$950).
However, experts agree that illegal matchmaking services are taking advantage of loopholes in Vietnamese law and different marriage registration procedures in different countries.
Tam says that it is necessary to form legal marriage consultancy centres in Viet Nam to offer potential brides some proper information about their future husbands and lives abroad.
"These should provide people with the necessary knowledge of culture, customs, law, language and communication skills. Then if they choose to say "yes I do" to any foreign man, they will at least be prepared," she says.
Linh suggests legal regulations protecting Vietnamese citizens who marry foreigners and then move abroad should be introduced, and the legal responsibilities of Vietnamese state agencies to them should be clarified.
Meanwhile, Ha plans to return to South Korea, and her waiting husband. She says that they have reached a commitment; she will never leave him and in return he will allow her to learn Korean, find a job and apply for a visa.
Sitting on her doorstep, her eyes red and blotchy from her tears, Ha says "I don't dare leave him and start a different life, which may be more terrible than the current one. But I will take this chance to make it better on my own."— VNS