Korean “grooms” at a “bride choosing” site in Haiphong.
A small van pulled up to the door of a hotel in a beach resort town near Haiphong City late in March. A woman shouted out “The grooms are coming, grooms are coming!” Four Korean men in black suits got out of the car and entered the hotel to choose their future wives from among nearly 100 excited Vietnamese girls.
Meanwhile, the young women hurriedly prepared for the selection in the hotel’s ballroom, touching up their makeup, checking their appearance in a mirror. They were mainly farm girls and industrial zone workers who had been recruited by marriage brokers.
Among them was a small woman wearing plastic sandals, with long hair and an innocent smile. She said she is a farm girl and she doesn’t know how to make up her face. “I’ve taken a day off from weeding my field today to attend this selection, hoping to change my life. It is very hard to live as a farmer,” she said, stroking her hair with scratched hands.
The Korean men weren’t scheduled to arrive until ten a.m., but from nine a.m. on the 100 square meter room was packed. Girls grouped up to exchange what they’d heard about the life of Vietnamese brides in South Korea.
“Someone told me that Hoa, who was selected at this very hotel last year, is very happy now,” a young woman said. “Does she send gifts and money to her family monthly?” An older woman who is a marriage broker answered her. “Hoa sent over $2000 to her parents this Tet holiday. Her family has recently received an electric rice cooker and irons.”
Mai from Ha Nam province told a reporter that successful “candidates” typically take part in three rounds of selection. In the first round, marriage brokers take photographs or film them, and collect their phone numbers and some personal information. The young women sign an agreement allowing brokers to post their pictures on the Internet.
Girl awaiting for their turn.
In the second round, would-be Korean grooms see the “candidates” in person and ask them questions about their work, education, family, hobbies and, of course, “why do you want to marry a Korean man?” From among several dozens of young women, each Korean man will choose four or five for the final round.
Many women have participated in a dozens of these selection events but they have not been “chosen” yet. They said the bride selections are as difficult as university entrance exams.
Bao, the chief broker, announced “Girls of 25-35, please come here. Here’s a groom who is 48 years old. His home is 250 kilometers from Seoul. His wife died one year ago. He has two children but they are already married. His monthly income is around 40 million dong ($2000). He doesn’t need a pretty girl but only one who loves him. . . .”
Seeing some shy girls who were participating for the first time, Bao called out “Hey, you in the violet blouse girl, do you want to marry a Korean husband or not? Why do you hesitate? Come here to try your luck!”
Many of the candidates thought that it would be easy for them to be selected by this tall man with a leaden complexion, but one by one the girls left the interview room after several minutes.
“He is old and does farmwork but he is very scrawny. If I had known it would be like this, I would not have come here but instead I would have taken part in a selection in Thuy Nguyen district,” said a girl named Giang, 28.
Giang has attended several selections and she knows how to smoothly answer the personal questions she is asked. Even so, every time she’s been rejected, and doesn’t know why.
At 1.30pm, 20 of the young women were chosen for the third round and finally, four of them –Thuy, Hoa, Le and Phuong – had been accepted as brides.
Why do girls choose Korean men?
A “bride selection” held at a hotel in Haiphong.
If at first they fail, many girls clamor to participate in other selections. The brokers organize them very often in Do Son, Thuy Nguyen or downtown Haiphong.
The home of a broker named Madam That in Lap Le commune, Thuy Nguyen district, is one of the biggest bride selecting “centres” in Haiphong. One day nearly 100 young women gathered there for a selection of Korean men. They whispered that the men they saw that day were good-looking but old.
Overhearing such comments, a broker said: “You are foolish. Why do you pine for young men who live in cities? Old and ugly men will pamper you.”
Le Khac Dung, the head of Pha Le commune, also in Thuy Nguyen district, said that nearly 400 local girls have married foreigners in the last five years, accounting for 70 percent of the total marriages in the commune.
He said the local authorities know about illegal marriage brokers but commune-level governments don’t have the power to deal with this.
There are hundreds of reasons for Vietnamese girls to marry Korean men but they all admit that it is a lot like gambling.
Receiving a red rose from one of the Korean grooms, Thuy’s eyes brimmed with tears. Other girls congratulated Thuy but they still wondered whether Thuy would be happy in South Korea. In a short interview, this chubby girl had learned only that her future husband is a 38 year-old farmer.
“That’s good enough for me! My eight month-old daughter will stay with my mother, at least for now. I will work out other things later,” Thuy said.
Thuy was born in a poor family in Kien Thuy district. She got married at 19, but discovered that her husband was a drug addict when their daughter was several months old. After the husband was sent to a rehabilitation centre, she divorced him.
Soon afterward, Thuy began attending the ‘selections.’ Before the Tet holiday, a Korean electrician chose her but when she was about to leave Vietnam, that 37-year-old man found out that she had been married and had a baby, so he canceled the marriage.
Thuy said brokers all recommend that the girls tell the Korean grooms that they are single, but Thuy had cried out, missing her baby, during a three day tour to Cat Ba Island with her ‘fiance.’
A Korean man talks with his future wife (in yellow) at a selection in Do Son, Haiphong.
Phuong, 32, is from Hai Duong province, between Hanoi and Haiphong. She is divorced with two sons. Phuong has participated in many selections, hoping to escape from her current life and prove to her former husband that she can marry another man.
She said that marrying a Korean man is like gambling because the brides don’t know anything about their future husbands and their families.
Phuong has a junior high school education. She was married over ten years ago and she had to suffer frequent beatings by her drunken husband. At last she divorced him and takes care of one of her two sons.
“Farmwork is very hard work, and I can’t earn enough to live on. I wish to find a good husband to support my son,” she said.
It’s not just unfortunate women but also young girls, even high-school students, who flock to the bride selections. Many people were surprised to see a young girl named Hao at a selection in Thuy Nguyen district because this girl had been chosen by a Korean man at a selection in Do Son several days earlier. The future husband was introduced as a businessman from Seoul. However, Hao didn’t want to marry this 37-year-old man because, though he seemed gentle, he is not rich.
“I’m young and I have a lot of opportunities. If I marry a foreign man, it will be one who is able to assist my family,” she said. Hao is a student at a colleage in Haiphong.
This nimble girl said that she has attended many selections to gain experience. If she meets a rich man, she is ready to quit school to follow her husband.
Girls like Hao are typically escorted by their mothers or elder sisters at selections. Hao’s mother said her family is not poor and Hao could work as an accountant in Haiphong after graduation but the family wants their daughter go to Korea.
At a selection in early March, Hao passed nearly 100 candidates to enter the final round. However, the Korean grooms didn’t meet her standards: none was sufficiently tall, handsome, not very old, and rich.
While many girls want to marry a Korean husband, some Vietnamese brides have been disillusioned and returned home.
Seeing her friends marrying foreign men, Mai, a tailor, decided to participate in the selections. She married to a 42-year-old Korean man, who was introduced as the owner of a dairy farm. Mai’s parents sold all their valuable assets to amass 30 million dong to pay for brokers. Before going to Korea, Mai told her parents that she would soon send money to help them.
But after three days in Korea, Mai knew that she was cheated because the man she met in Vietnam is not her husband in Korea. Mai found a way to phone home to tell her family tearfully about her life as a virtual prisoner. The family asked Hwang, the Korean husband of Mai’s cousin, and the Vietnamese Embassy in Korea to assist Mai.
Now back home, Mai works as a hairdresser, earning money to pay her family’s debt of four years ago.
For many brides, there’s no happy ending
According to the General Statistical Office, nearly 32,000 Vietnamese women married foreign men, mainly Taiwanese and Koreans, from 2007 to 2009.
Dr. Le Thi Quy, director of the Centre for Gender Research and Development, who has studied marriages between Vietnamese women and foreigners, said that cases like Mai’s are not rare. “Only some of them are lucky to have good husbands. Many of their marriages are tragic. Some are tricked into marriage with disabled or mentally ill people. Some have become victims of domestic violence,” Quy said.