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On April 6, 2022, Da Thao Phuong, a Vietnamese female poet, published an open letter on her social media account. Phuong’s letter accused Luong Ngoc An, a former coworker at the Van Nghe (Literature and Arts) newspaper, of sexually harassing and raping her multiple times while she was working there as a young reporter. According to her accusations, she got pregnant and had to have an abortion following the alleged rape. Da Thao Phuong’s accusations caused a stir in Vietnam’s social media sphere and the literary community last year.
Da Thao Phuong is the pen name of Phan Thi Thanh Thuy, who currently resides in Cyprus. Her open letter was initially addressed to the executive committee of the Vietnam Writers’ Association and the editorial board of Van Nghe newspaper. Luong Ngoc An, at the time, was the deputy general editor at Van Nghe.
The poet’s letter was followed by consequential posts on social media, where she described in graphic detail how an allegedly abused and manipulated male boss raped her many times between July 1999 and April 2000. Phuong also attached the meeting memos between her and the editorial board of Van Nghe, recorded during their working sessions in February 2003. The working sessions were conducted three years after she first sent a handwritten report to its editorial board. Apart from publishing the accusations, the poet also described her pain.
More significantly, Da Thao Phuong’s letter sparked a potential #MeToo movement in Vietnam, opening a floodgate for robust discussions about the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in Vietnam’s workplace. In her letter, Phuong explained that the victims of sexual assault in Vietnam often get blamed by the public after they share their experiences, which makes the perpetrators more likely to hunt for the next victims. “This situation needs to change,” she wrote.
Phuong’s letter also drew accusations from other victims. Bui Mai Hanh, a Vietnamese writer living in Australia, also denounced sexual attacks by Luong Ngoc An in a Facebook post  published on April 13, 2022. Hanh alleged that An, who was one of her fellow classmates at a writing school, attempted to rape her when he came to her home one late evening. But the rape attempt was unsuccessful. According to Hanh’s post, An only let her go after she told him she was menstruating.
In addition to igniting discussions about the hidden peril of sexual assault in Vietnam’s patriarchal society, the experience of Da Thao Phuong accentuated the traditional prejudice against victims of abuse, and the bureaucracy and cronyism in state-controlled bureaus, which hamper the process of holding sexual perpetrators accountable.
All accusations and open letters published by Da Thao Phuong and other alleged victims of Luong Ngoc An were written in Vietnamese and only available on social media. Therefore, the documentation and translation of these materials are crucial to helping journalists and researchers study the context of sexual violence in Vietnam. With the authors' permission, the Journal of Vietnamese Studies (JVS), a subsidiary publication of the University of California Press, translated and republished these social media posts in their Fall 2022 issue. 
The JVS documentation includes translating Da Thao Phuong’s handwritten letters, which were publicly uploaded to her Facebook account, and meeting memos between the poet and trade union representatives and board directors of Van Nghe Newspaper. It also contains an introductory essay and commentaries regarding the case of Da Thao Phuong and sexual violence in Vietnam, another accusation made by the poet Bui Mai Hanh against the sexual misconduct of Luong Ngoc An, letters addressed to Da Thao Phuong by her sister, Phan Thanh Thuy, and Do Bach Mai, another Vietnamese female poet.
The Vietnamese public reaction to Da Thao Phuong’s rape allegations deserves careful observation because it reflects the general attitude towards the victims of sexual violence in the country.
In an opening essay  published in JVS, Nguyen Thu Huong, a lecturer who teaches anthropology, gender, and sexuality at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi, describes how the personal stories shared by the female poet had drawn considerable support and sympathy from Vietnam’s social media users, including several celebrities and media influencers.
Many have also raised concerns over widespread sexual harassment and assault in modern Vietnamese society. Supportive hashtags such as #dungbenphuong, #byphuong, and #standbyphuong emerged and were widely circulated on Facebook following the poet’s initial published allegation. Her social media post has received over 65 thousand interactions and 11 thousand shares at the time of this writing.
According to lecturer Huong, Da Thao Phuong’s courage to publicize her personal story as a victim of sexual violence has reignited a Vietnamese version of the #MeToo movement. Generally speaking, sexual violence still remains a sensitive topic in Vietnam. While sexual jokes remain prevalent in daily conversations, people usually avoid discussing problems such as sex-motivated crimes. Furthermore, victims of sexual harassment and abuse in Vietnam are often compelled to remain silent because of social stigma, misogyny, and the victim-blaming narratives that dominate the country’s public discussions.
The social movement against sexual violence and rape culture was believed to unfold in Vietnam in 2018 following the accusation of a young female intern at Tuoi Tre Newspaper, a local newsroom, who alleged that its senior editor raped her. Another sexual scandal, this time in Vietnam’s show business, broke out the same year after a popular singer, Pham Anh Khoa, was accused of committing sexual harassment against three women. The singer issued apologies to the victims after the United Nations Population Fund Vietnam terminated their partnership with him, regarding, ironically, a campaign preventing violence against girls and women.
Two other major sexual harassment incidents  happened in Vietnam in 2022 before Da Thao Phuong revealed her experience on social media. But most of the time, the accusations made by victims of sexual harassment in Vietnam often subside with little intervention from the relevant authorities.
The first case occurred in February when Ngo Hoang Anh, a technician working as an information technology expert in a COVID-19 preventive task force at Vietnam’s Ministry of Health, was accused of committing sexual harassment against a student at Pho Thong Nang Khieu High School, Ho Chi Minh City, where Anh is an alumnus. The female student claimed that Anh had sent amorous texts and sexually flirted with her over a period of two years.
The incident fueled a massive public outcry after Forbes Vietnam chose Ngo Hoang Anh as one of the magazine’s influential figures under 30. The public denounced the results and requested Forbes Vietnam remove Anh from its list, “Under 30.” The technician denied all allegations and said that he was “willing to provide all necessary, unedited evidence” to “protect the integrity [and] legal interests” of himself and relevant parties. A week later, Forbes Vietnam eventually removed Anh from its list due to the constant pressure from the public. The Ministry of Health has not issued any comments regarding the case.
The second incident occurred in March 2022, when V.N.H. (whose name was written in initials only), a former beauty contestant, accused L.M.T., a former senior lecturer at Hanoi Law University, of mentally abusing and sexually assaulting her for almost two years. Following V.N.H.’s allegation, another lecturer who teaches labor law at the university was condemned by multiple students for sexually harassing them. The law university has demanded that Hanoi Police investigate the case, declaring that they do not “tolerate” and “cover-up” such misconduct. The police resumed investigating the accusation in September after adjourning the case earlier in July. As of December 2022, the police and Hanoi Law University have not provided further updates or investigation results regarding the incident.
From a legal perspective, the 1999 Penal Code, which was applicable in Vietnam in the first decade of the 2000s, and the current 2015 Penal Code, amended in 2017, have different definitions regarding rape and other sexually motivated crimes.
Under Article 111 of the precedent Penal Code of 1999, rape was defined as “an act committed by someone who through means of violence or threats of violence, by taking advantage of the victim’s helplessness, or by any other means, engages in sexual intercourse against the victim’s will.” This law determined whether rape was committed by looking at the perpetrator’s behavior in forcing the victim to engage in sexual intercourse against her will. Its definition did not require the act of sexual intercourse to have been completed physiologically when ejaculation was detected to be viewed as rape.
Meanwhile, the crime of “forced sex,” as regulated in Article 113, was defined as “[using] any available means to force any vulnerable person [...] to engage in sexual intercourse.” On the other hand, the definition of this law was considered more specific than the legal determination of “rape.” It also considered other vital elements, for example, the victim’s state of unconsciousness and desperate situation or her socially fragile condition, which ruled out the possibility of self-defense when the sexual assault was committed.
These former codes contained several shortcomings, argues lecturer Nguyen Thu Huong. The alleged rape committed against Da Thao Phuong happened in the early 2000s, when the 1999 Penal Code still applied in Vietnam. In actual criminal procedures, “coitus” was often used as a primary determinant in sexual assault cases. Therefore, completing the sexual activity, ejaculation, and vaginal penetration were deemed necessary indicators for this crime's conviction.
As a result, medical examinations must be performed to detect semen or vaginal penetration. But according to the lecturer, it was impossible to detect the sign of penetration in a rape victim, especially if she is a sexually experienced woman, unless she was examined soon after the sexual intercourse. Such an approach, which heavily depends on the evidence of bodily injuries on the part of a female victim, led to many reports of rape committed against sexually experienced women being dismissed or unjustly adjudicated.
Progressive changes regarding the legal definition and social awareness of sexual assault in Vietnam have transpired over the past two decades. Vietnam’s current Penal Code, applied in 2015 and amended in 2017, includes more detailed legal definitions regarding sexual abuse cases. These statutes have guided the interpretation of various kinds of “sexual acts,” in addition to “rape” and “forced sex.” They also contain clear provisions for adjudicating sexual assault cases involving victims under 18 and 10.
Furthermore, other issues, such as forced sex within marriage and sexual harassment in the workplace, are legally defined and regulated in the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control, updated on November 21, 2007, and the new Labor Code, issued on November 20, 2019. The Law on Gender Equality, passed in 2006, is also expected to narrow the gender gap and reduce discrimination against women in Vietnam.
This is considered a progressive development in Vietnam’s legal system. Nevertheless, the new law regulating domestic violence, a civil code, still excludes “rape” and other coercive, violent sexual acts from its general provisions of forced sex. Rape and violent sexual crimes are under the jurisdiction of the penal code. Therefore, nonconsensual sex within marriage is not always viewed as rape. The author believes that such shortcomings reflect that legal definitions regarding sexual assault have not moved away from gender-based stereotypes in Vietnam.
The progressive adjustments in Vietnam’s legal system concerning sexual assault are the result of determined efforts, with the proposal and implementation of new laws, policies, and programs made by the government of Vietnam to eliminate violence against women and girls. The fight against gender-based violence and discrimination also reflect the government’s desire to meet international milestones such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Millennium Development Goals, and the Sustainable Development Goals.
National programs focusing on educating and raising public awareness of sexual harassment and violence have been introduced by the Vietnamese government. The prime minister has designated June as Vietnam’s National Action Month for Domestic Violence Prevention and Control with Decision No. 363/QD-TTg issued on March 8, 2016. Another legal resolution, Decision No. 793/QD-TTg, was issued in the same year, choosing July 30 as the National Day against Trafficking in Persons.
In 2019, the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs, through the issuance of Decision No. 1953/QD-LDTBXH, approved the implementation plan of the National Action Month for Gender Equality and Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Control. The campaign message was “eliminating violence committed against women and children.” The event occurred from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15, 2019.
In her open letter published on April 6, 2022, titled  “My Rapist Is Now the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Van Nghe Newspaper,” on her personal Facebook account, Phuong described in detail how Luong Ngoc An, who was then a driver at Van Nghe, allegedly attempted to rape her.
According to Phuong’s letter, the incident occurred on April 4, 2000, when she worked alone in Van Nghe Tre’s editorial room. Several writers and artists working at the newsroom reportedly witnessed and confirmed the alleged rape in a report sent to the editorial board of Van Nghe on April 20, 2000.
On February 26, 2003,  the Trade Union of Van Nghe Tre hosted a conference with Luong Ngoc An regarding the rape allegations reported by Da Thao Phuong. The participants included the chairperson of the Trade Union, the head of Van Nghe Tre, the head of the Ethnic Literature and Arts Division, and Luong Ngoc An.
According to the meeting memo, An claimed that he and Phuong had a voluntary romantic relationship at the time and that the alleged rape was a “fight” between two lovers. But the female poet rejected  this claim in another Facebook post. The Trade Union settled the issue, and two newspaper divisions suggested Luong Ngoc An “come up with practical solutions to placate [Da Thao Phuong].” The alleged rape was only determined to be “an altercation" at the time.
On April 10, 2022, the Executive Committee of the Vietnam Writers’ Association sent a letter  via email to Da Thao Phuong in response to the poet’s open accusation. The association, in their letter, said that the incident that occurred in 2000 had been “resolved administratively and internally within the Van Nghe newspaper” and that neither she nor An “had made a written request to the concerned agencies that the case be dealt with according to the law.”
The association added, "There is no satisfactory basis nor authority to administratively deal once again with an incident that occurred at Van Nghe newspaper in 2000.” Therefore, it suggested that Phuong “send [her] letters and requests to the relevant agencies that have legal authority to handle the matter according to the legal process.”
As of this writing, on January 16, 2023, the Vietnamese authorities have not responded to the allegations reported by Da Thao Phuong. The Vietnam Women’s Union, an organization under the management of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, whose mission  is to “strive for the development of women and gender equality” in Vietnam, has also remained silent about the incident.
The case of Da Thao Phuong signifies the lack of transparency and responsibility of capable authorities in investigating rape allegations occurring in State-run agencies. Many other cases of sexual assault are also believed to have been covered up to preserve the dignity of the Vietnamese government. The public in Vietnam has observed the same sort of opaque explanations provided by Vietnamese Army officials regarding the recent sexual assaults that allegedly happened  in the Center for National Defense and Security Training of the Military School Military Region 7 in Ho Chi Minh City.
Responsible authorities in Vietnam should give transparent answers and conduct thorough investigations into sexual-related crimes, especially when such misconduct occurs in State-run agencies. This is an urgent task since Vietnam wants to eradicate gender-based violence and develop an equal society.
Nonetheless, Da Thao Phuong was among only a handful of victims of sexual assault in Vietnam who decided to stand up and speak about their experience.
“Standing up to expose this truth, I know that I am putting my stable life and my family at risk of hurt and danger. But I have no other choice,” Da Thao Phuong wrote in her open letter. “I hope this truth will be heard and met with useful action to make our community less polluted and more civilized.”
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