, HO CHI MINH CITY, May 19 – In Vietnam’s fast-growing commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City, most people buy cheap condoms from no-frills roadside kiosks, at the drug store or in supermarkets.
But two brothers have opened an upmarket condom boutique here, saying customers want more choice and more sophisticated options – even in a country known for being socially conservative, where sex education is taboo.
"Doing this business is good for the public and the society," says Nguyen Khanh Phong, 28.
"We went to the authorities and asked for permission and they allowed us," adds his 21-year-old brother Nguyen Hoang Long.
"Now things come easier," he adds, noting that the business – open for more than two months now – is thriving.
The shop, called Volcano, makes no attempt to hide what it’s selling. Condom boxes are stuck to the glass doors of the tiny store, the walls are painted pink and shelves are stacked with condoms from across Asia.
"We spent a lot of money," Phong says. "It looks friendly."
The Fuji Shock brand from Japan is currently popular amongst Volcano’s customers, even though it costs about five times as much as the 5,000-dong (29-cent) box of three locally made VIP condoms.
"When they take this out, it’s like some chocolate candy," Phong says, showing off the shiny wrapper.
Another Japanese condom on display has a light that illuminates when the man ejaculates.
"Our customers really like the design of the Japanese condoms," Long adds.
High-tech Japanese condoms are not for sale at Tai Sanh’s condom booth, one of many spread out in the ethnic Chinese quarter of the southern city, formerly known as Saigon.
Cigarette in hand, Sanh, 60, sits on a low red stool behind his display case filled with boxes of VIP condoms. Customers looking for something more exotic may opt for the X-Men. At 10,000 dong each, the condom has round rubber studs.
Sanh says roadside vendors make buying condoms much easier, especially for Ho Chi Minh City’s legion of motorcycle riders who can simply pull up, make their purchase and quickly be on their way.
"We sell a lot," Sanh says, adding that he stays out of trouble with the authorities by not selling pornographic DVDs, sex toys or fake anti-impotency drugs, which are banned.
In the capital Hanoi last month, authorities seized bags of aphrodisiacs and sex toys hidden in a tree along a street known for the illicit business, Thanh Nien newspaper reported.
Making and distributing pornography and other "debauched cultural products" can be punished with jail terms of up to 15 years in communist Vietnam.
But such things are easy to find.
At one Chinese medicine shop in Ho Chi Minh City, a vendor scurried to the back of the store, where he furtively demonstrated a battery-operated purple and red dildo that lit up.
Long and Phong stick to selling condoms, which they say is a big enough market in a country where attitudes about sex are changing — especially among the youth.
"Vietnamese are open-minded people," Long says.
They say they want to offer their customers the widest variety of condoms available. They even stock the locally-made brands, although Phong says they lack "special features".
The brothers say their customers are willing to pay for quality and service.
Frequent buyers receive a discount. For their more shy customers, they offer delivery service.
"To open this shop we spent more than 20 million dong," but first-week sales reached around 1.5 million dong and revenue now exceeds 10 million dong per week, Long says.
The pair say they will open new condom outlets next month in Ho Chi Minh City and in nearby Tay Ninh province, and are also looking for a location in the central city of Hue, Vietnam’s ancient royal capital.
Business may be good, but in a city where billboards warn about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, the brothers say they are actually serving a greater good, one backed by the authorities.
"The government is encouraging us to sell this," Long says.