HANOI—Communist Vietnam was until recently a highly moralistic society in which men looked for virgins to marry and unmarried couples were fined for living together, but that now seems to be changing.
Traditionally, an unmarried woman who became pregnant could have her head shaved and smeared with lime as punishment in Vietnam's traditional rural societies.
But increasingly, young Vietnamese who move to the cities and away from traditional strictures are finding it easier to simply move in together, or to have a sexual relationship without settling down.
Vietnam's rapid economic development also means that its surging population of young people—who now account for more than half the country's total population of 87 million—can often afford apartments and homes of their own.
They can also discuss relationships and chat online.
A 2008 study conducted by the Health Ministry found that 66.7 percent of men believe having sex before marriage is "acceptable."
Currently, the average reported age at which Vietnamese youth have sex for the first time is 19.6 years.
But many couples who cohabit in larger cities still keep quiet about it, especially to their families, despite signs that social attitudes to sex are relaxing.
Premarital sex, according to Hanoi-based lawyer Nguyen Viet Son, remains illegal under regulations set forth by the ruling Communist Party.
"People reject the concept that people who are not married can live together as husband and wife," Son said.
"For example, if the police checked residency status and found out that people of two different genders were living with each other without a marriage certificate, they would receive an administrative fine," Son said.
But he added: "Socially some say it’s bad, but others say it’s not."
Morality, or chastity?
"When falling in love, almost every man wants to have sex with his girlfriend," said a Hanoi-based man identified as Phuoc, 21.
But he added that traditional attitudes still linger, even among young men. "Somehow we men want to marry women who are still virgins," he said.
One young man, identified by his nickname "Crazy," said he sees no problem with premarital sex.
"I’m definitely not concerned about this. If all men didn’t care about this issue, it would be great," he said.
"Girls wouldn’t suffer a loss."
Ho Chi Minh City resident Nguyen Thuy Phuong, 34, said morality on the part of men is just as important as chastity for women.
"Sometimes a woman loses her virginity because she met a Don Juan, for example," she said.
"They think of having sex with women the way they think about eating cakes."
Instead, Phuong said, the problem lies with the perceived dominance of men in Vietnamese society.
"They think they can have sex with many women but their wives should be virgins," she said.
"Sometimes I joke if that’s what you think, you should go to a child-care center to find a wife."
Hanoi-based lawyer Son said he doesn't oppose sex before marriage, though he believes chastity is better for both genders.
"In my opinion, sex is showing love. When someone is in love, sex is inevitable," he said.
"We can’t say that when someone has sex before marriage he or she is bad, but we can say he or she loves the other person very much."
Middle-aged women who grew up in harsher times appear to have a more open attitude to sexuality among the young.
Canada-based former Hanoi resident Nguyen Thi Lan, 45, said each case should be treated as a different situation.
Women's risk 'still greater'
"Sometimes they love each other very much and they don’t wait, and as a result, the woman is the one to bear a loss," Lan said.
She said she wouldn't discourage her own 19-year-old daughter from following general social trends.
"If my daughter follows what people are doing in the society, I can’t stop her," she said.
"If she loves someone, she has the choice."
But she added: "If she has a child before getting married, it would be hard for her."
Original reporting and translation by Hạnh Seide. Vietnamese service director: Khanh Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.