Huong has had two abortions in two years.
No one had ever talked to her about sex: not her parents, not her teachers — and her friends knew as little as she did.
“I was terrified when I found out I was pregnant…I think if we had been told about safe sex, we would not have fallen into this trap,” the 20-year-old explains.
She is not alone. A lack of sex education at home or in school in Vietnam, has resulted in some relying on abortion as a form of birth control, experts say.
Talking about sex is “sort of forbidden”, says Linh Hoang, a 23-year-old on a mission to change outdated attitudes in a country unused to open discussion about sex or gender identity.
Vietnam has a young population and their sexual values have vaulted the conservative barriers of a Communist country, with dating apps, condoms and abortion pills easily available.
But the generation gap has left young people without information and support as their sex lives evolve.
Parents edge away from the topic of safe sex and society “has no idea what sex education is and how to do it,” said Linh, who recalled her own biology teacher attempting to cover reproduction without explaining what sex was to a group of confused 13-year-olds.
Together with three friends all in their early 20s, Linh runs sex education start-up WeGrow Edu from a co-working space in Hanoi, where they stash gift boxes filled with sanitary pads, pregnancy tests and condoms — as well as vital guides on how and when teens might use them.
“It’s not difficult to get contraception in Vietnam but the social stigma around it is so heavy,” she told AFP.
– Abortion as a contraceptive –
From demonstrations on how to use a condom to more nuanced discussions about gender roles, WeGrow Edu’s classes aim to deliver essential information to Vietnam’s youth.
For decades, Vietnam enforced a two-child policy but had little comprehensive information on reproductive health and no access to free family planning services.
That led to one of the world’s highest rates of abortion, according to sexual health non-profit the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
The scheme was scrapped years ago and condoms are now cheap and available at almost every supermarket and pharmacy. While abortion pills — meant to be signed off by a doctor — are also on offer in some chemists prescription-free.
Abortion rates, although declining, are still high, family planning experts told AFP.
In 2005 there were 37 abortions for every 100 babies born, according to ministry of health data cited by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
By 2019, the official figure had dropped to 12, although the UNFPA says the actual number is thought to be higher given a quarter of abortions take place in private practices.
Huong, a pseudonym to protect her identity, says she had no idea what to do when she discovered she was first pregnant aged 16, after having sex with a friend, and had to ask an older girlfriend for help.
“It really hurt. (After) I felt… so insecure and empty,” she says of the procedure at a private clinic.
She later learnt a little about contraceptives when dating her boyfriend, but not enough to prevent her falling pregnant again at 18. She was able to use easily accessible pills for the abortion.
– ‘Scared parents and teachers’ –
Nguyen Van Cong, a 33-year-old trained doctor and founder of health education programme “We Are Grown Up”, says his team has taught thousands of school kids about safe sex and birth control to combat the “worrying trend” where “abortion is considered a contraceptive method”.
While society has become more permissive and young people have discarded taboos surrounding pre-marital sex, Cong believes parents and teachers “are always scared” to discuss the topic for fear of encouraging sexual activity.
He spoke on the sidelines of a sex ed class at Hanoi school, where teens were urged to discuss everything from masturbation and STDs to contraception.
“(Adults) mostly try to avoid talking to us about the topic,” says Ngo Quang Huy, 17.
A report by Human Rights Watch in February said that Vietnam’s sex education policies and practices fell short of international standards, and were silent on LGBT issues.
WeGrow Edu, partially funded by the US embassy in Vietnam, is now working with around 20 schools in Hanoi.
As well as their gift boxes with contraceptives for teens, children as young as four are given books explaining the basics of consent.
And while the boxes are priced at $50, way out of reach of the average Vietnamese parent, Linh said demand is high.
“Even my friends, when they first received the gift box had to confess that it was their first time touching a condom,” she explained.
“And that’s the case for most people.”