‘We or them,’ ‘you and I,’ and ‘I’: spaces of intimacy and (not so) public displays of affection in Hanoi

Laurence Charton & Julie-Anne Boudreau

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Charton, L. & Boudreau, J. (1). ‘We or them,’ ‘you and I,’ and ‘I’: spaces of intimacy and (not so) public displays of affection in Hanoi. Gender, Place & Culture, 24(9), 1303–1322. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0966369x.2017.1372386

Gendered geography , Hanoi , intimacy , public spaces , transgression , visibility

Through an exploratory study of romantic heterosexual couples in a public park situated in Hanoi’s outskirts, this article offers a conceptual rethinking of a western understanding of the park’s public/private dichotomy which can then be used to better appreciate how these categories are evolving in western urbanizing societies and their impacts on gender relations. By developing a relational, spatialized understanding of how young romantic couples justify their ‘transgressive’ displays of sexual intimacy in public spaces in contemporary urban Vietnam, this article focuses on how couples, especially women, manage their visibility. This analysis confronts the public civilizational discourse on Vietnamese sexual restraint by analyzing how young couples justify their romantic displays by creating an intimate space within a public environment. This space of visible intimacy is justified through their commitment to marriage. For the individuals involved in these romantic couples, visibility is justified, particularly for young women, through the enjoyment of a newly gained sexual autonomy as they migrate to the city.

Main finding
The display of romantic expressions in public parks in the city of Hanoi reflects a tension between two fundamental understandings of society: individual or familial concepts. The urbanization and evolving social-spatial relations of Vietnam have opened new social spaces for the youth to express their autonomy and romantic feelings, particularly for young women. Public displays of intimacy in these new social spaces, however, are not viewed by the youth as a confrontational or political movement against family values. Instead, couples’ transgressions are justified by their compliance with social norms that constrain premarital sex. The “you and I” space co-produced by couples in parks is legitimized by the couples’ commitment to marriage. The spaces of “I” and the spaces of “We/Them” remain intertwined and tied together for women more than men. Women use their “I” space by affirming their autonomy from their rural families by expressing intimacy with their partners in the parks but do not cross the line of premarital sex, a “We/Them” space.

Description of method used in the article
Three parks in Hanoi, Vietnam, were selected for this study: Hoa Binh Park, Lenin Memorial Square, and the 34T Plaza. Researchers collected 60 semi-structured interviews with youth, particularly couples, and conducted 120 hours of observation of youth activities in the parks. Interviews were also conducted with policymakers and planners and public space planning and management policies were reviewed.

Theoretically interesting

Organising categories

Interviews Participant Observation
Urban Design
Physical types
Geographic locations