Nearly 70 young Vietnamese women swept past in groups of five, twirling and posing like fashion models, all competing for the hand of a Taiwanese man who had paid a matchmaking service about $6,000 for the privilege of marrying one of them.
Sporting jeans and a black T-shirt, 20-year-old Le Thi Ngoc Quyen paraded in front of the stranger, hoping he would select her.
"I felt very nervous," she recalled recently as she described the scene. "But he chose me, and I agreed to marry him right away."
Like many women from the Mekong Delta island of Tan Loc, Quyen had concluded that finding a foreign husband was her best route out of poverty. Six years later, she has a beautiful daughter and no regrets.
Men are mostly from Taiwan and South Korea
From the delta in Vietnam's south to small rural towns in the north, a growing number of young Vietnamese women are marrying foreigners, mostly from Taiwan and South Korea. They seek material comfort and, most important, a way to save their parents from destitution in old age, which many Vietnamese consider their greatest duty.
Quyen has not gotten rich — her husband earns a modest living as a construction worker — but the couple have paid off her father's debts.
Young women have become Tan Loc's most lucrative export. Roughly 1,500 village women from the island of 33,000 people have married foreigners in the past decade, leading some to call it Taiwan Island.
Women in Tan Loc and other delta towns began marrying foreigners in the 1990s, when Vietnam opened up economically and many Taiwanese and South Korean firms set up operations in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's southern business hub.
Poverty and the close proximity of foreign businessmen seem to be major reasons for the trend. The biggest complaints come from women's groups, who consider it demeaning, and from young village men for whom the pool of potential brides is shrinking.
With money from foreign sons-in-law, many residents in Tan Loc have replaced their thatch-roof shacks with brick homes. They have also opened small restaurants and shops, creating jobs in a place where people have traditionally earned pennies a day picking rice and other crops in the blistering sun.
The luckier families received enough to build ponds for fish farming.
Western Union has opened a branch to handle the money sent by newlyweds.
"At least 20 percent of the families on the island have been lifted out of poverty," said Phan An, a university professor who has done extensive research in Tan Loc. "There has been a significant economic impact."
Some marriages fail
Not all the marriages work out, of course.
Dam Psi Kin Sa went to Taiwan nine years ago, at the age of 20, and married a Taiwanese car wash owner more than twice her age who had been divorced three times. She met him through a matchmaking service.
Five years later, her husband demanded a divorce and locked her out of the house. Even though she had learned his language, Mandarin Chinese, the couple had trouble communicating. "We were angry at each other in a quiet way," she said in Taipei, where she has remained to be close to her daughter.
Over the past year, one Vietnamese bride was beaten to death by her South Korean husband, another jumped out a 14th-story window and a third hanged herself on Valentine's Day, leaving behind a diary full of misery.
"A marriage that is not based on love often brings problems," said Hoang Thi Thanh Ha of the Vietnam Women's Union. "How can you live happily ever after when you met your husband three weeks before the wedding?"
Nevertheless, most young women in Tan Loc seem eager to marry a foreigner. Le Thanh Lang recently went to the town hall to get papers confirming she is single and eligible to marry.
"Any country will do, I'll take anyone who will accept me," she said, waving the papers. "I need to send money to my parents."
Besides the marriage broker's fee, the groom gives about $300 to his bride's family, Lang said. After that, if all goes well, her husband may send up to several thousand dollars a year to her family — depending on what he can afford.
Husbands send money to brides' families
Many Tan Loc families with married daughters abroad have big homes with color TVs, new furniture and karaoke machines.
Their neighbors live in huts.
Tran Thi Sach's concrete home, with four large rooms and shiny green tile floors, is a mansion by island standards.
"Since my daughters got married, I've retired," said Sach, 59, who used to toil in the rice fields with her husband.
"We lived in a shack," she said. "We had to work no matter how hot it was, no matter how much it rained, from 5 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. Sometimes we could only afford rice porridge."
When her daughter Tho first said she planned to go to a marriage broker, Sach objected. What if her in-laws abused her? Where would she turn for help?
Tho married six years ago, and her younger sister Loi two years later.
"Their husbands are gentle, handsome and hardworking," Sach said. "They are really fine men."
Next door, Nguyen Thi Chin lives in a two-room shack with the roof so leaky that when it rains she must move from spot to spot to avoid getting wet. Each of her seven children married a Vietnamese, all of them poor. At 70, she is still working, pulling mussels from the muck in the Mekong River.
"I could never have a house like that," Chin said, glancing next door. "It's my destiny to be poor. If I had another daughter, I'd ask her to marry a foreigner."
Numbers of weddings to foreigners on rise
More than 100,000 Vietnamese women have married Taiwanese men over the last 10 years and the numbers are rising, said Gow Wei Chiou of the Taiwan representative office in Hanoi. In the same period, roughly 28,000 Korean men married Vietnamese, according to the Vietnam Women's Union.
As more Taiwanese and Korean women move to cities to work, many men in those countries, especially those from rural areas, face increasing difficulty finding wives, said Chiou.
"Taiwanese women want to get married when they are much older, and they are also very opinionated," said Lin Wen-jui, 39, who met his Vietnamese wife through a Taiwanese friend in Ho Chi Minh City. She has since taken a Taiwanese name, learned Mandarin and opened a restaurant.
The overseas marriage trend has been boosted by online matchmaking services such as the Singapore-based Mr. Cupid, which offers a "comprehensive Vietnamese marriage package" and five-day matchmaking tours. "No one ever came on our trip without finding their dream bride," the site boasts.
In 2002, not long after Quyen went through her paces for her Taiwanese future husband, the Vietnam government outlawed commercial matchmaking services. Vietnamese media were reporting the phenomenon in vivid detail, and authorities said they were concerned that the business could be a cover for trafficking women into prostitution.
"They take hundreds of women at a time to a hotel and line them up for the men," said Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh, vice chairwoman of the Ho Chi Minh City Women's Union, a government agency that supports women. "It's very disrespectful."
But although driven underground, the practice continues, abetted by village matchmakers and secluded meetings with suitors.
Half the brides in such marriages are under 21, half the grooms between 40 and 60.
"Sometimes the men ask them to pose naked," Nguyen said "It's inhumane."
Memories of the matchmaking
Quyen still has vivid memories of going to the matchmaker's house in Ho Chi Minh City, a 120-mile bus ride and a world away from Tan Loc.
"I was scared," she said.
Quyen made the final five. Speaking through an interpreter, the man asked a few simple questions: How many brothers and sisters do you have? How far did you go in school?
They had dinner and Quyen agreed to marry him on the spot.
"My life in Taiwan is good," she said during a visit to Tan Loc. "My husband and his family treat me well."
Life is not so good, however, for the young men in Tan Loc who watch the exodus of marriage-aged women with despair.
"If all the girls leave," said Nguyen Hoang Mong, 19. "there won't be anyone left for us. Marriage shouldn't be about money. It should be about love."