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In Vietnam, stigma falls by the wayside as HIV patients build happy lives with uninfected partners

Thursday, December 19, 2019, 22:18 GMT+7
In Vietnam, stigma falls by the wayside as HIV patients build happy lives with uninfected partners
People attend the Ho Chi Minh City VietPride parade to show their support for the LGBT community on September 14, 2019. Photo: Duyen Phan / Tuoi Tre

In Vietnam, a country where the stigma surrounding HIV is so high that HIV-positive children are often abandoned by parents or barred from attending school, the rising number of mixed-status couples – relationships with one partner being HIV-positive and the other HIV-negative – is a sign that perceptions of the virus are changing.

‘It’s not a big deal’

Nguyen Dieu Linh, a Ho Chi Minh City resident, is in one of these mixed-status relationships. 

Her HIV-negative boyfriend, a local man ten years her junior, fully accepts her for who she is, not the virus she carries. 

“It’s not a big deal. I don’t see you any differently," Linh’s boyfriend replied when she told him she was infected. 

For Linh, that conversation was a turning point in her life. 

When she first found out her ex-husband had been infected with the virus, she planned to kill herself. 

Nguyen Trung V., from the northern province of Quang Ninh, has also found love with an HIV-negative partner since he first became infected after sharing drug needles.

The diagnosis led to his now-ex-girlfriend’s family forcing her to end the relationship. 

Eventually, V. found a new partner, to whom he is now happily married. 

The mixed-status couple has a son, who of course was born happy, healthy, and HIV-negative.

Linh and V. are among a group of ten people living with HIV whose stories are featured in a handbook released by Kid's Sun Group, an organization which works to support HIV patients in Vietnam, encourage them to live normal lives, and lower the social stigma surrounding the virus.

The handbook also features another story about Dinh The M. 

M. was in his 20s when a heroin epidemic overtook Quang Ninh Province’s Ha Long City and it was not long until he found himself slipping further and further into a life of addiction. 

Eventually, his mother came to him, in tears and on her knees, and begged him to quit.

M. knew he needed to make a change if he was to keep on living and decided to quit. 

As a reminder of the promise he made to himself and to his mother to leave drugs in his past, the man, now 47, chopped off his finger and began rehab.

Though the rehab helped him leave heroin behind, he found out he had HIV.

In 2004, M. began receiving HIV treatment at the Institute of Clinical Medicine of Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, now the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases, where he met T., a freshman from the Hanoi University of Science and Technology.

People attend the Ho Chi Minh City VietPride parade to show their support for LGBT community on September 14, 2019. Photo: Duyen Phan / Tuoi Tre

People attend the Ho Chi Minh City VietPride parade to show their support for the LGBT community on September 14, 2019. Photo: Duyen Phan / Tuoi Tre

The two fell in love, but their families were not shy in voicing their disapproval of the relationship.

“You’ll only hurt her if you love her because of your health condition,” M.’s father told him.

Still, familial opposition had little effect on the young couple and the two wound up getting married.

M. currently has a good job, steady income, and, perhaps most importantly, an undetectable viral load which allows him the possibility to have healthy babies with his HIV-negative wife.

A one-night stand gone wrong

Nguyen Manh P. was born the son of a businessman father and doctor mother in Hanoi.

After finishing high school, P. enrolled in a famous international university in the capital city and eventually found a job at a foreign-owned corporation.

It was a dream life until he found out that unprotected sex during a one-night stand had left him infected with HIV.

Kid’s Sun Group stepped in and encouraged P. to seek out treatment.

Since then, he has been able to lead a relatively normal life. 

He currently lives with an HIV-negative boyfriend and the couple uses a combination of condoms and PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) to keep from spreading the virus.

Ly Thien H., a 29-year-old from Ho Chi Minh City, became infected in 2015 after having unprotected sex with a man he met on the Internet.

Two years later, H. discovered the encounter had led to his HIV infection.

The news left his mother in shock and led his sisters to abandon him.

Fortunately, H. was introduced to the Vietnam Network of People Living with HIV, an organization which offered him psychological and mental support, as well as treatment advice.

H. now lives with an undetectable viral load and is involved in a loving relationship with an HIV-negative boyfriend.

Now, H. spends his free time offering his own support to people living with HIV, providing community-based HIV-related services, managing an online counseling group for young people living with the virus.

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