The rose oolong tea steamed on the table as regulars at the Little Saigon cafe debated politics, border disputes and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris — a running conversation in French and Vietnamese.
Then a man who had been listening to Radio Free Asia spoke up. “Brother, did you hear about Vietnam abolishing its ban on gay marriage?”
Silence enveloped the cafe.
Gay rights and same-sex marriage are difficult conversations for those in the nation’s largest and most prominent Vietnamese American community. Though attitudes are shifting among younger people, many — particularly those who fled South Vietnam as it fell to the communists — cling to what they call “the old ways.”
“We remember the Vietnam of our childhood, when behavior like this is not allowed in public and you don’t mention it inside or outside the home,” said Cuong Manh Nguyen, 80, of Westminster.
It’s ironic to some here that Vietnam — a communist nation that expatriates say shows little regard for basic human rights — has become the first Southeast Asian country to lift its ban on same-sex marriage.
The government abolished regulations that “prohibit marriage between people of the same sex” and canceled fines that had been levied on same-sex couples but stopped short of giving legal recognition to such unions.
The move is expected to bolster tourism by making Vietnam appear a more accepting country, insiders say.
“The government’s move is a very positive sign that tolerance and understanding is developing,” said Nguyen Anh Tuan, owner of Gay Hanoi Tours based in Vietnam. He said gay tourists from the U.S., northern Europe and Asia represent a large number of the travelers booking trips to Vietnam.
Abolishing the same-sex marriage ban is also an attempt to show progress on human rights, according to experts.
Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Asia for Human Rights Watch, said Vietnam deserves credit for deciding to no longer treat LGBT people “as criminals for expressing their love.” Still, he said, Vietnam continues to violate human rights “with alarming frequency.”
Gay-rights advocates in Little Saigon, meanwhile, have spent years battling for equality.
After organizers barred a group of LGBT activists two years ago from marching in the annual Tet Parade — a celebration of the arrival of the Lunar New Year — protesters stood along the parade route in Westminster, waving signs and rainbow flags. Several politicians made a point of stepping away from the festivities to join them.
Last year, organizers again told the group it could not participate. But they relented amid political pressure and the prospect of losing parade sponsors.
“I think we were the catalyst for a lot of change in community politics,” said Hieu Nguyen, chair of Viet Rainbow of Orange County. The group’s constant lobbying to get into the parade, Nguyen said, convinced some people to at least listen and consider their message of unity.
“Our leaders in this community must look at the younger generation and realize that there are different forms of diversity,” he said. “The community is multilayered. We don’t just have one political theme, we don’t just vote one way. We have many identities and voices.”
Back at the coffeehouse, the conversation continued.
Philip Phan, a Westminster salesman with three children, said he sees room for compromise but is unwilling to accept same-sex marriage.
“My kids tell me, ‘Daddy, it’s normal. We’re old enough to understand these things and to be open.’ But I tell them that no — it is not normal,” said Phan, 54.
“What I believe is that in the course of life, we may come to accept this kind of marriage. But to legalize it? No way. To bring that kind of marriage to a church? To a temple? Or a courthouse? No, no way.”
The customer sitting next to him, a former political prisoner in Vietnam, warned LGBT tourists to be wary if Vietnam rolls out the welcome mat.
“Don’t believe anything these liars say or do,” he said. “One day, any man is free to marry. The next day, he’ll be locked up.”
Phuong Nguyen, the owner of the shop, stayed out of the conversation.
“This is a gathering place for all kinds of talk,” the mother of two said.
She emerged from the kitchen, where she had been cooking shaking beef platter, a house favorite.
“In every community, there should be a spot where people feel free to be themselves.”