Now government officials have started doing their part, too, by calling on all hotels in the city to distribute free condoms.

Some hotels already carry free contraceptives courtesy of a limited district-level effort from last year. At one love hotel in a working-class neighborhood far from the city center, a large yellow-and-blue sign announces rooms for $2.40 per hour. Inside, the owner shows me a basket of condoms given to her by local officials; they told her to call them when she runs out. “Before, guests would ask for condoms, but we didn’t have any,” she says. “This is more convenient and comfortable for them.”

Last month, apparently realizing that earlier campaigns to discourage extramarital sex have failed, local authorities decreed that condoms should be made available for free. They won’t be supplying or paying for them, but the announcement itself clears up uncertainties for hotel owners who had been worried that by providing condoms they might be breaking antiprostitution laws.

The Ho Chi Minh government hopes the initiative will help limit unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. One-quarter million Vietnamese have H.I.V., according to U.S.A.I.D. And a representative of the U.N. Population Fund in Hanoi told me that in Vietnam more than 22 fetuses are aborted for every 100 babies born. (Other estimates are much higher.)

The authorities are targeting hotels because that’s where most extramarital sex happens. Vietnamese customarily live with their parents until they start their own families, and sometimes even after that. Those who move out early tend to share cramped quarters with friends. Privacy is in short supply.

For their nighttime trysts, some young people resort to parks, riverbanks or the back of motorbikes. Many choose guest houses. “I think if you want to have sex, it’s better to go to a hotel,” says Pham Tien Trong, a muscular college student with spiky gelled hair. He lives with a friend and fears his neighbors would gossip if a visitor stayed with him overnight. Trong, 22, supports the city’s drive to distribute free condoms in hotels, partly because Vietnamese teenagers “are very shy” about contraception.

That reticence might explain why, according to one study, just 42 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds here understand the risks of H.I.V., and why, according to another survey, 16 percent of young people think condoms are only for prostitutes. It also might explain why Vietnam has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.

Many Vietnamese parents would still prefer that their children save sex until after marriage; it’s a good thing the country’s Communist leaders are more realistic about what actually happens. That goes not only for sex among teenagers but also for prostitution.

One study by U.S.A.I.D. found that 40 percent of Vietnamese men have had sex with prostitutes, and according to the Labor Ministry, 20 percent of prostitutes in Hanoi and 16 percent in Ho Chi Minh City have H.I.V. For a time, the authorities’ approach to the problem was repression and stigmatization: Prostitutes would be sent to rehabilitation centers. But after the United Nations and Human Rights Watch called the policy counterproductive, the Vietnamese government has changed its approach: Instead of focusing on preventing prostitution, it is trying to prevent the spread of associated health problems.

Distributing free condoms in hotels — and so putting them in the hands of prostitutes’ clients — should help. Sex workers rarely provide such protection themselves for fear that the police will treat it as evidence of their illegal activities.

The city authorities’ unmoralizing condom-distribution campaign marks a welcome shift away from the punitive toward the practical. What’s more, in adopting such a pragmatic approach to sex, especially among young people and prostitutes, they aren’t just taking the lead in addressing the risks of unprotected sex: They are also getting ahead of this still-traditional society.

By Lien Hoang - Latitude blog by The New York Times - April 3, 2013