By BEN STOCKING, Associated Press Writer
HANOI, Vietnam – Vietnam is having a Paris Hilton moment.
An online sex video featuring a popular celebrity has riveted the nation for more than a week now, much as Hilton’s clip seized the attention of Americans when it hit the Internet several years ago.
But unlike Hilton, the 19-year-old woman at the center of Vietnam’s sex scandal won’t be able to capitalize on her newfound notoriety.
Hoang Thuy Linh’s show has been canceled and the actress has made a tearful farewell on national television.
“I made a mistake, a terrible mistake,” said the doe-faced teen, who had cultivated a good-girl image. “I apologize to you, my parents, my teachers and my friends.”
Her fall from grace has highlighted the generational fault-lines in Vietnam, a sexually conservative culture within which women have been taught for centuries to remain chaste until marriage and stay true to one man — no matter how many times he cheats on them.
Like everything else in this economically booming country, ideas about sex and gender roles are quickly changing as satellite TV and the Internet bring Western influences to a society cut off by decades of war and economic isolation.
But for many in communist Vietnam, new ideas about free love are much harder to accept than the free market. And unlike men, women who break the old sexual taboos are not easily forgiven.
“Kids today are crazy,” said Nguyen Thi Khanh, 49, a Hanoi junior high school teacher. “They often exceed the limits of morality. They have sex and fall in love when they’re much too young.”
In the old days, Khanh said, a woman who had sex before marriage would be ostracized.
“A good girl must keep herself clean until she is married,” Khanh said. “Thuy Linh should be condemned. If I ever see her again on TV, I will turn it off, for sure.”
In “Vang Anh’s Diaries,” Thuy Linh portrayed an earnest high school girl, modern and stylish but determined to uphold the traditional virtues of “cong, dung, ngon” and “hanh,” which promote women as tidy, charming, soft-spoken and chaste.
Then the 16-minute video hit the Internet on Oct. 15 featuring Thuy Linh in bed with her former boyfriend, both of them apparently aware that they were on camera.
On Thursday, Hanoi police detained four college students accused of posting the sex clip to the Internet. They could face charges of “spreading depraved cultural items,” which carries a sentence of six months to 15 years if convicted.
Police identified the man in the clip as 20-year-old Vu Hoang Viet, who is currently studying overseas. They said a friend copied the film off of Viet’s laptop, and passed it along to other friends who then posted it online.
Most of the public’s wrath has been directed at Thuy Linh rather than Viet.
“People will forgive him, but not her,” said Tran Minh Nguyet of the Vietnam Women’s Union, which promotes gender equality. “Vietnamese think it’s OK for a boy to have sex at that age, but not for a girl. It’s absolutely unfair.”
The video has been the talk of Vietnam. Even members of Vietnam’s National Assembly were overheard gossiping about it last week at the opening of the new legislative session.
A few lonely voices have sprung up in Thuy Linh’s defense. But in most newspapers and on blogs and Web sites, the video has become the target of jokes and condemnation.
VietnamNet, a popular online newspaper, said the episode underscored the “dark side of globalization” and warned that a flood of foreign influences “threaten Vietnam’s cultural foundation.”
The scandal also has disillusioned many of Thuy Linh’s biggest fans.
“She was supposed to set a good example for Vietnamese students nationwide,” said Chi, 14, a Hanoi junior high school student who declined to give her full name. “Now this scandal has ruined everything. It’s completely destroyed her image.”
Hilton’s sex tape, made with then-boyfriend Rick Salomon in eerie night-vision green, surfaced just before the start of her reality TV series, “The Simple Life” and helped propel her to superstardom.
But in Vietnam, the video scandal is certain to destroy Thuy Linh’s career, said Nguyet of the Vietnam Women’s Union.
“Vietnam is changing quickly, but there’s no way Thuy Linh will be forgiven,” Nguyet said. “That will take another generation.”