‘Where Were You Last Night?’: The Story of the ‘Deuxième Bureau’
Colonial legacy can be a peculiar thing. Sometimes good, sometimes bad (but mostly bad). At the same time, weird when you least expect it. In this piece, we look at one of the more odd heritages of French colonial rule: the ‘deuxième bureau’ (phòng nhì in Vietnamese) and extramarital affairs.
French colonialism can leave behind many things, a lot of them physical like buildings, food (bánh mì, anyone?). At the same time, there are also non-physical things, in which you have to develop a sixth sense (I see dead people) to identify them, like foreign words creeping into the native language. One of them is ‘deuxième bureau’ or phòng nhì, a slang for having a mistress.
So why ‘deuxième bureau’? What’s a ‘deuxième bureau’? On one hand, it can refer to a defunct French equivalence of the CIA that existed from 1870 to 1940 (*cue James Bond theme). On another, it literally means ‘second office’, referring to a second workplace, a job on the side. Either way, like a good extramarital affair in the grand French tradition, it’s an open secret and embraced by all. Even the mistresses have mistresses.
It’s possible the word and the idea surrounding it was imported into Vietnam at the height of French colonial rule. Being a society where polygamy was widely practiced, the term became another (and hipper) expression for an age-old practice in Vietnam and continued for while even after the French left. In pre-1975 South Vietnam, where French influence was stronger, it was common to refer to people who engage in promiscuous rendez-vous as ‘establishing a deuxième bureau’ or ‘ lập phòng nhì’. For example, ‘ổng đi gặp đờ-giem bìa-rô kìa’ (‘look, he's going to see his deuxième bureau’). After 1975, the Vietnamese translation became more common in the daily lexicon but the spirit remains.
Interestingly, besides Vietnam, it also means the same thing in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, a former Belgian colony but French-speaking nonetheless. That shows for once and for all, having open secrets in your marriage is a universal (French) value.