IT was midnight in Hanoi. But after a five-hour flight from Seoul, South Korea, on a recent Sunday, Kim Wan-su was driven straight from the airport to the Lucky Star karaoke bar, where 23 young Vietnamese women seeking Korean husbands sat waiting in two dimly lit rooms.
"Do I have to look at them and decide now?" Mr Kim asked, as the marriage brokers gave a brief description of each of the women sitting on a sofa. Thus, Mr Kim, a 39-year-old auto parts worker from Seoul, began the two-hour process of choosing a spouse. In a day or two, if his five-day marriage tour went according to plan, he would be enjoying his honeymoon.
Increasingly, South Korean men are finding wives outside the country, where a surplus of bachelors, a lack of marriageable partners and the rising status of women have combined to shrink the domestic market for marriage-minded men. Bachelors in China, India and other Asian nations, where the preference for sons has created a disproportionate number of men, are facing the same problem.
The thriving global marriage industry is sending comparatively affluent Korean bachelors searching for brides in the poorer corners of China and South-East and central Asia. The marriage tours are fuelling an explosive growth in marriages to foreigners in South Korea, whose ethnic homogeneity lies at the core of its self-identity. In 2005, marriages to foreigners accounted for 14 per cent of marriages in South Korea, up from 4 per cent in 2000.
After an initial setback — his first three choices declined his offer — Mr Kim narrowed his field to a 22-year-old college student and an 18-year-old high school graduate.
"What's your personality like?" Mr Kim asked the college student. "I'm an extrovert," she said.
The 18-year-old asked why he wanted to marry a Vietnamese woman. "I have two colleagues who married Vietnamese women," he said, adding, "The women seem devoted and family oriented."
One Korean broker said the 22-year-old, who seemed bright and assertive, would adapt well to South Korea. Another suggested flipping a coin.
"Well, since I'm quiet, I'll choose the extrovert," Mr Kim said, adding, "Is it OK if I hold her hand now?"
She sat next to him, though neither dared to hold hands. She spelled out her name in her left palm: Vien. Her name was To Thi Vien.
In South Korea, billboards advertising marriages to foreigners dot the countryside, and fliers are scattered on the Seoul subway. Many rural governments, faced with declining populations, subsidise the tours, which typically cost $US10,000 ($A12,600).
Critics say the business takes advantage of poor women. But brokers say they are merely matching the needs of Korean men and foreign women seeking better lives.
"But this business will get more difficult as those countries get richer," said Won Hyun-jae, the owner of i-Bombit, another agency. "Eventually Vietnamese women will ask why they have to marry a Korean man when life in Vietnam is good."
Mr Kim, urged on by an older sister, decided to go to Vietnam after a last-ditch effort to meet a Korean woman in December failed. A high school graduate, he lives with his mother and an older sister, and works on the assembly line of a small manufacturer of car keys.
The other client was Kim Tae-goo, 51, who grows ginseng and apples on the one hectare he owns in Yeongju, a town south-east of Seoul. Mr Kim had recently divorced a Chinese woman he married after the death of his first wife, a Korean. He lives with his 16-year-old daughter and elderly mother. At the Lucky Star karaoke bar, the older Mr Kim addressed the women, most in their early 20s.
"My 16-year-old daughter lives with me, and I'm a farmer," he said, after informing the women that he would send $100 a month to their parents in Vietnam.
"I know how to farm," said Bui Thi Thuy, 22, one of the two women Mr Kim eventually focused on.
Asked whether she had any questions, Ms Thuy said she had none. But the other woman, an earnest 28-year-old in a light-green jacket, asked, "If I marry you, will you love me and take care of me forever?"
"Of course," Mr Kim answered, then quickly settled on Ms Thuy.
After a few hours' sleep, the new couples and the brokers squeezed into a small van for the four-hour ride to the women's home province, Quang Ninh, east of Hanoi. There, the couples would be interviewed by local authorities before registering for their marriages.
NEW YORK TIMES