‘An cho minh, mac cho nguoi’, which means ‘eating is for you, dressing is for others’, is a popular old Vietnamese expression that shows the respect given to people by one’s way of dressing. The younger generation, however, seem to have turned the expression into something like ‘eating and dressing is for you and you can ignore others’.
In recent years, the streets of major cities have become something resembling a public catwalk, with various fashions that may make you wonder they are Western, Japanese, Vietnamese, some minor ethnic dress, or a mixture of all of the above. Revealing more skin than was previously deemed socially acceptable appears to be the latest hot trend.
Is showing more sexier?
One new style for young women - shorts and tank tops - can be seen everywhere. The look is comfortable in the heat of summer and convenient for situations like having coffee, hanging out, shopping, or just walking around, according to Mai Anh, a student at the Hanoi University who likes to dress this way.
It’s also a sexy look, allowing the wearer to show parts of both the top and the bottom of their body. Even if big thighs and short legs are on display, it doesn’t matter, as people’s attention can be easily diverted. The trick is to wear low-cut tank tops and super short shorts, so that people are too busy measuring the size of their bra or panties to look at parts less appealing. Many young women clearly believe this, given the style’s prevalence. Some foreigners say that the ao dai is no longer Vietnam’s national dress, it’s shorts and tank tops.
Tank tops are just one may types of tops, blouses and shirts that help women flaunt what they have. Another traditional dress that has recently come back into favour is the ao yem. This is a bodice worn by Vietnamese women across all classes, primarily as an undergarment to cover the chest, before bras appeared in the country. But young women today wear it by itself.
Also common nowadays are transparent or fishnet tops. This style is also known as ‘wearing something like nothing’, allowing others to clearly see the bra under super thin fabric or through holes. ‘My friends and I sometimes joke that although Vietnam is developing, many people still wear very little,’ said Viet Hung, a 26-year-old engineer.
Another new fashion item is the ‘flying curtain’. It’s a big shirt with the back designed like two curtains, which usually close at one point of the top and open down along the back. So while its wearer dashes around on a motorbike, the curtain is often blown open by wind to show what’s underneath. Motorbike riders of the male variety need to be careful and keep their eyes on the traffic.
Many young women also take sexy photos revealing their body and post them on social networks. Two years ago, a 16-year-old girl shocked the public with a topless photo collection of her dressed as a tribal girl in the jungle. Two other young women also sparked public debate with pictures shot by a lake, where they wore only panties and ao yem, to show off the shape of their breasts and behinds. After the photos received more negative comments than positive comments, they then posted another photo collection shot at a pottery village, where they wore the same ‘outfits’ while posing with an old man.
Some young women have made a name for themselves after pictures showing a bit of flesh have been published. Their quick and easy ‘fame’ has inspired many others to do likewise. ‘If you have a body that’s beautiful and sexy, then flaunt it,’ Anh said. ‘It’s common today. Some people say what I wear is too revealing but I don’t think so. I’m only showing my shoulders, legs, and back. Many Westerners dress like this as well, as do celebrities.’
More is better for some
In Asian culture, women have been expected to dress modestly for thousands of years, wearing clothes that conceal not reveal and carrying themselves in a reserved, feminine manner. The preference for the new look adopted over recent years has, for many, been something of a culture shock.
People trying to dress like celebrities in public, Hung believes, is inappropriate, because daily life is not a stage and they are not a singer or a model. ‘As a man, I would encourage women to dress nice and sexy,’ he said ‘But it needs to be appropriate to the circumstances. Otherwise it’s like wearing a suit to the beach or a bikini to the office.’
Many others feel uncomfortable with what people might wear on a visit to the pagoda. It’s long been a place where people didn’t need to be told to dress modestly. Long coats have been made available to foreign tourists to cover themselves before they enter. Many Vietnamese nowadays no longer respect their own culture, and there aren’t enough long coats for everyone.
As the world becomes more global it’s perfectly natural people take on aspects of other cultures, but each culture has its own characteristics that may not be suitable with such mixing and matching.
For example, many Western women dress sexily for a night out but until they get to where they’re going may cover up with a coat, according to Tuan Son, a salesman who has travelled quite a bit. Vietnamese women, meanwhile, dress sexily then sit on a motorbike, where even conservative eyes steal a glance. When he lived in Japan and South Korea, he saw many women wearing mini-skirts to show off their legs but everything else was covered up, unlike in Vietnam. ‘Women can be sexy without revealing too much,’ he said. ‘Smart and beautiful women find a way to combine new looks with their culture and customs.’
The fact is, not all women look sexy when wearing revealing outfits. Antoine Grethen, an expat from France, said that sometimes he sees rather large Vietnamese women wearing crop tops or fishnet tops that are anything but flattering. ‘People should wear what is suitable and looks good on them,’ is his advice.
Revealing too much makes others, especially older people, think poorly of you, according to Phuong Nga, a consultant at a sex psychology centre. Women dressed in skimpy outfits will earn a reputation for being easy, and the men they hope to attract will just want to have fun with them rather than developing something serious.
Agreeing with Nga, Son said that he stopped dating a colleague who used to dress sexily because he felt uncomfortable when his co-workers commented on her appearance and sometimes flirted with her. ‘I don’t want a “player” girlfriend,’ he said. ‘Even if she’s not actually a “player”, she looks like one.’
Today’s fashion mores are alarming for many. In a draft code of conduct for residents in Hanoi, aimed at creating a civilised image of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi authorities asked the public to ‘out’ people who dress too revealingly. It was proposed that those wearing skimpy outfits be named in social media. For some young people, however, such notoriety is exactly what they seek.