It wasn’t until I spent a few days in Da Nang and Hoi An that I really began to notice the extent to which Hanoians try to avoid the sun.
I spent four years in a university town in Wisconsin. Four or five months of the year, the city is blanketed with snow, and it’s only truly warm for June, July, and August. College age girls, however, somehow remained tan. Well not all of them (there are ~30,000 undergraduates, and I doubt 15,000 undergraduates are regularly going to a tanning salon) but a great many. The desirable color in cold, icy, wintry Wisconsin is bronze, and so they put on their boots, their UW sweatpants, their black puffy fur-lined coat, and they traipse to a usually-sketchy salon where they lay under UV lights coated in oil. It seemed strange to me. In the spring, when it’s barely warm enough to forgo the sweater, you’ll catch girls out on any open space of grass in almost-no clothing, sunning themselves and hoping for a bit of the natural suntan. They use makeup a tone or two darker than they should, and cover their face in bronzing powder until there’s a line along their jaw with the before and after colors visible.
Hanoian women are no different…or rather, they’re the mirror opposite. Hanoi is warm…no…hot. It’s overcast quite a bit, sure…but the temperature for more than half of the year is over 80 and in the summer tops 95 or 100 almost daily. The sun is so strong that even going 30 miles an hour on a motorbike isn’t cooling – it just feels like someone is pointing a hair dryer directly into your face. The desirable color in hot, tropical Hanoi is pale, deathly pale, and so they put on stockings, gloves, hats, masks, and jackets with flaps to cover the wrist from sun exposure. They stop 30 meters away from a traffic light because there’s partial shade. They carry an umbrella everywhere, even driving a motorbike one-handed. They buy lotion with “whitening agents”, and use make-up that looks like it might be better suited for making an actor look convincingly dead. Usually this is paired with bright red lipstick and big dark eyelashes.
There’s been some local research that almost 30% of urban Vietnamese women suffer from vitamin D deficiency, and the researcher is connecting this to osteoporosis later in life. Read the article here!
In central Vietnam, where it’s a bit hotter and a lot more laid back, people use clothes to keep the sun off, but not so intensely. Flip flops are acceptable. People go to the beach. There appears to be significantly less makeup, less red lipstick, less drastic hatred of being a bit tan. Some attribute this intensity of sun-avoidance to the Chinese influence that is strongest in Hanoi. I haven’t been to HCMC in a few years, and don’t remember how prevalent this “COVER EVERYTHING” tendency is there. If I am to offer a guess, the obsession with pale-ness is more a function of urban class than of proximity to China. In Hoi An and Da Nang there are fewer women covering every inch of skin, just as there are fewer Vespas and fewer flashes of luxury branding. I should be clear – these cities do not in the slightest come across as poor…they just seem to care a lot less about these things that are so important to a good “image” in Hanoi.