As a tour leader for InsideVietnam Tours, I travel a lot. I’m outdoors 80% of my time, taking our groups to see inspiring places all over Vietnam. Most days on tour are bright and full of sun, which generally means our group tour travellers enjoy their trip even more.
One does have to wonder about the temperature in this exotic country though. Even at the height of summer, you’ll see Vietnamese people wearing hooded sweaters, gloves and face masks when riding their motorbikes. Are they cold? Or are they protecting themselves from pollution?
Most travellers instantly realize that there must be another factor involved here, especially when I point out that it’s mostly women who cover up in long sleeves and wear mouth masks at all times. It’s simple: Vietnamese women simply do not want to get a tan. They want to look like Asia’s porcelain-skinned TV presenters, smooth K-pop singers and radiant soap actresses, who look like they’ve never seen the sun in their life. They don’t get tanned!
Understanding this desire for fair complexion makes one look very differently at women, fashion, shops and billboards in this sunny country. They all breathe “fairness”. But understanding this Asian beauty ideal doesn’t necessarily make you want to look as pale as Vietnamese TV stars. You’re from the UK or Canada or New Zealand and you look pale all year round. You would love to get a bit of sun and a nice tan on your holiday, and that’s fair enough.
Personally, I always look like I’ve just returned from a vacation. I guess that goes with the job of being a tour leader. I could never be bothered with all the sunscreen, hats and sunglasses, although I knew I should. Recently, however, I returned home to Europe for a few weeks to visit my friends and family, and the first thing that struck me was how tall they all looked – and how fat! But it’s not them, it’s me: my reference has changed. I’m meeting tiny, petite-framed, light-skinned women all over Indochina and I watch Asian telly in my hotel room, so it’s become the norm.
On my return to Vietnam, I bought a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts. And I stuck with them.
Leading the Highlights of Vietnam tour last month, I bumped into the Hoi An Historic’s lovely hotel manager. “You’re so white!” She was jumping up and down with enthusiasm. We had a nice chat and she invited me for dinner. During all this time I’ve known her, she has never been anything but exceptionally friendly to me – but I always felt a sort of reservation on her part. Could my fair complexion really have made such a difference to her?
And then I realized it’s not about the way I look. It’s about understanding the local culture. It’s because she feels I finally get it. I’m no longer a foreigner to her – at long last I’m living in Vietnam!