Southern Vietnam has two seasons – hot and dry and hot and wet. We are supposed to be moving to the dry season in October but no one has told the gods and they are still punishing us with rain. Nevertheless, wet or dry, I like hot. It takes little adjustments sometimes, but I like it a lot more than being cold. Yesterday I played tennis at noon in 90/90 conditions (90 degrees and 90% humidity). I drank two bottles of Revive and a quart of water but the tennis was OK and it got me out from behind the computer screen.
The south is always hot but there are some temperature control strategies here that leave me bewildered. In 2007 riding my bike from Dalat to Nha Trang I passed a woman wearing a puffy pink quilted ski parka crossing the road in front of me. I nearly crashed the bike turning around to check her out. What’s the deal? It’s over 90F and she has on a down parka zipped to the neck. I still have the picture etched in my memory and the why of it lingering in my RAM.
It’s still a mystery, but now that I’ve lived here awhile I realize she is just an extreme version of something I see every day. Vietnamese women are prized for their light skin and fine features. These qualities make them targets for trafficking in other parts of Asia where skin tones are darker and features coarser. The culture values these two physical characteristics. Vietnamese women are truly among the world’s most beautiful. But, one of the first things you notice about the traffic here, after you get over the volume, chaos, and sound is that every woman on every motorbike is wearing a face mask. My assumption was that they were just smarter than the men and wanted protection from the auto emissions. I’m sure that has something to do with it, but then I noticed something else. A significant number of these women are totally covered. It’s not just their faces that are covered but any and all skin is hidden from the sun. No skin is visible. In the morning and evening commuter traffic many of these women wear long gloves that cover to the shoulder and stockings of the same ugly cream colored nylon that cover their feet and ankles.
The final element in the great Vietnamese cover-up is the hoodie. Hard to figure but, yes, they wear heavy cotton sweatshirts with hoods. Not only do they wear sweatshirts in 90F, but they are zipped to the neck with the hoods up and a helmet on top. Not a square millimeter of skin is exposed. I guess the hood protects the neck from getting any sun, but man does it look hot. It’s a very good lesson in cultural anthropology. I think of the Swedes and other northerners who travel great distances to take their clothes off and face the sun. I think of the Muslim cultures who have ritualized cover up strategies and added a religious component to their violation. The Vietnamese are somewhere in the middle. I’m just having trouble with the hoodie. How about SPF 50?