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‘Street ninjas’ battle sexism and the sun in Vietnam

In the tropical city of Saigon, where the sun is always hazy and most people don’t own a car to shield themselves from the rays, Anh’s driving get-up is a popular choice among sun-exposed motorbike drivers.

In fact, a 2016 survey by W&S, a Southeast Asian market research firm, showed it is the preferred method to avoid the sun in Vietnam, instead of applying sunscreen like their Thai peers or wearing long-sleeves like in Indonesia. Survey respondents said it prevents UV damage – such as skin cancer, sunburn and freckles – and protects their hair and eyes. 

Face masks are a must while commuting in a country where hazardous air pollution is a silent killer.

The culture of whiteness

These multiple layers are an indication of the female obsession with pale skin. Like elsewhere in Asia, light skin tones have long been set as an example of beauty and high social status in Vietnam, so many women put up with the excruciating heat just to keep their skin from being touched by the sun.

An advertisement for a sunscreen product seen on the street in Ho Chi Minh City. “Your skin will remain white, the sunlight will be defeated,” the slogan promises.

The popular explanation for the preference involves Vietnam’s agricultural roots. The poor were usually tanned laborers working under the sun in the paddy fields, while the rich had lighter skin and were often depicted “sitting in the shade, eating from a golden bowl” (ngoi mat an bat vang).

This cult-like fascination can be traced back to the country’s oldest folk tales in which beautiful female characters were usually described as having fair skin. Some even died in the stories trying to achieve a pale look. In Tam Cam, known as the Vietnamese version of Cinderella, the villainous sister is lured into a bath of boiling water thinking it would give her “beautiful white skin” like Cinderella. It remains one of the most famous fairytales in Vietnam and is taught in schools.

A poster for a beauty salon in Ho Chi Minh celebrates fair-skinned actresses.

Nowadays, this preference for being pale is being driven by the effects of foreign cultural waves, from Westernization during the colonial and globalization eras to the recent K-Pop sensation.

One of the biggest winners has been the cosmetics industry. A survey conducted in big cities by Intage Vietnam, a market research company, found that the whitening effect was the priority for the majority of customers, making up 66 percent of their purchasing decisions. 

Profiting second from this frenzy must be the sale of the outfits. Costing from VND70,000 to VND100,000 ($3-4.4), these coats and dresses are sold everywhere in varying patterns, colors and styles.

Typical traffic offenders?

The “ninja” outfits, as wryly dubbed in Vietnam, worn mostly by female motorists have become so dominant on the street that they are more than just an interesting fashion trend or a manifestation of women’s age-old battle for light skin.

German writer Juli Zeh in her travel diary published recently in Vietnam, titled The Land Where Young Women Ride Motorbikes in Floral Coats, compared the swagger to the abaya worn by Muslim women, and called the dressers the peace-keeping force of the “Clash of Civilizations.”

Basically, she wrote that suddenly, the Islamic world lost its unique symbol and the Christian world lost its emblem of enemy.

But when stood side by side with Muslim women, the Vietnamese “ninjas” have more in common than you might expect: they have also found their driving ability being questioned, and in some cases condemned, especially on social media.

[Youtube Video] Ninja and their traffic scaring army, link in Vietnamese, by Trang TV, an online viral video producer in Vietnam.

Dash-cam footage of colorful motorists causing traffic accidents have been widely circulating on Facebook and Youtube. They were captured “signaling to turn right before turning left”, recklessly cutting in front of other vehicles, or suddenly pulling over without any signal.

“It must be all the layers and the masks. It blocks them from seeing the road,” one viewer wrote.

The “Ninja Scooter” has become a fictional character with its own Facebook page, where most of the posts are collections of traffic offenses committed by women in ninja-style outfits.

“They are the worst of all. They drive as if they own the road and don’t give a damn about other drivers,” another added.

The magic of social media has turned the female “ninjas” into an unflattering meme lord and comic character.

“They are depicted as mysterious and full of surprises,” said Bui Dinh Thang, a well-known satirical illustrator and founder of Thang Fly Comics. His comic’s Facebook page has over 880,000 followers and features the “female traffic ninja” as one of its main characters.

“Our works are inspired by real-life events.” Thang said. “And we illustrate them in satirical cartoons. For the ‘ninja’ traffic character, we gather material on the internet and draw satirical cartoons of these ‘ninjas’,” he told VnExpress International.

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