Vietnam is a country of sunshine. However once you are in Vietnam you will see that the Vietnamese relationship with the sun is very different than those in the West! In the West – especially those countries who typically have strong seasons – as soon as the sun comes out people tend to slap on some sun cream and spend as long as possible soaking up the heat rays. However in Vietnam you will be surprised to find that it is the exact opposite!
The strive to be pale of people in Vietnam
Although in the West we love a tan – feeling that we look healthier with a golden bronzing, in Vietnam it is the total opposite with the ultimate aim to be as pale as possible – the whiter the better ! This is due to the idea that the poorest people will be people who work outdoors and therefore if you work outdoors you will be tanned. Therefore, if you are white then it demonstrates a certain level of wealth ( this is similar to the theory behind the extra long little ( pinkie ) fingernail that many men have – with the idea being that if you can have such a long fingernail then you are not involved in manual labour ! )
Getting dressed for going outside
In practical terms, this aversion to being in the sun and getting a tan is viewed each and every day in Vietnam. The most obvious way is the way in which Vietnamese dress up when riding their motorbike. Most women wear a motorbike coat when riding (if it is sunny) – this is a thin coat (as it is hot!) with a hood, long sleeves and goes all the way to the floor. This coat goes on top of the usual clothes and offers protection from the sun. Some people go even further and wear motor biking gloves – which are nothing to do with having a grip ( as normal motorbike gloves ) but instead are made of thin materials and stop the hands from catching the sun and getting tanned.
You will see these coats for sale all over Vietnam although it is extremely rare to see a foreigner wearing them!
Staying in the shade
If Vietnamese do need to go out in the sun, they try and protect themselves from the sun’s rays as much as possible.
If on a motorbike, then a popular way to avoid the sun (in addition to being fully covered) is to try to stay in the shade as much as possible. As a result, you will find that at traffic lights, instead of going all the way up to the traffic lights and waiting there, people will shelter in the shade of a tree / building in the run up to the traffic lights.
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If walking, many people have an umbrella as a parasol to protect them from the rays and if you are at a nice location then the doorperson will accompany you to your motorbike shading you with an umbrella!
Although the beach to most Westerners means soaking up the sun, it has a totally different meaning for Vietnamese. As a general rule you will find that beaches are populated by Vietnamese only in the early morning and early evening so they can avoid the sun and only the Westerners can be seen out in the midday sun when the beaches will be totally deserted.
The beach will be packed from about 6 am until about 8 am with people not only running and sitting on the beach but also swimming in the sea. By 9 am you will find the beach is totally deserted with there being no sign of life until a minimal of 4.30 pm when a few people will start to emerge with the beach being packed to a crazy capacity by 6 pm! It is amazing to visit the beach at different times of the day and see the amazing transformation as unless seen it really is hard to believe the extent of the emptiness and the incredible crowds!
Although sun lotion is relatively expensive in Vietnamese, it is applied by most Vietnamese women on a daily basis as a basic guard against tanning. It is advised that you also do wear sun lotion as the sun is strong in Vietnam and it is very easy to get burnt by just carrying out your daily routine. As you will find that you can buy large economy bottles of sun lotion in the West at a fraction of the cost of lotion in Vietnam it is suggested that you bring at least one large bottle with you to avoid sun burn !
Do be warned that the sun in Vietnam is strong – although Westerners typically simply slap on lathers of sun cream and carry on as usual – visiting empty beaches in the midday sun and driving all the way up to traffic lights – all at their own peril !
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