One of the things I find most enjoyable about living in Vietnam is noticing the differences between daily life here and in the United States, where I am from. Some of these differences are obvious immediately: the incredible number of motorbikes here, as opposed to the huge number of cars in the U.S.; the low price of Vietnamese food, etc. Others take a bit more time to figure out.
One of the most humorous, and at times confusing, differences I’ve encountered is in the way Americans and Vietnamese react to the sun. In the U.S., sunny days are cherished. Seattle, a city that is infamous for being cloudy almost year-round, is the butt of many jokes. Having a healthy tan is considered a sign of youth and vitality, while pale people are often made fun of for staying inside so much. In the northern part of the country, where I went to college, the first warm, sun-filled day of spring is greeted with euphoria: the parks are packed with children and families, and the green spaces of university campuses are covered in students tanning themselves on the grass.
In Vietnam, however, sunny days are feared. This is ironic, considering how sun-drenched the dry season is. You can go days here without seeing more than a couple of clouds. Unlike in Western cultures, most Asians pride themselves on having a light skin tone. A deep tan is a sign that you work in the fields, not that you are healthy and active. Pale skin shows people that you have advanced far enough up the social ladder to work in an office, and in a region where status is key, that is very important. The lengths locals of Saigon go through to ensure they have light skin are quite entertaining to observe.
On a sunny day, pay attention to the clothes Westerners are wearing, and compare them to what Vietnamese are wearing. This is a hot part of the world, so most foreigners, especially Americans, dress in shorts, short-sleeved or even sleeveless shirts, and flip-flops, the usual summer outfit of the U.S.
Your average local, especially the women, will be wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, a face mask, long pants, and socks or stockings to cover their feet. If they aren’t completely covered by fabric, they may walk with an umbrella, or hold a newspaper over their head to keep the harsh sunlight away. When driving around on a motorbike, this fear of the sun is even more extreme: many women wear a cloth cover that protects their entire head, leaving only a small space open so they can see, and arm-length gloves keep hands and forearms out of the sun. I’ve had Vietnamese friends pull up to me on motorbikes to say hi, but they were impossible to recognize until they removed their mask.
The funniest sight on a brightly sunny day comes at stoplights. If there is a tree providing shade 20 feet before you reach the light, many drivers will stop in the shade, instead of pulling all the way up to the intersection. The first time I saw this happening I was very confused. There was a group of drivers waiting under a tree for the light to change, with empty space between them and the corner. I hesitantly drove right up to the light, wondering if, maybe, I wasn’t supposed to do that, since no one else was.
I noticed this phenomenon with mounting confusion several more times, before it finally clicked: drivers don’t want to wait in the sun when there is a perfectly good patch of shade nearby. Such a sight would be unthinkable in the U.S., and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been befuddled by it.
While I mostly understand the reasons why locals dress the way they do when it is sunny, I’ll never understand how they are able to stand it. During the hottest parts of the day, I can’t walk 50 feet without starting to sweat profusely, even if I’m lightly dressed. How in the world are locals able to wear jackets, gloves, jeans, and socks, while pedaling a bicycle no less, without passing out? I would probably collapse from heat stroke after wearing such an outfit for just a few minutes, let alone every day of the week.
I’ve learned a lot about Vietnam, its culture, and its amazing people since I moved here, but I will never figure out how it is possible to wear so much clothing in so much heat. I’m sure most Vietnamese would find many of the things we do in the U.S. weird, but I definitely think the fear of the sun here is strange.