During my pre-departure preparation for Vietnam, I ensured that I was well-versed in the country’s culture and customs.
I was aware that it was important for women to dress modestly by covering their knees and shoulders, and certainly not bearing any cleavage. During my first week, I noticed all of the women sporting these white rain coats, which were hooded jackets equipped with a brim for extra coverage. These jackets even had hand covers to shield the hands from the rain with a little strap that went over the fingers to make the palm of the hand accessible for driving the motorbikes. I found it so fascinating because although the jackets were extremely practical, they never complimented the typical feminine style of the Vietnamese women.
Although it was the rainy season in Hanoi, I really lucked out by having my first two weeks almost free of rain. I was certainly soaking up the sun and the extreme heat! During my second week of sun, I realized that the women were still wearing their rain coats. I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew something that I didn’t know – like if there was a massive typhoon coming that they wanted to be prepared for. I finally asked my Volunteer Host what the deal was with these vinyl white coats that the women were donning.
To my surprise, they were SUN jackets, not rain jackets! I felt like such an idiot because I had been carrying my rain coat everywhere with me in anticipation for a storm that all these women seemed to be preparing for! The white jackets were worn to shield the skin from the sun, which is the reasoning behind the excessive coverage that the jacket provides. Luckily, there are face masks which can be used to shield the area left uncovered by the jacket, leaving only the eyes exposed….I couldn’t help but picture the jacket with an additional face cover, leaving only two holes for the eyes!
Like every other realization that I had in Vietnam, all the pieces fell into place and I had yet another “ah-hah” moment. When I first arrived in Hanoi, I went to the corner store to pick up some lotion and the only kind I could find was “White Mountain Vaseline”. I thought perhaps it was a knock-off version of Vaseline. I also saw “Lusciously White” soap. Naively, I thought that they were describing the colour of the soap. After I learned about the sun jackets, I recalled that the stores are stocked top to bottom with whitening products!
In Vietnam, and many other parts of Asia, it is beautiful to have fair skin. It’s so interesting because I guess we all want something we don’t have. In North America, we lay outside in 30̊C weather and let the sun burn layers off of our skin. In the far East, they put layers and layers of clothing on to cover every inch of their bodies in 30̊C weather so they don’t even catch one single ray.
I find it extremely odd, but I’m sure if they laying under sun for hours on end would seem quite peculiar to them too! I’ll peg this one down to a cultural difference…