This obsession is similar to the tanned skin craze in the West, only a bit more extreme. Spend a day on the streets in almost any city, you will find women covered from head to toe to not be exposed to sunlight (the “street ninja”). If you see any cosmetics ads while strolling, most likely it’s about skin bleaching products. This “white culture” can be traced back to the following reasons:
Street ninja, iconic fashion in our motorbike culture
Vietnam is a country built on paddy fields. Just about a century ago, the majority of the commoners are farmers - the poor. While farmers labored under the sun for long hours, the rich possessed the luxury of staying indoors all day every day. When farmers became factory workers, this notion still didn’t change.
Therefore, pale skin is affiliated with wealth, and dark skin is a sign of poverty. Naturally, that’s the sole reason why Vietnamese love white skin.
Apart from money, white is also associated with physical attraction. From Western fairy tales to our own folklore, the female protagonist is always a legendary beauty with skin white-as-snow. The most famous story, Tam Cam, has a scene where a character died trying to achieve white skin by bathing in boiling water. This story is memorized by kids since they learn how to speak and is formally taught in our 10th-grade literature textbooks.
In our colony days, this influence came from the West. Nowadays, Korean and Japanese culture waves are partly why Vietnamese love white skin. Vietnamese women love their dramas and music, so they sought after their favorite celebrities white-washed images, and the majority hasn’t been able to stop.
The usual concept of a whitening commercial
There may or may not be discrimination against dark-skinned people, but nobody actually shows direct aggressive behavior towards anybody that is not light. We don’t really have any problem with skin tone associated with races, we just prefer white because of its supposed aesthetics.
Unlike in the Western world, “white” in Vietnam does not represent ethnicity, it represents beauty and social standards, rooted in our culture and is not going away anytime soon. If you still have frustrations about our obsessions with white skin, let us know in the comments. If not, learn to prevent culture shock when visiting our country!
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© Written by Chau Tran for itourvn.com
Wonderful discussion here. But we forget one crucial factor- Vietnamese DO hurt themselves for the sake of being white. When people are made to feel ugly because their skin is naturally dark, this is harmful. Worse still, imagine a family with kids of different hues- however slight. Can you suggest that the fair child won't be told of their beauty MORE than his/her darker kin? Are kids taught that their skin tone would impact their adult life? If so, this is harmful and threatens a healthy self-esteem. And yes, one must be open about white privilege, which even exists in Vietnam. White people here know that they may be seen as superior by locals, beyond the respect one offers to a guest. While there may not be the overt negative discrimination against dark-skin people, there is clear positive preference for white people...and I suggest that this fetishization is extremely harmful for people of color to internalize.
I know this is an old article, but i am inquisitive. Completely understood and respect the origins of the behaviour, however I have a question. How does the light complexion and connotated social standard perception influence the business world in Vietnam and when dealing in the international business world. Specifically do they see darker skinned people as lesser personal standing and therefore are inclined to act differently towards them than they would a lighter skinned person? Lastly, does this influence work and promotions prospects for the lighter darker skinned people?
Appreciate your response. This is very interesting and provides a refreshing insite into the practice.
Hi Ian, Thank you for your questions.
The Vietnamese only like white skin because we think what the beauty standard should be. But there is no discrimination against people with darker skin tone, nor do people with white skin earn more privileges. Besides, more and more people in the younger generations begin to embrace natural complexions than in the past. So, though it is true that the Vietnamese love white skin, we do not judge the others based on the complexions.