Women’s Dress in Vietnam

The simple answer to the question, ‘What do women wear in Vietnam?’ might be, ‘Everything except the burka.’ Today, on the streets of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, one might see every type and style of western dress. Only in some of the biggest department stores or in the offices of the national airline will one see the traditional women’s dress, the ao dai (pronounced Ow Zai), a full-length figure-hugging sheath of brightly coloured silk with a high side slit, that is the epitome of sensuality: revealing all by concealing all. But if the ao dais are now hidden, they still represent a female nature that combines a surface shyness with an underlying desire for self-expression.

Women’s wear is largely dictated by the practical needs of everyday life. For most women this means riding her motorcycle to take herself to work or her children to school. Jeans and T shirt are by far the chosen attire for this function as most motorcycles require an astride sitting position. Those fortunate enough to have the motor scooter type of machine, with a shielded platform for the feet in front of the saddle, can exercise greater choice in what they wear, and some are seen in dresses and skirts. However, the young ladies going out with their boyfriends in the evenings, adorned in a party dress of any length, will be seen riding side-saddle on the back of the motorcycle with their arms clamped firmly around the waist of the driver.

Riding a motorcycle involves wearing a crash helmet, and although the law is not universally observed, most women struggle to find a way to comply while preserving the quality of their hairstyle. High levels of air pollution in Hanoi persuade many women to wear face-masks, and on rainy days the whole person is enveloped in a translucent plastic garment that completes the total concealment.

When walking in the rain most women carry an umbrella, and when the sun is shining the same implement serves as a sunshade. To perform this dual purpose the umbrellas are made in feminine styles, small, light and elegant and usually brightly-coloured. Vietnamese women fear the effect of the sun in darkening their skin and so the sun brings out almost as many umbrellas as the rain.

Fear of the sun also inhibits activities on the summer holiday by the sea. From this phobia, as well as from natural modesty, most women prefer a one-piece swimsuit, although according to swimwear stores in Hanoi, two-piece swimsuits are gradually gaining popularity with the young. However, once out of the water it’s back under the sunshade. Vietnamese women have no interest in sunbathing and a tan is something they want to avoid.

On the whole, Vietnamese women are relaxed about their clothes and many prefer a casual look. On the younger generation, all the world’s T shirts can be seen, most of them made in Vietnam and some with slogans in English that the wearer might be embarrassed to hear translated. But when she chooses to dress up, the Vietnamese woman, young and not-so-young, can compete with her sisters anywhere, and for that very special occasion she can always put on an oa dai.