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  • You’re not Vietnamese unless you have a tattoo – that’s how it used to be.

    As an art form, tattooing is viewed with a considerable level of prejudice in Vietnamese society. There’s a clear divide in opinion here concerning tattooing and tattooed people. Generally, people over the age of about 35 see tattooing as something only done by the criminal elements of society or by those close to them, whereas younger Vietnamese people are much more open (although some are no less prejudiced) to tattooing. As Vietnamese celebrity Cuong Em (member of the Vietnamese rock band Titanium and a tattoo artist himself) once said, “tattooing is still mainly an underground art”. Although there are no statistics available as to how normal Vietnamese people perceive tattooing and its implications, prior to 2012, the mainstream Vietnamese press had never featured tattooing in a positive light. Many Vietnamese newspapers still only cover controversial tattoo events, accidents, and regrettable results as a way to attract a larger readership, as this view plays to public sentiments and drives publication sales. This prejudice that tattoos are a mark of criminality stemmed from several influences on Vietnamese culture. In the past, it was once a custom in China to brand prisoners with tattoos on their face, shoulders, or backs. This practice endured for several hundred years, during which many of these prisoners fled to countries neighbouring China (of which Vietnam, of course, is one). More recently, the Yakuza influence during the Japanese occupation of Vietnam in the early 20th century reinforced stereotypes against tattoos, while late 20th century Vietnamese gangs sometimes adopted Yakuza culture and used tattoos as symbols of rank. This tattoo prejudice is especially hard on tattooed women. In a country where traditional feminine virtues are still highly valued and held as ideals, the implication of women having to bare themselves to tattoo artists during the tattooing process has led to the common suspicion that only promiscuous or bad women will undergo it.

  • Something in the Vietnamese psyche is let loose when the football team scores...

    Football’s not the only sport that Vietnamese people get passionate about, but it’s unquestionably the one that commands the most devotion amongst fans. There’s a very prosaic Vietnamese saying that covers it: Eat with football, stay awake with football, and sleep with football . If soccer is a worldwide disease, it’s an epidemic here. Locals get fairly hot under the collar over the AFF Cup and the Tiger Cup, but the event that causes the majority of the fuss and bother is the Southeast Asian Games. Vietnam couldn’t seriously hope to win the World Cup – and to be fair, they’ve never won the football event in the SEA Games either – but they’ve come close, and so many locals feel that Vietnam is in with a chance. The event is organised biannually, and is eagerly anticipated by local Vietnamese. Many refuse to miss the live coverage, rescheduling work hours to make sure they’ll be in front of the TV – and some have been reported to have quit their jobs altogether where unavoidable timing conflicts emerged. Most employers, however, are more sympathetic, and some companies will shut their doors to all business so that both management and staff alike can focus on the game. It’s not in the Vietnamese character to enjoy the sport alone at home on the couch, however – sports voyeurism is conducted outside, in cafes and bars and beer garden restaurants, so that the sheer number of interested onlookers will help to whip up the excitement. On the streets, people will be driving around in a particular frenzy, and the mantra on everyone’s lips will be the same: Vietnam Vo Dich – Go Vietnam. Although this kind of thing has been going on for decades, the peak was reached in the semifinals of the 2009 SEA Games during the match between Vietnam and their nemesis Thailand, which culminated in a Thai defeat. Victory celebrations lasted the entire night; people were out on the streets with their red T-shirts on, fervently waving the Vietnamese flag, pictures of Ho Chi Minh, and banging plastic cups, drums, pans, lids, pots, bottles, and anything else that would make a sound. Students fled their dormitories and congregated outside, making a huge cacophony. A procession of motorbikes formed spontaneously, snaking its way through the Saigon suburbs, all chanting “Vietnam is the champion”; they became a writhing mass of fire-engine red that locals simply referred to as a storm. Much beer was consumed and many newly-met drinking buddies swore lifelong friendship, and virtually no-one in the city slept.

  • Getting illustrated doesn’t have to be forever.

    Since ancient times, the henna plant has been used to make a special paste to colour hair, fingernails, and skin for women (and sometimes men) as well as leather, silk and wool. Henna tattoos are temporary skin designs made using henna paste products that resemble real tattoos and then fade away. Sometimes called mehndi , henna has a brown colour and lasts for two to four weeks after applying the dye, depending on how good the paste is and on the skin condition of the recipient. A mehndi may take from five to ten minutes to finish for a small area such as the palms, wrists, or feet. Henna is grown in both South Asia and Africa, although it’s most commonly associated with the culture of India, where henna tattoos are popular among girls – especially dancers who use it adorn themselves in celebrations and holidays. The tattoo is regarded as bringing blessings, luck, joy, and accentuating beauty. Henna is applied on a bride to wish her luck and happiness, and it’s believed that the longer that the henna remains visible, the happier the couple will be. It’s also used on pregnant women’s bellies to bless both mother and child. Henna is known to be longer lasting if well-preserved, usually best accomplished by avoiding direct contact with soap. A mixture of lemon essence and sugar will make it brighter and harder to fade. After the henna has been applied, let it dry naturally over a few hours (or ideally, through the night) and avoid using fans during that time. It has a dark brown or green-grey colour just after being applied, and becomes red-brown when it dries. Here in Saigon, the henna fashion was first imported by a small group of body painting enthusiasts who managed to kick off a trend within a year. As it causes no harm to the skin and doesn’t hurt at all, henna has attracted many locals, regardless of gender, to try it out.

  • Vietnam’s own heavy metal is fading away.

    It was December the 17th, 2003, when the Vietnamese State Bank began issuing the 5,000, 1,000, and 200 dong coins now in circulation. The coins for VND2,000 and VND500 followed on almost four months later. They were quite distinct from one another, with the larger denominations cast in the same coppery colour while the VND500 and VND200 coins were a silvery white. All of the coins featured the Vietnamese emblem. They were issued in the anticipation of coin-operated technologies in public transport and payphones, which the administration planned to introduce shortly afterwards. The thought was that the general public should have some time to become familiar with the coins before the introduction of these systems. Said systems took a little while to appear, and some – like the MRT – almost never happened. Nobody foresaw the sudden irrelevance of public phones, either. In the meantime, with the rise of Vietnam’s economy, coins very quickly became more of a nuisance than anything else, and the general public rapidly grew impatient with them. It’s been over ten years since these coins were issued in Vietnam and they’re already difficult to find on the market. Try to pay for certain items with coins, and you’ll soon see the general disinterest Vietnamese people tend to have in them. Vietnam, in fact, is one of very few countries with coins and paper money of identical values – and here, all of the coin denominations are available in far more convenient paper versions. When they were first issued, however, it was a different story. Back in 2003, the coins were welcomed by young people as a kind of curiosity, while elderly people seemed pleased to see coins again after a long time of having only paper currency. They were frequently used, especially in larger cities like Hanoi and here in HCMC – and to encourage people to keep using them, the administration and other organisations began to set up as many automatic vending machines as possible. At one point, coins accounted for a full quarter of all change available. However, after a certain period, the automatic machines themselves fell out of vogue, while vendors in local markets, grocery stores, and on the street were starting to directly refuse them, frustrated with their ever-increasing stocks of heavy shrapnel. Nowadays, supermarkets do accept coins, although they will generally exchange them for paper money at banks when they do.

  • A quick, comprehensive guide to Vietnamese literature.

    Literature plays an important part in the development of any civilised culture, and this is certainly the case in Vietnam. Folk literature in particular played a very significant role in the preservation and development of the national language. Folk literary works were written in a wide range of genres, covering legends, epics, humorous stories, mythologies, fairy tales, proverbs, songs and poetry ( ca dao ) and so on. With all the different cultures of the various Vietnamese ethnic groups, folk literature was passed down orally from one generation to another, picking up many variations along the way. While the authors were pretty much always unknown, the main language was Vietnamese – and this served to bring a literary soul to the emerging regional lingua franca . Written literature , based on folk literature, was first seen here during the 10th century, and it underwent strong development from the 11th century right until today. For a millennium before that time, Vietnam had been dominated by China, and so the written works were deeply affected by Chinese literature, especially in the use of language. From the 10th-15th centuries, Chinese was used as the main language in almost all written works here, with poetry and prose expressing the Vietnamese soul and realities using Han Chinese words. This gave way to the use of the Nom script from the 16th to 20th centuries, which used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Vietnamese. Many writers began to compose their works in Nom characters, especially during the 18th century, during which time the two forms of writing coexisted. Many famous female Nom poets appeared at this time, with the emergence of many satirical poets like Ho Xuan Huong, Doan Thi Diem, and Ba Huyen Thanh Quan. During this period, the most popular written works in Vietnamese were poems, especially long narrative poems in the form of stories, which were written based on the content of famous oral traditions in the classical language to create new and vibrant works.

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