MINDANAWON ABROAD: Getting tacky is the way to beat Hanoi’s heat

HANOI, Vietnam (MindaNews/26 June)—One of the important lessons that I have learned during my first month in Hanoi is to be outright straightforward when it comes to dressing up.

To value function over fashion is a way to survive.

This may sound extremely frivolous at first, but the reality concerns more than just choosing what clothes to wear.

The month of May was really hot for northern Vietnam, signaling the first heatwave of the year. The National Centre for Hydro-Meteological Forecasting predicts that northern provinces will have eight heatwaves this year (between May and July). Each can last up to seven days!

In a recent conference by the Vietnam Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE), the country was assessed as a nation “gravely affected by climate change.” In the coming years, Vietnam will experience an increase in average temperature between 2.1 to 3.3 degrees Celcius.

May is usually recorded as the hottest, with temperatures ranging from 36 to 42 degrees Celcius. The “feels-like” temperature in my iPad’s Swackett app reads 45 sometimes (with a UV or ultraviolet index that displays a diabolical number 9 in red font, with 10 being the hottest).

This has caused me trouble for so many times. On regular days, I would just stay inside my room with a whirring air conditioning machine. The people of Hanoi, however, would go on working on their daily grind. They have ways to cope with the heat and these are unlike the ways everyone else in the world does.

Ao Chong Nang Spring/Summer 2013

Enter Ao Chong Nang (literally means “shirt against sunlight”), a sun jacket commonly worn by motorists who brave the heat. (Note that in this article, I will be referring to this garment as a “jacket” although the Vietnamese do not use that English word or an equivalent vernacular).

This peculiar clothing peripheral is perhaps the Asian clone of the American hoodie (the first hooded sweatshirt was produced in the USA in the 1930s). These printed sun jackets, often made of light cotton fabric, transform the rather chaotic roads of Hanoi into a slightly tacky fashion runway.

Floral prints, polka dot, argyle, animal, checks and pinstripes of all colors are donned by working women and students alike. They throw this on top of their classy office uniforms, chic ensembles, and preppy outfits, almost ruining the aesthetic facade they perhaps passionately put on for an hour in front of the mirror. Who wears a printed hoodie with sexy black stilettos, really?

Anyone who regularly buries their face with Western fashion magazines would frown at the sight of sun jackets worn without much care for style. But most Vietnamese could care less.

These jackets, often constructed with a loose, cylindrical structure and bulky-looking in shape, don’t trace human body contours when worn. They are sold in neighborhood stores and carts with prices that start at 150,000 Vietnam dong (roughly 300 Philippine pesos). Cheaper versions of the jacket are made with blends of polyester, making it relatively uncomfortable and stiffer to wear.

There are no brands iconic of the jacket because all these are generic and, more or less, have the same quality.

There are slight variations to the length of these jackets. There are cropped jackets with hemlines that sit above the waist. There are hip-high jackets. There are two-piece sun jackets (hooray for mix and match?). And there are floor-length jackets, usually worn by women who wear shorter skirts for work.

And as if the sun jackets are not enough, face masks (Khau Trang) with contrasting colors and prints are worn with them, along with gigantic sunglasses and dull colored motorbike helmets. During midday, the motorbike riders on the streets would remind anyone about childhood memories of Mask Rider. Cue in the TV show theme.

For men, Ao Chong Nang takes on a different and more subtle form: loose, oversized long-sleeved button downs. It’s that simple. So the reality of my wardrobe right now hits me hard on the head as all the fancy shmancy long-sleeved button downs that I own are painfully reduced to become form-fitting sun jackets instead of being the classy, sleek fashion essentials (which I normally wear when going to a party) that they are.

Other sun-protection options

Having a high disregard for the overall aesthetic of clothing may result to tacky ensembles. But most people on Hanoi don’t pour a huge amount of concern for that.

Sun jackets serve them a purpose, which is to shield them from the sun. That’s more than any motorbike riding person can ever ask for on a hot noon. Aside from ice cold tea, of course.

Sunblocks become the peoples’ option only when going to the beach. Daily use of this cream becomes inconvenient for them for a number of reasons.

It takes precious time for them to apply sunblock, with that short amount of time probably biting a huge chunk of minutes in their busy lives.

Sunblocks are also not very practical considering the short amount of time they are exposed to the scorching sun versus the time they spend indoors. Most Vietnamese spend their hours inside airconditioned offices.

Sunblocks are also quite expensive (small jars start at 50,000 Vietnamese dong or 100 Philippine peso) and their application isn’t something the Vietnamese would want to painstakingly do regularly—it’s just not a sustainable cosmetic routine!

A lifestyle analogy to live by would be: what’s a tacky, cheap, and re-usable jacket compared to an expensive jar of cream that will run out after a few applications?

Other sun essentials are oversized sunglasses and light elbow-length gloves. But the latter isn’t very common.

For those who choose not to don the Ao Chong Nang, staying indoors is an option (but not necessarily a productive one).

“They said those jackets are ugly and make people look like ninjas that are out of place,” my friend told me after I asked her what some Vietnamese think about the garment.

I’m not exactly sure whether the time when anyone can “rock” the Ao Chong Nang look would come, but eitherway the tacky look is working against the sun.

Temperatures were expected to drop in the middle of June, but that also signals the start of the rainy season: heavy rains and thunderstorms. Gasp!

I wonder what rainy day essentials do the Vietnamese have. Please tell me they wear Plueys.

(Jesse Pizarro Boga of Mindanao Times is a fellow of FK Norway’s Environmental Communication Exchange Project in Asia. He is currently in Hanoi, hosted by the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. Follow him @jesiramoun.)