Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions


Changing Vietnam’s Environmental Attitudes Through ChangeVN

By Brielle Birgensmith

On December 29, our group from the University of Montana met with Ms. Nhi Thoi, the Program Manager for an environmental nonprofit organization called ChangeVN. Our meeting was held at the Nha Hang Viet Heritage restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. Prior to Ms. Nhi Thoi’s presentation I knew very little about how nonprofit organizations worked in Vietnam. Going into this program, I was briefly informed of various environmental issues Vietnam has been facing and I wanted to learn more about how citizens were responding to these issues. Aware that Vietnam is a socialist republic with a one party system led by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), I hoped to better understand how nonprofit organizations worked within the country. Our meeting with Ms. Nhi Thoi was able to answer all of my questions above and beyond.

NGOs in Vietnam are not fully independent from their government. They must submit their activities to the CPV for approval, and must apply for permits that are reviewed through four different ministries. ChangeVN has been in Vietnam since 2009 but initially was not legally registered and worked under another organization that was licensed. Now, ChangeVN is registered under the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Association.

The Change in ChangeVN stands for Center for Hands-On Actions and Networking for Growth and Environment. Founded in 2013 by the first Vietnamese to set foot in Antarctica, ChangeVN is one of the few environmental NGOs based in Ho Chi Minh City (most are headquartered in Hanoi where the government ministries are located). Currently, ChangeVN has 10 full time employees as well as various interns. Their mission is to promote and encourage the care and preservation of the environment through education and innovative communications that change habits and inspire community action in Vietnam. ChangeVN focuses on three main environmental issues, which are wildlife trade, climate change and sustainability. Here I focus primarily about their work related to climate change.

ChangeVN focuses on communication aspects of climate change. This includes outreach and education to promote clean energy sources in the community. They have completed a number of projects throughout the last several years. In 2013, they conducted a three-phase power shift campaign in Vietnam. The first phase was nationwide. Ms. Nhi Thoi informed our group that the majority of their projects are funded by foreign donations. The second phase was to target Ho Chi Minh City and lastly to reach out to various cities and provinces outside of Ho Chi Minh. ChangeVN also work to train youth in becoming climate leaders. In 2014, they created ‘Black Day’ to mobilize youth and artists in raising awareness on coal impacts on human health and environment. In 2015, they organized a Divestment Day that directly pressured Japan to stop financing coal in Vietnam. Another campaign in 2016 called “I Can’t” aimed to illustrate the deadly effects of coal through creating a number of dramatic posters starring famous Vietnamese people. In 2017, ChangeVN produced public service announcements (PSAs) in the form of street art.

I was very grateful to have learned about this unique nonprofit organization that brings awareness of environmental issues in Vietnam as well as hear how passionate Ms. Nhi Thoi was to be working with ChangeVN.


The Meditation of Climate Change

By Paul Willett

blogAs we walked into the pagoda I had no clue what to expect. Little did I know I was about to get a whole new perspective on climate change. I looked around, seeing amazing paintings and sculptures that all tell a different part of various stories within the religion. Luckily, in the past I took a class at the University of Montana about Buddhism, and I also had Nghi, a great friend (and our teaching assistant) who knows a ton about Buddhism, so she helped me understand it all.

While Nghi and I walked around the different pagodas, we discussed the story of the Buddha’s life in comparison to the images on the wall. As we went through the Buddha’s birth, journey to enlightenment, teachings and death, we admired all the distinct details we were surrounded by that helped tell the story.

img_0510The story was beginning to unravel itself through our eyes. I noticed that the message the Buddha was getting across was not too far from the message that we need to realize to help solve climate change. Some of these messages where very complex so I will do my best to simplify it.

The first connection I made was when the Buddha left to explore the villages, and he saw Monks, Nuns, old age, sickness and death. This reminded me of what it means to have an open mind and to expose yourself to new ideas on the world. This, I believe, is a very important aspect of helping you understand climate change.

Nghi and I continued to walk and talk we saw many different Demond’s on the walls. These Demond’s told different stories about how they tried to distract the Buddha from enlightenment. They would do this by trying to make the Buddha greedy with illusion. As a result, one of the Demond’s got so gritty and impatient it ate itself. blog3This is a perfect metaphor for what could happen to the world if we don’t change our actions. We could take so much we end up destroying it.

A large portion of the beautiful paintings and statues were of the Buddha after he was enlightened. This was when he taught countless other people how to become enlightened themselves, which is exactly what we need to do with climate change. We need teachers and we need students. Without the Buddha’s teachings, Buddhism would have forever been left a mystery. If we do not share the knowledge of climate change with the world, no one will ever know the seriousness of it or how to actively prevent it.

fullsizerender-7As we were walking back to the bus from one of the pagodas, I got into a conversation with Max, who had also taken the Buddhism class at the University of Montana. We discussed some of the main ideas of Buddhism and how they relate to climate change. We discussed the middle path, a path you can take that Buddhism developed. This path means to not be greedy and to not get attached to things. That’s when every thing came together.

Such a big reason why it’s taking us so long to solve this climate change problem is because so many people in this world are attached to the old ways. Being greedy not only ties into trying to make as much money as possible through the world’s natural resources, but also it means putting yourself over others. Many things the Middle Way teaches could lead us out of these frustrations that are preventing us from getting out of the global problem of climate change we face today.

With all of the stress that comes with climate change it would do us all good to meditate. Not only to calm us all down but more importantly to help fight climate change.blog2

Biosphere Reserves

By Kevin Cofer

nghiStriped with gorgeous waterways and checkered by rice patties, Vietnam’s natural beauty is as astonishing as its people. A symphony of motorbike engines and beeping horns complements the glowing bridges and plazas that illuminate the rivers and canals below. The tropical climate encourages life to burst out from where ever it may find a foot hold, and the Vietnamese people rely heavily on the land’s health and functionality to support their own well-being. Here, people and nature coincide with one another allowing both to thrive. Two of Vietnam’s greatest examples of this symbiotic relationship in the Mekong Delta include the Can Gio and Cape Ca Mau Biosphere Reserves.

fullsizerender-2“Biosphere reserves are ‘Science for Sustainability support sites’ – special places for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity” (UNESCO).

snake-headsThe Can Gio Biosphere Reserve is a 75,740 ha (terrestrial and marine) reservation predominantly covered by Mangrove forests that is located in the costal district southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The area is home to some 70,000 residents who share their habitat with a diverse range of species including king cobras, saltwater crocodiles, spot-billed pelicans, fisher cats, and mangrove trees (UNESCO).

The Ca Mau Biosphere Reserve in located at the southern tip of Vietnam overlooking the confluence of the Eastern Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. The Ca Mau Reserve is significantly larger than its Can Gio counterpart spanning a total of 369,675 ha with 170,321 people incorporated into the landscape (UNESCO).  Ca Mau also differentiates itself by not only harboring mangrove forests but diversifying to include prevalent extents of peat swamps and wetlands as well (UNESCO).  Each of these biomes is abundant with ecological components with high conservation values.

Vietnam’s biosphere reserves are managed in a fashion that seeks to balance society and nature together in a harmonious assembly. Swaths of aquatic and terrestrial land areas are managed for certain goals and given one of three specific designations: the core zone, buffer zone, and transitional

Core zones serves as an exclusionary boundary with strict regulations set to ensure long term preservation of landscapes and ecosystems. This zone has few inhabitants and restricted activities for the populations in the area. Those allowed in the area mainly serve as the eyes and ears for the government and authorities, alerting them of harmful activities occurring in the core zone. The aptly named buffer zone functions as a safeguarding parameter between the core and transitional zones. This area allows for relatively benign activities such as education, recreation, and tourism. Finally, the transitional zone provides opportunity for more practical utilizations such as agriculture and residential living.img_0877

The divisions and rules set in Can Gio and Ca Mau are implemented almost specifically to encourage mangrove reforestation. Mangrove trees offer many ecosystem services including stabilizing eroding soils, retaining silt deposits, purifying brackish water, and promoting biodiversity. Reserve officials restrict what activities may occur in each zone to facilitate the return of mangrove forests but seek to achieve these goals in a manner that still allows for local communities to utilize the land and its natural resources.

The biosphere reserve is a concept unfamiliar to most U.S. citizens. It is a model similar to our beloved national parks, but with one major distinction: a biosphere reserve allows for the integration of humans into the landscape fostering economic and social development that is ecologically sustainable. Citizens within the reserve contribute to its conservation and serve as environmental protectors warding off poachers and keeping a watchful eye for any behaviors that may have an adverse effect on the protected ecosystem. Biosphere reserves like Can Gio and Ca Mau are a triumph of administration and cooperation, functioning to serve both man and nature in an approach that strives to perpetuate the well-being of both.grouplunch

Finding Yin and Yang

By Anastacia Crowe

img_9991Living a life of balance is not easy, but a VACB farmer we visited who lives in the My Khanh Village in the Mekong Delta seems to be doing just that. Tucked away in a small village on the outskirts of the city of Can Tho, we were greeted by the smell of flowers, the coolness of an area covered by foliage, and the sounds of people whirring past us on their motorbikes. fullsizerender-22The only thing that was missing was the sight and sound of cars in the area, making our short walk to the pig farmer Mr. Than’s house pleasant, without the constant buzz of the city. We spent the better half of our day at Mr. Than’s house, learning from him and Dr. Chiem about the closed energy farm system he currently resides in and operates.

The VACB system is essentially a combination of: Vuon or Orchard, Ao or Pond, Chuong or Pig-pen, and Biogas. Iimg_0099-1t’s a closed cycle where they raise pigs in an enclosure that allows the family to feed their food scraps to the pigs and where the pigs’ excremental waste is washed away and collected in a biogas digester (rather than washing into the river system). This in turn creates and captures methane that the family can then use to fire their stoves and even power their homes. This particular family used the methane to run a generator that powered its irrigation system, as well as their household electricity needs.

img_9999In addition to using pig waste as a way to create methane, the family uses a plant called bèo tai tượng (or water lettuce, Pistia stratiotes).  water-lettuceThe organic matter from the plants is digested in much the same way as the pig waste: in a large plastic tube, where it slowly decays and releases methane, filling up the tube. The waste leftover from the biogas digester is then transferred to the fishing ponds where it provides feed for the fish (saving the farmer 50% of cost for fish-food) and provides a layer of organic sediment which the farmer can remove later in the year to fertilize his orchard or garden.

fullsizerender-16-2In this sustainable model, everything that is used or created as waste goes towards providing something necessary for the other parts of the system; everything is interdependent and interrelated. This model is similar to Lifeline Produce, a farm where I worked for a summer located in Victor, Montana—the family there uses a closed system farming technique, using no synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides or hormones. They choose to use organic compost to fertilize their fields, and only organic pesticides when needed. Furthermore, they produce their own biodiesel—from leftover oil discarded from restaurants around Missoula—to power their vehicles and the tractors needed for various tasks around the farm.

Here on the VACB farm, the waste is used to produce not only food or fertilizer, but new energy as well. The pig waste is also used to create methane—that would otherwise be released into the air in the form of a greenhouse gas—that can then be used to provide energy for the family. Timg_0445-1hrough this system, the family saves approximately two liters of gas a day that would otherwise be used to power their home. Waste and production are not usually complementary terms, but in this system, they are. Without the waste from the family or the pigs, there would be no renewable source of energy for the farmer to power his home, or food to feed the fish that the family harvests for their meals. Each part of this system provides a balance to the other parts of the system, making it all run smoothly.

lc-0414Another thing that stood out to me about this commune was how different it was from the city of Can Tho; instead of being a hot and sweaty concrete jungle, it was a cool and refreshing green space. It’s as if the village is the yin to the cities yang; even spending a day in the communes natural, green space made me feel more balanced. I am accustomed to living in a place where green spaces are only a bike ride or walk away, so spending the majority of our time in these cities has made me feel like something was missing. But by visiting this place, I finally felt like I was beginning to balance my yin and yang.walking_cia

Transportation of Vietnam

By Sarah Luth

lc_vietnam-0015fullsizerender-2Transportation in Vietnam has many forms, but by far the main method of travel is by motorbike. City roads are a crowded sea of colorful, honking motorbikes moving in all different directions. There are approximately 42 million registered motorbikes nationwide, with a total population of around 90 million people. Mr. Dat, a young Vietnam National University employee explained that as Vietnamese youth, once you turn 16, “everyone owns a motorbike,” even before getting a drivers license at 18. There is no tax on motorbikes, whereas buying a car requires payment of a large initial tax. Walking around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho, it is easy to spot the cars, buses, and bicycles because they are so few relative to the mass of motorbikes.

Thirty years ago boats were the main mode of travel, particularly in southern Vietnam. With wet soils that frequently changed the ground level, roads made much less sense than river travel. Boats are still widely used, and now fitted with electric motors. However, with rapid development many roads were paved which gave way to the bicycle, followed by an overwhelming shift to the motorbike. Some wonder if there will be a shift from motorbikes to cars, and indeed data suggest increases in car purchasing, but talking to the youth reveals a different future path.

lc_vietnam-0011When asked about buying a car, Mr. Dat explained that he doesn’t want one for several reasons. Driving a car would be slower because it is more difficult to maneuver a car through traffic than a motorbike. There is also no space to park cars in the city, and he can use Uber or Grab to go where he likes with friends at a very reasonable price.

I got the chance to ride a motorbike through Ho Chi Minh City with our friend Zenda. Zenda admitted that he hates the traffic. sarahzendaMost of his friends do too.
They all own masks to help protect their lungs from air pollution, and enjoy the more sparse roads of their home towns. On the back of his motorbike, if I had extended my arms I would have touched other people on their motorbikes as we scooted by. Weaving around other drivers and pedestrians, it was impossible to go very fast and many riders used the sidewalks to get through. It’s difficult to say what transportation will look like in Vietnam’s future, but perhaps the densely populated country will avoid following the individually owned car-loving footsteps of America.

Green Walls, Green Kidneys, Green Lungs

By Lione Clare

_dsc0096In two left footed boots, I squelched with the group through the clayey light brown mud to a plot within a two-hectare area of newly planted young mangrove trees. We were here to get our hands dirty, and that we did! In pairs, we planted around 40 young trees to help with the restoration effort at Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, home to the “most diverse and luxurious mangroves in the world,” according to one of our lecturers, Dr. Le Duc Tuan.img_6088

During the Vietnam War (in Vietnam they call it the American War), about one million gallons of harmful chemicals were sprayed over Can Gio Reserve to clear war zone lands. Over half the chemicals sprayed were Agent Orange, which completely destroyed 20,000 hectares of mangrove ecosystems in this area. Today, land use in these coastal areas favors more intensive agriculture, like shrimp aquaculture, which has led to continued clearing of mangrove forests. In Can Gio Reserve, however, farming and resource use is regulated and the 4,721-hectare “core zone” does not allow human activity; its sole purpose is to preserve the landscape and biodiversity.

Mangrove restoration in Can Gio Reserve, which began shortly after the War’s end in 1975, has resulted in a significant increase in biodiversity. Nearly 700 species, including catfish, crocodiles, otters, monkeys, shellfish, and invertebrates, now thrive within Can Gio’s mangrove forests.

img_6086Mangrove ecosystems are of great importance to the coastal zones of Vietnam. They not only provide for rich biodiversity and food sources, but also create a buffer for storms and prevent erosion during floods. Hence, they are also known as a “green wall.” Upriver, dams pose a threat to mangrove forests because they trap sediment, which mangroves need for anchoring root systems. That could mean bad news if a flood comes through. Additionally, mangroves play the role of “green kidneys” because the roots filter out pollution from Ho Chi Minh City and upriver industrial zones.

Climate change is projected to bring more intense storms and sea level rise, which will result in more erosion, flooding, and salinity in Vietnam’s coastal and low-lying regions, impacting people, infrastructure, and agriculture.

After planting the mangroves, we took skiffs along a river and through a mangrove corridor to a shrimp farm. We toured the farm and had a lovely meal of catfish, vegetables, rice, and oysters, which the farmer also harvests, all from the surrounding land. This year, the farmer noticed that the rains were different, continuing later than normal. This caused extended flooding and salt-water intrusion, thus high salinity content in the river. Dr. Ngan told us that baby oysters had difficulty surviving in these abnormally saltier conditions.

_dsc0092It is clear that when the projected effects of climate change occur, specifically sea level rise, survival of oysters and other food sources within the mangrove forests could be threatened. The farmer and his family we visited live almost entirely off the land; they only buy some rice and veggies during the dry season. If climate change effects result in insecure food sources, the livelihoods of Vietnamese relying on mangrove ecosystems for survival will surely be severely impacted.

Can Gio Reserve is known as the “green lung” for Ho Chi Minh City, because the wind is thought to bring oxygen generated from the forest. I think mangrove forests can also be thought of as a lung, or other vital function, for the whole planet because of their ability to sequester large amounts of carbon and produce diverse, productive ecosystems. Just like a mammal cannot breathe without lungs, the planet cannot breathe or function properly without its forests._dsc0208

Clearly, it is increasingly important for mangrove forests to be preserved, because they both have intrinsic value to ecosystem function and protect people and the land from climate change impacts.

Squelching back through the mud, I realized that while I only played a small role in such an important effort, it was a rewarding experience nonetheless. The physical, real contribution of replenishing the green walls, kidneys and lungs of Can Gio Reserve allowed me to form a special connection with a place vital to climate change responses and be able to share this story.   25_vn

The People of Vietnam: Viên Trân (The Tea Lady)

By Allie McGrath

fullsizerenderI felt literally like a bull in a China shop, or in this case a Vietnamese shop. Loud, sticky with sweat, and a little overwhelmed from the recent bargaining experience in the market, we clamored in the tiny tea house. Walls of the store front were lined with beautifully intricate tea cups, plates, pots, and we were directed upstairs into a small room set up with a low table and cushions. Once everyone arrived, the tea house owner joined us, maxing out the tiny room at 15 people.

img_0774Our tea lady, Ms. Trân, was a lovely woman, and as she floated into the room dressed in her traditional aoi da (pronounced “ow-yai”) with the most tranquil smile on her face, I felt relaxation wash over me. How could she be anything but tranquil, drinking and serving tea for a living!?

Ms. Trân began the traditional tea ceremony and, with the help of our wonderful Vietnamese peers translating, carefully explained every detail about the ceremony for us. Her passion for the ritual was made clear as she described everything from how to properly steep the tea to the elaborate steps in producing lotus tea.5__vnFor example, through a complex and time consuming process, one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of lotus tea requires the stamen and pollen of 1,500 lotus flowers! She was incredibly knowledgeable, and I was later informed she is a scholar and teacher as well–and the dots connected.

Once the ritual was over Trân thanked us many times, even gifted a cup and saucer to Lione, and concluded by saying how happy we had made her by coming in and showing such interest, when really she was the one who made our whole day! Although it was a brief encounter, her generosity and peaceful demeanor were very welcoming and humbling, putting everyone in her presence at

Explorations of Ho Chi Minh City: Language, food, culture, history, and green lungs

1_vnUM’s wintersession program is off to a powerful start after three days in Ho Chi Minh City. Thanks to a six-year history, and YSEALI programs through the Mansfield Center, we have many friends in the big city to welcome, host, and teach us.

Here is Nghi teaching Paul how to make spring rolls,2_vn and Nghi teaching us basic Vietnamese phrases with the help of young scholars she invited from the group Coi Viet.15_vn They are quite encouraging despite
how slow we are to learn the tones.

3_vnLater, we visited the Trà Đạo tea house, where Viên Trân taught us how to make green and lotus tea and the traditions involved, and shared about the prolonged floods earlier this year that destroyed so many crops in the central province.4_vn
We were all charmed by her sincerity and warmth and music.


These first few days have also involved a sobering visit to the War Remnants Museum and a long talk at the U.S. Consulate about the last 20 years of strong diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries. 12_vn-2
Their American Center library was filled with interesting books, encouraging words for Vietnamese travelers to the U.S., and great views of the city.11_vn

31_vnYesterday, we visited the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, to experience the mangrove forests, help with replanting, talk with farmers who live inside as forest protectors, and learn from local experts about the role of the mangroves as green walls, green lungs, and green kidneys.

28_vn23_vnOur time in Ho Chi Minh City ended with a Western New Year’s celebration, where the University of Montana students met with students from Cornell University, who just arrived to also study climate change for their University’s first year program.

A local film crew followed us around most of the day, eager to share the story of University programs coming to Vietnam to learn about the culture, society, and environment.

Next stop, Can Tho. Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage from UM students. 29_vn

Similar in more than one way… by Antonio Morsette

TonyTakingNotesI am Chippewa-Cree from Rocky Boy, Montana and I am proud of my culture. I want to share with you a short story about mistaken beliefs about people, my misconceptions about Vietnamese people prior to going to Vietnam, and end with some cultural customs and traditions that I believe to be similar amongst our two peoples. I have spoken to many individuals in my time in Vietnam. These people include but are not limited to, my homestay families, college students and professors, and even Buddhist Monks. Though we live thousands of miles apart, we have a lot in common with each other.

I’ve spoken to many individuals from around the world, including some of the people TeepeesB2MI’ve encountered while in Vietnam, and the one thought that is common amongst most of them is, the mistaken belief that Native Americans are stuck in the past. Some of these individuals thought Native Americans still lived in teepees and rode horses all the time. Granted, some of us do own teepees and some of us do ride horses, but that isn’t how we are living today. We live in so called “modern houses” and we even drive “modern cars.” We have all of this, while maintaining our culture, customs, and traditions on and off the reservation, in the face of westernization/colonialization.

RiceFarmersMtSamI’m no saint to mistaken beliefs about people, either. Before I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I had some biases in my head about Vietnamese people.171_MotorcyclesCanTho_972 I had pictured everyone working in rice fields and people riding in wagons, being pulled by oxen, everywhere. There are some people that do work in rice fields, from what I have observed, but I haven’t seen many people in wagons being pulled by oxen. This country is filled with “modern” technology and even “modern motor bikes.” They have all of this, while maintaining their culture, customs, and traditions, in the face of westernization, as well.

ManwithBagsMotorbikeCulture, customs, and traditions are so important to preserve in this day-and-age. They’re important because they bring people together and they help promote a healthier way of life. Vietnamese people, like my Chippewa-Cree people, have been required and forced in some ways, and in other ways voluntarily to integrate some other religions into their own ways of life; two examples of this are MonksWalkingKhmerVillageChristianity and Buddhism. However, there are people in both Chippewa-Cree and Vietnamese cultures, who do not practice either of these beliefs. Whether or not any of these peoples practice either of these religions, culture, customs, and traditions from their original cultures, leaks into their everyday lives, and one of the biggest is family.

KhmerMonkTraditionally, for both Vietnamese people and Chippewa-Cree people, each family has its own rules and values that they are supposed to follow, but the overall themes they are following are very similar amongst the rest of the people. Everyone has a role they must play. The younger generation must show respect to the older generation and FarmFamilyBacLieuthe older generation must tolerate the younger generation. All of this come to pass while the younger generation is learning from the older generation and the older generation is teaching the younger generation how to take care of their bodies and all other parts of creation.

TonyWithFishThe younger generation are seen as the newly born to adults, while OlderKhmerMan&DYA_Studentthe older generation are the older adults or parents. The older adults, parents, and the newly born are the younger generation to the grandparents and so on and so forth. However the older generation doesn’t stop when people pass on. Respect must be shown to these people as well. In certain cases and when particular ceremonies are happening, the deceased are fed by the living. This is an important aspect in both our cultures. We want to keep our ancestors happy. We don’t want to disrespect them in any way, shape, or form.

Tony&BoyArtistBatPagodaTo teach the younger generations these essential cultural values, there are traditional stories that are told. These stories are often based around the land, animals, and or super powered beings. There are some animals that are seen as more important others, because they are holy or sacred, but all animals must be respected; the land is seen as a living entity and 077_MacaqueMonkeys_800must be respected as well; and super powered beings live amongst us, whether we know it or not, and because of this, they must be respected. Ultimately, respect all others and they will show respect to you as well.

Fundamentally, both Vietnamese people and Chippewa-Cree peoples’ cultures are both based around respect and family. This respect is different than economical social status or westernized views of the world, because respect includes the things you cannot see and the things you can. It may be difficult to understand, but it makes sense to the people practicing this way. Whether or not anyone practices other religions or their own traditional beliefs, they know family and respect are above anything else.


The author after a long day in the field.

Sweaty Style – Form and Function of Vietnamese Women’s Fashion by Hannah Fatland

As Vietnam has moved into free market capitalism it has become more connected with the western world, which has strongly influenced fashion trends in the country. In the larger cities that we traveled to like Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho, many young women wore skinny jeans, crop tops, high waisted short shorts, and designer brands. However the county remains under communist rule and strongly tied to the past and tradition and that continues to be displayed in much of the clothing worn by women such as the traditional áo dài outfits.


Traditional Khmer woven fabric

One thing that strongly influences what a Vietnamese woman wears is the pressure to maintain pale skin. Most of the women dress very modestly, even the young students. For a person with lighter skin is one of wealth and class and a person with a darker skin tone generally is exposed more to the sun from doing hard labor out of doors and a person who does that is low class and poor. Once I discovered this I understood why everyone was so covered up in such hot weather.

DuyenCoveredUp Duyen Uncovered








Teaching Assistant Duyen covers up from the sun in U Minh Thuong National Park

However not everyone is so modest. In Ho Chi Minh City many teenage and twenty-something girls were not concerned with traditional pressures and were much more in tune with American trends. It was common to see shorts, tank tops, torn jeans, and just more skin in general than anywhere else we went. In Can Tho the girls were still aware of Western trends but they tended to take from the more modest preppy trends of skinny jeans and button up blouses, for coverage and paleness is still important to them. However these outfits are probably the least practical considering the hot and humid climate.

HannahChanelStoreWindowYoung women’s outfits are clearly inspired by what can be found in magazines and what is worn by American celebrities their age. There is LouisVuttonStore_HCMCalso a very strong obsession with designer names like Burberry, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, and Louis Vuitton. They even have facemasks that are knock offs of these brands. In order to prove wealth and class they show off every designer they can. The most popular trends I found were prep, hipster and classic. Prep was worn the most by both genders and across most ages. Hipster inspired outfits can be seen almost exclusively on teens and twenty somethings, while the classic, Chanel style was mostly seen on wealthy middle aged and older women.

Hannah with Huyen & GamThe most formal and traditional women’s wear is the áo dài outfit. It consists of a long, silk tunic that is tight fitting around the bodice and has slits up the sides to the waist and goes over long loose fitting silk pants. It is mostly seen being worn by service women and WhiteShoenot by the everyday pedestrian. Many waitresses, hotel desk clerks, and airport service agents wear the áo dài. It is considered formal wear, very flattering for the small waisted petite frames that so many Vietnamese women have. It is also very functional for the hot and humid climate, for it allows for much air flow while being protected by the sun.


Author Hannah Fatland with two examples of traditional clothing

The less formal version of the áo dài is a silk pajama like outfit. The top and bottoms are generally very simple and made of the same patterned and brightly colored fabric. They are certainly the WomanInRedmost practical of the outfits I saw for the loose fitting silk allows for coolness and comfort and the style still provides protection from the sun. These pajama outfits are sported by women in the cities and rural areas. However few young women wore them and instead stuck to the trendier and westernized wears previously mentioned.

I was very inspired by the colors, patterns and designs of the more traditional fashions worn by the Vietnamese and I hope that the trend setters do not allow them to fade out completely in their desire to become more developed and westernized. For I found a lot of elegance and beauty in the áo dài, with it’s long lines and flow. Even pajama outfits were exciting in their happy colors and interesting patterns. Though they were very mainstream style, each woman put her own spin on them with a little jacket of contrasting fabric or some crocheted lace around the collar. I think American fashion could certainly benefit from adopting some of the more modest and form-flattering trends that are so popular in Vietnam as well as the bright beautiful patterns.


Traditional Khmer Weaving on a Loom