south east asia skin deep

vietnam ladySince time immemorial people around the world have been coming up with ways to look and feel younger. Some pretty strange potions and practices have been trialled, and Intrepid’s Nicki Gibson discovers some beauty techniques in South East Asia that could make your eyes water…

“Coming from the western world, we admire the beauty of the South East Asian ladies – their lovely brown skin, brown eyes and slim physiques. Yet my experience is that many South East Asian women are also envious of our pale complexions and curves.

As westerners we have a tanning culture and think of brown skin as healthy, yet in South East Asia white skin is a sign of beauty. Asian ladies touch my skin saying it is beautiful and I look at them in amazement. “You are joking? I would love to have skin your colour, my white is plain and pasty!” They reply that white shows wealth. In their country if you have dark skin it shows that you work in the fields and are poor, whereas white skin is a sign that you work in the offices and therefore have money!

Perusing beauty counters in department stores there are so many skin whitening products and chemical peals available. These remove a layer of skin so a lighter layer beneath is revealed. Ladies often wear scarves, long sleeves and trousers, even socks with sandals and gloves – not to keep warm, but to stop the sun from darkening their skin.

Western ladies want to be slim and I walk alongside the Vietnamese ladies feeling like an elephant in comparison, yet I find them looking in mirrors, turning from side to side and looking down at their hips. I say to them “you are lovely and slim”, yet they reply, “no, I want to be bigger. I want bigger hips so that I have curves!”

In an age when bleaching agents are available to give you that Hollywood smile in the West, I appreciate the irony when I see elderly Vietnamese ladies walking around with black or red teeth. Keeping your teeth clean and strong was difficult for the older generations so they used to chew on betel nuts – this was seen as a sign of beauty as well as promoting strong teeth. There is much tradition associated with the betel nuts and the elderly women look so happy chewing. This could be because the nuts give them a warm feeling inside and a slight euphoria, but sadly these nuts are now known to be a human carcinogen.

So the age-old saying that ‘beauty is only skin deep’ stretches around the world. People anywhere seem envious of the beauty that they do not have and to achieve it they appear willing to go to extremes.”

Tour Vietnam with Intrepid on trips like these great small group adventures:
Vietnam Unplugged – 15 days
Spirit of Vietnam Southbound – 10 days

* photo by Nelly Nghiem – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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