Little more than a decade ago, the average Vietnamese had little to no concept of a selfie, seeing life instead through the lens of a collective national identity. But a new era of social media is encouraging individualism and real-time self-promotion, reversing how Vietnamese see each other – and themselves. By Ruben Luong, with additional reporting by Dana Filek-Gibson.
Is personal #success defined by the number of Likes, #popularity by the number of followers and #beauty by the number of selfies a person has?
For Ho Chi Minh City’s selfie-savvy set, this may be the case. Modern times, competitive job markets and increasing access to technology are enabling more and more Vietnamese to contemplate their own lives and identity in the context of their professional and social circles.
And so social media has been a godsend, not merely for the instant gratification, but for the ensuing self-promotion. Perhaps those who tweet, poke, regram and tag have the most control over their lives – or their image.
Dwelling on this mentality, so many lives in Vietnam are more accessible than ever in real-time. A scroll through any local newsfeed reveals a permeating cult of the individual, surfacing in a city of nine million one selfie at a time.
According to a June 2012 poll from Mindshare, a global media agency network, 72 percent of its respondents in Vietnam’s six largest cities used a social network. This is perhaps why social media in Vietnam is having a profound effect on individuals looking to increase their visibility nationwide.
Kelbin Lei, 24, a former stylist at ELLE magazine, was recruited last year for a starring role in VTV’s sitcom Tiem Banh Hoang Tu Be because of his strong online presence on Facebook and Instagram.
Lei distinguishes himself from others by posting winsome and artistic selfies of his signature black-and-white clothing from his eponymous fashion line. “I don’t like to say too much, just post pictures and that picture will tell a story,” he says.
“If they know me and they know my style and my brand, they want to buy my clothes and it’s good for my business,” he says.
“Of course I have some anti-fans that think I cannot do anything besides post pictures or #selfies, but with my #business I am proud and can prove to them that I can do big things.”
The self-promotion and exposure affords him real-life opportunities, such as styling for clients like pop Vietnamese singer Ho Ngoc Ha, who appears in major ad campaigns all over the country, or collaborating with magazines.
With the right selfies, there is also a chance of propelling to ‘hot boy’ or ‘hot girl’ status. Celebrity culture in Vietnam follows the lives of hot boys and hot girls closely. When he was young, Lei would post selfies on the popular but now-defunct Yahoo 360 forums for fun. He gradually gained hot boy status, earning him even greater visibility.
He now has more than 130,000 followers on Facebook and 52,000 followers on his Instagram account. He says international designers and fashion students also contact him through each account every month.
“I’m independent and confident now,” he says. “Of course I have some anti-fans that think I cannot do anything besides post pictures or selfies, but with my business I am proud and can prove to them that I can do big things.”
Ultimately, Lei says being more of an individual and finding something that makes him different from everyone else has helped him and his business.
“When I was younger I was really scared. I didn’t want to do anything; I just did what my family told me. I had to study business administration and find a job in a company, something really boring. But when my family had some problems and I quit college, I had to find work and earn my own money. It really changed me.”
Truong Ngoc Anh
Much like Lei, acclaimed actress Truong Ngoc Anh, 37, has also stood out in Vietnam for her beauty, having won a string of titles as a teenager, including Miss Photogenic, at a host of beauty pageants in her native Hanoi. She is also set to star as a Vietnamese gangster in Huong Ga (Rise) which premieres at the end of the month.
She keeps two separate Facebook pages, one for her personal use and one for her fans. She currently has 5,323 Likes on her Facebook fan page.
“I want to be seen as a role model,” she says. “I am self-made. I work hard, I’m very serious with work and very concentrated. I set up my goal and I go for it. No matter what they say, gossip this and that. The most important thing is to know what you want in life, set clear goals.”
Anh followed her own path from the time she was little, proving to be different even in her family, with whom she is still very close, despite having little time to see them.
“I think it’s really fun when you #post something, people want to look at you, see the attractive side of you, when you’re #working, what you’re #doing. People are just curious and some people really care.”
“Actually my family, everyone knows how to play a traditional instrument. For me I only want to become an actress. When I was very small I used to stand in front of the mirror, try to act like a star in the movies. Somehow I just want to live a different life. In reality you only have one life to live. In a movie, you can go through so many lives.”
Her stardom keeps her busy with an eventful schedule, so she continues to use Facebook to post updates on her acting career and occasional selfies of herself or her young daughter.
“I’m the latest one to start Facebook,” she jests. “I think it’s fun when you post something, people want to look at you, see the attractive side of you, when you’re working, what you’re doing. People are just curious and some people really care. People want to know.”
“I think people feel better, happier, especially when you have all the software to look more beautiful and fresh, why not?” she says, laughing. “And a lot of people use Facebook for work for advertising or public relations.”
“You have to show your work for people to know your results,” she says.
An obsession with appearance in Vietnam extends beyond the realm of online selfies to the streets, where fashion is increasingly controlling the way the current generation sees each other as unique.
Last year, Mike Pham, 26, co-founded Mayhem Saigon, a vintage shop under the catchphrase ‘not recommended for the average people’.
Photos on its Facebook page (10,141 followers) and Instagram (2,514 followers) illustrate the shop’s similar mantra of ‘Walk the streets looking fly as hell in a uniform no one else has’. .
“We always want to get into the indie culture,” Pham says. “We really want to be involved in a subculture movement because in Vietnam it’s all mostly about mainstream culture. But we haven’t seen any diversity in the culture so we just want to contribute and be involved.”
Pham started Mayhem with his friends after studying and working in Melbourne, Australia, where he was exposed to vintage clothing and the hipster hub within the city’s dynamic music scene.
“It’s more important to be comfortable with #yourself and liking your clothes and really being yourself. That’s one part of being an #individual, you do it for you. You don’t need people’s #opinion on you.”
His store is one of the first hipster havens in Saigon, with oversized unisex button-ups in wild prints, unusual dresses and edgy street-inspired wear at affordable, thrift-store prices. Pham says so far not a lot of locals are aware of the culture, but definitely more are becoming familiar and open-minded to the brand philosophy, especially due to the shop’s aesthetic on Instagram.
“Let’s talk about you. You are the definition of individualism. You stand for your original self,” reads a caption on Mayhem’s Instagram feed.
“I think mainly people in Vietnam people are starting to get into this because it’s a mainstream thing right now in the Western countries. But at the same time I think it’s a shift between the current mainstream culture in Vietnam and seeking something else. The people wearing this right now are the first people starting this and they are all creative people, mostly because our customers are in the creative industry. It’s a good time for this style because it just started.”
“Everywhere in the world, but especially in Vietnam, if they want to dress, they pick very few styles from very few people from what images they see, so everyone’s kind of wearing the same thing and not really using their inner creativity to come up with something that represents them,” Pham says. “I like vintage clothing because each piece is a one-off, it’s really unique.”
“And I think it’s more important to be comfortable with yourself and iiking your own clothes and really being yourself. That’s one part of being an individual, you do it for you. You don’t need people’s opinion on you.”
But how many really know who they are? Identity here ordinarily begins with a name, and names in Vietnam traditionally give respect to the family name first.
Nowadays it’s become an increasingly common trend for Vietnamese to adopt quirky nicknames instead, particularly on Facebook. Names like Heo Map (Fat Pig)—(need to find another name) embody an assumed personality and forsake the family name. It’s playful, memorable and ultimately a form of personal branding.
Most night owls, for instance, will recognise Austin Nguyen, 24, as Austin ‘Uptonogood’, one of the city’s most prominent young socialites featured as ‘Saigon’s Face’ on Hcmclife.com, and who has appeared in countless nightlife photos.
Nguyen adopted the name (inspired by Amy Winehouse song ‘You Know I’m No Good’) on Facebook (1,606 friends) in 2010 and it began to catch on. “For some reason it’s become viral,” he says. “I got people who I randomly meet in Bui Vien and they’re like, ‘Are you that Austin Uptonogood on Facebook?’”
“For some reason it’s become #viral. I got people who I randomly meet in Bui Vien and they’re like, ‘Are you that Austin Uptonogood on #Facebook?”
He says that he likes it for social networking and thinks it is a good branding idea, but for business it might not as be as helpful. So it’s fitting that he wants to help Vietnamese professionals with personal branding by co-organising Creative Drinks, a series of monthly networking events with workshops such as ‘The Secret to Personal Branding’, alongside design studio Bo Cong Anh.
Personal branding is fairly new to Vietnamese professionals. Standard clockwork jobs make up the majority of opportunities, but as more competitive positions open up at international companies in the city, discovering how to stand out from the crowd and promote oneself has influenced a more individualistic mentality.
Charismatic and social, Nguyen used his strong English skills as an effective strategy to garner his ‘it’ status, first networking with expats on Couchsurfing.org and becoming one of the first in his high school class to join Facebook, where he kept in touch with international friends.
He later studied linguistics and didn’t graduate from university but instead strived to show people that he didn’t need a traditional education to be successful, concentrating on his English assets.
But this wasn’t always simple. Vietnam, as in most Asian countries, is family-oriented, so parental pressure continues to inhibit individuality and organic career paths among young Vietnamese.
“My parents, they believe in having a proper degree, just like everyone else,” he says. “Basically, they are also very contradict themselves, because they always tell me to go have something for myself, go do something great, something for myself, but because everyone around them is doing the same thing and they’re really afraid to step up and do something different, they want me to do something for myself once in a while, but then like everyday when I come back home they’re like, ‘why don’t you just get a normal job like everyone?’”
Still, Nguyen emphasises the importance of being an individual and personal branding in the city, even from an early start. “Wherever you go people have to know who you are and what you’re about.”
“In HCMC, there’s a lot of people but the community that actually goes out networking is not many so you keep running into the same people,” he says. “HCMC is the city that it would be easier if you are somebody then if you are no one, because they will treat you so much different.”