An obsession with shoes among young Vietnamese sneakerheads is paving the way for a local subculture, and a means to keep it friendly and wholesome. By Ruben Luong. Photo by Fred Wissink

Before I know it, Nam Pham, 27, is smelling the bottom sole of his Air Jordan 1, clutching the iconic shoe close to his face, his eyes fervent.

“You have to sniff it like this to be a professional,” he advises me. “The authentic ones have a really good smell.”

We’re surrounded by more than 200 other sneakers of various models, like Nike Hyperdunks, Nike SB, Kobe 8 Systems, and LeBron 9 Lows, which Pham declares are all original. I take his word and watch him proceed to sniff in half-jest. On any given day, sneaker collectors like Pham might take this more seriously, but he projects nothing but down-to-earth verve, and the way he speaks is as colourful and buoyant as the sneakers in the room.

“This is the shoe that inspires me a lot,” he explains, pointing to the Air Jordan 1. It is the first Nike sneaker model for Michael Jordan, who wore them in red and black when they were released in 1985. Pham owns the black and royal blue colourway. “Every time I look at the shoe, I want to do something bigger,” he says. “I want to be a hustler.”

He is certainly not the only one. Pham and his friends, Phi Nguyen, 30, and Nam Quan, 24, are the founders of a request-only Facebook page named Than Kinh Giay (sneakerhead), which now has more than 21,000 members who sell, trade and buy coveted kicks every hour, and perhaps every minute, in Vietnam. To keep everyone happy, they require sellers to be upfront about whether their sneakers are real or fake.

But in order to truly keep a healthy sneakerhead culture, the three of them also developed their own online sneakerhead magazine, Giaydebang.vn, to promote a levelheaded attitude about collecting. In addition to a YouTube channel, five writers post informative tips or history and fashion-related sneaker articles daily to educate Vietnamese that buying, trading, or selling shoes is not about quantity, but quality.

“Some guys in our sneakerhead culture have a lot of fucking shoes, like 300 pairs, but just three friends understand what I’m saying,” Pham says. “And then some guys just have three shoes, but have 300 friends.”

On the surface, all sneakerheads want to look athletic or fashionable. But the sneakers, embodiments of all-stars or celebs, are hyped up in the global market when shoe companies like Nike or Adidas release limited edition sneakers and distribute a small quota to each store branch. Pham says the Air Jordan 1, for example, might retail for $140, but market hype raises its value upwards of $600.

It can be a cutthroat culture around the world, as some sneakerheads will go through vigorous means to obtain a valuable sneaker for status or to make a potential profit, such as camping out in front of stores or bidding on eBay with other sneakerheads across continents.

“It’s just like Wall Street,” Nguyen says. “People buy sneakers and keep them until the stock value goes up, and then they sell.”

But for now at least, there’s no indication that Than Kinh Giay is fostering this kind of “game”, as Pham consistently calls it. Most commerce remains lifestyle or fashion-oriented here, much like at Saigon Skateshop, located in the backpacker area along De Tham, where owner Nguyen Quoc Thai, 28, sells skateboarder brands such as Vans, Lakai, Circa and Emerica.

“A pair of shoes usually lasts two or three months, maybe one if you skate a lot,” Thai says. “Most skaters usually wear the same shoes until they are worn or destroyed. And usually the same colours come out every year, so some skaters will buy it again because there aren’t too many selections.”

Thai says he sells about 20 or 30 pairs a month, but some skateboarders also don’t have enough money to buy regularly, so it’s common to trade or sell old (but otherwise high-status) namebrands for cheap, and then put the money towards buying newer pairs. Such is the fate of the popular Nike SB Stefan Janoski (VND 1.8 million at the shop), which is named after the famed American skateboarder and artist.

Skateboarders and other sneakerheads are also approached by the Adidas factory, who scout for people on the street to wear prototypes of select sneakers for around one or two weeks. Afterwards, they’re required to evaluate or write reviews of the shoes’ design.

Still, ultimately it’s free, and puts sneakerheads in control of customising sneakers that will continue to be designed to fit into their respective sport or fashion categories, and also help them set an impression on their own turfs.

“Someone once told me, if you have a good shoe, you will look good,” Pham says. “And if you look good, you will go to good places. And if you go to good places, you meet good people. And when you meet good people, then you have a good chance to have a good life. It’s not about having a lot of shoes, but having a good life.”

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