Venturing into a Japanese festival, one summer morning in Saigon I am met immediately by two curiously fantastical figures.
Scanning from the bottom up I see they are dressed in U.S. style police uniforms: thick black utility boots laced securely at the ankle and durable blue pants of a less than flattering variety. So far, so normal.
However, things start to go awry as I scan upwards toward their large, bushy, russet and fawn colored tails. The game is up as I rest upon their immaculately made-up faces complete with novelty-sized dummies and brightly colored wigs.
I have, it seems, come face-to-face with my first Vietnamese cosplayers, resplendent in "Zootopia" inspired costumes.
I am here thanks to a hot tip from a 16-year-old Vietnamese girl, Emma Huynh, who has been a big fan of cosplay for around two years.
As we picked our way slowly over some sumptuous Korean BBQ, Emma told me how cosplay, or dressing up as fictional – often animated – characters, is becoming a major pastime for Vietnamese of her generation.
“In Vietnam, it’s kind of becoming a badge of honor to be a nerd,” she proclaimed. “Me and my friends love to get dressed up and go to conventions – there are so many in Ho Chi Minh now.”
Emma got into cosplay due to her love of Chinese romantic novels. Her favorite is "The Journey of Flower," a typical tale of star-crossed lovers set in a mythical Chinese world of immortals and demons.
The main characters are popular cosplay costumes at conventions in Vietnam, of which there are now around 15 spread between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
Japanese manga and anime are also popular sources of characters, if not the most popular, while gaming is an ever-increasing source of inspiration.
Back at the Japan festival I met a number of young cosplayers inspired by the online game "Touken Ranbu," as well as big-budget U.S. juggernaut "Call of Duty," all bedecked in impressive samurai and military garb and toting very realistic looking weapons.
In the lead up to these conventions, Facebook groups and online forums play a big role in putting fans in touch with each other to make friends, swap costume ideas and to discuss the secrets and scandals affecting the cosplay scene.
HCM Cosplay Confessions is a popular forum for Saigon-based cosplayers. “On our page members ask questions, discuss the hot issues about cosplay and express their love, or hate, to other cosplayers,” says one of the administrators of the group.
Other groups include Vietnam Cosplayer, Cosplay Vietnam, and Cosplay-FC – all of which have between 17,000 and 23,000 members each.
Mobile apps are also becoming increasingly important; at the convention I was told that Zalo Messenger is a popular place for cosplayers to meet while Mystic Messenger – a dating app that is set in a cosplay fantasy world – is also a source of inspiration for players as well as a safe space to flirt with like-minded fans.
Cosplayers at the Japan Festival 2017 at the Foreign Trade University in Ho Chi Minh City on May 14, 2017. Photo by Rebecca Jones
No gender rules
Poring through these groups and apps, one thing that strikes me about the images is a consistent sense of androgyny.
The cover image for HCM Cosplay Confessions, for example, is three animated male characters with beards dressed in pink corseted leotards and sporting fluffy pink boleros.
However, according to Emma, this type of image is not seen – as it would be in the West – as necessarily homosexual. Instead, she explains that it reflects an open attitude to gender and sexuality that runs throughout cosplay in Vietnam and Asia, separating it from the more overtly masculine form of cosplay in the U.S.
“In cosplay boys dress as girls a lot – we call that ‘trap.’ Girls dress as boys too, we call that ‘re-trap,’ but it’s not so common,” she explains.
In a post on Cosplay Confessions, professional Australia-based cosplayer Knitemaya makes this point clear: “Cosplay, in general, has no rules when it comes to gender [...] you can cosplay whoever you want despite what others tell you.”
He also voices his frustration with those who are "rude" to him about his decision to role-play women, adding: “If someone chooses not to tell you their gender, DONT BUG THEM ABOUT IT.”
In Saigon I met a number of gender-bending cosplayers. Huy, 15, from Ho Chi Minh has been crossdressing as a female character since he began cosplaying five months ago and says that he does so to “look beautiful” and “express himself.”
Phong, a 19-year-old art student, was in "re-trap" (girl dressed as a boy). “I usually dress as boys in anime as they have strong independent characters,” she tells me. On female anime characters she says she thinks they are strong, but usually violent, and she doesn’t like that.
Beauty and freedom
For most, however, cosplay is simply about becoming someone else – someone beautiful, confident and otherworldly.
Most of the cosplayers I spoke to told me that they do cosplay because they “love” the characters that they are playing. Like Huy, they admire their beauty and elegance and want to emulate it.
Many cosplayers in Vietnam have taken this to a professional level, making a career out of dressing as famous characters at conventions throughout Asia.
These include Miu, a 24 year-old Vietnamese girl who now boasts over 116,000 Facebook followers thanks to regular appearances at conventions in Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and Japan.
In turn these professional cosplayers attract armies of fans who then dress as them in cosplay – an interesting meta-dynamic that is perhaps symbolic of the type of idol worship common throughout Asian pop culture.
However, at its heart cosplay seems to be most about acceptance. For those involved in the scene, cosplay and the virtual world that surrounds it gives them a space to express their identities and creativity in a way most often denied to them in everyday life.
“Cosplay is becoming more popular but it’s still not normal,” says Tran Hoang Phi Vu, a 16-year-old otaku, or anime fan, who was beside himself with excitement at the sight of so many cosplayers at the Japan festival.
A growing number of conventions, the tens of thousands of members discussing cosplay in internet forums and the armies of fans following professional cosplayers all suggest that cosplay is a growing subculture in Vietnam; and as in the U.S., where "nerds" are making it big in TV and film, it is also starting to attract a slightly cooler edge.
Thus, while it still remains a little strange to some, cosplayers like Emma are starting to hold their heads, perfect in their multicolored wigs, high.